Revolutionary Girl Utena
by Jacob Chapman,
"What was bothering me the most at the time was it being called a parody. I had this immense fear about that. I kept thinking that it mustn't be called a parody. The thing was, the more I kept thinking about it and the more I kept concentrating on the story, the more it ended up being like a parody. How do I explain this...I wanted to express everything that they were trying to express in all those shoujo manga and animations that had a girl as the main character, in this one story. That was the type of anime I was trying to make. I had this radical turning point inside my head, that I could allow the visuals to be parodies. Or rather, the visuals must be parodies, if this was going to be a round-up of everything up until now. That's why it suddenly went the Rose of Versailles sort of route."
— Kunihiko Ikuhara, Audio Commentary for Episode 38
From top to tail, it's hard to see episode 3 as anything but a SHOJO ANIME in the most traditional sense of the word. After a distressing(ly heart-pounding) encounter with the academy's regal student council president, Touga, causes Utena to suspect him of sharing a connection to the prince of her dreams, she and Anthy are invited to a grand ball by Touga's sister (and the school queen bee), Nanami. Little do they know that this blonde debutante is devilishly possessive of her older brother, which means the Rose Bride she's seen him coveting is waltzing right into a trap! Fortunately, Utena manages to slip away from Touga's seductive grasp just long enough to rescue Anthy from being humiliated in front of everyone, allowing them to completely steal the party as a pair of dancing queens! Nanami retreats in a huff, shifting her evil eye from Anthy to Utena after her brother reveals that the beautiful gown she tore off that evening to rescue Anthy was a gift from him personally.
It's all the courtly melodrama you would expect from an episode of Rose of Versailles or Dear Brother, but for Revolutionary Girl Utena, time is only spent building up this opulent sandcastle so an oncoming tidal wave can smash right through it. As Ikuhara's quote at the top of this page makes clear, shojo anime is just the clay he wanted to sculpt his story out of, while making the shape of the story itself something different. (I promise I will talk about other prominent voices behind Utena's creation in the future. Ikuhara just tends to come up first because he's the biggest and loudest.) Anyway, since trappings from shojo anime like ravishing ballgowns and wicked plotting sisters are just the sand holding this castle together, it's definitely time to talk about the castle itself, the biggest and deepest influence behind Utena's style of storytelling: Japanese post-war avant-garde theater. (Let's abbreviate that to PWAG going forward.)
If that sounds to you like a loaded topic that would take way too long to discuss, well you're totally right. It's hard to research much less explain PWAG in brief (many lauded resources for understanding it are out of print), but its impact on Utena's director is undeniable. That ever-present Absolute Destiny Apocalypse chorus was composed by a legend within this movement, J.A. Seazar, who was chosen specifically to shock with his avant garde compositions (despite protests from the show's sponsors). So instead of trying to explain PWAG in-depth, I'll just focus on what it has to do with Utena and shojo manga specifically.
PWAG grew out of a unique combination of economic prosperity and a massive loss in national identity for Japan; the '60s granted them a financial boom under the watchful eye of the United States and a glut of fresh Western influence. Basically, you had a lot of money available to support the arts alongside a lot of artists despairing that their voices didn't actually matter. However, not all PWAG was "political" in such a direct way; Revolutionary Girl Utena certainly isn't about matters of state. No, much of it was pure anarchy and emotion, twisting pre-modern aspects of Japanese culture with the imposed modern ideals of Western culture into a postmodern protest pretzel to cry out "Who are we anymore?" A future where being Japanese in the same way as previous generations felt impossible to imagine, so who were they going to become? It was all the confusion of puberty on stage (fittingly accompanied by loads of sexual metaphor), a movement of transitionary, adolescent emotion driven by people with a yearning to revolutionize their absurd world.
This brings us to Utena. Ikuhara's own flavor of PWAG also combines the pleasance of childhood delusions with hollow adult realities, but he was specifically obsessed with the delusions and realities faced by women, so he turned to the kind of media girls are raised on for his own postmodern pretzel: shojo manga and fairytales. The westernized sororities of Dear Brother and the elegance of France in The Rose of Versailles were both created in the twilight years of the PWAG movement, when all the angst and outrage had either died down or been commoditized. A happy medium of eastern and western influences had been achieved to spoonfeed a new generation in the form of stories like Riyoko Ikeda wrote, but Ikuhara saw this as a status quo to be questioned all over again. Were these happy stories really being honest about what starry-eyed Japanese women dreamed about, or were all those stars just projections, hypnotic suggestions of a nefarious planetarium that eats little girls and spits them out as model brides? To answer these questions in a way that the audience could believe in, Ikuhara created the surreal Ohtori Academy, a microcosm of the world as seen through shojo and fairytales, where the few students who see through its lies dream of "smashing the world's shell."
So episodes like this one are gently building a familiar sandcastle for you with a steady eye on the building waves ahead. It's something to keep in mind when you see Utena blushing with conflicted attraction in Touga's arms, or Nanami practically twirling her mustache in some new scheme to protect her brother from lesser women. We're familiar with these tropes from dozens upon dozens of shojo series and even classical fairytales (beastly princes and evil stepsisters abound), but Revolutionary Girl Utena is asking you to question why they exist at all. Why do we just accept that a girl who's so much more comfortable in boys' clothing will melt like butter when Touga tells her she looks best in a dress that doesn't suit her? Why would such a strong-willed, charismatic girl at the top of her social food chain like Nanami spend so much time fretting over the attention of her brother, while her brother doesn't feel the same possessive urge at all? Because these are common tropes that go unquestioned in many other shojo series, Ikuhara refers to his use of them as "parodic" even though he doesn't want anyone to call the story he's telling a parody. In true PWAG fashion, it's not a contradiction; it's an emotional gamble with a potentially massive payoff. You can watch episode three as a fairly standard Ikeda-esque story, but the series deliberately plans to punish you for it in the future, so the rule going forward is question everything, which is a very fun (and very teenagey) rule to follow.
That brings me to the biggest aspect of Revolutionary Girl Utena that I won't discuss much in these reviews: its comedy! While I'm going to spend most reviews talking about the character development, imagery, and themes of the series, the reason all of this heavy stuff was palatable to such a broad audience in the first place was because Utena doesn't take itself too seriously. Silly jokes abound courtesy of Chu Chu, Wakaba, and even Saionji, but the introduction of Nanami in particular heralds a tradition that will follow Utena throughout its run: "Nanami episodes." While there are plenty of dark and complex layers to be explored behind her scheming facade, Nanami is the kind of poor unfortunate ojou-sama that people love to hate, always just a little bigger and broader than the already goofy world around her, always plowing face-first into traps of her own making. Whenever the staff needs to take a break for a recap or there's a smaller idea that the writing team wants to explore, Nanami is always on standby to take over the series for a breather. Beyond her sillier episodes about things like eggs, cowbells, and curry, she'll still have her own fully fleshed-out character arc, so I hope you're ready for lots of Nanami in the future!
Now that the ball has ended, it's time to round up any little details from the episode I might have missed:
- Chu Chu Corner: Since this is a lighter episode, Chu Chu's mostly played for laughs this week, but he gets a couple cheeky moments of foreshadowing too. Anthy is obviously letting Chu Chu win when they play Old Maid, but she holds up the Joker card with an embarrassed smile as if she got it by accident. She has a pretty impressive poker face for such a demure personality. Chu Chu also gives us a little warning about the integrity (structural and otherwise!) of Anthy's "gift" when he starts chewing on the dissolvable tablets from the box and toxic drool pours out of his mouth soon after. On that note, Anthy's fear of crowds seems especially intense, even before her dress starts dissolving. Perhaps this fear stems from something in her past...
- Shadow Girls Corner: Likewise, the Shadow Girl play is light fare this week. While the dog barking (wan!) is a play on the number "one" to prompt the girls in counting off steps for the waltz, the dogs watching them are also likened to boys being "trapped" at the ball by beautiful women. Of course, the real trap being set at the ball is for a girl, Anthy, so that would seem to be incorrect. In fact, a trap has been set for three girls with two dresses, since Touga's own frilly gift has helped seed doubt into Utena's feelings for her prince, while redirecting his sister's jealous rage toward "his" lady-prince. Even with so many beautiful women attending the ball, everything seems to be working out in Touga's favor, so always question what the Shadow Girls tell you. As I mentioned last week, they aren't the voice of the author directly. Of course, if that's true, then who are they?
- While Utena initially panics over seeing her "engagement ring" on Touga's finger, the student council confirms to the audience that these are gifts from an entity known as "End of the World," who also sent them letters explaining the dueling process, whereby possession of the Rose Bride will allow them to enter the castle and change the world. So if that's true, and the prince is "End of the World," why were Utena's instructions ("this ring is just a promise that I will come back") so different? Why didn't she get that ominous letter, even after attending this academy? It's definitely worth keeping in mind for the future.
- Last week, I referred to the student council members' swords as "generic," wielded in service of a masculine goal that doesn't really match the more subtle feminine emotions of their doubts and fears about themselves. However, I realize now that this is misleading wording, seeing as all their swords do look very different. Saionji wields a katana, for example, while Miki carries a spritely foil, and Touga waves a western broadsword. So in fairness, it's probably more accurate to call them "borrowed" swords. Even if they look different, as each duelist fights with a different style, these swords do not come from within someone's heart, like the Sword of Dios that Utena wields. As I mentioned last week, this won't always be the case, so at some point these characters must cross a threshold from pretending to fight for the same vague goal to fighting for their own personal freedom, by drawing swords from a more personal place.
On that note, the duels will resume starting next week, when we tackle episodes 4 and 5 and the only member of the student council who's younger than Utena: Miki Kaoru. What's in this deadly game for such a nice young kid? Only time (and the click of his obnoxious little stopwatch) will tell!
Revolutionary Girl Utena is currently streaming on Nozomi Entertainment's official Youtube channel.
Jacob thinks Nanami should take solace in the fact that she had by far the raddest ball gown at the party. You can follow Jake here on Twitter.
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