Revolutionary Girl Utena
by Jacob Chapman,
This is just between you and me, but when I was fourteen, I saw a UFO.
That UFO telepathically told me this prophecy: "WHEN YOU GROW UP, YOU WILL DIRECT AN ANIME ABOUT GIRLS REVOLUTIONIZING VARIOUS THINGS."
Surely you jest.
"YOU MUST NOT TELL ANYONE ABOUT ME. IF YOU EVER DO..."
Wh-What will happen to me?
"PEOPLE WILL CALL YOU A SKETCHY GUY."
— Kunihiko Ikuhara, RGU Remastered Commentary for Episode 13
While that's the most well-known version of this anecdote, it's far from the last time that the director of Revolutionary Girl Utena would tell this bizarre story about his own adolescence, although the details of his alien encounter differ greatly in every account. Sometimes the aliens are trying to dissuade him from stalking his crush, and sometimes they're interrupting his favorite radio program, but in all these inscrutable retellings, just one detail remains consistent.
Ikuhara is always 14 years old, just like Utena Tenjou, the protagonist of his now legendary anime series. Twenty years later, Ikuhara would turn his adolescent fascination with revolutionary girls into a groundbreaking avante-garde anime hit. And twenty years from its release, people are still celebrating Utena today, bringing me to a weekly breakdown of a series that, despite its impact and popularity, many people still see as too intimidating to approach.
This might come as a surprise to newcomers watching these first two episodes for the first time. While Utena's way of telling its story is certainly unusual (chorus numbers and shadow puppets and so many spinning roses), the plot itself is incredibly easy to understand. After being orphaned as a child, our heroine Utena was comforted by a traveling prince, who told her that she had inner strength beyond compare, gave her an engagement ring, and promised that he would return someday if Utena could remain noble and pure as she grew up. Utena took this advice in a rather unusual direction by deciding to become a prince herself, baffling teachers and charming classmates by attending class in a boy's uniform. In her quest to "protect princesses" around Ohtori Academy, Utena challenges the school kendo star Saionji to a duel, after he cruelly rejects her best friend Wakaba's feelings and publicly abuses his girlfriend, Anthy. Through a series of misunderstandings stemming from the prince's "engagement ring" wrapped around her finger, Utena finds herself facing Saionji not in kendo, but in an old-fashioned (potentially deadly!) duel with real swords, atop a secret tower in the forbidden forest beyond campus grounds. After she bests Saionji in battle, Utena is surprised to find that his "girlfriend" Anthy has now become her betrothed instead. Calling herself the Rose Bride, Anthy considers herself the property of whoever wins the tower duels, forcing Utena into duel after duel to protect Anthy from the nefarious members of the Student Council, who also bear rose rings and want to use the Rose Bride's unknown powers to "revolutionize the world." Revolutionary Girl Utena might be a little high-concept, but it's not that weird as far as anime premises go.
Of course, Utena's legacy didn't grow out of the story at first; the buzz up front was all about the style, and these two episodes are only beginning to dip their toes into a deep well of scandalous twists and mindbending symbolism that will only grow more challenging with each episode to follow. The show's surreal pastiche of influences—theater and fairytales, shojo manga and art film, surprising minimalism and shameless excess—was just as polarizing when it first came out as it is today. There's nothing "missing in translation" about the abrupt Absolute Destiny Apocalypse chorus that bursts forth during the duels; Japanese audiences were just as confused by these sequences as many English viewers are, so the 39 episodes (and a movie!) to follow can be polarizing within fan communities, to say nothing of deterrents who may be quick to dismiss this ambitious oddity with the dreaded P word. While Utena clearly speaks to its fans on a powerful level, and its influence on the anime industry is undeniably massive, people who don't "get" Utena often fall back on a reasonable question: "If this story is so important, couldn't it have been told in a more approachable way?"
No. The short answer is "no." At the same time, this short answer helped lead me to my long answer of what I could contribute to Utena analysis after so many words have already been written over the last twenty years.
My goal is not just to help new viewers understand what happens in Utena, I want to help people appreciate how it happens. I want this retrospective to make Utena feel less intimidating without ridding it of the power that could only come from that intimidating way that the story is told. Besides, offering a bulleted, definitive breakdown of all the symbolism won't help anyone feel the emotions Utena explores any more than explaining a joke makes it funny. (It would also be antithetical to the spirit of avant-garde theater that inspires Ikuhara's work, which I'll talk about next week. Ikuhara is notorious for "trolling" people who ask for direct answers to what symbols mean in his work, and I can't say I blame him.)
I don't want to tell you what Utena is supposed to mean. I want to tell you why Utena makes me and other fans feel the way it does. I want to prove that this show is more than a postmodern fairytale for lovestruck teen girls, revolutionary or otherwise. If you've ever felt lonely, misunderstood, or like the only broken person in a society you couldn't relate to (especially if it's because of your gender or sexuality), Utena is a story for you, and I want to make the journey fun.
So let's start with penises and vaginas.
Yes, sometimes a cigar isn't just a cigar, and all those swords and roses are indeed supposed to take your mind to dirty places. It's not just in the duels, either. Gateways all over Ohtori Academy have a yonic flavor to them; the one that leads to the dueling arena even literally "unfolds" before gushing water, which might have something to do with the mighty marble ding-dong pointed straight at it. (We'll find out more about that building much later, so keep its existence in the back of your head for now.) Of course, I just said I wasn't going to spend these reviews trying to pin easy definitions on symbols, so instead of reducing the swords to dicks and roses to clams when the duelists thrust at each other's sensitive spots, it might be more useful to question why all duelists have both attached to them, regardless of their gender, and what makes each person's sword so different from their rose.
While Utena herself is singled out for betraying gender expectations, that doesn't make her unique in this show's cast, only more honest. There are masculine and feminine aspects to every character, but Utena is seen as "weird" for being the only person at her school to try and embrace both in equal measure. Of course, all that mockery from Saionji goes south when he loses not one but two duels to this girl. She even beats him with a literal stump of bamboo, so I think it's safe to say that swordsmanship has nothing to do with these victories. In a world where masculinity (the sword) is valued over femininity (the rose), Utena wins by having a strong relationship to both, which can't be said for Saionji and his friends at first.
First, let's look at the "masculine" part. The swords that student council members wield are certainly princely and heroic, representing the power and agency we associate with masculine ambition. The sword is clearly important; you can't win any fights or change any worlds without it! However, all these swords are also generic, basically identical to one another—except for the sword of Dios. (This will not be the case in later arcs, which is why the source and style of each person's sword is important at all, but I'll cross that bridge when we come to it.) This makes sense considering that they're all wielded for the same goal, a unification proven by the mantra that the student council recites: "We are the chick, the world is our egg, if we don't break the world's shell, we will die without being born." Heroism and ambition are traditionally masculine traits, and with those traits comes competition, and with competition comes the necessity for objective, homogeneous standards. While femininity is often measured in a variety of ways depending on what each person finds beautiful or emotionally gratifying, it's much easier to determine who "wins" in a contest of manliness, and it's also considered manly to demand a winner be decided. (That's not to say that being feminine is easy; you could consider it equally lamentable that there is no right way to be a woman, so there really is "no winning" against the many criticisms of its many expressions.)
It remains a cliche even now that men form genuine bonds of trust and teamwork, while women distrust and divide each other even while claiming to be friends. But Utena seeks to examine the societal reasons for this cliche, revealing that this separation isn't about biological sex at all, but an imbalance of values in every human heart regardless of gender that often leads to an underestimation of femininity.
There's a superficial strength to be found in the unity, conformity, and "success" of masculinity, to be sure. The student council literally lives above the rest of their school, buoyed by that feeling of pursuing a common goal, but once someone wins this sword-measuring contest and obtains the Rose Bride, their goal changes along with the new sword they've been given. We see this in how Saionji stands apart from the council and starts ditching meetings once he's "won" Anthy. Now that Saionji has the Rose Bride, he has no reason to cooperate with "lesser" swords in pursuit of the same goal, but even with the Sword of Dios in his hands, Saionji cannot yet "revolutionize the world" because in his masculine obsession with reaching the top, he hasn't stopped to consider what he wants to find up there. Saionji understands that he has strong feelings and must do something about them, but he does not understand what those feelings are, which is what leaves them wide open to be shredded by Utena's more motivated sword.
The wildly different colors of the roses worn over each student council member's heart betray the contradiction in their unity, which Utena pierces straight through despite standing alone. (These colors will be revisited in episode 13 as representing different aspects of self-identity.) "Revolutionizing the world" is a vague concept for a reason; it means something very different to everyone that they not only keep to themselves, but also keep from themselves out of fear of their (often stereotypically feminine because of perceived "weakness") true desires. This is not true of Utena, who fights for specific and deliberately-stated reasons: first to avenge Wakaba and then to set Anthy free. The first motive is misunderstood and the second one is paradoxical, represented by Utena bringing a wooden sword to a duel of steel, but she still wins the fight because she understands why she's fighting, even if she doesn't understand the rules of the battle itself. It's safe to say that Utena's power to summon the spirit of Dios, and not just his sword, has something to do with this harmony. In a story where the real battle is fought over each person's identity, a game where no one person can "win" against another unless they've made peace with themselves, understanding your own feelings is a powerful weapon that goes neglected by characters who don't like who they are and are desperately fighting to become someone else. They say that they want to revolutionize the world, but they wouldn't feel that way if they already felt comfortable living in it. Saionji is only the first of many duelists who feel "out of sync" with the societal expectations of the world represented by Ohtori Academy.
It could be said that each character's rose is where their true feelings lie, a tiny emblem of the true strength and freedom that feminine virtues give to those unafraid of them. When Utena proves herself stronger than Saionji despite his greater fencing skill and physical strength, it's because he's failed to protect and nurture his rose, choosing instead to surround himself with mighty swords that just don't seem to fit in his trembling hands. It's telling that Saionji is the only student council member who collects swords, surrounding himself with them at all times outside the dueling arena, and even choosing to pursue kendo which is all about speed and might rather than the more delicate and intellectual school of fencing pursued by his peers. We'll get more into his character in later episodes, but it's safe to say for now that Saionji is terrified of his own femininity, while Utena is able to declare herself both a prince and a girl without embarrassment. (Apart from his insecure personality and overcompensating katana collection, we get a hint at Saionji's issues with the reveal that he keeps a diary, which Touga dryly mocks him for.) Director Ikuhara has compared this dynamic to the difference between Romance and romance, implying that Utena is special because she doesn't see her gender as forcing her to value one over the other; she just doesn't restrain her dreams or behavior under the assumption that either the world of boys or girls would be closed to her in terms of her personal identity—but romance and sexuality may be another matter that her childlike heart hasn't considered yet.
Utena herself is not safe from self-deception, which we see in her assertion that she fights these duels to protect Anthy (and Chu Chu), denying that personal feelings have anything to do with it. (Take note that Anthy smiles gently at this obvious lie. She may already know something about her new fiancee's heart that Utena doesn't.) Utena knows both what she's fighting for (to be a prince) and why (to save princesses), but as anyone who's joined the army can tell you, those things can be pursued without the need for individual expression. This arc is all about Utena awakening to who she is, which will separate her from anyone else in the school who may be fighting for similar things for similar reasons. While most of us never settle these issues in deadly tower-top duels, it's a terrifying process that everyone goes through in adolescence. As the rift between what society expects from you and the reality of who you are becomes clear for the first time, everyone may humor dreams of "revolutionizing the world" into a place where you belong. Even if she's able to beat them in duels, Utena's story isn't about her showing up everyone else without a challenge. The student council members are her upperclassmen for a reason; they're slightly ahead of Utena on the desire to forge their own identities, and her journey will change when she too feels the urge to either change the world around her or change herself.
But those revelations are a long way off, so I'll conclude this long screed with all the other little things I want to discuss in future episodes. Every episode of Utena may be dense with ideas, but the show thankfully relies on lots of repetition to make sure you can follow how these ideas evolve. Anyway, I hope you don't mind these little petal-showers of trivia at the end of each writeup that aren't necessarily tied into my main topic for the week.
- Chu Chu Corner: While Anthy is clearly meant to remind both the viewers and Utena of the prince from her past, the Rose Bride doesn't have much to say for herself, and you can expect that to continue for the rest of the series. The reasons for her automaton-like personality will become clear later on, but for now, you can look at Chu Chu for little hints of how Anthy might really be feeling in any given situation. In episode two, for example, he's playful and relaxed when Anthy and Utena are getting to know one another, taking to Utena right away after she rescues him. In fact, she's "never seen him take to someone so well." Later on, Chu Chu defends Anthy with aggressive disgust for Saionji when she's unable to talk him out of leaving her alone, although they both receive only painful punishment in response. Not everything Chu Chu does is symbolic, some of it's purely meant for comic relief, but it's helpful to always keep your eye on the little primate/rodent, especially when Anthy's behavior becomes more and more suspicious.
- Shadow Girl Corner: I'll talk more about the Shadow Girls next week, but while they're clearly meant to commentate on the show in a fourth-wall breaking way, try not to think of them as "the voice of the author," because this is one of the rare cases where that's not what they represent. For now, the shadow girls are our biggest clue that Utena is not as superior in her convictions as the show might have us believe otherwise. In their first appearance, they tease Utena for not knowing the rules of the duel she's entering, basically warning her that she may know why she's fighting, but she's not prepared for the (39 episodes of) consequences that will follow. In the second episode, they joke that it's all well and good to say that you "meant to lose" to try and make yourself look like the bigger man if you get outskilled in a fight, but this also implies that the reverse may be true. Utena enters her duel to lose it on purpose, but finds herself in the opposite position when her convictions to win outweigh her skill to lose. These little observations don't add much yet, but the shadow girls will become an indispensable part of the show in the future.
- Absolute Destiny Apocalypse Corner: Zettai! Unmei! Mokushiroku! Following the "Greek chorus" intro performed by the shadow girls, every duel has a more literal "Greek chorus" song with different nonsensical lyrics performed during the fight, but they might not be so nonsensical on closer examination. It's not so much that every lyric means something specific; they're more like surreal poems built around a general theme for the duel. In the first episode ("When? Where? Who? Which?"), the duelist song evokes images of a figure without an identity, being reborn into new lives over and over again with no perceivable purpose, mentioning absolute sadness and even Hell alongside lyrics about cradles, bliss, naivete, and holiness. While it's hard to dive into much more detail without spoilers, it's easy to see this as a poem about the prince as an abstract concept; an empty symbol of happiness, but eternally lacking much specific meaning except for what is projected onto him by various actors that fill his role. Then again, perhaps the poem is about Utena, who is basically in the natal stage of self-discovery and wants to be a prince. Since their two spirits have already started overlapping in episode two, perhaps it's both! Speaking of episode two, its dueling theme is a little more straightforward. Silly as it is to hear people shout "AMMONITE!" at the climax of a duel, the song really is just about the evolution of life, although in this case, it's referring to the evolution of the students' lives specifically. The "you" and "me" of the song are growing in complexity at a rapid pace that matches the increasing tempo of the song. They have begun the process of evolution, and there's no turning back now. For Utena, Saionji, and the others, the awakening of Dios's spirit represents the start of their self-examinations.
- While the upside-down fairytale castle over the dueling arena represents the destination that the student council members are attempting to reach by "smashing the world's shell," Saionji jokingly calls the castle a "trick of the light" to mock the silly girl he has to fight against. Believe it or not, this is one of the most brutal moments of foreshadowing in the whole series, so just tuck that line away in the back of your head for now.
- The manga Wakaba reads to try and get over her first romantic rejection is "Magnolia Waltz" by Chiho Saito, a real shojo manga that she wrote shortly before production on Revolutionary Girl Utena. The freedom and happiness Wakaba feels from processing her feelings over Saionji's rejection, finding her catharsis in a romance story she used to think was "stupid," is another clever jab at how we often underestimate the unique emotional strength and power of feminine things. For now at least, Wakaba is in much better shape than the emotionally constipated kendo captain who turned her down.
- Astronomy (scientific study of stars) and astrology (stars as metaphors for exploring our personalities) make up another masculine vs. feminine dynamic in the world of Utena. Astrological signs will come up now and again to give insight to a specific character's emotions, but sometimes the zodiac is played with in more generalized ways as well. In episode two, there's a sundial (in the shape of that suspicious dick-tower) that points toward Scorpio as Saionji berates Anthy, but begins to shift over to Libra when Utena shows up. Those aren't either of their astrological signs—Saionji is a Virgo, while Utena is a Capricorn—so this shift is meant to imply a change in the balance of power within the school. As time passes, control is being shifted from the obsession and jealousy represented by Saionji's abuse of the Bride (Scorpio) with a sense of justice and equality when Utena rushes in to comfort her (Libra) and the camera swaps angles. The subject of time marching forward to inevitable ends is reinforced through many little background details like this in Utena. (On that note, I'll touch on Miki's stopwatch when we get to episodes 4 and 5.)
Overall, these first two episodes give us just a taste of what Utena has to offer, but they've begun reinforcing an emphasis on processing entertainment emotionally over logically, something that the show's theatrical style of surrealism is uniquely suited to exploring. Rather than trying to suss out the specific answers behind every symbol, striving to obtain the Rose Bride for its own sake if you will, Revolutionary Girl Utena challenges its viewers to question the why behind this competition for possession of Anthy. What drives a person to want to revolutionize their world? Or on the opposite end of things, what has Utena accepted (or denied) about herself to continue fighting for the Rose Bride despite not caring about the prize? Of course, perhaps the greatest mistake of all would be to see Anthy as a prize in the first place; what does she want out of all this?
The best thing about seeking to understand entertainment on an emotional level is that there's no one right answer to these questions. Everyone will react to this strange cast of characters and their tangled motives differently, based on how they define their own identity over time. My feelings on Utena and all the complex characters around her change every time I watch this series, so I can't wait to take this journey again with you, even if I have to scrunch these 39 episodes down into 24 weeks of reviews. Next week, we'll be tackling episode three all by itself!
Revolutionary Girl Utena is currently streaming on Nozomi Entertainment's official Youtube channel.
This is just between you and me, but when Jacob was 14, he told all his classmates that he had dangerous telepathic powers. Some of them bought it, but unfortunately, the only one who wanted to believe it was Jacob himself. You can follow Jake here on Twitter.
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