Revolutionary Girl Utena is a hard show to describe. It is so complex, so intricate, has so many moving parts, that capturing everything in a coherent review is almost impossible. So, instead of trying to do that, I’m just going to give you my thoughts on this anime’s various aspects.
As a brief synopsis, Utena tells the story of Utena Tenjou, a tomboyish teenage girl who is newly enrolled at Ohtori Academy. She wears a ring with a rose crest on it which was given to her by a prince when she was a child. Upon entering school, she quickly learns that several other people wear the same ring. People who wear the ring are allowed to fight in sword duels for the chance of winning the “Rose Bride.” The Rose Bride is Anthy Himemiya, a completely submissive woman who is essentially a slave to the current dueling champion. Utena is disgusted by this, and fights to save Anthy and treat her as a friend and human being. As the show progresses, more truths are revealed, and it is learned that whoever is the ultimate champion of dueling will be offered the chance to “revolutionize the world.”
That’s about as concrete a synopsis as you can get with this series. From that point on the audience is treated (or subjected, depending on your point of view) to a multitude of allusions, illusions, metaphors, and psycho-sexual imagery. Nearly every character, relationship, and duel contains far more depth than what is presented on the surface. To get a good handle on everything would require many repeated viewings. Utena is one of those series which is famously accused of not really being about anything, and just throwing weird shit at the viewer for the sake of being obtuse and weird. But if you pay attention, you’ll find this really isn’t the case at all. There is a lot of depth and meaning to be found. All you need to do is pay attention. Unfortunately, paying attention is something really difficult for moe-loving, mouth-breathing otaku.
So what is this anime about? That’s easy, lesbians. Yep, that’s it. Case closed. Oh wait. It’s not? OK, OK, let’s try this again.
The major themes of this series are: 1) Interpersonal Relationships, 2) Illusions, 3) Sexuality, and 4) Growing Up.
At the beginning of the series, all of the duelists (and all students of Ohtori Academy for that matter) are living in an idyllic childhood fantasy. There are no parents. There are no adults, save for the occasional teacher who is usually never seen. There are very few rules or consequences. Romance is portrayed like a Hollywood fantasy. Complicated things like sex and adulthood are the furthest things from their minds. This holds true for Utena herself, as well. At this point Anthy is enshrouded in mystery.
After Utena’s arrival the duels begin, and the illusion of childhood begins to crack. Utena battles each member of the Student Council and wins every time. After the loss, the enemy combatant has a sudden change. Their outlook on life is different. Their idealized version of Romance is gone. They seem to have a greater understanding of the realities of life. As Utena is the only one who doesn’t lose, she maintains her idealized outlook on life and her fairy-tale desire to become “a prince.” During this first part of the series, named the “Student Council Saga,” Utena does actually lose once, to Touga, whom she fancied. Her sexualized interest became her downfall. However, she picked herself back up, and decided to ignore those feelings and become a pure-hearted child again, and was able to triumph. She will remain in her shell (so to speak) throughout the remainder of the series.
The second part of the series is the controversial “Black Rose Saga” in which Utena continues her duels, but is now challenged by Lovers/Romantic Interests of the people she had already defeated in part 1. I say that this arc is controversial because it can be polarizing to viewers. Either they find it is a boring and meaningless way to increase the episode count, or they find it emotionally/psychologically significant and far more interesting than the lighter first story arc. Imagery of death, despair, and psychological introspection are deeply imbued throughout this portion of the story. Those who were defeated in part 1 gained perspective into the adult realities of life, and imparted that knowledge onto the Romantic Interests through their words/actions. This led the Romantic Interests to challenge Utena in order to somehow reclaim what they lost. The highlight of part 2 is when Utena’s friend Wakaba (who has a crush on Utena) challenges her to a duel. This is one of my favorite episodes of the entire series.
After part 2 ends, the final story arc, “The Apocalypse Saga” begins. This is by far the most intriguing of all the storylines in Utena. Utena continues her duels, except she fights people in pairs (sort of). The spurned Romantic Interests from part 2 take up arms with the Student Council members from part 1. While technically only the Student Council members do the fighting, the Romantic Interests are present and typically prompted the combatant to join the fight once more.
To be convinced to fight, the spurned Romantic Interest and Akio (who is the central antagonist), reveal the true nature of the world to the Student Council member. What they see is never explicitly shown to the viewers. It’s hard to say what it could be, but their fires are certainly fueled enough to want to fight again. They once again possess the desire to revolutionize the world, when they had previously given up on that notion. Whatever Akio had shown them must have, at least temporarily, recharged their Romanticism and returned a sense of childlike wonder to them. Beforehand, they were given a harsh lesson in the realities of relationships and love, and they lost the will to fight. Regaining the will to fight could only be brought about by Akio showing them some sort of illusion. As the series progresses toward its end, we learn that Akio is a master of illusions.
Utena defeats them all, as she is truly the most pure-hearted (and, by extension, most emotionally child-like) of all the duelists. She clings to a sense of childhood honor and moralistic sense of right and wrong. To her, things are only seen as black and white, there is no gray area. Adults realize everything has a gray area. She does not. She clings to the illusion of childhood so desperately that it allows her to be victorious against all combatants. Her insistence on remaining a child becomes evident in episode 38 in which Anthy is in anguish, and Akio tells Utena that “a child” such as herself cannot “appreciate” his ideals or “understand” the purpose of the Rose Bride. He is of course, referring to the pain Anthy is experiencing as a part of the collective womanhood. As a child, Utena cannot comprehend what it’s like to be an adult woman.
Until this point, Akio himself has orchestrated everything. We learn he is the mysterious character “End of the World.” The castle in the sky is an illusion he projects with his planetarium. His initial portrayal as a warm-hearted gentleman turns out to be an illusion, as well. He is a master manipulator, always works toward his own ends, and is especially deceitful in his promiscuity as he is already betrothed to someone else. His “brotherly love” toward his sister Anthy turns out to be an illusion as well, as we soon learn the two are involved sexually.
Akio represents the archetype of a male: Powerful, cunning, promiscuous, controlling. Anthy represents his polar opposite, the archetype of a female: weak, loyal, chaste, submissive. Akio’s symbol is Ohtori’s tower, a giant phallic structure. Anthy’s symbol is the dueling arena, hidden within a feminine-looking secret forest. They portray the traditional archetypes of Man and Woman. They are meant to convey the gender roles that the collective unconsciousness of society places upon both men and women. Their relationship is the most complex of any in Utena.
As Utena approaches the final duel and the goal of revolutionizing the world, Akio becomes a larger presence in her life. She has an indescribable feeling toward him. She wants to hold on to her girlishness and treat everyone as a platonic friend. However, she cannot help but experience a heretofore unknown sexual desire for him. She swoons and gives in to his advances early on. While she “loves” Anthy as a strong platonic friend, and had an inkling of desire for Touga (more of a crush really), Akio is the first person she has strong Romantic/Sexual desire for. The recurring motif of a blossoming rose is shown often in reference to this.
Utena’s final duel is against Akio. It represents her continued resistance against adulthood. Just before the battle he offered to allow her to become his woman, and took away her sword as “dresses don’t go with swords.” Utena instead decides to battle him. Clearly, this means she does not want to give in to her sexual desires for union with him. Doing so would mean forfeiting her childhood once and for all. Remaining a child, refusing to grow up, has allowed her to remained focused on her goal of ultimately become “a prince,” which is an illusion in itself. She even dresses as a boy to fit this gender-swapped role better. However, any adult female will know that despite wearing a boy’s clothes and acting like a boy, they will still be biologically female and can never be truly male.
In the end, Utena loses. She cannot defeat the inevitable, the onset of adulthood. It’s not surprising that the only two times Utena loses a duel is when she entertains the notion of adult love/sex, which would require growth into adulthood, and a loss of her innocent, pure childhood. However, she is still able to free Anthy from her prison as the Rose Bride. In the final scenes, Anthy is able to become an independent person and leaves Ohtori Academy. Utena was able to revolutionize the world in that she showed Anthy how to live freely.
To try and describe the events of this series in a literal sense is futile. Your head would explode if you tried to ”explain” what happens literally. This is why some people get frustrated and say the show makes no sense. Of course it doesn’t. Not on a literal level. Utena is really more of an allegory. As I mentioned earlier, it is a metaphor for growing up, and the protagonist’s struggle to resist nature. The series’ tagline: “Absolute Destiny Apocalypse” is fitting. Becoming an adult is everyone’s “absolute destiny.” The “apocalypse” is a reference to the loss experienced when childhood ends.
If you wanted to try and explain “what happened” in Utena, it would be this: the events of the series transpired, in part, in Utena’s mind. It is made quite apparent that illusions are extremely important. The aspects of dueling, the magic, the eternity of the Rose Bride and End of the World, are all metaphorical illusions. In the final scene, several anonymous girls are overheard talking about what happened to Utena. Some suggestions are thrown around that she graduated, she transferred somewhere else, or she got sick and had to drop out. No one says anything remotely close to “she got impaled by a million magical swords while the school collapsed around her.” The duelling might be construed as the give-and-take people experience in relationships, especially when burgeoning in such a complicated time as adolescence. The relationship between the Rose Bride and End of the World is truly a metaphor for gender roles and the interactions between all men and women. The magical stuff links it all together. It was all an illusion, perhaps a dream; a way of Utena working out her own struggles in her mind as she moved through adolescence and into adulthood.
Did Utena die at the end? No. In fact, she never fought a single duel with a sword. She was a normal student who was friends with Anthy, another normal student, who interacted with Touga, Saiyonji, Juri, Miki, Nanami, and Wakaba, who were all normal students. The fantastical aspects didn’t really happen. Whatever Utena imparted onto Anthy during their normal, boring, real-life friendship “revolutionized” her, and allowed her to accept herself and begin to move forward. Whether Utena herself was able to do the same is anyone’s guess. We know that this is likely the case, as Anthy left Ohtori Academy with plans to reunite with Utena in the future. If everything happened literally this wouldn’t be possible.
The series itself is wonderfully created. It features exceptional character designs, very good animation quality, intriguing music, phenomenal acting, and masterful writing. The cast really brings the characters to life. Their performances quickly draw you in, and you become emotionally invested early on. The animation is quite good, excellent at times in the final story arc, but does cut some corners. Recycled animation occurs often. Prior to every duel, the audience is subjected to the same animation sequence and music. This practice was more acceptable at the time the series aired. It’s a small complaint in the bigger picture.
The fight scenes are exciting. The drama tragic at times. There also is plenty of humor embedded throughout. There are really very few anime which are able to encompass such a huge range of human emotions, and do it in an organic way that doesn’t seem forced or exploitative. Perhaps best of all is its open-ended nature. Utena leaves much room for interpretation. There is no “right answer” to explain what it’s all about. You could choose to take it literally. You could go with my interpretation. You could choose an entirely different one. Its beauty is that it can mean many things to many people. And you will always pick up something new on repeat viewings.
The U.S. has had two DVD releases of the series. The original discs were released by Central Park Media, and featured horrible, muddy video, and a sometimes less than accurate translation. The dub they brought out was horrendous. The fact that they paired such an impressive, important series with such an amateur work of crap should be qualified as a hate crime. There is no reason whatsoever to watch the dub. Stay as far away as you can.
The second DVD release was put out by RightStuf International. They used the same video from the Japanese DVD remaster of the series. The video is beautiful. The show is brightly colored, certain animation mistakes were retouched, and the CGI was remastered, as well. This is the best Utena has ever looked. The audio was also upgraded to feature a 5.1 Japanese soundtrack, and also included the original 2.0 for purists. They even ported over the english dub for the audio masochists out there.
RightStuf’s DVD release came in three box sets, one for each “saga” of the series. They included plentiful on-disc special features including a fun but all too brief interview with the series director. Each box set also included a booklet containing staff interviews, production notes, and artwork, all of these things carried over from both the Japanese DVD remastered set and the Japanese laserdisc set. I’d say that RightStuf has released the definitive Utena set. They did an amazing job.
If you haven’t seen Revolutionary Girl Utena, then you need to check it out. It comes from the year 1997 and was directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. It is one of the most complex and most intriguing anime ever produced. The only other series that can come close to rivaling it in complexity and depth is Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Utena somehow manages to surpass it. You can’t really call yourself an anime fan if you haven’t watched this series. You don’t have to like it, but you at least have to see it.
Plus, it has lesbians.