Produced in the mid-nineties and based on the manga of the same name, Revolutionary Girl Utena is usually considered a “Magical Girl” anime series. The series even shares its director, Kunihiko Ikuhara, with the iconic Sailor Moon—but the similarities end there. Utena is a surreal adventure that breaks down barriers, challenges gender roles, explores sexuality, and ultimately deconstructs the fairy tale archetype. If this sounds very cerebral to you, you are not wrong. There is so much going on beneath the bright pink surface of Revolutionary Girl Utena that it can be psychologically jarring; yet, that is what makes this groundbreaking series so spectacular.
Tomboy Utena Tenjou has a strong sense of honor and an unusual past. After she was orphaned, eight-year-old Utena climbed onto her parents’ coffins in anguish. She was discovered there by a strange prince who comforted her, leaving behind a ring that bore a rose signet. Utena then vowed to meet her prince again—and to become a prince like the one who saved her from her despair. Now enrolled in the peculiar Ohtori Academy, the teenaged Utena has grown to be as noble as her idol. Adored by female classmates who blush in her presence, she wears a boy’s uniform. When she witnesses fellow student Anthy Himemiya being abused by her boyfriend Saonji, Utena steps in to stop it. After defeating Saonji in a kendo duel, she discovers that Anthy has moved into her dorm room, insisting that she is now “engaged” to Utena. Anthy is known as the “Rose Bride,” and it seems that the members of the Ohtori student council all want to possess her. None of this makes sense to Utena, but she is determined to maintain Anthy’s freedom. Without realizing it, she has begun to unravel a series of events that will change the world and may even lead her back to her prince.
There are no superficial characters in the world of Utena. Each one is finely crafted with deep psychological passages that emerge across several story arcs. Sexuality plays a big part here; for instance, Utena denies that she is romantically interested in Anthy, yet when she becomes involved with male students, her power is greatly diminished. Anthy herself appears passive at first glance, but astute viewers will notice that there is more to her than meets the eye. On the surface, she bends to the wishes of the person to whom she is engaged; yet, in a seeming contradiction, the possession of the Rose Bride grants power. One of the best characters in the series is a lesbian whose backstory is artfully displayed in an episode that is both gorgeous and painful. On the darker side, several characters harbor romantic feelings for their siblings. Nevertheless, the script includes plenty of comic relief, mostly at the expense of Nanami, a snobbish underclassman. A menagerie of animals—runaway bulls, boxing kangaroos, stampeding elephants—also contribute to the series’ bizarre humor, which is better seen than explained.
The visuals in Utena are nothing short of stunning. The animation is noticeably older, but this in no way diminishes the beauty of the series. The landscape of Ohtori is lovely, featuring several delicate greenhouses and other structures that are designed in an art nouveau style. Several episodes are framed by “shadow characters” who play out scenes upon a curtain, serving as a Greek chorus for the events of the main plot; clad in black, these shadows stand in stark contrast to the rest of the series’ colorful scenery. Steeped in metaphor, a cigar is never just a cigar in Utena’s world. Cars, roses, castles, eggs: every image on the screen has deep meaning behind it for the viewer to unravel.
Of course, there are a few aspects of the series that don’t always work. During the first story arc, there is a great deal of repetition. Each time Utena is challenged to a duel, stairs to a castle in the sky descend, accompanied by a long musical number. Though this scene is powerful at first, it becomes tedious over time. Likewise, members of the Ohtori student council give a monologue about the “revolution of the world,” and though it is one of Utena‘s most iconic lines of dialogue, it happens too often to retain its dynamism.
Utena is divided into three thirteen-episode seasons which explore different versions of a struggle for power, often culminating in the engagement of the Rose Bride: the Student Council Saga, the Black Rose Saga, and the Apocalypse Saga. For the most part, the first story arc is PG, with the exception of its incestuous undertones. Although this may be slightly unsettling for the audience, nothing is so overt that the beginning of the series would cause problems in an anime club setting. Major players in the cast include a plethora of bishounen—beautiful men—who think nothing of lounging around bare-chested, but this is unlikely to cause any issue. However, as the story progresses, its sexual and incestuous undercurrents become more pronounced. By the end of the series, the maturity level of the audience is much older than its first few episodes implied.
The series’ dubbing and subtitles are both well done; I’ve always felt that this was one of the better dubs of its time. If you prefer subtitles, they are easy to read. The DVD set includes an art book and The Adolescence of Utena, a movie retelling that is even more abstract than the television series. There are also some fun DVD extras, including interviews with the cast.
Allegorical, surreal, bizarre, pretentious—it all depends on who you ask. Revolutionary Girl Utena will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a classic and deserves its place as a staple in most anime collections.
Revolutionary Girl Utena, Sets 1-3
Right Stuf, 2011
directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara
Set 1: Student Council Saga Limited Edition: 300 minutes, Number of Discs: 3, DVD
Set 2: The Black Rose Saga Limited Edition: 300 minutes, Number of Discs: 3, DVD
Set 3: Apocalypse Saga Limited Edition: 460 minutes, Number of Discs: 6, DVD
Company Age Rating: 16+
Related to: Revolutionary Girl Utena by Chiho Saito