Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

What’s it about?

After suffering the terrible loss of her parents at age eight, a despondent Utena falls into a river and nearly drowns. She is rescued by a prince who kisses her tears and praises her noble spirit. The prince gives Utena a ring with a rose signet and tells her that it will one day lead her back to him. Utena’s inspired not to become a princess who needs rescuing, but to be a prince who protects those in need. The signet does indeed lead Utena somewhere—Ohtori Academy, a mysterious school where the student council holds royal status. When Utena witnesses Kyouichi Saionji, the odious student vice-president, abusing Anthy Himemiya, his girlfriend—she is relieved when another member steps in. However, Saonji later humiliates Utena’s roommate and she vows revenge for her friend and for Anthy—thus pulling her into a bizarre ritual involving sword duels in a strange arena where a castle hangs from the sky like a chandelier. When fighting Saonji, a sword emerges from Anthy’s chest and Utena wields it to defeat her enemy. The image of her prince appears above her, she wins the battle—and Anthy as her fiance.

Notable Notes

Chiho Saito is a female manga artist who, as one part of a collective group of artists known as Be Papas, made several shoujo, but Revolutionary Girl Utena is arguably Saito’s masterpiece. Like much shoujo style of the mid-nineties the characters are soft with huge doey eyes and flowing tresses of hair. A majority of the male characters have waist length hair, and the ones who don’t are still drawn in the bishounen (beautiful boy) style. Anthy and her family have darker skin and what appears to be bindis on their foreheads. The grounds of Ohtori are flush with Alphonse Mucha-esque gates and motifs. Shading is used with expertise to display sunlight playing upon the foliage and there are roses are everywhere. The castle which hovers above the dueling arena contains a delicate bouquet of turrets, and sparkles as bright as any princess could wish for.

Significance

Utena provides a unique visceral journey where gender roles are constantly in flux, and has gone on to inspire recent animated hits such as Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe, which references Utena’s signature rose imagery as well as replicating the style of the duelist battles. The themes of women rising up to protect one another from abuse as well as themes of toxic masculinity are as relevant as ever in the #metoo era. 

The very first time we see Utena, she is being rebuked violating her school’s dress code—she prefers to wear a “boys” uniform instead of the skirted style designated for “girls”. Utena fiercely argues for her right to wear the clothing which suits her best and smartly points out that what she is wearing breaks no rules written under school law. This series launched in 1996, and these themes are as relevant as ever as we are continuously moving towards a world which pushes to move past binary gender roles.

Appeal

A girl who wants to be a prince, and a damsel in distress by design. While Sailor Moon is well known as a gateway for anime and manga fans, Utena manages to grab those who’ve finished Usagi’s adventures and are ready for the next level. If Sailor Moon is the milk chocolate of classic “girl power” manga, Utena is the dark chocolate. If Sailor Moon is The Beatles of its genre, Utena is David Bowie. That is to say that both are great and earn their place on every shelf and best of list, but while Sailor Moon is a general crowd pleaser, Utena is a bit on the weird side. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, but it is rightly praised far and wide.

Utena will be snatched up by adults who have come to re-examine what was known as a groundbreaking feminist series and decide if the themes still hold up for them. Newcomers or teen and tween age may peruse the pages in search of the aforementioned Stephen Universe nods.

Though Utena is not an explicitly yuri manga—the anime series presents actualized queer relationships—she is often considered a gay icon.

Why should you own this?

Most classic manga pack volume upon volume of story, but here you won’t need to worry about carving out shelf space. The collector’s edition of the Utena series comes as two thick hardcover volumes bound and fit into a sleek box illustrated by the rose signet motif. These volumes include a supplementary story which is a manga version of an alternate universe story called The Adolescence of Utena.  This was also released as an animated film in 1999. In this version, Utena’s hair is initially worn to look like a short male style making her androgynous at first glance. Anthy has a far less restrained personality and appears hyper feminine. Their relationship is overtly romantic and when Anthy kisses Utena her hair releases to reveal an almost art nouveau version of her original longer style.

With the box set libraries have the opportunity of collecting a robust and notable series in a manageable package. 

Revolutionary Girl Utena
by Chiho Saito and Be Papas
ISBN: 9781421585871
VIZ, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: Teen Plus (16+)

  • Jessikah Chautin

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Jessikah graduated with her MLS from The Palmer School of Library Science and has been working at the Syosset Public Library as a children’s librarian since 2003. She enthusiastically developed a children’s graphic novel collection for her library and enjoys developing programs around some of her favorite titles. As a child, Jessikah grew up on a healthy diet of Matsumoto, Toriyama and whatever anime series she could find. She often had a hard time deciding if she would prefer to be recruited as a Mahou Shoujo (Magical Girl) or a Gundam Pilot, a debate that still plagues her to this very day. If she could have any power it would definitely be telekinesis.

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