The bird is fighting its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Whoever wishes to be born must destroy a world. The bird is flying to God. The god is named Abraxas.
—Herman Hesse, Demian
Revolutionary Girl Utena, episode 1: “The Rose Bride.” Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. Character designs by Chiho Saito. Be-Papas, 1997 (Nozomi Entertainment, 2011). Approx. 24 minutes. Rated “16+.”
Anime fans can have short memories. It is to be expected: shows come out, have a brief run, and then go away. Unless a fan snatches up a hard copy during the often short window of its printing, it disappears off the market or its cost rockets up to a collector’s price. Older stuff is on laserdisc or VHS and nigh inaccessible unless there is a re-release.
Probably for that reason, 2011’s Puella Magi Madoka Magica gets credit from a lot of fans for its “deconstructive” character, and they call it the “Neon Genesis Evangelion of magical girl anime.” But there is an earlier title I believe is more deserving of that honor, a title closer to Evangelion in time and theme, and which also had some of the same staff. That show is Revolutionary Girl Utena, brainchild of Kunihiko Ikuhara, who had previously been one of the most important directors to work on Sailor Moon. Utena is, in spite of a decidedly uneven presentation and the hampering of a shoestring budget, easily one of the greatest anime of all time. For reasons I’ll defend later, I daresay it out-Evangelions even Evangelion.
It also inspires a lot of funny YouTube videos.
And I would also say that, between Utena and Madoka, Utena is the greater show. Utena does not have Madoka‘s superb writing or flawless execution, but its aim is bolder. When it succeeds, it succeeds wildly, and when it fails, it fails grandly. What it lacks in slick animation or tight scripting, it makes up for in sheer audacity: Puella Magi Madoka Magica only wants to smash a genre, but Revolutionary Girl Utena wants to smash the world.
It would be difficult to quickly sum this show up, and impossible to discuss it in any depth without spoilers, so I’ve decided to take it in small chunks and produce a series of essays. It is a project I must approach with some humility, since there already exists a cottage industry dedicated to analyzing this show. But in any case, this first essay in the series will discuss the DVD set and also the first episode, which lays out the premise.
The series originally appeared in 1997. A remastered version, begun in 2009, came out in 2011 from Nozomi Entertainment, with an English-language release distributed by RightStuf!. It is a really impressive (and really expensive) set, and it happens to be the crown jewel of my personal collection. The 39-episode series can be divided into three arcs, which gave them an excuse to release the show in three separate boxes. Each box comes with the episodes for its arc along with a slew of extras and a thick booklet containing artwork, interviews, and episode synopses written by Kunihiko Ikuhara, though he writes them in the spirit of the show itself, which is to say that they’re largely stream-of-consciousness gibberish.
The third and final box is especially thick. It contains not only all of the third story arc, but also the ill-advised movie that we are all going to pretend doesn’t exist, an extra large booklet packed with artwork, and an entire DVD of extras.
Not only is this set luxurious in both its presentation and the heaps of extra material it contains, but the show itself gets the royal treatment: it has been completely remastered, with Dolby 5.1 digital surround sound. They rounded up some of the actors to re-record parts of their dialogue, and they improved the sound effects. They touched up and corrected errors in the artwork. Not only that, but you can now see the outer edges of the frame, which were originally cut off because of the way they used to film animation for television. That means that, in this version, you get ten percent more Utena. That’s good, because I need more Utena. I need it.
Except I don’t need the movie. That thing sucks.
But anyway, it appears, as of this writing, that the boxed sets are still available, though they will set you back a good hundred and thirty bucks. Assuming the average reader here is not nearly as dedicated to magical girls as I am, that’s probably out of your price range. But you can stream the English dub of the non-remastered show for considerably cheaper. You can even stream the movie for just a handful of change, though I don’t advise it.
So what is Revolutionary Girl Utena about, you ask?
Kinky stuff, mostly. Deeply symbolic kinky stuff.
Okay, I’m joking … or am I? Utena has been described as “Sailor Moon meets Twin Peaks,” though it is probably more rightly understood as a crossing of certain well-established shoujo anime tropes—originating in large part with Rose of Versailles—and themes borrowed from Herman Hesse’s semi-autobiographical Jungian/Nietzschean novel Demian. All of that was put in a blender with a lot of stylish artwork, abstruse symbolism, and sheer Dadaism, and set on puree.
Its ultimate message is ambiguous. I have cheekily made one possible interpretation the title of this essay, but another interpretation exactly opposite of that is defensible.
We begin now with the first story arc, the Student Council Saga, which introduces the basic idea and then delves into the lives of the troubled characters. The first episode, “The Rose Bride,” opens with a succession of stylized still frames to give the fairy tale-like backstory: a young girl is grieving over her parents’ deaths, but a noble prince astride a white horse comes to her rescue. He gives her a ring bearing a rose-shaped seal and tells her she can use it to find him again. So inspired is she by the prince that she decides to become, not his princess, but a prince just like him.
And the narrator of this sequence ends the story with, “But was that really a good idea?” We are left to ponder why it might be, or why not.
After this beginning, several panoramic shots introduce us to Ohtori Academy, one of those absurdly huge, university-sized prep schools so common in anime. The environmental designs in Utena are hard to describe, but they’re something like a cross between Art Nouveau and Film Noir. The show has a penchant for decorative pillars, soaring towers, vine and flower motifs, suspended platforms, and architectural unlikelihoods, but it also likes geometric shapes, dark shadows, and bold, flat colors. Oftentimes, the setting are lush. At other times, they are largely suggested rather than shown in their entirety. In this, the artwork mimics the writing: as the show develops, it will shove some things in our face, but more often, especially in its outré sexual content (which is never displayed or even directly mentioned), it will expect the viewer to piece together hints and to read between the lines.
Walking through this strange universe are characters drawn in the classic tradition of shoujo anime: tall, willowy and leggy, with flowing hair and huge, liquid eyes set in permanent come-hither gazes. The character designs come from, or are at least inspired by, the manga-ka Chiho Saito, who is usually credited as Kunihiko Ikuhara’s coconspirator on the series—but I’ll discuss the history of the production at another time. Suffice to say that Saito-sensei also produced the manga, which is markedly different from the anime in its details. The manga is set to see its own special edition re-release (in hardcover!) in February of 2017, and is available for preorder as of this writing.
Our heroine is Utena Tenjou, the little girl from the intro who is now fourteen and attending Ohtori’s middle school. When we first meet her, she is, ludicrously, single-handedly defeating the entire boys’ basketball team, and doing it amidst a flurry of rose petals, no less.
Utena still has it as her goal in life to become a “noble prince who rescues princesses.” Having grown into a tomboy with an omni-competency in sports, she’s gotten grief from the faculty, and a huge following of fangirls, because she insists on wearing a boy’s uniform—though her outfit doesn’t actually much resemble what the boys are wearing. In fact, it appears that she simply put on a boy’s jacket and forgot the pants.
Now that I think about it, that’s probably the real reason the teachers are upset. It’s not the cross-dressing. It’s the lack of pants.
Anyway, like many magical girls and magical girl-like heroines, Utena has a sort of sidekick that I like to call the “obsessive best friend.” The archetype of this character is that scary, psychopathic voyeur who follows Cardcaptor Sakura with a camera, but Utena has her own, less creepy version in Wakaba, a girl who refers to Utena as her “boyfriend” and glomps her frequently.
While Utena is looking out a window, she happens to observe Saionji, the vice president of the student council, in a conversation with the meek and mysterious Anthy Himemiya, who tends the school’s birdcage-shaped rose garden. More especially, she observes Saionji slapping Anthy across the face.
Anthy gets slapped in this show a lot. It is characteristic of Revolutionary Girl Utena that it is deft and subtle with some things, and then overdoes others to the point of narm. Indeed, if someone put a gun to my head and demanded that I sum up Utena in a single word, my word of choice would be bathos. Sometimes it knows less is more, but at other times, it doesn’t know when to quit. Anthy getting slapped is shocking here in episode one. Four or five episodes from now, it’s going to be unintentionally (and unfortunately) funny.
This first slap also gives us an insight into Utena’s present character: she talks a better game than she walks. She hesitates and continues observing, whereas a brasher (and hammier) “prince” character would probably have leapt out the window and run to Anthy’s rescue. Being the noble prince is Utena’s goal, but she isn’t quite there yet, and when the series draws to its eventual trippy, ambiguous ending, it invites the audience to contemplate whether she ever reaches that goal at all, or if she should.
Chiho Saito-sensei, in an interview transcript originally packaged with a laserdisc, compares Utena to Peter Pan and suggests that as presented in the anime version, she has a psychological profile like a ten-year-old boy’s. We will learn in later episodes that Utena is absurdly naïve, but we see hints of it already here: she is more tomboy than prince; like a young boy, she has a rich fantasy life in which she is a grand hero, but in actual practice, she’d rather just be playing sports.
Soon after the slap heard round the world, we get our first glimpse of the student council, which, like all student councils in anime, is ridiculously powerful and appears to be running the school. The council members are receiving letters from a mysterious figure called World’s End, who has ordered them to duel each other in a competition for Anthy, who is the “Rose Bride.” Whoever is the present champion of the duels is Anthy’s “fiancé,” and the rules require her to do whatever her betrothed wants. Saionji is the present champion, which is why Anthy meekly takes his abuse. This setup, of course, smacks of bondage, something the manga plays up a bit, though the anime, surprisingly, does not.
Wakaba has the misfortune to have a devastating crush on Saionji, so she sends him a love letter—which he then tacks to a bulletin board where the rest of the student body can laugh at it. Utena, upon finding it, rips it down and then rounds on the boys giggling over the letter’s contents. She declares, “A real man wouldn’t read it!”
The implication is clear: as the only one trying to follow an ideal of chivalry, Utena is only real man in the room. This looks like a throwaway line, but it ties directly into the show’s themes. We’ll get a few different depictions of manhood as Utena progresses, most of them not very pretty, and that will reiterate the question asked at beginning of the episode and throughout the series: is Utena’s life goal of imitating a prince a good idea, or not?
Of course, it may be worth noting that most of the depictions of womanhood in this show aren’t too pretty, either.
Saionji is captain of the school’s kendo team, so, to avenge Wakaba, Utena challenges him to a sword duel. Upon seeing her signet ring, the same ring worn by the student council members, he assumes she is challenging him for the Rose Bride, so he invites her to the Dueling Forest, a walled wood forbidden to students.
Utena enters the woods and finds a fantastic, physically impossible spiral staircase stretching into the sky. When she ascends it, she discovers at the top a vast platform beneath an enormous, floating castle hanging in the air. Her ascent of the stairs is her equivalent of the “transformation sequence” typical of magical girls. It is also one of the greatest animated sequences ever. If you see nothing else from Revolutionary Girl Utena, you should at least see this:
The music for this sequence, and also the songs for the dueling scenes, which change in every episode, come from J. A. Seazer. All of them have incredibly pretentious lyrics, and all of them totally rock. In fact, this is a good time to mention that Revolutionary Girl Utena has a bumpin’ soundtrack. Most of the music was arranged by Shinkitchi Mitsumune. The opening theme, “Rondo Revolution,” which I put at the beginning of this post, and which also rocks hard, was arranged by Yabuki Toshiro and performed by Okui Masami.
As current owner of the Rose Bride, Saionji has access to the Sword of Dios, a mystical blade that he pulls from Anthy’s chest. Utena, having thought that they were having a kendo match, is unprepared, but she presses on anyway and somehow, to Saionji’s shock, wins the duel—which means she is now the fiancée of the Rose Bride and the master of the Sword of Dios. Basically, she has had her life’s goal of protecting a princess dropped into her lap.
That is where the episode ends, with the premise established: Utena is now obligated to fight for Anthy against the student council for reasons as yet unknown.
But we know one thing: she’ll have some awesome calves after climbing those stairs repeatedly.