The Crossdresser Who Isn’t: The ‘Revolutionary Girl Utena’ Rewatch, Part 3

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 3: “On the Night of the Ball.” Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. Character designs by Chiho Saito. Be-Papas, 1997 (Nozomi Entertainment, 2011). Approx. 24 minutes. Rated “16+.”



Images taken from Utena: Texts from Last Night, which, just to warn you, is Not Safe for Work.

We move on now in the course of our irregular series to the third episode of Revolutionary Girl Utena, entitled “On the Night of the Ball.” Whenever mentioning this episode in the extras that come with the luxurious special-edition DVD set, the staff sounds apologetic, and not entirely without reason. It’s by no means an awful episode, but neither is it great.

To be fair, the first two episodes set the bar very high. A lot of series, even ones that are very good overall, can have trouble getting out of the gate; it’s not unusual for a storyteller to falter while trying to set everything up, especially if his project is an ambitious one. But Utena starts off extremely strong. The first two episodes, which I discussed here and here, are fantastic. They rapidly introduce interesting characters and a bizarre premise. The pace is fast, the imagery is arresting, and there’s just enough mystery to keep the audience coming back for more.

The third episode is competent, but it falls in line with more standard shoujo anime conventions. In my opinion, this isn’t in itself a bad thing (I wouldn’t be running this blog if I disliked shoujo anime, after all), but it is unexpected after what we saw previously. There’s a very different tone to episode three.

What’s odd is that they had great source material for this. According to the director’s episode summary, “The basic plot of this episode was ready quite soon after planning started. I believe the thinking was, ‘We need to bring the mood of Ms. Saito’s manga into this.'”

The timeline of Utena‘s creation is confusing, but I take what he says here to mean that this is one case where the anime was deliberately following the manga (the manga, remember, was based on the plans for the anime, but came out first). He also mentions in the same notes that this episode was nearly a disaster; it turned out that the master sketches for the background art were not done when they were supposed to be, so he and another staff member sketched furiously to get them finished.

Having now watched this episode probably four times, I’ve looked for any shoddiness that might betray this last-minute sketching, but cannot find it. There are more obvious animation shortcuts in this episode than in those previous, but the background art is as classy as always.

The story here has Utena and Anthy going to a ball; Anthy is uncomfortable because she doesn’t do well with a lot of people around, and Utena is uncomfortable because she’s obligated to wear a dress instead of her usual boy clothes—specifically, a dress picked out for her by the student council’s rakish playboy president, Touga. We’ve seen Touga before, and he has a decidedly menacing air, but he hasn’t yet had much development, as the first two episodes focused on the vice president, Saionji, who was Anthy’s paramour (and abuser) before Utena won her in the duel.

No, I didn't write that. That is his real, actual dialogue.
No, I didn’t write that. That is his real, actual dialogue.

In the manga, Saionji goes crazy over having lost Anthy, so he violates the laws of the duel and attacks Utena at the ball, cornering her in an elevator where he has a sword in hand and she’s unarmed, producing a great cliffhanger for the first volume. In the anime, however, Utena has already handedly dealt with Saionji in the dueling arena, so he’ll now be out of the picture for several episodes. For that reason alone, the cartoon’s version of the ball is weak compared to the comic’s.

Instead of focusing on Saionji’s continued obsession with Anthy, the anime now focuses in on a character who will play an important role as the series develops, but who in the manga gets only an offhand mention. That character is Nanami, Touga’s younger sister. She is the stereotypical mean rich girl, a character type that Japanese law strictly requires every shoujo anime to contain (apparently). To some degree, she’ll break out of the stereotype later, but she is introduced with all the stock characteristics of the type: she has a group of mean girls who fawn over her, she has a perpetual smug expression, she laughs with an affected “ho ho ho” sound while holding her pinkie near her mouth, and she plots to make other girls’ lives miserable. She is also usually hoist on her own petard during the execution of her schemes, and for that reason she is Utena‘s comic relief character. Later, she’ll get to be the protagonist of no less than four humor-focused filler episodes.

Classic mean girl line. Later comes "I've hated you from the beginning."
Classic mean girl line. Later comes, “The truth is, I’ve hated you from the beginning.”

Also, in keeping with anime clichés, Nanami has an incestuous desire for her own brother, which drives her to work to destroy any girl she sees getting close to him. By the end of the first story arc, this series will go completely overboard with the sexual weirdness, but especially incest. The writers of Revolutionary Girl Utena have some kind of obsession with incest. Like many elements of the story, it starts out grim and disconcerting but then builds and builds until it’s unintentionally funny.

Oh, and speaking of unintentionally funny—

Number three.
Number three.

Yes, that’s Anthy getting slapped again, this time by Nanami’s posse of mean girls. The first time I watched these first three episodes of Revolutionary Girl Utena, it was in the screening room at an anime con, and the audience was giggling at all the slapping by this point.

Director Kunihiko Ikuhara, in commenting on all the incest in this show, says that the reason he thinks incest shows up so often in fiction is because it’s a representation of a particular ideal, a desire for lifelong love.

When I read that, I immediately reacted to the word fiction. He really does just say “fiction,” unqualified, but I’ve read and watched a lot of fiction, and pretty much the only places I’ve encountered all this incest are manga and anime. (And in James Tiptree Jr., but we’ll talk about that another time.) It may indeed be, as he says, an attempt to capture the ideal of lifelong love, but if so, its a profoundly wrongheaded and perverted one. There are other ways to go about that.

Anyway, as the episode develops, Nanami is plotting against Anthy because she thinks Anthy is getting too close to Touga. Meanwhile, Utena begins to wonder if Touga might not be her prince, though here the writing falters: Utena wonders this because she sees that Touga has a ring with the Rose Seal on it, matching the one the prince gave her. But she should already know by now that all the duelists have Rose Seal rings, and that the student council members are duelists. Seeing the president of the student council with such a ring should come as no surprise.

One of the great things about this show is how it uses apparently innocuous lines for foreshadowing.
One of the great things about this show is how it uses apparently innocuous lines for foreshadowing.

At the ball, it turns out that Anthy’s dress, sent to her by Nanami, is designed to disintegrate if it gets wet (a stereotypical mean girl prank). Anthy, of course, is humiliated.

Eek! What happens to every shoujo anime heroine ever is happening to MEEE!!!

At this point, Utena finally does something that we’ve been waiting for, or at least I’ve been waiting for: she gallantly swoops in and rescues Anthy from trouble. Until now, Utena has talked a good game when it came to chivalry, but in practice she has basically been just a tomboy. Now she finally does something classy.

The scene is, unfortunately, about as absurd as they could have made it. Utena throws her dress off to reveal that she’s been wearing her uniform underneath, even though that’s impossible, since her dress is off the shoulder. She leaps down from a balcony, grabs a tablecloth, and instantly, using some mysterious tomboy-prince powers, transforms it into a not-unflattering dress to replace the one dissolving from Anthy’s body. Then they go dancing.

Somebody needs to, like, check this school’s ventilation system and figure out where all those spontaneous rose petals come from.

It’s all quite silly. Mind you, this is a show replete with silliness, much of it intentional, but in this case it looks lazy, as if the animators and writers were both doing a rush job and didn’t know how to fill in the details, so they just said, “She’s got her uniform … but where was it? Oh, under the dress, I suppose. And she makes a ball gown from a tablecloth … yeah, that’s good.”

Speaking of the characters’ attire, I must say that I get a kick out of the way they try to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to Utena’s alleged crossdressing. She is supposedly wearing a boy’s uniform. That is stated repeatedly, and we simply have to take their word for it. Her jacket has the same cut as the one the male students wear, but it’s a different color (black with red piping instead of drab green), and she doesn’t wear the matching trousers. Instead, she has on what appears to be a tight little pair of red bicycle shorts designed to show off her long, slender legs. So her “crossdressing” consists, basically, of just wearing a jacket.

Making this even odder, Anthy during the dueling scenes wears a red dress that includes a jacket with the same cut. So does that make her a crossdresser, too?

And what about the members of the student council? They all wear vaguely military-esque uniforms with trousers, including the girls. So are the female student council members supposed to be crossdressers?

I’m confused about how crossdressing works in the Utena universe. Instead of complaining that she dresses like a boy, it seems to me that people should be saying to Utena, “Put on some friggin’ pants!”

Only if you get some pants.
Only if you get some pants.

And lastly for this post, the following AMV contains major spoilers, but it’s really good: