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 6: “Take Care, Miss Nanami!” Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. Character designs by Chiho Saito. Be-Papas, 1997 (Nozomi Entertainment, 2011). Approx. 24 minutes. Rated “16+.”
Watch for free here.
A reader helpfully points out that Nozomi Entertainment has uploaded Revolutionary Girl Utena to YouTube. When I first started this series of essays, I named some places you can acquire the show, but I didn’t think to check YouTube. I tend to forget that not all videos there are pirated.
Anyway, I am continuing to watch the series from my enormously expensive collector’s edition DVD set, which is as luxurious and decadent as the anime it contains. But if you’d like to watch along with me without investing so much cash, you can now see the dub, free and legal, online. I’ll be posting the link to the YouTube video under the episode credits from now on.
This same reader makes an interesting comment:
On principle I object to stories that use symbolism as an excuse for ridiculous, poor, or perverse writing. If a story cannot stand up as an independent narrative it has no business obfuscating its shortcomings with allegories and parables. Art naturally embodies some aspect of reality. Every piece symbolizes something. Better that your symbols should be simple rather than convoluted.
Intricate meta-narratives can become great rewards for those who are apt to analyzing them, but the primary plot ought not to suffer for their sake. I shouldn’t need an essay to understand your unpainted canvas, and I should not need a documentary-length series of videos to understand what happened during End of Evangelion.
I’ve only seen up to episode eleven of Revolutionary Girl Utena, but those episodes do hold up as a narrative, despite some remarkable plot contrivances. I’m afraid to finish the series, unfortunately, since I suspect the train will drift off the rails as the series nears its end.
His opinion is similar to mine. I’m typically unimpressed with stories that use opacity to create the illusion of depth.
Some years ago, I loaned my set of Neon Genesis Evangelion to a friend who happened to be studying feng shui. She later contacted me excitedly to tell me that one of the characters in the show had objects on her desk arranged in such a way as to represent, symbolically, the characters’ interpersonal relationships. This is something I, and probably a lot of viewers, never would have picked up on, and that’s fine. I certainly don’t mind storytellers throwing in some esoterica like that. It can lend a story a certain richness even if it goes over most people’s heads.
But that is no excuse for failing to present a coherent narrative. Evangelion is rich with imaginative imagery, but it never gets down to the business of explaining basic elements of its plot, such as what Lilith is, or what the Lance of Longinus is, or what the hell is going on. Partly, it suffered because the creators didn’t husband their meager resources, choosing to blow their wad on boob jiggle in the early episodes so they had to subject us to torturous still frames in the later ones, like that infamous minutes-long elevator ride, or that nightstand. (Sweet Madoka, the nightstand! If I never again hear a dialogue about creative places to insert pills, I can die a happy man.) But even more than that, Evangelion suffered because director Hideaki Anno gave up on storytelling and turned the show into his personal psychotherapy session.
I stated in the beginning that Revolutionary Girl Utena out-Evangelions Evangelion, partly because it handles Evangelion‘s themes and postmodern techniques much more competently, but also because it accomplishes something Evangelion flubbed: It has a coherent plot with a beginning, middle, and end. That’s not to say that some parts aren’t opaque or that there aren’t unresolved plot threads, or that the show isn’t decidedly undisciplined. It’s definitely not perfect. But it has an intelligible storyline, and it manages to conserve its puny budget enough that it resorts to relatively few painful animation shortcuts.
Evangelion attempted something it couldn’t quite pull off. Building on that, Utena successfully pulls it off, albeit in haphazard fashion. I might also add that Princess Tutu, usually considered Utena’s spiritual successor, uses the same techniques, but employs them in a much more disciplined manner and entirely avoids the pitfalls of its predecessors.
Speaking of the haphazardness of Revolutionary Girl Utena, we have come at last to the first of the dreaded filler episodes. Back in episode 3, we met Nanami, the spoilt younger sister of playboy student council president Touga. Nanami is not even a character in Chiho Saito’s manga, but she plays a prominent role in the anime. If we think of Revolutionary Girl Utena as Sailor Moon on acid, then Nanami is Utena’s Chibi Moon, a character who ought to have a minor part but instead waltzes in and takes over the whole place. She is the main character of several fillers, and though these filler episodes succeed at reiterating some of the major themes of the series, they also take the spotlight off Utena. The result is that Utena begins to look decidedly passive in spite of her alleged role as protagonist.
So here we go. I hope you’re ready for this. After all …
… your sister sure was ready last night.
Sorry about that. Anyway, the episode opens with Nanami narrowly avoiding being struck by a car. It seems she’s had several near misses in the last few days, so now she’s convinced someone is out to kill her. At first, she suspects it’s Utena, and her suspicions seem to be confirmed when Utena accidentally whacks her with a baseball.
I’ve mentioned before that Utena, in spite of her aspiration to be a “noble prince who protects princesses,” isn’t terribly good at the job. She’s more exasperated than thrilled by having to fight for Anthy, and her reaction to the discovery that she’s struck Nanami with a baseball is decidedly callous:
Again, Utena reveals herself to be more tomboy than white knight. We can imagine how a stereotypical “prince” might react in this situation: If this were a straight-up slapstick comedy instead of psychodrama (laced with slapstick comedy), Utena might sweep Nanami into her arms and gallantly carry her to the nurse’s office while other girls squeal in jealousy. But instead, she just wants her ball back.
And we might very well ask, if Utena wants to protect a princess, why does she keep missing her opportunities? After all, Nanami exhibits all the negative traits of a stereotypical princess. She’s spoiled and conniving, but spoiled, conniving princesses are princesses, too!
File this away in the back of your mind: I’m going to bring it up again when we get to the end of the series, because I’m going to propose that Utena’s peculiar attitude is key to unlocking some of the show’s themes.
After the baseball incident, Nanami reveals to Utena and Miki that someone is out to get her. Utena seems to be getting along quite well with Miki since she handed him his backside in the arena last episode. As mentioned before, getting trounced by Utena is how the rest of the characters deal with their neuroses, so Miki is on an even keel at least for the time being.
Utena is like Prozac. A big, pink, violent Prozac. A Prozac with no pants.
So Nanami, Miki, and the Pantless Wonder happen upon Nanami’s brother Touga, who appears to be conspiring with Anthy to kill Nanami. Utena is, strangely, not the least bit perturbed that her roommate-in-bondage is a would-be murderess, but she’s very annoyed at Touga.
There is of course a misunderstanding here, but never mind that. Soon after all of this, Nanami nearly gets run over by a random horse and flock of chickens rampaging through the hallways.
She is, however, rescued by a mysterious prince—and no, it isn’t Utena. So Utena definitely missed her opportunity here.
You blew it, Utena.
To learn the identity of this mysterious prince, Utena and Miki follow Nanami when she goes to meet him … and it turns out to be a sixth-grader named Tsuwabuki. Nanami asks him out.
Spoiled rich girl that she is, Nanami treats Tsuwabuki as a personal slave. She has him make her lunch, help her cheat on tests, do her laundry, and beat up her unwanted suitors. He actually succeeds at clobbering three middle school guys, so he’s pretty legit for an elementary school kid.
There’s an unsurprising twist at the end of the episode. To avoid giving away all of it but also to describe an important part, I’ll just say that Tsuwabuki had been eyeing Nanami for a while before this, not because he wanted to be her boyfriend, but because he admired her big brother Touga, whose fraternal protectiveness he wanted to imitate.
As a running gag, a lot of random animals escape and rampage through the school in this episode. The climax, and the height of absurdity, comes in the form of a raging kangaroo with boxing gloves.
When the kangaroo attacks, both Miki and Utena run away, leaving Nanami to get creamed … so that’s another fail for Utena.
Tsuwabuki makes a good showing, but the boxing kangaroo is too much for him.
However, Touga appears and puts it down with a single blow.
Once again enamored of her older brother, Nanami immediately breaks up with Tsuwabuki, but as the three of them go walking into the sunset, she agrees to make him her honorary younger brother.
Utena had earlier suspected that Touga might be her prince, and she now finds herself admiring him as well.
Of course, as we know from the episode previous, Touga is actually kind of a creep. Utena is a likeable girl with noble aspirations, but she’s also a naïf, and she’s not a good judge of character.
Eventually, that will cost her.