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 9: “The Castle Said to Hold Eternity.” Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. Character designs by Chiho Saito. Be-Papas, 1997 (Nozomi Entertainment, 2011). Approx. 24 minutes. Rated “16+.”
In this episode, after two weeks of filler, we return to the main plot. The first story arc, known as the “Student Council Saga,” is drawing rapidly to its conclusion. In this episode, the basics of the show’s underlying mystery are laid before us, though that might not be obvious to someone who hasn’t already watched the whole show through.
Saionji returns. He’s still something of a joke character, but he plays an important role in this episode. We now learn that there’s more to Saionji’s obsession with Anthy than had at first been apparent.
Seriously, anime? We just had one of the best episodes in the series, but with episode 8, “Curried High Trip,” we’re right back to … that’s right, another filler episode starring Nanami. That means two out of the last three episodes have been Nanami-focused filler.
Even worse, “Curried High Trip” is based on the Freaky Friday premise, which was already more than played out by the time this episode aired. Fortunately, the next episode will be a major plot-mover.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is famous for being dense, convoluted, and kinky. I knew all that before going in, but I was unaware before I sat down to watch it that it is also extremely goofy. This is one of the goofy episodes. The story of “Curried High Trip” appears entirely gratuitous, though it does at least highlight one possible angle of interpretation, and it also emphasizes an important plot detail.
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. Continue reading “Nanami Takes Over: The ‘Revolutionary Girl Utena’ Rewatch, Part 6”