Revolutionary Girl Utena is a series about a high-school girl who challenges gender roles and society’s view on women during the ’90s.
|Genre||Drama, romance, action, shoujo|
|Number of episodes||39|
|Purchase Blu-Ray Box Set||Purchase from Amazon.|
Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of those anime series that I heard of in passing, rather than hearing it talked about often. While the show had a short run in the ’90s, it was often cited as a significant series for its time. So why is it that I heard very little of it in anime circles? Did it just end up being forgotten in time, where only a few people had actually seen it?
Maybe it was too avant-garde. Maybe its popularity dwindled when other anime came out. Maybe its symbolism flew past people’s heads and it ended being judged as a mediocre anime.
Though I have to admit, viewing this anime left me speechless at times. It’s a strange concoction that appears to have a straightforward premise. It was worked on by some of the same production staff as Sailor Moon, including writer/director Kunihiko Ikuhara. But as it continues, you can’t help but question what actually happened. While being considered a shoujo series, there’s something about it that transcends the stereotypes of a typical shoujo anime. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll do my best here.
The Pink-Haired Prince and the Rose Bride
Titular character Utena Tenjou is one of the most popular girls at Ohtori Academy. She is a sports superstar, a good student, a noble soul, and an all-around great gal. The other female students idolized her and some of the male students took romantic interest in her.
God, that’s a nasty cough…
Alright, that’s not entirely true. But we’ll explain in a sec.
Utena meets a bespectacled, dark-skinned girl named Anthy Himemiya, who just so happens to be the most unpopular girl in school. Students physically and verbally abuse her, refuse to socialize with her and even blame her for their own personal problems. Unlike Utena, Anthy is submissive, gentle, has a tendency to smile a lot, and is quite harmless. But after witnessing Anthy’s apparent boyfriend (Kyouichi Saionji) assaulting her, Utena challenges Saionji to a kendo match in order to stand up for Anthy’s sake.
However, things take a weird detour. Utena confronts Saionji at a strange arena, where she defeats Saionji in a fencing match instead, unknowingly having entered a specific pact—the winner of a Duel becomes “engaged” to Himemiya, also known as the Rose Bride. This event sets the plot forward, putting both Utena and Anthy into a series of trials.
Now, let’s go over Utena’s characteristics since her personality is among the most important factors of the show and a subject of debate.
Utena Tenjou was often cited as one of the most progressive anime characters in the ’90s. For one thing, she’s a strong, independent girl who defies the damsel-in-distress trope. She’s a good student, a star athlete who could defeat the boys in matches, and is a tomboy who takes shit from no one.
Yeah yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “I am a strong, independent Japanese high school girl who don’t need no man! Yatta!”
Her brief backstory is crucial to her character. Utena was a princess who lost both of her parents. Then the Prince appeared before her, encouraging her to “never lose your strength or your nobility”—indicated by his gift of the Rose Signet to her. Since then, Utena took his advice to heart and aspired to be a Prince herself.
Yeah, you read that right. She wanted to be a prince, not a princess. And no, it’s not because she wants to become male. She views the role of prince as a courageous, noble soul who protects and inspires others. In other words, she wants to fit into what is typically a male role model: a knight in shining armor. So she cross-dresses into typically male uniforms to stand out from her peers.
Utena lived her life to the fullest, becoming accomplished and gaining the attention of her peers. The Rose Signet is precious to her, as it symbolizes the strength of the Prince. And she would like to meet him one day, in an opportunity to get close to him.
Then there is the mysterious Rose Bride herself, Anthy Himemiya. At first, the anime was ambiguous on what it means to be a Rose Bride. But from what we’ve seen, Himemiya views herself as nothing more than a possession. An object to be desired. She is the main damsel-in-distress in the show, but for reasons you wouldn’t expect. While she comes across this polite and soft-spoken girl, it’s possible that this is merely a facade and that she is fully aware of the trouble she caused. It’s hard to get ahold of what her true nature is. Whoever wins her in a Duel, she will be “engaged” to that person. And the person currently engaged to the Rose Bride will gain the power to “revolutionize the world.”
What does it mean to “revolutionize the world?” Even that is hard to answer.
But whatever it means, Utena’s victory over Saionji draws the ire of the Student Council, a small group of students who desire the Rose Bride for various reasons. The group consists of president Touga Kiryuu, vice-president Kyouichi Saionji, captain of the fencing team Juri Arisugawa, child prodigy Miki Kaoru, and Touga’s little sister Nanami Kiryuu. All of these people became Duelists to possess Anthy Himemiya. But because Utena inadvertently took away Anthy, the Student Council often challenges Utena to a Duel.
Through their allegorical motto, we can get some idea on what the Student Council desires:
If it cannot break its egg’s shell,
a chick will die without being born.
We are the chick.
The world is our egg.
If we don’t crack the world’s shell,
we will die without being born.
Smash the world’s shell!
For the revolution of the world!
Student Council Saga
Episodes 1 – 13 compose the Student Council Saga, starting with Utena defeating Kyouichi Saionji in a Duel. At some point or another, the Student Council members develop a strong desire for something (usually something related to relationships), prompting them to desire the Rose Bride’s power.
The Duels take place at the top of a tower with a rose statue, only accessible by people who possess a ring called the Rose Signet. Every member of the Student Council has one. However, Utena received hers from the Prince she met long ago. As if destiny is calling out to her, Utena climbs a circular tower to the top, where a giant castle floats upside-down in the sky. And at the area, she will fight her opponent in a fencing match.
Each person wears a colored rose on their chest. And whoever can take the opponent’s rose out is the winner and becomes “engaged” to the Rose Bride.
While the Student Council is the antagonistic force here, they’re not necessarily evil. They’re all people who feel trapped by something, such as a toxic relationship or a desire to be a better person. Despite their skill as fencers and Duelists, they all eventually lose to Utena in a match, who was never seen practicing fencing even once in the series.
And thus the Revolutionary Girl Utena series follows an episodic formula: the episode focuses on a secondary character and explores that character’s backstory and relationships. Eventually, that character falls into despair and desires the Rose Bride, therefore challenging Utena into a match. Utena confronts her challenger at a Duel and claims her victory.
You might say Utena in this case is OP since she doesn’t practice fencing at all (she even claims she doesn’t enjoy fencing), but even these Duels might be considered more allegorical than literal. Duels appear to be a test of willpower over skill, which may explain the bizarre location of the arena and random desks/cars sprouting about. Utena rarely feels doubt and despair throughout the series, giving her a clear advantage over her opponents. And most of her opponents lose in a Duel because they were distracted by their personal issues. The Student Council was composed of clearly skilled fencers, but their willpower wasn’t strong enough to defeat Utena. That’s why she’s always the victor, no matter who she faces against.
Utena lost once to Touga Kiryuu, because he reminded her of the Prince. This is one of the few times where Utena truly felt weak and powerless, to the point where she was ready to sacrifice her unique traits and personality to revert to a typically more feminine role. But her close friend Wakaba Shinohara reminded her that she changed for the worse and that it is unlike Utena to act like this. Utena eventually complied, her willpower renewed, and defeated Touga in the next Duel.
Utena also lost to the final antagonist of the show, Akio Ohtori, after Anthy betrayed her. Not only was this ending shocking, but it actually became Utena’s own undoing. This loss may have been her last.
Black Rose Saga and Onward…
At this point, you should be catching on to the surreal nature of this show.
In the middle of an episode, you will see these mysterious shadows of girls named E-ko and F-ko, a duo that composes the Kashira Shadow Players—named after their habit of saying かしら (meaning “I wonder”). On the surface, they appear to be stereotypical gossip girls or drama students. But sometimes, their cryptic dialogue is thematic of the current episode or even foreshadows a new kind of threat to happen later in the series.
Even Ohtori Academy feels off, with its more European-style architecture and rooms full of stone and mirrors. The school itself feels like it could come out of a fairy tale. And whenever Utena passes through the door with the rose statue, it’s like she entered a different realm: a spiral staircase leading to an arena, with a floating castle in the sky. And sometimes, desks, shadows of human bodies and red cars litter the arena.
The strange part is that the characters of the show don’t really treat these things as a big deal, as if it’s normal. The plot is mostly treated as straightforward and serious with some subtle elements here and there. But Utena questioned the strangeness only once and she just sort of accepts it.
I should probably mention that Kunihiko Ikuhara is a fan of David Lynch, to the point of wanting to work with him someday. I think that speaks for itself.
The show also seems to draw inspiration from a ’70s-’80s manga/anime called The Rose of Versailles, a clearly French-inspired series. Interestingly enough, Ikuhara denied this was the case. かしら! かしら!
The Black Rose Saga (ep. 14 – 24) brings in a new antagonist, a pink-haired man named Souji Mikage. Souji spent time in brainwashing some of the students (including relatives and friends of the Student Council), using their own despair to transform them into Black Rose Duelists. And instead of capturing the Rose Bride, they blame her for their problems and want to kill her. While potentially interesting because it served to develop new character arcs while resurrecting old ones, the events overall felt inconsequential. Utena even had to face her friend, a brainwashed Wakaba Shinohara, in a Duel. But this Duel doesn’t seem to affect their relationship in the least. Also, Souji vanished from the plot after his Duel with Utena. It seems like the Student Council is the only group of people suffering from Souji’s actions.
The Akio Ohtori Saga (ep. 25 – 33) introduces a new antagonist… named Akio Ohtori. Not only is he the older brother of Anthy Himemiya, but he is also the chairman of the Ohtori Academy. The plot takes an interesting turn here since Akio has a strong resemblance to the Prince and that he romances Utena throughout the season—yeah, this older man is romancing a 14-year old girl. Figure that one out. And using his adult charms, Akio manipulates Utena to keep fighting in the Duels.
However, the problem with this saga is that it pits Utena against the Student Council AGAIN, making the Duel encounters feel redundant. This goes true when Utena herself doesn’t have a personal stake in these Duels, other than keeping Anthy Himemiya as her friend.
These episodes are particularly notable for having a new segment, where Akio and Touga in a shiny, red car with a Duelist. Akio and Touga use their charms to tempt the Duelist with the power and freedom of adulthood, and the Duelist challenges Utena the next day.
There is also a notable episode where Utena fights Ruka Tsuchiya, the previous captain of the fencing team. Notable, mainly because he was a new character at the time. Do you see why repetition is harmful to the show?
The Apocalypse Saga (ep. 34 – 39) is by far the best saga, simply because it moves the story forward and doesn’t linger on old concepts. It’s also a show of noticeable character development and some plot twists.
So with that said, I think you know what’s the biggest issue with Revolutionary Girl Utena: the seemingly endless repetition.
Here’s the formula for a typical episode:
- Slice-of-life segment between Utena, Anthy and maybe other characters.
- Episode introduces a character and his/her dilemma.
- Occasionally, we see the Student Council on an elevator while Touga Kiryuu recites their motto.
- Things are not going the character’s way, eventually leading him/her to despair.
- Random Kashira Shadow Players short.
- Additional segment:
- Starting from Black Rose Saga, character enters elevator and spills out all his/her problems to Souji Mikage. Then that character becomes a Black Rose Duelist.
- Starting from the Akio Ohtori Saga, a segment of a Duelist during an evening drive with Akio and Touga.
- Character challenges Utena to a Duel to win (or kill) the Rose Bride.
- Stock footage with stock music plays of Utena climbing the tower to the Duelist arena.
- Stock footage of Utena summoning the Sword of Dios, which magically appears from Anthy Himemiya’s chest—which probably inspired the “pulling-weapons-out-of-girls’-chests” thing in the anime Guilty Crown.
- Short battle with swords clashing.
- The spirit of Dios appears to merge with Utena. Then, Utena deals the final blow and defeats her opponent.
- Things are either okay again or even worse.
By operating on this formula, you pretty much know what to expect from most episodes. And when you keep on doing this, you’re giving little room for innovation and tension. Anime series like Pokémon and Sailor Moon also suffered from this same problem, a trope called Monster of the Week. In this case, Revolutionary Girl Utena is Duelist of the Week.
And because of that, watching this show can be a real chore sometimes. It can get dreadfully boring in certain parts, because it felt like you’ve seen it all before.
Another flaw is the Duels themselves. They’re not terribly interesting because of the stock footage and reused animations. And since Utena wins pretty much every time, you already know the outcome of the Duels.
Art and Symbolism
Noticeably, every major character in the show is portrayed as either handsome or gorgeous. No, seriously. Look at how many times we’ve seen Akio Ohtori and Touga Kiryuu shirtless. Look at the number of attractive women who gained a major role for at least one episode. Even Anthy Himemiya, who was often a target of abuse and bullying, is a dark-skinned beauty who looks even more gorgeous with her hair down.
The setting of Revolutionary Girl Utena feels like a young girl’s bizarre fairy tale. The backgrounds look like saturated illustrations from a child’s book and the characters are bright and colorful, with the soundtrack being close to classical music. Furthermore, the premise is about a princess wanting to become a prince, just so she could meet the Prince who inspired her to continue living.
When Utena lost her parents, she also lost her will to live. A young Touga Kiryuu and Kyouichi Saionji even found her resting inside a previously empty coffin, awaiting her own death. It wasn’t until Prince Dios appeared before the young Utena that she found a new purpose in life.
And in a world like this, it seems perfectly natural for Utena to make good on her promise to become a prince, turning her into a natural-born winner. She freely pursues her passions, keeps a moral code, retains her nobility and uses her image to inspire those around her. She defies gender stereotypes—even going as far as defying school authority—to prove that societal views on gender shouldn’t restrict a person’s potential. The world seems to revolve around her ideals, making her a seemingly perfect candidate to “revolutionize the world.”
The interesting thing about Utena’s character is that she doesn’t reject her feminine qualities in favor of the more masculine qualities she adapted to over time. It’s even implied that Utena may be bisexual, since she clearly expresses her interest in boys and has no qualms in hugging/kissing/touching other girls—don’t take that the wrong way, though. The way the anime portrays it is quite implicit. Utena fearlessly embraces both her male and female qualities, and she can’t be herself any other way. She’s a girl, but one with a strong sense of chivalry and the need to protect other girls—just as the Prince had done so for her.
And this is what draws Utena towards Anthy. Before Utena, Anthy had no friends to support her. No shoulder to cry on. So Utena volunteered to be Anthy’s “prince” and befriended her, in hopes that Anthy would develop the courage to break free from restrictions that her schoolmates placed upon her. Though their relationship never extends beyond platonic in the anime series, they seem to be made for each other. This is why Utena does her best to win every Duel—Anthy completes her. Anthy gave her a reason to continue fighting.
But alas, every rose has its thorns.
Anthy Himemiya herself is like a rose: a symbol of promise and hope, but also loss and thoughtlessness. Throughout the series, every Duelist (including Utena herself) becomes obsessed with taking possession of the Rose Bride. The desires of the Rose Bride will sway to the desires of those she became engaged to. Behind Anthy’s kindly smile and display of beauty is a more savage side.
The anime makes it painfully clear that you need to understand the rose symbolism. We often see Anthy tending to a rose garden in the school. The Duelists wear a ring with a rose insignia on it. Anthy herself is called the Rose Bride.
Anthy Himemiya is hope incarnate. She will become the winning Duelist’s hope, while the losing Duelist will feel empty afterward. She will only remain friends with Utena just as long as she is still engaged to Utena. The Duelists want to gain possession of her, so that they would move past their own struggles.
The anime also features some surreal humor, with the main culprit being Nanami Kiryuu. Nanami is very much the image of the rich, spoiled girl: vain, petty, immature and obsessed with popularity. As a result, she forms a one-sided rivalry with Utena. But to complicate matters even more, Nanami’s brother Touga had a romantic interest in Utena. Nanami, harboring a deep love for her brother to possibly the point of incest, became jealous and resentful as a result. Nanami’s reason for living is to maintain the affection she receives from her brother. Anyone (or any cat) that comes between her and Touga is a threat.
And while there is some serious drama to Nanami, she’s also the main target for humor. There is one weird episode where she literally turns into a cow, possibly as a metaphor for her personality. She’s like a stubborn cow, get it? And in another weird episode, she had apparently laid an egg.
…You read that right. What the fuck.
Nanami was a naive child who would hold grudges over petty reasons. But as the series progresses, she receives some character development: learning to be more considerate of others and making more rational decisions. Eventually, she even learns to become independent from Touga, slowly inching forward towards adulthood.
Quite a few characters, especially those of the Student Council, undergo this journey as well. Touga is seeking a significant other to match his own talents. Kyouichi desires a loyal partner and something to defeat his rival Touga once and for all. Juri wants to move away from her past grief from a toxic relationship. Miki wants someone that he can relate to in order to compensate for his lonely life as a child prodigy, in the form of true love. All of these characters are aware that they’re still children (hence the chick and the egg motto) and they desire to become adults. This is why Akio Ohtori was able to easily influence them. He manipulated this one desire so he could pit them against Utena.
Generally speaking, there’s a LOT to Revolutionary Girl Utena that you can easily miss if you don’t pay attention. This, in itself, can be a challenge, considering the tedious nature of the story arcs, the redundant conflicts, and the overbearing motifs—more than I’m willing to talk about in this review. Seriously, if I do, this review would turn into a giant research paper and I don’t want that.
And despite my grievances with the anime, Revolutionary Girl Utena is a unique experience and a work of art. On its surface, it’s a basic story about a teenage girl seeking her life’s ambitions and coming to grips with reality as she comes of age. On an intellectual level, it’s a challenging and complicated show that needs to be analyzed in order to gain a deeper appreciation for its story choices and characterizations. It’s a story that challenges gender roles and tackles more specific topics such as feminism, love, sexuality, abusive relationships, social constructs, desires, loss and future goals. Even something more taboo like (implicit) incest.
Yes, it’s a lot to take in. But just pull off an Utena and bravely charge forward with eyes ahead. This is a good classic series if you’re seeking an anime with a lot of subtext.
Alas, there’s more to discuss for later. After all, there’s a movie called Adolescence of Utena. Whew, boy…
Revolutionary Girl Utena$224.99
- Utena Tenjou is a likable, strong female protagonist and her character arc is both deep and unique.
- Plenty of interesting side characters with backstories that tackle adult issues.
- The unique blend of art styles based on shadow puppetry, Takarazuka theater, and classic douseiai-style shoujo manga.
- Pleasant soundtrack mixing classical with the occasional rock music.
- The amount of depth into the motifs and themes.
- The show is very repetitive and the plot tends to take a while to move forward.
- The Duels aren't terribly interesting because of the stock footage and reused animations.
- Anti-climactic and ambiguous ending.