Revolutionary Girl Utena
Utena Tenjou is a tomboyish, strong-willed girl who had a fateful meeting with a prince after her parents tragically passed away. The prince, moved with pity, tells her to be strong and to never lose her nobility. The handsome prince then gives her a ring engraved with a rose signet, and then makes the promise to her that said ring will bring them together again someday. Utena is so touched by his kindness, that she makes a vow to become a prince herself someday. But as the viewer shall hear from the opening narration; “Is this such a good idea?”
Fast forward some years later, and Utena is attending the prestigious Ohtori Academy. Beneath the academy's esteemed exterior lies a sinister secret. The ring that Utena was given by the prince also happens to be the motif for the Student Council of Ohtori Academy. By wearing the ring, Utena is thrown into a fray in which the winner will become “engaged” to the one the Student Council calls “The Rose Bride.” Who is the Rose Bride? And what does she have to do with the prince from Utena's past, and the mysterious individual whom the Student Council has dubbed 'The End of the World?'
Revolutionary Girl Utena is more than just another Shojo anime, it is really an in depth work of animated social commentary that challenges anime and societal conventions as well as reinforces them.
On the visual surface, this anime is distinctly European with little to no Japanese influence in how it presents itself. Granted, considering the fact that this anime is set in a private school in
In fact, it comes as no surprise that Revolutionary Girl Utena is inspired by a classic anime series called The Rose of Versailles and also in part by the vintage Osamu Tezuka manga, Princess Knight. Everything from the fantastical western backgrounds, the fencing styled duels, and the themes of princes and princesses, are all explored in this anime. The character designs are also heavily drawn from these works. Utena is a swash-buckling, cross dressing, tomboy reminiscent of Princess Sapphire in Princess Knight, all the while maintaining—just like Sapphire herself—a feminine charm. The character designs of this series is also evocative of The Rose of Versailles; Characters are lissome, built like models with elongated limbs which are accompanied with graceful movements and the ubiquitously large eyes that are seen in just about every other anime series. The colorization of Utena is also worth noting in the sense that it is distinctly bright and happy in its use of light and colors which are all very vibrant. It is common to see bright colors in anime in terms of hairstlye but Utena truly makes these colors—for both hair and everything else—pop. This series will especially appeal to female fans in this regard, because there is a lot of fan service that is male driven in nature—pretty boys galore!
Graphically the series does get a bit lazy at times by reusing some of the cels which sometimes gives the series a cheapened look. But it all looks so pleasant that these little artistic foibles can be overlooked.
On the topic of music, Utena has a very unique (to say the least) soundtrack which derives from many different styles. Genres such as rock, pop, electro, classical, jazz are all mashed together into a unique and rather enthralling musical experience. It is safe to say, that there are not a lot of anime out there with a soundtrack that is quite like Revolutionary Girl Utena. In terms of music, Utena draws a lot from Theatrical troupes and chorus sounds. The best example of this is the infernally catchy, and bafflingly titled The Revelation of Absolute Destiny with Universal Gravitation. With its infectious rhythm and trance-inducing repetition (Zettai. Unmei. Mokushiroku.), this is one song in which I have pushed the repeat button on my CD player.
Many of the songs in Utena are filled with cryptic lyrics and double meanings. In fact, that pretty much sums up all of Utena in a nutshell—A series of cryptic symbolisms and double meanings that beg to be decoded. It would be a mistake to try and decipher all of what this anime is putting across, in fact this is one of those series which demands multiple viewings since there is always something new to see or something that was missed at the last viewing. A lot of the symbolism in Utena will border along the line of being absolutely absurd and in partiality, that would not be too far from the truth. If there is one thing that this anime also does well, it is humor. This series can be a very funny, with some episodes devoted purely to the exhibition of its absurdest style of comedy. A few that come to mind were the silly episodes; 'The Cowbell of Happiness' and 'Nanami's Egg' which showcase a surreal sense of humor. The series also has a penchant style of poking fun at gender roles and romance. Sometimes this very humor takes away from the overall story, but it is still a welcome form of comic relief nonetheless.
Much of the strange nature of this anime lies in director Ikuhara's love of theater and his heavy use of it in his works (here's looking at you Mawaru Penguindrum). Shadow puppetry, Bunraku theater, the all female Takarazuka theater troupe, and the use of choral music and props to act as a catalyst to tell of each characters plight are all theatrical methods of telling a story. Much of what the characters are feeling and thinking are told in the fashion of—at times—inscrutable narration by the Kashira Shadow Players; two girls who present themselves only as shadows and tell the goings on of what is happening to the viewer. Revolutionary Girl Utena is more than just an anime that can be passively viewed, it is an engaging anime teleplay.
The surreal nature of the show shines the most during the many duels throughout the series. Swords come out of characters chests, weird backdrops and sets appear, and a magical looking castle hangs above the duelists arena. Another motif used frequently in this anime is that of sexuality, and before the reader thinks that this is just another ecchi anime, think again. Revolutionary Girl Utena is somewhat of an erotically driven series, but it is never utilized for cheap trills or overtly thrown about like many anime that exist today—instead it is done tastefully and has moments of sexuality which are more psychological in nature than physical.
A play without good characters is not much of a play at all, fortunately this anime has an intriguing cast of characters that are a mix of cliches as well as allegories for commentary on Japanese gender roles. Utena is the most obvious; skewering of what is expected traditionally of the Japanese female being a stubbornly strong-willed young woman, creating an endearing character that never gives up and faces all challenges, but ends up suffering tragically (in more ways than one) along the way. Anthy Himemiya is the exact opposite—A quiet, submissive, and extremely polite young lady that exudes a feeling of exoticism due to her dark skin, and follows Utena around calling her 'Utena-Sama' at every turn. She may seem like a stereotypical female in a Japanese sense, but as the series progresses, her personality is much more than meets the eye. Speaking of characters that are more than what they seem, Akio Ohtori—who happens to be Anthy's older brother—is one of the most intriguing antagonists in an anime, and also the most seductive. This type of villainy is usually reserved for the females, but Akio pulls it off perfectly.
Everyone else at Ohtori academy tries to follow the roles that society's play has given them, but all of them are caught in an endless series of conflicts called Giri (duty) and Ninjo (personal feelings). This theme of social obligation and conflicting emotions has become endemic of Japanese theater and Revolutionary Girl Utena is no different. The characterization of Revolutionary Girl Utena is a long and winding road, and for me to try and explain it all is a thesis in and of itself. Needless to say, this is an anime of personal struggle, duty and desire, and tragedy—The ultimate character study of a girl who goes against the grain and the consequences thereof. The ending of this anime is one of the most poignant and uplifting experiences that nearly moved me to tears—The only thing that is negative that I have to say about it is that it is open ended, and those endings are always a touchy area for me.
There may be many viewers that may not appreciate this subversive series on the basis of the many oddities that exist within it; but for those who love to dissect and analyze films and television, this anime is a godsend and definitely worth the investment of emotion and time. Needless to say, this is a series which I will be watching again in the near future, and will always find something new to enjoy about it.
A wild, weird, and utterly brilliant piece of surreal fantasy fiction that works on nearly every level. Those of you who hate to wrack your brain trying to figure out what is going one, take away two stars. — Dallas Marshall
Recommended Audience: Though there are no scenes of explicit nudity or violence, the duels are intense, and a lot of characters put up with (and dish out) abuse, both physical and emotional.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD, Japanese with English subs only
Review Status: Full (39/39)
Revolutionary Girl Utena © 1997 B-Papas / Chiho Saito / Shogakukan / Shonen Iinkai / TV Tokyo
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