Revolutionary Girl Utena
As a child, Tenjou Utena found herself all alone, an orphan, but a gallant prince on horseback befriended her and gave her a ring engraved with the crest of a rose, and a promise that they would meet again. In any normal fairy taile, Utena would wish to be a princess, to be by his side.
This is not a normal fairy tale. For instead, Utena aspires to be a dashing prince herself, just like her childhood idol, defending the honor of princesses. So she enters the prestigious Ootori Academy, in boy's schoolwear, where she encounters a world of backstabbing, gossip, and high culture. She learns that her ring is that of one of the school's duellists - a secret society of fencers who fight for the honor of the Rose Bride. Utena must fight with all her heart to survive, while the student council moves closer and closer to their plans to revolutionize their world.
Well, that's about as much sense as I could glean out of this series. Revolutionary Girl Utena is a strange, strange series that seems to draw heavily from the tradition of two pioneering series, Princess Knight, and probably more importantly in this case, Ikeda Riyoko's Rose of Versailles. Though ostensibly Japanese in setting and attitude, this anime, full of roses and rococo architecture, is loaded with French influence, leading to a rather surreal atmosphere. Then again, the whole series is nothing if not surreal.
From opening to ending, each episode of Utena crams in as much nonsense as sense, from the upside-down castle hovering above the dueling ground at the top of the seemingly endless spiral staircase, to the shadow-puppet girls who provide cryptic commentary. The music ranges from gorgeous to outright bizarre, with lyrics as bizarre as "Absolute Destiny Apocalypse" (huh?!?) repeated ad nauseum. Not to mention Miki Kaoru's omnipresent stopwatch (which is never fully explained), and, of course, Chu-Chu, Anthy's monkey (well, it's remotely a monkey) that is quite possibly the world's ugliest show mascot. Then again, Anthy, despite being the seemingly vulnerable, delicate Rose Bride, has really strange taste in pets (as well as everything else).
Another quirk in this series (and there are many) is the extremely bipolar nature of the directing and the plot itself. A near-deadly swordfight is often immediately followed by, say, a scene with Chu-Chu devouring sweets and getting sick, or, perhaps, an episode on Anthy's (literally) explosive curry, following by another scene of angst, then Nanami being chased around India by rampaging elephants. (Huh?!? Again?) Just as you even think of taking this series seriously, the nonsense of it all sends that idea sailing into the sky. The visuals and music do nothing to deny this, and though Revolutionary Girl Utena seems quite purposeful in its weirdness, the overall story eventually sinks beneath the creators' insistence on constant distraction.
For that matter, the characters are as unbelievable as you can get. Utena crossdressing and swordfighting is downright normal compared to the ritualistic and backstabbing student council members, the -err- demonstrative groupie Wakaba, and the seemingly at first milquetoast (but quite insane, thank you very much!) Anthy. A lot of the weirdness in the characters wants to be a facade for darker, secret agendas and emotions, like Touga's suave playboy act. In fact, all male characters in this are either useless or overbearing, and very poorly portrayed, really. Touga's sister Nanami, however, is just so plainly and ineptly malicious that she's obviously comic relief, which would have been effective if she wasn't so incredibly annoying.
In fact, the whole of Revolutionary Girl Utena, as far as I've seen, feels like one huge hallucination. Think of it this way: Floating staircases? Check. Rampaging elephants? Check. Pink-haired protagonist? Check. (It must be some kind of rule that only the weirdest shows get pink-haired leads!) I found myself not particularly caring about the story, because it was just too over-the-top to follow, but at least the art and animation are very pretty.
What's really odd is that, beneath the veneer of the surreal, Revolutionary Girl Utena is practically simmering with adolescent sexuality and angst, which really won't sit well with a lot of (predominantly male) viewers. The romance aspect of this show is in no way pure or chaste (quite unlike, say, Marmalade Boy, where at least we're sure they're virgins), as befits a show based on the (very heavily sexually involved) manga of Saito Chiho, and relationships (homosexual and heterosexual), though not as in-your-face as the manga, are still full of all the angst of any teen soap opera you could think of. Like Ikeda Riyoko's works, Utena is heavily laden with lesbian overtones (though not nearly as overt in the anime than in the manga), and anyone looking to debunk the myth that women's comics and animation is primarily written by lesbians should avoid this series at all costs, especially considering Saito's openly voiced insistence that Utena and Anthy be treated as a married couple. (Let's move to Oregon now, shall we?) Not that I have anything against all of this, but frankly, the "all men are evil and manipulative" thing is just not my cup of tea.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is strange, strange stuff, and though its inconsistency and odd pacing undermine an promising start (comparable to Evangelion in this case), this show is guaranteed its share of fans, as well as a few detractors. This is a show many viewers will have strong opinions over, but this series just doesn't seem to add up to the sum of its parts, despite wonderful art and a genuinely interesting storyline. And though I'd like to see how this story ends (at least in the anime), perhaps it would be best to sit on the sidelines and give my brain a well-deserved rest.
Too internally dysfunctional to be stellar, but still an occasionally gripping, enjoyable, and most importantly, original anime. — Carlos Ross
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: VHS, English dub; VHS, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Partial (13/39)
Revolutionary Girl Utena © 1997 B-Papas / Chiho Saito / Shogakukan / Shonen Iinkai / TV Tokyo
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