Revolutionary Girl Utena
After being orphaned as a young girl, Tenjou Utena was saved from depression by a gallant prince. He gave her a rose signet ring before disappearing as mysteriously as he had initially appeared.
Years later, Utena has come to Ohtori Academy searching for her lost prince while at the same time she has decided that she wants to be a prince herself. Though she vexes her teachers with her tendency to dress in male clothing and her general unfeminine behavior, she has become somewhat famous and admired by many in the school.
After challenging the school council vice-president to a duel to defend the honor of her friend, Utena finds herself drawn into a secret and surreal world of duels involving control for a girl known as the “Rose Bride” and apparently the very power to revolutionize the world.
While Revolutionary Girl Utena is heavily influenced by a number of sources from the shoujo classic Rose of Versailles to such non-anime sources as the Herman Hesse novel Demian, the end result is something original, unique, and also highly surreal. I had originally purchased the first DVD of this some years ago simply out of economic considerations. At $30 for about seven episodes, it was a rather good deal at a time I was trying to rapidly expand my anime DVD collection. I was immediately enchanted by the series and did my best to seek the rest of it out.
It is, I shall note, an extremely surreal series. Though the Ohtori Academy from a social and linguistic stand point seems to be a Japanese school, the visual design and almost every other element seems rather European in character. That isn’t so unusual in of itself however you also have such aspects as the huge hidden (and in the second and third seasons changing) dueling arena with a huge castle floating in the sky, the mysterious battles that occur there, strange girls practicing a shadow play that just always seems to relate to current events, or a student council that seems more concerned with secretive plots to “revolutionize the world” then with such mundane matters as say, preparing for the next student ball or something. As the series progresses, weird imagery, events, and the like strain the mind at times.
Though there is a central narrative that does have dramatic impact, part of this strangeness stems from the fact that this show is positively drowning in metaphor and symbolism. It seems like every time I view this show, I find a new detail that I didn’t previously notice before. Many of the more bizarre aspects of this series are simply artistic stand-ins for more mundane events or themes and also help heighten the drama of a show that is about something a bit more mundane and familiar: adolescence.
Despite all the weirdness going on and the talk about revolutionizing the world, Utena, at its core, is really about the transition between adolescence and adulthood along with the understanding, both good and bad, that such growth brings. All the while this growth is being filtered through the eyes of the young people growing up. Manipulative plots by secretive cabals of teens? Arrogant and/or idealistic adolescents who think they can gain the power to “revolutionize” the world if they simply have enough effort and skill? The characters in Utena may have more reason to believe they can accomplish goals more than the typical teen but a lot of their personal problems and goals don’t seem all that unusual when thought about in a broader context. Though throughout this all, there is a very epic, almost fairy talesque layer (this becomes particularly pronounced in the final story arc), that helps give the entire plot more gravity.
In presenting the many permutations possible with social interactions and relationships between all the characters in this show, Utena does a fine job of exploring the strengths and weaknesses of its various characters while at the same time exploring the strengths and weaknesses inherent in certain approaches to life. Some people might be turned off by the fact that almost every character in this show seems to have some deep personal flaw different episodes dwell on. Even the heroic and seemingly selfless Utena, as the show progresses, finds certain aspects of her personality exploited and used against her. In the end though, I felt this approach helped strengthen the characterization work in the title. There are definitely characters that are more likable than others but almost every single character (even many of the initially unimportant side characters) end up presented as multi-faceted and emotionally textured human beings while still being able to serve useful symbolic purposes. The nature of the primary and ultimate antagonist, is particularly interesting and rather tragic. Again the nature of the that person is both engaging on a direct plot level and also on a symbolic level.
Though Revolutionary Girl Utena does happen to be one of my personal favorite titles, it still does have a number of flaws. Though I find it intriguing, I imagine many people might find the highly surreal storytelling style a bit of a turnoff. Additionally, though I don’t mind some of the comic elements and episodes (some of the later ones are particularly interesting, albeit odd, explorations of various themes) many of these non-arc filler episodes do not significantly contribute to characterization, thematic exploration, or advancing the plot. The presence of some of these episodes weakens some of the plot momentum and they could be removed. As the show progresses, overly obtrusive or unnecessary tone changing elements are seemingly minimized though. Such elements didn’t particularly distract from my enjoyment of the title and I felt the rest of it more than made up for it but I can see how other viewers might be annoyed.
Utena also does happen to have a large amount of recycled footage particularly in regards to the dueling scenes, and later on, certain scenes related to the discovery and recruitment of new duelists. Some people might not like this, though in an unusual move, the creative minds behind this title seemingly were well aware of this repetition and use it to their advantage, as there are several scenes that end up being strongly strengthened later on in the show simply by an abrupt departure from the well-established and expected pattern.
There are certain plot and character elements that many people are also likely to find off-putting. There are a few characters that are homosexual (though Utena herself repeatedly makes it clear that she herself is not). Also there is some treatment of the subject of incest. I should note, however, that it is implied and brought up as a way of reinforcing the moral corruption (either inherent or involving the process) of certain characters.
Dripping with symbolism and just general weirdness, Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of the most inventive and intriguing series to ever come out of Japan. This title is surreal enough to probably give people a headache, so if you do not enjoy surreal material, you’ll probably one take off a star or two. Despite being a personal favorite of mine, I can’t quite give it five stars due to the inclusion of certain unnecessary elements that detract rather than add to the overall plot and atmosphere. — Jeremy A Beard
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
Review Status: Full (39/39)
Revolutionary Girl Utena © 1997 B-Papas / Chiho Saito / Shogakukan / Shonen Iinkai / TV Tokyo
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