One of the great pleasures of being an academic (though I won’t be for too much longer!) is revisiting stories, TV shows, and movies I loved as a child with a more knowing eye, and getting new readings/explanations of these stories from other scholars. When I went to the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts this spring (with Acro Collective writers K.H., K.S., and A.C., no less!), one of my favorite papers was by scholar Kate Goddard on this weird and wonderful anime that I once picked up in my Ohio public library and was never able to forget (or…really understand). Here, Kate offers us a shorter introduction to the amazing and always-entertaining Revolutionary Girl Utena.
“Once upon a time, years and years ago, there was a little princess, and she was very sad, for her mother and father had died. Before the princess appeared a traveling prince riding upon a white horse. He had a regal bearing and a kind smile. The prince wrapped the princess in a rose-scented embrace and gently wiped the tears from her eyes.
“Little one,” he said, “who bears up alone in such deep sorrow. Never lose that strength or nobility, even when you grow up. I give you this to remember that day.”
“Will we meet again?”
“This ring will lead you to me, one day.”
“Perhaps the ring the prince gave her was an engagement ring. This was all well and good, but so impressed was she by him…that the princess vowed to become a prince herself one day. But was that really such a good idea?”
Thus begins the anime Revolutionary Girl Utena, a visually stunning, densely layered, frequently surreal 39-episode series that poses the question of what it means to be a prince and whether it is possible to escape the binaries imposed by society. This opening narration frames the story in fairy tale language from the start, despite the fact that it is set in the modern day. Utena Tenjou is a student at Ohtori Academy who wears the male student uniform as a mark of her determination to become “a noble prince who saves princesses” like the mysterious, half-remembered figure who saved her from despair as a child after her parents’ deaths. Utena does not identify as male; rather, her goal is to take on the noble, dynamic, and protective role that a prince occupies in fairy-tale tradition. She is clear about her identity as a girl regardless of her choice in clothing and use of typically masculine pronouns (“boku”) in referring to herself. But as the opening narration suggest, the series continually questions whether Utena’s goal of becoming a prince is attainable — and even if it is, is it “a good idea”? On the surface, this might well seem problematic from a feminist perspective: is it only by forswearing feminine behavior and interests that a girl can lay claim to agency? Does gender essentialism mean that any attempt to challenge the prescribed norms is doomed from the start? But Revolutionary Girl Utena is more multi-layered than that, exploring the meaning of nobility and power through the trope of the prince while ultimately condemning the rigid binaries of its fairy tale framework. This series consciously undermines the societal “truths” set up by broad fairy tale traditions, first through Utena herself, as a “princess” who wants to become a prince, and eventually through Anthy Himemiya, the Rose Bride who is doomed to subservience to whoever wins her hand in a series of duels.
In the series, Utena inadvertently becomes caught up in a system of duels and intrigue when she challenges student council vice president Saionji for hurting her best friend Wakaba. Utena is led to a mysterious arena with an upside-down castle spinning above it, where the mysterious and quiet student Anthy Himemiya prepares her for the duel. When Utena wins the duel by knocking the rose from Saionji’s chest, she learns that as a result she is now “engaged to” Anthy, the Rose Bride who is bound to obey the victor of the duels. Utena initially wants nothing to do with the dueling system — and claims that despite what her attire may suggest, she is a “perfectly normal girl” who wants a “perfectly normal boy,” not a female fiancée (episode 2, “For Whom the Rose Smiles”), but as she gets to know Anthy she becomes increasingly resolved to protect her. Utena’s feelings for Anthy continue to grow as the anime progresses, blossoming into a devoted friendship and (while it remains understated in the series) romantic love as well. Over the course of the series Utena must duel the other members of the student council, who have the same Rose Crest ring that she does, and ultimately face the mastermind behind the dueling system, Anthy’s brother Akio, who may or may not be Utena’s childhood prince.
Utena’s engagement to Anthy is a conscious queering of the system established by fairy-tale-style romance from the very start. However, the situation is also more complex than a princess in distress being rescued by a prince. Anthy is, in fact, effectively enslaved by the dueling system regardless of whom she is engaged to, for she is bound to obey her fiancé(e)’s every order, completely robbed of agency. This complicates Utena’s desire to “save” her through much of the series, raising questions as to whether she too is merely imposing her own wishes onto her “bride.” The Utena movie, titled Adolescence of Utena, is something of a hybrid between a reboot and a sequel (leaning more towards the reboot side), and it has become renowned among anime fans for its bizarre and surreal elements. Watching the entire series does help substantially in providing coherence on many fronts, but rest assured, plenty of spectacularly bewildering elements will remain. The English dubs of the episodes and the movie are available online, but if you have the option, definitely go for the subbed versions.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is visually stunning and fraught with allegory and symbolism that frequently ranges into the surreal. It is an excellent choice for those who enjoy analyzing their media and grappling with possible meanings; not as much for those who prefer their anime straightforward and easy to understand. However, there are many excellent fan analyses of various episodes and elements available online which can offer assistance to the bewildered. Potentially sensitive viewers should be warned that the series does include sexual situations of dubious consent, chiefly involving an incestuous pairing (brother/sister). No actual sex is shown on-screen and the relationship is not portrayed in a positive light, but viewers who are easily triggered should take this into consideration. Those who do elect to give this series a chance will find it a fascinating journey with marvelously developed characters and a sophisticated take on the themes of power, loss of innocence, and growing up.