Revolutionary Girl Utena Review

In the 20+ years that I’ve been watching anime, I’ve somehow missed watching Revolutionary Girl Utena.  I can’t say why I missed it, but I think it has something to do with the state of the anime industry back in the late 90’s.  I really don’t think at the time the US anime industry was really into releasing full series back then anyway, and fansubs were still not really being distributed digitally.

So a couple months ago, someone started a bandwagon that brought a bunch of anime folk out of the woodwork to watch and re-watch the show.  Being as impressionable as I am, I jumped on the opportunity to watch it as well.

The show wouldn’t have even come close to my watch list back when it came out, because I wasn’t even remotely interested in the shoujo genre at all.  In the past few years my tastes have changed some and I’ve been into more slice of life and shoujo series, so it was right about up my alley.

So I fired up the show and was greeted with likely the most jarring character designs that I could remember.  To compare them with Code Geass’ noodle people would be unfair.  Code Geass’ characters are spaghetti as to Utena’s characters, which are angel hair.  After the initial shock, I got to know everyone.  The people that matter at Ohtori Academy are:

Utena Tenjou
Utena Tenjou:

A strong willed tomboy who dresses in boys clothes and runs around saying “boku” a lot.  The story goes that she had lost her parents as a child and was consoled by a grand prince.  So impressed by the prince, was our heroine, that she resolves to become a prince herself.  Likely this is why she refers herself in the masculine.  Whatever, I dig anime chicks that refer to themselves with boku.

Himemiya Anthy
Anthy Himemiya:

A submissive and quiet girl also known as the Rose Bride.  Her importance to the story, while seemingly just looking like a prize, is pivotal and extremely important to the story.  For most of the show she’s Utena’s partner in the duels and the sought after “prize” from the rest of the duel challengers.

Akio

Akio Himemiya:

Anthy’s brother.  To say more would be criminal.  Just know these few things: Akio is a pimp, and has a great car.

The Council
The Ohtori Student Council:

The several members of the student council include: Juri, Miki, Saionji, Nanami (for part of the show), and, last but not least, Touga.  The Student Council is the main set of dueling challengers to Utena.  The Student Council gets its dueling instructions from someone known as “End of the World”.

Now that we know almost everyone, Utena is about school life at the Ohtori Academy.  Aside from normal classes, and other good things, the school has a dueling sub-culture that only a few are allowed to participate in.  Those people have rings emblazoned with the Rose Crest.  In the beginning the first duelist, Saionji, is in “possession” of the Rose Bride.  His treatment of the poor girl is nothing short of abusive and mean.  Utena wins me over, by seeing this and calling him on the carpet for it.  Utena finds out that her Prince from her childhood had bestowed her with a Rose Crest ring, and she joins the duels to save Anthy from the abusive Saionji.  Our heroine wins, and thus begins endless challenges to Utena’s possession of the Rose Bride.

It’s very easy to dismiss the show at this point as another pointless fight of the week show that we can just ignore and go about our daily business.   For the first third of the show’s run, that’s exactly what it is, and to be honest, likely the weakest part of the series.  There’s a light-heartedness that permeates the underlying subtext of Anthy and Utena’s relationship.

The second third of the episodes brings in another separate arc to the first, as the Student Council loses utterly and completely to Utena.  With the second arc, many of the secondary characters introduced in the first arc are manipulated into dueling Utena by what I call the Black Rose faction.  A teacher at Ohtori Academy, Mikage, preys upon some of the student’s animosities, and turns them into tools to duel Utena so that the Rose Bride can actually be killed.  It’s at this point we are introduced to Akio, in more ways than one.  Very little development with Utena herself occurs in this arc as we learn more about the underpinnings of the academy and the inner workings of Anthy and Akio’s relationship.  The duels are quick and simply serve to move us to the inevitable loss of the Black Rose faction.

Akio Car
Moving into the final arc, we are introduced to Akio’s car.  Something about the car, just speaks to me.  I like cars, and everything in the car’s design screams sex.  I could do an entire analysis of Akio’s car at some point in the future, but the smooth lines, gleaming gauges, long exhaust pipes, simple shifter, and throbbing engine make for a pile of imagery which I’m sure you all see now.  Akio uses the car to transport and re-open the duel weary eyes of the Student Council to again fight Utena to ultimately gain the ability to revolutionize the world.  We also see more of Anthy and Akio’s relationship, in addition to Akio’s grand seduction of Utena concludes as he attempts to re-configure her into a Princess instead of a Prince.

It is here where the story ends after a very climactic battle with the “End of the World.  The ending is a very Japanese style life goes on open ending, where we’re left somewhat open.  Normally, I hate open endings with a great passion, because I’m not Japanese, but this open ending leaves me utterly satisfied and hopeful.  It still sticks with me, even though I finished it more than two weeks ago.

Utena Tenjou laying down

Revolutionary Girl Utena has solidified itself as one of my favorite anime I’ve ever seen.  There’s a certain charm that grabs you in the first few episodes that pushes you to keep going.  I won’t lie, that the first thirteen episodes were the slowest part, but your reason for watching just fully solidifies itself in the second third, and finishes so strong in the final third that it makes it worth the effort to get through those first few episodes.

So what keeps you going past those first few episodes and the highly styled art?  To me it’s an easy answer, everything.  The plot, the soundtrack, and the animation are all top notch.  To be fair, Utena has two soundtracks; one being the incidental OST during daily life, and then the dueling music, which consists of a rock orchestra type sound with a grungy sounding chorus in the background.  The two combine to create an atmosphere that sucks you into the show and keeps you there, even if the dueling intros are repetitive and somewhat the same, until the third arc.

Which leads me to my final and only minor detraction to this show, and that is the repetitiveness of the duels.  This really annoyed me at first, but after a few episodes, I just didn’t care.  It became an old friend that I enjoyed seeing with every viewing.  I would think that people were watching this weekly were less bothered by it, since they didn’t see several episodes a day.

I do highly recommend this groundbreaking show.  It’s a great reminder of what it takes to make an anime that  is not afraid to take risks and make an engaging show during its air time in 1997.  Even though this show is 12 years old, it stands the test of time as a true classic.

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2 responses to “Revolutionary Girl Utena Review

  1. “an anime that is not afraid to take risks” — such a true statement, and so relevant in this day and age when so many anime are being conceived by a formula designed to make Japanese otaku suck up the overpriced DVDs. Be-Papas made a piece of art, and unlike some other “artistic” anime it’s a piece of art that could only exist within the televised anime format.

    I don’t mind the repetitive nature. I put it on my top 10 things I love about Utena, in fact. I like the fact that, unlike some shounen fighter style anime that try to conceal the fact that they’re so repetitive, Utena basks in it. That intentional feeling comes off as very gutsy and unique to me.

    Plus, the more I think about it, maybe it’s partially a subtle parody of the shounen or magical-girl genres? After all, I think Ikuhara definitely did some parody of shoujo with all the shirtless long-haired pretty boys running around, so it’s not that much of a stretch.

    But that’s a big part of the beauty of Utena: you can speculate on what everything means over and over again, come up with different answers, and they might all be right!

    • I wrote so much here, but I could talk about this for ages. So much material in 39 episodes. I don’t want to rail on modern anime, but most don’t have the staying power some of these older titles have.

      Like you said, balls. I looked through the rest of the titles released in 1997 and this was one of the ballsiest.

      I’ll be watching this again with my wife sometime in the future and I really can’t wait.

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