NOTE: This is a rewrite of two pieces I wrote last year for Funcurve. You can find links to the original posts here and here.
At the very beginning of Revolutionary Girl Utena we’re given a fable-like tale of a girl whose parents have died. She meets a prince in a fateful encounter, and that prince empowers her with the will to keep pushing forward. And so she decides from then on that her dream is to become a prince herself. That girl in question is Utena Tenjou. “Is that really such a good idea?”, says the narrator. After all we surely understand that princes are men and princesses are women. But that doesn’t really mean a whole lot to Utena. Utena is willing to dream, and even if she doesn’t yet fully understand the weight of her own convictions they’re still a defiant gesture — defiant of all our entrenched social norms. Utena’s one hope of making her dream a reality is to bring revolution to the world. It’s a tall order for a 14 year old but she’s giving it a shot. Her dreams will be challenged, they’ll be crushed, they’ll be rebuilt, and they’ll be re-evaluated. This is Utena’s quest for revolution.
ALSO YEAH THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS SO IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED REVOLUTIONARY GIRL UTENA GO WATCH IT CAUSE IT’S FANTASTIC
A lot has been said about Revolutionary Girl Utena, and deservingly so. It’s a long time icon of magical girl fans and queer anime fans and queer magical girl anime fans, an extravagant and vivid and nuanced reflection on adolescent identity loaded to the brim with symbolism and stage play stylings and screwball humor and all sorts of ambiguities. And in the middle of it all is Utena Tenjou.
Utena performs her identity in ambiguous ways. She wears the boys’ school uniform but she wears that uniform in her own way. She beats all her male peers at sports but isn’t really interested in playing competitively. Utena isn’t strictly feminine but she also doesn’t seek to defy everything that comes with femininity. In fact she openly embraces some aspects of what it means to be “feminine” to society, and ostensibly identifies as a girl. Femininity just happens to have a different personal meaning for her. From here we can see that maybe what Utena wants isn’t to become a prince, or a princess for that matter. What Utena wants is to become herself.
Utena unwittingly finds herself caught up in a series of duels for the right to wed the Rose Bride, Anthy Himemiya, who grants her groom the power to bring revolution to the world. Even with her abstract goals, Utena has no initial interest in being a part of these duels. It’s something much bigger than herself that she doesn’t really understand, let alone care for. But ultimately she finds herself caught up in the fighting when she has to defend her friend Wakaba from Saionji, the initial bearer of the Rose Bride’s power.
Saionji is a clean-cut embodiment of patriarchal attitudes. Saionji is jealousy. Saionji is possession. Saionji is physical and emotional manipulation. He’s more than willing to casually exploit Wakaba’s feelings by putting her love letter on display for other men to jeer, and he’s quick to strike Anthy whenever he feels the need to instil dominance over her. But at this point Utena isn’t thinking about fighting for liberation; she’s just fighting for her friend. It’s this simple gesture that emphasizes Utena’s selflessness from the beginning.
The duels show the ideals of the characters laid bare, clashing head-on. Saionji’s duelling style is forceful, aggressively controlling the pace and exerting dominance over his opponents. By contrast Utena’s style is straightforward and amateurish, but has an overpowering persistence to win. That persistence is enough for Utena to overcome the domineering presence of Saionji, gaining her comeuppance by defeating him. She gains the right to wed Anthy, and the two begin living together.
Anthy is a strong counterpoint to Utena, a pure image of passive femininity whose individual will has been crushed. In the arms of Saionji she’s nothing more than that passive bride, but through her relationship with Utena some of her individuality shines through the cracks. We learn that Anthy is is oddly playful and overcome by the anxiety of being watched. There’s still a whole lot we don’t know about Anthy, but we come to see that Utena and Anthy are important to one another. However Anthy isn’t immediately willing to admit this as a submissive tool of the elusive End of the World. Thus Utena is left to unwittingly coast along with her.
When Saionji challenges Utena to a rematch Utena initially plans to lose on purpose and be done with the Rose Bride nonsense, but she finds herself defeating him once again. She saves face by saying she was protecting Anthy’s pet monkey Chu-Chu, but after witnessing Saionji strike Anthy after the first duel it’s clear that she was doing it for Anthy. Actually… that’s not true. The reason Utena protects Anthy is for herself.
Utena has made Anthy the damsel of her princely ideal. Not with the possessive malice of Saionji but with the subconscious belief that Anthy doesn’t have the will to save herself. The crux of Utena’s dream to become a prince is that she’s attempting to adopt a rigid and harmful version of masculinity rooted in age old social norms. This in effect validates those norms, making her more of an outlier than an opposition to entrenched ideas of femininity.
Over the next few episodes we see the individual struggles of Miki, Juri, and Nanami come to grips with Utena in the duelling arena. Utena holds an unusual place as a protagonist as the bearer of the Rose Bride. We typically think of the hero as the challenger but in these duels Utena is the de facto reigning and defending champion. Utena is at the top of the mountain, and it’s the other characters who seek to climb it to fulfill their own ideals. Each one of them is a confused and troubled adolescent, bringing their baggage to these duels and being crushed under it. Miki wants to free Anthy from the rose duels, but his desire to win Anthy’s affection in doing it ends up being his undoing when his feelings are unrequited. Juri wants to prove that there are no miraculous powers to bring revolution by seizing the Rose Bride, but ends up defeated by the miracles she tries to deny. Nanami simply resents Anthy and Utena for getting the attention of her brother, whose affection she desperately yearns for.
But Touga is different. Touga is more ostensibly in control of his identity and how he presents himself — to such an extent that he can manipulate the perceptions of those around him. In the heightened stage play that is Revolutionary Girl Utena Touga knows he’s an actor, taking agency to weave a narrative where he plays the prince and Utena plays the damsel. To instill this story Touga tricks Utena into believing that he was the prince of her fateful encounter, lowering her guard and making her believe she had come to the end of her quest. Utena knows Touga is a playboy, she knows that Touga is a jerk. But she can’t help but have feelings for the savior in this made-up story she’s been caught in.
We come to believe that the oppression of traditional gender roles manifests itself purely in violence (both systemic and physical), but these gender roles can also be very alluring. This is because of the illusion of mutual benefit. Being either the heroic knight in shining armor or the damsel with a savior protecting her from harm is an attractive fantasy, but it’s just that. A fantasy. Touga understands this, and so he preys on Utena’s lack of awareness. He even uses his purported best friend Saionji as a scapegoat, provoking him to attack Utena through an elaborate plan and taking the blow himself to make Utena feel guilty for getting him hurt. Utena has been deeply psychologically manipulated by Touga, and by the time she starts to think about Anthy it’s too late. Touga is able to swiftly defeat Utena and take Anthy, who under Touga’s control changes completely. Utena realizes that Touga isn’t her prince, but it’s too late. Her sense of self and everything she’s fought for up until now has been systematically crushed.
Without that sense of self and without her dreams all that’s left is for Utena to be “an ordinary girl,”. In doing this she makes the overt symbolic gesture of adopting the girls’ school uniform. To all her admiring fangirls it doesn’t really make a difference, but to her friend Wakaba it’s clear that this girl isn’t Utena. She sees the defeated look Utena gives when Touga flirts with her. Wakaba may be a starry-eyed goofball when it comes to romance but she’s not a fool. Wakaba struggles to find the right words but she still manages to hit home with Utena. “Normal for you means being cool,” she cries through her tears. “And that uniform just isn’t right for you.” Utena’s previous heroic gesture in defense of Wakaba has been reciprocated, and thus Utena rediscovers herself not as a princely savior but as an equal person. She gives Wakaba the intimate gesture of a kiss on the forehead, and vows to take back who she was.
Utena confronts Touga once again in the duelling arena, now taking the role of the challenger who has something to fight for. Despite Touga having the power of the Rose Bride Utena’s conviction prevails. Anthy tells Utena, who now dons a tattered and shredded girls’ uniform, that she’s her bride once more. Utena responds “Never mind that. Come on, let’s just go home.” Just for that moment, the two of them share an intimate silence, a gesture of understanding towards one another. Just for that moment, there is no Rose Bride and prince. There’s only Anthy and Utena.
The Black Rose Saga is a lot less about Utena, but we do get one particular development of interest. The name of this development is Akio Ohtori. Akio is first introduced to us when Utena and Anthy walk in on him getting intimate with his fiancée, showing us the alluring presence he has. However Akio, like Touga, is an actor. A fake.
What makes him different, and indeed more powerful than Touga, is that he’s an adult. A pervasive symbol of the final arcs of Utena is cars, which is played up in constant excess. It was said by director Ikuhara that cars are “adults’ toys”. When Akio flaunts his car he flaunts his adulthood, like a child showing off their latest toy. Akio proudly wears the trappings of the ideal adult. Intelligent, worldly, introspective and free to do whatever he wants. He exudes a strong but laid back aura, constantly touting the desire to keep his alleged sister Anthy safe from harm while also speaking fondly as the acting chairman of the students and their free-spiritedness. Utena comes to Akio for an adult perspective, and as the story progresses she finds herself seduced by the face that Akio wears.
Akio shows Utena admiration for her rebellious attitude, making her feel understood. And then he strikes, leaning Utena over the seat of his car and kissing her. Akio preys on the feelings of a confused and infatuated teenager, even later instilling guilt in her for kissing a soon-to-be married man. Akio is a dangerous person, which only becomes more apparent when shortly after he seduces the mother of his fiancée to avoid questions about his faithfulness. Akio has a lot of secrets to keep from Utena, not the least of which is the fact that he’s the one pulling the strings. He reveals himself as the secretive End of the World to the Student Council one by one, in a final bid to use their emotional baggage and adolescent desires against Utena in the rose duels. As this happens under Utena’s nose Akio continues to draw her closer.
What he wants from Utena more than anything is to control her, physically and emotionally. He asserts a masculine sexual dominance over her. Akio is no prince, but he embodies a much more worldly fantasy. He is “a real man”. As previously mentioned the construct of passive femininity is maintained because of the alluring fantasy to be protected. And to the silent glee of Akio this fantasy begins to soften Utena up.
Touga is in cahoots with Akio, but even he doesn’t trust him with Utena. In Touga’s mind the only solution is to be her knight in shining armor. “If I win, you must become my woman”, he tells her as they come to their third and final duel. Underneath the child’s play of Touga’s face is a fragile self-centered masculinity, one that’s desperate to be in control and has no other options. Even with her desires flailing Utena is still capable of overcoming this weak conviction of his.
As her final duel with End of the World looms Utena starts to become wary to the dark truth of it all. When she accidentally walks in on Akio being intimate with Anthy she selfishly feels a quiet sense of betrayal. The only thing she feels she can do is give up and distance herself from Anthy. When Utena and Anthy later talk to one another they pretend as if neither of them saw a thing, putting on friendly smiles and joking in sickly sweet voices about poisoning one another. Their blissfully ignorant reality falls apart, which is felt viscerally as the panning shot across the room loops and the tape playing in the background skips.
Later that night Anthy tries to jump to her death, and Utena has to save her. It’s here that she sees Anthy’s suffering, and the walls the two had put around themselves come crashing down. Utena admits to her own selfishness in wanting to be Anthy’s prince, and Anthy tells her tragic story. Anthy was the princess who took the prince from the townspeople, and their symbolic (and somewhat literal) judging blades piercing her tell her not to act out of her role. Up until now Utena had let herself affirm Anthy’s passivity, but in this moment she sees the vulnerability in herself and forms a true connection with her as an equal human being.
Utena understands that she needs to fight for Anthy not just for her own sake but for the sake of both of them. One final time she goes to the duelling arena to confront End of the World, Akio Ohtori. At first Akio tries to lure her into his princely ideal, but Utena resists. With the fantasy dead, Akio reveals “reality”. The entire duelling game was a ploy, and the castle where eternity dwelled was nothing but an illusion. He shames Utena for falling for him, and he tells her that Anthy is the rose bride solely because she chooses to be. But the real reason Anthy chooses to be a passive figure is because she doesn’t think she has any other choice as a woman, nor does she think another woman can save her. She sides with Akio and stabs Utena in the back, leaving both of them to suffer.
Utena cries for Akio to help Anthy, who now visibly lies above the arena pierced by the judging blades. But he ignores her. Akio had feigned intimacy with Anthy before, but with the mask of performative identity off the only thing that concerns him is taking back the power to grant miracles that was once his, trying desperately and failing to open the gate where it lies. Utena is rendered passive and helpless, as the spirit of the old prince Dios comforts her patronisingly. Ever the hard-headed idealist Utena resists. Despite her wounds Utena wills herself to her feet on her own strength. She stumbles and falls, but when Akio catches her she shoves him aside. With tears in her eyes, Utena makes her ultimate confession to Anthy: “the only time I’ve ever been happy was with you”. These are melodramatic words spoken as an adolescent would say them, but to Utena and Anthy they carry meaning. They carry the spirit of mutual empathy.
This moment of heightened emotions creates the miracle. Anthy is freed of the blades, and a symbolic and literal coffin appears wherein she lies. With bruised hands, Utena pulls the coffin open, and for the first time Utena meets not with the rose bride but with the real Anthy that lies inside. With all her strength, Utena reaches out to Anthy with a hand, not as a heroic prince but as a lover and a friend. For just a single instant of pure intimacy they hold hands, before the crumbling arena pulls them apart.
In the final moments we see Utena she laments that she couldn’t become a prince, as she bears Anthy’s suffering and takes the swords. There was no revolution. The schoolgirls remain passively girly and the shadow puppets chit-chat about marrying rich men. To the students Utena is nothing but a gradually forgotten urban legend, living only through the rumours of where she went. To Anthy, however, Utena is still much more. As Akio gleefully talks about Utena being forgotten Anthy asserts that she’s only forgotten in his reality. Revolutionary Girl Utena ends with Anthy standing up for herself, abandoning Akio and going out to search for Utena.
Kunihiko Ikuhara’s Revolutionary Girl Utena is a sublime, bizarre, and rich tapestry. Our main character Utena Tenjou is just one lens to view it through, but through her we see the sometimes overwhelming story of Utena at its most intimate and personal. Utena wasn’t able to save the world, but she did save the one closest to her. And now the one closest to her will save her.
“Everyone has the freedom to love someone or something.
We are free. We mustn’t forget that.”
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