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Utena © Be-Papas/Chiho Saito/TV Tokyo/Shonen Production Committee
Like a fairytale, this dazzlingly weird shojo (girls') series begins with "once upon a time," but Utena is no ordinary fairytale. Instead, it's a unique series of gender-bending, duels, love triangles and feminine independence
Note: to avoid confusion, the names in this article are presented as they appear in Software Sculptors' video release and some do not conform to the standard Animerica style (e.g., "Toga" instead of "Touga").
Revolutionary Girl Utena is the story of Utena Tenjou, an orphaned girl who dresses in a boy's school uniform. Why does she dress like a boy? Utena wants to be a prince!
The fairytale-like introduction to Revolutionary Girl Utena presents a tomboyish girl who, when she was young, was presented with a rose ring by a handsome prince who promised that they would meet again one day. But instead of the Cinderella-style story you might expect at this point, where the princess would pine for the return of her prince, Utena chooses to emulate the prince himself. "But was that really such a good idea?" the narrator asks?
Created by director Kunihiko Ikuhara and comic artist Chiho Saito, the 39-episode Utena TV series (known in Japan as Shojo Kakumei Utena, with the alternate French-language title "La Filette Revolutionaire," which roughly translates to "The Young Revolutionary Girl") was first broadcast weekly on TV Tokyo and its affiliates from 2 April to 24 December, 1997. The series is divided into three, 13-episode sections. The first part - "Seitokai-hen," or "The Student Council Saga" - is being released in the U.S. by Software Sculptors, hopefully with more to come. From the very start, Utena introduces its audience to unusual characters, situations and imagery as, like Alice down the rabbit hole, our eccentric heroine descends into a strange world of intrigue.
The Student Council saga revolves around the Duels, a series of battles between the tomboyish Utena and other members of the cast for the hand of Anthy Himemiya, the Rose Bride. The Duels are handled with swords (although it seems any sword-like weapon can be used), and the object of the Duel is to cut away or otherwise destroy the rose each opponent wears over their heart. The Rose Bride, Anthy Himemiya is yet another piece of the puzzle. As the "property" of the victor of the Duels, she submits and accepts her role without question, and also she exhibits odd powers of her own. At the start of each Duel, she chants the incantation: "Rose of the noble castle; Power of Dios that dwells within me; Heed your master and come forth...!" At this point, the hilt of a sword bursts forth from her chest, and with a cry of "Grant me the power to bring the world Revolution!" Rituals such as these, often combined with unusual lyrics and chants, heighten the sense of mystery and magic in the show, and are a constant reminder of how the series toys with reality. The ritual for unsheathing the "Sword of Dios," in which Anthy recites her chant from within a glowing wind and falls into the arms of her duelist, is mystical and even sensual, but it also contains the unsettling imagery of the sword coming out of Anthy's chest.
Mostly because of this strong focus on gender roles, Revolutionary Girl Utena is often compared to the classic manga and anime Versailles no Bara, a.k.a., Rose of Versailles, Riyoko Ikeda's sprawling, quasi-historical epic about a woman raised as a male soldier who becomes guardian and friend to Marie Antoinette shortly before the tragic events of the French Revolution in 18th-century Europe. There is some evidence for this: Utena does borrow Rose of Versailles' swordplay motif, and there are numerous strong resemblances between characters. For instance, the masculine-yet-elegant Utena resembles the masculine-yet-elegant Versailles heroine Oscar de Jarjeyes, and the spoiled, snotty Nanami Kiryu resembles the spoiled, snotty Marie Antoinette. Utena also has an affinity for French names and style - Anthy Himemiya's first name is French, and she tends to name her numerous animal pets with French names. While the male characters wear fairly typical high school uniforms for Japanese males, the females wear sailor costumes with outrageously puffy sleeves, echoing 18th-century French style, and the Student Council wear uniforms that resemble the military dress uniforms worn in Rose of Versailles. But while Rose of Versailles's 18th-century setting is used to summon up the flavor of the actual historical period, the purpose of the pseudo-Baroque architecture of Utena is to lend a fanciful, less realistic air.
Utena herself and Oscar are very similar - both are heroic, masculine, use swords well, and are thrust into a situation they don't want. While Oscar is forced to play babysitter to Marie Antoinette before becoming her friend, Utena is forced to become "engaged" to Anthy before befriending her. The only notable difference between the two is Oscar's almost total refusal to act or dress effeminately; Utena being a little more flexible in this regard. However, the two characters' motivations are very different. Utena's choice of dress is fairly whimsical and her reasons for fighting are personal. Oscar, on the other hand, dresses as a man because she was raised to be so, and although trained since childhood to be a world-class swordsman, she seldom uses a sword. Oscar's primary motivations are necessity and duty, not a matter of choice.
There are also several superficial reasons for the comparison, the most obvious one being roses. Utena is chock full of roses, both real and symbolic. Besides the real, color-coordinated roses the Duelists must wear in the arena, roses are a running motif throughout the show. There are rose rings, teacups, gates, stained glass windows, floors, towers, brides, and more. In Rose of Versailles, roses seldom appear outside of the opening credits. The "rose" of Rose of Versailles is Marie Antoinette; the title is metaphoric, not literal.
Another, possibly stronger link to Utena's story can be found in the very first shojo (girls') anime, Osamu Tezuka's Ribon no Kishi ("Knight of Ribbon," a.k.a.. Princess Knight), in which a young girl is raised to dress and act as the prince of her kingdom, but secretly wishes to act feminine like other girls. In Utena, this equation is turned on its head.
From the beginning, Utena plays with the audience's sense of reality. After the fairy-tale introduction, Utena's life continues like that of an average heroine in a student drama. She goes to school, helps friends, studies for tests, lives in a dorm, eats three meals a day; all perfectly normal. However, the series' fairytale introduction sets a precedent. What parts of Utena's memories and life are real? Even Utena herself cannot be certain, yet she has faith in her Prince. The surreal settings, mysterious rituals, strange characters, Shadow Girls (who behave like a Greek chorus to the action), and unusual music, all add to the show's enigmatic air. And yet, the series is by no means humorless. Any number of characters are used for comedy relief, including Utena herself. Wakaba's antics and unusual manner of speaking are meant to amuse, and there's the he/she/it character of Chu-Chu, a mouselike creature that is Anthy's "best friend." However, like the issue of reality, there are times when the audience is left wondering what's dramatic and what's funny. Serious dialogue will often be mixed with whimsical imagery, like a Student Council meeting filled with balloons. As a result, the show often requires the audience to question their perceptions.
The basic premise of Utena - a girl fighting to help a friend - belies the true complexity of the show. It's a psychological drama involving not only the characters but the audience as well. Revolutionary Girl Utena does not hand its viewers all the answers on a silver platter - instead, the characters in the series, and the audience as well, must work towards their own conclusions.
Excerpted from a longer article in Animerica Vol. 6, No. 12.