Revolutionary Girl Utena, or Shoujo Kakumei Utena, is a 1997 anime series directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara that ran for 39 episodes. After the death of her parents, a young Tenjou Utena crossed paths with a handsome prince, who consoled her. As prince departed, he left her a ring, and the promise that they would one day meet again, with the young girl swearing to one day become a prince herself as a result. About a decade later, a now teenage Utena Tenjou meets the Rose Bride, Anthy Himemiya, a young woman who is essentially being treated like a prize for winning a duel at Ohtori Academy. Utena sets out to unravel the mystery of why this cruel system is in place, and to one day meet the prince from her past once more.
Structurally, Utena starts with a 13 episode arc where each episode introduces and develops a new character, and the next episode has their motivation for wanting to duel, and the duel itself, then the cycle restarts. This formula works extremely well because of how strong the characterization is. After this first arc, we have a well established mystery plotline going on in the background, and a rock solid cast of characters. It’s a phenomenal introduction, so much so that after only 4 episodes, I put it in my favorites.
The next arc goes even farther, by giving stories to all of the side and comedic characters. Not only do these stories give further meaning and meat to the characters in question, they also flesh out the major characters that they are connected to. This arc isn’t as great as the first, but it’s certainly very impressive, and by the end, focuses more on the plot.
The final arc focuses entirely on the plot, and it’s the best of them all. Every loose string is tied, and all of the characters finish their arcs. This arc does have one major downside, which I’ll get to later, but it certainly delivers.
Utena is filled with comedy. It always knows when to use it, and it’s often rather funny. There are 5 episodes in particular that focus heavily on comedy, that revolve around a character named Nanami Kiryuu. These 5 episodes are, in addition to being hilarious, some of the best subtle character exploration and characterization I’ve seen in anime, and act as the main way of expressing Nanami’s character. The importance of these comedic episodes leads me to the number one rule of Utena: Every episode is equally important, from the first episode, to the last, to the recap episodes. This is the kind of show that not only has its strongest thematic and character beats in comedy centric episodes about exploding curry, but also hides its craziest twists and turns within recap episodes. This is not a joke, there is not a single skippable or unenjoyable second of the 39 episodes of this show. Think of your favorite anime. Isn’t there that one episode that you just think “yeah, that one wasn’t as good” or something of the sort? Utena doesn’t have that.
Utena is told like a classical drama. It is not a story, it is telling a story and it is constantly aware of this, and makes sure that the viewer is constantly aware as well. From the symbolic imagery, to the odd framing, and almost fairytale like narrative structure, using repetition and motifs to great effect, by changing just enough each time to not become bothersome or frustrating, but keeping enough the same as to be coherent.
The art in this series is simply gorgeous, with the backgrounds being done by the legend Shichiro Kobayashi, of Berserk fame, and the unique and stylish character designs being drawn by Shinya Hasegawa, a renowned Key Animator.
The animation itself is conservative during casual dialogue, or comedic moments, but really shines during the sword battles. Episode 20 is the first peak of animation quality, with a fluid and impactful sword fight, animated by Yoh Yoshinari himself, which I would link if it wasn’t a massive spoiler. Unfortunately, after that, the animation drops off heavily, and it’s legitimately the only problem I have with the final arc… that is, until the last episode, which has so many things moving at once that it’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen. I almost thought that the hundreds and hundreds of objects moving at once during that episode’s climax were CGI, and then I realized that this show came out in 1997 and CGI doesn’t look like hand drawn animation at all. Suffice to say that the conclusion of Utena is one of the most stunning and fluid pieces of hand drawn animation that I’ve ever witnessed, only beat out by a fight scene in a certain mecha anime film that came out the same year, and it damn near makes up for the 19 episode drought preceding it.
The music is fitting and loud. It often creates a scene, in the same way that the soundtracks for shows like Cowboy Bebop and FLCL do. The first opening is incredible, with a catchy and memorable beat, thoughtful lyrics that basically spoil the whole show, strong visuals and visual directing, and pleasant vocals. It should go down in history, up there with the openings to Stardust Crusaders, Evangelion, Gurren Lagann, and The Tatami Galaxy.
Utena is also quite subtle. As enjoyable as it is to watch, paying attention is a must, as thinking about it and piecing everything together after is just as fun and rewarding as the show itself. I recommend taking a few minutes between episodes to think about some of the dialogue or metaphors used, especially if you think something was particularly out of place or pointless; because chances are, it wasn’t.
Revolutionary Girl Utena has a cast of over 15 named and decently fleshed out characters. This is not an exaggeration, I counted. The back two thirds of which are 3 dimensional and could carry a series on their own, and 4 or 5 of which are some of the most realistic, respectful and emotionally profound characters I’ve seen in my time with this medium. I tend to use what seems to be hyperbole a lot in these reviews, and I swear, it isn’t hyperbole. I legitimately feel this way, and it’s because I only review things that I’m truly passionate about that I tend to say things that seem over the top.
Because of how many good characters there are, I’m going to limit myself to four full explanations, which will be my four favorite characters in the series. Utena Tenjou is a confident, but idealistically misguided and often lost, young woman. She presents herself with a lot of hubris, and has a demanding presence. Her actions and treatment of others can be less than heroic at times, but she’s a relatable and human protagonist, whose growth is nuanced and subtle, but important. Anthy Himemiya is a mysterious and passive student who is treated as a possession by whoever wins a duel against the previous “owner” of her. Her arc is the most complex and slow of them all, but she is also the most important character in the show from a thematic standpoint. Nanami Kiryuu is the younger sister of the Student Council President, Touga Kiryuu, and she is extremely frail. She presents herself as a “popular girl” but her ego is weak and breakable. Touga Kiryuu himself is an extremely dominating and manipulative force, one who has fallen deep into his sexuality and often does awful things for sex or even for the hell of it.
Revolutionary Girl Utena has a lot to say. About gender. About identity. About sex. About incest, love, hope and the ideal of eternity. Instead of feeling cluttered or forced, Utena addresses these ideas with unflinching honesty and respect, weaving all of them together with every aspect of its presentation and narrative.
Gesamtkunstwerk is a pretentious and elitist German word that critics tend to use to sound smart, and it’s also the best word that I could come up with to describe this show. Essentially, a gesamtkunstwerk is a work of art where all of the elements complement each other. Where the characters and characterization enhance the plot, and the presentation and framing enhance the characters, so on and so forth. It can be translated a few ways, but to my understanding, the most accurate translation would be “Synthesis of the arts.” However, I prefer to translate it as “Revolutionary Girl Utena” and leave it at that.
There are so many ideas and themes present in Utena, and the ending is so ambiguous and strange that putting together a central theme is a bit tricky. However, I’d like to offer up my interpretation of what the central theme is, and what “revolutionizing the world” truly means. Skip to the final verdict to avoid spoilers.
I firmly believe that the central theme of Revolutionary Girl Utena is the journey to freeing oneself from the gaze of the world and the clutches of others. It’s why I believe Anthy to be the main character, as, to me, Utena is the story of Anthy’s emancipation and freedom. The gaze and hatred of the world around us is a consistent theme in all of the individual character stories, from Nanami’s fear of not being accepted and wanting to be loved by her brother, to Utena’s dream of “becoming a prince” and trying to be a hero. Thus, revolutionizing the world is giving someone the tools to free themselves from the prison they inhabit, which causes an eternal domino effect. Anthy’s final words to Akio prove this, and it’s so cathartic I could cry. Is Utena still out there? I don’t know, that’s up to you. All I know is that one day, someday, together, they’ll shine.
I also think that the series employs ideas of existentialism. Mikage existed because everyone thought he did, and he stopped existing because no one believed that he did anymore. Utena exists to the people that think she does, and doesn’t to the people that think she doesn’t. Utena doesn’t exist in Akio’s world but she does in Anthy’s, as Anthy says in the final episode.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is quite possibly the most perfect anime series that I’ve seen. It masterfully weaves together dozens of motifs and ideas, then muddles half of them, while also accentuating some random shit because it can. I can’t quite put it over Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and FLCL, but that doesn’t reflect at all badly on the series; it’s a masterpiece in every sense of the word, and I haven’t gone 30 seconds without thinking about it since I finished it. Hell, it only took me three days to watch all 39 episodes. I’ve just barely scratched the surface in this review, but that might just be for the better. Put this puzzle together yourself, it’ll certainly be a ride you’ll never forget. If you’re interested, check out my website (fullmetalghoul.com) and I’ll see ya next time.