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‘Revolutionary Girl Utena’ remains a masterpiece of animated storytelling

| Monday, November 8, 2021

Claire Reid | The Observer

This week, Crunchyroll, the most prominent anime streaming service, added “Revolutionary Girl Utena” to their library. Produced during the 90s era that produced “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” “Sailor Moon” and “Cowboy Bebop,” “Revolutionary Girl Utena” was a collaborative multimedia project simultaneously released as a manga and as an anime in 1997. The two media platforms deviated greatly from each other in terms of content: the anime was directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, while the manga was written and illustrated by Chiho Saito, though the latter also lent her gorgeous character designs to the anime.

“Revolutionary Girl Utena” is a story about two women, Utena and Anthy, and their quest to revolutionize the world. Utena Tenjou is a young woman who, as a child, was saved by a prince. The prince gave her a ring with a rose crest and promised her it would lead her back to him someday. Following this incident, Utena, inspired by the prince, vows to become a prince herself and dons a men’s uniform.

Utena’s search for the prince eventually leads her to becomes a student at Ohtori Academy, the boarding school at which the entirety of the story plays out. While at the school, she gets caught up in a bizarre ritual in which she and other students must duel for possession of the power to revolutionize the world. This power is embodied in the Rose Bride, Utena’s reserved classmate, whose name is Anthy Himemiya. Although uninterested in gaining the power for herself, Utena participates in the duel in order to live up to her ideals as a prince and to protect Anthy from the other duelists, who view her as a tool for gaining power.

“Revolutionary Girl Utena” uses its premise as the launching point for an intersectional critical examination of modern society. The setting of Ohtori Academy, which constitutes the entire world of Revolutionary Girl Utena, is used to examine the social function of schools in society. Schools, after all, are institutions dedicated to the ideological formation of children. “Utena” demonstrates how schools condition students to apply the competitive logic of capitalism to their behavior and to submit and conform to cis-heteronormative patriarchy. Ikuhara uses the character drama contained within Ohtori Academy to illustrate the mechanisms of cultural hegemony in society at large.

“Revolutionary Girl Utena” is one of the most beautiful animes ever made, despite its low budget. Its gorgeous art, demonstrated in the stunning opening sequence, is matched by an immersive score, provided by Shinkichi Mitsumune and J. A. Seazer, a veteran composer of Japanese arthouse films.

Budgetary restrictions resulted in a lot of expedient strategies in animation, such as recycled animation in duel scenes and sequences that repeat in most episodes. This strengthens the thematic and stylistic cohesion. The repeated sequences in “Utena” are both thematically important and also, as to be expected of anime, very cool.

The cyclical nature of the systemic violence that “Utena” depicts makes these repetitions thematically vital. Ikuhara’s style is theatrical, and he channels this most clearly through the shadow girls, who serve as the chorus for “Revolutionary Girl Utena.” They deliver the opening narration and have a humorous skit in each episode. The skits provide insightful parodies of the episode’s central conflict.

Shadows and illusion are integral to the story that Ikuhara is telling. “Utena” is a retelling of the allegory of the cave, a classic Platonic allegory in which the objects casting shadows upon the wall are the mechanisms of cultural hegemony. Ikuhara employs a diverse lexicon of symbols, like coffins, castles and cars, to facilitate his storytelling, all while training the audience to recognize and interpret them.

In addition, Ikuhara ensures that all of the thematic concepts, like eternity and miracles, are explicitly explained. The show’s recap episodes are similarly expository, as they present the narrative arc up until that point within a broader framework.

Ultimately, Ikuhara provides all the ideas, but the audience must actively engage with the show to make the connections that reveal the themes. In this regard, “Revolutionary Girl Utena” differentiates itself from most anime, which rarely compel their audience to think for themselves. This is most vital with regards to Anthy, around whom the entire narrative quite literally revolves.

“Revolutionary Girl Utena” remains one of the greatest animes ever made. Fans of American cartoons like the ‘Owl House” and “Steven Universe,” which pays homage to “Utena,” will find a lot to love in Utena’s largely queer cast and emphasis on intersectional justice. Beware, though: while it is extremely goofy at times, “Utena” is a viscerally disturbing show at heart, so here is a link to a list of trigger warnings for the show.


Title: “Revolutionary Girl Utena”

Starring: Tomoko Kawakami and Yuriko Fuchizaki

Director: Kunihiko Ikuhara

Genre: Shoujo Anime

If you like: “Owl House,” “Squid Game,” “Steven Universe,” “Avatar: Legend of Korra,” “Twilight”

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5


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