Shoujo Kakumei Utena

June 20, 2009

When I was first getting into anime heavily at the tail end of the 90’s, my gateway was Sailormoon. I was spending a lot of time in a Sailormoon related IRC channel, and the people there were some of my primary exposure to anime. At the time, many of them were big into fansubs of Shoujo Kakumei Utena. The problem was, nobody could ever explain the show to me in a way that made me want to see it. In this way, it was similar to Fushigi Yugi, another show popular in those circles at the time. The show came back into my consciousness at Otakon ’08 when Okui Masami performed Utena’s theme, “Rinbu Revolution”, live during the JAM Project concert. Though I hadn’t seen the show, I did have a copy of that song, and hearing it live reminded me how awesome it was. Given that reminder, when I had a chance recently to see Utena, I decided to give it a go.

The story of Utena, such as it is, begins with our main character Tenjou Utena. Utena was once encouraged by a prince when she was very young, and given a rose crested ring which he said would one day lead her to him. Utena was so inspired by this prince that she decided to become like a prince herself, and therefore dresses in a boys’ uniform while giving off an air of nobility. Utena is one day hanging out with her friend Wakaba when they see Himemiya Anthy in the rose garden. Having never seen her before, Utena inquires who she is. As Wakaba explains that Anthy mostly keeps to herself, student council member Saionji Kyouichi approaches the rose garden and slaps Anthy across the face. Utena is shocked at his behavior, but relieved when council president Kiryuu Touga (played by Koyasu Takehito) appears to intervene.

Utena later witnesses more of Saionji’s abusive behavior when he posts a love letter Wakaba sent him for the whole school to read. Since he’s captain of the kendo club, Utena challenges him to a match. Saionji agrees to meet her in the forest behind the school where students are generally forbidden to go. When Utena arrives, she’s encounters a large gate that only opens for those who wear a rose ring like hers. On the other side, on an unsupported platform is the dueling arena, situated beneath a strange upside down castle in the sky. Waiting for her are Saionji along with Anthy. The rules of the duel are that each duelist has a rose placed on their chest, with the goal being to knock off your opponent’s rose. The winner of the duel will become the “Engaged” and gain possession of Anthy—The Rose Bride. Utena doesn’t understand any of this, as she only wanted to teach Saionji a lesson. She duels and manages to win, despite only having a bamboo shinai as her weapon.

At this point is where the show’s main formula begins. Anthy moves into Utena’s room, and the members of the Student Council begin to challenge her in turn. First is a rematch with Saionji. Second comes Kaoru Miki (played by Hisakawa Aya), a genius pianist and fencer with some hangups regarding his younger sister. After Miki is Arisugawa Juri (played by Mitsuishi Kotono), the fencing club captain who became estranged from her best friend after some incident in the past. Touga’s younger sister Nanami becomes a member of the Student Council and challenges Utena after the disturbing depths of her brother complex are revealed. Finally, the last member to challenge Utena is Touga himself. This arc is referred to as the “Seitokai Hen” or “Student Council Arc”.

The second arc is the “Kurobara Hen” or “Black Rose Arc”. In this arc, a student named Mikage Souji (played by Midorikawa Hikaru) convinces various people to challenge Utena. These people are all connected to Utena, Anthy and the Student Council and have some kind of grudge against them. Mikage supplies them with a black version of the rose ring and a frozen black dueling rose. Following the Kurobara Hen is the “Ohtori Akio Hen” where Anthy’s brother Ohtori Akio, also serving as the substitute chairman of the school, works with Touga to convince each Student Council member to challenge Utena again. This is almost always accomplished during a bizarre ride in Akio’s car, leading to it sometimes being called the “Akio Car Arc”. The series finishes with the “Mokushiroku Hen” or “Apocalypse Arc” where the true nature of the duels is revealed.

The entire Utena series is rich in visual symbolism and literary metaphor. It’s often compared to Evangelion in that it’s a post-modernist deconstruction of established genres. In Eva’s case, it deconstructed the classic mecha anime series. Utena deconstructs shoujo as well as the classical fairy tale. Prominently placed are examinations of the roles of the prince, the princess (or the damsel), and the witch. Utena is both the prince and the damsel, while Anthy is both the damsel and the witch. The role of the prince is also examined, when we learn that Dios was the prince to all the girls of the world, in contrast to the typical image of the prince being dedicated to one princess.

Utena also deals with heavy themes of personal discovery and adolescence. Each character must overcome their past and their pain to become a complete and functioning person. Also, the series metaphorically deals with casting off the fantasies of childhood and accepting adulthood, despite the harsh realities of the real world. In respect to its symbolism and themes, Utena I feel is overall much more successful than Evangelion at getting its point across, and therefore much more interesting. Utena is ceretainly more strange and surreal than Eva overall, but since Utena is like that from the very start it’s never jarring or out of place. It also doesn’t get caught up in its own rhetoric with interminable exposition the way Eva did. Therefore, if you didn’t like the strange and sometimes incomprehensible nature of Eva, that’s not necessarily reason to avoid trying Utena.

The series was directed by Ikuhara Kunihiko, most famous for his work on Sailormoon R, S and SuperS. Hallmarks of his style can be seen easily by anyone familiar with Sailormoon. Some scenes reminded me greatly of particular scenes in Sailormoon, like a scene with Touga on the phone reminding me of the scene in Sailormoon S where Eudial leaves a threatening message on Haruka and Michiru’s answering machine. He also carried over some elements of the magical girl genre by using some of its tropes in Utena’s stock “pre-duel” scenes where she makes her way to the arena. The reuse of this scene seems extremely deliberate, where the transformation scenes in a magical girl series are a way to save money and are usually edited slightly for time when needed. Utena’s scene is played in full, every time. The series also contrasts its dark and apocalyptic story against lighthearted scenes and even some completely throwaway comedy episodes. Again, this calls back to Ikuhara’s work on Sailormoon S. Nanami’s character began as pure comic relief, but then became twisted and disturbing, and finally tragic. It doesn’t appear Ikuhara has done much since Utena, but I’d be interested to see him resurface.

Overall, I think this is a series that should be watched by anyone who wants a show with something more to chew on, and doesn’t mind having to interpret it. The show was heavily discussed in its time, and a lot of that analysis is still on the web. I find it sad that it never had the broad appeal or apparent staying power that Eva did, but I do see how this isn’t a show for everybody. I did enjoy it thoroughly, so I recommend giving it a shot at least through the first story arc.

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