Revolutionary Girl Utena

Personal Enjoyment: 9/10

March 21, 2023


When Utena was young and newly orphaned, a prince saved her from despair. Kissing away her tears and handing her a ring, he told her to come find him when she had grown up. He impressed her so much that she vowed to become a prince just like him! But was this really such a good idea? Following the emblem on the ring leads her to Ohtori Academy, where she gets wrapped up in duels over ownership of/engagement to the rose bride, Anthy Himemiya. The story follows Utena as she attempts to save Himemiya from a system she has no true understanding of, and her fellow duelists caught in said system.

What to Know:

Beware of upsetting content. If you have any severe triggers, the website “does the dog die” has a thorough listing. As a vague warning to people who just want to know what they’re getting into, know that from episodes 14-23 there’s consistently unsettling scenes and imagery, and from 23 onward there’s gonna be a lot of metaphorical (and occasionally literal) depictions of various degrees of rape and sexual assault. Also flashing lights happen at various points in time, but especially the last few episodes.

In most stories the text of a story serves as a solid foundation, while the subtext is something you can choose whether or not to engage with. While you certainly can enjoy Utena just at the surface level, so much of the character motivations and even the general “what is happening on the screen” is left beneath the text it can get hard to follow. Specifically the black rose arc (episodes 14-23), before then it’s pretty clear and after that the metaphors are a bit easier to pick up on. The movie, Adolescence of Utena, is much more difficult to parse than the series but if you watch it after the series I think the subtext can be felt subconsciously. If you feel the vibes of the car motif in the main series and have a vague understanding of the cycle of Ohtori Academy then the movie should make enough sense to sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

I cannot recommend the youtube comments enough for any time it feels too confusing. I was having trouble keeping up through the black rose arc, and reading through the discussion helps a lot with keeping up. There will be spoilers, but just be cautious. Most people warn first.

If you want to try analyzing it I recommend either making an exhaustive relationship tree chart and meticulously adding bullets throughout every episode, or just picking one or two aspects to focus on.

Spoiler Free Review:

Every gay in the history of anime fandom has already recommended this, and they are correct. It is a masterwork of storytelling, and the only detractor to my enjoyment was the black rose arc. It is necessary to the plot and characters, but it can get annoying in the moments you don’t understand anything that’s happening, why it’s happening, or even where to start to figure it out. Of course, youtube comments to the rescue and once you reach apocalypse it picks right back up. It’s also a case of the ending making the show. It's a good show throughout but it’s definitely the last ~10 episodes that really sit with you.

The animation is clunky at times, but you’d be hard-pressed to notice given how well they hide it behind style and distraction. Something might be too much given time frame and resources? Just rotate a color-coded rose on top of it, slap the musical climax behind it and boom! Now it’s still stylish as hell and some college kid 20 years from now is gonna write an entire essay about it. Obviously I can’t know if it was all intentional or if it was a shortcut, but that’s the beauty of being stylish and throwing symbolism around all over, if you can’t communicate it literally for whatever reason you can just communicate it stylishly.

And of course the soundtrack! Not every song is as good as Zettai Unmei Mokushiroku, but they are all utilized well to deliver the atmosphere needed in a scene. There’s a balance in creating a soundtrack. Many composers make songs that just sound very good, but they don’t sound uniquely like [xyz] show’s soundtrack, they just sound like a nice instrumental. Then there’s finding a way to give a show a unique sound without making it utterly unlistenable. An example of an anime doing the latter perfectly in my opinion is Alien Nine. Most people wouldn’t listen to that ost on their own time, but it perfectly captures the feeling that is Alien Nine.

To put it clearly, could I put a track of a show in a randomizer with 100 other songs from similar shows and immediately recognize where it came from? If I listened to the randomizer and wasn’t aware of the show’s existence would I still group it with it’s brethren or would it fade into the pile? Utena’s soundtrack isn’t as signature as Alien Nine, but it is very recognizable. The classical feel dirtied by the grain and electric guitars, and even the smoother pieces are connected by motifs to each other and the characters.

Miscellany I Caught (Mostly the Movie):

Spoilers Abound! Including the Movie!

The movie is difficult to parse for literal plot elements, but the vibes are simple enough to follow once you get a feel for it. It gets a little easier to follow if I imagine Ohtori Academy as a similar concept to the witch labyrinths in Madoka Magica. In Ohtori’s case, it’s the embodiment of the abusive cycles perpetuated by patriarchy and most of those within are too stuck in their coffins, their ingrained ideas of gender, power, and hierarchy, to leave. I think of the movie as basically a sequel, though Anthy is the rose bride she is very forward now. She left her Ohtori to find Utena, and now she has found the Ohtori that Utena ended up inside. The academy is now formed around Utena’s psyche and Utena knew Anthy as the rose bride and herself as the prince, so to break Utena free she takes her place back. Now Anthy knows what she wants though, and she is very forward with Utena about it under the guise of just doing as the rose bride does. Akio is dead, literally or not he is not the basis of Ohtori anymore. Then Utena becomes a car.

Cars seem to be a multifold metaphor in Utena, as Akio’s car represents his sexuality. But his sexuality is his power, and his power is his sexuality. So losing control over Ohtori is losing his keys, his car, and his power. When Utena breaks free, she is taking her power in hand but relinquishing Ohtori, yet she is still stuck within the system. Anthy however, has already left once and knows the way out. With Utena’s trust in Anthy, she lets Anthy take control of all the power she has on her own and lead her out of this system. So Anthy saves Utena and they are both free from this oppressive system, and free to be gay together.

The scene with Nanami as a cow actually made some sense to me. Basically this interjection was to show the people who had successfully left and weren’t coming back. Nanami was a cow to the slaughter in Ohtori, meant to be passed from her brother to another man who would in turn own her. But now she’s a cow running free in a swamp. There is no slaughterhouse here, she’s living on her own terms. Chuchu is there to emphasize the point, as Anthy left him safely behind with Nanami while she went to save Utena.

Touga has been lost to Ohtori. Whether he’s literally been dead the whole time, or if it’s another layer of metaphor, I don’t know. But in a literal sense he is now like Nemuro, he only exists within the system of Ohtori and would not survive outside of it.

Final Thoughts

There’s still so much I didn’t cover, and much I didn’t understand, but this is my contribution to the pile of analysis that exists on Utena. I hope some tidbits hit close enough to truth (or perceived truth) to contribute meaningfully to your personal interpretation of this complex mess of metaphor and hint. Hell, I know I’m probably gonna look back on much of this pseudo-analysis in some amount of time and call most of it bullshit. But for something as deeply subtextual as this show, every tidbit of discussion helps a given viewer form an understanding and I’m glad to add my thoughts to this decades long discussion.