The trouble is that it’s already been over a month since I wrapped up my Ulysses re-read; I may need to go back at it again if I want to keep writing about it. This whole thing is threatening to become an extremely unprofessional research project, and I don’t even have my JSTOR privileges anymore.
But keeping with the theme of “stuff I liked over a decade ago”, I decided to revisit the first season of Revolutionary Girl Utena. It turns out I still really like it, so let’s talk about that while it’s still fresh in my mind.
Utena is like the Jack Vance of anime or something: chances are if you watch anime you’ve probably seen something influenced by it, but it still seems to command only a cult following, at least in the west. Part of this is probably due to it being out of print for a long time, but also it’s an aggressively weird example of 90s anime without any obvious mainstream hooks; Neon Genesis Evangelion, for all its deconstructionist madness, still had the giant robots and ample bosoms which it could dangle in front of the teenage male otaku and use to achieve near Star Wars levels of merchandise cash-grabs.
The story: as a child, Utena’s parents were tragically killed in an accident. While grieving, she was consoled by a mysterious prince who, before disappearing in cryptic fashion, gifted her with a ring that would one day reunite them. So impressed is she by his manner that she herself decides to become a prince who will rescue damsels in distress and so forth.
Flashing forward to adolescence, Utena attends the prestigious Otori Academy, which looks like what would happen if you repurposed Minas Tirith as a high school, and which is effectively run by an absurdly powerful student council. The student council, on orders from a mysterious person known as End of the World, is engaged in an elaborate series of duels which involve slicing off a rose pinned to an opponent’s chest with live swords (perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of Utena is the lack of impaling and dismemberment that such a contest would likely entail) in a floating arena, suspended above which is an upside-down castle. The champion of these duels becomes engaged to the so-called Rose Bride, a girl with mysterious powers named Anthy. Whoever the champion is at the end of these duels gains the right to enter the castle where they will be gifted with the “power to revolutionize the world.”
As it turns out, dueling candidates are chosen by dint of their having received the exact same sort of ring that Utena wears. She winds up being goaded, without understanding the circumstances, into challenging the current champion (Saionji, student council vice-president and narcissistic abuser) to a duel, and wins, thus becoming attached to the Rose Bride and bringing the attention of the student council. After some initial reluctance, she decides to keep fighting; at first in the hopes that it will unravel the identity of her prince, but ultimately to protect Anthy and save her from being a de-facto slave passed around like a football.
Already there are questions: when and where does this take place? What the hell is the power to revolutionize the world? It’s seemingly set in modern day Japan, but everything is so casually fantastical that it slides into magical realism. We know the rules and logic of this universe, but not why they exist at some acute angle from reality, and the characters themselves seem more motivated by their own personal drama than by recognition that they exist in some Kafkaesque ontological nightmare. So you just have to take it all at face value or not. And Utena deploys its surrealism in all sorts of tonally incongruous ways which prevent you from getting a handle on what kind of show you’re watching, flipping between melodrama, absurdist comedy and genuinely menacing stuff.
Then there’s all the gender stuff that everyone loves to talk about, which both seems to be more and less complex than it seems. Utena herself is a typical tomboy with the wrinkle of turning imagery that is stereotypically seen as feminine (Disneyfied princes and princesses and so on) on its head. But although we see Utena catching some flack for dressing like a boy, this isn’t a show specifically about her struggling against traditional gender roles and whathaveyou, and the setting is a little too abstracted and rarefied to raise straightforward questions about gender and society. It seems more interested in the significance of gendered imagery as aesthetic imagery.
The chivalric imagery plays out in a curiously detached way: People here are dueling over a woman, not for her affection or honor, but as part of an esoteric power-play (well, Saionji does want Anthy, but in a creepy, possessive way, and even that turns out to be more complicated than it seems).
Particularly of interest here is Utena’s relationship with Anthy which, in spite of the marital imagery and the butch-femme trope, is rather platonic (the lesbian melodrama is instead taken up by a side character). She is the one duelist who comes to genuinely want the good for Anthy. But this comes through a more earnest embrace of chivalrous imagery rather than their rejection, just with Utena assuming the more masculine role: Utena sees herself as a prince, and hence as a protector, Anthy as a princess and thus as someone to be saved.
The suggestion seems to be that all this highly codified imagery and behavior is morally ambivalent: it can become someone’s prison just as it can someone’s means of self-expression.
I know that the later episodes make this more complicated and tortured in ways that I don’t remember all that well, so there will be more to say here eventually. Even the end of the first season raises an important point: Utena and Anthy’s relationship still has a power differential where one component is lacking: in order to truly be saved, Anthy herself has to want to be saved.
Given that the movie, Adolescence of Utena – which exists in a different continuity (or alternate dimension or whatever) – reinterprets their relationship as a sexual one, I do wonder if the original intent was to make the leads more gay, and that this was just too tough of a sell in the context of a 90s anime TV show. But then I also remember Utena transforming into a car in that movie, so maybe it isn’t a good skeleton key to use here.
Regardless, I think it’s actually more interesting the way they turn out in the show. At least here in the modern west, we’re super uncomfortable with same-sex affection/intimacy that isn’t explicitly sexual. You’re either “just good friends” or you’re diddling each other. That there’s an entire range that friendship can play out here tends to elude us. Our world isn’t the world of Shakespeare’s sonnets. So, like, it’s kind of neat to have something where these two ladies feel comfortable enough with each other that one of them can pull a magical sword out of the other and not feel super weird about it.
And also the way in which relationships that are kinda gay can nevertheless play out in ways that don’t boil down to heating it up in the sheets, which is, uh, something I’ve noticed a lot more in my years as a Catholic. Say what you want about them, but celibate gay partnerships are indeed phenomena that exist that real people undertake, and hence something representable in fiction (actually, don’t say what you want here: this is an Utena post, not a gay Catholic drama post).
To stop rambling and get back to my point: Utena and Anthy’s relationship is interesting to me in how it doesn’t fit into a pat cultural narrative and can be interpreted in different lights and I definitely do not have a fanfic in which they convert to Catholicism (The student council is a bunch of haughty, high church Anglicans; Nanami converts to Russian Orthodoxy out of spite).
I still haven’t gotten around to what is perhaps the principal delight of Utena, which is its style. While the animation itself doesn’t rise above what you can expect of a mid-budget 90s show (and the character designs are…quite angular), it’s nevertheless stunning to watch. Or, to phrase it another way, it’s limitations become its strength, as the direction and art leans heavily into expressionism and surrealism and thus makes even its own cheapness look like a deliberate choice. Architecture is bizarre and nonsensical, episodes are full of non sequitur images that turn into motifs reflecting interior emotional states; weird little grace notes abound, like how each episode includes a shadow-puppet show acting as a mock-chorus on the action, and how the show will often take an otherwise ordinary, mechanical “characters talking in order to provide exposition/advance the plot” scene and throw in something to make it feel off, like a bunch of balloons floating by.
Then there are the duels, which, compared to other anime with a fixation on tournaments, are not terribly flashy (although there is enough oomph to them to make it feel as though the characters are in danger, even as we know the show won’t go that far). But what they do have is a sense of ritual and pagentry which is unique to Utena. So much of their excitement is just the anticipation of watching Utena preparing for combat. Sure, you’re watching the same animations get recycled over and over, but it works every time (and it also helps that at this point we’re joined with infamously ominous choirs and bass heavy synths).
That buildup also extends to the rest of the episode. It’s never the case (at least in the first season) that it feels like they just squeezed a duel in the episode because they had to. They’re always the episode’s moment of cathartic release for the characters, where all their psychic tension is discharged (and these guys have a lot of psychic tension let me tell you). The episodes just have such good rhythm and pacing.
So Utena season one: still really great. Will have to revisit the other two sooner or later. If they’re all this good, it’s a top five show for sure.