Revolutionary Girl Utena
Rightstuf / Nozomi
A unifying theme in the first story arc of the 1997 anime series, Revolutionary Girl Utena, is ‘fighting to hold on to the one you love.’ But it’s not a noble, ‘protecting them from danger,’ kind of fighting, it’s a cynical, ‘keep them from leaving me for someone else,’ kind. Most of the cast is tormented over a lost love, of one kind or another. What’s interesting is that all of their respective loves were hopeless from the start.
Utena is a student at the prestigious Ohtori Academy. She has a faint memory from her past, which she has built into a fairy tale in her own mind, of a ‘prince’ comforting her and giving her a ring when she was a child.
Now older, Utena has decided not merely to seek out her prince, but to emulate him, wearing a boy’s uniform, and fighting to protect a princess of her own.
There’s a dark side to Ohtori. Behind the campus is a forest, in which is a spiraling staircase leading up to a platform beneath an upside-down castle suspended in the air. The platform is the stage for a series of duels, fought by the student council and select others, as chosen by ‘The End of the World.’
Utena is one such duelist, and upon winning her first battle, she gains possession of the ‘Rose Bride,’ a girl named Anthy, who pledges to serve her new master. Utena, being the princely sort, decides to save Anthy from this life of slavery, but Anthy doesn’t want to be saved, she doesn’t want anything at all. She’s a blank slate that conforms to the desires of her engaged.
But Anthy is not simply a slave, she also bestows power on her owner, so Utena must continue to duel to keep the others from taking Anthy away.
Utena came out two years after Evangelion, and it’s somewhat reminiscent of it. This is partly due to a visual similarity (Eva’s animation supervisor worked on Utena) and also in the sense that Utena did for magical girl shows what Evangelion did for giant robot shows. They took the cliches of their respective genres, broke them down, and reassembled them unique way, all while applying a level of character development that was largely unseen until then.
Some elements of Utena come off as being weird for weirdness sake, like Miki’s stopwatch, or the surfing elephants; but the same can be said for the religious references in Evangelion, which are included just to look cool.
Utena’s director /creator, Kunihiko Ikuhara, had previously directed Sailor Moon. Though he had no real creative control over that series, it must have been an abject lesson in what works and what doesn’t, because Utena is far, far superior to that previous work.
Funny note: I attended a panel given by Ikuhara at an anime convention some years ago. He wore tight, bright purple pants, and answered most questions about his influences and favorite anime with ‘The Powerpuff Girls.’ Near the end of the panel, someone asked him which Powerpuff Girl was his favorite, and he answered, ‘I’ve never actually seen it.’
Utena was previously released by CPM (now out of business) who did a mediocre job. This new release is better in virtually every way. The only down side is that it recycles the old subtitle script. It would have been nice if they’d brought it up to today’s standards, like keeping the names in the correct order.
Minor problem aside, Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of the greatest anime series every made; a genre breaking masterpiece that, thanks to Rightstuf, is finally getting the treatment it deserves.