Froggy’s Top Anime: #9 Revolutionary Girl Utena
Hey guys, remember when I said I was gonna write a list of my favourite anime? Remember how my last post about that was over a year ago? For those of you who have completely forgotten about that, allow me to reintroduce my goal as a blogger: to write a top anime list that doesn’t just justify my choices but reflects me as an individual. Who cares about recommending the best anime? Talking about our favourite anime should be a way of getting to know each other as people.
I say all this because Revolutionary Girl Utena is a very idiosyncratic anime.
Although the anime is regarded as something as a classic these days, especially because of its unusually sensitive handling of female characters and lesbianism, Utena is actually a very silly show for most of its run. It’s also rather episodic and reuses more stock footage than your average transformation sequence in Sailor Moon. It should come as zero surprise that one of the directors of Sailor Moon, Kunihiko Ikuhara, is responsible for Utena. His personality is stamped all over the anime, from its offbeat humour to its abundant visual symbolism. Whether or not you’re a fan, there’s nothing like Revolutionary Girl Utena!
This doesn’t really explain why I like Utena, though. On one hand, I have an academic interest in the anime since I wrote an essay about it for a gender studies class last year. On the other hand, I have to admit I found some episodes a little repetitive. Only the final arc struck me as truly great, but it also managed to speak to me in a way that few works of fiction ever do. That’s more than enough to put it on my favourite anime list.
What does it mean to bring about the world revolution?
The movie The Adolescence of Utena is more explicit about this, but in the world of Utena, adolescence is the revolution. It’s a time of confusion and (for many) sexual awakening. Even the TV series has some pretty obvious sexual overtones. The best thing is that it doesn’t buy into that purity complex nonsense. It’s not the experience of sex in itself that brings about maturity. Only through coming to terms with herself and her sexuality does Utena begin to question her childish ideals.
The “world revolution”, when it eventually happens, does not remake the entire world, nor does it smash the world’s egg. No, the real revolution is a quieter one. When Utena sheds her naivete and resolves to take on the world, she succeeds in transforming herself. In the end, she fails to become a prince who can rescue the princess, but she doesn’t need to be that person. Through example, she inspires Anthy, the enslaved Rose Bride, to liberate herself.
I found this message particularly stirring because it emphasises the importance of looking outward and not just inward. In order to truly better oneself, one must also seek the better the world, to become aware of others and their feelings. Self-improvement isn’t just a personal endeavour. In times of great change, people are capable of changing each other.
I first watched Utena when I was twenty, so technically I wasn’t a teenager at the time. But I also think that, in a way, adolescence never ends. I might have grown older, but the possibility of revolution always remains within reach. As long as I believe in that, I will continue to take responsibility for my own fate.
Princes and Princesses
When I was a teenager, I always imagined myself as a white knight – like the prince Utena idealises. I never really understood the preoccupation young people have with darkness and edginess. White knighting was totally my chuunibyou.
As I’ve gotten older, I have come to realise that this ideal is short-sighted, but it hasn’t dulled my sense of justice. In that sense, I have a great deal in common with Utena. Like her, I realise now that knights and princes aren’t the only arbiters of justice. Instead of aspiring to a particular form of masculinity, we can challenge the harmful stereotypes and make it easier for everyone to take control of their own lives.
Of course, many others have already written quite eloquently about the anime’s empowering messages for girls. I would hesitate to describe Utena as explicitly “feminist”, but the show does offer a lot of interesting observations for those who are familiar with feminist theory. It really is one of the very anime series that goes out of its way to dismantle gender stereotypes on a comprehensive scale.
That said, Utena isn’t perfect. The homoerotic attraction between Utena and Anthy never transcends subtext in the TV series, so the sexual revolution doesn’t fulfill its potential. The heterosexual relationships are given much more visibility as well, even if they are depicted as dysfunctional. In the end, Utena doesn’t really show how a healthier alternative would work. The Adolescence of Utena certainly tries, but the result is so abstract that one gets the distinct impression that Ikuhara wasn’t thinking of anything concrete when he conceived a revolution. Perhaps that’s the point: the revolution is one that we must imagine and make for ourselves.
In fact, the more I think about Utena, the more I realise how revolutionary it still is. And it will probably continue to be revolutionary for as long as the patriarchy is still a thing.
I guess it’s like the Communist Manifesto.
Also, the show has surfing elephants.
You should watch Utena if you haven’t already.