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?
At its core, Revolutionary Girl Utena is a story about adolescence.
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
The other reason I love Utena is because I have a soft spot for knights and princesses and stories that twist gender roles.
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.
Fantastic, another show to add to my list ^_^
I mean, heck, if a person can pass up surfing elephants then what is this world coming to?
There’s also an episode where one of the main characters turns into a cow, if you need further motivation
This one has been on my list for a while, especially since I loved Mawaru Penguindrum. Nice review.
Mawaru Penguindrum is great! Hope you like Utena as well
I like how you approached this post. The main problem I have with this kind of posts is I end up writing a review or I don’t make the anime interesting. Anyway, this anime has been on my list for a long time but the lenght and the story held me back. I thought it was too abstract but I will give it a chance as soon as possible.
Sorry if there are grammar or spelling mistakes I am not native.
Utena is actually a pretty straightforward story for the most part! The drama is character-driven, so it’s easy to understand where all the conflicts are coming from. The visual choices might seem weird, but the story itself is not that abstract, even if it is unconventional. Hope you enjoy the anime!
The movie is complimentary to the series, so I think the end isn’t so abstract. Ikuni had stated that is the way he pictured adolescence: a wasteland where you have to make your own path. Also, the artwork fills in. There’s one piece where Utena hugs a pink-clad Anthy, supposedly after the series’ end
You make a good point about the visual symbolism. The plot might be ambiguous but the art does give some indication about what a revolutionary world would be like. I suppose it’s part of Ikuhara’s genius!
Thing is, though, that Ikuhara never fleshes out the alternatives, or the post-revolution worlds, not in Utena, not in Penguindrum, not in YuriKuma. At best, we get glimpses of others beginning their own journey towards a new world, but never a true aftermath of what the new world is.
There are a few possible reasons:
1) Ikuhara believes that the choice itself is more important than the result. After all, a choice made without knowing what the result will be is one that was made on principle, not on practicality
2) Ikuhara believes that defining the aftermath would be a lie. The truth is that making choices never stops. You don’t just make one, and then live out a full epilogue, you just keep making them, and that’s what life really is. Since the narratives he tells are only about a single choice, he can only play out as far until the next choice will arise, which isn’t very far.
On one hand, you could say his vision is conservative because he doesn’t flesh out the alternatives, but on the other hand, you could say that’s exactly what makes his work so revolutionary, hm?
Then again, even if he did describe an alternative in detail, it might just be like Thomas More’s Utopia in the sense that it could really be describing anything.
I wouldn’t know if that “no felshing out alternatives” approach is conservative or not. Compare to the ending of Jormungand, whose author clearly was going with approach 1, where the result doesn’t matter, it was all about the choice and the journey to the choice. I wouldn’t call it revolutionary or conservative, but aesthetic.
There may also be the stance that they would rather not date themselves with an alternative that is eventually disproven by history. The common critique to alternatives proposed in politics is that they don’t go far enough. It’s easier to be interpolative, exploring the status quo, than it is to be extrapolative, predicting the outcome. (And by nature of narrative, judging that outcome to be desirable/undesirable with finality.)
This might be why some stories, which can’t come up with a satisfactory amount of world-building for the alternative, revert to writing what they know, (the status quo) and try to wiggle out with a reset ending, finding that the pre-conflict status quo was good, which the conflict ruined.
This, of course, pisses people off, because they thought the narrative was exploring the problems of the status quo in general, (as revealed/represented by the conflict) not just that the status quo was destroyed by conflict.
And then we have Rebellion serving as a case of exploring the implications given alternative to the point of another conflict. Much easier to be vague with the result, then, eh?
Utena is a show that I’ve loved for years. And I must be the only one who really like Yuri Kuma…
Going very OT here, but I’ve nominated you for The Sunshine Award, what with you being cool n all.
Aww thanks man. Much appreciated!
I haven’t seen Yuri Kuma Arashi yet (I know, fie on me!) but I did hear it got a mixed reception, yeah. I’m glad you found something in it to enjoy! I will have to check it out myself some day
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I understand what you wanted to say, but it seemed to me that you pose the question as if it is toxic for children to fantasize about stereotypically male or female gender roles, which in itself contradicts the show where Anthy’s stereotyped female role as a tender princess is not only not condemned, but even idealized. Not to mention the rather idealized and fetishized depiction of men in this show, which makes this statement somewhat one-sided in the context of gender stereotypes and children in general.
Being a gender-uncomfortable man himself, from childhood I believed that people have the right to live as they see fit. Even if I don’t understand something and consider it weird, I’m ready to accept someone else’s life if it’s a person’s personal choice.But I don’t understand why in the last 5-7 years the opinion about the dangers of gender stereotypes has turned into an open hostility to gender roles as such. Up to the point that when Fruits Basket idealizes the concept of a Japanese mother or Darling in the Franxx speaks positively about a traditional family, this causes quite emotional criticism.
But what surprised me most was your phrase about homosexual relations as an “alternative” to heterosexual ones. For a long time I tried to understand what you meant, but I could not. You wanted to say that people can control their sexuality and, if necessary, create homosexual relationships instead of heterosexual ones? This is so absurd that I can’t believe that this was the meaning of your words. Then what did you mean?
I apologize in advance if I looked attacking, it’s just that this is a pretty sensitive topic for me.
It’s been four years, so I had to re-read the post because I don’t remember what I said anymore.
I think that my wording in the post is imprecise, but I don’t think I was saying the things you seemed to take from it.
There’s this line: “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.”
What I meant by this line is not that heterosexual relationships are inherently dysfunctional. The anime picks apart a lot of dysfunctional relationships, but does not get around to showing healthy relationships (be it straight or otherwise). I was not trying to say that people can or should control their sexual orientation. That is a different matter entirely.
And there’s this line: “Like [Utena], 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.”
The stereotype I was addressing is the idea of heroic saviours are men, or male-coded figures. Utena dresses in the male uniform and tries to take on that “prince” role at first, but it turns out that she didn’t need to do this in order to help Anthy. In the end, Anthy decides to take her fate into her own hands. There’s nothing wrong with wearing dresses or feminine presentation; that is one of the themes of the anime.
My wording was poor and imprecise, but you have to keep in mind the timing when I wrote this post. It wasn’t today’s online landscape where antis hate on a show just for depicting traditional gender roles. My attitude back then (and now) is that it’s not really a problem if a work of fiction portrays gender stereotypes, but when something tries to go against the grain, it’s interesting and I’d like to highlight it. If I were to write something on this topic today, I’d be much more careful about the wording because I know how such ideas can be twisted beyond the original intent.
Oh, thank you, now I understand your idea much better and do not see anything “strange” in it. Apparently I was so tired of the modern cultural war in the media space, that I became too suspicious.