[Anime Critics] Shôjo Kakumei Utena

STAFF

Director : Ikuhara Kunihiko / 幾原邦彦

Series Conception : Enokido Yôji / 榎戸洋司

Character Design : Hasegawa Shinya / 長谷川眞也

Art Director : Kobayashi Shichiro 小林七郎

Music : Mitsumune Shinkichi /  光宗信吉


Shôjo Kakumei Utena (Revolutionary Girl Utena) is a well known classic among anime fans. While not everyone has seen it (be it because of its long run of 39 episodes, or its nature as a shôjo anime), it’s pretty sure everyone has heard of it one time, or see one or two episodes by chance. But few are those who watch it actually, and it’s somewhat understandable : in fact is Utena bizarre, very bizarre. It is still very bizarre today, although it has deeply influenced many other anime ; in its time, it was even more bizarre. And despite all of it, it became a classic even at the time of its diffusion, getting a theater version on work the very moment the series finished. How was that possible ?

 

Let’s begin by the series’ development. Utena was organized by a team which named itself Be-Papas, essentially old members of Toei Animation who worked on the Sailor Moon anime adaptation beforehand. The eventually got tired one day of doing the same thing again and again, and with other people founded the now renowned J.C. Staff company, Utena being one of their first works – although, like Ikuhara said in an interview, he worked on it as if it was « his very last anime as a director », because of its nature as a desperate project. Thought as a media mix project, he contacted Saito Chiho to make the manga ; but actually both works are really different and have almost nothing alike, so it’s quite difficult to assume it is the same work.

As an original product, its success was not guaranteed, as the 90s are in my honorable opinion (and I’ll admit that some people won’t agree) at the same time the actualization of Japanese animation as a form of art, and the surge of « anime-ka« , or anime adaptation of mangas, which were to become a plague within the industry by the 2000s up to those days. Anyway, I think we’re safe to assume that Utena clearly clings at the « artistic » side of the medium – although a shôjo anime overtly targeted toward girls, its thematic, artistic and narrative choices made it clearly on a whole different level with all other animes of the genre.

The director of the show is Ikuhara Kunihiko. The guy was already famous within the industry for being the director in charge of the anime adaptation of Sailor Moon starting from the second season (titled Sailor Moon R), before leaving Toei Animation of the belief that he didn’t had enough place for creativity. He then moved to create the said Be-Papas group, whose main purpose was to work in the Utena project. He had a decisive influence on the anime’s form, taking seriously part to the artistic direction and the global feeling of the series, giving somewhat of a very personal feel to Utena (which can be felt even with more recent works of Ikuhara, although the character design and artistic directions are nothing alike).

We’ll now be moving toward the contents itself.

« Taking a bit too much to heart the prince’s message, the princess decided to become a prince herself. »

Let’s start with one thing : Utena is not meant for everyone. It is very unique in its development and quite hard to include in any recorded genre ; you could say it is mahô shôjo, but mainly because of its charismatic male cast you can’t say it truly is one ; you could say then it’s about romance and drama, but the battle part take you apart ; then you would say it’s about yuri, but first the genre didn’t existed at the time, and the story isn’t really about women falling in love, although it does have some of this content. Plus, the relationship between Utena and Anthy, the core of the story, has some strong allegorical meanings, being lesser about « love between women » than about « can Utena become herself a prince to Anthy ? », i.e. reach a sort of manhood both in personal and romantic relationship, implying questions about gender identification in romantic stories.

Ikuhara don’t even hide he don’t like men in its interviews and quite idealize the feminine world, seeking to show strong females and overt lesbian relationships. When you remember that Sailor Moon has been one of the strongest cultural impact in the feminine pop culture in Japan, and have both influenced the woman liberation image and the overt lesbian relationship within anime and manga (which would give birth to the yuri subgenre), you shouldn’t be surprised that Ikuhara made a whole original anime out of those two thematics. But while Utena is undoubtedly a message anime, which is quite rare within the anime industry and explains part of its success, it also is one piece of art in term of screenplay, artistic sense, and « symbol telling » so to speak (because the story of Utena is clearly mostly allegorical).

Don’t be blurred by the somewhat strange relationship between Utena and Anthy, leering love and friendship. The anime isn’t really about women’s love, but about how one girl see herself and become adult through this relationship.

It would be nice to start with what is amiss, because Utena can be somewhat disappointing. First, it is a 90s anime which still have something of the 80s standards ; it is very episodical, somewhat long, and have too much fillers which make its storytelling heavier and slower over its 39 episode length. The anime is definitively not made for a rush viewing ; I’ve tried before getting sick of it, taking a two week pause before getting back to watching it. Plus, it is slow : be it because of its age or because of its nature as a shôjo anime, it has a very slow pacing, and sometimes can feel boring ; fillers clearly don’t help with that, and I stopped to watch every time I encountered one, especially as the fillers revolve essentially around one side character, Nanami, who acts as comic relief, but is itself quite detestable, making difficult to feel any empathy for her. More than once, I felt annoyed while watching Utena ; but then you look at another animes, then you realize suddenly : « there is nothing in this world like Utena » ; and you get back to watch it, because it’s simply that : there is nothing like this one anime. Nowhere.

Sure it is always difficult for us today to start watching a 39 episode long anime ; but sometime it is worth it. Utena is clearly in the continuity of the Sailor Moon anime, and you feel it ; having watched quite a lot of the Sailor Moon adaptation when I was young, I had a sense of how much the storytelling can be sometime similar, especially by the way the sagas are strongly felt through the antagonists : although the main characters themselves never change of place and occupation, the enemies and their doings do change, and the atmosphere got quite different along it. You can strongly feel every of the 4 parts within the story, especially as, the more the anime is advancing, the more it tends to become heavier and deep, throwing progressively its comedy elements. It is a questioning anime, and although making no name dropping, it’s really quite philosophical in its execution and questions – but you’ll have to see around 20 episodes before you can see it, which can be demotivating.

The artistic sense behind the backgrounds and shots in Utena is amazing, and one of the strongest point of the show. Although many of them are recurrent, I always get amazed by how they give a strong artistic feel to the whole show. That being said, by the way anime are being heavily digitized today, many of the main artistic feels of Utena would be impossible to renders by now.

Then let’s say something about the art. It’s for me the strongest point of the series – it just stuns me to look on boards, and see peoples saying that the images are ugly. It sure has a quite typical 90s feel ; you could have to get used to it before liking it, and it will be, no matter what, somewhat « old » ; but the artistic direction as well as the staging are really strong points of the show. Although, due to its episodic nature, most of them are of cyclic nature, coming back regularly, there is something really hypnotic behind the flashy, often shadeless colors and backgrounds, and how the whole world can sometime feel « surreal », Utena itself being often qualified as such. It is quite common in Utena not to feel within the « real » world but in some illustrated romantic book, just like the Monogatari series to quote a more recent example ; a feeling that Ikuhara has undoubtly wanted to share, as the story itself multiply references to Prince Charming tales and related illustration patterns. The world within Utena is just so typically « Utena » that you just got the feel that there is not two world like this, and that is the sign of a strong and memorable artistic direction.

Plus, the staging is astounding. It tries a lot of experiments within the typical anime staging, and some shots are just unforgettable and become part of the story itself. Though borrowing quite a lot to typical shôjo anime codes, it loves to distort them and somewhat surprise you. The anime shines by what it don’t show you ; most of the most crucial parts are never actually shown, and a lot of the symbolism is grounded on implicit. Then the anime tries many experiments in its storytelling : be it by its use of traditional, heavily suggestive and obscure « shadow theater-type scenes » in each episodes, where comedy, sense and cryptic messages are melt together, or the Prince Charming-type all-black characters in flashbacks, the anime is surely strong on the artistic plan. Don’t ever let someone tell you it is « ugly » : for me it was quite the contrary. I felt it from the beginning until the end as the strongest part of the anime.

If you ever wondered what « staggering » meant in anime, Utena is definitively going to make yourself conscious of what it means.

Each episode will have a « shadow theater » scene, where comical archetypes will be discussing, echoing both to the episode, moral, and delivering occult messages through comic manners.

Then there’s the story. And on this part, Utena is really the most utterly bizarre.

Utena is no typical story telling. I like to name it « symbol telling« . Each character is not about being a character with typical character development ; it’s meant to be the « symbol » of something, of either an archetype or a general problematic, and its woes are meant to make think or realize something in the flow of the « general » symbolism of the series’ construction. It’s particularly fitting for its episodic nature ; although there is a main story unfolding, with ultimate mysteries waiting for revelations, the main story don’t get really out there before the last 10 episodes, where some storytelling elements and connection between episodes start to appear (and I’ll be quite honest and admit that it is only in the 10 last episodes that I really started to feel I was watching a real masterpiece) – the symbols and themes, however, are quite clear up to first episode. Each episode tends to be centered around one of the characters of the « Student council », each of them having some related peoples, love woes and troubles ; each time, the problems are somewhat culminating in a « Duel », which is an allegorical way to settle the inner problems of the characters in a symbolic match with the heroine.

It has been often said that the duels are one of the most cyclic, repetitive and annoying part of Utena. I’m not agreeing. Most of the people saying that argue about how the duels are predictable, because how predictable it is that Utena is going to win each time. Then, I’d like to remind you this is not a shônen, where the main focus would be the battles and their outcomes ; it is basically a shôjo anime, though quite heterodox, targeted toward girls. The fights are actually always highly allegorical : the setting, place and lyrics are always somewhat symbolic, and echoing to the troubles of the fighting characters or the story.

This is the coolest place for duel I’ve ever seen in my life.

About the duel, it is important to notate how the music is part of the storytelling. Each Duel got its own, personalized themes ; they weren’t composed by the series’ main composer, Mitsumune Shinkichi, but by J.A. Saezer, who was a well known Japanese experimental rock artist strongly liked within the 68 student movements in Japan, who was chosen by Ikuhara because of the « revolutionary » tone of the whole series, and how his music echoes to that. The duel themes are always accompanied by a chorus with thoughtful, highly occult lyrics ; if you’re going to watch this subbed, I beg you to search for subs containing the musics’ lyrics, because they’re really part of the storytelling within each duel, although quite puzzling and disturbing.

Then, if you understand the duels are allegorical and not actual battles, you’ll have to admit there is something amazing in each of them, some sort of mental Golgotha within each characters’ mind – literally, because of the duels’ place, at the top of this strange looking tower at the back of the school. It is somewhat implied by the antagonist in the final battle, when he says to Utena that she never fought in « actual » battles, but only « acted » : each of the battles were symbolic in nature, with only the final, coming of age one, being a « true » battle, an adulthood battle.

« I’m duelling at the top of some twisted towers, with phallic erected cars all over the place, with damn cryptic lyrics singing on my battle. Everything’s fucking normal. »

Coming to the story itself, one could summarize like this : Utena is a coming of age story with symbolism all over the place.

It is about Utena, a 14 year old girl, who met a Prince Charming when she was still a child ; the Prince Charming gave her a ring as a promise for the future before leaving, and she was so amazed that she herself tried to become a prince, starting to dress like a man and seeking the meet her Prince again. Utena is quite the tomboy case, playing basket ball and acting as a boy ; but like she says many time in the series, she « remains a girl », and is still waiting for her long awaited Prince, who somewhat « led » her to this school. There is then a tension arising between the girlish Utena waiting for her Prince to take her to his castle, and the boyish one acting as one ; especially, since, after being challenged to a Duel organized by the « Student council » (the first villains of the series), she is made the « promised » of the « Flower Bride », Anthy Himeimiya. She then become like a Prince for her, living in the same room and having some blurring, strange relationship with her, whose sense is never made clear, although highly allegorical and symbolic in nature. Utena will then have to duel each member of the Student Council, the rule being that the one who wins a duel become promised to the Flower Bride, Anthy Himeimiya, and will obtains one day the « Power to Revolutionize the World » by the mysterious mastermind, Mr. »End of the World ». It is although rumored that the mysterious reversed castle appearing in the sky at each duel is a place where « the key to things that are Eternal » lies.

It’s crystal clear how the « Power to revolutionize the World », the « Flower Bride », the « end of the World » and « eternity » are all allegorical names echoing to woes of growing up and knowing love. The whole story is a blunt deconstruction of the Prince Charming tales, where the girl herself has somewhat to become one to herself become an adult, while still waiting for one at the same time. You might have some problems to clearly grasp it if you happen to be a man, but like Simone de Beauvoir says it in Le Second Sexe, the Prince Charming could easily by said as one of the most influential and strong tropes within the girls’ imagination ; and to deconstruct it is also, allegorically, both to deconstruct the myth of « a mythical man lifting the girl of all the problems », and the outpulling of girlhood, for an unknown end. It’s particularly wise to remember in this regard that in Japan, it still is a serious question for each woman when becoming adult to choose between a « womanized » life as stay-at-home mother, being pretty and then seek for a rich man (what is somewhat of a Prince Charming trope), or be an independent, working woman, which usually means not to have children. Utena is a character you’re originally meant to identify to.

The more the series is progressing, the more it gets darker and heavier, although not in its story, but in its symbols and themes. It is well illustrated by the ambiguous relationship between Utena (the womanized Prince) and Anthy (the overly womanized princess), and how they both respect some allegorical tension.

But Utena is more than just that. In a way, Utena is the definitive coming of age story, somewhat of a pinnacle of the Bildungsroman genre. I’ve felt it was the girly and anime version of Herman Hesse’s Demian, with its very symbolistic, allegorical but still serious and deep way to deal with adulthood, puberty, myths and love (it’s even possible, given the name of one track of the soundtrack and the scene associated, that some references to the book are overt). Just like Demian, Utena has a very deep way to speak about sexuality and its symbolism quite overtly ; it don’t hide any thing, but don’t show anything. It’s quite serious also, and heavy : with no character dying through the whole story, it still has a very heavy feel toward the end, and deep resonance. It is somewhat quite thoughtful through its characters and thematic, about memories, eternity, flowers, myths, illusions, love and so on. It never goes clear and limpid about its themes though, and it’s a way to make the watcher thinks ; it never says out loud what he want the watcher to feel, and that makes him even more puzzled and thoughtful. But it’s always somewhat serious and implying a lot of thing.

Plus, without spoiling anything, I’ve got to say the ending is one of the most troubling and deep I’ve ever seen in any work of fiction. It is also quite similar to Demian here, because it’s a thoughtful ending : not settling anything, but not leaving everything the way they were neither, not giving any definitive answer, but still coming with serious and deep questions. I was quite troubled by it, not awaiting something like that although I was trying to imagine what it could be like ; and it is clear Ikuhara wanted the anime to make the watcher thinks rather than to make moral. I’ve sure read some people saying how the ending was disappointing ; and I actually think quite the contrary : the ending is clearly not meant to satisfy the watcher, but to leave him puzzled.

« How can people live in this world when they know they’ll die ? How come that things aren’t eternal ? How could I have been living until now, not even being conscious of that ?… »

CONCLUSION

I’ll be quite honest : Utena has stricken strongly many weak points in my own sensibility. Be it its thematic (especially about eternity and love), its aesthetic, or it’s very allegorical, symbolic way to delivers its storytelling and messages, I’ve got some weak points with Utena. I’ve been shaken. Strongly. And in the end, although I couldn’t help but see all the flaws within the series’ building, its sometime weak storytelling, its annoying fillers and its slow pacing, I couldn’t think anything else but that I’ve experienced something brilliant and unique, leaving a very strong impression on my mind. Although I didn’t felt any hype ; although I sometime had to force myself to go over the long 39 episode run, although I even sometimes hated some slowness, I’ve got in the end strong, personal feelings about the series as a whole, and, when the time came to judge it, couldn’t find another word but « masterpiece », at least in a very personal way.

And Utena is really something personal, meant to be felt differently by each person because of its highly symbolic, allegorical nature.

Sure this won’t make invisible the series’ weak points ; and it remains true, that Utena is clearly not meant for eeryone, being so bizarre and unique, especially if you’re a man, as you’re not the primarily targeted public. But still is Utena something unique. Although it has sometime be compared to an « Evangelion for girls« , the movie even getting the affectionate surname of « The End of Utena », it is in essence clearly different from the said series ; way more allegoric, way more sound and deep in what it tries to signify, more true to itself when it turns to symbolism, and, in the end, a definitive coming of age roman ; where Evangelion never makes the definitive step to break apart the otaku myth it rests on, Utena makes the strong choice to break the chains that gave birth to it.

Then you’re left to yourself. It’s what it means to become an adult.

 

Semiko

Student in Japanese studies and specializing in story telling and modern Japanese pop culture.

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