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Girls’ Revolution: The world of Utena

Following hot on the tail of Sailor Moon, Revolutionary Girl Utena was another Nineties animé classic that broke gender stereotypes, and here’s why every girl should watch it.

Utena is groundbreaking and unexpected in almost every way. And best of all, it doesn’t try to be different, but like the titular character, it just is different and doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with that. First off, it features a rather gender-fluid and well-developed main character. Secondly, it isn’t just lightly peppered with yuri, or female same-sex relationships, but it also is one of few animé to feature a prominent interracial relationship as a fairly ordinary thing. And finally, there are battles. Lots of battles.

“It wasn’t the romance that was such a hit with the girls; it was the part where the main characters used their sure-fire techniques to defeat their enemies.”

This quote, from director Kunihiko Ikuhara, on first glance would appear to fit with the format of shōnen, or boys’ animé, where battles, duels and violence are more commonplace. Revolutionary Girl Utena, as a show, sought to challenge this presumption that battles only sell well for boys, and being developed not long after Sailor Moon, another shōjo animé with a similar premise which proved wildly successful, the studio was in a very good place to do it.

Utena and Anthy posing together
Utena and Anthy posing together

Utena is not the first shōjo animé to play with gender expression – previous 70’s shows like The Rose of Versailles also saw a female lead who cross-dressed and also featured elements of yuri. However, what Utena does so well is it brings gender expression for women into the current era. Utena isn’t pressurised to present as a boy due to issues of heritage, as in the period drama The Rose of Versailles, nor is she expressing herself due to feeling like an outsider, which sadly is the most common way for modern media to portray a cross-dressing girl. No, Utena dresses the way she does because she wants to. She’s got her own personal dream of becoming a prince regardless of her sex, and she manages to remain popular and well-known, almost an idol in fact, at school where other shows might have been tempted to make her more of an outcast. It’s a real ground-breaking portrayal.

It gets even better when you realise that Utena isn’t particularly driven to rescue damsels in distress. Her whole reason for wanting to be a prince is because a prince helped her feel better once when she needed it, and she simply wants to do that for others too. It’s princeliness in its true sense, because she is willing to help anyone regardless of their gender. And she has pretty strong ideas about how people should be treated too – flying into incandescent rage when she accidentally becomes part of this ‘duelling game’ the school council plays and finds out how badly they are treating Anthy, the Rose Bride. Her anger at why Anthy is expected to be subservient and willing to take abuse is so passionate and comes from a very innocent and pure place. She does not accept the world for what it is, and is a truer revolutionary than the council members playing their dangerous game, because when she sees injustice she seeks to change it, because to her it’s the obvious thing to do. This leads her to becoming very involved in the duelling game of the Student Council, although her real aspiration is that it should not have to happen in the first place.

One of the epic swordfights
An epic duel atop dramatic battlements

The duels themselves form the penultimate scenes of every episode, and are riveting swordfighting affairs in the style of the Old Romantics. They are always accompanied by a choral, power-metal style soundtrack, yet another thing one would not expect and yet something that works with the ritual and grandness of the fights very well.

Utena playing basketball | Utena and Anthy in ballgowns
Utena is not any less awesome whether playing sports or wearing a ballgown

And although she is perfectly happy belching, playing sports with the guys and swordfighting, she still has the power to behave like a feminine girl – she does find some guys attractive, she still blushes and gets shy when a guy she likes gets close. There are still classic shōjo elements, for instance, discussions on feelings and relationships, cooking catastrophes and homework frettings. There’s also the fact that she has bright pink hair and doesn’t really see that as being particularly toward one gender or the other. It’s all in all a very positive message to send towards girls and boys: Don’t be constrained by how others expect you to act!

Having said this, there is a horrifying moment towards the end of the first saga, the Student Council Saga, where Utena suffers a massive shock to her self-esteem. For a painful few episodes she starts acting the way society expects ‘a normal girl’ to act. This means demureness, dresses and dismal behaviour, but eventually she realises that there’s nothing weird about the way she was before, and goes back to being herself. She’s such a well-rounded character because her true personality and actions are purely a reflection of her personal likes and dislikes, and yet she also doubts herself at points – this makes it even more realistic as most children go through something similar where they find out that society expects them to act a certain way because of their sex.

The most important progression of the show is in the development of Utena and Anthy’s relationship. Utena really isn’t too impressed to find out she has ‘won’ Anthy as a bride as the result of her first duel with the Student Council members. She initially shrugs Anthy off, but soon she becomes aware that Anthy has been treated as subservient by the Council for so long that she won’t take the initiative to stick up for herself without Utena around. She decides to befriend Anthy and tries to make her realise she has the power to say no when others try to hurt her. But it’s like coming out of a bad relationship, and it seems it will take a lot more than Utena’s enthusiasm to change things. Through this the two girls become friends, and Utena and Anthy both become aware of how much they care about each other.

Anthy herself is an amazingly well-structured character. Initially Utena only sees her superficially, as someone who is far too nice to others and who cannot say no. But Anthy has a strange connection to the prince who first aided Utena as a child, and she also harbours amazing powers within herself – powers that can allegedly bring about the apocalypse. Occasionally you see through her nice façade to these inner depths, and it raises all sorts of questions about what she truly thinks of things. Sometimes it’s almost sinister. Other times you get the sense that while she has a hidden agenda, she is sometimes surprised and confused at her feelings for Utena. Anthy’s character starts to be better explored during the second saga, the Black Rose Saga, where new duelists come up against Utena with the intention of not possessing Anthy, but of destroying her and her power.

There’s a lot to look forward to, and you can be assured of an epic and thoroughly enjoyable tale that aims to revolutionise the way we see ourselves and others. And we here at Renegade Revolution are very much in favour of that!

 

Main image © The Student Council Saga US special edition box set artwork
All other images from Ohtori.nu, the Utena fansite!

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