The postmodernist fairy tale that breaks the genre's tropes
Revolutionary Girl Utena or Shoujo Kakumei Utena (1997) is a Japanese anime (animation) series that has stayed with me since I have been a teenager. This year, the manga (comic) and franchise in general celebrated 20 years of its inception and influence with a musical that covered the first arc of the series.
This is the second musical the series has had as the first happened in December of 1997. Revolutionary Girl Utena (RGU), or just called Utena for short, is a series that has a manga, an anime series, a movie (1999), a manga based on the movie, two musicals, two other theatre adaptations, two light novels and a video game alongside a new manga series called After the Revolution (2018), which original creator, Saito Chiho, has done to show the characters as adults and how they are moving on with their lives.
In all its incarnations, Revolutionary Girl Utena explores aspects of Postmodernism, Modernism, feminism, queerness, androgyny, gender queerness, psychology, sexuality, post colonialism, metaphysical elements, science fiction elements, surrealism, visual imagery and also a subversive reading of fairy tales.
It up-ends the narrative of the prince as someone beyond criticism in traditional fairytale stories. It also has feminist readings of the categories of prince, princess and witch, while showing the prince's savior complex may not always be a positive quality.
The eponymous Utena is an androgynous 14-year-old girl, who is also a bit of a delinquent in the manga and anime. She dresses in her own version of the boy's uniform but specifically states that she does not desire to be a boy, just her own person, which highlights that she isn't really a cisgendered, feminine girl. When Utena was young she was orphaned at a young age, this is consistent in all the narratives. She felt like she lost everything and wanted to die.
However, a prince approached her, unknown to her this is Prince Dios, the original prince of the universe, and he commends her on her noble and pure heart and gives her a ring. He says that if she stays true to herself they will meet again in the future.
Utena is very impressed and desires to be a prince herself and help people as Dios had helped her. This up-ends the traditional conjecture that a girl will be instantly romantically infatuated with a princely type character. Rather, she is inspired by him to be a prince.
Utena studies in Ohtori Academy, which is a prestigious school and goes about her life being an athletic and charismatic character. She is usually admired by girls as she is so princely and also attracts some boys. In the anime series, Utena is also captain of the boy's basketball team as she bests everyone playing. One day, Utena encounters a girl being slapped by a boy.
She is disturbed by this image but thinks of it as a lovers' quarrel. The abusive boy is apparently popular with girls too and his name is Saionji Kyouichi. Utena's best friend, Wakaba Shinohara, has a crush on Saionji and decides to write him a love letter. Saionji disrespectfully pins up the letter on the school's bulletin board.
Though the letter is anonymous, Utena realizes that Wakaba wrote the letter and is enraged at Saionji humiliating her friend. She challenges him to a fight - Saionji sees she is a wearing a ring with a rose signet on it and agrees to the fight. When Utena goes to the scheduled place after school to fight Saionji she is transported in a surrealistic duelling arena with an inverted castle on top of it.
Apparently, Saionji is a member of the student council and they all possess rings with rose signets. The council says a mysterious figure, just referred to as The Ends of the World, has given them this ring. Utena had gotten this ring from Dios so she is confused by the way that time and space has been supplanted from its regular rules.
The girl that Utena saw before being slapped comes before them and commences the duel. Saionji explains that she is the Rose Bride and she is the princess coveted by everyone as she has the power to perform miracles, hence revolutionize the world. Saionji also boasts as he is the current winner of the duels he literally owns this girl as an object. Utena is disgusted by Saionji and she fights him and wins. The girl later introduces herself as Anthy Himemiya, and she says that she now belongs to Utena.
In all incarnations of the franchise, Utena does not wish to own Anthy. Owning Anthy means one can sexually and physically abuse her while she plays the passive and distant princess. When Saionji loses, Anthy actually smiles and refers to him as only her "schoolmate."
It seems Saionji was under the impression that by "winning" Anthy he had secured her love and loyalty, which Anthy just went along with as it is the rule of the Rose Bride to follow the winner's instructions. Anthy's subtle sadomasochistic nature confuses Utena and it is hinted throughout the series that Anthy is not a 14-year-old girl but someone older and has suppressed the typical passage of time.
It is revealed that Anthy is the original princess of the world, Dios's sister. However, Dios fell and she in turn became a witch. Revolutionary Girl Utena made the controversial statement that Anthy is both the princess and the witch of the story.
Yet, one can ask why is Anthy the witch of the story? It seems that Dios was treated more as a god than a normal human being. Dios kept on saving girls or rather princesses since time immemorial, but he could never love any of them and neither did any one of them love him.
His role, as deemed by society, was to be a savior machine, a god in flesh, who seemed to save women and girls, regardless of his own wants and desires. This role finally takes a toll on Dios's health and he is on the brink of dying. Still, people demanded Dios go out and save the girls of the world.
It is then Anthy comes out of the shed Dios was in, or castle in the movie, and states that she has killed the prince because she wanted him all for herself.
The society brands her a harlot, a conniving woman thus a witch. The truth: Dios was not necessarily dead but Anthy truly loved her brother thus could not see his suffering anymore.
The malice of the people manifested in a thousand swords of hatred and they have stabbed Anthy. The Anthy we see in the series is like a projection and her "real" body is stuck in a coffin stabbed by swords.
What happened to Dios? He devolved into the sadomasochistic and manipulative chairman of Ohtori academy, Akio Ohtori. He even takes the name of the family whose daughter he is engaged with as he wants power and status. Akio is akin to a fallen angel or a fallen god who wants society and people to recognize him again.
He does help Utena by manipulating people to fight against her but at the same time recognizes her as a new prince. This recognition is hard for Akio because he has been surpassed by someone who is both noble and understands Anthy.
Akio could not save Anthy rather now he uses her as an object to seduce people to keep them battling for this vague power to perform miracles. He also now has an incestuous sexual relationship with Anthy to abuse her further and she engages with it to also hurt him and somehow erase herself.
Anthy's "penance" is to be a Rose Bride because a misogynistic society would not want girls to act so freely. In almost all the incarnations, there are girls made of shadow who can talk to the audience akin to the Greek chorus, to me I theorized them as the girls that Dios once did save and now are trapped in some way by him always intervening on their autonomy.
The shadow girls mockingly state that girls who cannot be princesses must become witches. It is the law of society that if feminine ideals are defied than one is a witch.
Ironically, as Anthy is the primordial princess she cannot completely be a witch but she has fallen from so-called grace as well. Anthy is a Rose Bride by choice it seems but because it mirrors to her the truth of the world as an unforgiving and cruel place where love may ultimately lose.
Utena comes into Anthy's life to challenge this thesis: can love, both platonic and romantic, win against the cruel world? To accomplish that, the system of the duels, princes, princesses and witches must be destroyed. Utena's ideal is to be a prince and she keeps on duelling to protect Anthy.
However, Utena does question her positionality towards Anthy. She desires to be Anthy's friend but it becomes apparent as long as she is s duellist that may be very difficult to accomplish.
Initially, Anthy goes by the rules of the Rose Bride and acts amicably towards Utena. She still uses the honorific "sama" referring to Utena but attempts to be the friend that Utena desires.
It is on Utena's desires that she operates. However, as the anime and manga series progresses, Anthy begins to really love and treasure Utena. Their love becomes romantic not because Utena is Anthy's prince, that she is, but she loves Anthy almost as unconditionally as Anthy had loved Dios.
In all this time, Utena is one of the first people to treat Anthy as not a Rose Bride or a trophy to perform miracles, but as a human being.
In the manga and anime series their romance is both subtle and becomes something that Anthy, with autonomy, pursues by the end. In the movie and movie manga Utena and Anthy explicitly kiss several times.
In the movie, the kiss finalizes the end of the cinematic run and in the movie manga they wake up in the outside world. As in, the world not powered by Ohtori's academy's time and space distortion, as in the world we can call ours or real by typical definitions.
Utena states she has faced hardships in life and she has faced loss but she knows she will make it through as long as she is with Anthy. Anthy agrees with a smile as they walk out of a planetarium together.
The planetarium is symbolic in the show as destiny or cosmos. Akio is usually shown in the school's astronomy tower overlooking the stars and wondering what fate has in store for all of them.
This issue of Revolutionary Girl Utena will continue next week.
The writer is a copy editor at
The Asian Age