Revolutionary Girl Utena article published in Animerica Vol. 6, No. 12, December 1998
This article was written by and is copyrighted to Patricia Duffield and may not be reproduced in part or whole without permission.
."Once upon a time...", like a fairy tale, so begins the series Shojo Kakumei Utena. Created by director Kunihiko Ikuhara and comic artist Chiho Saito, the story centers around Utena Tenjou, an orphaned girl who dresses in a boys school uniform. Why does she dress like a boy? Utena wants to be a prince! From the start, Shojo Kakumei Utena is filled with unusual characters, situations and imagery. By the end of the first episode, Utena Tenjou and the audience are swept into the mysterious world of the ‘duelists', as the story progresses away from reality.
The series is divided into three parts, each 13 episodes long. The first part is being released in the US by Central Park Media, under the title "Revolutionary Girl Utena". In the beginning of the story, we are introduced to the student council of Ohtori Academy. No average students, the council members have an unusual amount of influence in their school. They are also ‘duelists'; each one of them wears a special rose ring and follows the rules of the rose seal. The duelists' rules and instructions are provided by a mysterious authority, known only as ‘The End of the World'. Their secret purpose is ‘to revolutionize the world'. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, our eccentric heroine descends into this strange world of intrigue.
It all begins rather simply. Saionji, Vice President of the student council, allows a love letter he received to be posted on a bulletin board, for all the school to see. Well, that letter was written by Wakaba, Utena's friend. What else can a loyal friend do but confront the cad about it? Since Saionji is captain of the kendo team, Utena challenges him to a duel. "So, you're the next challenger," Saionji cryptically concludes. Utena has no clue what he's talking about but agrees to meet him in the ‘dueling forest' behind the school.
When she gets there, with shinai (a bamboo sword used in kendo) in hand, the gate is closed and locked. Surprisingly, the gate opens because of the rose ring Utena always wears, a memento of the prince who gave it to her as a child. She soon discovers she is not the only one with such a ring. Saionji is waiting for Utena with Anthy, a strange classmate whom Saionji refers to as ‘The Rose Bride'. Saionji also has a rose ring. This is almost as shocking as the upside down castle floating overhead and the real sword Saionji pulls out of Anthy's chest! Despite her lack of training, Utena miraculously manages to win. Confused by the whole encounter, she decides to go home and forget about it, but meets Anthy on her way out. Anthy tells Utena that, from now on, she is Utena's flower.
Regardless of the fact that Utena is a girl, she finds herself ‘engaged' to Anthy, the Rose Bride. As the story progresses, Utena must fight with each of the other duelists who all have their own, personal motives for challenging her. In this way, several different aspects of the series are explored.
Gender issues are constantly being confronted in Shojo Kakumei Utena. Though she behaves like a boy, Utena is very much a girl. Wakaba behaves like a girl, but is always claiming that she belongs to Utena. Then there's Anthy being engaged to whomever is the champion among the duelists, regardless of gender, and the physical beauty of most of the guys in the show. The main character of the series does not merely dress like a boybut wants to become a prince, like the one she remembers from her childhood. "But is that really such a good idea?" wonders the opening narrator. That is up to the story and each viewer to decide.
Another aspect of Shojo Kakumei Utena is its use of ritual. Most of the more mystical and enigmatic parts of the show involve rituals of some sort. Combined with the unusual lyrics and chants which often accompany these rituals, the overall affect can be mind boggling and even disturbing. For example, there is the ritual for unsheathing the Sword of Dios from Anthy. Within a glowing wind, Anthy must recite a special chant and fall into the arms of her duelist. Though mystical and even sensual, this ritual also contains the unsettling imagery of the sword coming out of Anthy's chest. Often an odd juxtaposition of beauty and foreboding, these rituals heighten the sense of mystery and magic in the show and are a constant reminder of how the series toys with reality.
From the beginning, Shojo Kakumei Utena plays with the audience's sense of reality. After the fairy tale introduction, Utena's life continues like that of an average heroine in a student drama. She goes to school, helps friends, studies for tests, lives in a dorm, eats three meals a day; all perfectly normal. However, that fairy tale introduction sets a precedent. What parts of Utena's memories and life are real? Even Utena, herself cannot be certain, yet she has faith in her prince. The surreal settings, mysterious rituals, strange characters, Shadow Girls, and unusual music, all add to the show's sense of enigma, keeping the audience on its toes.
Although this series has a great deal of drama and mystery, it is by no means humorless. Any number of characters are used for comedy relief, including Utena herself. Wakaba's antics and unusual manner of speaking are meant to amuse. Chu-Chu, even when he (she?) is trying to be serious, is usually good for a laugh. Then there's the melodramatic Nanami; there are whole episodes with her which are meant to be comedic. And, of course, there are the Shadow Girls who perform those strange shadow plays. However, like the issue of reality, there are times when the audience is left wondering what's dramatic and what's funny. Serious dialog will often be mixed with whimsical imagery, like a student council meeting filled with balloons. As a result, the show often requires the audience to question their perceptions.
The basic premise of Shojo Kakumei Utena -a girl fighting to help a friend- belies the true complexity of the show. It's a psychological drama involving not only the characters but the audience as well. This series does not hand its viewers all the answers on a silver platter; they must work toward their own conclusions. Along the way, the audience is treated to beautiful animation, intriguing characters, unusual music and a fair amount of humor. Don't let the character design or title fool you; this show has something for everyone to enjoy.
She dresses, talks, and usually acts like a boy. Is it any wonder Utena must frequently point out, "I'm a girl "? Naive, good hearted, loyal, and a great athlete, she attracts the interest of both boys and girls. Though others may have issues about it, Utena is never in doubt of her gender. She may want to be a prince, but she has never stops hoping to meet her prince again.
Anthy is the mysterious Rose Bride who holds within her the Sword of Dios. She seems to have no emotions other than the ones given to her by the champion ‘duelist', to whom she must be ‘engaged'. Her only friend is a strange little creature called Chu-Chu.
The beautiful President of the student council, Touga is a self serving, nonchalant young man who's outlook on life is rather cynical. He goes through girls like tissues and enjoys manipulating others. Despite this, he can be extremely charismatic and charming when it suits him.
Obsessive, possessive, arrogant, Saionji is Vice President of the student council and captain of the kendo team. Though he is abusive to her, Saionji sincerely believes he and Anthy are in love. He and Touga have been friends since childhood.
She is the beautiful captain of the fencing team and a member of the student council. Calm, cool and commanding, Jury's self control hides her passionate, personal secrets.
Though only in seventh grade, Miki takes college classes, is an acclaimed fencer and pianist, and a member of the student council. On top of that, he's sweet and sincere. However, his obsessive compulsive use of a stopwatch and estranged relationship with his twin sister suggest he has some serious problems.
Nanami is Touga's little sister. She is extremely full of herself and is often followed by her entourage of ‘yes' girls. Nanami is also obsessed with her brother. When dealing with anything that comes between her and her brother's attention, she shows no scruples or sanity. Nanami eventually becomes a duelist.
Wakaba is Utena's friend, though she may think of herself as more than that. Usually very energetic, she is well informed about who's who around Ohtori Academy. Wakaba helps to keep the audience in the know by sharing her knowledge with Utena.
WHAT'S WITH HOSE CRAZY CHICKS?
If you've seen Shojo Kakumei Utena, it's hard to forget the Shadow Girls. They show up in nearly every episode, usually as shadows on a wall. Their strange behavior and dialog may seem nonsensical (or possibly certifiable), but they play a very interesting roll in the series. Even if it's not obvious how westerns and alien invasions relate to the regular plot of the show, the performances of the Shadow Girls usually reflect or announce events in the story. Neither narrators nor direct participants, the Shadow Girls are like the Chorus in ancient Greek plays. They can discuss the issues and interact with the characters, yet they remain autonomous, separate from the story. Bizarre though their methods may be, the Shadow Girls always provide some insight into the show. Ultimately, they are comedy relief and add to the surreal feel of the series. And whether you like them or they drive you nuts, you've got to admit they're cute.
BY ANY OTHER NAME?
Shojo Kakumei Utena is often compared to the classic Rose of Versailles, an historic fiction set in eighteenth century Europe. Although the two shows actually have very little in common; there are several superficial reasons for the comparison. The most obvious one is roses.
Shojo Kakumei Utena is chuck full of roses, both real and symbolic. Besides the real, color coordinated roses the duelists must wear in the arena, roses are a running motif throughout the show. There are rose rings, teacups, gates, stained glass windows, floors, towers, brides, and more. In Rose of Versailles, roses seldom appear outside of the opening credits. The ‘rose' of Rose of Versailles is Maria Antoinette; the title is metaphoric, not literal.
Although Shojo Kakumei Utena's logo and some of the show's architecture could be considered reminiscent of Rose of Versailles, again, the comparison is superficial. The setting of Rose of Versailles is used to make the story more realistic by using the actual buildings of the time. Many of those buildings still stand to this day. In contrast, Shojo Kakumei Utena's pseudo-Baroque architecture, which is only part of the show's setting, is used to make the story more fanciful, less realistic. As for logos, Rose of Versailles is set during the Neo-Classical period, so it's logo is really rather plain. Shojo Kakumei Utena's logo is much more elaborate and ornate, with a Renaissance feel to it.
Utena, herself, is another reason these two series are compared. Both Utena and Oscar, one of the main characters of Rose of Versailles, dress in male uniforms and fight with swords. However, the two characters' motivations for doing these things are very different. Utena chooses to wear a boys school uniform because she ‘wants to be a prince'. She first uses a sword to get back at Saionji for publically displaying her friend's love letter. Utena continues to use a sword because of the show's ritual of dueling in nearly every episode. Her motivation for dressing like a boyis fairly whimsical and her reasons for fighting are personal. Oscar, on the other hand, dresses as a man because she was raised to be a man. Though trained since childhood to be a world class swordsman, Oscar seldom uses a sword. When she does, it's because that is a part of her job, and it usually involves a life and limb situation. Oscar's primary motivations are necessity and duty.
Although both series are very engaging and beautiful, Shojo Kakumei Utena and Rose of Versailles are extremely different shows. The only thing these two truly have in common are main characters with a strong sense of loyalty.
REVOLUTION AND DEATH
Two reoccurring themes in Shojo Kakumei Utena are death and revolution. The series opens with an orphan in a graveyard. One of the first shots of Ohtori Academy shows that it is shaped like a kofun (an ancient Japanese burial mound). As the story progresses, coffins keep working their way into the plot. Why does so much death imagery surround such young characters?
As a part of the title, revolution plays a significant role in the plot. The secret goal of the student council is to revolutionize the world, even if they must ‘break' the world to do it. The power of Dios, within the coveted Sword of Dios, has the ability to do just that. But what does that mean? Are these themes simply meant to heighten the drama and mystery of the show or is there more to it than that? Like many aspects of this series, it is up to the viewer to decide.
THE CREATORS OF SHOJO KAKUMEI UTENA
Kunihiko Ikuhara has been directing animation since 1986 but is probably best known for his work with Sailor Moon. He has directed numerous episodes of Sailor Moon and was series director for most of Sailor Moon R. He also directed the Sailor Moon R movie. Known for his unusual and extreme direction, Mr. Ikuhara is well suited as series director for Shojo Kakumei Utena.
Chiho Saito debuted as a comic artist in 1982. Since then, she has written over a dozen titles covering a wide variety of topics and settings. Several of her stories include unusual brother and sister relationships and heroines who dress as boys. Both can be found in Shojo Kakumei Utena, her most recent work and first animated series.