Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a little princess who was sad…
Everybody knows how the fairytale goes. The princess is in peril with no hope of rescue, until a dashing prince arrives just in time to save the pretty damsel. That’s how it normally goes. But what if the princess vowed to become a courageous prince herself? What if the villian thought he too was the prince? How would the story play out then?
Revolutionary Girl Utena takes place in that most thoroughly explored locales in all of anime: highschool. Within Ohtori Academy is Utena Tenjou, an extremely popular girl idolised by almost every other student. At some point in her past, Utena was saved by a “prince” who deeply affected her own sense of self. Presenting her with a ring bearing a rose crest, the prince promised that they would meet again. Longing to become a prince like her saviour, she possesses a very courageous, tomboyish and in some ways naive nature. She also stubbornly wears a boys uniform, her belief being that it is another step closer to the prince she longs to be.
During one of her many moments spent staring out of school windows, Utena witnesses a male student slap a girl across the face in, what she assumes to be, a lovers quarrel. Angered by the students actions, Utena challenge him to a kendo duel after school. He agrees, though declares that it will be held in the forbidden Arena Forest, believing her to be a challenger he was told he would face. At the entrance to the forest, Utena stumbles upon a large gate, emblazoned with a rose crest. Though the door seemingly refuses to open, her ring reacts with it, beginning a mechanism that that reveals a large spiral staircase. Ascending to the top of the staircase she discovers a strange floating castle, along with her duelling opponent, Saionji, and the girl whom he slapped, Anthy. After drawing a sword from Anthy’s chest, because of magic, Saionji explains the rules of their duel: the first to lose the rose that will be pinned to their chest is defeated. Despite uses a wooden training sword against Saionji’s magical blade, Utena surprises him by claiming victory. As is apparently the custom of these duels, Utena is now Anthy’s fiancée, revealed to be the Rose Bride. Which is important…for reasons.
Over the course of the series it is revealed that the Student Council is seeks a mysterious power, one said to be able to revolutionise the world. What this means exactly is left fairly ambiguous, though each member believes it will grant them the chance to make their dreams come true. Pursuing this power, the Council continuously challenges Utena to duels, in the hopes of reclaiming Anthy. Each duellist notes the power of Anthy, though none ever specify what this means beyond being able to “revolutionise the world”. Within these first twelve episodes, Utena engages in seven duels. The overarching theme of these duels is actually best explained in the preview for episode thirteen. It is explained that each duel was fought for a different core reason, these being: friendship, choice, reason, love, adoration, conviction and self. Each duel is also prefaced by a strange cutaway featuring two girls, though only their shadows are seen. These odd girls discuss a number of strange stories, which often relate to the main plot in some way.
Occasionally the series will also reference Utena’s goal of finding the mysterious prince of her past. Unfortunately the series leaves a lot of this fairly untouched, save for an occasional mention. Even after discovering that the Council bears the same ring that the prince gave to her, Utena never really investigates anything. She also just kind of accepts the duelling system, never even asking Anthy about her true power.
Amidst the seriousness of the series, it also has a sense of humour and throws some random plotlines out. In one of particular note, a magical curry spice forces Utena and Anthy to switch personalities…not sure why…screw it, it was magic. Also they don’t seem particularly annoyed by this fact, spending at least a whole day before even trying to find out what happened. This episode also sees Nanami, a rival of the girls, trek to India…or the stereotype possibly known as India…not even that, there’s just a bunch of elephants everywhere. This episode does, however contain, one of the funniest moments of the series. Utena, in Anthy’s body, explains her “true feelings” to Saionji, simply writing dumbass in big red letters…jerk deserved it.
One of the core themes of Utena is infatuation. Each episode deals with various characters and their powerful feelings for others. Whether or not these feelings are reciprocated, or even healthy, is another matter entirely. At one point its openly stated that Nanami has a big brother complex and she does not react kindly to those who get between her and her brother. One of the main attractors of attention in Anthy, the Rose Bride. With it being her duty to be bound in marriage to the top duellist, she essentially becomes a prize for people to fight over, a destiny she wholeheartedly accepts. Due to, what can be assumed, was a tough life, Anthy simply follows orders without voicing her own opinion. If she even has one. She also seems to wind up on the receiving end of slaps at startlingly frequent intervals. Though slapping does seem to be the main way to express unhappiness in this series…it happens a lot.
Utena definitely possesses an old school style, what with it being sixteen years old and all. It has the unmistakeable colour style found in these older series, featuring far more subdued and somewhat faded colours. That being said, you’ll know how important a character is based on the colour of their hair, the brighter it is, the larger a role they’ll have in the series. Anime 101. Characters also have a very angular style about them, featuring fairly pronounced noses and chins. They have an overall lanky build, with none really deviating from this build, though height does vary quite a lot.
The series also has a running style depicting characters as shadows devoid of details. This visual is generally applied to flashbacks, denoting gaps in memories or the overall mysterious nature of some figures, such as the prince. Roses also play heavily into the visuals of Utena, representing the Student Council’s true form, along with the prince of Utena’s past and Anthy, the Rose Bride. Each character involved in the duels also possesses their own colour of rose, generally relating to their overall look, furthering the colour centric theme of the main cast. The series will also occasionally place a border around certain scenes. The border itself is comprised of thorns with, you guessed it, roses in each corner. This generally appears to highlight a characters.
The English dub of Utena is…not that great. It, more than anything, dates the series. Harking back to some of the older anime dubs, it feels as if the dub is almost afraid to translate the vocals of the original Japanese version. The characters don’t really have an emotional range, never seeming to raise or lower the volume of their voice regardless of the situation. Intense moments are met with a dull surprise at best. This really takes away from any given moment that the visuals and dialogue itself are attempting to create, and it can honestly get kind of painful to listen to.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, definitely fits the overall feel of the series. Centred on the more historically refined instruments, the audio adds a sense of flair to the series. Trumpets provide the regal feel sought by Utena in her goal to be prince-like. “Zettai Unmei Mokushiroku (Absolute Destiny Apocalypse)” also begins to play each time Utena opens the Rose Gate, becoming synonymous with the series’ numerous duels. This possess some pretty intense lyrics, though they appear to simply be a collection of thematically relevant words.
The piano and, more specifically, the song “The Sunlit Garden” also plays directly into the story as it is central to the relationship between Miki and Anthy. In the two episodes focusing on the dynamic between them, the tune is played numerous times by both characters, representing the connection between them, if any actually exists that is.
Utena contains the regular extras for an anime release, featuring a clean version of both the opening and ending themes, “Rondo – Revolution” and “Truth” respectively. Also included are a number of TV spots for the remastered series, one for each duelling opponent along with a general thirty second trailer. A TV spot and the official music video for “Rondo – revolution” are also present. Also included in the collection is a book featuring episode commentaries by director Kunihiko Iruhara, along with his thoughts on the opening theme and closing animation. It also includes staff discussions about the updated audio and visuals, a look into the shifting ideals in “girls’ manga”, excerpts of notes found in the original laser disc release of Utena and an art gallery. Whew.
Utena is immediately recognisable as an older anime series. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad thing. Though dated, the animation has an almost nostalgic air to it, calling back to a different time of anime. That being said, the plot is also dated in a different way, tending to leave much ambiguity. Though this may be attributed to the collection presenting a third of the total series, it still feels as if the characters are too shallow for the amount of time they’ve had exploring them. Revolutionary Girl Utena is an odd series that amidst its bright colours, explores some of the more twisted and unspoken forms of “love”. Though you might want to watch it in Japanese…trust me.
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