Story Pile: Revolutionary Girl Utena

When I hear people talk about ’90s anime’ it seems to be used to refer to the early 90s, with long-running, heavily episodic series that often didn’t have satisfying endings, but that was okay because you were always there for the ride. Stuff like Ranma 1/2 (take a drink), Yu Yu Hakusho, Sailor Moon, and Dragonball. Thing is, while that stuff has lasted (and is great and fine), that is the early 90s. Seemingly split in half, it’s the late 90s where the anime making a splash in English language areas took a sharp turn; you got Cowboy Bebop, Serial Experiments Lain and Trigun, all anime I remember watching at the time. I don’t know if I saw the change at the time, but I do now in hindsight.

Revolutionary GIrl Utena was one of the Very Noticeable anime of the late 1990s; from that period when suddenly the anime you were getting were a bit less ‘whacky hammerspace’ and a bit more ‘you need to watch every episode and also here the villain fist-fights a rogue kangaroo.’

Revolutionary Girl Utena is visually splendid, has lovely music, is steeped knee-deep in metaphorical symbolism, and queer in the way that its faintest fig leaf stands between it and the audience. It’s a fairy tale but one where the fairies are like, the horrifying kind. Revolutionary Girl Utena was my, and many other anime fans’ introduction to an anime that resisted easy answers.

Anyway, there are some sort-of-spoilers after the fold, if you really care about spoilers for a 25 year old anime you weren’t going to watch don’t lie to me.

You can, if you want, go talk to the authors of Revolutionary GIrl Utena . Be-Papas, an artist collective, wrote it, but really that mostly means Kunihiko Ikuhara, who before this worked on Sailor Moon R, and afterwords worked on Penguindrum. Ikuhara also cosplays as Sailor Mars periodically, and as of a few weeks ago from me writing this, may be now going by the name Bonsoir Ikuhara, but that may be a thing for just the band. Ikuhara wants to work with Daivd Lynch, and talks about how media and its interpretation needs to be critical of the very fundamental ways humans interact.

I don’t think you’re going to get a straight answer out of Ikuhara about what Revolutionary GIrl Utena ‘should’ be seen as being about, because I’m not even sure what pronouns to use for Ikuhara.

Now, it’s common in English circles to circulate that Ikuhara said that ‘all interpretations of Revolutionary GIrl Utena are correct,’ but I can’t find provenance for that quote, even if it sounds exactly like the kind of thing you’re going to hear if you talk to someone who seems as aggressively art as Ikuhara. Sailor Moon R ended with the Sailor Scouts all being crucified on crystals in space, and that’s a show for eight year olds.

Even then I don’t like turning to the author to work out ‘what this show means’ because what the hell does the author know? If I did that route I’d have to listen to guys like Jonathon Blow about the meaning of Braid and that’s dumb as hell.

It has been the work of these past few years to speak in less general terms about what you would find in a piece of media, as if I know what you think and in my explanation, I am guiding you to a point you would have reached on your own, but rather to instead more honestly talk about what I found, and why I found it, and what that means to me and why you might find a similar experience of the media. This can be complicated when I want to talk about the zeitgeist — the spirit of the time, the way the community felt at large.

I can’t speak for the community. I can’t speak for what it was like in general. In the same way that Evangelion is a sort of decontaminated Discourse Zone for my experience, that doesn’t mean that it was the ‘first anime’ that did that for anyone else. Sure, it was my first and the first for a lot of my friends, and that’s all I can say about its place in history. When I talk about Revolutionary GIrl Utena, though, there was a similarity and a wild difference at work here.

Watching Evangelion, I could be 100% sure at the mid point of the series I knew what I was looking at, knew where it was going, and was pretty sure I knew how it was going to end. The choices presented to me were of a very small number — Shinji would Get In The Robot and fight a big angel, or maybe he’d fight the other Eva, or maybe there’d be a big twist at the end where Shinji fought his dad. Really, the Kaoru episode was probably where I expected the story to end. That Evangelion concluded with an ending that seemed so alien to the direction the story was why it was definitely one of the earlier anime that made me, and people around me, realise that anime (and media) could often end with a question. That question was often ‘what the hell just happened.’

I think Revolutionary GIrl Utena was the first time I – and my peer group – ever watched an anime that was so deliberately, actively, and aggressively constructed to use symbolism, to be about what it was about. We called it ‘surreal’ at the time, but watching it anew, I think we use that term to describe anything ‘not realistic, in ways we notice,’ and any given artist or expert on surrealism would know a lot better. It doesn’t really do anything that feels ‘surreal’ in hindsight. There’s definitely some use of unreal imagery, of things that aren’t as simple as ‘blue curtains symbolise sadness,’ but it’s not like time flows backwards or anything like that. It’s definitely strange — but the more I understand ideas like surrealism the more I feel we use ‘surrealism’ as a catch-all to mean ‘it does weird stuff.’

Let me then, tell you what I think, when I look at Revolutionary GIrl Utena .

On the top level, it’s a story about a pink-haired girl coming of age and graduating from school. It’s got some adventure stuff, it’s got duels that represent relatable problems of that period, and makes all those experiences as big feeling as possible. Our protagonist, Utena Tenjou, is the coolest girl in the world, and on whom I probably had some kind of a crush and may, now I think about it, dawn of my preference for ‘dangerous femboy’ style character design. One day at her fancy private school with all these unanswered questions about it, she finds herself having to act on her ideals, of being a prince, and she steps in to save a girl from her abusive boyfriend. The resultant story casts her into a tense political situation with an all-powerful student council, which kind of feels like the first time it ever showed up to this extent in an anime. She meets the duelists, she fights them, then other duelists show up and she fights them and there’s questions of why they fight and what they want to fight and midway through the story we learn how this ties into her background and she has to confront what it means when her ideals are presented with why she has them.

That can really be Revolutionary GIrl Utena. A really cool shoujou series about dueling and people almost-but-not-quite kissing members of their own gender. There are swords and styling outfits and a hilarious subplot about a guy who fought a kangaroo’s little sister creating her own minion who she can boss around. If you watch it and that’s all you get that’s all you have to get and the idea of the show being incoherent kinda falls apart.

On the next level, it’s a narrative about shojo manga. Specifically it’s about mid-90s shoujo manga. It’s about the way that Sailor Moon R was trying to tell a story where the Sailor Senshi actually goddamned died but the people publishing the series were cowards and didn’t want to do that (and I’m honestly okay with that). Revolutionary GIrl Utena just does a bunch of, well, Shojo Stuff. There’s long slow pans over beautifully rendered art. There’s schoolgirl crushes (on other girls). There’s impossibly pretty boys having cryptic conversations. There’s sibling relationships that get a bit weird. There’s a filler arc that looks like it was designed to be about filler arcs, where you get an almost fanficcy expansion of a bunch of secondary characters, and then their entire involvement is written out of the story. The series uses its stock art and reused animation assets, like transformation sequences in other shojo anime to build expectations (and to save money) and that money-saving gets to be used for strategic scenes.

Revolutionary GIrl Utena begins with a simple premise, of the Girl Prince, which is, again, a killer premise and I think I know some people who qualify, and then uses it as the centerpiece of a bunch of classic Shojo storytelling. First it explores the premise in its obvious way (she duels villains and rescues a princess); then it complicates the question (who has she chosen not to save); then it questions the premise at its genesis (is it a good idea if it came from a bad source)?

And also, as many shojo anime, it uses girls as like uh…

Look, Revolutionary GIrl Utena is a pretty horny series, even if a lot of the horny is happening off-screen or when it’s on-screen it’s being used to communicate someone being manipulative.

Then, on the next level down, it’s a queer narrative that’s very interested in queerness. These days with our pronouns in bios and our explicitly nonbinary Testaments it may feel quaint, but Revolutionary GIrl Utena is full of that very specific 1990s Queer In Ways We Won’t Talk About Much. Juri being a lesbian is a shocking twist for its episode, and I always got the vibe that we were meant to see it as tragic, because look, lesbians could fall in love with people who weren’t lesbians and wasn’t that a tragic way for a lesbian to pine.

You might notice this trope as really common nowadays, because someone dusted off Sappho and went ‘oh hey, this is older than dirt.’

Utena herself doesn’t lean hard into being gender non-conforming — she’s a bokuko, a girl who uses the normally-masculine self-reference boku, and she wears a boy’s uniform, but she also asserts at multiple points that she’s a girl, who is interested in guys. This is extremely true to the bisexual experience, especially at that age, of asserting that You Are Normal. I never got a trans narrative out of Revolutionary GIrl Utena, because it seemed much more focused on a lot of very bisexual stuff — about what it meant to be interested in your own gender, and also how that involved differentiating yourself.

How many of these duels are based out of hate or want? How many of them are of disappointed love? When you’re dealing with deliberately ambiguous language, like how Japanese lets conversational language obscure the exact depth of an expression or the specific character you’re talking about, it can be hard to say, but also it would be pretty fanciful to think that, say, Wakaba and Juri are doing things for Entirely Heterosexual Reasons.

‘All interpretations are true.’

Revolutionary GIrl Utena is media that is meant to be grappled with, it’s meant to engage you, it’s meant to make you wonder what a thing could mean. Any given explanation is ridiculous because there are questions of exactly how much the reality of the show is a reality. I remember keenly being told that everything in Revolutionary GIrl Utena literally and actually happens — that because Anthy is a witch, even things like sight gags and the flashed-in frames are actually literally there, and that’s how the story ‘should’ be seen.

Me, I’m not so into that, but I do like some added dimensions to the story.

First, I think that the shadows are literally aliens that dropped into observe this story as it’s happening and try to make sense of it with other information they’ve gleaned from other sources. They’re there to talk to the audience, not to interact with the story (mostly). But they’re also talking to one another, right? And… that means if they’re talking to other aliens and to you, doesn’t that imply that you, too, are like them? A shadow on the wall, watching this series, unable to change it?

I like the idea that Akio, as the Prince, needs the world to be a particular way for him to have power — so that power needs the world to be a particular way. He wanted to keep a cycle of that power going, but eventually, someone was going to break free from it, and that someone was Utena. And once someone opened the door, once someone showed that the world is not a thing that belongs to Princes, even the people closest to the power could leave.

There’s a sort of running joke in the community about how ‘deniable’ the relationship between Utena and Anthy is, and the thing is, yeah? It’s – it’s funny. It’s funny because the show doesn’t say it, it just, you know, leads right up to it, and then spends its time in the anime itself leaning against an invisible wall around the term bisexual. And that’s really interesting for something from its particular period of time, when that word was taboo and even then, the movie wound up explicating it.

Plus, the thing is, if Anthy and Utena are definitely doing it than Miki and Kozue gets a lot more complicated and a bit more squicky. But I mean I guess this series drives up to that particular drive-through, it doesn’t get to claim it was just going to order a single black coffee.

Finally, something to carry with you, even if Revolutionary GIrl Utena doesn’t have something in it that works for you, specifically; in just the opening line of the theme song, you get the wonderful coda that I think we can all carry with us in Pride Month and beyond:

Let’s Live Heroically,
Let’s Live with Style

I really like Revolutionary GIrl Utena ! And people talking about it like it’s incomprehensible weirdness tends to make me wonder if we don’t sound like big dummies who don’t know how to do a symbolism, or even talk about the ways that symbolism can even work.

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