By Kathleen Townsend
Revolutionary Girl Utena is a series that draws on many things—from surrealism to post-war avant-garde to ancient Greek plays—and while some themes are pretty up-front, most people have a reaction more along the lines of: “That was great! But what the hell did I just watch?”
Sometimes the symbolism is easy to understand, like a birdcage-themed greenhouse where Anthy Himemiya spends most of her time. Other times, it’s charging elephants, stopwatches, or songs that read more like the aftermath of an academic’s intense Scrabble game.
There’s so much to unpack in Revolutionary Girl Utena, so let’s take a look at the series’ major themes and some of those head-scratching metaphors.
Of princes and princesses
If there’s one thing mentioned the most in Revolutionary Girl Utena, it’s royalty, with imagery of girls in flowing dresses and princes on white horses abound. As often as they’re mentioned, though, the series smashes these antiquated gender stereotypes to bits. And no one excels at this quite like Utena Tenjou, our main character.
Utena attends Ohtori Academy, but it wasn’t the school’s academic record or club variety that drew her to it. It was the school’s crest, a rose symbol matching a ring given to her as a child by a mysterious prince.
While Utena might be at Ohtori to see her prince once more, she doesn’t embody a stereotypical princess at all. Utena wears a boys’ uniform, plays sports with the boys, girls fawn over her, and she’s very well-known on campus.
Gender conformity isn’t something Utena is interested in. Being saved by a prince wasn’t the important part, and she has no intention of becoming his princess or a damsel in distress. Impressed simply by his grace and nobility, Utena decides to become a prince herself.
The question is, can Utena—pink-haired and surrounded by fancy dresses—break free of the pressure to conform to gender stereotypes and embody the noble prince she strives to be? It’s quite the challenge.
First off, not everyone agrees with or understands Utena’s decision to not act like a princess. From smaller, aggravating annoyances like the guidance counselor berating and pressuring Utena into wearing a girls’ uniform, to the machinations of student council president Touga Kiryuu seeking to make Utena his girlfriend. The pressure to conform is everywhere.
And yet, Utena stands tall. Sometimes she falters, losing sight of what’s important, but she always picks herself up and stubbornly, nobly, strives to live a princely life.
For friendship, perhaps
Straightness isn’t a factor in Revolutionary Girl Utena. Most of the cast is bisexual—either overtly stated, shown or implied. Relationships and characters are treated respectfully, but, just like gender conformity, there’s pushback from external sources and inner struggles to overcome.
Utena herself is bisexual. There’s a clear “more than friendship” going on with Anthy, even if Utena seems oblivious to it at first. Yet, other characters still fight for her affection, not always for the purest of reasons.
As mentioned above, Touga is particularly driven to see Utena as a princess by his side, just as he (and society) expects. This attempt at conformity is made all the more eye-rolling considering that, later in the series, Touga starts sleeping with Anthy’s older brother, Akio. But societal expectations can be hard to defy, even when we know we can’t fit into a preset mold.
While Utena is confident and open with her identity, other characters struggle to accept their sexuality, mismanaging things like love and heartbreak. Enter Juri Arisugawa.
Juri’s a student council member, president of the fencing club, overall stellar student and Utena’s upperclassman. Strong-willed and confident, Juri’s an impressive figure, with the entire school at her feet. But she’s not perfect, and the confidence she has in certain parts of her life don’t extend to her love life.
Juri is attracted to women and harbors an unrequited love for her former best friend, Shiori. Misunderstanding the situation, Shiori starts dating their mutual friend in a jealous attempt to get back at the seemingly perfect Juri. But Juri can’t easily forget about the girl who stole her heart, keeping Shiori’s picture safely tucked away in a locket.
From here, each of Juri’s normally avoidable struggles hit her at full force. She’s just not ready to come out to the world. The locket with Shiori’s picture is hidden beneath her uniform, away from the eyes of the world. It’s only when Juri’s alone or with a select few that she’ll proudly wear the locket over her clothes.
Does Juri need to fight the world for recognition of her sexuality, like Utena does with her princely nature? Maybe. But first, she has to be at peace with her heartbreak and build an inner confidence in her sexuality.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is no exception to depicting the messy waters of growing up. Themes of finding one’s sense of self, accepting sexuality and learning to solve internal conflict are all integral to the plot of the series.
Each character struggles with something different. Just as Juri can’t move on from heartbreak, others look for “something eternal” or, in the case of Miki Kaoru, a “shining thing.”
Miki is a student council member, a grade-skipping genius, and a musician who’s penned popular songs. Adolescence is thrown at him earlier than others due to his academic leapfrogging, and he struggles to let go of nostalgic childhood memories as he moves toward adulthood. Having grown apart from his twin sister, Kozue, Miki strives to find what he lost when she stopped playing the piano with him. The “what” in this case is something that never truly existed.
You see, Kozue never enjoyed playing the piano and was never any good at it. Precious memories they may be, Miki’s recounting is a misunderstanding. He’s unable to move forward, yearning for the easier days of his youth, of playing in a beautiful garden with his flawless other half.
Time marches on, no matter how hard Miki tries to stop it.
To the revolution!
Next up: conflict. Because, well, there’s a lot of it in Revolutionary Girl Utena. From the breakdown of societal norms to actual, literal duels, conflict is everywhere. Close friends come to blows, abuse and unhealthy relationships (hello, third arc!) are all too common, and character with dueling ideologies regularly duke it out.
But it’s not all about conflict as a metaphor. Utena doesn’t just metaphorically fight to prove her princely status to Touga. The two literally duel in a stone arena beneath an illusory castle in the sky.
Characters fight one another in old-fashioned duels using real swords, not wooden training swords, as Utena found out the hard way. On one level, the student councilors duel each other for possession of Anthy, Utena’s friend, roommate and crush. On another level, they duel for their ideals, their passions, the things they’ve lost and the things they’ve struggled to gain.
Let’s break that down. With the power of Dios (a faceless princely figure) and the “Rose Bride” (in this case, Anthy), the winner of the duel will be able to “revolutionize the world.” In other words, the winner of the duel will have the mental and physical power to force the world to bow to their will.
If you’ve ever tried to change someone’s point of view, you can probably see how well this goes.
We’ve only just scratched the surface on the ever-prescient themes in Revolutionary Girl Utena. It’s a classic series that does so much in teaching us about growing up, about sexuality and about the quest to find ourselves.
It’s a timeless piece of art that deserves to be experienced. Seriously, you’re going to love it.
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