First Impressions: Revolutionary Girl Utena

She doesn’t give a damn about gender roles.

She only wants justice.

I wanted to check this series out for one reason and one alone: I saw the cover art and thought that it looked cool. The title on its own wouldn’t be enough to get me there; visions of moe girls wearing too-short skirts while blasting off into space come to mind, and that’s not really my cup of tea. But the cover art was sharp and shadowy and cool, enough so that I sought this episode out.

Utena, proving that the rules are on her side. Screw you, dress code!

This episode begins with a wee fairy tale (with gorgeous art that totally reminds me of the anime fairy tales that I used to watch as a kid) then flips over to a school where we meet our main gal, Utena. Turns out she insists on wearing a version of the boy’s school uniform in lieu of the girl’s, and since there’s nothing in the rule book against it, the pinched-face teacher who objects can do nothing about it. Utena goes about her day, enjoying the company of a girl named Wakaba, who playfully refers to Utena as her “boyfriend.” While gazing out of a window, Utena spies a girl named Anthy getting yelled at by a guy. She assumes it’s a lover’s quarrel until he slaps her. Utena is alarmed, but is relieved when she sees that another guy has stopped it.

Bishōnen bastard in action.

Later on Utena and Wakaba encounter a group of boys reading a love letter that has been tacked to a board and making fun of it. It turns out that the letter was written by Wakaba and given to Saionji, the very same green-haired bastard who was hitting Anthy outside. Utena seeks Saionji out and, noting that he’s captain of the Kendo team, challenges him to a duel. He smirks a bastardly smirk and offers to meet her in the forest behind the school. Once Utena arrives she discovers a strange gate that just happens to open with the help of the rose ring that she wears. Immediately she finds herself walking up a long winding path toward what appears to be an upside-down castle. Saionji is at the top, as is Anthy. An epic battle with epic music commences. Utena kicks ass, and the bastard is taken down. Meanwhile the guy who stopped Saionji earlier has been watching the duel from afar and says that Utena has “lit the fire to my heart.” Our heroine is leaving the school when Anthy appears and says that she is the Rose Bride, and from that day on, she belongs to Utena. The end!

BATTLE!

I LOVED this episode. I loved everything from the art and the music, both of which were deliciously dated, to the characters and story. Utena is like a more badass version of Misaki from Maid Sama, and as much as I enjoy Maid Sama, it’s kind of awesome to have a female protagonist who not only talks the talk but also walks the walk. She wears what she wants and stands up for what she believes in, and the yuri undertones only seem to make her more popular. Anthy is still a mystery, but I very much look forward to finding out what is involved with all this “Rose Bride” business. Saionji has beautiful bishōnen hair and is a complete dick, making him someone whom you love to hate. The story was great: elements of shoujo, elements of yuri, and elements of fantasy, all rolled up into a delicious sushi ball of delectable goodness. I seriously can’t wait to watch episode two. If the rest of Revolutionary Girl Utena is as great as its promising beginning, then I’ll have proof that sometimes it’s worthwhile to judge a book by its cover!

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. LLJ
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 20:38:59

    Now this is a show I like commenting on!

    Utena is odd, flawed, but still truly fantastic, and fully deserves its “avant garde” label as well as its rep as a shoujo classic. There are colleges and universities even in North American that have used this show in their gender studies courses, because in the end, it really does actually push a very feminist agenda. It also has a lot to say about women in patriarchal societies, the roles of men and women and how we define them, as well as exploring various relationships both hetero and homosexual and even…incest. Yup, it’s real envelope pushing, and it goes into uncomfortable territory, even by today’s standards.

    Of course, it’s anime and not a university lecture, so it doesn’t just hand it to you in a straightforward manner, plus it’s more fun to sit through. 😉 It’s a highly metaphorical show, so you have to learn to read between the lines and symbolism when something seemingly random occurs.

    I hope you might check out the Nozomi DVDs if you’re watching through streams and you feel you like it. They show is so rich in intrepretation that they included these really thick booklets (On my final Utena set, the booklet that came with it easily topped 150 pages!) that features TONs of interviews and much of the staff discuss their views on the show’s themes of society, sexuality and the gender roles–much more in depth than you would expect to hear from a typical Japanese anime staff. You can tell that they discussed these issues in great detail going into the show, and you can tell everyone was fully committed and engaged with the project.

    Oh, I’d also like to menion that much of the staff from Utena worked on Sailor Moon. If you’re familiar with Sailor Moon, you’ll notice that Utena generally is structured in a similar way as Sailor Moon: a girl goes through a series of battles against lesser foes and works her way up to the ultimate antagonist. Also like Sailor Moon, it uses (and abuses) recycled pre-battle footage. And finally, much like Sailor Moon, the stakes continue to get higher and higher as the series slowly reaches the endgame, so much so that the climax feels much more than just a battle of good vs evil.

    Interestingly, Sailor Moon S–the season before some of the staff moved to work on Utena–is considerably darker and more surreal in tone than the rest of the Sailor Moon series. One might speculate that these people were already doing a training run for some of Utena’s themes and tone before actually doing it.

    Sorry for the long post, but Utena’s a really rich show that inspires much discussion and interpretation. It’s obviously fun show taken at face value, but bring your social studies hat and you’ll find it even more rewarding.

    Reply

    • Miss Pink
      Jan 26, 2012 @ 03:15:23

      Ooo, and now I’m looking forward to watching it even more. I love symbolism and reading between the lines in entertainment. (I took a class on fairy tales in grad school and was ecstatic when we watched and critically dissected In the Company of Wolves, a movie so esoteric that it barely even makes sense at face value.) And as a feminist scholar, I would love some anime to throw into my feminist bag of tricks. (Right now I have Princess Jellyfish, and that’s about it.)

      Funnily enough, I’ve heard of Sailor Moon (who hasn’t?) but I’ve never watched a single episode. It’s silly, I know, especially seeing as how I still avidly watch Batman: The Animated Series as well as shoujo of all sorts, but there are some long-running anime series that I kind of throw into my “that’s for kiddies” file, such as Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, and the aforementioned Sailor Moon. But then I see pictures of cosplayers of all ages dressed as Sailor Moon characters, so I figured there must be something to it. Though like Bleach and Gintama, any series that has over fifty episodes seems a bit intimidating to start watching.

      So I might get even more from Utena since I’m not familiar with Sailor Moon! Perhaps I’ll enjoy Utena so much that I’ll look into Sailor Moon, though it might not work very well for me if Utena is the darker series (I tend to prefer darker elements in my stories). I am watching it via streaming, but based on the first episode I’m certainly interested in the DVDs. I just blew all my Xmas money on pre-ordering Princess Jellyfish, but next time I have cash to spare, and if the next few episodes are as good as the first, I’ll definitely make room on my shelf for this series. 🙂

      Thanks for the great comments!

      Reply

  2. LLJ
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 11:56:26

    Sailor Moon is a fascinating series. On one hand, it really is for kids, with its goofy special attack names, childish protagonist and generally Power-Rangerish vibe. On the other hand, if you stick with a whole season long enough, you start to see more sophisticated undercurrents. It’s also a very well-directed series in many ways, with lots of bizarre visual flourishes, and the show is famous for the tension it builds in the 10 or so episodes leading up to the end of each season.

    Sailor Moon herself is an odd heroine. At first glance, she’s not at all someone many feminists would want to get behind. She’s lazy, she’s a goof-off, and she cries a lot. And in the first 1-2 seasons, she often needs a lot of help getting out of messes, and much of the help comes in the form of her male love interest, Tuxedo Mask/Kamen.

    Still, she does share one thing in common with Utena, in that she’s incredibly stubborn and resolute when the chips are down. She has a personal moral system that’s all her own and she sticks with it no matter what–even when her friends disagree with her. In some ways, this makes her both admirable and divisive. Of course, in the end she’s always right since this is her show, but they always make for good coffee conversations.

    And each season is almost more a clash of ideals rather than simple good vs evil fests. This is what gives the show’s drama it’s punch. Will Sailor Moon compromise her ideals in the face of the most hopeless circumstances? Many season finales tend to pile up the grimness as the situation gets more and more hopeless, just to see if Sailor Moon will bend her values an inch.

    Although the show tends to ultimately give you happy endings, the episodes leading up to these season finales can feature some pretty surprising body counts.

    Reply

    • Miss Pink
      Jan 28, 2012 @ 13:02:25

      Wow. Yeah, it was the Power Rangers vibe that was throwing me off. (I never cared for PR.) But you make quite the compelling case. I’ll definitely check it out!

      Reply

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