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Revolutionary Girl Utena: A Fairytale of Adolescence

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at TCNJ chapter.

A Review of Revolutionary Girl Utena’s First Episode 

The prologue to the 1997 anime Revolutionary Girl Utena presents a simple story with common fairytale elements, only to twist them when you least expect it. A young, orphaned girl is comforted by a handsome prince who disappears but promises to return to her when she is older. Yet, rather than feel excited by the prospect of becoming his wife, the young girl is so impressed by him that she decides to become a prince herself. 

The simplicity of the narrative is mirrored in the scene’s visuals: the prince dressed in white charges down a dark and twisted terrain on a white horse. The young girl, wearing a tiara and a puffy yellow gown, sits alone in a windy and stormy landscape. The characters are silhouettes with pastel hair and clothes. The prince kisses away the princess’s tears and places a rose-crested ring on her finger. When the girl becomes a prince, her dress transforms into a vest, puffed shorts, and tights, and her hair, released from tight curls, runs freely over her shoulders and down her back. The prologue of Revolutionary Girl Utena is a microcosm of the anime itself, a reflection of a show that challenges gender roles by subverting fairytale conventions. 

Just as the introduction reveals how Utena rejects traditional femininity, it also introduces the conflict of the show: will the girl prince hold onto her conviction as she grows up? Will she continue to be a prince when her own returns for her? Throughout the first episode, fairytale tropes are used to examine how beliefs about oneself and the world are challenged during the transition from childhood into adulthood. In short, Revolutionary Girl Utena is a story that asks, do fairytales hold true in the real world?

The first episode The Rose Bride introduces how Utena defines princeliness and foreshadows her struggle to both be a prince and have a prince. Despite the fantastical setting of its introduction, Revolutionary Girl Utena takes place in modern Japan. The girl-prince from the fairytale is now 14 years old. Her name[1] is Utena Tenjou[2], and she is finishing her second semester as a new transfer to Ohtori Academy. Utena is still committed to being a prince – but on her own terms. She wears a “boy’s uniform” that consists of a black gakuran and red spandex shorts (and that immensely aggravates her guidance counselor). She is athletic, she excels at a wide variety of school sports. She is also brave and noble, willing to stand up for and sacrifice herself for her beliefs even when the odds are against her. Utena is the prince of the school, a girl that all others flock to. But she is not a boy. Her red shorts and socks and white heels speak to her taste in feminine fashions, while her long bubblegum pink hair shows that she is comfortable with her femininity. Utena’s princeliness is a hybrid of traditional femininity  (empathy, sentimentality, and fashion sense) and masculinity (bravery, strength and nobility). As she defends the weaker girls in her school, she continues to long for the prince who protected her. 

On the surface, the plot of the first episode is pretty simple. Utena, in her haste to defend Wakaba, a close friend who was publicly rejected and humiliated by Saionji, an upperclassman Wakaba liked, Utena stumbles upon the fantastical conspiracy the Student Council is embroiled in. The Student Council duels for the right to be engaged to the Rose Bride Anthy Himemiya [3], a quiet and soft-spoken girl who tends to the school’s rose garden – and is also said to possess the power to “revolutionize the world.” All student council members wear rose-crested rings that symbolize their right to fight for her hand. Upon recognizing Utena’s ring, Saionji, the Student Council Vice President challenges her to a duel. Upon winning the duel, Utena is betrothed to Anthy. The premise is simple. The characters are simple. They all fall easily into archetypes – Utena is the hero protagonist, Anthy is the damsel in distress, Wakaba is the comic relief side character, and Saionji is the cruel villain.

The subtext of Utena’s narrative is comparable to an egg yolk, buried under a simple shell yet filled with the potential to birth vital complexity. Understanding Utena requires cracking its simplistic facade. It requires paying close attention to its symbolism – to the spinning roses that border certain scenes and to changes within the setting. The anime’s visual and sound designs hint at the turmoil brewing beneath its surface. The animation style is reminiscent of acrylic, water and oil paintings, and shadow puppet theater. The shift between soft and dreamy pastels to harsh and dramatic blacks and whites reminds its audience of how the show’s tone is constantly hovering between comedy and tragedy. 

The changes within the show’s setting and art style reflect the polarity of Utena’s character. She is cheerful and solemn, popular and lonely. When Utena is surrounded by her peers, the atmosphere is light and humorous, but when she is alone, it is dark and gloomy. 

Utena’s duality is also expressed in the show’s opening and closing themes– the opening, a brazen declaration to revolutionize the world, and the ending a vulnerable plea for the “missing truth” and “kissing love.” Likewise, the score reveals an emotional undercurrent that may not be obvious on screen. For example, the haunting melody that plays during Utena’s battle with Saionji tells of a “holy actor cast into hell.” This music at first listen feels ill-suited to a fast-paced action scene and incongruent with the personalities of either duelist. Yet, it provides insight into Anthy, the mostly silent observer of the battle. 

The story of Revolutionary Girl Utena lies in its details. Revolutionary Girl Utena is not just a show crafted by BePapas, but one that the audience constructs as they interpret it. It is up to the audience to discern significant symbolism,  to ask why is Ohtori Academy covered in rose crests, and to interrogate the purpose of peculiarities like the giant castle floating upside down from the sky – and why only a select few students can see it. 

At its core, beyond the beautiful animation and the mysteries that surround Ohtori Academy and its inhabitants, Revolutionary Girl Utena is about a girl who is fighting to hold onto her childhood ideals. Utena’s cast is comprised of adolescents who are on the cusp of adulthood and desperately striving to be more grown up and to “break their world’s shells.” Everyone that is, except for Utena who fervently holds onto her dream of being a prince on a white horse who saves princesses. In order for Utena to be a prince, she must defend her perception of the world – she must protect her world of princes and princesses against a reality where fairytales are lies parents tell their children to help them sleep at night. Revolutionary Girl Utena is the first fairytale I have connected with since childhood. I can relate to Utena’s desire to protect her optimistic and idyllic understanding of the world. I can relate to her desire to embody the character she admires. Watching her fight to retain her beliefs reminded me of how I clung to my own childhood understandings as I transitioned into adulthood – and my hesitation to accept the messy and dark reality we are all part of. Revolutionary Girl Utena is a show for all of the people who loved and clutched and grew disillusioned with the Disney fairytales that defined their youth. It is a fable for a slightly more mature and jaded audience, a show packed with feminist themes, fatalism, depression, abuse of all kinds, allusions to the apocalypse, and absurdist humor. Revolutionary Girl Utena is a gorgeous, fantastical whirlwind – and its first episode will leave you bewildered and excited to see what happens next. 

[1] Although I use Western naming-order conventions within the body of the paper, in Japanese, the standard naming order is family name followed by personal name. When I explain the meaning of character names, I will keep them in their original order.

[2] Tenjou Utena (天上ウテナ): Tenjou (天上) roughly translates to “the heavens” or “the heavens above,” while Utena (ウテナ) means calyx. The calyx are the leaves closest to the bud of a flower and from which the bud springs.  

[3] Himemiya Anthy (姫宮 アンシ): Anthy’s last name is made up of two characters: Hime (姫) and Miya (宮). Hime means princess, while Miya means shrine or imperial gate. Anthy is derived from the Greek word, “anthizo” which means “flower” or “bloom”

Lysa Legros is a senior English student at TCNJ.