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Revolutionary Girl Utena: a Fairytale for Adults

Once upon a time…

…there was a princess grieving over the deaths of her mother and father.

Before this princess appeared a prince traveling upon a white horse.

His appearance gallant, and his smile gentle, the prince enveloped the princess

in the scent of roses, and wiped away her tears.

“Little one bearing up alone under grief,

please lose not thy strength and nobility when thou growest up.”

“As a token of this day, please retain this.”

“Pray, shall we meet once more?”

“This ring should guide thee to me.”

“Was the ring from the prince meant as an engagement ring?

That part was good,

but because of the strength of her admiration for the prince,

the princess made up her mind to become a prince herself!

But is that really good for her?

(From The Utena Translation Project)

Cue title card: The Rose Bride

This is the prologue to the 1997 anime Revolutionary Girl Utena. Its simple story introduces common fairytale tropes just to twist them at the end. A young, orphaned girl is comforted by a handsome prince. There is the implication that he will return to marry her. Yet instead of feeling overjoyed by the possibility of becoming his wife, the young princess is so impressed 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 isolated in her windy and stormy landscape. The characters are mere silhouettes, black shadows with pastel hair and clothes–– save for a couple of close-ups of a young girl with pink hair whose tears are kissed away by a white-haired young man, and of his gloved hands placing a rose crested ring upon her finger. When the girl becomes a prince, her dress is transforms into a medieval prince’s costume. She wears a vest, puffed shorts and tights, her tiara changes into a larger more masculine crown, and her hair released from their curls, runs freely over her shoulders and down her back. 

The prologue of Revolutionary Girl Utena is a reflection of a show that subverts and deconstructs fairytale elements in order to create new classifications of fairytale roles that are unfixed from gender. The prologue also introduces the conflict of adolescence: will the princess-prince maintain her strength and nobility even into adulthood? Revolutionary Girl Utena is a show that is concerned with how children’s sense of the world and of themselves changes as they grow up. Utena is a fairytale of adolescence where fairytale tropes are redefined by narratives centered on the struggles of adolescence. Revolutionary Girl Utena asks, “Can fairytales hold true in the real world?”

Despite the fantastical setting of its introduction, the show takes place in modern Japan. The princess-turned-prince from the fairytale is now 14 years old. Her name1 is Utena Tenjou2, and she is finishing her second semester at 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 (that immensely aggravates her guidance counselor). She is athletic, excelling at a variety of school sports. She is also brave and noble, willing to stand up 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. She takes what she wants out of femininity (empathy, sentimentality, and fashion sense) and masculinity (bravery, strength and nobility) in order to be the best version of herself. The Rose Bride introduces Utena’s definition of princeliness and foreshadows her struggle to both be a prince and have a prince.

Utena’s first episode is an egg that viewers must crack. On the surface it’s pretty simple – a passionate and strong-willed girl, inspired by her encounter with a princely figure who saved her when she was young, decides to champion the weaker girls around her. In her haste to defend Wakaba, a close friend who was publicly rejected and humiliated by Saionji, the Vice President of the Student Council, Utena stumbles upon the fantastical conspiracy that the Student Council is embroiled in. The Student Council duels for the right to be engaged to the Rose Bride Anthy Himemiya3 a quiet and soft-spoken girl who tends to the school’s rose garden–– and is said to possess the power to “revolutionize the world.” Their claim to her is symbolized by the rose-crested ring they all wear. When Saionji sees Utena’s ring, he challenges her to a duel. Upon winning, Utena is betrothed to Anthy. The premise is simple. The characters are simple. They all fall easily into archetypes – Utena is the classical hero protagonist, Anthy is the stereotypical damsel in distress, Wakaba is the boisterous the comic relief side character, and Saionji is the abusive and possessive 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 breaking its unassuming veneer. It requires paying close attention to the show’s visuals, even to choices that feel purely decorative such as the spinning roses that mark transitions between scenes and the surreal backgrounds. The world of Utena is not as simple as it appears, or as its fairytale storyline implies. It is a show about the subconscious. Characters, especially Utena herself, are guided by repressed memories and longings. 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 puppetry. Sudden shifts–– such as going from soft and dreamy pastels to harsh and dramatic blacks and whites–– reminds its audience of how the tone of the show is constantly hovering between comedy and tragedy. Utena the character is both cheerful and solemn; although Utena’s princely ambitions are exciting, they are also deeply connected to her grief. Although Utena is popular, she is also lonely and isolated. When she is surrounded by her peers, the atmosphere is light and comedic, but when she is alone, it is dark and gloomy.

Ohtori Academy’s architectures is a mixture of Neoclassical, Gothic, and modern design; it is composed of multitude of arches, and Greco-Roman columns, and low sprawling buildings. During the daytime, the scenery is grand and inviting, but at night, it becomes oppressive and eerie – showcasing that while Ohtori appears to be a normal preparatory school on its surface, it is full of sinister secrets. It is after strolling through the school’s many archways and ruminating on her half-remembered recollections of her prince, that she meets Anthy whose rose smell reminds her of “back then.”

The show’s score also hints at the series’ two-toned nature by offsetting gentle visuals with ominous music.The haunting melody that plays during Utena’s battle with Saionji tells of a “holy actor cast into hell.” The song at first feels ill-suited to a fast-paced action scene. Yet, it provides insight into Anthy, the mostly silent observer of the battle. The show’s opening and closing themes showcase the duality of Utena’s character – the opening, a brazen declaration to revolutionize the world reflects the facade she puts out, while the closer, a vulnerable plea for the “missing truth” and “a kissing love,” describes her vulnerability and inner turmoil.

All of the details introduced in the show’s first episode feel connected. The prince who rescued Utena bestows upon her a rose-crested ring, the school she attends is covered in the same crest–– its tiled in the floors, engraved upon the ceiling and arches, and decorates the stained-glass windows. Utena’s ring is identical to those worn by the Student Council, and unlocks the doors -which are also shaped like roses- to the arena where rose duels occur. The show’s imagery suggests that not only is Utena is fated to meet her prince at Ohtori, but that their reunion is connected to the rose duels.

Another common theme of this episode is Armageddon. The Student Council receives orders from a mysterious benefactor called The End of The World, and the music that plays as Utena enters the arena foretell of an endless cycle of life and rebirth and “the Absolute Destiny of the Apocalypse.” The emphasis on the end of the world hints that the revolution Utena and Anthy eventually set into motion has a catastrophic impact.

The story of Utena lies in its details, and the fun of watching the show is figuring out how they all fit together. Utena is a BePapas production, but it is also a story that the audience constructs as they watch it. It is up to the audience to discern which symbols are significant and why; we can decide whether or not to interrogate the purpose of the giant castle floating upside down from the sky–– and why only a few characters can see it.

As the beginning of a coming-of-age narrative, the first episode also establishes themes of childhood and innocence. Utena’s prince encourages her, “never to lose that strength or nobility even when you grow up.” There is a regality inherent to childhood – that can be lost upon maturation (as proven by Utena’s jaded and bitter guidance counselor). Utena’s cast is comprised of adolescents who are on the cusp on adulthood and desperately striving to be more grown up, endeavoring to “break their world’s shells.” Everyone that is, except for Utena who fervently holds onto her childhood dream of being a prince who saves princesses. In order for Utena to be a prince, she must defend her childish mentality – she must protect the world of princes and princesses against the reality where fairytales are lies parents tell their children to help them sleep.

Revolutionary Girl Utena is the first fairytale I have connected with since childhood. I can relate to Utena’s desire to protect her optimistic 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 reality we live in. Revolutionary Girl Utena is a show for all of the people who loved and clutched and grew disillusioned with the Disney films that defined their youth. It is a fable for a more mature and jaded audience, a show packed with feminist themes, fatalism, depression, allusions to the apocalypse, and absurdist humor. Utena is a gorgeous, fantastical whirlwind – and its first episode will leave you breathless, bewildered, and excited to see what happens next. 

If you are interested, check it out! Nozomi Entertainment, the company behind the official English release put both the subbed and dubbed versions of the show on YouTube for free! If you have the time, there is no reason not to watch it.

[1] Although I use Western naming-order conventions within the review, 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 junior English student at TCNJ.
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