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Revolutionary Girl Utena

Entry updated 7 March 2022. Tagged: TV.

Japanese animated tv series (1997). Original title Shōjo Kakumei Utena. Created by Be-Papas. J.C.Staff. Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. Written by Yōji Enokido. Voice cast includes Yuriko Fuchizaki, Tomoko Kawakami, Jūrōta Kosugi and Hikaru Midorikawa. 39 23-minute episodes. Colour.

As newly orphaned Utena Tenjou (Kawakami) mourns, she is comforted by a travelling Prince, who gives her a ring with a rose crest. Utena is so impressed that years later she attends Ohtori Academy dressed in a boy's uniform, explaining to the confused that she's a girl who wants to be a Prince. The series is divided into four Sagas, the first being the Student Council Saga, wherein Utena defeats the Council's Champion Duellist, acquiring his title and, with it, engagement to Anthy Himemiya (Fuchizaki), The Rose Bride. Utena then defeats the challenges of other council members. Anthy's brother is Akio Ohtori (Kosugi) the school's Chairman. Reflecting other peoples desires, not her own, Anthy will later lament she's a doll without a heart: nonetheless, an uncertain relationship with Utena develops.

In the Black Rose Saga Utena defeats more challengers, created through psychological (see Psychology) manipulation by Professor Souji Mikage (Midorikawa), who plans to make his sickly friend Mamiya Chida the Rose Bride. But Mamiya is Anthy in drag: the original Mamiya is long dead, and the unaging Souji – who might be a ghost (see Supernatural Creatures) – is being manipulated by Akio. The Akio Ohtori Saga has Akio persuading the Student Council members to again duel with Utena; and again they lose. In The Apocalypse Saga we discover Akio is Utena's Prince. In the past Anthy protected a wearied Prince Dios, who was Akio, from his subjects' demands, becoming a scapegoat (suffering "The Million Swords of Humanity's Hatred"): Akio seeks to free her spirit from behind the Rose Door, but fails. Utena is more successful, but disappears. In the end, Academy life goes on with Utena absent and Akio planning to restart the duels – but Anthy leaves him and the Academy to search for Utena elsewhere in the world.

As with Ikuhara's other works – see Penguindrum (2011), Yuri Kuma Arashi (2015) and Sarazanmai (2019) – there is a complex plot laden with allegory (often obscure) and Humour (including a boxing kangaroo); visually it reflects the style of shōjo Manga, which targets teenage girls, but with much surrealistic imagery (see Absurdist SF). Although the astronomer (see Astronomy) Akio argues the fantastic imagery (upside-down castles in the sky; the duelling arena) are illusions generated by his planetarium, requiring technological explanations (see Technology) would miss the point and would still leave much unexplained, such as Utena and Anthy's Identity Exchange and the Rose Door scenes. The series' look is influenced by the Theatre, including using shadow play as a Greek Chorus; a little randomly, the shadow players turn out to be Aliens and we even see silhouettes of their flying saucer (see UFOs) and a Robot.

The story themes include the abusive relationships glamorized by 1990s shōjo Anime and Manga (such as high schooler/adult and incestuous romances); Feminism (women as princesses or witches: see Clichés); and the roles imposed by society and the strong (Akio takes Utena's sword, saying she has no need of it as he will protect her) – all of which play into each other and the LGBT relationships that dominate the show (by no means limited to Utena and Anthy). Regarding the latter, Television censorship (see Taboos) meant these (and other matters) could only be (strongly) hinted at.

The series' inspirations include the manga The Princess Knight (1953-1956; original title Ribon no Kishi) by Osamu Tezuka and The Rose of Versailles (1972; original title Berusaiyu no Bara) by Riyoko Ikeda (see Year 24 Group) – and the latter's subsequent musical version by the all-woman Takarazuka Theatre Troupe. Like Sailor Moon, which Ikuhara also worked on, Utena was to prove influential on subsequent anime and western animation – particularly Steven Universe, whose Rebecca Sugar described Utena as an "epiphany for me", commending "the way that it plays with the semiotics of gender", and also She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

Utena was created by Be-Papas, a collective formed by Ikuhara. A film, Adolescence of Utena (1999) followed: this and the television series were preceded by Manga illustrated by Chiho Saito, who later wrote After the Revolution (2017-2018), set twenty years on. Further spinoffs include a Videogame and five musicals. [SP]


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