Japanese Title: Shoujo Kakumei Utena
Related: Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Adolescence of Utena (alternate version)
Watched in: Japanese & English
Genre: Psychological Fantasy Drama
Length: 39 episodes
- Good imagery and world design.
- Silhouette sisters.
- The comedy episodes.
- Overused sequences.
- Black Rose arc.
- The villains and their metaphors.
- The Rose Bride is boring.
- Too much recap.
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I am hesitant to include Rose of Versailles in the ‘Similar’ section above, for it gives false expectations of Revolutionary Girl Utena. I expected Versailles in high school, but really, they share little beyond having tomboy protagonists. I am opposed to you having the same initial expectations that I had.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is a difficult anime to summarise. Not because the blurb is difficult – a tomboy called Utena fights off challengers in duels to protect the Rose Bride – rather, the blurb doesn’t convey what this anime is truly about. The story is a psychological exploration of characters through metaphors – the duels are irrelevant, for the most part, as is the Rose Bride and her ultimate purpose. This is about adolescence and the exploration of the many changes it brings to the young self.
Utena’s initial conflict revolves around her boyish dress sense (not that it should matter when the boys are more feminine than the girls) before she wins a duel against the current “owner” of the Rose Bride, a girl that gives the power to “revolutionise the world” and is unimaginably boring. After this, every day seems to bring a new challenger intent on owning the bride and her power. Here, we see one of Revolutionary Girl’s biggest problems – repetition.
Most episodes in the first two arcs go like the following: episode’s focus character has a desire taken by someone else, gets envious, the dark side seduces, convinces that getting the Rose Bride will fulfil the desire, the focus character challenges Utena, who climbs the duel tower for several minutes, they fight, and Utena wins. The stair climb looks and sounds epic and is better than any transformation sequence, but grows old after its second use out of thirty. The Black Rose Arc (two of four) is particularly egregious.
Furthermore, the duels have bad camerawork and worse choreography. None of the storyboard directors on staff knew how to do action, as evidenced by their credits. On top of using the cliché ‘two swordsmasters dash past each other, pause, one falls’ to end most duels, we never see any real fencing skill. The duels’ one strength is the setting and atmosphere, though sometimes it gets goofy. The goofiest fight has the challenger’s number one fangirl skiing (driving on two side wheels) around the arena in a convertible as more convertibles litter the area like trees. Does it mean anything? Not really – still amusing.
Episodes focused on the school diva break up this repetition with hilarious comedy, which is refreshing. She has a serious brother complex and can’t stand the idea of anyone getting his attention (little does she know…). One episode has this narcissist slowly transform into cow after wearing a cowbell she mistakes for designer jewellery. Another involves fighting a literal boxing kangaroo. I didn’t see that coming.
After the initial setup, the story doesn’t have much progression until the second half when the villains start doing something. Before then, every side character must have all of their angst laid bare, regardless of whether it’s relevant to the plot or not.
Hmm, these villains… Revolutionary Girl Utena leans on metaphor like Florida Man leans on his crutches after having his feet eaten by alligators when streaking. While half the symbolism works, the other half is symbolism for the sake of symbolism that makes no sense, which seems to be the corny villains’ primary purpose. The two main villains talk metaphorically at length while posing for a fan service softcore shoot together. At the opposite end, three women I refer to as the ‘silhouette sisters’ have a scene most episodes that twists moments from famous plays and tales to fit the narrative. Their metaphors are short, tight, and work even if you don’t get the reference.
Much of the symbolism tries to make you think deep thoughts (it’s sex), trying to be clever (it’s sex) at the expense of continuity and character consistency (hint: it means sex). The more obscure the sex symbolism, the worse the result unless it hits the spot. The silhouette sister work with their metaphors because they establish themselves as being a quirky Greek chorus of metaphors, consistent throughout the series. Others, like the villains, enter as one thing and exit as something unrelated for the sake of being artsy. And it doesn’t help that their metaphors are nonsensical, included to be artificially profound. If the writer weren’t possessed by allegory, he could have let the silhouette sisters carry the metaphors alone. They are superior in every way, from presentation to delivery.
Revolutionary Girl Utena has great depth half the time and total nonsense for the other half. Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad and is worth your time. I love the world design (wish we explored more of it), the silhouette sisters are a delight, and Utena is a great character.
A quick note on the movie, The Adolescence of Utena – it’s terrible. The spectacular environments and a personality for the Rose Bride cannot make up for the loss of all subtlety and a finale where Utena morphs into a racecar, participating in a race out of Redline. This ludicrous display must be seen to be believed.
Art – High
Utena has a good amount of motion for cel-drawn anime and an imaginative world. Everything is grand, designed to inspire awe and give the feel of Olympus.
Sound – Medium
The Japanese audio sounds dated and several actors need more training, while the English is weak in weight and delivery for all save a couple of characters – perfectly watchable though. The speed of speech is notably slow at times to match animation. I imagine the voice director often asked for slower retakes. The choral rock gets you pumped (shame it’s for lame duels).
Story – Medium
Tomboy Utena fights off challengers in duels to defend the Rose Bride from those who would use her power for unsavoury goals. Half great and half terrible, the metaphor-laden Revolutionary Girl Utena offers an intriguing anime in an unusual world.
Overall Quality – High
Recommendation: For fans of heavy metaphor and allegory. Revolutionary Girl Utena is better than the sum of its parts, but requires your patience to hit its stride and reveal its strengths.
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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)