Review: Revolutionary Girl Utena

Revolutionary Girl Utena was a major hit of 1997, directed by the same director behind Sailor Moon R (Ikuhara Kunihiko). At the time, it was a weird and fascinating series about a high school girl staying true to her identity and fighting against whatever foes, physical and metaphorical, came her way. Today, though, it has become a landmark and inspiration for anime ever since.

Where I first heard of this show, I don’t know. Perhaps it was some random forum thread on Crunchyroll from back when I was first starting out in anime. Maybe it was a high school friend talking about the weirdness of the episode “Nanami’s Egg”. Perhaps it was some random YouTube video I’ve all but forgotten about.

Either way, while perusing the list of shows that RightStuf/Nozomi had the rights to, this show stood out to me. It’s pretty easy to say that this has pretty quickly ascended towards the top of my favorites ever since I started watching it.

An Introduction

Utena Tenjou is a student at the prestigious Ohtori Academy, where the student council has arguably the most power and fame on the campus. After a prince brought her out of a rough time as a child, Utena has always wanted to be a prince herself (is that really a good idea?), and has even begun wearing princely clothing in school. This prince even gave her a ring with a rose emblem on it, as something for her to remember him by. Or was it an engagement ring?

One day, Utena ends up in an argument with student council vice president (and kendo club president) Saionji, and challenges him to a sword duel. He notices the ring on her finger, and immediately accepts the duel – at a special dueling location for those wearing the special ring.

Long story short, Utena surprisingly wins the duel, but little did she know what she ended up entering herself into. The student council has its own competition to see who gets the rights to the Rose Bride, an actual person who does everything her master wants, and harbors the power of “revolutionizing the world”; by winning the duel, Utena wins the quiet, respectful Rose Bride, Anthy, and soon enough, the two end up living in the same dorm room together.

And so the fight for the Rose Bride has one more player.

The Plot and Characters

When it comes to the plot and characters, there’s so much to talk about, it’s hard for me to limit what I want to say.

I’ll start with the characters. Beyond Utena and Anthy, we’ll also get to learn quite a bit about the student council and some other key actors – handled through interactions with said characters themselves, and interactions with characters close to them. With 39 episodes, this show definitely has enough time to delve into each of these key characters, and it does so pretty well, I’d say.

Rather than going through each character sequentially as the show progresses, each student council member (and Utena) develops and changes gradually over the series, the story revisiting them when they inevitably find themselves tied back into the main plot. Even though the student council members act as the antagonists in the first arc, they become uneasy friends with Utena in later arcs as other, bigger antagonists begin pulling the strings.

All in all, there’s three (or four, depending upon the source) arcs, dealing with this ongoing competition for the Rose Bride. Each arc also delves deeper into a bunch of mysteries surrounding the competitions, the powers and role of the Rose Bride, and even the academy itself. There’s a lot of things to be unraveled here, and, similar to other shows like Serial Experiments Lain, Revolutionary Girl Utena doesn’t like to be direct about it. By the final episode, this anime goes full-symbolism, with the on-screen events making no sense if taken at face value. Multiple fan theories and ideas have developed upon what the show was truly about and the meanings behind what was shown on screen. For me, I personally loved it. I really enjoy shows that make you think and that don’t like to show their full hand right away… although even when Utena does finally show you a card, it’s covered in so much symbolism that it’s really hard to tell.

To continue talking about the story, though, we also have to talk about the episode structure. To be honest, it is really repetitive. Although each arc changes up the formula a tiny bit, it’s still basically the same thing. A specific character is presented with an issue, this issue is aggravated to the point where they challenge Utena to a duel, Utena wins the duel, and then it’s all over. Although sometimes this is prolonged to two-part episodes – and there’s also highly entertaining filler episodes beside that do add some variety – the pattern is still there, making it very much feel like a “villain of the week” type thing.

The specificity of each character’s issue and a lot of the buildup and emotion (especially during two-part episodes) that lead up to the sword duels, however, is what makes these episodes watchable for me. The opposing character’s struggles and motivations are unique to each of them – even if they’re sometimes petty. However, it’s still a pattern that’s being followed again and again.

Luckily, all semblance of the pattern breaks down in the last seven episodes, where symbolism, backstory, and who-even-knows galore take front stage. If you look past the repetitive parts, though, there is a lot of entertainment here; a serious story is being crafted, and these characters and their unique and visible personalities help fill each scene they’re in.

Finally, the last thing I’ll go into is the sword battles in this series. These battles aren’t actually lethal: the first one to knock an embedded rose off their opponent’s chest is decreed the winner. Also, these battles are over so fast and end up being so underwhelming. Even in the last few battles, Utena basically wins them in what feels like 2 minutes. There isn’t really a building feeling of intensity and suspense with the battles as the show goes on. It honestly feels that, despite the duels being integral to how this world works, the anime’s producers didn’t know the best way to actually write and animate a sword duel.

All in all, though, this is a great series. Even the characters alone make this series, each one of them is so awesome. I so wish I could go into more details about each one of them, but any more time I spend will just make this review longer and longer. The repetitiveness of the majority of Utena is probably going to turn off a few people for sure. The characters and the hyper-symbolic layered story of this show, however, make this one of the most entertaining things I’ve seen in a long time.

The Atmosphere

Revolutionary Girl Utena is a show that really likes its rituals and patterns, if you couldn’t tell.

For each sword battle, a scene occurs with two shadow actors acting out a skit (of varying relevance to the actual story) followed by a constantly-reused segment of Utena climbing up the stairs (or taking an elevator) to the dueling arena while the exact same song plays. I phrase that as a complaint (and honestly, the latter part kind of is), but it is really a minor annoyance, at best, for me. The shadow acting skits are actually pretty humorous, if not a bit out there, and the two characters, A-ko and B-ko, are some of my more favorites in the series (although I have many favorites).

The choral rock music in this show, though… if you don’t like it at the start, you’ll end up liking it (or at least tolerating it) by the end. Each time that staircase scene is used, or a sword duel is going on, there’s a choral rock song going on as well. Although there are electric guitar and percussion accompaniments, the singing choir is far and away the huge focus of each song, and they’re sung in this distinct way that’s neither great nor terrible.

Beyond that, the instrumental soundtrack is pretty dang good, I’d say. The same basic 6 or so melodies are reused (with varying ornamentations) for a lot of the tracks throughout the series, but each of the melodies are great and memorable. Rather than using the more rock style present everywhere else here, the instrumental themes are more orchestral, relying on piano and stringed instruments a lot more. I guarantee you’ll at least get one of the songs from Utena stuck in your head.

The opening theme – more of a mellow rock style – is also pretty good, but was definitely another thing that took some warming up to. Part of me kind of wishes there was more than one opening to this show, but I’m not too miffed. There were, however, two endings to this series, with the ending changing after episode 25. Although the first song is more traditional rock-sounding, the second ending song is more in the style of the choral rock music used within the episodes themselves. I honestly prefer the first ending song a bit more, but prefer the second ending’s animation (both songs are good, but the second ending’s animation is a lot cooler and more interesting to look at than the first’s animation).

Oh, let’s talk about the visuals though.

This show aired in 1997, like previously said, and it definitely comes off as a 90s show. There are some parts with stiff animation, but even at its smoothest, it’s still not as smooth as today’s shows (although there are some quality exceptions). The character designs aren’t as complex as today’s, either, but they’re still quite detailed. I like the amount of work done with each character’s school uniform; in fact, Utena has some of the most ornate clothing I’ve seen in quite a while.

Each character has their own color, displayed either by their hairstyle, their uniform, or both. This is one of the many things this show uses for symbolism, because oh man, is there a lot of symbolism here. There will be scenes that transpire like normally except with a baseball game happening in the middle of it, or with blinking arrows pointing out random things in the background. I’ve already talked about the symbolism at some length above, but most of it comes through in the visuals – a majority of the time, it isn’t even acknowledged on screen excepting a few small remarks.

With the buildup of symbolism in the second and third arcs, that is when we get to see this show begin to become more unique and fascinating, visually. Scenes of a hallway, both sides lined with chairs, each holding a sign with a finger pointing towards a door, still appear when I close my eyes. There is this weird hybrid of realism and fairy-tale-ism in this series, and the show takes full advantage of that with its visuals. It’s sometimes hard to remember that this takes place in modern day, with Anthy watching a small “portable” TV and characters using flip phones. (Well, this was modern back in the 90’s, okay?)

Despite this, there are times where the visuals were not always up to snuff. I particularly remember episode 23, the finale of the second arc. An important conversation is had early into the episode showing either Utena and the antagonist facing away from the camera (so they don’t have to animate their mouths), or showing random background shots of the school (doing the same shot twice in a row before moving on). It was obvious they were in a time crunch to finish this episode, but it’s annoying that this happens during an arc finale. There are other cases like this as well, but this is probably one of the most visible in the series.

Finally, I’ll discuss the voice acting. Being a very character-focused show, I’m happy to mention the voice acting is pretty good… on the Japanese side.

Tomoko Kawakami (as Utena) is able to handle both the louder and quieter moments wonderfully, and Yuriko Fuchizaki does well to add onto Anthy’s character and her mystique. The voice acting is also done well for the student council members, and I think Takehito Koyasu and Yuri Shiratori (as council president Touga and his sister, Nanami) each fill and expand their characters with their acting. Honestly, I have nothing but praise for them all.

There is an English dub for this series as well, but RightStuf’s DVDs default to Japanese – an uncommon thing for dubbed anime DVDs, but I’m thankful for it. The dub was created by the now-defunct Central Park Media, and it’s… pretty bad. I honestly can’t think of a single voice that’s better in English than in Japanese. Few get close, such as the second arc’s antagonist, but… the dub is not worth your time. Truly, it isn’t. I’d like to think I don’t have high standards for dubs, but this… this is just… no. I expect the Blu-Rays to be the same (see below).

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Revolutionary Girl Utena is a remarkable show from the 1990’s. Within the span of its 39 episodes, we meet a variety of unique, complex characters, and see them deal with their own issues while also finding themselves trapped within the main plot of the show. The story doesn’t like to give all the answers, though, and this is reinforced by the constant symbolism in the visuals. I certainly can’t call Utena perfect, but it’s hard for me to not call this show “amazing”.

Honestly, this is one of those shows that I think everyone should at least give a try at watching. I’m sure that not everyone will get through it due to the repetitiveness of the episodes and the older animation, but I think those that stick with it will end up with an experience that sticks with them. That being said, you’ll also probably not like this series if you don’t like the super-symbolic, think-for-yourself endings, because this show doesn’t reveal much to you in that regard. Either way, though, I still highly recommend it.

Also, if you’re looking for a Blu-Ray release, good news! One is forthcoming, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the show. You can pre-order it online from Amazon or RightStuf (maybe elsewhere too?); I’ve already pre-ordered mine. 🙂 If the extras in the limited edition Blu-Ray box is anything like what’s in the DVDs (and I’m sure it will be), the limited edition one will be more than worth it for fans of the show.

Rating; Great
Recommendation: Put This On Immediately
+++ amazing characters, the final seven episodes, fascinating visuals in latter half
— very repetitive, sword battles leave room for improvement, English dub is just bad