It’s the romance that grabs me. Utena is one of the most unabashedly romantic of all anime available in America, which is all the more remarkable when you consider the show consists mainly of sword fights. The fights aren’t the thud and thunder violence of Berserk, though – they are elegant, with beautiful characters attacking other beautiful characters with beautiful movements. Nowhere else have I seen animators spend so much effort on the form and movement of (highly idealized) teenage-girl bodies.
Form, movement, shape, music – these are the main attractions of Revolutionary Girl: Utena. All of Utena is directed to a stylized sensuality. It isn’t fanservice-heavy – this isn’t titillation directed at teenage boys whose girlfriends are away at school. This is a show for girls, and it shows both in its beauty and in its focus on emotional relationships.
Utena is a beautiful (and pink-haired) member of Ohtori Academy, admired by all the girls in the school. She wears a boy’s uniform, and can beat all of the boys’ sports teams. And when she decides that she has to avenge a friend whom Kendo champion Saionji has humiliated in public, they duel and Utena wins. This initiates her into the group of duellists that make up the school’s Student Council, who also happen to be revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the order of the world. Further discussion of the plot would be unnecessary and confusing, though it all seems pretty simple while it’s happening.
What makes such an overtly over-complex plot as intriguing and ingratiating as Utena is the emphasis on action and visualization over exposition – the aforementioned swords fights, girls constantly slapping other girls (that’s how you ladies communicate, right?), the beautiful animation sequence as Utena ascends the the dueling forest1. All the oddness is grounded in visual beauty and emotional reality. Anthy Himemiya is many strange things in the complex narrative (including a living sheath for a sword) but in individual episodes she has a simple emotional purpose – either as a foil against which people vent their anger (she sure gets slapped a lot) or as a feminine contrast to Utena’s boy-uniform wearing idiosyncracy.
Utena’s character was the real surprise for me: she is not only immensely likeable, she finds her situation as ridiculous as we do, but goes along with it because, in her situation, it is practical. Her very practicality is what takes a character that could have been a pretty dull feminist theory analog, a dreadful Buffy: The Vampire Slayer type2. Instead, she seems like a real girl who has just made some strange decisions in her life. Her tomboyishness is explained in an introductory sequence, where we find out Utena is a princess who was rescued from despondency by a gift from a prince. Rather than become a moony-eyed waif waiting for her man, Utena admired the prince so much she decided to become him. Practical, forceful, and intelligent – Utena is simply one of the most likeable characters I’ve seen headlining an anime show.
Utena ties together all the elements of the show that shouldn’t work very well, including the near-terrible filler episodes that come at the end of the first volume and beginning of the second. They are stupid and hokey, but the strength and honesty of character keeps them from being complete wastes of time3. Another disparate element that should not work but I find endlessly charming is the Mercyful Fate-esque heavy metal that plays over the dueling sequences, sung by a female choir, with lyrics about “trilobytes” and “the bosom of sodom”. It is like something from 1974 assaulting 1982.
Most recent anime is boring. Most recent anime is unchallenging. Most recent anime is retreaded, reh
eated “Evangelion”, stupid Samurai pastiches. Kids shows. Utena is none of these – it is terrific. Utena overflows with style, intelligence, emotion, and, what I think is the most important of all qualities in any art, humanity. Even when Utena is pokey, in pace or content, it is watchable. Even the dreadful clip show that closes out the second disc was entertaining because of the quality of the art it was presenting. Utena is a sensory and sensual delight that most animation could not dream of.
2Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was a decent TV show in the first couple of seasons when it knew it sucked. It was when the show started to believe that it was good, instead of amusing, that it became neither. I found the whole lesbian angle unattractive as well, but that’s my problem.
3Serious, mates. One of these episodes has Utena boxing with a freaking Kangaroo already, and in another she and Anthy switch personalities because they eat strong curry. But the curry episode did have one funny touch – Utena nemesis Nanami goes to India in search of spice, and is constantly harassed by elephants – stampeding elephants, cliff-diving elephant, even surfing elephants. It’s as stupid as it sounds, but funny.