Okay, so this one might need a little explaining. I am a “geriatric millennial,” a term I saw once and cannot get out of my head, which in this case means I was on the internet back in the heyday of anime music videos, or AMVs. People would take anime clips and cut them together with a song and at the time it was high art. One AMV that stuck with me was Kusoyaro mashing up Bjork’s “Bachlorette” with the film Shōjo Kakumei Utena Aduresensu Mokushiroku, AKA Revolutionary Girl Utena: Adolescence of Utena. It’s my favorite AMV and the reason why I include “I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl” on most of my social profiles. But I’d never actually seen Utena, so when
a friend gave me access to his I got my own Funimation account, I figured it was time to fix that starting with the show that came before the movie. Time to look at some vintage 90’s girl power that isn’t Sailor Moon!
The first episode, “The Rose Bride,” introduces us to several of the main cast. Many years ago, a pink haired young girl named Utena Tenjou lost her parents. A prince/kind man with lavender hair and dark skin discovered her and gave her a rose signet ring. After this encounter, Utena vowed to become a prince, but I suppose tomboy is close enough. In the present she attends Ohtori Academy with her best friend Wakaba, who calls Utena her “boyfriend” in a (mostly) platonic way. Wakaba really has eyes for Saionji, student council vice president and kendo team captain. He’s also a total dick, slapping his fiancé, Anthy Himemiya, a girl with purple hair and dark skin. Hm. The student council objects to Saionji’s abuse but he don’t give a fuck. Utena already didn’t like him, but when a love letter Wakaba wrote to him gets publicly posted, she challenges him to a duel. They meet in the forbidden forest under an upside down castle–sure, why not–where Saionji draws his weapon, the Sword of Dios, from Anthy’s cleavage. There’s some kind of magic involved with this world. Utena wins the fight, which draws the attention of student council president, Kiryuu. But another benefit of winning is that Anthy is now her fiancé! Just gals being pals!
Next is “For Whom the Rose Smiles.” The student council is surprised by Utena defeating Saionji, especially since she has the same rose ring they all have. They work at the pleasure of someone called End of the World with the goal of whoever is engaged to the Rose Bride–Anthy–may gain the power to enter the upside down castle and, I quote, “gain the power to bring revolution to the world.” Bit weird for the rich and powerful to say that, but whatever. Over with Utena, she gets a new room in a dorm all to herself. Well, her and Anthy, who acts like her loyal maid. And also Chu-Chu, Anthy’s mouse… monkey… thing. Things get tense when Saionji shows up and slaps Anthy again, challenging Utena to a duel for ownership of the girl. Super gross. Utena plans to fail intentionally so she won’t have to keep dueling, but during the fight something strange happens. Well, stranger than an upside castle, at least. Her ring summons what appears to be the spirit of the prince she met as a child, who possesses her and gives her the strength to not only beat Saionji, but break his sword in two. Utena plays the victory off, saying she didn’t win for Anthy, but for the sake of Chu-Chu. Anthy gives a genuine smile at this, hence the title.
“On the Night of the Ball” sees Utena trying to broaden Anthy’s horizons, to… mixed results. Utena is surprised to find out that Anthy has no friends (outside of Chu-Chu), which… like, haven’t you noticed that no one else treats her like a person, let alone a friend? That everyone thinks of her as a possession? Anyway, Kiryuu tries to woo Utena, but has no luck until he points out that the two share a ring. Could this red haired, pale skinned man be the lavender haired, dark skinned prince Utena met years ago? Not at all, but she’s still unsure. Several girls are picking on Anthy because they blame her for Saionji hiding from the world after losing twice, but she’s rescued by Nanami, a blonde popular girl. She informs Anthy that the shy girl has been nominated for dance queen, and… oh. Oh no. This is Carrie. They’re all going to laugh at her! Anthy won’t go without Utena, who is not into things like “wearing girls’ clothes,” but the two go together with Anthy wearing a dress Nanami gave her and Utena wearing a dress Kiryuu gave her. At the dance we find out that Nanami is Kiryuu’s younger sister, who thinks her older brother is obsessed with Anthy. Turns out Anthy’s dress dissolves when wet, creating a truly mortifying moment of public embarrassment on top of possible enochlophobia. But Utena swoops in to the rescue, discarding her dress–of course she’s wearing her suit underneath–and making a rather good looking dress for Anthy out of a tablecloth. The two share a dance as everyone watches, while Kiryuu wags his finger at his sister for her prank.
The style of the show is interesting. It’s got that vintage 90’s anime feel–reminds me a lot of Sailor Moon, which tracks because the two shows had a lot of production staff in common–but also has some unique elements. First of all, all the tall, handsome boys are drawn like this is a boys’ love manga, so that’s more hilarious to me than it should be. Lot of “same face” going on here. Every episode so far features the shadows of two girls who serve as a sort of Greek chorus, gossiping about what’s happening. Yeah, a middle school girl beat the duelist champion? These events would probably be the talk of the school. And while there is a short transformation sequence for the duels–Anthy gives Utena’s suit a slightly more flair–we mainly get an extended sequence whenever Utena arrives at the dueling circle, complete with its own song as she climbs what appears to be a mile of spiraling stairs. Hope that doesn’t get annoying every time someone wants to win Anthy!
There’s also a weird… censorship moment during the duel in the second episode? As the prince’s spirit enters Utena’s body, a big white rose suddenly appears on screen and obstructs our view of what isn’t presented as a sexual moment. And it appears again–but smaller–when Utena strikes at Saionji and wins the duel. I had to look it up and make sure that Funimation wasn’t lying about this being the “uncut” version, but all signs point to it being a feature of the show. No idea why.
You know the joke where you can tell an anime protagonist by their completely unnatural hair color? Utena wasn’t the first anime to do this, but wow, the main cast sure do stand out in the crowd. Utena has bright pink hair, Anthy has purple hair and dark skin, Saionji has green hair, Kiryuu has red hair, and the other main characters stand out just as much. Hell, Wakaba only has auburn hair, but even that’s more visually striking than everyone else hair, ranging from black to brown. On top of that, Utena stands out even more by dressing not just in a boys’ uniform, but one that literally no one else is wearing. All the background extras are in pale green and white while the student council wears white, but her uniform is black and red. Just like there’s no rule that says a dog can’t play basketball, the school rules don’t explicitly forbid girls from wearing a boy’s uniform, so well played, Utena. Live your truth.
I know Anthy’s submissive personality and treatment as if she were a object and not a person is all intentional, highlighting how Utena’s relationship with the girl is different from everyone else’s, but man it’s painful to watch sometimes. I honestly don’t know what happens next or how the show ends, but I sure do hope that Anthy starts to realize that she’s a person with wants and desires that are just as valid as the people around her (perhaps even more so since she’s not a misogynistic asshole with an overinflated ego). But so far I’m on board. Gonna keep watching, so expect more episode summaries!
Next: Episodes 4-7
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