Revolutionary Girl Utena is a production with a lot to prove. The show gained legions of fans and a reputation as a groundbreaking example of its genre since its creation in 1997. However, one always must question whether such an honor is well-deserved, or a case of misplaced faith by over-zealous fans.
Long ago, a young maiden lost her parents in a tragic accident. All seemed hopeless until a prince on a white horse came to the girl and banished her tears. The prince gave the girl a ring bearing a rose seal, and told her to grow into a strong, noble woman. The ring, he said, would lead the maiden to him one day. perhaps it was an engagement ring, or perhaps it was a cruel joke. To the maiden, it didn’t matter. She was so taken by him that she vowed to grow into a prince herself!
Many years later, the maiden, known to all as Utena Tenjou, is a tomboyish student at the prestigious Ohtori Academy. She is the ire of teachers for her refusal to wear anything but a boy’s uniform, and she excels at sports. The ladies and the gentemen of the school are smitten by her, and it seems that Utena’s fortunes can only grow brighter. Everything changes one day, when Utena’s friend is publicly humiliated by student council member Saionji. To restore her friend’s honor, Utena challenges Saionji to a duel, which leads her to a secret arena behind the school. In this arena, a mysterious castle hovers above, and the incredible becomes the norm. It is here that Utena fights and defeats the arrogant Saionji. The victory comes with a condition, though. Utena is officially entered into the ranks of the “Duelists”: a secret society that fights for the power to revolutionize the world. In addition, she is entrusted with the care of Anthy Himemiya: a quiet girl, referred to as the Rose Bride. As the two grow closer, Utena must now fight not only for the power of revolution, but also for the sake of her new friend and confidant.
This first act of the tale serves as an introduction to the Ohtori Academy, and those who reside within. People are introduced, personalities are exposed, and motives are lain bare. The harsh realities of school life are brought to life, as the pain of alienation and the simple need to belong are explored. However, the experience is not a simple, serious melodrama. The more serious moments are frequently interrupted by light-hearted moments, and comedic interludes with supporting cast members like Wakaba, Chuchu the monkey, and a trio of mysterious shadow-play girls. Between the duels, the tone shifts to a more light-hearted feel, and the focus shifts more to comedic antics than gripping drama. All-round brat Nanami serves as the primary antagonist in these moments, as she disheso out comically-named plans that never seem to unfold properly. From exploding curry, to attempts to hide strange animals in Utena’s dorm, Nanami provides much needed laughs with impeccable timing.
The academy is brought to life by a strong cast of players, each of which shows incredible depth and a clear sense of purpose. Characters wear multiple masks, as they carry themselves in public, and reveal glimpses of the pain within behind closed doors. It becomes quickly apparent that each Duelist has his or her own selfish reasons for owning the bride. Be it Miki’s desire for a reason to go on, or Juri’s want for a lost love, each player has his own selfish reason to hold the power to revolutionize the world. Utena appears to be the the opposite, at first glance. Utena’s selfless desires to protect those around her, her commanding outward presence, and ability to see Anthy as more than a token give the appearance of the very prince she wishes to emulate. It quickly become apparent that even her facade has cracks. beneath the surface rests the same scared, lonely girl that craves acceptance in a world that rejected her.
A strong visual style provides a lush set that gives the Ohtori Academy a distinct identity. The academy is a majestic place, defined by its lush greenery and stark, white buildings. Roses dot the architecture, and the hallways are defined by large, arching windows. The public face displays a dignified, stately appeal. Behind the scenes, though, the world takes on a much colder, yet far more fantastic air. From the claustophobic elevator the the student council’s meeting place, to the slate-grey dueling arena with a castle that floats above, the proverbial rose of the academy shows an impressive, if terrible set of thorns.The cast displays a similar aesthetic. The characters are outwardly beautiful, with delicate features, luxurious hair, and impeccable fashion sense. The student council are clad in snappy white uniforms that are ironic, in the sense that they are anything but deserving of the purity of the color. Utena and Anthy are particularly striking, as they look as if they were ripped from the pages of a storybook. Anthy’s flowing red dress and Utena’s regal attire simply seem “right.”
The experience is tied together by a soundtrack that delights and impresses on all levels. Delicate piano melodies and brassy tunes give color and liveliness to the world of the characters. Be it the sweet, yet somber Sunlit Garden, or the ominous theme of the Student Council, Utena’s melodies are memorable and a true joy to listen to. The build-up to each duel is punctuated by the catchy rock-opera Zettai Unmei, Mokushiroku, which adds an incredible tension every time Utena makes her approach up the winding staircase, toward the dueling ground. Battles are waged to rocking choral tunes, like When Where Who Which. Masami Okui’s Rondo Revolution and Luca Yumi’s Truth serve as the arc’s opening and closing, respectively.
The Student Council Arc to Utena serves as a grand opening to a potentially grand tale. All elements come together in a perfect harmony that will impress all but the most jaded viewers. The arc manages to touch hearts and stir emotions while being simply fun to watch at the same time. While there are still over twenty episodes remaining, Utens is already shaping up to become an essential addition to every enthusiast’s library.
Thanks to Nozomi for providing a review copy!