Let’s be upfront on this: anime is so not my jam. In some ways this is my fault. I’ve never made a truly concerted effort to get into the style. And my enthusiasm for another attempt tends to flicker close to none. But, much as I would like to take all the blame, let’s not get carried away.
See, anime’s come to occupy a strange middle ground in the Western pop culture blender: astonishingly popular, absurdly niche. And this means that anime criticism is all over the place and I can’t find reviews I like. This doesn’t mean critics whose tastes align perfectly with mine (though that has its uses), it means ones I can rely on to give me a sense of whether I would find something worthwhile. My go-to resources for film and television (AV Club, Hitfix, Badass Digest and Antagony and Ecstasy for example) review media in ways that allow me to understand whether or not I would find something worthwhile. The pilot episode of True Detective, for example, got a B on the AV Club but Erik Adams’s review immediately made clear that it was a show I would be really interested in. And I just don’t have that same type of resource in the case of anime. Which is frustrating.
So, consider this an attempt at forging my own path through anime. Do with that what you will.
Alright then, Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Man, this is a weird show. I’d say this was just my remove from anime culture talking but even the T.H.E.M. Reviews site (the primary appeal of which seems to be a workmanlike thoroughness) seems a bit wigged out by the thing.
But it starts in good weird territory. Here, for example is the first scene:
Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a little princess, and she was very sad, for her mother and father had died.
Before the princess appeared a traveling prince, riding upon a white horse. He had a regal bearing and a kind smile. The prince wrapped the princess in a rose-scented embrace and gently wiped the tears from her eyes.
“Little one,” he said, “who bears up alone in such deep sorrow, never lose that strength or nobility, even when you grow up. I give you this to remember this day. We will meet again. This ring will lead you to me one day.” Perhaps the ring the prince gave her was an engagement ring.
This was all well and good, but so impressed was she by him that the princess vowed to become a prince herself one day. But was that really such a good idea? – The Narrator
It’s succinct, it’s surprising and it lays out what the show wants to be in adventurous and entertaining fashion. We’re in for a fairy tale with a subversive twist. It’s fantastic stuff. Sadly, the rest of the show isn’t nearly as confident as that opening.
The story picks up years later with the princess having grows up to be Utena Tenjou, a student at a pretty fancy looking prep school. And like the opening narration says, Utena’s become a prince. At least as much as one can in an anime high school. She dresses in the boys’ uniform, kicks ass at sports and has the general female populace of the high school fawning over her awesomeness. But being a “prince” means more to Utena than being the coolest boy she can be. She’s also adopted the ye olde code of honor common to fairy tale princes: chivalry. And when a friend is slighted by the arrogant Kendo captain Sairenji, Utena challenges him to a duel. Naturally, this involves a battle atop a mystical tower under an upside down castle for the right to ownership of one of Utena’s quieter classmates.
Look, it’s anime, okay?
The student council, of which Sairenji is a member seems to be under the sway of a shadowy entity called End of the World who promises the winner of these duels the ability to change the world (hence the revolution bit of Revolutionary Girl Utena). All the duelists have to do is defeat the defending champion and keep control of the prize, the Rose Bride Anthy Himemiya.
Think of it like king of the hill but with a person as the hill (objectification, &c.). And then at the end of the day a teenager is allowed to shape the world in their own image.
The mythology stuff is left fairly obscure. Which, well, good. Anime at times has a godawful tendency to lay out in exact detail the bizarre particulars of its world building and it’s refreshing to see a show step away from that. Plus, the show seems rather flippant about some of its seriousness. Stuff like this, for example, seems more like satire than anything else:
The duels themselves are pretty straightforward. No fancy twists, episode long battles or clashing superpowers. They’re short, simple and even at their most overblown, a couple of minutes long. But the fighting isn’t the point. Utena is a show that wants to be about its characters and the battles have as much to do with metaphor as fighting. It’s a common anime trope for fights to be as philosophic as they are physical, but few rely on it as heavily as Utena. Which is all well and good. Or would be, if it didn’t decide to be more anime than it needs to be.
This might seem like an unfair criticism, but hear me out. The vast majority of anime series tend to follow a few common tropes. Series that aren’t deeply rooted in serious drama, for example, tend to partake in high school shenanigans on a regular basis. And this can work. Some of my personal favorite animes are heavily bound to traditional rules. But the problem is the idea of universal applicability. Not all tropes are appropriate for all shows. And Utena sometimes stumbles onto tropes that really don’t work.
Here’s the basic story of the first 13 episodes: Utena wins Himemiya in a duel. With a positive female influence Himemiya, who is treated mostly like an object, begins to have some form of agency and develop beyond the strict roles imposed on her. The student council members reveal something about their background and attempt to beat Utena in a duel. Utena beats them because her opponents fail to understand some basic truth. Utena and Himemiya become closer. Occasionally the villains learn something. It’s somewhat like Naruto.
Now look at that and tell me why the show needs a body switching episode. Why in the world does the body switching episode exist? It’s 1/13th of the show’s first arc and it does absolutely nothing. A body switching episode is usually used to allow characters to experience what it’s like to be a different person. But there’s nothing about the physical bodies of Utena and Himemiya that force them to act differently. They don’t even attempt to act like the other person, just being themselves in a different body. And it becomes clear that neither Utena nor Himemiya’s lives would change much if they were stuck in each other’s bodies. They are the same people going in to the story and the same coming out. And nothing interesting was revealed by the body switching plot. All the episode really does is allow the comic villain do something silly. And the comic villain is awful.
She’s just awful. Removing her completely would lead to a better show. Really. She’s taking up time that could be spent on pretty much anything else. And she’s completely irrelevant. She comes in, we learn a bit about her and then she leaves not really having affected anything. It’s similar to the treatment of Miki and Juri, two of the other student council characters, but done to significantly less success. And it takes time away from something that really, really could have used it: Utena and Himemiya.
Both Utena and Himemiya are archetypal characters and that’s fine. But neither of them seem to be given nearly the amount of depth or specificity they need to stand out as characters. Utena in particular seems slightly blank. There’s a lot of good ideas in there, especially with her aspirations of becoming a prince, which lends itself to more exploration than she gets. And her interactions with Himemiya are far too short and generic to really give us ALL THE FEELS as episode 12 wants us to. And episode 13 just conglomerates all the show’s structural problems in one easy to find catalogue.
Episode 13 of Utena is a clip show. In 22 minutes it summarizes the story thus far. And it manages to do it with enough adroitness that you wonder whether the previous 264 minutes were really justified in taking their sweet time with it. From the clips we see there are seven duels. Even considering the extra episode they give to developing Miki’s character, that only makes 8 episodes, meaning that a third of the show has mostly been spent dicking around. It’s just not a good use of the show’s time.
But despite my paragraphs and paragraphs of complaints, I’ve decided to stick with this one. Utena may be an uneven, strange and sporadically engaging show, but it has potential. A lot of it. The episodes focused on Miki and Juri actually do spend time with the characters we’re supposed to be interested in, give them believable and unusual motivations and allow them to go on a clear character arc over the course of the episode(s). And it shows that Utena can succeed in being the character driven show it wants to be.
The thing that gave me most hope for the series, though, was episode 12 “For Friendship, Perhaps”. And it’s not so much the structure or the battle at the end or anything like that. No, it’s two things: One – it allowed Utena to make some sort of decision as a character. It’s annoying to me that despite her depiction as a strong, active character, Utena doesn’t so much do as she is done onto. Only the first and last of her seven duels in the Student Council arc are initiated on her own imperative. So it was nice to see her doing something again, especially something that showed the nature and resilience of her character. The second thing that I liked was Wakaba’s voice of God speech. The whole reason I was interested in the show was that it was anime’s most well known feminist text. And boy was I ready for some goddamn feminism after way too much of this:
And the series delivered. Wakaba’s speech is great. Just super great. Because feminism is pretty goshdang great. And in that speech the creators managed to convince me that their heart, at least, is in the right place. It’s a fairly ambitious thing they’re doing (I’m really hoping for a larger discussion on the last line of the first scene) and I can see that it might take some time for them to get their sea legs. But I’m hoping they do, ‘cause for a medium that has many more female characters in bulk than Western media, there are few explicitly feminist anime. There’s enough good stuff here that I’ll stick with it in hopes of awesomeness. I just hope it doesn’t take them too long.