How can I capture in words how important Utena is to me? I don’t really know if there will ever be another like it.
It’s amazing enough that this is a series focused on the relationship between two women, that it is a story about two queer women finding each other and casting off the world that entraps them. Even though I only discovered in five years ago, it influenced me so much and helped me embrace my love for other women.
But this is also a story that focuses on the cycle of abuse and the complexity of abuse survivors. It does not paint abuse survivors as either flawless martyrs we can objectify or evil villains- it shows the toll abuse takes and the way people can find themselves in the position where they are too scared to leave abusive relationships and may even lash out at those who tries to help them. It shows the bitterness and hatred those targeted for abuse to cultivate, but does not try to say this means they are inherently bad people and shouldn’t be treated with compassion and empathy. It shows that your classical damsel in distress is not going to remain your flawless ideal of perfect womanhood when she’s victimized again and again- instead, she is a person, a real person who hates and hurts and fights back in her own way. This doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be helped to save herself.
This show to me is the ultimate story of growing up. It takes apart how our society equates sex with growing up and how harmful and damaged that can leave children through Akio’s “initiation” and the twisted results. It shows how sex is used as a tool for power and manipulation and how twisted our concept of sexuality is because of that. It shows how queer children struggle with their feelings and become unhealthy and self-haring in a society that condemns them. It shows how our society makes children fear growing up and cling to their pasts because they are forced to equate adulthood with corruption and prejudice and have so many adults ready to manipulate and use them- adulthood now means they aren’t allowed to be as close to friends or siblings without being twisted, so they cower and hide and seek unhealthy fairy tale ideals.
But ultimately this series shows that you MUST grow up, and you don’t necessarily have to grow up and become corrupt. Children are innocent, but they also internalize and do harmful things in their innocence and malleability (like Utena). Becoming an adult, ultimately, can be an awareness. Accepting the world for what it is and saying that you want to change it to be better. Going through terrible experiences but coming out saying “I don’t have to accept this. I won’t use sex to manipulate people. I won’t hate myself. I may not be as innocent, but I can still hope. I don’t have to accept the role assigned to me and I can work to change this world. I can still love.” Adulthood can be maturity, real maturity.
Ultimately the answer is not to hide from the world and cling to your past, but face the world and move forward in hopes of a better one.
Here we have a series that dedicates itself to tearing apart the concept of chivalry brick by brick, that addresses victim blaming not only in the blatant “she asked for it” sense, but in the sense where even good people can strip the victim of her personhood and subtly blame her for being in an abusive situation. It has the hero herself acknowledge that she saw “the girl she must save” as an object rather than a person at times, and that maybe it was for her own ego. It acknowledges that even women can objectify each other (especially someone who is a different race than themselves and treated as an “other” in the society they live in because of it) and sometimes you hurt more than you help when you decide to “rescue” someone from their situation without understanding their point of view.
It’s a series addressing how fiction can be used as misogynist propaganda and reinforcing the idea of “good girls” and “bad girls” to keep them in line. How fairy tale ideals and the ideals of femininity and masculinity our society sets up are ultimately harmful and the archetypes are impossible to fit into. It tears into how women are forced into dependency on men by men, and that not only hurts them, but hurts EVERYTHING and is so dangerous. This is a series that again, eschews the cliché of damsel in distress by showing the damsel as a complex and powerful person who ultimately needs to save herself, that eschews the cliché of “exceptional woman” by showing our hero in question as ultimately just like every other girl, as a person who struggles and falls and is “just a girl” but can still not give up and triumph despite that. She doesn’t have to “not be like other girls”, she doesn’t have to become a prince- she’s powerful just because she accepts her mistakes and never gives up.
It takes apart the concept of “hero” to begin with and how it rests on seeing people- predominately women- as objects to be rescued, and how the better solution is to allow the person in peril agency and offer your support and help as they save themselves. This entire series is ABOUT agency and how dangerous it is when women are stripped of it and treated as victims or villains. It talks about how allowing women agency is the ultimate solution rather than helping them. Women don’t need to be looked down on for needing help in horrible situations or treated as “lesser” and “not strong”, but they can’t be treated as helpless either. Ultimately, women are people who can act for themselves but may need empathy, support and love from a person who genuinely recognizes their personhood and worth.
(graphic by aceworu)
This is the series that gave us Anthy Himemiya, a wonderful, complex character who found herself targeted by all the abuse, misogyny and prejudice the world had to offer and was punished for acting for herself. Rather than fall into the category of “helpless damsel” or “evil witch” she showed herself to just be a person who reacted to her situation by hating and hurting, fighting back in small ways that felt safe for her. She was powerful and did bad things, but she was also afraid and stuck in an abusive cycle. She also loved and felt guilty and did good things and fought against her abusers. She was dependent on her abuser, but he also needed her for everything too.
All the people in-universe tried to fit Anthy in categories- “emotionless doll”, “corrupter of men”, “evil witch”, “helpless damsel”, “clueless victim”- and she was abused and objectified by everyone she met. But ultimately Anthy wasn’t quite any of those- she was a person. An incredibly brave, incredibly flawed person who just needed someone who would see her as such and genuinely care for her. In the end, Anthy was the revolution. Her agency was the core of the series and the ultimate triumph of the show.
The fact that she made the incredibly brave decision to break the cycle of abuse she’d been caught in from eternity and went to support her friend who supported her- that was the ultimate empowering revolution the whole show led up to and it was ultimately down to Anthy’s complexity and strength perhaps even more than Utena’s. That is so amazing, and Anthy is just one of my favorite characters in fiction. I love her and her endless layers and amazingness so much.
(graphic also by aceworu)
This is the show that also gave us Utena Tenjou. Utena is a character that acknowledges that someone can struggle against gender roles and still suffer from harmful internalized misogyny that makes her objectify herself and other women. Her character acknowledges that innocence can also be harmful ignorance that hurts others. Her character acknowledges that being a hero isn’t necessarily about having pure intentions and sometimes you can make the situation worse with your self-righteousness.
But Utena is also a character that faces all these things about herself and acknowledges them. She is tricked, manipulated and hurt- she finds that she IS like other girls, she can be tricked and seduced. She’s human and she sees she did wrong and had selfish intentions. But she doesn’t let this break her. Ultimately Utena is a person who, while she is a “fool” who can hurt others, she also is stubborn in her belief in making a better world. She refuses to see other people as tools to manipulate- ultimately, her compassion , empathy and unshakable heroic will are her greatest strength. She sees all the bad things about herself and tries to improve rather than breaking down and slipping into being what other people want her to be, even though it would be so much easier. And even when her abused friend hurts her, she sees that her friend is so scared and suffering so much worse, and her compassion and empathy cause her to reach out a hand of support.
Utena revolutionizes the world by refusing to objectify another woman the way she’s been taught to- instead she understands her as a person, flaws and all, and gently supports and encourages her, even at great cost to herself. She gives Anthy the support she needs to save herself and through her love and bravery, she changes the world.
It was important that Utena started out in the viewer’s situation- not knowing what was going on and coming in with all these misconceptions and internalized prejudices. How many of us have acted like Utena and been ignorant and hurtful in our understanding of complex situations? How many of us, even while watching the show, had the same misconceptions Utena did (princes are good and inspirational, Anthy is helpless, why is she doing this to herself, etc). But as Utena gets her misconceptions torn apart, so does the viewer, and we’re forced to reevaluate ourselves and our prejudices. This show makes us consider that so many of us ARE Utena, at least at the beginning, and we need to check ourselves and improve like she did. It’s so valuable to have that.
Ultimately, Utena’s strength is she never gives up on trying to create a better world, she never gives up on believing that this oppressive system doesn’t HAVE to exist, she doesn’t HAVE to accept it and things can change for the better. And that is what makes her such a beautiful character.
Anthy and Utena are both so important and their love is the core of the story- I need to restate how important it is to have this complex, evolving relationship between two complex and conflicted women be the core.
We have Juri Arisugawa, a woman who openly struggled with her feelings for another woman and how the society she lived in made her feel trapped by them and the idea of not being able to let go of someone who was harmfully manipulating you and her manipulator, Shiori, was also a victim of her own internalized homophobia and insecurity and self-hatred.
We have Nanami Kiryuu, who started out as the stereotypical cruel girl obsessed with her brother (this is actually a common archetype in anime) but ultimately we learned how this cruelty was built out insecurity and self-hatred and devastating it was when the fragile perch she built for herself toppled, how harmful and complex her obsession was, and when she was confronted with the reality of incest and the ugliness of her brother and the world, she resisted it and found a way to survive on her own and we saw the harsh reality of the world and loss of innocence through her.
We have Miki Kaoru, who idealized women and categorized them in a harmful way in a desperate attempt to cling to the perceived purity of his childhood relationships with women and the show demonstrated how harmful that was.
We have Wakaba Shinohara, who struggled with not feeling special enough and clung to others to feel special with disaterous consequences, yet her common sense and sweetness helped Utena so many times, showing up how special and valuable “average” people really are even if they don’t think so. We have all these complex, valuable characters we sympathized with and were frustrated with, who were both good and bad.
And through the other men we saw how hollow the archetype of sexy, chilvarous man and protector really was, and how the harmful the “playboy” archetype is when these men often manipulate and abuse people. We saw through Akio how deeply a man could shatter from failing to live up to his masculine ideal and how he will ultimately blame and hurt the women around him for it. We saw through Touga how most playboys are ultimately emotional manipulators and how even when they decide to love and “protect” someone, they are still objectifying that person and trying to control them in a harmful way. This totally takes apart the cliché of “redeemed playboy” by showing redemption isn’t that easy.
And we also see the harmful, long lasting effects of suffering sexual abuse as a child through Touga. Saionji is a less powerful example of a man who becomes abusive and hateful towards women because he feels inadequate- less powerful than Akio, but still just as hurtful and disgusting. Reasons are given, but excuses are never made for these men, and that’s so valuable.
Utena is also a great story simply because is has so much fun with itself and leaves itself so open to interpretation. It’s a huge landscape of symbolism and complex character relationships to play with. It doesn’t lead the viewer by the hand and it allows them to discover their own interpretation and analyze things for themselves. The series is grounded in character first and foremost, and the bulk of the plot rests on the strength of the characters and the tangles web they weave.
There’s jut an endless amount of themes here- oppressive systems, abandonment, sexuality, sexual assault and the damage it can do, puberty, emotion, self revelation and discovery of self- Utena incorporates a ridiculous amoung of elements, so I really believe there’s a little something for everyone. The series is so complex I discover new things about it every time I watch or discuss it. It’s hard to tell if some things were just thrown into be cool- but that’s the fun of it. You can decide for yourself.
In addition, the whole thing is plotted so well and comes together so nicely in the end. So many characters are explored, but it’s all cohesive. There’s the animation, that while obviously low budget, still did some amazing things. I like that the show utilized the fact it had to rely on stock footage to futher it’s theme of people caught in endless cycles. That was clever. And again, it was so theatrical and visual that it’s still being referenced in animation to this day- by the likes of Steven Universe, Madoka Magica…
And even shows I super hate like Kill la Kill apparently. It’s had a lasting visual influence.
This is also the rare coming of age story and heroes journey that is focused on women and again, I see it as such an ultimate coming of age story that not only explores the struggle of what it’s like to be a woman in this world, but growing up and dealing with pain and breaking free of those who trap you in general. it also explores mental illness in women and that is a very rare thing to see in fiction. It’s not rare to see mentally ill women, but it is rare to see their perspective explored and see them be heroes- mentally ill women are either sidelined for the stories of men, recover immediately to be their pure and cheerful selves, or are portrayed as completely helpless due to their illness. We see men with vague symptoms of mental illness explored ane made heroes a HELL of a lot, but women? Not so much. I write about that a little here: http://adventuresofcomicbookgirl.tumblr.com/post/… (discusses FMAB, FMA 2003 and Ace Attorney in addition to Utena).
Utena does not do that. I read Anthy as extremely depressed and dealing with anxiety PTSD- it’s never directly stated, but she does have many symptoms. Utena also shows symptoms of depression. Both women were suicidal at points in their lives. So, it is very valuable for me to see these two women struggle with their symptoms but ultimately live their lives anyway, as a woman with depression and anxiety.
Utena is the ultimate takedown of so many clichéd tropes that haunt our fiction and so many oppressive concepts that still haunt us. I’ve rarely seen a series so pointed in it’s criticism and so on-point most of the time.
Most of the stuff I’m talking about is present in the movie, but the movie itself is also so valuable because it allows our main characters to be openly queer like they were intended to be. We get to see a version of the characters that are a bit more comfortable with themselves from the beginning and blatantly romantically together and blissfully happy with it at the end.
The movie is the series mainlined in broad strokes, and that’s such a valuable thing to have. It is so valuable to have a movie that is literally about Anthy taking the wheel and smashing through what held her back, literally about two women utterly destroying and oppressive system that abused and marginalized them and then riding off into the sunset of freedom as a happy couple, having changed the world completely. It just makes me so happy this is a movie that exists, it is the utter antithesis of the rote cliché you usually see in media, of the silently suffering and sidelined women and queer characters.
And it is GORGEOUS to boot, with beautiful animation, storytelling and packed full of complexity in it’s short time frame. Just, wow, what an beautiful movie about the epic and larger than life journey about these two women, with the budget to support it in shiny color, endlessly moving buildings and ridiculous hair.
Utena IS an epic, SAGA, in my eyes, with larger-than-life battles and heroism. I have yet to meet another series that functions as a pointedly feminist (hopefully Ikuhara wouldn’t object to someone from the West using that word to describe the work of someone from an Eastern culture- but I can’t think of any other to really get across what I’m trying to say) allegory epic about specifically queer women destroying the old system, conquering foes and changing the world- it’s the only one of it’s kind I’ve seen. I’m so glad it came into my life and helped me broaden my perspective. It’s a series that taught me that things aren’t always simple, but you can face the complexity and ugliness of the world, the ugliness of growing up, the hardships that come with living and move forward and try to change things.
I’m so glad Revolutionary Girl Utena exists. Thank you to the people who gave it to us, and thank you everyone for watching it and allowing me to see you experience it, and allowing me to experience it again. Thank you, Mark, thank you everyone who replied to by reviews and participated, thank to utena-tfln.tumblr,com for the hilarious texts.