Thus begins Revolutionary Girl Utena, the story of Tenjou Utena's career as a prince on Ohtori academy. The series is 39 episodes long, and every season has its own theme and feel.
Tenjou Utena is a student at Ohtori's Academy middle school. She dresses in a boy's uniform because she wants to become a prince, who saves damsels in distress. The other girls of the school idolise her -- most of all her classmate Wakaba. When the captain of the Kendo club publicly humiliates Wakaba, Utena challenges him.
Saijonji sees the ring with the rose crest (which looks suspiciously like the school's crest) and agrees to the duel -- in the arena behind the school. With her ring as the key, Utena gains access to the arena, where Saijonji and his 'fiancee' Himemiya Anthy (nicknamed 'The Rose Bride') wait for her. Anthy puts a rose in their breast pocket -- whoever knocks the rose from their opponent's chest, wins the duel. By sheer force of will, Utena wins the duel. In doing so, she gains Anthy as her fiancee!
And so Utena's life with Anthy begins. The members of the student council, who get instruction by letter from a mysterious individual called 'End of the World', challenge her one by one. Not only to gain Anthy as their fiancee (and thus to gain the ability to 'bring revolution to the world'), but also to preserve and accentuate their own feelings.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is about growing up, about shedding the child you once was and stepping into the world beyond as an adult. It's about struggling with feelings and relationships, about the painful process of growing up.
The first season is about feelings that are important to someone. The student council members challenge Utena to preserve their own feelings, or to prove something to themselves. At the end of the first season (episode 13, 'Tracing a Path'), the duels that have been fought are enumerated and named: every duel has a theme, an issue that needs to be resolved before you can become an adult.
The second seasons (the Black Rose saga) is about jealousy, about hidden feelings and ambitions. It is about the underdogs who crave for their time in the spotlight, about how they envy the 'stars' of school life. The image of the swords emerging from the chests of their 'victims'/'oppressors' is a very vivid one: the feelings are inside the 'stars', and the jealous people want to use those feelings for their own plans.
The third season is, in my opinion, the weakest one. It focusses almost exclusively on the love triangle between Anthy, Akio and Utena. The symbolism is a lot less explicit and the visuals are more confusing. It leads up to Utena's ultimate choice: will she become the prince she wants to be (break out of her shell), or will she choose the path of the princess (simply give up and slowly fade into the background, where the grind of everyday life and conformity will slowly wear her down)?
The series 'works' on multiple levels: you can watch the plot on the surface and enjoy that -- there's certainly much to see and experience there (though the first season is strongest in that respect). But if you can see below the surface, and see the symbolism, there is much more to see and admire. In 39 episodes, we have enough time to get to know the main characters rather well -- the core cast is provided by Utena, Anthy and the members of the student council. These are well-rounded characters with their own motivations, dreams and problems. Paradoxically, it is Utena that is the least rounded character: she only serves to duel against the various characters. The series certainly is not about Utena.
It's not all doom and gloom either: there is much in the way of comedy (mostly provided by Nanami, whose lack of common sense is rivalled by the vividness of her imagination). And of course, this is a school: hormones are raging through the corridors, and the directors certainly do not shy away from tackling issues like highschool loves, homosexuality and even incest.
The artwork is excellent, though the sequence of ascension to the duelling arena can get repetitive. Music is great: opening and closing themes are suitably energetic, there are some quiet piano pieces for the quieter moments and the choral works with almost-nonsensical lyrics during the duels.
- Looks beautiful;
- Great storyline;
- Deep symbolism, works on multiple levels;
- Shadow girls!
- Can get a bit repetitive at times ('duel of the week');
- Symbolism can get in the way of enjoying the complete story;
- Does not answer all of the questions posed.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching this series. And I think that some of you simply should see it. Some of you are now in the painful process of growing up, of 'breaking through your shell', of discovering who you are as an adult. Perhaps this series will make you realise your situation, making it easier to deal with.
I'll give this series a 8.5.