This week’s column returns to the genre of “magical girls”, featuring super-powered ladies battling against all kinds of evil goings on. However, as this title proves, magical girls do not necessarily have to be girly.
Revolutionary Girl Utena started as a manga, running for five volumes between 1996 and 1997. It was adapted into a TV anime, running for 39 episodes in 1997, with a film released in 1999. The series does not just feature fantastical elements, but also the romantic and the psychological. It also features other things that some people in Japan at the time thought as controversial. Perhaps this is not surprising when the central relationship in the show was interracial and between two female characters, which arguably make this series a yuri – lesbian anime.
The story begins with a girl named Utena Tenjou, whose parents died when she was very young. However, she was cheered up by handsome prince who gave a rose signet ring. As a result Utena has decided to embrace the lifestyle and behaviour of a fairy tale prince. Thus when she goes to Ohtori Academy she is the only girl in the entire school wearing a male uniform.
At the school she encounters a black girl named Anthy Himemiya, who spends most of her days growing roses in a birdcage-shaped greenhouse, and being the victim of an abusive relationship with one of the members of the school council. Utena tries to put a stop to this, but the only way she can do so is by taking part in a duel with swords, the victor being the one who can knock off a rose being worn by the competitor. She agrees, and her signet ring allows her access to a special part of the school, seemingly in another dimension, when she is able to fight and win her duel, thus winning Anthy in the process. Following this, Utena and Anthy’s relationship becomes filled with deeper meaning and love, with Utena always being challenged for control of Anthy. Thus Utena has to duel more and more, using a sword which Anthy magically summons. The School Council meanwhile are keen to win Anthy back, for they plan to use her power to “revolutionise the world”.
There are many elements as to why Revolutionary Girl Utena makes for a very watchable series. All sorts of the elements of the series are enjoyable: the characters, the plot, the music, but the main appeal is that the series is surprisingly.
Not only do you have the central character being a woman who acts masculine, but you also have the central loving relationship between two female characters, and the fact that it is between a white girl and a black girl. Now it should be pointed out that Utena was not the first magical girl series to feature such elements. Sailor Moon (No. 63), which features a team of magical girls, had two characters in a lesbian relationship, and another character has darker coloured skin than the rest of the characters, although it is never stated what race she is. The issue of race however was controversial in Utena. Surprisingly, even as late as 1997, people were ringing into the TV station broadcasting the show to make racist complaints about the fact that Anthy was black.
Another way that this series is subversive is in the transformation sequences. Most of the sequences in magical girl sequences tend to be rather flashy and sweet. In Revolutionary Girl Utena the main sequences tend to be a tad more interesting and dramatic to watch. For example, one sequence sees Utena opening a floodgate using her signet ring, which reveals a long staircase which she walks up to reach the area where the duels take place. There is a bit of magic where Anthy adds some adornments to Utena’s uniform, and Utena summons a sword from Anthy.
This series is for people who want to watch something out of the ordinary. It takes aspects of fairy tales and anime, and twists them ever so slightly.
The TV series of Revolutionary Girl Utena is released on Region 1 DVD by RightStuf. The film is released on Region 2 DVD by MVM Films.