If you watch only a few episodes of Utena, you’ll feel cheated.
If you watch all of Utena, you’ll still feel cheated. (I did.)
If you watch up to around the last few episodes, you’ll probably be content, but you know – you won’t really have accomplished anything at all.
Utena, as one of my friends told me when I decided to really watch it and stop talking about it, has not aged that well. It’s visuals (and audio, to be fair) are definitely dated. But the real gold of Utena lies in what I would call Ikuhara’s “mastery of the medium”.
Utena shines past its age because it’s a nice (if abstract and obscured) narrative, told through Japanese shadow plays that you can’t “just believe” the first time. Fortunately, the genius of Ikuhara’s production is in repetition. It’s well known that it’s cheap to reuse animation. It’s an art to take advantage of that and work it into the narrative of the show.
Utena is FULL of repeated sequences – surprising even for me, and I’d call myself a magical girl kind of girl. The long approach to the illusionary castle, the shadow plays, Miki’s stopwatch, the animation of Utena and Anthy falling asleep, repeated flashbacks, the list goes on and on. And each repetition, rather than being annoying (as they definitely are in the first few episodes) begins to feel as though they’re carefully illuminating some secret that Ikuhara only wants to reveal through these snippets. Through this medium, repetition highlights change over time. With each repetition and its slight variations, Utena’s most basic concepts are rotated, shifted, and transformed.
*Disclaimer: The following article contains spoilers*
The duels seemed to be the most content-rich parts of the show, full of music with strange lyrics that must mean something deep, visuals that relate to the episode itself, and the struggles of each character as they literally fight each other for the right to the Rose Bride. And we as watchers are often left feeling like Utena – “Why is any of this happening at all?”
But almost every time, we see Utena pull through, even though she has “no reason” to be fighting. What’s interesting to me, even more than the duels or Utena’s motivation, is the symbolism behind the weapon as it relates to the subject of love. In each duel, at least one of the duelists gets their weapon by pulling it out of someone’s chest (presumably their heart). We see that the champion is always able to pull the sword of Dios from Anthy at first, and this establishes that there is some sort of connection between betrothal and love and the power of the weapon used in battle. Soon enough, we see swords being pulled left and right, from crushes, siblings, friends, and frenemies. It was established in the first few times this happened that pulling a sword could be done from only someone who loved the wielder. For instance, a brother could pull out his sister’s love and use it in battle. A girl who knows that a boy has a crush on her can pull a sword out of him to fight Utena. This is all fine and dandy. Then Ikuhara dims the lights and we have people pulling swords from victims who love them but would not have wanted their love to be abused. Suddenly this nice metaphor gets dark, indicating that there is the potential to weaponize someone’s love for you, turning the relationship abusive and toxic and rape-like, even.
That part bothered me a lot. And of course, Utena can defeat all of these “bad” people, but not because she hates them or thinks they’re despicable – at least, not as I interpreted. I see it as Utena winning because she isn’t fighting selfishly or to gain something she wants for herself. For most of the show, we have no idea what Utena is fighting for, presumably just to free Anthy from the weight of being the Rose Bride, because that seems like a crappy situation. No matter who challenges Utena, they do it for themselves: to see Anthy play the piano more, to get Utena’s attention, to win their brother’s love, to prove that miracles don’t exist, to gain the right to bring revolution to the world.
I read only two theories about Utena after finishing it. One was that it’s a coming-of-age story, and I agree with that. The other was that it’s something about being transgendered, or deep and beautiful yuri love – which it’s not and has barely anything to do with – and I guess I just don’t think that one’s right.
And Utena herself aside (though I’m sure I could write pages about her), I think that most of the characters are not as interesting as Nanami. First off, Nanami is a really comical character. She’s funny because she’s crazy, and she’s crazy because she strives to be the most normal and most popular girl. Nanami is the desperate younger sister of the student council president, Touga. Throughout the show, there are jokes about Nanami being in love with Touga, which may or may not be true, but the striking matter about Nanami isn’t her love. It’s her struggle to be normal! Just like how I feel about Piper in Orange Is the New Black, Nanami is the human condition embodied. She wants the best, the most, the cutest, the classiest, the richest, of everything. She wants to be just like her brother, or even better. She wants the respect of everyone around her, and she tries, tries, tries. Nanami tries to put gross animals into Anthy’s dorm room to make people think that Anthy is weird and that Nanami herself is the coolest and most popular girl. Nanami tries to wear a designer cowbell all around the school to be the most classy and special girl around – how many people do you know who wear Gucci cowbells or big clocks around their necks? Nanami tries to hide the fact that she laid an egg because laying an egg is not normal for a teenage girl. She takes every stereotype of a teenage girl and drives it to an extreme, and every time, Nanami fails to be who she wants to be.
And Nanami’s failure lies in direct contrast with Utena’s success. None of Utena’s successes come easy, and neither does Nanami’s failures. According to my theory, this is because Nanami struggles selfishly, and Utena struggles selflessly. Utena’s motivation is just a little bit more complicated than most of the other characters.
Utena is an agent of her own desires. She certainly has things that she wants – she wants a normal life, a prince to sweep her off her feet, and justice for everyone. Utena rarely acts selfishly in the show though, and when it happens, you feel as though she’s betrayed you.
Utena is obviously a seminal anime. Some of the deepest parts of Utena’s story, the ones that you don’t really find out about until the last ten episodes, seem to have lent strong inspiration to Madoka. A girl whose desire to save her brother made her into an invincible witch with an eternity of suffering ahead of her? A girl who is shown this suffering and cannot stand to see it happen any longer, who releases the witch from her shackles? The depiction of a girl witch stabbed with a million swords of human hatred? It has Madoka written all over it, and then the cherry on top is that Madoka’s choice to save all magical girls is just like how Utena chooses inevitably to release Anthy from that suffering. There’s a quote from Utena that I think comes pretty close to joining the two series: “A girl who cannot become a princess is doomed to become a witch.”
Of course, Utena has had a much greater impact than “maybe possibly” inspiring Madoka. This mixture of swords and love and fighting in a high school setting with a prince and princess dynamic runs rampant in anime. The concept of battles won not by killing your opponent but by simply attacking some part of their outfit is in at least two other series that I’ve seen recently – Hayate X Blade and Mikagura School Suite.
Just like any of Ikuhara’s work, Utena is worth watching. It’s not exactly man-hating, it’s not exactly yuri, it’s not exactly mahou-shoujo, it’s not exactly depressing but what it is, is perfect.