Smash The World’s Shell: Revolution and the Girl Prince

The girl prince is an endlessly fascinating character archetype to me. It’s not universal, but it crops up again and again in anime and manga; Kawashima from Gekkan Shojo Nozaki-kun, Sailor Uranus from Sailor Moon, and Kaoru from Bang Dream! are just some examples. It’s fascinating to me because of the ease with which these gender-nonconforming characters exist within the very gendered world of anime, where most shows are still categorized as either “for boys”(shonen)  or “for girls” (shojo) like Happy Meal toys. Even more interesting are the way these beacons of masculine-femininity seem to draw from the same inspiration, the same reference point: the fairy-tale prince. Where did this archetype come from? It starts with Japanese musical theatre in the early 1900s, takes a detour into the advent of shojo manga, Japan’s communist movements of the 1960s, and ultimately to one of the most influential animes of the 90s. Along the way, the figure of the girl prince begins to take shape, and she is revolutionary.

Revolutionary Girl Utena

In 1913, a wealthy Japanese industrialist founded an all-female musical theatre troupe with the intention of teaching women to be good wives by giving them structure and discipline in their lives. Unfortunately, he did this in the most lesbian way possible; enter, the Takarazuka Revue. The Takarazuka, which is still active today, became an elite theatre group known for its lavish productions, its rigorous and secretive training process, and the fact that women would both play male and female roles. These leading ladies playing men, called otokoyaku (male-role, as opposed to musumeyaku, female-role) were immensely popular, but were popular almost exclusively with female fans. In fact, almost all Takarazuka fans were women. Female audiences absolutely adored these performers, specifically because of the gender contradictions they embodied, and the agency it gave them. For many of these women the otokoyaku were a power fantasy: women who got to free themselves from the boundaries of patriarchy and become cool, swash-buckling heroes. And for many women the otokoyaku were simply attractive: who doesn’t want to swoon over a knightly butch woman?

From the 1998 production of Elizabeth

This was extremely troubling to both the people who created the troupe and to wider society, because this surge of female agency (and homoeroticism) was not the intended effect of this finishing school/theatre troupe. The actresses had to try to balance their fame and career aspirations with the expectations that before they got too old they would quit to go start a family and be a “good wife”. Many of the otokoyaku also had to balance their own gender troubles. Some had no trouble going between masculine- and feminine-presenting, but for others this manly stage identity was their true identity, one that wouldn’t be accepted off the stage. There was also the problem of the homoeroticism and the way that the troupe attracted queer fans, many of whom were out there writing love letters to their favourite actresses. But despite the scandal of it, the homoeroticism of the relationships between the actresses and their fans (or between the actresses themselves) were ultimately not taken seriously. In this regard, Takarazuka also laid the groundwork for how society would react to the questions it raised about gender and sexuality: the concept of “Class-S” relationships.

“Class-S” refers to “romantic friendships” between women, a categorization that can be boiled down to the idea that relationships between women aren’t “real”.  It’s a surprisingly common idea, expressed in old literature from Japan to England to Russia, that women declaring their love to one another and kissing each other on the mouth was just an expression of very intense friendship, or at most a sort of juvenile infatuation that would soon fade. The idea of Class-S is justified as a phase, something girls will go through and then grow out of; the same way otokoyaku could embody masculinity on stage, but were expected to then retire from acting and become “normal” housewives. Ultimately, the designation of Class-S relationships was a way of dismissing queer women’s lives and relationships as a phase and as something unacceptable beyond a certain point, something used to discriminate against women who continued to be queer into adulthood, but it still allowed a short window for such feelings to flourish.

The Takarazuka Revue and its fans were-and still are-a place that allowed for a queer female masculinity to exist, and this space influenced other feminist spaces and movements, which then in turn influenced the Takarazuka. In 1953, the mangaka Osamu Tezuka began publishing the series Princess Heart which followed to adventures of a girl with both “the blue heart of a boy and a pink heart of a girl,” as well as a male-presenting alter-ego, who was directly inspired by the Takarazuka Revue’s heroines. Princess Heart was popular, and hugely influential in the emergence of a manga market aimed at girls, gender-bending protagonist and all. While Takarazuka’s influence on this new genre was all-encompassing, with references to the troupe in everything from Sailor Moon to Ouran High School Host Club, the works that drew the most directly from Takarazuka and from Princess Heart also took on the source material’s social transgressiveness. It was these works, The Rose of Versailles and Revolutionary Girl Utena, that became the cultural exemplar of the princely girl.

Takarazuka production of The Rose of Versailles

Riyoko Ikeda’s 1972 manga series The Rose of Versailles retells the story of Marie Antoinette, this time focusing on the fictional head of the French Royal Guard, Oscar François de Jarjayes, a woman who was raised as a man in order to fulfil her duty to guard the princess. Rose of Versailles didn’t shy away from the way the character of Oscar complicated gender, including love interests for her that were both male and female, even if her female love interest was characterized as Class-S infatuation. It also didn’t shy away from the actual historical context of Marie Antoinette’s life: class warfare. The story of the manga follows Oscar grappling with the poverty and oppression faced by the French masses, and ultimately defecting from her Royal position and joining the fight as a revolutionary. Ikeda herself was an active part of Japan’s communist movement of the 1960s. The Rose of Versailles was born from this movement, and it’s not a coincidence that in terms of politics and of gender the story deliberately challenges society’s oppressive structures. And the story was a hit, the same way Princess Heart and the Takarazuka Revue were hits not despite their radical messages about gender, female agency and social activism, but because of them. The Rose of Versailles was especially popular among Takarazuka fans, enough so that by 1974, only two years after the manga began, the troupe was performing a musical adaptation of it, which quickly became one of their most popular shows. Takarazuka and The Rose of Versailles were closely related, because they were both bold examples of girl princes. And then in 1997, the figure of the girl prince would become synonymous with Utena Tenjou.

Revolutionary Girl Utena is an anime and corresponding manga adaptation produced in 1997 by artist collective Be-Papas, founded and directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. Utena is about a lot of things. It’s about sword lesbians; about allegories; about how the structures of patriarchal abuse are indivisible from our ideas of gender and romance; about how the system reproduces itself violently in a never-ending cycle; and most importantly it is about breaking free. I could write an entire series of articles on it and still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of Utena. I highly recommend this essay for those who have watched the show or want to understand some of its deeper themes. The show centers on Utena Tenjou, a girl whose dream is to become a prince, and duels she is forced to engage in to try and “win” the Rose Bride, Anthy Himemiya. Like its predecessors, Revolutionary Girl Utena challenges social structures and the gender binary through its radically masculine heroine, and like The Rose of Versailles, it comes to the conclusion that the only just way forward is to move beyond these structures altogether. The Student Council’s refrain in Utena, repeated in episode after episode, outright says as much:

“If it cannot break its egg’s shell, a chick will die without being born. We are the chick. The world is our egg. If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without being born. Smash the world’s shell! For the revolution of the world!”

Utena and Anthy

From the otokoyaku in 1913 to Utena Tenjou in 1997 and beyond, the figure of the girl prince has always been a radical one. It’s inherently transgressive, inherently revolutionary, the idea of a woman who can free herself from the constraints of womanhood and access power for herself; a woman who can be a man. It’s also inherently queer, and the girl prince embraces this. Women wrote love letters to their favourite Takarazuka actresses, Rosalie falls in love with Lady Oscar in The Rose of Versailles, and Revolutionary Girl Utena is explicitly a lesbian love story between Utena and Anthy. Stories like The Rose of Versailles and Revolutionary Girl Utena, characters like Oscar and Utena, and the Takarazuka performances that inspired them, all do something vitally important: they chip out a tiny bit of space that says, “you can exist.” Reminiscent of the famous Ursula K. Le Guin quote, these stories say, this seems inescapable, but it is not. You can break the world’s shell. You can be free. You just have to try.

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