With Mawaru Penguindrum coming to a close this week, I thought it would be fitting to write a review of Revolutionary Girl Utena. Some of you are probably asking what Revolutionary Girl Utena is and what it has to do with Mawaru Penguindrum. Back in 1997, under director Kunihiko Ikuhara and J.C. Staff, Utena revolutionized the (anime) world, earning several awards in the process for its mind-blowing presentation. Ikuhara did not direct a major project again until he created Mawaru Penguindrum.
In order to discuss Revolutionary Girl Utena, you will need to know what it is about, so here is the plot summary from ANN:
Just after Utena’s parents died she was consoled by a prince who gave her a ring with a rose crest on it. Utena was so impressed by the Prince that she vowed to become one herself one day. A few years later Utena is attending Ohtori Academy where she gives all the teachers headaches because she dresses in a boys uniform so she can be like the prince she met long ago. After Utena’s friend is insulted by a member of the Student Council, Utena fights in a duel for her friends honor. Utena’s rose crest allows her to enter the dueling arena where Utena wins the duel and becomes engaged to the Rose Bride. Unknowingly, Utena is pulled into a series of duels with other members of the Student Council for the possession of the Rose Bride. As she becomes fond of Anthy, the Rose Bride, she must fight to keep her friend safe and to discover the horrifying secret behind Ohtori Academy.
To say that RGU was brilliant is an understatement. Watching the series challenged my ability to not only remember everything I had learned about literature, but to analyze it in detail. The complexity of the series can only be grasped with an understanding of classical Greek plays, Jungian archetypes, and literary techniques such as extended metaphors. I will touch on these topics below.
RGU drew heavily from three different aspects of Greek plays: the chorus, fate/destiny, and tragedy. The role of the Greek chorus was to speak or sing the actions happening on stage, often explaining elements that the audience would otherwise have not picked up on. In the anime, every episode had a shadow play in which a trio of girls would act out a short skit often containing a riddle. Solving the mystery behind the riddle would reveal hidden intentions, functioning very much like a chorus. The shadow players also served to warn the heroine, Utena, of impending danger or foreshadowed what was to come. In this way, they were very similar to the Oracle of Delphi, which predicted the future in sometimes unintelligible speech. If you are familiar with Greek plays such as Oedipus Rex, then you will know that in them, you cannot escape fate and destiny. Tragedy will befall the hero in the end, and RGU followed this to the letter.
I’m not going to go into what is and what isn’t an archetype since that topic causes quite a bit of confusion, even for myself. We do see what psychologist Carl Jung considered archetypes, such as: the hero, anima and animus, and the shadow. There are literally dozens of essays on the topic, and I want to keep this short, so I’m just going to say that the smooth union of opposites in all of the characters was awe-inspiring. There’s only one example I can think of that won’t give any spoilers, and that’s with Nanami. Throughout the series, Nanami is portrayed as a fool, going as far as wearing a cowbell thinking it was stylish just because it was made by a famous jewelry company. At the end of the series, she proves herself to be much more observant and enlightened than Utena by giving her a clear warning not to trust those around her.
A lot of anime is geared towards sex, what with all of the bikini-clad girls and “accidental” falls, and Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of those anime, but not in the way that you think. If you’ve studied literature in any detail, you will know that a great majority of classics deal with sex, but in almost cryptic text and metaphors. RGU does the same thing as these classics, but in a visual manner. If you do watch this series, ask yourself, what are flowers commonly used as a metaphor for? By the time you finish, this question will absolutely blow your mind. (Also think about revving engines, that’s another big one.)
Despite the excellent story-telling, the animation in RGU was mediocre at best. In some episodes, it would have been impossible to identify a character if it were not for the colour of their hair. Quality swings wildly from average to horrible, even by 90’s standards.
On the other hand, the music was rather… unique. Utena’s “transformation” scene is one of the most awesomely-weird things I’ve seen in anime. Combined with the incomprehensible lyrics, which is sung by a chorus, it leaves a lasting impression. After finishing the series, I still have no clue what any of the songs meant, I just had “zettai unmei mokushiroku” stuck in my head for a few days.
To sum things up, Revolutionary Girl Utena may not be the nicest-looking anime out there, but the way in which it was presented was godly. A lot of thought went into this series and it shows. With the exception of perhaps the 7 deadly sins, you could use this series in a discussion on just about any literary topic. I highly recommend anyone who likes literature, sword-play, or yuri to watch Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Try counting how many times Himemiya gets slapped in this series.