Review of Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997)

Moving picture, 17 hours

Seen in 2013.

According to a play (within the play) in episode 34 of 39, a princely figure who once saved all the girls from their troubles was imprisoned by the only girl he couldn’t make a princess: his sister. The relevance of this to the actual plot is unclear.

Arty drama. Clearly enabled by Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). Both are melancholy treatises on social relationships. Both are rich in obvious intertext and shot through with humour, here in the form of sight gags, puns and interludes. Both feature memorable and fine-limbed adolescent character designs, good acting, frequent battle sequences set apart from the normal social interplay, and initially cryptic plots for world domination and strange apocalypse. The main difference is that Evangelion ultimately places more importance on the substance of its plot, proceeding toward a physical and psychological apocalypse. Utena fizzles out, choosing style over substance.

Utena’s “world revolution” is just code for getting what you want. No attempt is made to explain any of the unrealistic elements of the plot in the manner of fantasy or science fiction. They are left to stand as manifestations of literary symbolism and empty glamour. This is a bold move, but not a productive one. Evangelion has a primary thematic focus in the “hedgehog’s dilemma”. Utena ranges widely over various forms of gender identity, sexuality and egotism, returning too often to the arrogant idiot Nanami. The main thrust and conclusion seems to be that friendship is important, a shōjo cliché. In the end, it’s merely pretty.

References here: Witch Craft Works (2014), Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time (2021).

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction series