Screen & Page: See You On The Dueling Ground In ‘Revolutionary Girl Utena’ [Pride Week]
Most anime is adapted from manga, often produced by the manga publisher to raise awareness and sell it overseas. But what about the anime shows or film that go the other way, adapted from the screen to the page? How do those works hold up, and what changes or stays the same? That’s what Screen & Page aims to explore.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is the oldest series we've covered so far and, folks, it looks it. First broadcast in 1997, the show's look hasn't aged well. Even more unfortunately, a lot of the animation is very low-budget, and recycled footage abounds. I mention these things because they're inescapable and will undoubtedly color your perceptions. That said, you should watch this show.
Created by the production supergroup Be-Papas, and directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, written by Yoji Enokido and animated by J.C. Staff, Utena ran for 39 episodes and spawned a theatrical movie, Adolescence of Utena (more on that in a bit). It's bounced around various American licensors over the years, most likely because this is a deceptively hard show to market. It starts out as typical shojo (girl's) fare but then becomes something a lot stranger and a lot more compelling.
At the elite Ohtori Academy, Utena Tenjo is adored by every other girl student due to her caring nature and inclination for wearing a boys' uniform. For her part, Utena swore long ago after being saved by a prince that she'd be a prince herself. Utena's life changes drastically when, to avenge a friend's hurt feelings, she gets swept up in the duels of the Student Council over the Rose Bride: the demure Anthy Himemiya.
The duels break down like so: two duelists each have roses pinned on them by Anthy. Whoever knocks off their opponent's rose wins and becomes the new Champion and Engaged of the Rose Bride. Anthy also gives her Engaged a sword that emerges from her chest, which has "the power to revolutionize the world."
As Utena duels the Student Council members, she gets swept up in a vast conspiracy involving her own past, her evolving feelings for Anthy, a mysterious organization called End of the World and, eventually, powers beyond the mortal realm.
Although the first arc of the show is a bit dull, Utena slowly lets viewers in on the game it's playing: setting up a world full of stereotypical fairy tale trappings in order to subvert them. Susan J. Napier --- who I brought up in the column on Akira --- wrote that Utena "uses the trappings of fairy tales (the castle, the prince) and more traditional shōjo manga (beautiful girls and boys, romantic intrigue) to critique the illusions they offer." The end result is a show that's as redefining towards its genre as Neon Genesis Evangelion was to mecha (though honestly Utena is much more coherent).
That critique Napier mentions is even more obvious in 1999's Adolescence of Utena, which is more sexually explicit in addition to being, well... weird. How weird? At one point, Utena turns into a car. Like, literally, turns into a bright pink car. And she goes through a giant car wash that is, in part, a pair of giant breasts. I saw this movie at a 24-hour anime marathon in college and I thought I was hallucinating.
Bottom line: don't watch Adolescence without watching the anime first. It will not make even a shred of sense otherwise.
Anyway, despite its dated appearance, Utena is still a show well worth diving into. Ikuhara and Enokido both worked on the original Sailor Moon anime, so they know how to deliver good action and story on a tight budget. Couple that with a lovely classical/prog soundtrack from Shinkichi Mitsumune and legendary film composer J.A. Seazer (who composed the themes for the various duels) and some gorgeous backgrounds and visuals, and you see why this show has influenced everything from Code Geass to Steven Universe. Well worth getting lost in. This is a good year for it too, as Nozomi Entertainment plans to re-release the series on Blu-Ray this year.
While most of the series we've talked about in this column had the manga begin after the show or just before, Revolutionary Girl Utena, written and drawn by Chiho Saito (the sole female member of Be-Papas), began in 1996, a full year before the anime. Running in the monthly magazine Ciao, the manga stands at just five volumes (with an additional one adapting Adolescence).
Saito's art reads like a less complex version of Naoko Takeuchi's. It very much has the same aesthetic as Sailor Moon and a thousand other shojo titles, which helps make it an easy read. Even with some confounding layouts and battle scenes that are hard to follow if you're not used to this style, it's generally comprehensible.
A couple of notes on the series' English publication by Viz. First, the cover design. Viz released Utena in 2000, and the volume covers look very similar to manga volumes put out by Shogakukan and Shueisha, the two Japanese publishing giants that own Viz. I'm not sure if this was standard back then, and I get why the market moved away from these covers but still, they're pretty neat.
Second, the collected volumes don't have chapter breaks. Instead, the page count is split between the main story and side stories collected towards the back. This is a pretty smart way to present things actually --- after some of the crazy twists Utena goes to, it's nice to break things up with something about Chu-Chu, Anthy's cute monkey sidekick.
The manga tones down the relationship between Utena and Anthy, but the queerness of it all is still there. It's a quick read and absolutely worth reading if you want to read a shojo story with a bit more bite and edge to it.
Bottom line is, while it looks real dated to modern eyes, both versions of Utena are worth exploring. The ultimate conclusion of both means you get to join a critical conversation that anime fandom has been having since the late '90s!
Revolutionary Girl Utena is streaming on Hulu and is available on DVD from Nozumi Entertainment. The manga is available in print from retailers and your local library.