One of the most fascinating animated series ever made celebrates its twentieth anniversary this month. To appreciate why requires a little background information about Japanese anime. There are distinct subgenres of anime programs aimed at specific genders and age groups. Anime aimed at young girls are called "shojo" series, including the "magical girl" shows like "Sailor Moon," where the heroines transform into superhero-like do-gooders. Gender ambiguity and hiding behind male guises are also common tropes, established in one of the first shojo series, "Princess Knight," from the 1960s.
"Revolutionary Girl Utena" was created by anime director Kunihiko Ikuhara and manga artist Chiho Saito, after Ikuhara left the hugely popular "Sailor Moon" over creative differences. Initially, it seems like a typical magical girl show, though one with a very distinctive visual sense. A girl named Utena enters the prestigious Ohtori Academy, and becomes invovled in a series of duels that her upperclassmen are participating in. The prize is becoming engaged to another girl named Anthy, the Rose Bride, who has the mysterious power "to revolutionize the world." All the characters are color-coded, and there's extensive use of visual symbols like roses and shadows. At many points, events take on a surreal quality, and only make sense if you think of them as happening allegorically. A Greek chorus of shadow girls provides commentary and humor. Also, add a choral score full of ominous lyrics about an oncoming apocalypse.
There are subversions of the shojo formula and fairy tale tropes everywhere in the show. Utena's great desire is to be a "prince" who can protect the weak, and dresses and acts like a boy as a sign of her resolve. All her potential male love interests end up being positioned as the villains. Anthy is the princess figure, which makes her Utena's de facto love interest. The lesbian relationship between them is implied, but not made explicit until the subsequent Utena movie, "The Adolescence of Utena," which operates as an alternate universe retelling of the story. However, there are other same sex relationships explored in the series through other characters. And in the later episodes, a whole smorgasbord of adult topics come into play, including sexual coercion, abuse, suicide, and incest. One of the major villains is an outright sexual predator. Eventually, the series reveals itself to be a deconstruction of the entire magical girl subgenre, pushing common tropes to their extremes, and presenting a sobering look at how these stories could play out if you took them to their logical ends.
The content restrictions in Japan have always been far more lax, but keep in mind that "Utena" was still a program aimed at teenage girls, and aired in the early evenings, rather than a late night timeslot. Also, the show was so effective because it gradually darkened from a fairly typical fantasy show with many lighter, humorous episodes, into much darker, psychological stuff. It largely maintained the same standard shojo format almost all the way to the end, with its cost-saving reused transformation sequences, and a lot of emphasis on friendship and loyalty. Anthy even had a cute animal sidekick. Some distributors who aired the show internationally completely cut the last thirteen episodes and the final rounds of duels, opting to treat "Utena" like an average magical girl fantasy that just happened to have trippier aesthetics than most.
When I first saw the show in the late 90s, only the first thirteen episodes were available in the US legally, with squabbles over the rights putting further releases in limbo. So, I watched the rest via fansubs, and was absolutely bowled over by the direction the show took. Nothing I was watching on American television at the time was nearly as daring, or pushed the boundaries to nearly the same extent. The only point of comparison I really had was "Neon Genesis Evangelion," which had taken the typical giant robot genre to similarly dark and heady places the year before "Utena." But what really won me over was how much I liked the main the characters, especially Utena herself. On one level, the whole story is about her disillusionment and maturation, her "revolution to change the world" really her own journey to break free of a childish, constraining worldview.
And all these years later, she's still my favorite anime heroine, as there are precious few that I've really found both relatable and admirable. I'm generally not a fan of the magical girl shows, which can be overly cutesy and bogged down by cloying romances. However, every couple of years a good one comes with a little ambition, usually the ones that remember to push the boundaries a little, in the spirit of the old classics like "Princess Knight" and "Rose of Versailles." To date, "Utena" still has the most romantic lesbian relationship I've seen in anime. And it rarely resorts to cheap shocks with its more adult material, which far too many post- "Utena" shows have been guilty of. I've actually come to appreciate the series more over time, as we've seen more media tackle LGBT themes and female coming-of-age stories with varying degrees of success.
The movie is another story, but more on that another time.