Revolutionary Girl Utena is a series filled with many things—sword fights, surrealism, the postwar avant-garde—and that’s just scratching the surface. But we’re not here today to dissect the many themes of Utena. Today, we’re here to talk about the journey of Utena Tenjou.
Before we delve into Utena, her dissection of traditional gender stereotypes, her identity and her sexuality, let’s talk about the series. For those who may be unfamiliar, Revolutionary Girl Utena is a much lauded, award-winning, 39-episode anime that explores everything from childhood idealism versus adulthood reality, to gender, sexuality and identity.
Imagery of girls in fancy, flowing dresses fit for a princess, and princes on white horses abound. And yet, each of these antiquated stereotypes are broken down in Utena, with the revolutionary girl herself leading the charge.
Pink-haired and wearing a boy’s uniform, Utena Tenjou challenged her classmates’ expectations on first sight.
For starters, she doesn’t attend the esteemed Ohtori Academy for its stellar academics, but for the simple reason that the school crest happens to be eerily similar to the rose crest ring given to her by a mysterious prince long ago.
Utena yearns to meet this mysterious prince once again, but she isn’t at all interested in playing the part of their princess. Being swept off her feet or saved like a damsel in distress isn’t something she wants—not by a prince or anyone else.
The fact of the matter is that Utena was so impressed by the prince’s grace and nobility that she swore she’d become a prince too someday. That is who Utena is—someone who strives to embody grace, nobility and righteousness; someone who will always come when their aide is truly needed.
The Rose Bride
How can we talk about Utena without talking about Anthy?
Anthy Himemiya is a quiet girl who prefers taking care of flowers and cooking delicious meals to things like sports or dueling. Being princely isn’t exactly in her repertoire; she dresses more traditionally feminine than Utena does, wearing the girl’s school uniform, filling out a bit more of the princess-like profile that Utena eschews.
Fate has already been set for Anthy. She is the Rose Bride, a person who is literally fought over like an item; something women have literally and figuratively have been seen as. Real duels using real swords are fought, and the winner gets Anthy, the Rose Bride, along with the power to “revolutionize the world.”
Fighting against this fate is something that isn’t quite within Anthy’s sight. That is, not until she meets the proud, stubborn Utena who won’t let her be treated in such a way. Standing by and doing nothing isn’t princely, after all, even if Utena wants nothing to do with duels and illusory castles in the sky.
Unfortunately, not everyone understands why Utena wants to bend the carefully constructed gender expectations they’ve built for her. Being outwardly more feminine or more princess-like doesn’t mean that Anthy has an easier time of it either.
Smashing gender stereotypes into teeny-tiny little pieces might be at the top of Utena’s to-do list, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for her.
Most folks—whether they be classmates or teachers—think she ought to play the part of a princess or a damsel in distress. But Utena doesn’t take their nonsense. She wears a boy’s school uniform, plays sports and is too happy to let other girls fawn over her.
The small, aggravating annoyance of the guidance counselor constantly berating Utena on conforming may be small, but it’s continuous; it’s the sort of thing that always comes back just when you think they’ve given up.
That isn’t the only external pressure Utena experiences either. Touga Kiryuu, student council president, wants to make her his princess.
Anthy, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. While society isn’t telling her to conform more, it certainly isn’t kind to her. A perceived wrong on Anthy’s part gets her scolded in very nearly every episode in the first arc. People fight over her—both literally in the form of duels fought with real swords and figuratively—as if she were a piece of property, with Saionji, in particular, viewing Anthy as “his.”
Both Anthy and Utena keep being themselves, though. Neither conform to the many different directions others are determined to pull them in, despite the seemingly never-ending pressure to bow in subservience.
At its core, Utena’s journey is about exploring personal identity. Straightness isn’t really a thing in this series, and the vast majority of its cast show a huge range of love, sexuality, gender expression and other queer themes.
There is so much more to Utena’s relationship with Anthy than friendship. And while it’s clear to us as the audience, it wasn’t quite as clear to Utena at first. While following her sense of justice, she finds herself fighting for Anthy not just because Saionji mistreats her, but because she begins to fall for her.
The same can largely be said on Anthy’s part as well. At first, Anthy approaches Utena as little more than another suitor for the Rose Bride—someone who won a duel and little more. Anthy doesn’t understand the freedom Utena offers from those restrictive, horrifying boundaries, and Utena doesn’t understand why Anthy doesn’t understand.
Slowly, both begin to change. They begin to truly get to know one another—to treasure one another.
Utena might fight for Anthy’s freedom, but after she recognizes how she truly feels, she fights for a very different reason. Anthy is someone she cares about—someone she will fight for—not because she wants to become a prince or because she’s trying to do the right thing, but because she loves Anthy and will do anything to bring her happiness.
Utena is confident and open with her identity. Standing in the way of Utena’s righteous fury isn’t the safest place to be, and for good reason. She’s confident in who she is and who she loves.
Even if those around her don’t understand, want her to conform or try to push her into being what they would prefer her to be, she stands strong. Yes, she struggles, like we all do.
But with Anthy at her side, she’s fearless. And she truly will revolutionize the world.