Revolutionary Girl Utena
Rated: N / A :: Released: 02 April 1997
Director: Kunihiko Ikuhara :: Starring: Tomoko Kawamari, Yuriko Fuchizaki, Rachael Lillis, andSharon Becker
By Hannah Krueger
06 May 2010 — "Once upon a time, years and years ago, there was a little princess, and she was very sad, for her father and mother had died. Before the princess appeared a traveling prince riding upon a white horse. The prince wrapped the princess in a rose-scented embrace and gently wiped the tears from her eyes. 'Little one,' he said, 'who bears up alone in such deep sorrow, never lose that strength and nobility, even when you grow up. I give you this to remember this day. We will meet again. This ring will lead you to me one day.' Perhaps the ring the prince gave her was an engagement ring. This was all well and good, but she was so impressed by him that the princess vowed to become a prince one day. But was that really such a good idea?"
This is the story that Utena Tenjou tells us as her older self — still aspiring to be a prince and dressing like a boy — as she goes to the prestigious Ohtori Academy. After her close friend is cruelly treated by Saionji, she sees him slapping Anthy, his supposed girlfriend. So Utena challenges him to a duel. The ring she wears unknowingly admits her to a secret dueling arena in the forest where Saionji meets her with Anthy. Saionji then pulls a sword out of Anthy's chest, and things only get weirder from there.
On the surface, Revolutionary Girl Utena is just a 39-episode duelist of the week series, though there are some recurring duelists. Admittedly, some elements are a bit repetitive; however, what makes this show so impressive is the character development of the duelists and recurring characters. Each duel shows another side to them, and reveals even more reasons why these people should go to a psychiatrist. Hell, even the girl who's mainly used as comedic relief is developed excellently, and light is shed on her psychological problems. And though the length of the series might seem daunting, it allows you to see a lot of the little details you might have missed (or they couldn't have focused on) in a shorter series — which works to the show's benefit.
The other thing about this series is that nothing is what it seems to be at first. There are multiple layers to every single character and aspect of the show. And as it goes on, you realize exactly what is happening at Ohtori Academy. There's also some very heavy symbolism that uses fairly mundane objects and allegories to foreshadow events. Though, you'll only catch this on subsequent viewings.
The art takes a bit of getting used to, admittedly, with blank eyes, sharp edges, and heavy lines. In general, Utena is very stylized, but when compared to other shows airing around that time (e.g. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Berserk), the quality is fairly high. A lot of work went into the backgrounds and symbolism, too, all of which figures heavily into the show. And though stock footage is used, luckily it's animated well enough that it shouldn't bother you.
Utena's background music was composed by Shinkichi Mitsumune, who also worked on Rozen Maiden. Every theme is memorable, and is probably some of my favorite music from a series ever. And then there are the vocal tracks which play during the duels, all composed by JA Seazer. When you're listening to the translation of the songs, you're going to realize that they make absolutely no sense; they seem to be random words thrown together. And at first they are. However, as you're watching the show, you realize just how much effort went into those seemingly random words, and that yes, they actually do mean something.
The OP, which never changes, is one of my favorites. It's not anything out of the normal for OPs — an upbeat female J-pop number, like with Ouran High School Host Club — but for whatever reason I really like it. It's the same thing with the three EDs; they're all J-pop numbers I wouldn't usually enjoy, but they really work for the series.
The Japanese cast has some fairly big names, with two standout roles: Juurouta Kosugi's Akio sounds like sex and malice incarnate, and Yuriko Fuchizaki's Anthy has an amazing amount of depth, just barely hinting at what's going on beneath the surface.
A few years later a feature movie was released: Adolescence of Utena. It's best described as the TV series retold in two hours (or less). Though some characters are absent, different plot elements are bought up (or discarded), and there's lots of symbolism. And, some would argue, a heavy dose of crack was added in.
I would highly suggest watching the series before going into the movie. I watched Adolescence, then the series, and then Adolescence again, and I found that the series helped me understand it more, which is what the creators intended. And then the movie, in turn, helped me understand elements of the series, which in turn helped me understand the movie more, which helped me better understand the series. It's an amazing cycle of positive feedback.
The art for this is a lot smoother than it was in the series, and it's a definite improvement. Though it is still heavily stylized. The music has a lot of the same themes, subtly reworked for the movie, which gives it a whole new feel. There are also some new vocal pieces that don't have to do with the dueling songs, and they're quite addictive. Most of the cast was able to return, which adds a nice touch.
Overall, Utena is an absolutely amazingly written and acted series with lots of depth, deep character development, stylization, symbolism, and details you'll only notice on subsequent viewings. Tied for my all-time favorite series. Watch this. You will not regret it.