Warning: Spoilers for Revolutionary Girl Utena season one may be present in this blog
1- Opening Thoughts and Utena’s Gender-Nonconformity
It’s finally time to start posting some Revolutionary Girl Utena content. This 90s cult classic anime was created and directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, who later went on to make Mawaru Penguindrum in 2011 and Sarazanmai in 2019. Although Penguindrum was the first of these works I watched, and the one I am most familiar with, I don’t think it’s my favorite. The best Ikuhara work, in my opinion, is Revolutionary Girl Utena. I watched this anime (which we will abbreviate as RGU) back in 2015. Recently, some friends and I have started watching it together, so it’s the perfect chance to write up some anime rants about RGU.
In case you don’t remember, RGU is divided into four sagas, three of which are normal-length anime seasons, with the fourth one being only a few episodes. The plan for now is to write anime rants about each saga of RGU as I rewatch the show. These rants and rambles might end up a bit disorganized or disjointed. Eventually, I will organize some of this content into more traditional analysis posts For now, however, this is what I’m doing. So let’s get started with the first season of 13 episodes: the Student Council Saga.
Rewatching the first episode, the first thing that struck me was how Utena was just as great as I remembered her being. Or more! She is AFAB and identifies as a girl, but is also gender-nonconforming, challenging tradition with acts like wearing the boys’ uniform at school. Utena is really badass too in terms of being athletic and physically capable. I love her completely unapologetic, bold personality. With all this, it’s no wonder Utena is so popular and loved by the students at Ohtori Academy. Utena and the themes of the anime at large are delightfully “gay.” I’m pansexual and I heartily enjoy an anime that features LGBT characters or themes without being phobic. RGU is pretty good with this, what with the gender-nonconforming character of Utena, the relationship of Utena and Anthy, and the presence of quite a few bisexual characters.
Another element I have started to notice is the similarity between RGU and other Ikuhara works. I recently re-watched Penguindrum, and small things reminded me of it. The artwork in RGU is delightful and I appreciate the old style. The music and songs are great too. Those were a few examples of basic aspects of RGU that I once again enjoyed. Now let’s get into some more specific content. My thoughts have been organized into five sections.
2- The Prince
There are a few concepts in RGU that reoccur frequently and are important to the story and its characters. One such concept is that of “The Prince.” When Utena was alone and grieving for her parents, she was metaphorically rescued by a prince: someone who comforted her and told her she was noble. He gave her a special ring that would allow them to meet again one day. And as any RGU fan knows, this was a strong formative experience for Utena. “So impressed was she by him that she vowed to become a Prince herself.” This is where our story starts.
What exactly is a prince, though? Later on, additional meaning is attached to the idea with the legend of the prince and the witch. But at this point in the story, the prince is someone who embodies such values as fairness, chivalry, strength, grace, and the ability to help women in need. Because the prince was there to save her dying heart, Utena wants to save others in the same way. Of all the characters in the series, the one closest to being a prince is, indeed, Utena herself. The other contenders in season one, such as Touga, cannot match her due to their character flaws and personal darkness. But Utena doesn’t realize she has already succeeded in becoming a prince. Instead, she’s too fixated on finding the “prince” who saved her in the past. This creates the internal conflict and angst that is largely responsible for driving RGU season one.
You may have noticed that a semi-transparent, princely figure comes down from the floating castle a few times and gives Utena special power. Perhaps you also noticed that Anthy refers to her abilities as “power of Dios that sleeps within me” and that the magical blade used by the dueling champion is called the Sword of Dios. Later arcs will tell us more about this mysterious figure– Prince Dios. For now, we only need to know that he is the source of great power in RGU lore, as well as being a symbol of the princely values that give Utena her noble strength.
We’ll revisit the concept of the prince in a future post. Before closing this section, however, it’s worth noting that sacrifice is an important part of the prince concept. A true prince would be willing to sacrifice their own safety or well-being to save someone in need. In episode 9, Touga jumps in front of Saionji’s sword to save Utena. He is wounded for a while because of it. Utena feels frustrated because she owes her life to Touga, who despite being a douche in general, actually did a good deed this time. However, this was not true sacrifice because Touga manipulated Saionji and everyone else to create that situation. It was all for the sake of emotionally disarming Utena. True sacrifice, on the other hand, will prove important for a prince as the show continues.
3- Feminism, Sexism, and Touga
RGU has long been admired by those who seek rights and equality for women. As such, the show deals with issues of sexism and the patriarchy. So many other bloggers, podcasts, and video essays already exist on this topic, so it’s a bit daunting for me. So we’ll stay brief and just touch on a few key feminist moments and themes in the first arc of the anime.
The character and wishes of Utena make for great feministic elements. Utena wears the uniform she likes best instead of the one prescribed to her based on her sex. She also believes strongly in standing up for women. One of the first things we see her doing is defending her friend Wakaba after Saionji posted her love letter publicly to mock her. And as we all know, Utena wants to free Anthy from the Rose Bride system. This is perhaps the strongest instance of Utena’s feminism, and not only because she wants to save Anthy personally. It’s also a key example because, if you think about it, Anthy represents womanhood, and the dueling system may represent the patriarchy or systemic sexism. In that case, Utena is the metaphorical embodiment of equal rights for women.
Regarding the Anthy/womanhood analogy, more will become clear as the series continues. What we see in the Student Council Saga is fairly obvious. Anthy is belittled into an object that one can own. She must serve and obey the current dueling champion, even if he abuses her like Saionji does. The Rose Bride can also be manipulated in other ways to give power to the dueling champion, as we saw with Touga. In addition, Anthy is a means to an end: she is necessary for the chosen duelist to be able to unlock the power to revolutionize the world. Objectification, manipulation, ownership, and control– these are all major parts of sexism. Women have historically had to deal with all this and more limiting our lives. In many cases, we still deal with the effects of sexism today. We will probably always need people like Utena to keep challenging the system.
The last part of this section focuses on Touga as a sexist and misogynistic character. My friend and colleague Nat has an RGU podcast in the works, and gave me permission to quote some of the material here. I believe this does an excellent job of communicating Touga’s sexism as well as his character in general.
“Touga Kiryuu embodies (especially in the first arc of RGU) a masculine role model of what the manosphere would call “an alpha male.” He is handsome, tall, cunning and well mannered (at least in public); he excels at any type of physical activity; he is manipulating and he is hypersexual. In the beginning of the show, an uninitiated viewer may even fall for his manipulation and look up to him, since especially in the early episodes, his calm and gentle demeanor represents a stark contrast to the unhinged aggression and overall weirdness of Saionji. With the latter being framed as the main antagonist of the early episodes, Touga’s scheming flies under the radar of a first time viewer. I myself found myself wondering if he was a good guy and a potential ally for Utena the first time I watched– until I got blindsided by the final episodes of the first arc.
At the end of episode 12, Touga’s actions paint a clear picture of how a “alpha male” looks and behaves in the world of Revolutionary Girl Utena. He is a strong man of action, and someone who won’t let anything come between him and his goals. He is loved by the opposite sex and knows how to weaponize his own sexuality in order to further his goals. Touga is the ultimate symbol of the status quo in the world of RGU. His scheming largely drives the plot of the first arc, like when manipulates Miki or Nanami into fighting with Utena. He also embraces the duels and the role of the Rose Bride within them. And in the moment he thinks that he has won and that he now holds all the power, one of the first things he does is to assault Utena in the cafeteria (episode 12).
Touga has always been an effective villain in my eyes, because in a way he and a lot of the other villains in RGU feel more real than the villains of other anime series. You never see him cackling to himself or embracing his own evilness; it’s the opposite, in fact. He claims and is successful in convincing almost everyone (including the viewer) that he is in fact an example of true chivalry and virtue. Touga, who claims to be an ally to all women, manipulates and lies his way through every social interaction he is in, and hurts the feelings of his own sister to force her into a duel, where she then tries to kill Utena. Furthermore, Touga is complicit in a ritualistic system of duels, where a character that arguably represents womanhood in all of the world, gets repeatedly abused, exploited and neglected.“
4- Utena’s Depression and Wakaba’s Rescue
RGU episode 11, “Graceful and Ruthless; The One Who Picks The Flower,” shows Utena’s duel with Touga and the lead-up to it. By emotionally manipulating Utena, Touga wins the battle and hence gains “ownership” of Anthy. The emotional reaction Utena displays to her loss is heart-wrenching. But it’s worse than just losing Anthy; the truth is revealed that Anthy has only been “changing” as Utena desires out of obedience as the Rose Bride. Utena must suddenly face the fact that her friend, roommate, and love interest has never been genuine with her, and is so deeply ingrained in the system that she doesn’t even try to think for herself. It’s an awful sight to see when Utena falls on her knees, crying and telling herself that this can’t be true.
I am recapping all of this because I think it’s impossible to overestimate what a painful and important experience this loss was for Utena. She is young and naive, so the disillusionment and sense of betrayal hit with utmost force. Utena’s rapid descent into severe depression in the next episode is proof enough. So distraught is she that she donned the girl’s uniform and resigned herself to being “normal.” When Touga invades her space and sexually/physically harasses her, Utena does not object like usual. In the end, Utena’s friend Wakaba finally makes her come to her senses. Then the princely girl is able to fight and win a rematch with Touga. That’s episode 12. There are several things I have to say about this episode, and the main one is about Wakaba. Just as Utena’s heartbreak should not be downplayed, Wakaba nd her intervention is hugely, immensely important to Utena’s character. Let’s explore why.
It’s a cliche thing to say– but true nonetheless– that true friends are more valuable than any possession, and can save your life literally or metaphorically in terms of the state of your heart. So, what did Wakaba do that was so great? Several things. Rather than agreeing that Utena should be “normal,” she knew that Utena would be happiest with her own brand of “normal.” Rather than take it personally when struck in the cafeteria, Wakaba smiled because she knew she had finally got Utena to react in a way that wasn’t depression. Rather than giving up at any point, this epic friend stayed close and didn’t care how many times she had to repeat herself.
Having a supportive friend like Wakaba changes everything. It’s also a strong way to fight depression and other mental illnesses. There was a time in my life where I think having someone like Wakaba might have changed the course of development of my psychological issues. Perhaps the reason I fell so far was because I didn’t have a Wakaba to knock me back to my senses. It’s pointless to speculate, though, really– because what matters is that I have good friends in my life now and I appreciate them so much. No matter where you are in your journey, friends can save you. And in terms of the RGU universe, perhaps being a loving friend is more important than being a prince.
5- The Significance of The Duels
RGU Episode 13 is a recap of the student council saga as told by a mysterious observer. The episode reviews the seven duels fought by Utena and gives each one a meaning related to the psyche of the characters involved. Since the episode does a good enough job analyzing this subject, I don’t have much to add. But I’ll write them each in the paragraph below here for reference.
Utena fought Saionji for Friendship, to defend Wakaba. Then she fought Saionji again in the name of Choice, because it was her choice to try to win instead of throwing the match. Miki fought Utena in the Reason duel, when he mentally turned Anthy into his reason for existing (AKA his “shining thing”). Juri fought the duel called Love, which spoke to her unfulfilled love and bitterness. For Nanami, it was Adoration, or the worship of her brother. The first duel with Touga was about Utena’s Conviction to stay strong even if she had to fight her prince. Unfortunately she lost, because she was swayed by Touga’s tricks.
The final duel was the fight for Self, where Utena took back her true identity. Importantly, Utena did not fight to get Anthy back– though she is glad to be around her again. The fight was very much for herself. She now knows not to depend on Anthy to be genuine, and not to try to change Anthy according to her own desires to be the rescuer of the damsel.
6- Imperfect Love and Anthy’s Elusive Emotions
Before closing I just have a couple of other thoughts to add. I mean, there is actually quite a lot I could keep adding, if I had infinite time and wanted to make this post obscenely long. (One thing I’d love to talk about is the swords used by each of the duelists, but that requires a little more research on my part.) For now I will mention only two other points– the story theme of love and the emotions of Anthy– and they are closely related.
One of the many ways in which RGU builds and develops its characters is by using the important theme of love. It’s closely tied in with the theme that nobody is perfect and by extension no love is perfect. Saionji’s idea of love is erratic, desperate, and extremely possessive. We see this in the way he keeps trying to reconnect with Anthy after losing her to Utena. Touga’s form of love is controlling and manipulative– it’s much more elegant and refined than Saionji’s love, but just as rotten. Every character has their own struggles with love, including Nanami with her brother complex. Even Utena’s love is not always perfect, since she too used Anthy to satisfy her own wishes in a very abstract way. I recommend thinking this over and studying how each character deals with love, whether it’s romantic or platonic.
Now, concerning Anthy, we confirmed something about her in episodes 11 and 12 that had been hinted at before. She is essentially without agency. She operates as the Rose Bride, a vessel of power that bends to its master’s every wish, rather than as a human. Anthy is also strangely devoid of sincere emotion– she normally seems cheerful and compliant, but there is a certain emptiness to it. This becomes very clear after Touga wins Anthy back in the duel in episode 11. No matter who she is with or what they make her do, she does it cheerfully. Either Anthy truly has no personal desires or feelings, or she is for some reason so deeply connected to the Rose Bride System that she’s gotten used to perfectly hiding or dismissing her true emotions. Is Anthy some kind of robotic sociopath, or is she a tragic girl who has forgotten how to feel?
At this point in the series, there is no definitive answer to the question about Anthy’s nature. However, there may be hints. I found two interesting moments in episode 12. First, there is the scene where is Anthy is alone at the tea table, having been left there by Touga. She imagines Utena sitting across from her, smiling. As Anthy shakes away the illusion, her face is not very expressive– but the fact remains that she thinks of Utena when alone. The second moment is of course during the rematch duel of Utena and Touga. At some point, Anthy realizes that the impossible is happening, and Utena is using the power of Dios to overwhelm Touga. At that moment, tears escape from her eyes. Why do you think that is? I’ll leave you all to consider. Whatever she was thinking, it’s at least clear that Anthy possesses human emotions.
This concludes my thoughts on the Student Council Saga, making up the first 13 episodes of Revolutionary Girl Utena. I hope it was interesting and gave some insights you might not have thought of before. In the near future, I will post a similar article discussing the Black Rose Saga. Thank you to Nat for letting me share your think-piece on Touga, and thank you to all my readers for checking out this post. I appreciate you all so much! Until next time, sayonara!