Utena: Revolutionary GenderFeels

[Utena Content Note: Domestic Violence]

Utena Recap: None yet! But here is an index of very good observations by Jen Blue (aka Froborr) and also you should buy his excellent book of essays because it is very smart and fun to read and I screamed in agreement at several points which is how you know it's good. Review to come later after I make my thoughts coherent enough to word.

Deconstruction Details: I'm watching the subtitled episodes contained in the blu-ray collection here. There is an HD remaster coming out in December that is available for pre-order here and which looks awesome. If you wanted to watch an episode before you buy, you could find this episode on YouTube here.

Revolutionary Girl Utena, Episode 1: The Rose Bride

After I finished a first draft for an upcoming book, I announced there would be more Narnia posts. I then sat down and started writing a Narnia post. It is now four days later and I am still writing the Narnia post. Apparently I have a lot to say about Narnia!

To take a break from the massive Narnia post, I spent an evening rewatching the first episode of Revolutionary Girl Utena and live-tweeting my feels at it. The tweet thread is here. But then I realized why I got into the blogging deconstruction business in the first place and it's because I enjoy the comments most of all. So I decided to expand this out into a post a bit.

Utena is one of the best anime series I've ever seen, and it's incredibly dense with symbolism. Like, this series made me feel so very stupid the first time I watched it, even while I loved the heck out of it. I've since spent countless hours talking to Thomas about it (who is infinitely smarter than me) and beefing up my brain by reading Froborr's posts about it (all of which are awesome and you should go read! I'll wait here!) and I feel like I have a better handle on it as a story. And I realized I needed something I enjoy here in the midst of 2017, so let's do this. *rolls up sleeves*


There's stuff that happens in the third arc of Utena which radically alters everything that has come before in amazing and complex ways. I'm going into this already having seen the series and I want to do a full "ooh, in hindsight this makes more sense" view which means herein there will be spoilers. I honestly think the series is better if you know what's coming; a lot of stuff that seemed boring or confusing or weird in the first two arcs makes all the sense in the world once you have the key to decipher it. So if you're not sure whether you want spoilers, I can say they enhanced my enjoyment of the series by a lot.

So now let's talk about Utena.

I have a lot of feels about Utena because while the protagonist is never explicitly stated to be transgender, the show is very much about grappling with gender roles and gender identity and it's very easy to headcanon the titular character--Utena--as genderqueer and/or questioning. The series is about the narratives we tell about ourselves and sink into (seriously go buy Jen's book, it's so good), and about who gets to be a "Princess" and who gets to be a "Prince" and the differences in those roles.

Episode 1 starts out telling us that once upon a time there was "a little princess" and she was very sad because her parents died. A prince with a regal bearing arrives and comforts her. He gives her a ring and compliments her noble bearing under such sorrow and asks her to remain graceful and good when she grows up. The narrator then tells us: "This was all well and good, but so impressed was she by him that the princess vowed to become a prince herself!" And here, have all my genderfeels. Because I have so many genderfeels about this girl who is like 'well, okay, being a princess is cool and all, but on the other hand I could be a prince and save people.'

"But was that really such a good idea?", the narrator asks.

We cut away from the fairytale frame to a "modern" school where a girl (Wakaba) with brown hair (Brown here signifies Normal and Unremarkable; Froborr's color theories on her blog helped me understand this show so much.) waits for her "boyfriend". The other girls teasingly tell her that "she" ditched Wakaba and went to class without her. So already we have the juxtaposition of "boyfriend" with "she/her".

We're then taken to the most phallic building ever and I just have to point out that the subtext is 100% intentional and heads-up that this is a series about sex and sexual violence and about... hmm, what's the best way to frame it? It's a show about the youthful ideal of sex, as this mystical thing you do that makes you an adult, and how that ideal crashes against the reality. We're going to some dark places, is my point, but I'm here with you and I'll trigger warn as we go.

The titular--and arguably not the actual protagonist, but we'll get there!--Utena enters the scene and she's wearing *gasp* a boy's uniform! A teacher confronts her about this and Utena whips out a rule book. "There's no rule that says a girl can't wear a boy's uniform," she points out happily before moving on with her day. We cut again to her playing basketball with the boys and beating them all by sheer awesomeness and every girl in the school is low-key in love with her. GENDERFEELS.

And there really is all this gender everywhere; I'm not just reading between the lines. After practice, Utena takes a walk with a boy trying to recruit her for the team and she finds the prospect ridiculous. She can't join the boy's team because she's not a boy and anyway she is offended when he calls her one. The boy, confused, asks why she wears a boy's uniform if she's not a boy. Utena explains that she's a prince. Not a princess! Those are very different roles. And while they're traditionally gendered by society--in the same way, for example, that society tries to gender genitals--they don't actually have a gender attached to them. A girl can assume the role of a Prince, if she tries.

[TW: Domestic Violence] But what is the role of a Prince? Well, a prince saves people. Utena is minding her own damn business when she sees a "lovers' quarrel" that suddenly escalates into physical abuse: a boy named Saionji slaps a girl named Anthy in broad daylight, then raises his hand to do it again. Utena is too far away to save the damsel, but another man (Touga) gets there first and grabs the man's hand before apparently telling him to back off.

This seems like princely behavior, and Utena certainly seems to think so: Touga's face is framed by white roses, the color of the Prince. [I will here note that the show is heavily focused on color theory, with light colors being more pure and good; white being the best color of all; and darker colors verging towards black being bad. This has problematic racial implications as this sort of thing always does, and I wish more fiction would subvert it. The only example I can think of a subversion is Illusion of Gaia for the Sega Genesis.]

We cut to a scene where the boys at school gather around jeering at a love letter, and Utena lectures them on how a "real man" wouldn't behave like they are. (The boys don't get better, so now is a good time to point out that relying on trans people to "fix" toxic masculinity in cis men is an unfair expectation to level on trans people because that doesn't work.) The letter was Wakaba's love letter to Saionji, and Utena is incensed at the harm heaped on her friend. She tracks down Saionji--receiver of the letter, jerk to Wakaba, and abuser of Anthy--and challenges him to a duel since he's the Kendo team captain. Which just goes to show you how confident Utena is: she will beat this guy at what he is absolute best at with no concern she might not be able to!

[Spoilers] This episode has deeper and harsher threads running through it once we know the plot twist that comes out over the course of the series: Anthy is capable of subtly manipulating the characters around her. Saionji still chooses to abuse her and that choice is on his head, but she's arguably egging him on (as when she tells Utena "good luck" before the duel) in order to manipulate Utena into fighting a battle she otherwise might not have picked. Utena doesn't care about 'revolutionizing the world' like the other duelists, she just wants to save victims--which means it's likely that Anthy is consciously presenting her with victims to save. It is worth wondering whether Wakaba's letter was posted by Anthy or (since Saionji semi-sarcastically agrees with Utena that he did what she is accusing him of) whether it was her suggestion for him to do so.

The Greek Chorus "Shadow Girls" enter the scene to warn Utena. "Be careful brave hero", they caution, "there are rules in the forest; do you know what they are?" This is big deal because Utena doesn't have a clue what is going on! She doesn't know about the duels and she doesn't know Anthy is a willing participant in this weird abusive game. In her innocence, she stomps into a forest which may or may not be pubic hair; finds a yonic rose gate; and opens it by making it wet--and honestly, unlike the Narnia fur coats and birthing metaphor the subtext here is probably intentional.

She stomps up the biggest staircase ever, to the deepest ear worm song ever, to find a floating upside down castle. Normal things! And here's where it starts to get weird because Anthy shows up in a fancy bridal princess dress and gives the duelists roses. Utena gets white: the Prince. Saionji gets green and look, just go and read Froborr's episode one recap because it's SO GOOD. (Jen, if you're reading along, I would love to see you post a follow-up that's just all the colors in one place. Including the spoilery one. Because I would link to it a lot, is what I'm saying.)

[TW: DV] Anthy tells Utena--the challenger--good luck. This seems pretty normal to us, almost like the polite thing to do. But it feels like a betrayal to Saionji since he fancies they are in love. Since the "bride" goes to the winner, Anthy telling Utena 'good luck' is like her saying she would rather belong to Utena than to Saionji. He chooses to backhand Anthy across the face, which makes Utena angry. She asks why Anthy won't leave this guy and Anthy explains that she has to do whatever Saionji says because he's the dueling champion. Not coincidentally, this raises the stakes for Utena. Now she must win in order to save this girl; saving girls is what a prince does.

Then Anthy pulls a literal sword out of her own breast. As one does. And we get a dueling song! The duel songs change each time and are unique to each episode and also very very cool. Today's is about Utena's ~total confusion~ as to what is going on: she doesn't understand the duels or this bride stuff or the upside down castle or how a real sword came out of a girl's breast. The song works on two levels, too, because it's also a reflection of Saionji's confusion. He doesn't understand who Utena is or what part she has to play in the narrative he's constructed for his life.

Utena is blessed by the spirit of Dios--the Prince--and she wins. Anthy demotes Saionji to schoolmate and informs Utena that she is her new master and she belongs to Utena. Utena is still thoroughly confused by this--she fought to save Anthy, not own her--but the episode ends.

Random Extra Things!: Fan music videos of I Kissed A Girl and Sexy Back. Yes, I am that kind of trash.


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