Revolutionary Girl Utena Thematic Analysis
Greetings, everyone. On the old Anime Rants site, I’ve already written several posts about the beloved, cult classic shoujo anime, Revolutionary girl Utena. The purpose of today’s post is to be a general overview of the themes found in the anime. In particular, I will touch on a few themes I forgot to mention in my other posts. If you wish for more detailed Utena content, I have an analysis of each arc in the series. Links are provided below. With that in mind, let’s get started.
FAIRY TALE AESTHETIC
RGU is largely a deconstruction of a fairy tale. The fairy tale aesthetic is prominent from beginning to end. Take the introduction animation where the story is told about Utena’s meeting with the mysterious prince. The narration is whimsical and charming, like that of a bedtime story. The style for that animation looks like a picture book or a coloring book. The outfits and hairstyles of the characters look like those of princes and princesses in the oldest Disney animated movies. They are based on things mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. This opening narration and animation is only one example of how RGU is like a fairy tale.
Many fairy tales include princes, princesses, sword-fighting, castles, and magic. RGU also features all of those things. There’s the dueling system, the magic power of Prince Dios, and the upside-down castle in the sky. There’s even a witch. And the fairy tale aesthetic of RGU is not limited to visual motifs and character types like princes and witches. The story themes are also reflective of what you see in modern fairy tales. For example, many of these classic short stories deal with love, romance, destiny, coming-of-age, and finding happiness. These are themes that are also explored in RGU, although the anime takes things in a darker, more mature direction than a Disney movie.
COMING OF AGE
Growing up or maturing is an important underlying theme in RGU. Although some of them may be immortal or eternal existences that have been around a long time, the characters are mentally quite young. They have a lot of growing up to do. It’s interesting and inspiring to watch these characters go through joys and hardships to develop a better understanding of themselves and the world. The issues they must face related to growing up include self-image, sexuality, disillusionment, and relationships with others. All of these facets are intertwined, but I’ll say a little bit about each one.
Finding value in who you are can be tough regardless of age, but if you can develop a good self-image early on, so much the better. In RGU, self-image and self-worth play key roles in the development of the characters. Here are some examples. Anthy has a negative self-image, and sees herself as a doll with no heart. Touga’s self-image is dependent on his success manipulating and winning over others emotionally and sexually. Utena mostly has a positive self-image, valuing her own individuality. However, in the last episode of the Student Council Saga, even Utena doubts herself, and tries to suppress her natural charisma and quirkiness to be “a normal girl.” Luckily, Wakaba is able to remind her to be herself, and Utena comes out on the other side stronger.
By the time of the third arc in RGU, the theme of sexuality has become obvious. The wild night time car ride with Akio represents sex– in particular, sexual exploitation. Akio manipulates and takes advantage of most of the characters in some way, often sexually. He is especially predatory toward Utena in the last few episodes of the Akio Ohtori Saga. What’s more, he is regularly sleeping with his sister, whose consent is never considered. Akio is the most extreme example, but nearly every character has some sort of sexual tension or interest. Utena believes she is in love with Akio for a time. Touga is a “playboy,” who picks up many girls without actually caring about them. Even the “cute and innocent” Miki is sexually attracted to Anthy. Sexuality is important for all the characters, and it’s an important part of growing up for most people.
For many people, disillusionment is another prominent part of maturation. What you are disillusioned about usually depends on what expectations you had that turned out to be unreasonable. In the last arc of RGU, Utena discovers that Akio sleeps with Anthy, and becomes suddenly disillusioned with the man. She is then able to see how manipulative he has been all along. Akio was once a good and noble man, but his disillusionment with the world made him too bitter, and he began using corrupt means to secure power. Nanami becomes disillusioned with her brother Touga. Saionji is disillusioned with his previously held ideas of true friendship. And so on. The entire story of RGU could be viewed as disillusionment with rosy, fairy-tale expectations.
Finally, the process of growing up will include learning how to interact and relate with others. RGU has a strong focus on concepts like love, friendship , and the human tendency to hurt one another as you get closer together. There are numerous examples of relationships that are important in RGU, but the one at the heart of the anime is the relationship between Utena and Anthy. As they slowly grow closer together, they encounter many difficulties. Even after the girls shared their deepest selves with each other on top of the tower, Anthy still betrayed Utena at a key moment in the final arc. Relating to people is complex and never easy. Even for those who are already “all grown up,” the difficulties do not cease.
ABUSE AND TRAUMA
If you have mental illness, like me, you are probably very familiar with the concepts of trauma and abuse. Not everyone is mentally ill, obviously. But I think everyone, at some point in their lives, suffers from personal emotional trauma to a certain degree. Revolutionary Girl Utena is surprisingly realistic for including this. Many characters in are impacted by trauma and/or abuse in some form. Understanding the trauma and abuse can lead to better understanding of the characters; however, this section will not go into great detail on that. Rather, this short section provides a few examples of abuse and trauma in RGU.
Early on in the anime, Anthy is being physically abused by Saionji. He hits her casually as if it’s nothing. Nanami and her goons also bully Anthy, including smacking her sometimes. Anthy pretends not to be affected by abuse like this because she believes she is a heartless doll who only obeys her masters. Later in the anime, we find out that Akio has been sexually and psychologically abusing Anthy for many years. He makes moves on her whenever he wants, without her consent, even if she’s busy doing something like making tea. He also emotionally manipulates her into serving him loyally, which is a form of psychological abuse. It’s also interesting and tragic to learn that canonically, Touga was horribly sexually abused by his adoptive father.
Those were some examples of abuse, but what about psychological trauma? To start with, sometimes the abuse is the trauma. I’m willing to bet Touga was traumatized by the sexual abuse. For trauma not associated with abuse, look at Utena. The sudden deaths of both her parents was traumatic for her, and led her into a deep depression and existential crisis even as a child. Anthy probably has a lot of different traumatic experiences, including being attacked by the crowd. Some trauma seems lighter, but is actually hugely significant for that person/character. For instance, take Kozue, whose trauma was being made to do a public piano recital on her own while her brother was sick. That was an incredibly negative and powerful formative experience. Additionally, both Kozue and Miki were neglected by their parents, who then divorced. That was stressful for both of them and possibly traumatic.
I could go on with examples from more characters, but I think the point has been well established already. Trauma and abuse are important and realistic elements of Revolutionary Girl Utena. In some ways, I think RGU is a depiction of the harsh reality we live in. That can be hard to deal with, especially if you were looking for an ordinary shoujo anime where life is rosy and romance is always beautiful. RGU doesn’t show the world or people as it should be, but only as it is. That’s why there is so much in this anime about assault, bullying, emotional trauma, and various forms of abuse. Importantly, RGU never glorifies or fetishizes these depictions of abuse.
Misogyny is a huge theme in Revolutionary Girl Utena. But as my friend Nat pointed out, it can be difficult to see this or explain it if viewers are used to a classical, Hollywood-esque depiction of handling misogyny. Nat is a good friend who helped me with my other RGU articles. In their words, “Movies usually depict misogyny as a problem of bad individuals doing bad things, and once you stopped the bad CEO, the bad government official, or the Bad Man in Power, all will be fixed forever. But the sad truth of our society is that misogyny is systemic. And the rose bride illustrates that.”
Let’s talk about the dueling/rose bride system for a minute. Again, I think Nat says it better than I could in the following sentences. “There is a woman who can be owned by someone and gets abused regularly. But that’s not the main point; the main point seems to be that everybody is just okay with that. Think about how normal it seems to be for Anthy to be abused by people or be owned and in a servant role in the first place. That’s the truly frightening part of the series for me, that all these loveable characters– Miki, Juri and even Wakaba or Kozue– are complicit in a system of abuse. Nobody except for Utena ever questions what is going on.” Essentially, the rose bride system is problematic, and it’s made even more unsettling by the fact that most of the characters just accept it.
Aside from the rose bride system and the casual, lowkey sexism common to Japanese media, there is another significant instance of misogyny to talk about. RGU often seems to be permeated with the idea that girls cannot or should not fight. I can’t even count how many times someone says something along the lines of, “But you’re a girl.” The whole idea of Utena’s social popularity is that she’s a novelty because she acts “boyish.” At every turn, Utena is faced with limitations imposed by others or by society because of her sex. Interestingly, almost all the directly sexist lines in the show are said by either Akio or Touga, who can both be viewed as antagonists to Utena’s cause. However, the opening narration of the anime suggests that Utena’s decision to become a prince might be a bad idea.
At first, it’s hard to tell if the narrative of the anime itself is sexist. But once you’ve watched RGU carefully once or twice, the truth gradually becomes clear. This anime is not encouraging or condoning misogyny at all; it simply presents its main female lead with real difficulties that women face in a misogynistic culture. In other words, things will always be harder for those who go against deep-seated prejudice. In a subtle way, RGU is advocating for more people to be like Utena, who challenges the systems and asserts herself. She fights and fights even when it practically kills her. She takes up the sword even as Akio tells her that’s not something for a girl to do. I am of the opinion that RGU not only realistically portrays misogyny, but also champions the fight against it, no matter how hopeless it seems.
Within Revolutionary Girl Utena, there are several notable relationships between siblings. The first one we’ll talk about is Touga and Nanami. They are biological siblings and orphans who were taken in by an unrelated couple at a young age. Nanami hugely admires her older brother Touga, to the point where she seems to be in love with him. She not only wants to be like him, but also seems interested in him physically, wanting kisses and spying on his silhouette in the shower. Despite this sensual curiosity, I believe Nanami’s love for Touga boils down to intense admiration and worship more than romantic or sexual love.
Touga doesn’t directly engage with his sister, but keeps her at just the right distance to easily manipulate her. When Nanami mistakenly thinks Touga isn’t her biological brother, she falls apart at the seams. Touga never tells her the truth because, in his words, “A brother and sister not related by blood is more romantic.” We know from this and many other examples that Touga is extremely manipulative, and thinks nothing of using or hurting others. If Nanami’s relationship to Touga is twisted, so is the way he views and uses her for his own ends.
A second interesting sibling relationship can be seen in the case of Miki and Kozue. They are non-identical brother-and-sister twins. Both are highly intelligent and excellent at playing piano. However, Kozue stopped playing after a personally traumatic experience. As a result, Miki started growing away from his sister, but still longing for the innocent days when they would play piano together. Kozue felt abandoned and developed intense, complex feelings of both love and spitefulness toward her brother. One thing she does is date people who she knows Miki will disapprove of. She also becomes jealous of the love and attention Miki feels for Anthy.
Anthy and Akio are the third sibling “couple.” They actually go all the way with each other sexually, although Anthy’s consent is not always taken into consideration. This relationship is without a doubt extremely toxic. Anthy worships and loves her brother, much like Nanami. She would do anything for him. Akio, much like Touga, simply manipulates Anthy. It seems like he cared about her on some level in the past, but any genuine love died as he devolved into a sexual predator and a psychological abuser. In the final episode, Akio doesn’t even care about Anthy’s pain as she is pierced by the swords of hatred. Akio’s emotional manipulation is also what convinced Anthy she is a heartless doll and should be a slave to the rose bride system.
Why are there so many sibling love dynamics in RGU? The creator of the anime , Kunihiko Ikuhara, also created Mawaru Penguindrum and Sarazanmai. Sibling relationships were important in both works (although they were in no way romantic/sexual in Sarazanmai). So it seems that Ikuhara is personally interested in the topic of siblings relationships. While sibling incest tends to make me uncomfortable, and is often unhealthy or toxic even in fiction, there’s no doubt it’s an extremely interesting topic of character psychology.
VISUAL MOTIFS AND THEMES
In addition to story themes, there are also visual themes in the art and animation of RGU. Examples include roses, swords, and unusual architecture. Let's talk about roses first. They're everywhere. There are various reasons why this is the case or ways one can interpret the meaning of the roses. Here's one example: Anthy, the Rose Bride, is like a rose. She is beautiful but keeps others away with metaphorical thorns. Another interesting fact is that Utena is the Japanese word for calyx, which is the part of a flower that upholds and protects the blossom. Utena Tenjou is therefore the protector of the rose.
Finally, roses also have different symbolic meanings depending on the color. The meanings come from a tradition called Hanakotoba (language of flowers) wherein every flower has a message. Yellow roses, which are the flowers of Nanami, symbolize jealousy. Red roses, the flowers of Touga, symbolize romance. And white roses, like the one Utena wears into battle, symbolize devotion and innocence.
Swords are an important motif in RGU. There are so many sword fights. Each duelist has their own sword with its own make and style. In this anime, the sword also symbolizes the soul or the individual's identity. So the duels can also be seen as battles of one mind/identity against another. When someone has a sword pulled out of them, it's a symbol of their power, mind, and emotions being pulled out. In the Black Rose Saga, this happens to several characters by force. It's a painful for the person being drawn out and selfish of the person drawing the sword out. However, when Utena pulls out the sword from Anthy, it's consensual and empowering to both of them. Clearly, swords are key part of RGU.
Other key visuals include the school uniforms, the pastel color pallet, and as mentioned earlier, unusual architecture. An example of the latter is Akio's white tower. There are also a number of large gates and doors with a romanticized and/or grim look. More examples are the architecture of the dueling arena, the water fountains below it, and the spiraling staircase leading up to it. Lastly, don't forget the upside-down castle in the sky.
THE THEATER OF LIFE
Theater is an defining idea in RGU. To do this topic full justice would require an essay on its own, so I'll just be scratching the surface a little. This anime is theater-like in two ways: 1) everyone has a prescribed role to play, and 2) the story is similar to a theatrical fantasy stage production. In the world of RGU, everyone is cast into their parts, but these can be restrictive or unfitting. Therefore, it's up to the characters to break their prescribed models and decide their own roles. A-ko and E-ko, the shadow girls, perform short plays in most episodes with a theme related to the plot. It's a dramatic, comedic shadow-puppet show.
There's one other sense in which theater is important to RGU. In the Apocalypse Saga, Utena goes to a play with Akio and Anthy. There, Akio gives an interesting take. "All life is a play," he says. "You are either an actor or observer."
ETERNITY AND REVOLUTION
RGU can sometimes be quite existential in its themes. The examples I'll mention briefly are eternity and revolution. As my friend Nat point out, the word revolution has two meanings: 1) to revolt or undergo great change, and 2) to turn in a circle. Both meanings have relevance to RGU. Utena is a character who challenges the norm and revolts against the roles laid out for her. Whether by rambunctious battles or slow influence, Utena revolutionizes the whole school.
With the power of Dios, the princely heroine is supposed to be able to revolutionize the entire world. The setting of RGU is a small world where time doesn't pass the same way as it does outside, and memories can be altered or erased. There is no way for the "actors" trapped inside to escape. Utena was supposed to be the one to "break the world's shell" and become free, thus bringing revolution to their fantastical microcosm. (Utena didn't accomplish this in the series, but together with Anthy in the sequel movie, they escape to the outside world.)
The other meaning of revolution, to turn in a circle, is relevant to RGU because of themes like the cycle of violence and abuse, the cycles of the duels, and the cycling of the world itself as it repeats the same "play." I believe the events of RGU may have happened before, and that every time someone fails to revolutionize the world, everything resets. There is plenty of evidence for this model in the anime, so I recommend looking into it. Anyway, the world of RGU probably goes through "revolutions" regularly.
Then there's the theme of eternity. After young Utena lost her parents suddenly, she despaired that nobody lives forever and nothing is eternal. It was so devastating it made her lose her interest in life until she found something to fuel her passion again (the prince). Is anything truly eternal? RGU addresses this question. Most everyone has something they wish lasted forever. It seems like the answer is no-- neither life, nor friendship, nor passion, nor anything is eternal. Still, the characters can't help chasing after that idea. The ultimate goal of most of the duelists is to get to the upside-down castle in the sky, and there, have the rose bride grant their wish for something eternal.
A POWERFUL LGBT+ LOVE STORY
The last point to make is that RGU presents a powerful love story between two people of the same gender. This anime is ultimately the slow love story of Utena and Anthy. Some people will disagree, but they are flatly incorrect. Now, it's true that RGU isn't really a "yuri" show, as it doesn't show (much) of a sexual aspect between the girls. But there there's simply no question about the romance aspect.
If you haven't seen RGU to it conclusion, you may not recognize this yet. To be fair, Utena keeps insisting against being engaged to Anthy, and refers to Anthy as her friend most of the time. However, watch the anime to the end, and you will doubtlessly see that the connection between Utena and Anthy is one of powerful love. At one point, Utena tries to say her love for Anthy isn't on the same level as Juri's love for Shiori; but once Anthy is being pierced by the swords of humanity's hatred at the end of the world, Utena realizes she cares more about Anthy than anything in the world. That's love. And yes, it's gay. Japanese animation has a problem with LGBT+ representation, so it's extremely important to recognize this pair as a couple in a lesbian relationship.
Thank you for reading and enjoy your day!