Contains major spoilers for Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Trigger Warning: Discussions of abuse, incest, lesbophobia, misogyny
I will be creating a video essay style review based off this text at a later date.
If you wish to watch RGU, please refer to the Vilecrocodile triggers guide. It gives detailed trigger warnings for each episode. RGU is incredible but I cannot in good conscience recommend it without linking this guide.
Starting with the bottom line here, the argument I'd like to make through this review, Revolutionary Girl Utena is a masterpiece. The anime initially doesn't stand out all that much in terms of animation or premise. Utena fights duels for the hand of the Rose Bride, Anthy Himemiya, and undergoes a magical girl transformation before each duel. Visually, it has its moments where it can be stunning, but even those moments get reused later due to budget limitations. Often the movement is minimal, the drawings themselves lacking in detail compared to other 90s masterpieces. However, where Utena succeeds is in its subtlety and in the incredible delivery of a story that is so rarely done right.
RGU is a story about cycles. Utena is "revolutionary" not just in the sense that she's going to cause a revolution but in the sense that she is going to break the ever revolving cycle Anthy is trapped in. This revolution can be seen in the structure of the series' arcs, characters' arcs, and even the animation itself.
The story arcs of RGU cannot be separated from the individual characters. The basic structure of each arc involves focusing on a duelist, their personal issues, and what drives them to challenge Utena to a duel. This creates a web of complex relationships and stories, all of which follow a similar pattern. RGU can be viewed through the lens of a fairy tale, the archetypes of that tale represented most clearly by Utena, Anthy, and Akio.
Utena is a princess. Although a princess is typically associated with femininity, in this case the archetype is representitive of androgyny. Utena rejects feminine clothing and insists she's a prince, though one who is still a girl at heart. This brings pushback from other characters, chiefly the princes. This can be seen with Touga at the conclusion of the first arc. He attempts to push Utena into rigid gender roles and uses her desire to find her prince to destabilize her. Akio at first encourages Utena's gender expression to gain her trust. However this changes when he is convinced he can gain control of her. He uses magic to transform her into a traditional ideal of a princess, without a sword, in a dress, engaged to a husband instead of a bride.
This archetype can be further seen in Juri. Juri is also a woman who is fairly androgynous. She wears a male student council uniform, is the captain of the fencing team, but has a fairly feminine sense of style outside of school. Like Utena she recieves pushback for ways she doesn't conform to femininity, chiefly in her sexuality.
The princess archetype is one of dilemma, a role that exists because of misogyny. It's a role of extreme femininity, one that neither of the princesses of the story realistically fit into. Utena has an androgynous gender expression and cares for Anthy. Similarly, Juri loves another woman. It's a repeating pattern of women and girls not fitting into societal expectations and experiencing harm from those with power over them.
What becomes of a girl who isn't a princess? That can be seen directly through Anthy, Nanami, and Kozue. Anthy is victim blamed for the suffering she experiences. As a witch, she is blamed for the death of the prince, Dios. However, this "prince" never truly existed as the world imagined. Even other girls blame witches for their suffering. This can be seen both through Utena and Nanami. When Utena learns of the abuse Anthy experiences, she later admits she initially blamed Anthy for it. Nanami separates herself from Anthy. She views herself as above Anthy, incapable of being victimized in the same way.
However, this is incorrect. As Anthy says herself, all girls are like the Rose Bride. All are capable of being harmed by systems of abuse and misogyny. Nanami is blamed by her abuser for what she suffers. Kozue dates older men, including Akio. She can be blamed as instigating the abuse herself. However, in all cases these girls are not to blame for their suffering, something the story makes exceedingly clear. Utena apologizes and cries on the rooftop, confessing she was wrong. While Nanami doesn't ever get along with Anthy, she does realize their similarities.
Finally, there's the princes, Akio, Touga, and Miki. Akio is the shining idea of what a prince should be. As Dios he's kind, perfect, and always there for princesses who need him. He appears to be the ideal of masculinity. Dios, in all his perfection, is dead, though arguably he never existed in the first place. The reality is Akio uses this perception to his advantage. He broke under the strain and, rather than simply giving up on the role altogether, transformed it and used his power to abuse others, particularly his sister. Touga can be seen following in his footsteps. Though it was cut from the TV anime, his backstory as a victim of abuse himself is included in the movie. Despite Touga being a victim, he desires power and emulates Akio's behavior in an attempt to gain it. The cycle, revolution, of abuse extends in multiple directions. Touga both renacts the abuse he suffered and renacts the abuse he witnesses Akio perpetuate. This includes his relationship to Miki.
Miki is the softest of the princes, the closest to that idealized Dios. However, he's easily persuaded and swayed. He copies Utena's words, initially agreeing that the duels should stop to give Anthy her freedom. It only takes a conversation for Touga to convince him to take advantage of the system, to fight for Anthy so she cannot refuse or leave him. Miki isn't as calculating or malicious as Akio or Touga. He genuinely does not wish to harm Anthy. However, he is focused on his selfish desires and, when given a path to realize them, he takes it despite the harm it causes. I note here that this is not dissimilar from how Touga and Akio interact. Akio presents Touga with options, abusive options, to manipulate and obtain what he wants. Touga is taught how to emulate the behavior of a prince. In the same way, Touga teaches Miki abusive options to obtain his own desires. It's a cycle of misogyny and abuse taught from prince to prince in a line of succession.
It's these complex archetypes that relationships and the plot arise from. Cycles are repeated throughout. Akio and Touga perpetuate misogynistic abuse against Utena's androgyny in the same way. Victims blame each other and are blamed themselves. Abusers teach each other methods to further harm those who are vulnerable to them. All the while, the duels repeat. Utena fights, transforms, and wins again and again. Yet, she is never able to break free through these duels. Even Anthy, the one who suffers most, harms Utena. Abuse cannot be pinned down to a single person. It is a system, one that revolves and perpetuates to ensure its own survival.
This perpetuation can be seen in the animation. While it was certainly born from budget limitations above all else, the text stands on its own. The way animation is used emphasizes the story itself. It's repetitive. We hear the same fairy tale about Utena and her prince, witness the same moves perpetuated by different duelists. A notable example of this occurs with Juri. When she has the upper hand against Utena, she's drawn in the offensive position. When fighting later against Ruka, she's the one on defense. The cycle continues. The exact positions and permutations may change but the results and the premise remain the same. Reused animation can also create horror and dread. Episode 33 may appear to be a clip show summary, but it serves primarily to create tension and put the viewer in the headspace of Utena. In between repeated clips, something new is happening between Utena and Akio, abuse she tries to distract herself from. When the cycle breaks and new animation appears, the sense of unease and the reality of the situation come crashing down. Utena, nor us as the audience, can be distracted by old clips anymore. This careful balance of old and new creates a feeling that the plot is repeating on itself. It may be spiraling to somewhere new, even a character's worst moments. However, it never stops.
This, finally, brings us into the actual plot of Utena. How do you defeat a system, a never ending revolution? You break free.
Utena fights duels over and over but she only staves off the chance for someone else to take Anthy. Furthermore, she doesn't recognize the true suffering Anthy faces. Utena suffers abuse, including some of the same abuse as Anthy, but holds a level of naivete until the final episodes. The thing that finally frees Anthy is not Utena trying to be a prince, one who can rescue a witch and transform her into a princess. Rather, it is Utena admitting that she truly can never become, and was never, a prince. When she offers Anthy empathy, compassion, and sees her true self for what she is, that is the moment that Utena is able to break free. In the end, Anthy isn't even rescued by Utena. The steps she makes to escape her abusive situation and the system present within Ohtori are not taken for her. She is the one who steps over the threshold, the bells ringing to signify the true duel, one of her agency and selfhood, is finally over.
This is what makes Revolutionary Girl Utena so masterful. It views abuse not as a result of a single individual but rather a complex mixture of misogyny, past victimhood, lesbophobia, and several other societal issues. To escape it is not to exist within it. It is to cast off these roles, show each other kindness, to apologize, to cry for one another, to take each other's hands and shine. The revolution can be broken. Once it is, there is so much to live for outside of it.