Note 2: All images are borrowed from Empty Movement, one of the best and most comprehensive websites devoted to the show.
It’s difficult for me to know where to start with this series. Just on its own it’s incredibly dense, complex, highly stylized and symbolic, bizarre, and downright hard to explain, but those reasons and more are why I find it so compelling. I’ve honestly never seen anything quite like it. For me, it was something I happened to see at exactly the right moment in my life to make a big impact, so it’s a personal thing for me to try and talk about. All this makes it difficult for me to know how to even try to explain why I like this so much, and a lot of people who see it probably won’t get the same thing out of it I did. It really isn’t a show for everyone; it requires a love of being completely confused by something that you know on some level has meaning but requires consideration, analysis, and a desire to do some research to understand. I am very much one of those people, but many people are not, and that’s okay, I just feel the need to explain in case someone decides to call me pretentious for liking it.
So the basic story is about a teenage girl named Utena Tenjou and her quest to get through junior high school, become a prince, and find her own prince. (“Prince” in this case is a term popular in Japan for girls to use to describe their dream guys. I didn’t realize how widespread the concept was until years later when I heard it cropping up in other shows. This show just took it and made it more literal.) It starts out very much like a magical-girl shoujo anime (“shoujo” being a genre of anime aimed at young and teenage girls which typically focus on things like romance and friendship—the magical girl sub-genre involves superhero-type adventure stories with the protagonist fighting against evil forces with magical powers; think Sailor Moon or even She-Ra) with some gender-bending elements added in (Utena dresses in a modified boy’s school uniform and does typically masculine things like play sports and refers to herself with the traditionally masculine “boku” instead of the gender-neutral “watashi”, presumably stemming from her desire to become a prince instead of a princess). However, there are some unusual elements mixed in that allude to how bizarre it will become later on, and believe me, when “normal” involves a giant castle rotating upside down over a dueling platform hundreds of feet in the air, and swords coming out of people’s chests, “bizarre” takes on a whole new meaning.
The fairy tale tropes in this are pretty obvious, since they’re pretty much all European fairy tales being referenced, like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, but I can also see a lot of Buddhist, Daoist, and possibly Hindu ideas at work in more subtle ways, such as the nature of siblings (which is explored in several different relationships) and the nature of the school that all the characters attend. The main story is initially set up as a fairy tale as well, with the brave young prince figure—Utena—drawn into a world (both literally and figuratively) of fantastic occurrences, danger, conspiracies, lies, and betrayal for the sake of rescuing the princess figure—Anthy Himemiya—from a series of ritualistic duels carried out by the school’s student council. The winner of the duel “wins” Anthy along with the fantastic power she’s supposed to possess that can “revolutionize the world”. Each duelist has his or her own reasons for wanting to attain this goal, even though the exact meaning of the phrase is never clearly explained. Utena doesn’t want this power, she only wants to protect Anthy from the people who use her as an object in realizing their own ambitions, and as the current champion, must constantly fight duels to retain possession of Anthy. She is also searching for the mysterious prince who comforted her as a child after the death of her parents—this half-remembered person is the one who inspired her desire to become a prince herself and the idea of him has been intensely romanticized in her mind over the years. She can’t remember what he looked like, or even the exact events of their meeting apart from him comforting her by her parents’ coffins, but he gave her a ring as a means of finding him again. As it so happens, the same ring design is used by the duelists at the school she attends, which is another reason why she is drawn into the duels.
I’ll tell you right now, the series does not end the way you’re probably thinking it does. I had absolutely no idea what I was in store for when I started watching it the first time. The director/co-writer of the series, Kunihiko Ikuhara, really did set it up like a typical shoujo series at the beginning; it’s light, fluffy, bizarre (there’s an episode where Anthy’s terrible exploding curry switches her personality with Utena’s, and surfing elephants are eventually involved), silly, and sometimes sappy. The casual viewer will think they have the ending pegged within the first few episodes, and might continue watching if they feel like seeing it play out, especially if they watch some of the later duels in the first story arc. There are two episodes in that first early collection that really kept me watching, since shoujo isn’t typically a genre I’m drawn to, but I’m intrigued by things that surprise me, and there are some surprises in there. But the really interesting stuff for first-time viewers is what starts to happen after the first thirteen episodes, when the series gets deeper down the rabbit hole. It’s really difficult to get into specifics without either having to explain a lot, giving away too many secrets, or both, but there is a definite tone shift during the Black Rose storyline that continues through the end of the series. Which isn’t to say that the first story arc is pointless to re-watch, but there are a lot of great things in there for people who’ve already seen the end, especially if they’re looking to understand Anthy more. There’s a lot of revealing detail about her in those early episodes, it’s just very cleverly hidden. (Incidentally, I've heard it said that Ikuhara is a fan of David Lynch, and I can really see how that could be plausible; there's a definite Lynch-vibe to his stuff.)
Another strange aspect I would be remiss to not mention are the duel choruses. There’s a new one in nearly every episode, one for each duel fought in the entire series, and they’re usually a bit off-putting for most people just getting into the series. I hated them at first, but they’re actually one of my favorite things about the series now—I even bought a CD of songs written for, but not used in the series. As much as I’ve been able to find out, the songwriter in question, J. A. Seazer, was something of a cult student favorite in Japan in the 1960s, including of Ikuhara’s. As the story goes, when Ikuhara approached him about doing some music for the series, Seazer was intrigued by the ‘revolutionary’ theme and agreed. The lyrics to his songs alone often garner much scrutiny and analysis from fans because they’re so densely populated with scientific, philosophical, religious, and mythological terms that they can be difficult to understand.I’m trying to think of a way to succinctly sum up why I’m so fond of this series and why it affected me as much as it did. I contribute a large portion of my interest in film analysis to it because not only is this a series that demands to be analyzed, it’s one of the first times I remember being deeply moved by something that I could not articulate or even understand myself. It is a challenging series in a lot of ways and seems to become more so the deeper into it you get. It’s about more than just fairy tales, it’s very much about the confusion and pain of adolescence, of finding one’s self-identity, the fluidity and inexplicableness of human dynamics, relationships, and sexuality, and the necessity of letting go of the things that keep one mired in the past and unable to move forward. It’s about gender relationships and societal expectations and stigmas, and I think most especially for me, it’s about waking up out of our preconceived notions of what all of this means and trying to see the world for what it really is instead of what I might think it’s supposed to be. In attempting to understand what this series was saying, I had to come to terms with a lot of my own preconceptions and ideas, some of which I wasn’t aware I had. It challenged me to change the way I viewed the potential of media, the way I viewed the world, and the way I viewed myself and some viewpoints I wasn’t aware I held. I don’t think the series itself changed my life, but viewing it at the point I was at was like a slap in the face about some things. Not everyone is going to have that same experience, but I’ve met other people since then who have had similar experiences with it, so I think there’s something to it. Regardless, I really think the series is worth looking at because it does so well at setting up and then subverting expectations, and really trying to say something. Whether it succeeds at it is of course up to personal interpretation, but I think it is a challenging show that asks questions of its viewers that many shows don’t.