Revolutionary Girl Utena is a classic anime series for a reason–actually many reasons because it’s so layered in symbolism that it swings the door wide open for numerous in-depth interpretations. At the same time, gleaning any sort of understanding from the series is almost a miracle in itself. Not even the plot is entirely clear until about five episodes from the end. If the basic story is that blurred, its meaning is even murkier. However, this vagueness and murkiness is an asset rather than a detraction. For a series that’s often limited to stock footage, Revolutionary Girl Utena actually does make every second and every repetition count. Or at the very least, the series tries to make all that repeated stock footage part of the symbolism.
Like Kill la Kill, this is a series that I will probably find myself coming back to simply because it throws so much out there to the audience. Today, though, I’m going to lay out my understanding of it–how the heck did I make sense of this bleak, existential series?
Ohtori Academy is a Lie
Late in the series, Akio reveals that the upside down castle in the sky that hovers over the dueling arena is merely an illusion that he projects from his giant telescope. What’s to say that he doesn’t also project an entire illusory world in the form of Ohtori Academy? It’s a world in which he has total control because he reigns over it and maintains the illusions. He gives these illusions to all the students, including the student council and Utena, and that is how he keeps them from freedom or revolution. He’s the one who sets up the dueling system in the first place and can change the rules at any time.
He also suggests a connection between himself and Lucifer, the morning star. So this devil/fallen angel figure is the prince of this “world” he has created, but it’s a world where everyone is stuck and/or subjected to his sexual abuse. The fairytale princes in all their nobility (such as Utena’s prince) are illusions he creates to maintain this system and make people trust him.
Anthy remaining the sacrificial Rose Bride and the entire dueling system are the key pillars that keep this illusion running. Akio needs this illusion to revolutionize the world, but his idea of revolution is very different from the revolution that actually occurs at the end of the series. I don’t know what, exactly, his ideal is, but it’s certainly not a girl-prince coming in to break Anthy’s chains and then transcend into another world/transfer out of Ohtori Academy. Part of his revolution is “revealing the end of the world” to select people, which most strongly suggests that he has sex with them, but running with the interpretation that he’s the devil or a master of illusions, it might also be likened to revealing the knowledge of good and evil–or giving his chosen ones access to that knowledge.
The latter interpretation gets a little weird in that it almost equates sex with original sin (when that isn’t the case), but that’s what happens with very layered series like this. You find some uncomfortable stuff when you try to unpack it.
That Revolutionary Girl-Prince
So, who comes along to break this illusion and bring an actual revolution? Tenjou Utena, who stretches the rules and boundaries of this illusory world by proclaiming herself as a prince and wearing a boy’s uniform. This queering in an otherwise heteronormative world isn’t enough to break the illusion on its own (since small amounts of queerness do exist elsewhere in the illusion, e.g., Juri and later Touga); however, it places her in a role that she’s told she can’t fulfill. Akio tells her several times during their battle that Utena can’t be the prince to save Anthy because she’s a girl and girls can’t be princes. That is reality. But Utena brings revolution precisely because she is not at all the expected or anticipated prince figure. By existing outside of these norms, she’s able to navigate the duels and being engaged to the Rose Bride much differently than everyone else.
And this is the part where I bring up Jesus. Jesus was revolutionary because he was not the expected savior who would valiantly lead the Jewish people in a political uprising against Roman rule, yet he is the actual savior because his ministry upturned social norms and his death and resurrection showed that oppressive systems do not ultimately triumph.
So is Utena a Christ figure? Sort of. She’s the one who brings revolution and creates a path for Anthy to break the illusion, but she loses sight of herself several times throughout the series. She does seem more flawed and susceptible to temptation than Jesus does, but you could say that’s to parallel how Christ has to suffer as humanity does. Of course, Utena is never presented as a divine figure of any sort, much less a Christ figure, so the parallels aren’t perfect (as is the case any time I find Christian theology in anime).
She gets much closer to that savior figure when she raises the “dead,” suffering Anthy from her coffin (literally and metaphorically) at her own expense. The coffin is opened. Utena reaches for Anthy to pull her out of the darkness and Anthy hesitates, but then reaches back. Both keep calling for each other and Anthy is especially doubtful that she can ever truly leave. Their hands finally graze for a moment and then the coffin structure holding Anthy in place falls into the abyss. Utena, dejected, laments that she couldn’t be a prince after all and the entire castle falls apart. That’s the last we see of Utena. So, it seems that death wins.
Ohtori Academy is not significantly changed in the aftermath of this supposed revolution. The student council is still there. Wakaba is still there. Anthy and Akio are still there. Now, Tenjou Utena is a distant memory in most of the students’ minds. They swap stories of the different rumors they’ve heard about why she left Ohtori Academy–she transferred, she got seriously injured and had to leave, she got in a fight with her friend or her lover or something. All of these are, in a sense, true. Though the details differ, the fact is that Utena is no longer at Ohtori. She has “transferred” out of the illusion–maybe she died, maybe she transcended, maybe she became something eternal. What she leaves behind isn’t an entirely new system at the school, but a pathway for Anthy to walk away from her bondage. Utena prepares the way and then Anthy has to choose to take it. She responds to Utena’s sacrifice by leaving the illusion of Ohtori Academy behind and promising to again be united with Utena. Has the reunification happened? Well, it has by Utena remembering everything and finding Anthy again, but it also has not yet happened because Anthy is just beginning her journey.
This, in my view, is the strongest and most compelling parallel to how Christians understand our faith and our salvation. It’s a two-way street between Christ and us. The sacrifice tears the curtain–or destroys the castle so to speak–and we either respond to the path Christ has given us or not. That response is a daily choice as well, a constant journey of leaving behind toxic illusions and accepting the grace of God.
The Adolescence of Utena
After witnessing such a heartbreaking series finale, I was very pleased to remember that I owned the movie on DVD. Although I didn’t understand this movie at all when I first watched it back in high school, it makes much more sense to me now as a sequel to the anime series.
For one thing, the film is much more straightforward in its presentation of Utena and Anthy’s relationship and how it breaks the illusion of Ohtori Academy. It also makes this idea of a prince not existing at all more obvious (reminds me a bit of Waiting For Godot). It’s not that the prince just doesn’t exist now; it’s that there never was a prince to begin with and there won’t ever be a prince. Everything is an illusion. This is one reason why Touga appears in the movie. He represents that ideal prince for Utena, the one who left her but maybe wasn’t there at all. I interpreted that scene in the elevator as Utena letting him go and thereby letting that illusion go.
So, Utena and Anthy further break that illusion when Utena turns into a car and Anthy drives them both out of this illusory world. The whole thing is a very strange metaphor and does not make sense without the context of the anime series. Cars and driving=sex. Therefore, one way to understand the last 20 minutes or so of the movie is that it’s a sex scene, but it’s also much more than that. Utena and Anthy are trying to escape from an illusory world where their relationship doesn’t fit. There are no princes for either of them because they’re hella gay and in love with each other. This final scene solidifies the movie as a coming out metaphor because Utena and Anthy realize that heteronormativity and falling in love with princes is just not their reality. Even though they do escape from the academy, they do say that “there are no roads in the outside world.” In other words, existing outside of heteronormativity is uncharted territory for them, but at least they’ve left one world and begun their journey in another.
All of this, though it barely scratches the surface, is how I’ve made sense of what is certainly one of the most symbolic anime series of all time. I have more notes about gender breaking and Anthy and race that I will likely explore in later posts, but Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of those series that you have to think about for a long time to articulate any interpretation of it.