Monday, September 20, 2010

Source material: Shoujo Kakumei Utena

One does not simply become weird overnight. I have cultivated my taste for the bizarre for my entire life, developing my peculiar and particular sensibilities through the consumption of a wide array of counter-cultural artifacts. This entry is the second in a series cataloging my most beloved of those books, films, television shows, and other forms of media.

Spoilers are happening in this article. FYI.

Okay, so, full disclosure: from seventh to ninthish (perhaps also tenth) grade, I was totally obsessed with Sailor Moon, an extremely (perhaps unreasonably) popular manga and anime series about a slackerish middle school student named Usagi (shown below) who fights monsters from outer space with the help of her talking cat, who is from the moon.

Without delving into a lengthy discussion about the series, let me confirm that the show is pretty much as bizarre as its premise makes it sound. It's ostensibly a children's show, but somehow, by the end of the series, it manages to work in all kinds of nuggets of surreality and quirkiness, perhaps the most infamous example being the rock trio "Three Lights", who show up in the final season. The Three Lights are all teenage boys, but they periodically turn into latex-clad girls to help Usagi and Company fight space villains. (They are, themselves, also from outer space.)

For me, Sailor Moon was the equivalent of the "gateway drugs" people my age learned about in those D.A.R.E. videos in Health class. Basically, I consumed too much Sailor Moon at a very young and impressionable age. Eventually, its particular formula of strangeness didn't have any affect on my warped synapses any longer, so I had to seek out something harder and weirder-- something with more permanent side effects-- something like Shoujo Kakumei ("Revolutionary Girl") Utena.

The director of Utena, Kunihiko Ikuhara, also directed Sailor Moon for a few seasons. Ikuhara allegedly left his position as director of Sailor Moon because the producers weren't giving him enough creative freedom, e.g., they were not allowing him to use the show as a vehicle for his unique, majestic brand of ridiculous nonsensical bullshit. So, he set off on his own, forming his own creative team and ultimately producing what remains one of the quirkiest and most obtuse anime series ever.

(The following is a fan-made remake of the series' opening credits sequence, just to give you a taste of what this show is like. I decided to use it here in place of the actual opening credits, because it illustrates the unique aesthetic of the series while showing just a fraction of the insane stuff that happens in the latter half of the story.)

Utena follows the exploits of its namesake, a pink-haired middle-school girl named Utena Tenjou, as she gets up to various things at Ohtori Academy, a boarding school for all ages.

Utena refuses to wear a standard girl's uniform; instead, she wears a modified version of the boy's uniform, much to the amusement of her fellow students and the chagrin of the school administrators. You see, Utena had a formative experience as a child with a prince on a white horse. To condense what is actually a fairly complicated story, ultimately, she decided that the prince was so awesome that she wanted to be like him-- to wear princely clothing (never mind that her outfit features short-shorts. no big deal.) and to help rescue other girls from peril. The prince also gave Utena a ring with a rose signet. Utena's not sure if that makes them engaged or not, and she's kind of in love with him but also kind of doesn't know who the hell he is.

In any case, in the first episode, Utena happens upon a violent argument between a girl, Anthy Himemiya, and a boy on the Student Council, Saionji, whom Utena assumes must be Anthy's boyfriend. Saionji backhands Anthy, which pisses Utena off. She challenges him to a fight after school. Knowing that Saionji practices kendo, Utena brings a bamboo training sword to the fight, and is totally prepared to kick his ass. She follows Saionji to the grave-mound-shaped forest behind the school, where students are forbidden to go, and then up an insane flight of stairs to this weird platform in the sky. Totally normal, no reason for alarm. Anthy places a rose in Utena's lapel, then in Saionji's; whoever keeps their rose on longer wins the fight.
Then this stuff happens.

(The purple-haired one is Anthy, the green-haired one is Saionji-- yes, he's a boy.-- and the pink-haired one is Utena. The red-haired one, also a boy, is a manslut named Touga. Got it?)

It turns out Anthy is the "Rose Bride", the key to some fabulous power which may or may not revolutionize the world but will for sure give you a really cool sword. The Student Council members at Ohtori are embroiled in a series of duels-- known as the "Rose Duels"-- all over Anthy, who becomes "engaged" to the victor of the most recent duel and will basically do whatever they say. They all want Anthy's miraculous power, or maybe they just want Anthy. Whatevs. Doesn't this kind of thing happen at most boarding schools?

After Utena wins the fight against Saionji, Anthy insists that Utena is her new fiancee. She moves in to Utena's dorm room, bringing a weird mouse thing (Chu Chu, her only friend) with her, and starts deferring to Utena in her every decision. Utena is not sure how she feels about this arrangement, but when the other Student Council members start challenging her to try to win Anthy back, she tries to fend them off, ostensibly for Anthy's sake.

All right, so that's the initial premise of the show. In fact, most of that stuff is revealed in the first episode. I would have to write a dissertation in order to even attempt to explain everything else that occurs in the show's 39 episodes-- and I'm pretty sure any such attempt would fail.

Despite supposedly being a children's show, Utena is fairly difficult for most adults to understand. The show is rich-- no, rife-- with symbolism, metaphor and allegory. Some plot elements are handled only through symbolic references, making it pretty much impossible to say with any certainty what's actually happening in any given episode-- especially those at the end of the series. In fact, despite repeated viewings, I'm still not exactly sure what happens at the end of the series.

Not only is the plot super ambiguous, so are the players. Some of the characters are ghosts, but that's never made clear when you meet them; some characters only exist in the minds of other characters, and they don't bother to explain that either. Even the characters who are neither ghosts nor figments of someone's imagination are hard to pin down. Everyone is morally ambiguous-- no, really, everyone-- and everyone has major secrets they are hiding from everyone else. On top of that, nearly everyone's sexuality seems to be at least somewhat mutable; there are countless "are they or aren't they?" situations and relationships.

Utena is at times high-camp shoujo soap opera, not-quite-postmodern fairy tale, and psychosexual melodrama, exploring issues of gender identity, sibling rivalry, eternal adolescence, and emergent sexuality. It fluctuates without warning from extremely dark and questionable territory (incest, abuse, fratricide/sororicide, mass murder) to absurd and adorable interludes with anthropomorphized mice and cowophomorphized (bovinomorphized?) girls. Half of it seems to be done totally tongue-and-cheek, while the other half is deadly serious. It's a grab bag of delights, a festival of horrors!

Some of the sex in Utena is shown on its surface, illustrated as frankly as possible for a (children's?) television show. Far more seethes underneath. Depending on how you choose to read the show's symbolic elements, the antagonist, Akio, is sleeping with either two people-- Utena and Anthy-- or with virtually the entire cast at one point or another. Now, before you scoff, we are not talking about 'reading the story' in the imaginative sense, the kind of speculation fanfic writers engage in; no, we're talking about whether or not you choose to assume that Akio's wildly homoerotic photo shoots with Touga and Saionji end up leading anywhere once they've all taken their clothes off.

Fun for the whole family!

So, once the television series was finished, since it made so much sense and would be so easy to streamline into a two-hour feature film, Ikuhara and Co. made it into a movie. An awesome movie. With even more bizarre delights for obsessed fans like me to sink our teeth into. Here's a scene from near the beginning of the movie-- part is a retelling of the other scene above.

Plot issues aside, if you can't at least enjoy the movie's visuals, you probably don't have eyes.
Many people complain that the movie makes no sense. I don't exactly disagree with them, but, in my opinion, complaining about the fact that the movie makes no sense is absurd; it's like bitching about a Dali painting for not being an accurate representation of reality. Of course it makes no sense! That's the entire point. Just shut up and watch the pretty girls have duels with the pretty boys and then turn into cars.

In the passages above, I have given what seems like a multitude of reasons to dislike Utena. I fully acknowledge that everyone else in the world would have good reason to hate this show; nevertheless, it remains one of my favorite television shows ever.

Utena could have been trash. Certainly, my description makes it sound trashy. It's not even particularly original-- it owes a huge debt to The Rose of Versailles and probably countless other works. Its story is absurd, erratic, and at times next to impossible to follow. But by sheer chutzpah, not to mention a considerable amount of artistry and skill, the production team took what could have been an absolutely abysmal series and transformed it into something that completely transcends the sum of his parts.


  1. The ambiguity of the show is one of it's many assets. The series continues to delight audiences even now despite the fact that parts of the plot and characters are never fully explained. It would be nice if there were more directors out there willing to push the envelope such as Ikuhara.

  2. This article was like looking into pages of my own diary. Fascinating!

  3. Just, out of curiosity, where did you get the picture you used at the top of this post?

  4. Um, Sara? I just accidentally stumbled onto your blog here. We may be the same person. Just saying.