Revolutionary Girl Utena Collector’s Edition III Blu Ray Review (Part 2)
With all 39 episodes of Revolutionary Girl Utena under my belt, am I any better placed to explain what the hell this series is actually about? That’s a very daunting prospect, as I feel that especially regarding this final 6-episode “Apocalypse Saga” I’d need a PhD in metaphor and symbolism to even scratch the surface. Suffice to say, this is not a show one can possibly hope to digest in one setting, let alone two. I’ve read so many detailed analyses to help get my thoughts in order that I can’t hope to hold a candle to any of them, let alone do this remarkable, beautiful, yet frustrating and obtuse show justice.
Last time, I covered the first 9-episode arc of this third blu-ray set’s bumper 15-episode count, and although the movie is also included, that deserves an article to itself. Therefore I’ll cover only up until the conclusion of the TV series, without reference at all to the film. SPOILERS ABOUT THE END OF THE SHOW ARE GUARANTEED TO FOLLOW, PLUS DISCUSSION REGARDING RAPE, SEXUAL AND EMOTIONAL ABUSE AND INCEST.
Episode 34 marks the beginning of the final arc and follows 14-year-old Utena’s statutory rape at the hands of scheming, manipulative Akio — her school’s chairman in whose home she lives, sharing a bedroom (and an oddly-shaped bed) with his sister Anthy. So far unbeknownst to Utena, Akio is the mastermind behind the duels — using nom-de-plume “The End of the World” he has orchestrated all of the interpersonal conflicts and battles throughout the show. He intends to seize “the power to revolutionise the world” and recognises Utena as the best means by which to achieve his goal. The mechanics behind this metaphysical transfer of power and the specifics of what this power is and means is never explicitly explained. It’s probably best understood as a woolly plot device by which cool, pretty animated things are made to happen.
Despite Akio’s creepiness, Utena remains very much attached to him and we see that this causes cracks to form in her friendship with Anthy. Anthy’s not above little passive-aggressive comments and actions, like forcing herself in between Akio and Utena during a group photo session. It’s not always entirely clear if this is because Anthy is possessive of Utena or Akio, or if she’s jealous, or if she fears that Akio will abuse Utena. It could be all of the above. If anything, this arc delves deep into how conflicted a character Anthy is. Inside, she’s nothing like the emotionless doll others assumed her to be earlier in the series. Those “dead eyes” that Akio’s fiancé hated weren’t dead because she was numb, but because behind them is masked terrible, terrible pain — much of which is perpetuated by Akio’s abuse.
Episode 34 gives us two views of Akio’s and Anthy’s backstory — the first incorporated by the Shadow Girls in a play. Yes, would you believe those odd silhouetted mainstays of every episode are actually real girls? They even appear “in person” to accost Utena and give her tickets. Their play is like a fairy tale, with helpless young princesses in need of a man to rescue them and an old witch imprisoning the prince. Even Akio obliquely admits that it isn’t exactly a great interpretation. Then Utena’s subsequent dream/flashback subverts and reinterprets everything we’d been led to believe about her motivations for becoming a prince, and this answered some questions that had been bugging me about the underlying ideology.
For an apparently feminist show, it had always seemed odd to me that Utena’s primary motivation for becoming a “prince” was the apparently inspirational example of the young man she’d met as a child — “her prince” who gave her the Rose Seal ring and told her to come find her when she was older. The previous flashbacks always framed this somewhat romantically — the prince became her idol and she patterned her entire personality and demeanour after him. Now we discover her memory was missing essential pieces — the prince himself was helpless to save a suffering girl — Anthy — and Utena, so horrified at this situation, vowed to grow up to find a way to save the girl herself. Perhaps similar to Mikage/Nemuro her memory has become distorted by Ohtori Academy or by her proximity to Akio?
Anyway, the more she hangs around with Akio, the less and less prince-like she appears. Akio even compliments her on her “girlishness” and her more stereotypically feminine outfit when they are yet again in his car, and there are further hints of sexual impropriety between them. That car features again in further weird scenes with Akio, Touga and Saionji who take turns to pose shirtless and appear orgasmic. Are they having a boys-only threesome or perhaps only an erect nipple contest?
After their automobile confab/orgy/pornshoot, Touga leaves concerned for Utena’s safety, and has somehow decided that he loves her because he can’t have her, or some other weird bullshit. He tries to convince her to give up her fight, and takes her randomly horse-riding only to endanger her life and have Akio swoop in to save her, smiling smugly. Obviously the only course of action then is for Touga to challenge her to yet another duel, and to use Saionji as his “bride”. Saionji surprisingly seems up for this. I guess Akio has opened them up to new ways of relating to their fellow man. Utena of course wipes the floor with them.
Then it’s time for another extremely uncomfortable scene when Utena walks in on her “boyfriend” Akio fucking his sister. Akio doesn’t appear to notice, but Anthy and Utena’s eyes meet. Anthy wears her creepy dead-eyed expression (which may be normal following sexual abuse by your domineering sibling) but to me it looks like Anthy intended Utena to see. A “this is what your lover is really like” kind of deal. So… Utena kind of pretends nothing happened, displaying quite a stunning level of denial. She still clings onto Akio and it’s only by speaking with Miki, Nanami and Juri that she comes to her senses and realises how much her relationship with Anthy means to her. Juri is particularly, refreshingly blunt. It’s interesting in this scene how it appears how each of these school council members are starting to move on with their lives (though the spectres of Miki’s possessive sister Kozue and Juri’s conflicted unrequited love Shiori watch on from the shadows.)
Despite an attempt at reconnection and promising a shared future with Utena, Anthy attempts to commit suicide by throwing herself off the school roof — and even tries to frustrate Utena’s rescue by making her body limp and harder to pull up. Anthy is completely trapped in an endless cycle of abuse and sees no way out — and any hope she’d seen in Utena has been crushed by her entanglement with her abuser, Akio. In an act of stunning (and improbable for a 14-year-old) self-awareness, Utena admits that she had blamed Anthy for being a victim, for being a rival for Akio’s affections. Now Anthy is hardly innocent here — throughout this entire show she has danced obediently to her brother’s tune and has been utterly complicit in some terrible acts, including towards the person she seems to love. But Utena loves and accepts her regardless. There’s only one thing left for Utena to do, and that is to face Anthy’s abuser — and to fight for her right to be Anthy’s prince.
Of course Utena’s still hung up on the prince she met as a child, and in the climax of the story, Akio reveals (surely to the surprise of absolutely no-one) that he was the original prince, but over time he has become corrupted and lost the power that was originally his. He confirms that Anthy suffers in his place. Like the satanic figure he is, he tempts Utena with a life of effortless indulgence — he transforms her clothing into a princesses’ dress and withdraws the sword from Utena’s soul, claiming that as her prince, he will protect her “forever and ever”, if only she would give up her princehood, her sword, her morals, her individuality, her drive, her soul, her love for Anthy… And when she asks about Anthy, Akio discards his sister like trash, promising that she will continue to suffer in his place forever and ever while he whisks Utena off to live their own charmed life using the power unlocked by her sword.
Thankfully Utena has just about had enough of Akio’s silver-tongued bullshit and duels him. He tries to cast doubt on her nobility by weaponising his previous rape— blaming her for the “sin” of sleeping with an engaged man. What a bastard. This is where incredulity is not so much strained as utterly shattered as Akio reveals the surreal duelling arena and the inverted castle in the sky are all projections from his planetarium — all of the previous fights had been in his tower, and somehow these collective hallucinations had been so powerful no-one had questioned them. Hmmmmmmmm. I get that this is hyper-metaphorical fantasy, but I almost pissed myself laughing at how ridiculous this reveal was. I mean come on.
Utena’s rejection of Akio’s plan causes the entire imaginary arena to crumble to pieces, though there also seems to be real physical damage as well… it’s so hard to tell what’s really happening. Akio’s unable to best her, so when Utena attempts to protect Anthy from him… she stabs her in the back. Because Anthy is so completely brainwashed and unable to even conceive of a life out from under the thumb of her brother, she’ll even act against her own interests at the brink of rescue. This is truly a gut-wrenching moment as Utena realises she’s been betrayed and Anthy cruelly whispers “You can never be my prince because you’re a girl.”
So what does Anthy get for this demonstration of sibling loyalty? She is pierced by the countless “Swords of Humanity’s Hatred” that really should be meant for Akio, but she accepts the punishment in his place. I expect this is commentary on how women are irrationally (and wrongly) blamed for so many ills in society yet powerful men seem teflon-coated, nothing sticks and there is no retribution for them no matter how evil they are. Akio knows his actions bring his sister terrible pain but he doesn’t care. In fact he seems quite irritated by it. From this point on, the action becomes increasingly symbolic, so attempting to synthesize a coherent narrative from this seems fruitless.
This is my biggest problem with Utena as a whole — although it deals with some fantastically complex, deep subject matter, it’s like they somehow forgot to tie it down to any kind of meaningful narrative. We’re dealing in heady concepts about “humanity’s hatred”, which I can understand in an allegorical sense about how woman are subjugated by societal expectations to be passive and to let men make the decisions for them, blamed and ostracised when things go wrong, but what does this actually mean, in this moment to Anthy as a person? Because here she is levitated up into the sky and pierced by countless flying swords. I mean, it looks cool I guess, but what is actually happening to her character right now? Has Utena actually, literally been stabbed? Is Akio actually, literally hacking away at the thornbushes on the randomly-appeared rose-petalled island floating just off to the side of his tower with a sword pulled from the soul of his girlfriend/enemy?
Without some kind of tie to tangibility, I’m afraid much of this climactic battle fell flat on an emotional level to me. Abstracted several layers past reality it all looked flashy with breathtakingly cool imagery, but it reduced the characters to confused automatons. What, exactly are they fighting for? I get that Utena loves Anthy and accepts her for all her flaws. I get that Akio is a broken human being, corrupted and fallen and determined to drag everyone down with him. I get that Anthy is horribly damaged by so many years of abuse… but in my mind the underlying unreality of the whole thing robs it of any lasting meaning.
Just how old are Anthy and Akio anyway? What does it mean that he was a prince whose job was to save all the women? What even is Ohtori Academy and why does it seem so removed in time from everywhere else? I guess that director Ikuhara decided these questions were unimportant and instead focused on telling his story via image and metaphor — but to me these things must be hung on something at least vaguely concrete. Without understanding the stakes or even the basic rules of this apparently magical world, it seems he could just make up any old shit and say it’s meaningful.
Now that’s not to say there isn’t meaning here — there is, but it becomes really hard to take seriously when even the fantasy world is this nebulous. One of my favourite shots in the entire show is of Utena fighting against pain and the sting of defeat to drag herself up from the floor to fight some more. Regardless of setting, that’s a sentiment I can get behind. When Akio gives up trying to get through the thornbush door using the sword, Utena instead pries it open with her bare fingers to find Anthy inside a coffin (perhaps reminiscent of when Utena herself hid in a coffin at her parents’ funeral). But wasn’t Anthy just floating in the sky a minute ago being pierced by swords? Oh, no. She’s in a dark coffin now. I’m all for the use of crazy dream logic when a scene needs to be surreal and mysterious, but please not in the conclusion of your 39-episode story.
As an illustration of the inability for a person to be saved without that individual’s will to be saved — Utena reaching out helplessly to a reluctant Anthy is a potent image. Even as Anthy starts to realise this could be her way out, to actually accept Utena’s love and help… she falls from the sky while Utena is presumably pierced by the infinite Swords of Humanity’s Hatred. For a thematic climax it’s certainly appropriate… For a satisfactory narrative ending… it isn’t. If anything it’s a complete anticlimax and a massive “fuck you!” to anyone hoping for something more concrete.
And the above paragraph was my initial opinion after watching it the first time. Having given it a bit more thought, and watched it again, and read a bit of analysis… I think the story probably could not have ended any other way. Anthy needed to learn to allow herself to be helped, to develop some agency of her own, and in the epilogue that is exactly what she does. Much like what happened with Nemuro/Mikage, the other pupils seem to be starting to forget that Utena ever existed — although, for once, they are overheard talking about their plans for the future. So often teenagers (and I write this as a former teenager and father of several) focus so much on their day-to-day emotional and interpersonal traumas that they become completely unable to consider the world outside of their immediate little bubble. Although it doesn’t seem like it at the time, school isn’t forever, and the pupils at Ohtori Academy seem to have been kept in a state of eternal arrested development by Akio’s scheming. Somehow, Utena’s sacrifice has weakened his influence and the others are starting to grow up.
Anthy herself, in her understated yet triumphant goodbye to her brother, says that “Utena no longer exists in your world.” She has essentially graduated into adulthood and grown away from the school, and from Akio. Unlike Akio’s tainted and imperfect definition of adulthood — that gained through sex — Utena has grown up through selflessness, and love for others. Anthy’s decision to leave everything she’s known and search for Utena in “the real world” is a cause for cheer.
Overall, Utena is a pretty mind-blowing show, in more ways than one. I think had I seen this in the late 90s/early 2000s when I first became aware of it, most of the intellectual content would have flown completely over my head and I expect I would have been disappointed by it. Now that I’m older and have a teenage daughter of my own, of similar age to Utena, I’m able to view it with a different perspective. I do appreciate its thematic complexities, I love the elegant (and at times creepy or plain bonkers) soundtrack and the elongated, retro character designs. I think it falls down on narrative coherence, and although it is incredibly well constructed in a thematic sense, in the end I felt somewhat emotionally numbed by the artifice and the multiple layers of abstraction from reality. Utena is a show that rewards repeated viewing (though perhaps not every episode, here’s looking at you Nanami and your curry/eggs/cowbells) so perhaps I’ll come back to it again in a few years and my opinions may change. I’d only recommend this to anime viewers willing to put in the work to understand the complex imagery and metaphor, otherwise a more superficial reading of it might be “it’s pretty and cool but it really does disappear up its own arsehole towards the end.”
Revolutionary Girl Utena Part 3: The Apocalypse Saga Collector’s Edition Blu-ray
Series Director: Kunihiko Ikuhara
Production Studio: JC Staff
Original Japanese TV broadcast: Sept. 17th 1997 — Dec. 24th 1997
UK Blu-ray release: Sept. 14th 2020
Runtime: 460 minutes (episodes 25–39, movie)
Video: 1080p pillarboxed 4:3 ratio
Audio: Japanese with English subtitles, English dub
Distributor: Anime Limited
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