"Little one," he said, "who bears up alone in such deep sorrow, never lose that strength or nobility, even when you grow up. I give you this to remember this day. We will meet again. This ring will lead you to me one day." Perhaps the ring the prince gave her was an engagement ring.
This was all well and good, but so impressed was she by him that the princess vowed to become a prince herself one day. But was that really such a good idea?
In a quest to find another TV series as open to interpretation as The Prisoner, I have turned to Japanese anime, where there is no shortage of the
Revolutionary Girl Utena is a 39-episode series from 1997. TV Tropes describes (unless it gets edited, in which case: described) it as "the Neon Genesis Evangelion of the Shoujo category," that is to say it is a deconstruction of that genre. Now I'm not knowledgeable about shoujo anime as a genre, but that's not the point. Because hand-in-hand with the "deconstruction" label goes "symbolism" and "open to interpretation" and this series has both. Lots of both.
Part One - "The Student Council Saga"
Roses. Roses everywhere.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The quote I opened this review with opens several of the episodes, giving the backstory of Utena Tenjou and a key to her motivation: although a girl, she seeks to assume the - traditionally male - role of a fairytale prince, coming to the rescue of princesses and maidens in distress just like the prince who once came to her in her time of need.
In the first episode Utena encounters such a maiden in distress when she becomes involved in the duels for the "Rose Bride." Utena's ring, given to her by the prince, entitles her to enter these duels and her challenging the senior student Saionji to a fight for humiliating her friend Wakaba is interpreted as such.
Upon defeating Saionji, Utena discovers that, under the rules of the duels, she is now engaged to Anthy Himemiya "the Rose Bride" who, in an instant, drops her abusive relationship with Saionji and moves in with Utena.
While this wouldn't be the first series I've seen with issues in the translating/subtitling, the use of the word "engaged" (and thus connotations of heterosexual marriage) seems deliberate because it parallels Anthy's status as a "Bride." And while it is in keeping with Utena's self-chosen 'male' role to be engaged to a girl, none of the other duelists object to or comment on this unusual arrangement - to them, Utena is now "the Engaged." Also, there was already one other female duelist involved - Jury. More on her later.
It's probably worth commenting on the most obvious weirdness to manifest at this early stage: the dueling arena itself, which is a platform accessible by a secret door that only opens to the wearers of the rose rings and then up a ridiculously long spiral staircase. Above it is an enormous, upside-down fairytale castle:
As Utena ascends to the dueling arena the 'Absolute Destiny Apocalypse' song plays. Get used to this song if you're watching the series, because you're going to hear it a lot. There are a couple of versions of it, and the accompanying visuals do change twice during the series, but it's still a lot of repetition. I never got bored of hearing it, because I found that it helps build anticipation of the duel to follow.
Utena faces, over the course of the episodes that make up the first story arc, a series of duels against opponents who are all, like Saionji, members of the Student Council - an elite body made up of all the overachievers: student vice-president and captain of the school kendo team Saionji (who gets a rematch that he also loses), and then:
Miki - a genius pianist who has already composed a famous song.
Jury - captain of the school fencing team.
Nanami - younger sister of the student president and the school bully.
Touga - president of the Student Council.
One of the things I like best about the series is the way the duels themselves are shown. They are all quite short, considering the importance placed on them by the narrative, and I think there are two reasons for this.
The first is practical: for all that the designs in Revolutionary Girl Utena are amazing (if obsessed with roses), the animation is obviously comparatively cheap - no opportunity to reuse an existing sequence is passed up - and I imagine that the fight sequences must have been relatively expensive (I've seen cheap fight scenes in other anime series - they usually consist of lines and lines).
The other reason, the 'in story' reason, is that victory in the duels is determined in advance by the confidence of the duelists backed up by the righteousness of their cause, and not by their skill. Thus it is what happens in the build-up to a duel that is important, not the action in the duel itself.
There may be a third reason, though it's one I'm not sure of, and that would be to subvert other anime series that heavily feature extended, sometimes multiple-episode duration, fight sequences. Either way, I'd take a short and to-the-point scene over a drawn-out, set-piece combat any day.
Collectively the Student Council are presented as a sinister body who want to "revolutionize the world," as shown in the oft-repeated 'lift scene' where their ominous theme music plays and they chant their catchphrase speech:
"If the egg's shell does not break, the chick will die without being born. We are the chick; the egg is the world. If the world's shell does not break, we will die without being born. Break the world's shell! For the revolution of the world!"
(Any variations in the speech can be put down to translating/subtitling discrepancies.)
However, each member of the Student Council is an individual and they all have very different reasons for participating in the duels, rooted in their backstory and motivations that come out in the episodes prior to their dueling Utena. This helps to ensure that, with one exception, they do not appear villainous.
Miki is growing more distant from his twin sister Kozue as the two of them grow from children into adults, and he sees Anthy as a substitute for Kozue because Anthy shares his interest in the piano - an interest that Kozue has lost as she grows up. But Anthy is not his sister, so the relationship he seeks (by seeking to become engaged to the Rose Bride) is doomed to failure because what Miki really wants - a return to a lost childhood brother-sister relationship - is not possible with Anthy. This is why he loses to Utena.
It does not, however, stop him from growing into friendship with Utena and Anthy, beginning the process of subverting the Student Council's status as hostile antagonists to the two protagonists.
Jury's motivation is more complex than Miki's or Saionji's, and difficult for me to summarise, but it seems to be the case that, as the unrequited member of a love-triangle, she is also dueling for the enigmatic power of the Rose Bride to return her to a more innocent state, before adolescent emotions caused this love-triangle to complicate her life and lose the object of her affections. But winning the Rose Bride wouldn't accomplish that so, despite her greater skill with the sword, Jury loses to Utena by a "miracle" or a lucky fluke.
Nanami only becomes involved as a duelist once her brother Touga's plans are underway and require her involvement. She is jealous of anyone - any girl, that is - that could come between her and her brother, and when he begins to pay attention to Utena and Anthy then she sees dueling them as revenge. Nanami is easily defeated by Utena, since her motivation is so petty.
Touga, however, has been playing the long game compared to the other Student Council members (though not compared to other characters in the series) and has sown seeds of doubt in Utena's mind that he may be the prince she met when she was young. Because of the way Utena's amnesia works (as with the rules of the duels, it works how it needs to to serve the plot. To be fair to the series there is a certain amount of justification for this, though it does basically come down to "a wizard did it") he gets away with it, and with Utena conflicted between her goal to be a prince and the pressure on her to conform to her chromosomally assigned role as a princess, she loses to 'Prince' Touga despite his motivation being naked lust for power.
Utena loses a duel for the first and only time in the story, and responds by abandoning her 'prince' role immediately, even donning a girls' school uniform instead of her usual boys' uniform (as an aside - while Utena's usual outfit is a "boys' uniform" in that it has shorts instead of a skirt and lacks anything obviously girly like puffy sleeves, it is not a uniform that we see anyone else wear at all during the series. This is either a clever subversion or else just something they didn't think through, but I don't know which).
Like Saionji before her, Utena gets a rematch against the challenger that defeated her, and manages to sort herself out - with help from her friend Wakaba - in time to take advantage of this.
Touga, now wielding the mystic "Sword of Dios," a perk that comes with being engaged to the Rose Bride - it gets drawn out of her chest (symbolism!) by "the Engaged" prior to each duel - makes use of a power of the Bride and Blade, one that Utena didn't even know existed, to charge it up (another subversion of the usual form of these things, where power-escalation is the norm, is that Utena never makes use of this power in subsequent duels). Touga still loses, because Utena's motivation is so much purer than his.
The first story arc, 'The Student Council Saga,' closes with Utena and Anthy reunited. They make a perfect Yin-Yang pair as protagonists, with their complementary opposite qualities of Utena's active, fiery, aggressive (and, of course, traditionally masculine) Yang and Anthy's passive, shy, traditionally feminine Yin qualities that make her a victim and unable to defend herself.
They are so complementary, in fact, that this alone could make the audience see them as a natural couple and so root for Utena in the duels, without asking why Anthy is the Rose Bride and what exactly this means. Utena doesn't ask this important question either, which I find to be a minor niggle with the series - tempting as it is to assume Utena (and hence the audience) wouldn't get the answers even if she did ask, it is obviously a plot requirement that the answers don't come out too soon.
A few tantalising hints are thrown out in episode 13 (which consists principally of flashbacks to scenes we have already seen - an anime staple, I understand, allowing for a cheap 'filler' episode) where two men, one of whom appears to be the prince from Utena's backstory, discuss the story so far.