What Is Revolutionary About Utena?
Revolutionary Girl Utena provokes far more questions than it answers, and that has led to the creation of an entire sub-sub-community based around it. It tends to attract a much more intellectual set than your average animated show, and for good reason. Unfortunately, though the show has a number of merits–and I would count myself enthusiastic about the show overall–its use of the word “revolution” initially distracted me from what is going on in the narrative.
Unlike Les Misérables, Utena is not about a political or economic or historical revolution. Its revolution is almost synonymous with adolescence, which means it’s appropriate that the film’s title is either Adolescence of Utena or, in some English editions, just Revolutionary Girl Utena, since the character of the revolution in the show is subjective and developmental rather than a decisive and disruptive transition between different political orders. Even the manipulative Lucifer figure, Ohtori, retains his outward power at the end, and the implications of the show’s ending are confined to a few privileged members of an elite academy. This is why I understand “revolution” in the show to mean a transition to a higher stage of maturity, involving disillusionment with former idols (the Prince and Princess figures), leaving the “womb” of the home (in this case represented by Anthy breaking out of the coffin-shaped academy and her literal coffin), and loads of diffuse sexual tension that occasionally hardens into something acute.
A writer under the name Etrangere contributed an essay on the connections between Utena and politics, and concludes with this paragraph:
Yet Utena succeeds, not as a Prince, but as a Revolutionary, by inspiring Anthy to step up herself out of her subservient role as the Rose Bride and save herself. Thus, together they destroy the archetype of the Prince and the Princess and are on their way to create a new, more equal ideal as friends and soulmates. Their example also manages to help all the Duelists break from their fixation on their idealized memories and move on toward smashing their own coffins. This is the Revolution in [Utena].
I think that this is basically accurate, making the revolution here more Freudian than Marxist. Ultimately, the entire show is a gigantic session of psychoanalysis, interrogating the show’s characters, prodding and questioning their motives and unmasking deep repressed drives. Memories are conjured and shown to be constructs, mere wishes that have been fixed by the characters’ inability to mature. Utena’s sword vanquishes the stifling present and cuts the chains connecting people to an imagined past. At the end of the show, we see history beginning, as Utena’s sacrifice has destroyed the endless cycle of repetition that was held in place by the figures of the Prince and Princess, these eternal roles that people try to fit until they finally crumble of their own accord. These roles are like eggs–a metaphor employed by the ruling authorities of the school throughout the show–protective barriers that must be temporary. If the chick cannot transcend the egg, that fixed location and gestating stage, it will die.
It’s unfortunate that the show has no more useful political content, and more generally it is dispiriting that most anime makes no attempt to engage with contemporary Japanese capitalism in a substantial way. I do think, though, that a narrative showing a character, Anthy, actually overcoming oppression and entering into a new and more real life is nothing short of inspiring. We are not merely dazzled with a menagerie of illusions and brilliant imagery and left gasping, wondering what is real and what is not. By the end, we see that there is a real core to the show, that underneath all the symbolism and sleight of hand there are real lives at stake, that are being oppressed by real forces of oppression. It’s all quite weighty in comparison to most anime, and though I was initially disappointed by the narrative’ s refusal to travel outside of its safe protective sphere and engage with history at large, and while this is by no means a revolutionary show by Marxist standards, it shows that people can transcend fixed categories and identities and gives us hope for the destruction of everything that holds humanity back. Honestly, that’s more than ninety-nine out of a hundred shows gives us, and it looks absolutely fabulous while doing it.
Before leaving, I think it’s best to leave my readers in the hands of Maoist-turned-Platonic-Communist Alain Badiou, who wrote this in his In Praise of Love:
The process of love isn’t always peaceful. It can bring violent argument, genuine anguish and separations we may or may not overcome. We should recognize that it is one of the most painful experiences in the subjective life of an individual! That is why some people promote their “comprehensive insurance”propaganda. I have already mentioned that people die because of love. There are murders and suicides prompted by love. In fact, at its own level, love is not necessarily any more peaceful than revolutionary politics. A truth is not something that is constructed in a garden of roses. Never! Love has its own agenda of contradictions and violence. But the difference is that in politics we really have to engage with our enemies, whereas in love it is all about dramas, immanent, internal dramas that don’t really define any enemies, though they do sometimes place the drive for identity into conflict with difference. Dramas in love are the sharpest experience of the conflict between identity and difference (61-62).
I think, in Utena’s case, truth very much is something constructed in a bed of roses.