The so-called “Apocalypse Saga” of Revolutionary Girl Utena proves itself a welcome progression on the “Black Rose Saga” from Nozomi Entertainment’s second DVD set and a return the essence of the first story arc. Here the narrative reorients its focus on Utena’s relationship with Anthy, and most episodes methodically carry the plot forward in increasingly surreal ways.
Naturally, there are more duels fought for ownership of the “Rose Bride” Anthy, mostly rematches between Utena and the members of Ohtori’s student council. This is not mere repetition, though. Their reasons for fighting are more personal than ever, and as the story proceeds a key player comes to the fore: none other than “End of the World” Akio Ohtori, Anthy’s brother and the one responsible for orchestrating the bizarre duels for Anthy’s hand in the first place. He makes a brilliant villain of the piece. Insincere and selfish to core, he is the foil to Utena’s personality and a corruption of the princely ideal she aspired to: literally so, apparently, from the clues the narrative gives us. All his scheming is supposed to be gambit to reclaim the nobility and power that he was cursed to lose, but what we see here first and foremost is a man who takes pleasure in the manipulation of others. Beneath the superficial veneer of a congenial gentleman, there is the ugly soul of a suave devil inflicting mental abuse on all those surrounding him. While Mikage preyed on the fears and insecurities of his victims in the second arc, Akio shamelessly exploits and manipulates the desires of others so that they might serve his ends. Bit by bit, an abusive love/hate relationship between him and Anthy is revealed, one that is nauseating to behold. To cap it all off, not only does Utena not understand that Akio is her enemy until the end approaches, she is the #1 target of Akio’s machinations as he charms his way into a romantic relationship with her.
As always, the duels follow their ritualistic routine, though their weirdness is elevated to new heights. The dueling arena changes specifically to allow someone to race Akio’s sports car through it amid the proceedings, the same vehicle Akio uses to motivate Utena’s foes to action with a mixture of persuasion and some degree of seduction not-so-subtly implied. The feats performed become quite outrageous, including a preposterous sight where Utena literally uses her blade to cleave scores of cars hurtling straight toward her. The surreal nature of it all practically dares the viewer to put up with it, to the point that one can reasonably wonder whether the absurdity of this is in fact the point on a meta scale: that this game of Akio’s is a farce that would be amusing if it did not threaten to be so damaging to its participants. Through it all, the symbolism intriguingly shifts. Utena’s foes confront her with partners just as she comes to the arena with Anthy, and in a complete role reversal the conjured blades used for dueling come from the duelists themselves. Only by abandoning the “Sword of Dios” drawn from Anthy and following suit can Utena win the day, rendering her battles as metaphorical clashes of inner strength and resolve. That resolve faces the ultimate test when it’s finally time for the showdown with Akio, where Utena has no choice but to reconcile her wounded idealism with her desire to save her friend once and for all.
Utena is a difficult series to do comprehensive justice to; director Kunihiko Ikuhara is supportive of the idea that there are basically as many right ways to interpret the program as there are viewers that have seen it. One could read a great deal into the psychological hangups of Utena’s peers, just for starters. The show can also undoubtedly be discussed in purely feminist terms, considering that the climatic confrontation sees Akio trying to cast doubt on Utena’s aspirations and motives to be a “Prince” and tempting her to accept a place at his side. Of course the title here is Revolutionary Girl Utena, so instead Utena refuses to play princess for a fallen price and takes up her sword in a bid to free her friend from the destructive role she’s stuck in.
For my part, what resonates most powerfully is how Utena represents a mature take on the very familiar theme of the power of friendship and love. Anthy suffers in her role but it is also what she knows, and whatever desire she has to escape it is balanced by fear of what happens if she does. Yet despite Utena being betrayed at a critical juncture because of that, our heroine persists and sacrifices and ultimately lights a path for Anthy that leads away from the darkess of Akio’s oppressive and closed world. And it is that practically Christlike selflessness, in my view, that makes Utena distinct from all who dueled her. In one way or another, these foes all fought for themselves, often against their own inner demons. But first and foremost Utena fought for other people and Anthy most of all, and it is that determination to do so that grants her the will to do what she must.
Besides the final TV episodes, this collection includes the 1999 film The Adolesence of Utena, which is the most bizarre animated movie I’ve ever seen and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful. There is little point in regarding it as a normal movie or trying to make sense of it on those terms. Its imagery and events make the TV series look downright normal, and this is not a retelling of the series so much as it is a fresh interpretation about its meaning. Many relationships are altered, several characters are reduced to minor roles, Akio is largely absent. Everyone is redesigned to look as beautiful and handsome as possible while everything is drawn in vibrant colors and eye-catching detail. Ohtori Academy takes on what I can only call an otherworldly aspect, and all the men and women are as players performing on this dazzling and fantastical stage. The subtitled director’s commentary is well worth listening to for Ikuhara’s take on the film, which basically frames the entire piece as a giant metaphor for youth breaking into adulthood while not being compromised by it and losing the passion and independence that he associates with youth. Key to this entire narrative is its unambiguous portrayal of the Utena / Anthy relationship as a romantic one, beautifully capped off by one of the loveliest dances one can see from the art form. This love story is debatable subtext in the TV series, while here their intense bond is what allows Anthy to literally shatter the boundaries keeping her inside Ohtori and explore the enigmatic new frontier of the “outside world”. In short, love empowers her to be free.
Ultimately, Utena is rightly regarded as a bonafide classic among anime fans years later. As a shoujo anime that genuinely bucked convention and pushed the envelope in terms of both content and creativity, it has no peers. The way it could delve into the darker and uglier part of the human psyche makes it a cousin of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Most admirably, it is a multifaceted series capable of rewarding the viewer proportionally to the to the amount of attention and study he or she is willing to give. More than a few creators and writers in the anime industry could stand to learn from its example as a program that neither talks down to viewers nor relies on didactic and dry dialogue to communicate a concept.