From Takarazuka to Terayama: The influence of queer theater on Revolutionary Girl Utena

By: Clover DeMerritt May 1, 20240 Comments
a shot of Utena, Touga, Saionji, and Anthy in the stage adaptation

Content Warning: Discussions of queerphobia, institutional control over women’s bodies, suicide, transmisogynist stereotypes, child abuse

Spoilers for most of Revolutionary Girl Utena

When I first watched Revolutionary Girl Utena, I made the mistake of thinking I had seen this story before. The lush, Versailles-inspired architecture of the elite high school, secretive machinations of a laughably powerful student council, and a plucky new girl determined to rise above the frivolities of school life and gender norms to realize a destiny for herself were all familiar tropes. Yet my hubris was quickly checked as Utena reaches the dueling arena and all semblances of realism break down. Suddenly, a psych rock opera croons about the “darkness of Sodom” and an “absolute destiny apocalypse,” an illusory upside-down castle hangs overhead, and a sword erupts from the chest of a timid schoolgirl. The dueling arena reveals itself to be a stage where anything can happen, where the trappings of reality are flaunted to reveal the underlying psychological trials hidden by the artifice and theater of the school’s seemingly typical shoujo drama.

Theater weaves throughout Utena’s DNA. Nearly every episode, the Shadow Girls evoke a Greek chorus and revolving colored rose frames pop in like the contours of a stage to explicitly recontextualize scenes. While the influence of theater on Utena isn’t subtle, knowing what specific strains of theater the show references would likely be lost on most viewers (it certainly was on me). Yet uncovering those histories can be like finding little Rosetta Stones to help you parse a show that prides itself on obscurity. 

An image of the shadow plays in Utena

On one hand, Ohtori Academy’s shoujo reference points are rooted in the highly commercialized all-female Takarazuka Revue—a foundational inspiration for shoujo classics like Princess Knight. On the other, Director Ikuhara Kunihiko is an avowed fan of legendary underground playwright and filmmaker  Terayama Shūji, notorious for highlighting the artifice of theater to uncover the fiction inherent in the norms and institutions we’re taught are natural. Notably, both Terayama and Takarazuka are staples of queer theater, but their ways of constructing queerness differ dramatically. Through its loving tribute to and subversion of shoujo norms, Utena shows us how Terayama’s tools of antagonism and abstraction can disrupt the cisheteropatriarchal societal norms embodied and enforced by Takarazuka.

In Beautiful Fighting Girl, author Saito Tamaki traces the lineage of the lady prince in anime directly from the Tarakazuka Revue to Revolutionary Girl Utena. There are many questionable takes in his book, but the lineage Tamaki traces is undeniable. Godfather of manga Tezuka Osamu based Princess Sapphire from Princess Knight off of his experiences watching Takarazuka performances as a child. While it’s debatable whether Ikeda Riyoko took direct influence from Princess Knight when creating shoujo classic Rose of Versailles, Takarazuka has become well-known for staging numerous Rose of Versailles productions into the present day. Utena’s poking and prodding of shoujo tropes is thus in direct conversation with Takarazuka.

Utena with Juri behind her from the Stage play production of Revolutionary Girl Utena
A shot from the Utena stage production

Perhaps the greatest piece of evidence for the influence of Takarazuka on Utena is in Ikuhara’s unwillingness to admit it. There’s a great exchange in the DVD commentary for Episode 38 when Ikuhara and Utena mangaka  Saito Chiho are asked about the Takarazuka overtones to Utena’s world. In classic fashion, Ikuhara vehemently denies any connection, while Saito politely reminds him that they in fact saw Takarazuka productions together when preparing for Utena, also pointing out how “Takarazuka is a part of the foundation of Japanese shoujo manga culture.” Yet Ikuhara explicitly lays out his reticence to make that connection explicit, describing the shoujo connections that would get lost for those unfamiliar with the connotation of girls with swords in Japan:

Ikuhara: When you make something where the plot is about a girl that fights like a boy and with a sword, in Japan everyone would say, “It’s like Rose of Versailles.” Or “It’s like [Princess Knight].” There’s no doubt that’s what they’d say. I was really struggling with that.’”…  I realized what I actually wanted was to do a project where I could compile the shoujo manga or animations with a girl as a main character into one.

When you make something where the plot is about a girl that fights like a boy and with a sword, in Japan everyone would say, “It’s like Rose of Versailles.” Or “It’s like [Princess Knight].” There’s no doubt that’s what they’d say. I was really struggling with that.’”…  I realized what I actually wanted was to do a project where I could compile the shoujo manga or animations with a girl as a main character into one.

Ikuhara Kunihiko

Ironically, Takarazuka as an institution and commercial giant embodies the exact kind of exploitation and policing of queerness Utena goes to great lengths to criticize. 

Takarazuka’s history can be traced back to the commercial desires of railroad magnate Kobayashi Ichizo, who was trying to boost ticket sales and attract families to travel out to the countryside town of Takarazuka at the end of his train line. In contrast to the traditionalism of Kabuki theater, the pomp and circumstance of Western productions were gaining popularity in early 20th Century Japan, and Kobayashi sought to capitalize on this influence. He dreamed up the idea of an all-female revue, also starkly contrasted with Kabuki, which had been strictly all male since the 1600s. Dubbed the Takarazuka Revue, the troupe debuted in 1914 and quickly grew into a massive production, leading to the construction just a decade later of a theater made to fit 3,000 people, and the birth of a cultural and artistic powerhouse that continues into the present day. 

An image of the Rose of Versailles theatre show where a series of French aristocrats in military regalia are pointing a sword in the air, with Lady Oscar in the center
A Takarazuka production of Rose of Versailles

In spite of the queerness inherent in an all-female theater troupe acting out romances in productions like Rose of Versailles or even Gone With the Wind, Kobayashi wanted Takarazuka to reinforce gender norms, not transcend them. Actors were selected from higher class backgrounds and restrictions were placed on their sexual activity. Gender roles within productions often highlighted the power and machismo of the cast performing male roles and the submissiveness of those performing female roles. 

Yet as devoted girls’ Takarazuka clubs popped up and fans from young girls to middle aged women wrote adoring letters to their favorite actors, Kobayashi implemented a number of spoken and unspoken rules to combat any accusations of queerness. In Gender Gymnastics: Performing and Consuming Japan’s Takarazuka Revue, author Leonie Stickland notes how Kobayashi made their motto “Purity, Integrity, and Grace,” restricted contact with fans, and publicly emphasized that because of their experience in Takarazuka, actors would make ideal wives and daughters-in-law. From the start, Takarazuka was a commercial enterprise created by men for the purpose of mainstreaming the archetype of the “good wife, wise mother” to primarily female audiences. 

The hierarchy and competitiveness of Takarazuka’s Top Star System, where those who play male characters compete to be allowed to play the most central roles, has also been criticized for encouraging a culture of abuse. Most recently, Takarazuka management admitted to multiple incidents of harrasment following the suicide of a junior Troupe member who had to endure overwork, and physical abuse and bullying from senior members. Revue Starlight, created by Ikuhara protege Furukawa Tomohiro, makes this critique explicit by repurposing Utena’s arbitrary duel system as an analogy for the brutal competition of the Top Star System. 

While Revue Starlight’s setting makes this connection explicit, Utena clearly reflects a similar critique of Takarazuka the institution. Ohtori Academy operates on a similar level, with Chairman Akio acting as his own brand of Kobayashi. Throughout the show, Akio uses manipulation and abuse to encourage any relationship, whether queer or straight, that could promote a culture of conflict and competition. He then, under the alias of End of the World, presents the dueling system as the only feasible way of managing relationship conflicts through outright violence, which only serves to reinforce his dominance while giving the winners a temporary sense of power and status. 

Utena, Anthy, and Touga at the top of the dueling arena

Like Takarazuka, in Ohtori Academy queerness is acceptable insofar as it serves Akio’s interest of domination and control. The second Utena and Anthy’s romance disrupts the patriarchal roles of dominant prince and submissive bride, the foundation of Akio’s system collapses. In the show’s last minutes, the once omnisciently powerful Akio is left sputtering as he begs for Anthy to come back as she walks out of Ohtori to pursue Utena in the world outside of his control. His entire system of domination rests on the obedience of one girl. Despite this mirroring of the Takarazuka system, Utena navigates its commentary on Takarazuka and by extension shoujo culture with nuance. Utena’s dramatic costuming, the staging of characters even when they’re not dueling, and the over-the-top theatrics of Ohtori Academy’s drama are all part and parcel of what makes Utena’s aesthetics so appealing. Even while critiquing its system of power and patriarchy, Utena revels in Takarazuka’s aesthetic charms. 

We can’t understand how Utena makes that critique without looking at the absolutely essential influence of Teryama Shūji to Utena’s visual language and ideological undercurrents. Where Ikuhara is defensive of any whiff of comparison to Rose of Versailles or Takarazuka, he gushes about his debt to Terayama, attributing his “desire to surprise” within all of his anime to the surprise he felt watching Terayama’s plays as a young boy. 

Terayama Shūji occupied a liminal space in the chaotic ‘60s of Japan, when numerous student-led protests fought exploitative university conditions, exposed the culpability of Japan in American imperialism, and fed off the alienation of youth in a rapidly commercializing country. While the late ‘60s social and civil rights upheavals in America and France are well known, much less attention is paid to Japan’s own 1968. Medical students at the University of Tokyo went on strike in 1968 in protest of unpaid internships, igniting a cascade of student protests across Japan’s major universities (and even high schools) where many students barricaded themselves in and effectively took control of many of the country’s most prestigious academic institutions. 

a Japanese student protest during the 1960s where many students are crouched down all wearing helmets and pointing large sticks in one direction
Students barricading themselves during the Japanese student protests of the 1960s

Japan’s student movement was a cultural and social flashpoint, and Terayama’s experimental theater troupe Tenjō Sajiki was one of its biggest influences and harshest critics. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, he embodies both an outsider’s view towards Japan’s student protestors, stating that he “wanted to write about a young person who dwells in this politicized era and yet feels completely disconnected from it.” In his infamously transgressive radio drama (later turned into a film) Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Terayama depicts a group of Marxist child revolutionaries, who overthrow abusive parents only to find themselves unable to decide on a path forward for what to do next, eventually deciding on torturing, sexually assaulting, and killing the adults. Leftist and conservative groups railed against both the radio drama and the film, released in 1960 and 1970 respectively. In his book The Anti-Establishment Art of Terayama Shuji, author Steven Ridgley includes a quote from Terayama, who clarified that he viewed the project as “a satire of people who support a romantic revolution without any clear vision,” and “a satire of the Zengakuren [student movement] and sympathy toward them.”

Yet in spite of his pointed criticism, Terayama’s experimental and antagonistic approach to theater embodied the student movement’s opposition to the existing norms and expectations of Japanese society. As students took their protests to the streets, Terayama’s troupe followed, using every conceivable opportunity to tear down the barriers between actors and audience, art and reality. Some of the more spectacular attempts at this included their production Jinriki hikōki Soromon, which provided attendees with a map of Tokyo and a list of times of intermittent performances in different public spaces, making it impossible for anyone to see the entire play. In another instance, 1972’s Knock led its audience on a tour through a suburban Tokyo bathhouse and surrounding areas, to the considerable chagrin of neighbors.

In its content, their 1967 production La-Marie Vison embodies the stark contrast between Takarazuka and Terayama’s approach to queerness. La-Marie Vison explores the relationship between Marie, who is either a trans woman or a crossdresser (unclear given the subtitles I could find), and an 18-year-old boy named Kinya whom she treats as a son. Marie (initially played by legendary Japanese drag queen Akihiro Miwa) refuses to let Kinya venture outside and instead traps him in a fantasy world, painting butterflies, letting them loose inside, and then having him spend his days catching them and relaying fantasies of the far-flung locales he visited to find his “exotic” specimens. Given the fact that she’s abusive, you could easily make the case that Marie is a transmisogynist depiction of a predatory trans woman. But Marie’s queerness plays a much more nuanced role.

A series of images from La Marie Vision
A pamphlet of images from Terayama’s play La-Marie Vision

Marie is given space to rail against many oppressive institutions, referring to schools as prisons (a common critique by student groups), pointing out that masculinity is a role as much as being a policeman or a sailor, and in one scene eloquently calling out the idea of cisheterosexuality as natural: 

“It seems that the people of the world say I’m unnatural; that I’m fake; that I go against the will of god. But it’s those very same people who think nothing of planting flower seeds in a garden. 10-cents-a-bag seeds that have nothing at all to do with god. But they don’t consider this defiling nature. No, there is nothing in the world that is of any real worth, at least not in its natural state!”

Marie, from Terayama’s La-Marie Vision

Here we see echoes of Terayama’s similar critique of the student movement. Marie’s queerness provides her with a perspective that sees right through the artificiality of gender norms and cisheteropatriarchy as an institution. Yet rather than being liberated, Marie reproduces the cycle of oppression for Kinya. Terayama’s work, more than just depicting queerness, interrogates the actual experiences of being queer within a queerphobic society, however messily. 

Where Takarazuka used the spectacle of theater to reinforce social norms while often benefitting from the queer subtext it sought to suppress, Terayama used the artificiality of theater and transgressive, nakedly queer themes to illuminate the fiction of the stories we’re told by those in power, and in doing so charting opportunities to create an alternative. 

A shot from the film Pastoral of two people sitting on a tatami mat with a disembodied finger pointing at the sky
A still from Terayama’s Pastoral, To Die in the Country. Note the finger

I would be remiss not to mention just how overt Terayama’s influence is in Utena’s visual language. The classic pointy finger featured throughout Utena is lifted from Terayama’s 1974 film, Pastoral, To Die in the Country. Similar to Miki’s stopwatch, Terayama also comes back to the imagery of clocks and time frequently, and generally Ikuhara and Terayama revel in a phantasmagoria of nonlinear surreal storytelling and symbolism to convey meaning. 

An image of mikage, a young pinkhaired man in glasses and a dress shirt, looking away from a framed butterfly with a disembodied finger pointing at it
A shot from Utena. Note the finger again.

Utena mirrors Terayama’s core critique of institutions and skepticism towards revolutionaries. Utena and even some of the Student Council members acknowledge the cruel and arbitrary nature of the dueling system, yet only attempt to conquer that institution by participating in its power games. Utena also attempts to “liberate” Anthy by forcing her own expectations on her to make friends and become independent in the same way Utena has. She thus exerts control over Anthy in a similar fashion to Akio, but with the self-satisfaction of feeling like a savior. Ikuhara sees shoujo, and thus Takarazuka, and the archetype of the lady prince as institutions that provide some room for liberation, yet ultimately create the same outcomes they’re trying to transgress. 

Despite the differences, Takarazuka and Terayama overlap in the spectacle they bring to the stage. Tenjō Sajiki composer J.A. Seazer, who Ikuhara would later hire to create Utena’s dueling themes, crafted operatic psychedelic rock scores for the plays, giving them an almost musical-like feel that complemented the extravagant costuming and set designs (when there were sets). Takarazuka, though starkly divergent in its aesthetics and themes, similarly plays up the spectacle of theater as entertainment, highlighting drama through the elaborate stage productions, acting styles, and songwriting.

Ikuhara is explicit about wanting to reflect the combination of these seemingly disparate elements: “Terayama’s plays were underground theater, but they also had Revue-like elements. He would create chaos from the combination of two things that absolutely don’t belong together, revues, which are entertainment, and angura [a style of underground theater].”

The contrast in these influences is even apparent in Utena’s stage productions. Take the 1997 adaptation Comedie Musicale Utena la fillette révolutionnaire, for example, which features an all-female cast with numerous Takarazuka elements. The story hilariously, perfectly, strips back any of the thematic nuance of the show in service of re-creating the duels and relationship between Utena and Anthy as a lavish musical. The actress playing Utena is a former Takarazuka performer, even once playing Oscar in a stage production of Rose of Versailles. Compare that to 1999’s adaptation Revolutionary Girl Utena Hell Rebirth Apocalypse: Advent of the Nirvanic Beauty, created by a production company headed by Ei Takatori, one of Terayama’s collaborators. Instead of even attempting a direct retelling of Utena’s plot, this play featured such additions as Anthy blasting a machine gun at an undead army. The tradition of adapting Utena to the stage continues into the present day as theater directors continue to find new themes to explore and playful ways of reimagining Utena’s fever dream of a world. 

an image of a stage with several students in mummy-like dressing
The only visual evidence we have of the legendary Anthy vs Zombies play

Utena is a show that revels in contradiction, antagonizing and interrogating audience expectations with a sly grin. Ikuhara and the rest of the Be-Papas team created a conversation between the polished spectacle of Takarazuka and Terayama’s oppositional antics to stand out from the long line of lady princes and shoujo classics Utena was inevitably compared to. More than 25 years after its debut, Utena still surprises and stands out for lovingly skewering the dominant narratives of queer liberation that leave the status quo comfortably intact. 

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