“Once upon a time…” Those first words of the opening monologue of Revolutionary Girl Utena captivated me. It spoke of a place far away in the familiar language of fairy tales and archetypes, but with a princess who wanted to be a prince. Whoever this girl had been, here was a story about her trying to shape her future. “So impressed was she that she vowed to become a prince herself one day. But was that really such a good idea?” In the series, the monologue gets revisited again and again as it gets interpreted and reinterpreted, and every time it repeated itself, I learned more about how stories have power.
I was in high school when I first saw Revolutionary Girl Utena. This was during the big anime boom of the late ‘90s, and I was just starting to be aware of fandom circles and conventions like Otakon. Revolutionary Girl Utena is arguably not an entry-level show for people just getting into anime, but back when anime was 2 or 3 episodes to a VHS tape, you could still find Utena at a local video store and so it was easy to access.
As for me, I was coming off of four years of martial arts training and hating myself for my figure. I hated my curves. I hated my brains. I hated the sexism I faced as the only girl in a technology class, as they told me that my presence and high marks in the class were unfair to the boys. In high school, where everyone starts becoming all too aware of social standings and sex, standing out meant getting harassed.
Stories provided an escape, and I had plenty that I wanted to escape from. I imagined I would become a great writer, so I didn’t have to interact with anyone I didn’t want to. While that hasn’t come true yet, it did bring me some solace. I told myself I was just one of the guys, not preoccupied with superficial nonsense like other girls. I was already using stories as a means to make sense of my situation.
At the time, I was a minor, enduring toxic and abusive situations. I didn’t have much control over my own life, objectively speaking, and so I wanted to use fiction to wrest what agency I could. To remind myself that dragons could be defeated and challenges overcome. That the hero could eventually change the world.
During high school, I strongly identified with Utena. Her struggles with Ohtori Academy initially revolve around arbitrary rules and gender norms such as her wearing a nonstandard boys’ uniform. She is loyal and determined. While she keeps saying she wants to be normal, she finds herself in situations where she is anything but.
But, unlike in other shows, Utena breaks down – and not at the climax of a single episode, but throughout the series in different ways. She tries to protect her best friend Wakaba from bullies and steps in when she sees Saionji slapping Anthy, but she’s also trying to make sense of the world. Utena even has depressive episodes, often due to the expectations placed on her. She is not an all-knowledgeable, all-wise hero who can do no wrong. She gets trapped in what other people expect her to do, and how they expect her to be, and her own conflicting stories about what she wants for herself.
And, strangely, that helped. It meant that I could try and work through my problems too. Change my story. Yes, Utena is a story, but in the end, we are all stories. We are the stories we tell ourselves lying in bed at night, the stories we tell ourselves during the morning commute, the stories our friends and acquaintances tell others about us.
In the case of Revolutionary Girl Utena, we see a lot of the characters’ relationships and how those narratives shape their choices. Every Student Council member has their own character arc spread throughout the story, and supporting characters get time in the spotlight as well. This means exploring Juri’s emotions regarding her first love, the very messy results of homophobia, and the expectations of strength from different places.
When I was in high school, Juri’s arc helped me realise that even though things were going badly for me, maybe I could still move on. I used the language of Utena and how it plays with archetypes and fairy tales to process my life and emotions and change. Managing all that is messy. But the series showed that trying to manage it, trying to exercise agency, to overcome the insecurities and anguish freezing you in your past, was worthwhile.
Now that I’ve grown up, I see things in Revolutionary Girl Utena that I missed as a teenager. In high school I hated how Touga and Saionji ran over the feelings and played on the desires of others; now I see how these characters bought into a toxic idea of power and what being an adult meant. Having grappled with expectations of what being an adult should mean, and how it often falls short of the reality, I see the tragedies in those characters.
Having experienced homophobia and biphobia myself, I see how terrible the interactions are between Juri and Ruka, along with the themes of control and homophobia that run throughout their story.
I see the glimpses of power and agency Anthy wields—it may be passive-aggressive, and I only realised it after watching the show several times, but Anthy knows very well the position she’s in. Her power for most of the series is the power of someone who has been repeatedly abused and who cannot yet manage to leave. And, having been through toxic relationships where I felt pressured to stay, I see that Anthy’s story is one of tenuous survival and an emotionally suffering character.
Instead of seeing romance in these characters’ tragedies, I see anger and control. I recognise behaviour patterns I try not to tolerate. I also wonder about the people in my life who may have had good intentions at some point, but who also got constrained by expectations and toxic masculinity poisoning their actions.
Touga is trying to be what he thinks a powerful adult is, and ends up looking not only ridiculous and pitiful in the end, but making many things worse for those he claims to care about. Saionji hates himself, wants to be something more than just a laughable tag-along, and ends up overcompensating by lashing out in anger and jealousy at those around him. Both of these teenage boys are being controlled in turn by Akio and the social expectations of what being a man, and being a prince, means.
All the messy, intertwining lives and their stories weave together. Once we are aware of all these stories influencing each other, we are able to see a much larger picture than we did before: we start seeing systems and the effect these systems have on each character, as part of a society. We start seeing a social fabric.
Despite the many dark turns the series takes and the difficulties its characters undergo, Utena is a story that ends on a hopeful note. While the series finale leaves the fate of Utena and Anthy ambiguous, the Student Council characters improve themselves and move on from their obsessions.
We see ordinary students talk about what they might do after they leave the school, such as becoming an actress—when previously, leaving the school was associated with death, illness, or some other major event. We see Kozue compliment the young Tsuwabuki and work together with Miki with seemingly no toxic will between them any longer.
Even the proud and jealous Saionji spars in a friendly match with Touga again, neither sniping at the other, and Saionji acknowledging his own mistakes and desire to correct them without blaming anyone nor wallowing in how terrible he is (much like both boys did in the Black Rose Saga). It may be imperfect, but they’re on their way to becoming more balanced individuals.
The most drastic change, however, is with Anthy Himemiya. By the time Anthy puts down her glasses, tells Akio she’ll no longer play his game, and steps across the line dividing campus grounds from the rest of the world, we know how significant and difficult that moment is for her – echoing the difficulty many survivors have in leaving abusive situations and relationships. She is moving into a world which may be scary, but may also be full of color and promise and friendship.
While much of it is a tragedy, it also reflects reality: we can go into something with the best of intentions and still get hurt, still make mistakes, and still hurt others. We may wish to stay in our comfortable, familiar spheres where we have set roles—even if those roles only cause us pain. It is what we do about those mistakes that matter, and we can in fact leave those spheres and roles. Therein is the story that Revolutionary Girl Utena tries to explore.
I hope, now that the 20th anniversary of Revolutionary Girl Utena is upon us, more people discover how powerful such stories can be. That we are all stories, and for some of us, realising we can change our stories, can move on from our past tragedies, is the key to our own small, internal revolutions.