We’re very pleased to announce that our trial podcast episode received such positive feedback that we’ve decided to make it a regular feature!
Thank you to everyone who gave us feedback and suggested future topics (which you are still very welcome to do). We already have two new episodes edited and ready to go, and have scheduled in more recording sessions. We’ve all really enjoyed the process, and are thrilled that you’re enjoying the results of our work!
For this episode: In its 20th anniversary year, Caitlin, Dee and Vrai talk about a series they have all loved and analyzed for many years: the game-changing Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Date Recorded: Sunday 19th February 2017
Hosts: Caitlin, Dee, Vrai
0:00 Intro: How did everyone first watch Utena?
06:15 The dub and localization
10:32 Characterization, worldbuilding, themes and thesis
20:11 Japanese and western cultural context
26:30 The impact of watching Utena at different ages and in different decades
31:24 The handling of unsympathetic characters: Nanami, Saionji, Touga
37:45 Subverting 90s/shojo tropes of romance and sexuality
45:50 Anthy’s character
50:45 Director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s other works
55:43 The staying power of Utena and its fandom
1:04:49 Outro: Where you can find Caitlin, Dee and Vrai’s work
VRAI: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Chatty AF, the Anime Feminist podcast. My name is Vrai Kaiser, writer, contributor, and occasional editor for AniFem. And this week, we are doing a retrospective for Revolutionary Girl Utena’s 20th anniversary. And with me are Caitlin Moore and Dee Hogan.
CAITLIN: Hi, I’m Caitlin.
DEE: Hi, I’m Dee.
VRAI: We’ll save plugs for the end, but what do you guys do for the site?
CAITLIN: I moderate. I edit. I will contribute, just not yet.
DEE: She’s working on a big intro post. You know, make a big splash.
VRAI: Don’t say that, oh God.
DEE: [laugh] No pressure, though!
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Don’t do things halfway.
DEE: Yeah, um… I’m sort of the contributor liaison, I guess? I also do writing and just some general organizational stuff for us. I keep the Trello board going, and make sure that we get the contributors assigned to editors, and all that good stuff.
VRAI: [deadpan] A peek behind the curtain. It’s all very exciting.
DEE: [deadpan] It is. It’s… riveting back here.
VRAI: Oh, before we go any further because, God, I hate to hear about this kind of thing: I have neutral pronouns because people always think my voice sounds weirdly feminine. That’s enough of that social justice business.
VRAI: But as I said, the point of convening this podcast today is basically for us to geek out about Utena. And it is a handy excuse that it has been 20 years since its initial release, now.
CAITLIN: Geez, yeah.
VRAI: I know, right?
DEE: That’s pretty crazy. It’s been what, for me, like fifteen years since the first time I saw it, I think? Maybe even longer than that.
CAITLIN: Something like that for me, too, yeah.
VRAI: You guys—
DEE: [crosstalk] Sixteen, yeah, sixteen years.
VRAI: I am in fact the baby here. I didn’t see it ‘til 2009. I found it during that unfortunate dead space between when Central Park Media had closed its doors but before Nozomi rescued the license, so I watched—
CAITLIN: You know what? Actually, that is not the worst time to have come into it.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Oh really?
DEE: [crosstalk] I was gonna say: “Vrai, you are like a little baby. Watch this.”
CAITLIN: Yeah, because… because for a very long time Central Park Media released the first arc, but then they went… What, about a decade without releasing anything else?
DEE: Yeah, it was years. They lost the license or something and then they… So we just didn’t get the Black Rose and the Apocalypse Saga for years in any form in the U.S. So if you wanted—
VRAI: [crosstalk] How?! How does that happen?
DEE: Yeah, again, some kind of licensing issue. ‘Cause then somebody else licensed the movie. So we had the movie before we had the rest of the TV series, I’m pretty sure.
CAITLIN: Yeah. Eventually they did get all of it, though.
CAITLIN: I remember ’cause I bought the full series boxset when I was in college.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Oh, I remember those. They’re very pastel.
CAITLIN: It came with a T-shirt.
CAITLIN: Yeah, men’s extra large, black, with a print of that official art where Utena has both Touga and Saionji clinging to her—
VRAI: The weird three-way art?!
DEE: Why would that be the shirt of choice?!
VRAI: No homo, though. That’s the most “no homo” art they could pick.
DEE: I guess!
VRAI: That’s not technically incest.
CAITLIN: Yeah, there’s not a whole lot of art they can use from the show that’s not technically incest.
VRAI: Yeah. Wow, I thought that I had an Adventure Watch… So, I definitely did watch most of the Black Rose Saga desperately utilizing my bad high school Spanish skills because those were the only subtitles available, but.
DEE: Oh my gosh. That’s pretty fantastic. Yeah, no, my friend and I, we watched… We got the originals on VHS at a local store, and then we were like, “Well, we have to find the rest of it now.” So we went on our very first—we’re like, I think seventh-graders at this point?—our first-ever eBay Quest to track down the rest of the series.
And we found some guy selling CD-ROMs with fansubs on them. And so we had those shipped to our house and we pulled the couch up to the computer and we huddled around the computer and watched the last two cour of Utena. That is how we did it, was via fansubs.
VRAI: Oh, that’s precious.
CAITLIN: I… [chuckles]
DEE: That was the moment—I remember we popped the disc in and we looked at each other and we went, “Okay, this is the point of no return. We’re giant nerds and it’s never gonna get better.” [laughs] And yeah, that was… that was how I watched Utena the first time.
VRAI: And this is not a show you want unreliable subs for.
CAITLIN: No, it’s not. Like… So, when I watched it, I checked out a couple of VHS copies of the first couple of volumes from Blockbuster. And that was how I saw the first few episodes. And then I went for quite a while without seeing the rest of even the Student Council Saga.
DEE: Oh, wow.
CAITLIN: But when I went to Anime Expo one year, it was the year that all of the, uh… ‘cause, VHS copies were like 30 bucks each.
VRAI: Oh, God, yes.
DEE: [crosstalk] Oh, yeah.
CAITLIN: And I didn’t have that kind of money. I didn’t get an allowance in high school, so it was just out of the question. But then one year, I went to Anime Expo and they were having all those close-outs on the VHS ‘cause DVD was coming in hot. And so I bought the rest of what was out, which wasn’t much. It was just the Student Council Saga at that stage. But, uh…
DEE: Did you—?
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Two of the videos I got were dubbed.
VRAI: [laughs] Oh! Oh no!
DEE: [crosstalk] I was gonna ask, did you get ‘em dubbed or subbed. So you watched part of it dubbed? I watched the entire first cour dubbed because there just wasn’t a subtitled version available to us.
VRAI: Oh no.
CAITLIN: [sighs] Yeah, that dub is… that dub is famously bad.
VRAI: Yeah it’s not good. I’m a fan of dubs but it’s not a good dub at all.
CAITLIN: Yeah! Like, I like dubs. But…
DEE: Yeah, I enjoy dubs. I honestly have kind of a weird fondness for it because there’s a few voice actors in it who I really like—and it’s not their best work by any stretch.
VRAI: Crispin Freeman, I’m guessing?
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] I would say, like, Crispin Freeman nailed Touga.
DEE: [crosstalk] Uh-huh. Rachel Lillis does a really good job with Utena.
CAITLIN and VRAI: [skeptical noises]
DEE: I liked her. Again, not her best work, but I liked her as Utena. But the person who played Anthy was just bad.
VRAI: I will say that I find it unfitting and yet kind of amazing that Dan Green plays Mikage. [pause; chuckles] Yeah, it’s amazing.
DEE: Huh. I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen The Black Rose dubbed.
VRAI: I mean, like, don’t. Don’t.
DEE: [crosstalk] Don’t, definitely.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] I never watched past the Student Council dubbed.
DEE: Because I think I kinda tried and I really didn’t like the guy they got to play Akio, and then I caught a little bit of Mikage and wasn’t really feeling it. And then I was like, “You know what, I’ll just watch this in subs. The subtitle cast is incredible. So let’s just do that.”
CAITLIN: Oh man, Tomoko Kawakami as Utena just blew me away. God, just…
VRAI: Destroys my soul. Agh.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Rest in peace, though, rest in peace. Because she passed away a few years ago.
DEE: I remember.
DEE: [crosstalk] That was sad.
CAITLIN: Have you guys ever heard of Ursula’s Kiss?
VRAI: Isn’t that the UK release of the movie?
CAITLIN: No. Well, I don’t know, maybe. But it is an alternate universe version of Utena…
CAITLIN: …Where all the names are changed. [laughs] The world of anime licensing is really strange and confusing, and there’s all these intermediary companies and one of them picked up the Utena license to sell to dubbing companies. And I guess they did, like, sample plot summaries, and they changed all of the names.
CAITLIN: Like, Utena was Ursula. Let me see if I can find…
VRAI: That is… like, above everything else that is ‘90s localization, that’s the name you wanna sell your heroine under within five years of The Little Mermaid?
DEE: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.
CAITLIN: [laughs] [crosstalk] Oh my gosh… well, Utena Becoming Ursula isn’t even the worst one. There is also, uh… Mikage was Sonny.
CAITLIN: Mitsuru was Mitch.
DEE: At least that one kind of makes sense. You can see how they got to that name.
CAITLIN: Wakaba is Wanda.
VRAI: It starts with the same letter, that’s all the ‘90s dubs required.
DEE: Pretty much, yeah.
CAITLIN: [laughing over them] Sonny is the one that kills me.
VRAI: Please at least tell me they called Touga, like, Tommy or something. ‘Cause that’s the most ‘90s move you could do.
Cailtin: It might have… YES!
CAITLIN: Yes, it was, actually!
VRAI: I know my ‘90s dubs.
CAITLIN: Sally was… er, Shiori became Sally, and Saionji became… Simon.
DEE: That kinda fits him! I can see that.
VRAI: That is a young man who plays lacrosse and has a sweater tied around his shoulders… Yeah, that works for Saionji.
DEE: Yeah, it does. It’s a very punch-able name, so that works. [chuckles]
VRAI: I have a certain soft spot for Saionji—
DEE: [crosstalk] I do, too.
VRAI: —but also there’s no denying he’s such a prick.
DEE: Yeah, no, I have… it’s your fault, Vrai, I now have a huge sympathetic soft spot for Saionji. When we did the recent re-watch. Yeah, now I have a ridiculous amount of sympathy for him.
VRAI: Yeah, Saionji is one of those characters that, like, in real life, is not a person that you should have to deal with in any way while they’re causing hell for the rest of People In Life, and are just terrible. But in fiction, you can take a step back and be like, “Well, okay, you are also the victim of terrible toxic masculinity and a system that’s jerking you all over the place.”
DEE: Yeah, that’s one of the things I really love about Utena is, I feel that way about pretty much every character. There’s that element of—even the ones where you’re like, “I would want nothing to do with you in the real world and you’re kind of awful”—they do such a good job of fleshing out their back stories and showing how they got to be where they are and what their motivations are, that you end up sympathizing with just about everybody at some point.
VRAI: Even if they’re awful.
DEE: Yeah, even if they’re really bad.
VRAI: Except Akio, who I think just is awful, but is also really fun to watch.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Yeah.
DEE: [crosstalk] I hate Akio… There is the one moment though, when you get their back story, where you kinda feel bad for him.
VRAI: Oh yeah, I suppose we should go… I mean if you’ve made it this far then you’re probably fine, but we are definitely going Full Spoilers with this.
CAITLIN: Oh yeah.
DEE: [crosstalk] So we assume—
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] We can’t talk about Utena without spoiling it.
DEE: So we assume if you’re listening to this, you know what we’re talking about. So…
VRAI: You’ve received the secret code. You checked under your mailbox in the bird’s nest.
CAITLIN: Yeah, whenever I recommend Utena to people who haven’t watched it, I’m just like, “Oh, it’s this incredible feminist work.” But I cannot explain why, ’cause I honestly think going in as fresh as possible with Utena is the best way to do it. Like, some stuff is with… spoilers… but whenever I talk about it… it’s just like, “Go in, just trust me, just watch it. I know it’s gonna seem really rough for a while, but just go watch it.”
VRAI: It is interesting because I know my… I told my girlfriend I was doing this podcast and she mentioned she watched the show probably around when you guys did, and had a real hard time with those first few episodes, because she kind of figured they were doing a “not like other girls” thing with Utena and Anthy.
CAITLIN: That’s interesting ’cause that’s actually something I’ve been thinking about lately, is how—and I’m sure this applies to other people—my relationship with the character Utena changed as I grew up. And at first she really did appeal to me as a sort of “not like other girls” character.
DEE: Yeah, no, I agree with that too. ‘Cause I think I related to that a lot growing up, because I didn’t really do the sort of traditionally expected feminine behaviors, dress, things like that, you know. I wanted to play basketball with the guys and I wanted to hang out with my friends and not worry about going on dates and so… I didn’t… because I was thirteen the first time I watched it, I didn’t really get the deeper levels of the series. But having that character who was heroic and the protagonist and I was able to relate to them like that still meant a lot to me, even though I didn’t fully understand the feminist messages that were kind of embodied in the story.
VRAI: Well and I think Utena is a character you can grow up with because she is a good person, she tries her best; it’s just that so many of her problems stem from the fact that she’s selfish in a way that’s pretty natural for young people before you kind of learn to empathize with others.
CAITLIN: Right, she’s fourteen.
VRAI: Right. She is a dumb, dumb baby. They all are.
CAITLIN: Right. And all of the characters except for Akio, they do this awful shit, but it’s all because they don’t know better. And that’s, honestly, that’s the stated thesis of the show, it’s about how adulthood can be a corrupting influence.
VRAI: And yet adolescence is this sort of savage garden where you just… you mean well, and you are this gestating object of potential, to use their weird egg metaphor.
DEE: I was gonna say: a chick in an egg, mayhaps?
VRAI: Yes, mayhaps!
VRAI: But also you have this concept of, because you’re in a shell, you can’t see other people who are not yourself and that causes you to do cruel things.
CAITLIN and DEE: Mm-hm.
VRAI: This is probably a good point to ask because I always think it’s sort of an interesting reflection on… Who’s your favorite character?
DEE: Okay, so, “favorite” just in terms of—
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] That’s a hard question.
DEE: —’Cause like, to me, I guess—I have a favorite character who’s the character I enjoy and who I like. And then there’s also the favorites who are the characters who are the most interesting to me, even though I wouldn’t necessarily wanna hang out with them on a weekend.
DEE: So, in terms of just pure favorite—and maybe this is boring—but I just really like Utena. I always have, and I think I always will. She… her growth throughout the story is very inspiring to me. And again, it seems like every time I’ve watched the show, something about that character has resonated with me.
And like you said, she’s short-sighted and she’s naive and she does some things sort of selfishly even though she’s trying to do things for other people, and so she is… She is an admirable figure too, despite her flaws, and I’ve just always liked that about her. So I think that would be my knee-jerk, “my heart says” favorite character—
VRAI: [crosstalk] Aww.
DEE: —would be Utena.
CAITLIN: Yeah, I agree. Utena is… they’re all really great characters, but Utena is just so close to my heart. She really… She’s out there, she’s doing her best, she’s fucking up. I mean she’s just… seeing her try so hard and so hard and so hard, and seeing her just so destroyed at the end… is really hard.
VRAI: This is why we actually need the movie.
CAITLIN: But yeah, she’s really always resonated with me in that way ’cause I’m a person who tries hard and tries hard and then finds out that I’ve been fucking up all along. [laughs]
VRAI: Hashtag relatable.
DEE: But then when she figures that out, she does what she can to change and to try to make things better. And I think that that’s… I think, as far as realistic heroic characters go, that’s probably the best. Because a perfect character isn’t really… you’re never gonna reach that level, so they’re not really somebody you can admire and try to strive towards. I think it’s better to have a flawed person, who realizes when they fuck up and then tries to do what they can to fix it, ’cause that’s probably the best any of us can do at the end of the day.
VRAI: Well, and Utena is great because it feels like her arc is really entrenched in and responding to the world and the stakes in that world, while I think a lot of—especially in shounen—and I know this is shoujo but it has shounen elements with all the tournament shit and all… A lot of those protagonists feel very stock in a way that isn’t quite so responsive to what’s going on around them. They all have basically the same arc. Whereas Utena’s desire to be the prince and to help people to be the prince doesn’t happen without the very specific environment of Ohtori.
DEE: Yeah, that’s a good point. And that’s a good thing that the entirety of Utena does, is every character is very much a product of their—like, they’re all individuals with their own personalities and goals, but they’re also very much a product of this Prince/Princess/Witch dynamic that’s sort of been infused in their world. But yeah, that does… Utena is very much… she’s the perfect main character for this story, too, not just like in general, as a good kind of character.
VRAI: Utena is a great protagonist, but I don’t know that she would be as great of a protagonist in any other story.
DEE: Yeah, I think I see what you mean there.
DEE: She’s very much for this piece of fiction, definitely.
CAITLIN: Yeah, and that’s honestly one of the strengths of the show, I think, is that every character is so perfectly crafted for their role, but none of it feels forced?
CAITLIN: I wouldn’t say that anything in Utena exactly feels organic…
VRAI: No, ’cause it’s a very deliberately—by design, it’s constructed, everything is fake. It’s Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, as long as we’re getting pretentious.
DEE: Yeah, but it is. It all kind of feels like it’s happening on a stage. Like the school—one of the things I noticed in my most recent rewatch that I really enjoyed was, you never really see people move from one room of the school to the next. It’s more like the set changes behind them. So you don’t really get a feel for how the school is connected because it doesn’t appear to be, and so it kinda gives it that sense of everything is very much a story, a play. It’s the shadow puppet girls. But the characters themselves still feel real despite being in this very clearly fictional world.
VRAI: Right. They become real as they struggle against the roles they’ve been assigned.
DEE: Exactly, yeah.
CAITLIN: Right, and the concept of struggling against the role that you’re born into is something that’s very… culturally, in Japan, it’s a lot more subversive than I feel like it would seem to us as people in the U.S. Because that concept of “wa”—the concept that you should accept the role that you were born into and to do your best in it, even if it’s not personally what you want, personally what you feel like would be the most comfortable place for you. So they’re given these roles and they’re expected to grow into them. They’re expected to become adults who are continuing to play this out and they have to learn how to fight against it.
VRAI: It’s interesting, because it is a very Japanese thought or ethos that concerns this show at its core, and yet at the same time it feels like a very worldly series because it borrows… like, you know, Demian and gnosticism is very… well, Demian specifically is very German, and World War I… and it uses a lot of Western fairy tale tropes. But this underpinning philosophy is very central to where the anime was made.
DEE: But at the same time… I’ve seen a lot of people, they don’t wanna put Utena on their short list of shows you give somebody as a starter anime.
DEE: And I would agree it’s definitely not, like, the first show I would show somebody, but it was… I had only seen three or four other anime before I saw Utena, and maybe ’cause I was younger and so the weirdness of it didn’t really click for me because I hadn’t been exposed to as much fiction at that point…
But I feel like, because there is so much about it that’s drawn from Western fairy tales, and the school itself is kind of Greco-Roman style, I think it’s one where you can give it to somebody and they don’t necessarily have to know a bunch about Japanese culture to be able to jump into it.
And so in that regard, I don’t necessarily see it as… I see it as a decent “starter show” because it’s not like, “Okay, well, here’s a book about Japanese culture that you should probably read so you understand how schools work, and how…” you know what I mean?
DEE: You don’t really need that with Utena. It’s very much got this kind of international, almost Western—there’s enough in there that you can jump into it and kind of understand where they’re drawing from. Which I think is cool because you guys were talking about how it has this kind of Japanese core to it, in terms of accepting your roles. But then you realize that those Prince/Princess stories are so deeply embedded in our own culture that maybe this idea of sticking to your role is a lot stronger in our own societies than we maybe like to pretend it is.
CAITLIN: It’s true, it’s true. Yeah, I would say that Utena has a fairly high barrier to entry, but the barrier to entry isn’t cultural, necessarily. It’s just sort of the willingness to go along with it and to do the level of reading that it takes to really get the show.
‘Cause it’s not a show that you just kind of sit back and watch. It’s a show that you have to think about to get. Which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend to someone just when… I wouldn’t hand it to someone if they sought it out just as they’re getting into anime as a medium. I don’t think it would be a problem, but I wouldn’t be like, “Oh, you’re getting into anime. I know this great one.”
VRAI: I will say that I don’t think… I mean, I think it definitely is a show that a person who hasn’t watched a lot of anime could write off as “That’s a weird anime thing, because I have escaped from the ’90s where the only anime that exists is Urotsukidoji and Pokemon!”
CAITLIN: “And Ninja Scroll!”
VRAI: Oh my God! [laughs] But the real barrier, I think, is an ability to read visual media. I had a friend who absolutely adored this series who had almost never watched any anime except for, like, Akira and the occasional Miyazaki movie, who just adored it, and she was an art film student.
And I think the show does want to help it’s reader; like a lot of the Black Rose Saga exists to take the viewer by the hand and teach them how to read visual symbolism with the pointing hands and stuff.
CAITLIN: Yeah. [chuckles]
VRAI: But it’s still… it still can be—to someone who’s just had high school English and maybe knows the very basics of reading symbolism in text but not in a visual medium—it’s just fucking opaque.
CAITLIN: Yeah, exactly. You have to be able to really read visual language, which a lot of people don’t develop the literacy with, whether it’s because they’re used to being passive viewers, or sometimes there’s an element of snobbery to it, like people who think that the written word is inherently superior to the visual image.
VRAI: Yeah, as an actual published writer, I’m going to go ahead and call bullshit on that.
DEE: Yeah. [laughs]
CAITLIN: Yeah, same. That’s a fight I’ve gotten into with a few people.
DEE: Wow. Yeah, no, the visual work in that show is incredible. I actually give Utena a lot of credit because, the first time I watched it, I had not taken that high school English course, and I give Utena a lot of credit for… without me even realizing it, kind of teaching me how to spot recurring images or figure out what a metaphor is or how this thing relates to this thing later in the story. It was a weird primer, I guess, again as a middle school kid kind of jumping into it.
But I think maybe that’s why I tend to not be as, “Oh, well, make sure you understand how visual imagery works when you watch this, otherwise you won’t get it.” Because I watched it when I was thirteen and I didn’t completely get it, but I loved it. And, again, it was because I was able to connect with the characters, and their journeys, and teasing out the mystery of what’s going on at Ohtori Academy.
And so the thing I love about Utena and the reason I kind of shy away from that idea of, like, “Well don’t watch it unless you’re really willing to dig into it that first time through” is because I think you can enjoy it on a very… just, based on “here are some really interesting people at a weird school, trying to live their lives,” with the central friendship that turns into a romance and the way the different characters interact with each other.
VRAI: If I hear one more comment about how Utena and Anthy are just friends I am going to have to kick somebody off of something tall.
DEE: I’m sorry, I was that person.
CAITLIN: Me too, I’m sorry.
DEE: We apologize.
VRAI: I, as the stand-in for the entire queer community, hereby give you my absolving blessing.
DEE: Well, thank you.
DEE: I try to give myself a little bit of leeway on that because, as an ace kid who didn’t know they were ace, it was really important for me to have friendship stories.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Yeah no, that’s legit.
DEE: So I think that’s the main reason I really clung to, like, “No, no, Utena and Anthy are really good friends, you can have a really good friendship story, it’s not all about romance guys, GAWD.” I definitely had that pushback against stories like that.
And I wasn’t that way all the time. When I watched the movie, I was like, “Oh yeah, no, they’re totally in a romance in the movie.” But I saw them as different stories, so I didn’t see a problem with that being a romance and the series being a friendship story.
But now I rewatch it and I’m like, “Oh, this is a beautiful little romance.” So I have no problem with it now.
VRAI: [quietly] Sweet babies.
CAITLIN: But going back to the visual language thing, I almost think that your willingness to go with it has a lot to do with how young you were when you watched it. ‘Cause it was the same thing for me. I watched it when I was really young. I was just like, “Well this is kind of weird, but it’s cool, so I’m just gonna go with it.” But I feel like an adult would have a different reaction to it. Adults are a little bit less open-minded about things if they’re not trained to think in a certain way.
DEE: Yeah, I guess if you’re not already used to abstract or visually strange media, then jumping in to Utena would be very… kind of surprising and off-putting.
CAITLIN: Yeah. Utena was actually almost my intro to that sort of approach, because when I was in college, I had to take a composition course, but the composition courses all had different themes and the one I took was “high school movies since the 1980s.” And one of the supplementary movies that you could choose to watch and write about for credit was Adolescence of Utena.
VRAI: [gasping] What?
DEE: Oh, wow.
CAITLIN: Yeah, the professor was like a big anime geek.
VRAI: [laughs] Yeah, I guess.
CAITLIN: But this was the class that he walked in the first day doing a Napoleon Dynamite impression for five minutes—
DEE: Oh, my gosh.
VRAI: And then he turned his chair around backwards.
CAITLIN: I mean, he was a grad student, so he was younger. But I did my first ten-page term paper about the use of cars as visual metaphor in the TV show and in the movie, and comparing those. So Utena was really… It was sort of the first thing that I really looked at that way, speaking in terms of visuals. So yeah, that’s just… Utena has been my “first thing” for a lot of different stuff.
DEE: Yeah, I definitely feel that too.
VRAI: I wonder if there is an element that it helped to… I definitely think that you’re right, it’s one of those shows that you need something going in—either a familiarity with anime or a willingness to watch it as—you know, visual language, or what… But you can’t go into it blind, with none of these things.
But I do wonder if it changes things for, say, a younger audience to watch it now who isn’t as familiar with the ’80s and even early ’90s anime that it was responding to. Because I caught a glimpse of somebody who was watching it for the first time, who I think is a little bit younger, and was asking questions about, “Well, is it really necessary to have all this incest in here?” Maybe not necessarily knowing that “Yes, yes, this is a very pertinent comment on how anime then—and now, but worse—tends to play with the theory of those lines, but when you actually confront the reality of what that would look like, that’s not, that’s… No, that’s an unpleasant and abusive thing.”
And Nanami is my favorite character and I may have feels about that entire arc.
DEE: I was gonna ask. I was like, “We haven’t gotten Vrai’s favorite character yet. I can’t imagine who it is.”
VRAI: She’s so awful but she’s also so pathetic, and I really love the fact that she’s a foil to Anthy in a quiet way that the series never really overtly comments on. But there’s just that quiet secondary arc going on where Anthy just hates her, but is also kind of trying to help her.
CAITLIN: Yeah, she’s younger than everyone else so she just does a lot of really… really dumb shit. Like—she’s like, what—
VRAI: [crosstalk] [pained laughter] She did kill a kitten. I can’t let it go for—she did kill a kitten!
DEE: [sighs] She did.
CAITLIN: Yeahhh, she did.
VRAI: I mean kids are the worst, but… I just feel so… I feel like after… she’s maybe the person who might get out next because she came so far in one run.
DEE: Yeah, rewatching it was really fun with Nanami ’cause she’s one of those characters where the first time… Again, when you’re thirteen and you’re like, “Ugh, that kid,” ’cause you’re at about the same age she is. It’s really easy to just hate her and be really happy when bad things happen to her. So “Take Care, Miss Nanami” was a really cathartic episode, ’cause it’s like, “Yeah, you take that, mean girl!”
VRAI: Yeah, no, Nanami is definitely one of those characters where in real life, and especially if you’re in that age group, she’s not a person you can sympathize with. Yes, maybe they’re going through their whole thing, but they’re still making your life hell in the meanwhile.
DEE: Yeah. But then watching it as an adult, I did wind up with a lot more sympathy for her. And again, like you said, the amount of growth she has over the course of the series is really unique and remarkable given where she starts.
And she—they do this with a few of the characters in the early arc—like, she and Saionji especially, they start off as these sort of dramatic, threatening figures and then, the deeper you get in the show, you realize that they have just as little power as pretty much everybody else, and then they become a lot more sympathetic and kind of pathetic as the story progresses.
VRAI: Even though… It’s not really fair, ’cause he’s not really much better off than anyone else, but I think that’s why I have the hardest time giving Touga slack. Because compared to all the other characters—like, he is ultimately pathetic and fooling himself, but he does have more power than basically every other teenage character.
CAITLIN: He wants to be like Akio. He—
VRAI: [crosstalk] Which is a mistake.
CAITLIN: Well, yeah, it is a mistake. But you know, he’s just… he’s the boy who has been given a model for masculinity and he aspires to it without realizing how damaging it really is.
VRAI: He thinks he’s the hero.
DEE: He does, and he really is kind of the zealot of the story. Everyone else has some sort of personal goal that they’re heading towards and then they map these big ideals onto it. So, like, Miki’s “shining thing” is really just his relationship with his sister; Juri’s “miracles” have to do with Shiori… There’s a personal element to everybody’s stories. But Touga’s really is this very zealot-like, “I’m going to become this heroic figure and rise to the top of the power structure and change the world.” And so he becomes, as the story progresses, he becomes very isolated.
And to me that’s the thing I find sad about his story arc, is he really has no emotional connections by the end of it, where everyone else does. And so it shows you how, even when it looks like you’re the person in charge with lots of power and kind of living that dream that society tells you you should live in terms of aggressive masculinity, at the end of the day, his life is very empty.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Yeah, he is—
VRAI: [crosstalk] Yeah and I guess that’s—
CAITLIN: He is the “Patriarchy Hurts Everybody” character.
VRAI: Definitely. Like, in a way that’s not as obvious as Saionji, but it’s still very true. And I guess maybe that’s what’s kind of sweet about his relationship with Saionji, whether it’s a friendship, or the definitely sublimated crush-feels that Saionji is carrying around—
DEE: [crosstalk] Yeeeep.
VRAI: —Is that he’s a person in the spectrum of privilege who can still reach Touga but also pull him back a little bit. ‘Cause he’s poisoned from the same well.
DEE: Yeah. Yeah, I said he was isolated from everyone, but I was thinking more in the Black Rose Arc especially, which I was kind of brushing up on before we got to this. But yeah, you’re right, by the end of the story, he and Saionji have kind of repaired their relationship, and so there is sort of a hope there. It’s like, “Well okay, if you can both back off of these ideals of toxic masculinity you might be okay.”
VRAI: Maybe. You’re gonna go through the wash… a lot more times.
Caitin: [crosstalk] True that.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Wash some of that trash off, you Trash Boys.
DEE: Yes. [short pause] I have a confession: I really liked Touga the first time I watched the show. I was convinced that he was gonna be redeemable. And part of it was—
VRAI: [crosstalk] So you were reading the manga!
DEE: Well actually, no, I was reading… So the way I watched it was like, I was watching the first season almost simultaneously with the manga, and then I immediately jumped into the movie. And in the movie, there is a lot more kind of depth and complexity to his character and more—
CAITLIN: He’s a very different character in the movie.
DEE: Yeah, he’s much more—
CAITLIN: He’s the most different.
DEE: —kind of a tragic figure in the film.
VRAI: Although I do wonder if the abuse backstory is meant to be read back into the series because it does—
CAITLIN: I think so.
VRAI: —explain how the transformation happens between this kind of warm kid that Saionji remembers and that very cold, distant, “sex is power” figure in a very sad way.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] I think so.
DEE: [crosstalk] It really does.
CAITLIN: I think it… It’s been a while since I’ve watched past the Student Council Arc—it’s been a while since I’ve watched that, too, but it’s been longer—but I do think it’s alluded to in the TV series? I feel like I remember something like that.
VRAI: Not that I recall, but you could be right.
DEE: [crosstalk] The one thing they—
VRAI: [crosstalk] It’s just that… sorry, go on.
DEE: No, you’re good. In the series, there are references to the adoption element between him and Nanami, and their parents maybe not being their blood relatives, which does sort of feed into the things you learn in the film. So I think they are… I would say that they probably are intended to be the same story. It’s interesting that that got completely left out of the TV series, ’cause it does really change the way you look at Touga as a character.
DEE: But I would say that you can easily map that back onto the TV character as well.
CAITLIN: That’s right. …[I’m] going way back to [where we] started talking about how the show is responding to popular shoujo tropes of the ‘90s. And that made me think of the scene where…the amusement park episode.
VRAI: Ho-ly fuck.
VRAI: You know, I still have arguments with people over whether that’s statutory rape? By the way, it is!
DEE: [crosstalk] Yes it is!
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Yeah!
VRAI: [crosstalk] End of discussion.
CAITLIN: I mean it’s not just statutory rape. Because… First of all, I missed that episode my first two(?) times watching this series, ’cause it’s like, “Oh it’s a recap episode, bloop.”
DEE: [surprised laughter] Ohhh, my gosh. That really changes the feel of the last half of the show, too.
CAITLIN: Yeah, yeah, it really affected my understanding of the show, I think. It felt very clear to me that this was an encounter that would normally be romanticized. But… First of all, the “Stop” signs? A lot of people don’t notice that, when it flashes to the road, the kanji that’s flashing on the road is says “Stop.”
DEE: Yeah, it does, you’re right.
CAITLIN: So I think a lot of people miss that, because that is a 100% clear indicator of what was going on. But the way Utena was babbling and sort of mentally disconnecting from the experience—it was not a good encounter. And her talking about, “Oh, thank you for this night” is almost like, “Oh I should desire this; this is what I’ve been wanting, so…”
VRAI: Right. It’s not dissimilar to the incest—to Nanami’s issues with Touga, I think, in that it’s a fun… it’s a fun theoretical fantasy to be wooed by an older person, but the reality of that is ugly and can be very emotionally damaging. Because you are an adult and this is a child, what the fuck are you doing?
CAITLIN: Right! And that encounter significantly messes Utena up for the rest of the show, which yeah… Like I said, not seeing that part really changes your perspec… [trails off into laughter]
DEE: You really can’t skip the recap episodes in Utena. It’s the one show where you cannot skip the recap episodes.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Never skip the recap episodes.
VRAI: I do wonder if that’s a trick that Ikuhara borrowed from Anno, ’cause the two were definitely friendly, like to the point where… “Yeah, okay, you’re not admitting that you stole the ending of Utena for the second Rebuild movie, but we all saw what you did.”
DEE: [chuckles] I still need to see the Rebuild movies, but knowing that going in would be fascinating.
VRAI: Well, there’s—I guess, spoilers, whatever—I don’t… the Rebuild movies sure do exist… but uh… There’s a scene in the second movie where Shinji is doing the more traditional masculinity that the movies have decided he needs to do—not that I’m bitter—
[DEE laughing in the background]
VRAI: —And he rescues Rei from being eaten by an angel in a replication straight-up of the Hand Scene from the last episode of Utena.
DEE: Oh wow.
VRAI: Yeah, it’s sure a thing.
VRAI: I have derailed the conversation.
DEE: I was gonna say, what were we talking about before we got salty about the Rebuild movies? [laughs]
VRAI: Uhhh, tropes, tropes, ‘90s tropes, and how it definitely, like… I think this show certainly transcends its time and is definitely applicable no matter what age you are, but it helps to know what was coming out around it.
DEE: That’s very true. ‘Cause that was… maybe even more so than now, even, there was very much kind of a push, in… you had a lot of, especially shoujo series where the “high schooler falling in love with the grown-up” was kind of a romantic storyline or—
VRAI: [muttered crosstalk] CLAMP.
DEE: —Or some of the incest stuff that was coming out around that time as well. It was really all kind of played as very romantic and Utena looks at those and goes: “…No.”
DEE: “No, there’s something deeply wrong with this.”
VRAI: It’s a nice… it’s a “nice idea” until you actually enact those things beyond a subtext-y level, which is all those anime would ever do.
Sorry, I’m thinking about the one sour note in Cardcaptor Sakura again now, and I’m sad.
CAITLIN: Yeah, no, I was thinking about that too. I was… Aggh, man.
VRAI: [pained laughter] That show is so good and so sweet, and then there’s that one subplot you’re like, “CLAMP, no. CLAMP, what are you doing? Stop.”
CAITLIN: CLAMP’s got some really, really weird ideas about what is acceptable in romance. Because there’s a lot of… there’s a lot of teacher-student loving in CLAMP series. It’s bad.
DEE: Yeah, that’s… that’s one of my big “Nopes” in media. That one’s high up on the list.
CAITLIN: Same here.
DEE: ‘Cause the power dynamic’s just—and that was the thing they did so well with Utena, too. They really made a point of highlighting that it’s not necessarily an age—I mean, it is an age thing, but it’s not, because it’s really about the power dynamics. ‘Cause Touga’s seventeen, eighteen. He’s technically, probably not really a kid at this point in the story, but his scenes with Akio are still just loaded with that sense of “something is deeply wrong here” because Akio has so much power over him.
VRAI: Right. And you know, Anthy is as old as Akio is, technically, but her romance with Utena doesn’t really raise flags for me because they are ultimately equals.
DEE: Yeah, and the show takes care to show them in… in that equality dynamic. Like their relationship builds as they become closer to seeing each other on that same plane.
VRAI: And Akio’s such an interesting figure because he’s one of the few characters who I would call sexual in… he’s sexy in an adult kind of way.
CAITLIN: Yeah, absolutely.
VRAI: And the only other character who I can really think of who is that self-possessed in their sexuality is when Sayo Yamamoto did The Woman Called Fujiko Mine.
DEE: That’s true, you don’t see that a lot in anime, those kind of adult characters who just kind of exude that sense of sexual power.
CAITLIN: Yeah, that’s absolutely true.
VRAI: And then there’s movie Akio.
CAITLIN: And that makes all of the scenes of Akio taking pictures of Touga and Saionji doing sexy poses on his car… like, he’s just exploiting these children left and right. Utena is not escapism.
DEE: It kinda starts off that way. The first arc is really fun and there’s a lot of silly episodes and Nanami gets chased by elephants and it’s great. But, yeah, the deeper you get into it, the darker it gets, and then it really does become emotionally… fulfilling, but also exhausting, for sure.
VRAI: It’s amazing how, considering this aired, I believe, in like a 6 PM primetime slot, the amount of stuff it crams in there and how just… it wrings you out emotionally at the end.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] And Anthy stabbed Utena on Christmas day.
DEE: [gasps] Oh my God! I did not know that.
[VRAI makes noises of pain in the background]
CAITLIN: Oh you didn’t know that?!
DEE: No. That’s a fun fact.
VRAI: H’oh! That’s what we call a Pain Fact. That’s a bad, bad Pain Fact.
CAITLIN: Yeah, Utena… let’s see… oh, no, the finale was on Christmas Eve, 1997. And Christmas Eve in Japan is a romantic holiday, which I think is just beautifully messed up. And I don’t know if it was planned that way, to have that episode air on Christmas. Probably not. Maybe. Probably just coincidence.
DEE: Just how the airing schedule worked out. But that does kind of work out. That’s fun.
VRAI: And it’s such a beautiful ending.
DEE: [crosstalk] It really is.
VRAI: I love that it ends—you know, this story starts with Utena but it ends with Anthy and that just… my heart.
DEE: Yeah, the way the series builds Anthy is… ‘Cause I feel like they do a good job of having the audience change their perspective of her as Utena does. Because I know the first time I watched—especially that first arc, which was all I had for a little while there—it’s really easy to just write her off as a damsel-esque, kind of empty character, who’s just there to get bounced around between everybody else. And then as you get into it, you’re like, “Oh no, I was falling into the same pattern at the rest of the student council was” as you learn more about her circumstances and her just terribly sad backstory.
VRAI: Yeah. And I think sometimes people go too far to attribute every bad thing that happens to everyone retroactively to Anthy. But it really is incredible and heart-breaking the things that she does, which are sometimes incredibly awful because that’s just the only recourse left to her.
DEE: [crosstalk] Yeah we really haven’t—
VRAI: [crosstalk] I love Anthy. Very much.
DEE: We’ve bounced around a lot of the characters; we haven’t really talked about Anthy up to this point and how the story is… Again, there’s so many ways you can read this and so many different ways you can approach Utena and look at it. And I love that about it, because every time I get into it, I get to see something a little bit different about it than I did prior.
But that element of it kind of being, at heart, a story about somebody trapped in a terribly abusive relationship finding a way out of that is really beautiful and inspiring. And that last scene where all Utena does is just reach out her hand and Anthy takes it, it’s just… [voice pitches] I cry, I cry like a little baby every time.
CAITLIN: Yeah, yeah.
VRAI: [emotional] It’s so beautiful, is the thing! Unironically, I’m tearing up a little bit!
DEE: I might… yeah.
VRAI: They’re very good.
DEE: Yeah, this show is very… it’s very near and dear.
VRAI: I am sad and slightly angry forever that Mega House made that Utena figure, and they had a prototype of Anthy that apparently they just up and cancelled.
[DEE and CAITLIN make “aww” noises in the background]
VRAI: And it was really beautiful of her in her Rose Bride costume.
DEE: Aw, man. That would have been a great set to have. And Anthy—
VRAI: [crosstalk] I know.
DEE: She’s such a fantastic character in her own right, she deserves her own figure.
VRAI: I just…she’s such a hard character to appreciate the first go-round because so much of what she does is off-screen by design.
CAITLIN: Yeah, exactly. When I first watched the Student Council Arc I was not excited by Anthy at all.
VRAI: The fact that she posted the letter—Wakaba’s letter—you could never… It’s not one of those things that you could figure it out from context clues, really. You have to know.
CAITLIN: Yeah, Anthy’s definitely what makes rewatching the show absolutely essential to understanding it, ’cause there’s so much that she does that’s off-screen.
VRAI: And I wonder if maybe… ’cause a show like, you know, Evangelion’s famous for being weird and mind-screwy, but that is a show where I think if you knew the baseline going in, you could get what you needed in one viewing. You really have to watch Utena twice, and it is 39 episodes long.
CAITLIN: Yeah. I mean…
VRAI: “Here, have 80 episodes!”
CAITLIN: 39 episodes seems really long nowadays now that everything’s 13 episodes, but it wasn’t really considered that long back in the day. Nowadays, everything is just one season, but in the ‘90s… 52-episode series were not uncommon, especially for shoujo.
DEE: That’s a good point.
VRAI: Right. And especially in the heyday of Gundam where that was just the done thing.
CAITLIN: Fushigi Yugi. 52 episodes.
VRAI: [crosstalk] [hissing] Oh my God.
DEE: [crosstalk] And the three OVAs!
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] We’ll do another episode about Fushigi Yugi someday.
DEE: [crosstalk] Oh my God, we will do that, won’t we? And then Dee gets to try to explain… how much she loves it… and how flawed it is. That’ll be good times.
DEE: But yeah, no, you’re right. And I don’t think it’s one of those shows where you want to tell somebody off the bat, “Oh, well, here’s Anthy’s backstory so you know going into it.” Because the experience of having your understanding of the characters changed is part of what makes the Utena Experience so unique and important.
And I think that’s true with a lot—I think most great narratives find a way to challenge your understanding of characters as you go. And finding out everything about Anthy and Akio and what her circumstances have been is… that surprise is vital to watching the series as well, I think, because it does challenge the audience’s own assumptions and perceptions as well as it does the characters’. Which is… so great. Active storytelling is wonderful.
VRAI: And the whole thing where initially people are like, “Oh you can skip the Black Rose Saga”—
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Nope.
DEE: [crosstalk] Do not skip the Black Rose Saga.
CAITLIN: Yeah, Ikuhara is just… so… that man is a trip.
DEE: [laughs] I love him.
VRAI: And this his longest—I mean, not including Sailor Moon, because I like what he did with Sailor Moon but it’s also not entirely his baby—I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is his longest basically solo project, and also his most perfectly paced. I like Yurikuma Arashi, but—
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] I had a hard time with Yurikuma Arashi.
VRAI: It needed more time. [frazzled laugh] It needed more time.
CAITLIN: I had a really hard time with Yurikuma. I had trouble emotionally engaging with it. Utena and Penguindrum, both of them I was able to get into the characters, and the story, as well as digesting the imagery, but Yurikuma was so, just like, [sings] “Everything’s a symbooool!”
VRAI: See, and I had the opposite problem where I was able to go along with what Yurikuma was doing, and follow where it went, when I just… I will finish it eventually, but I just stalled out on Penguindrum.
CAITLIN: I think Penguindrum is interesting ’cause… Penguindrum is probably the densest Ikuhara series. However, I think it is most accessible to—like we were talking about before—it’s most accessible to people who don’t want to have to read all of the visual language to really understand what’s going on. There are symbols that are very obviously symbols. [chuckles]
VRAI: “Do you think this hat is important?”
CAITLIN: Or like, you know, the child broiler. But at the same time—
DEE: I don’t think Vrai’s gotten to the good stuff yet.
CAITLIN: No, Vrai definitely never got to the good stuff.
VRAI: [crosstalk] I may have stalled out during Ringo’s arc.
DEE: That’s fair. I was watching it as it aired and I got into the Ringo Arc, which is like episodes five through seven or something, and I hit a point with it where I was like, “This needs to start moving someplace soon or I might actually just give up on it.” And then it does and the second half is… the second half is fantastic.
VRAI: I didn’t consciously give up on it; Hulu took it away from me.
DEE: Geez, Hulu.
CAITLIN: Is it streaming anywhere right now?
VRAI: [crosstalk] It is not.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Aw, man.
DEE: Yeah Penguindrum—if you don’t have the blu-rays—which, I do, but Vrai doesn’t live close enough for me to throw them at them, so that wouldn’t work out.
VRAI: I do live close to one of the last… no, no, I can’t… I do live close to one of the six actual brick-and-mortar stores that sells into anime, but…
DEE: Yeah, no, that’s fair. But if it ever comes back, definitely, definitely finish it out. Truthfully, I think it’s—
VRAI: [crosstalk] Oh yeah, for sure. ‘Cause Ikuhara Completionism.
DEE: —I liked Yurikuma better than Penguindrum at the end of the day. And part of it was, I was blogging it, so I was watching it a lot. I really struggled with the first three episodes, but then after that, I got into it, and I got really, really… a little too attached to the bears [laughs], so I was…
VRAI: Yeah, there’s some shit happens there, it’s not okay.
DEE: So, yeah, by the last episode, I was tearing up and was so happy. And it’s one of those series that you almost have to watch it all in one go, because it’s really like a novel rather than… You know, some anime are like, episode by episode, you can talk about them. I think Utena is like that because each episode is kind of its own self-contained character arc—
VRAI: [crosstalk] Right, because there are so many individual character threads that—
DEE: [crosstalk] —and with the duel format, like, you have an episode where it’s “today we’re going to focus on Miki” and “today we’re going to focus on Juri.” So you can kind of watch it, like, a couple episodes this week and then… You could watch it week-by-week on TV and I think it would have been fine.
Yurikuma is very much one story. And so, trying to watch it week-in and week-out, I think was very difficult. And it’s one of those where you almost can’t discuss… you always can’t review the early episodes without having the end of the story, because again—and that’s Ikuhara’s thing—is that every show there’s some kind of reveal that changes your understanding of who these people are and what they were doing. And Yurikuma definitely pulls that rug out from under you a few times as it goes.
VRAI: But I think, even at the end, it is a series I like because I was invested enough in that central relationship. But it is also a series that frustrates me because it had 12 episodes and I’m over here waving my hand like “Hey, Ikuhara, are you going to do anything with the fact that all these characters resolutely call each other friends even though they have blatantly sex relationships? Are you gonna actually come back to this issue of the male gaze? Ikuhara? Ikuhara, come back!”
DEE: He had to cram a lot in for sure. And there’s definitely things that could have been expanded on. The friend thing—gosh, don’t quote me on this because I’ve not read nearly enough yuri manga to able to say this for sure—but I think that’s kind of a trope of the genre that he’s very much addressing.
VRAI: No, yeah, I—
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] It’s a Class S sort of thing.
VRAI: —think he’s intentionally playing on it. But he never… he had it in there but never did anything with it. It was just like a background thing that was doing the trope, not commenting on the trope.
CAITLIN: It’s interesting how the Utena fandom has endured over all of the years. How in this day and age anime fandom for individual series tends to be very flash-in-the-pan. Not a lot of shows have staying power; it’s all sort of regarded as disposable.
But Utena, you look around online and there’s still all this fantastic analysis going on. There’s readings of the characters that I’ve never seen before popping up on Tumblr all the time. There’s fanart coming out the ears and it’s just a series that really speaks to so many people, to the point that it is becoming cross-generational. ‘Cause it has been 20 years now.
CAITLIN: That’s almost… That’s about two-thirds of how long I’ve been alive.
VRAI: And I mean you could say that at least some of it is because it came out in the ’90s when there was (A) less anime being made and (B) less available in the West, but that doesn’t—that only accounts for a little of it.
CAITLIN: Yeah, because there are still a lot of ‘90s shows that are very much forgotten that were good shows. You know, how many shows from 1997 can you name?
VRAI: Utena is definitely special. And it rewards people who stick with it, people who invest in it; and its characters are memorable both in design and in writing and in acting the… I mean, we really only talked about Utena but the acting is solid across the board.
DEE: Yeah, all of the actors do a phenomenal job. I can never actually remember her name, but the woman who plays Anthy… she is phenomenal.
VRAI: [crosstalk] God I love her.
DEE: The amount of subtle emotion and little hitches she puts into the character’s voice—in a character who really does have to be this mask of placidity for so much of the show—she’s able to just put so much depth and personality into her that gets completely lost in the dub, tragically.
VRAI: Boy, and we begin and end with the terrible dub. Oh, can I tell my favorite terrible dub story? So, apparently [crosstalk] Crispin Freeman—
CAITLIN: [laughing] [crosstalk] Oh, yeah!
VRAI: —has this story he tells at cons—yeah!—where he had to go to the dubbing team and be like, “Um, so… so Juri is a closeted lesbian,” and they’re like, “Whaaat?!” Or I mean—
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] They’re all like, “What is her deal? Why is she so angry?” And Crispin’s like, “Are you… are you kidding? Are you not—?”
VRAI: “Do you not underst—?”
CAITLIN: And I think that speaks a lot for how much care and thought Crispin puts into his characters compared to a lot of dub actors, sometimes. I know dub actors are working really hard—this is not meant to be a slam on dub actors—but they’re also all… they’re all freelancers, they all have to chase after whatever roles they can. They don’t necessarily have time to sit down and think and think and think about the characters. A lot of them flip through the script, get a sense of what’s going on, and then go in and do their best
VRAI: Right, pay the month’s rent, go on and do the next thing. ‘Cause you gotta.
CAITLIN: Right. Yeah, I get it, listen. My dad was a starving actor for a while. I know how it is. But yeah, Crispin really puts a lot of time into… He has said that, at conventions, that he goes in and he watches as much of the series as it takes for him to really understand what the character’s, like, main driving motivation is.
VRAI: And that’s probably why his Touga is the most [unintelligible under laughter and crosstalk]
DEE: Although, I… This is one of those moments that will stay with me forever. I think it’s in the first episode after Utena beats Saionji. There is no way to say this line without it sounding awkward, so this is not a knock on him, but he busts out an: “Oh yes, baby. You’ve lit the fire in my heart.”
DEE: And it is the funniest damn thing.
CAITLIN: Oh, that line!
DEE: [crosstalk] Has always stayed with me.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Poor Crispin Freeman.
DEE: Yeah, there’s no way to say that line without it sounding ridiculous. And it was. It was amazing. That’s my strongest memory of the dub.
But yeah, no, sorry, circling back to the… the show’s staying power, I think that also really speaks to how either “ahead of its time” or just straight-up “timeless” it is as a series. Because there’s a lot of stuff that came out in the ’90s that I enjoyed at the time, and then I watch now and I’m like, “Oh, that’s super dated.”
CAITLIN: I’m afraid to watch Slayers.
DEE: There are definitely things in Slayers that have not aged well. I still love it. It’s still one of my favorite shows, but yeah, there are—
CAITLIN: Like, who remembers Hyper Police?
DEE: I don’t. I do not.
CAITLIN: Who remembers Those Who Hunt Elves?
DEE: I do… but… [laughs]
VRAI: Tenchi Muyo!
DEE: But yeah, I really… There’s a handful of shows that have come out as being these classic masterpieces and, for a while, just because Utena was so hard to track down, it was one of those almost like… I hesitate to use the term “underground” ’cause it makes it sound like we’re all wearing hipster glasses while we talk about it, but… I mean, maybe we were, I don’t know, it was all online.
DEE: But it was one of those shows that kind of… You’d hear people raving about, like, Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop—and for good reason, those are also excellent shows from the ‘90s, for sure—but Utena was always one of those where it would be this quiet undercurrent of, “Have you heard about Utena? It’s really hard to track down, but it’s amazing, you should find it.” You had to go on quests, as we all mentioned, to get your hands on it for a while there.
But even with that difficulty of finding it, it has still withstood the test of time and become a classic. And more and more, especially with Tumblr, with it now being readily available on YouTube—thanks, Nozomi!—I think more and more people are coming into it. And because it does have that sort of timeless quality where it is still topical and important in the stories and the themes it tells, I think it’s getting a little bit more of a boost in terms of popularity and really cementing itself as one of the all-time best.
CAITLIN: Writing about Utena was the first thing that I did as a blogger and it… was it fairly early on for both of you when you were getting into blogging?
DEE: Yes. Yeah, I had been…
VRAI: [crosstalk] Pretty… Yeah, it was the third series, I guess, I really did long for. But it was the longest series that I really packed a lunch. ‘Cause right before that I did Woman Called Fujiko Mine, which is only 13 episodes.
DEE: Yeah, it was a fairly early one for me. And really I wouldn’t have done if—and again, major thanks to Vrai for getting me on that beat—but it was one of those series that was so big and so close to my heart that I hadn’t really thought about doing a series on it for a while. And then when I started reading Vrai’s posts, I was like, “Oh, I wanna re-watch this! Oh, I wanna talk about it!” And then it sort of spiraled into this—
VRAI: [crosstalk] And I’m so glad you did. Your posts are great.
DEE: [crosstalk] And it was so fun, doing the back-and-forth there. I guess this is the part we’re plugging our work. [laughs]
VRAI: Yeah. I think as a final note, I would say that if you can… I’ve heard buzz about a blu-ray set, I don’t know if it’s happening—
DEE: [crosstalk] Supposedly.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Nozomi said it was one of their goals for their year.
VRAI: Right. Well maybe wait for that, I don’t know, but I have the DVD sets and they really [crosstalk] are worth your money.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Gorgeous.
DEE: [crosstalk] Incredible. They all come with art booklets and there’s translated interviews and creator commentary and, yeah, they give you a lot of extra… The bang for your buck is incredible because you do get so much supplementary material with them, too.
CAITLIN: Yeah. I just… there are so many recent series where I… well, more recent series where I feel like I will never talk about them, ’cause I don’t have anything to add to the conversation. It’s been combed over and discussed from front to back. It’s no longer fertile ground. But like I said, Utena just, all the time there’s some fascinating new reading; there’s a different perspective. And that’s just… That’s incredible.
VRAI: It’s good.
VRAI: I believe that is the conclusion we have all come to. That there Utena is A Good.
DEE: [crosstalk] Surprise, everyone! That was our thesis all along.
VRAI: That’s our shocking conclusion. It’s pretty good, y’all.
All right, since we kind of dipped into it a little bit, would you two like to plug the stuff you do when you are not helping around with AniFem?
CAITLIN: Sure. Um… I’ll go ahead. I…
DEE: [crosstalk] Go first, Caitlin.
VRAI: [crosstalk] Fight to the death to see who goes first.
CAITLIN: Okay. I run my own blog, Heroine Problem. Heroine has an “E,” so “I Have a Heroine Problem.” I do—much like on Anime Feminist—feminist analysis and criticism of anime and manga. Heroineproblem.com.
DEE: Yeah, and I run The Josei Next Door, a friendly neighborhood anime blog. I guess I’ve been running it for almost three years now. Wow. A lot of episode commentaries, some essays involved… I did a whole Sailor Moon newbie review series, that was super fun. Which is actually how Vrai and I met, so that was great.
VRAI: [crosstalk] It was very good.
DEE: And yeah, kind of a similar focus… One of the reasons I think Amelia reached out to me— ’cause we didn’t know each other at all before AniFem—I think one of the reasons she reached out to me is, a lot of the work I had done there was already sort of slanted towards feminism; gender issues in particular, and queer representation and things like that. So that’s kind of what The Josei Next Door has sort of expanded into, I guess. It’s been fun.
VRAI: Well, and you do… do you still do contributions at Anime Evo? [crosstalk] Is that where you’re writing about Rakugo?
DEE: Yeah. I post all of those on my blog so you can link to ‘em pretty easily, but… Yeah, I’m a regular contributor there. I do one series per season pretty much for them, which is nice. I think a lot of people think I just do recaps there or reviews, but it’s analysis and commentary exclusively. I’m not really interested in doing a recap format there. So I do those and then occasionally I’ll write for… Well, I have Anime Feminist now, I used to do some stuff with The Mary Sue… So yeah, my name’s been sprinkled around the Interwebs a little bit at this point.
VRAI: And if for some reason you’re not tired of my voice yet, I run a blog called Fashionable Tinfoil Accessories, where I don’t have a lot of anime stuff up there right now. I think all of the ongoing series I’m working on right now are Western-based. I recap Steven Universe, I’m re-watching Gravity Falls… Oh, no, I am doing a series on Gankutsuou while also working through my complicated feelings about Anne Rice. Don’t ask.
And I also have a movie podcast because, by law, everyone is allotted one, called Trash and Treasures. So if you want to listen to me garble queer representation issues about weird trash movies, that is the podcast for you.
And otherwise, yeah, you can find us all hanging around at AniFem. And hopefully we’ve provided meaty, tasty, delicious discourse for you on this day.
And… yeah, you’ve promised that Fushigi Yugi podcast now. I hope you know that and people are [crosstalk] champing at the bit. They want it.
DEE: [crosstalk] I’ll have to re-read or something.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] I’m picking up my blog summaries of that too. I’ve got one on the queue.
DEE: Oh yeah!
VRAI: [laughs] They’re fantastic. You should listen… Ugh, Caitlin, your tweets about that show are truly magnificent.
CAITLIN: [laughs] Thank you, thank you.
VRAI: All right, I think that wraps us up here. Thank you guys so much for joining me.
DEE: Thank you guys for scheduling this and sort of encouraging me to be a part of it, because I was very nervous about… speaking… to people… in the Interweb Lands, and this was lots of fun. So, thanks guys.
VRAI: [crosstalk] It was great. Hopefully—
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Podcasts are really just a conversation that you let other people listen to.
VRAI: Yeah, definitely. And to all of you out there hopefully listening, this has been really great. And let us know what you think of this “one series, conversational” format, and if you’d like to see more of that in future. Or any feedback you’ve got, we’d love to hear it.
But for now, I think let’s take this podcast and sign off. We’ll see you guys later. Bye.
DEE: Bye guys!
VRAI: Hey everyone, Vrai here. Thanks so much for listening. If you liked this podcast, you can find more of our work at www.animefeminist.com. You can talk to us on Twitter @animefeminist; on Facebook at facebook.com/animefem; or visit us on patreon.com/animefeminist, which helps us keep the lights on and pay all of the writers who submit stuff to our website.
And if you’re already a patron, please stop by and have a chat with us. We’d love to expand our reach and really get an idea of what our readers would like to see us discussing so that we can better serve you in the future.
All right, until next time. Bye!
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