Crisis on N Earths: Revolutionary Girl Utena

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It’s December 24, 1997. Christmas Eve. Of course, we’re in Japan, so that doesn’t mean much–Christmas is an excuse to decorate, go on dates, and eat chocolate and KFC. The country is only one percent Christian, after all, but they love the exotic ceremonies and customs of the worshipers of these strange gods from faraway lands.

Tonight, something far more momentous is happening than some lady having a kid in whatever a manger is: the finale of Revolutionary Girl Utena airs.

Auteur theory is largely nonsense, but nonetheless Utena is widely regarded as the brainchild of director Kunihiko Ikuhara, and comparing Utena to other projects of his, it does seem like his creative voice was the dominant, or at least his persistent concerns and themes. But to an extent it’s the other way around: the themes of Utena became the defining themes of Ikuhara’s work, both what is expected from him and what he keeps coming back to.

A 39-episode half-hour anime series ostensibly within the shoujogenre (that is, works aimed at girls in roughly the same age range we refer to in book publishing as Young Adult), Utena is an exploration of themes of identity, especially gender; queer sexuality; abuse; and the way we use stories and narrative to construct our world. Utena is a teen girl who decided when she was very young that she would be a prince when she grew up, and still dresses and acts “princely”: she is highly athletic, very popular with the girls, wears a blinged-out variant of a boys’ uniform to school, and is especially quick to rescue those she perceives as being in need. At the same time, however, she is very insistent that she is a girl, and perhaps a little too insistent that she is het, given her relationship with Anthy.

Anthy is a character I’ve written about at great length, particularly in Animated Discussions. I won’t rehash that here; suffice to say, she is Utena’s primary love interest, but oscillates throughout the story between damsel in distress, sidekick, and villain. In reality she is none of those things and all of them, because Utena is also about breaking free of the constraints created by the stories we’ve been told about ourselves and our world. What makes Utena a revolutionary girl is that she revolutionizes the world around her–the bulk of the series is her unwittingly passing test after test to become The One Who Brings the World Revolution–because she is not only determined to be a protector fantasy for everyone around her, but to protect them from abuse of all kinds. She protects people, not structures of power–indeed, the first we see her protecting someone is defending her friend Wakaba in the first episode, from a man who has greater social power, claims the “right” to do what he did, and callously dismisses Wakaba’s pain.

Utena doesn’t care about rights. She understands, at least on an instinctual level, that any society governed according to a list of rights is really an oligarchy governed by the people who decided what those rights are. That person, in the case of Utena, is Akio, the main villain of the series. Akio is also referred to as “End of the World,” but notably, while the English phrase is sometimes used, the series mostly uses a Japanese phrase which would be more accurately translated as “the ends of the Earth.” The bilingual pun, given all the discussion of apocalypse and world revolution in the series, is clearly intentional, but nonetheless the primary meaning of Akio’s title is the edge of reality, the limitation of what can exist.

The show ties these meanings together in the infamous, oft-recurring “egg speech” (which was lifted almost verbatim from Hermann Hesse’s Demian): “The world is our egg. If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without being born.” The apocalyse, the World Revolution, is necessary so that we can take form as our true selves, unrestrained by the limits imposed by the powerful.

But, intriguingly, Utena at least initially appears to fail. Akio’s strength is social power above all else: he wields his high status and charm with great skill to manipulate and control others. It is that power which he uses to defeat Utena: he persuades Anthy that Utena will fail, and in so doing persuades Anthy to ensure that Utena fails. Utena is forced to admit that she cannot be the prince, that she is “just a girl,” and cannot save Anthy or change the world into a place where she and Anthy can be together and be free.

And then she stands back up, shoves Akio out of her way, reaches out her hand to help Anthy, and ultimately Anthy breaks free of Akio’s power and walks forever out of his world.

What the show refers to as the prince is, in its fairy tale-inflected framing, another instance of the protector fantasy. This is made explicit in the episode “The Rose Crest”: “The girls of the world were all princesses! All because we were always protected by the Rose Prince.” Dios, the Rose Prince, is depicted as the hero of a fictionalized past in which he protected all girls from all hardship and pain, enabling them to be princesses–which is to say, pampered but constrained, safe but helpless.

Dios, after all, is Akio–End of the World and the Rose Prince are revealed to be one and the same. Akio compares himself to Lucifer, which is to say that he is fallen from having once been both great and good, but Akio is a manipulator and a liar. He never was a hero; the Rose Prince was always a fantasy, always Akio. Or, more accurately, they’re the same thing. As Utena tearfully confesses to Anthy: “The truth is, my protecting you was just for my own ego… I was the one who cheated you! I was the one who used you! I was the one who betrayed you!”  Akio is a thoroughly terrible, utterly despicable human being and Utena is in many ways highly admirable, yet in the role of the hero they are both ultimately toxic, becaus the role is toxic.

The only difference between a fence and a cage is whether you’re content to stay inside it. The perfect protector, as we have seen again and again, is also the enforcer of the status quo. The hero must prevent the egg from being broken, and therefore must prevent us from being our authentic selves; the Rose Prince is also End of the World.

Yet… Anthy leaves Ohtori on her own, yes, but only after being offered a hand by Utena and choosing to take it. Utena is the vehicle by which Anthy leaves Ohtori (literally, in the movie). Acting as the hero in the sense of a savior, all Utena can do is make Anthy more of a princess, building a fence around her that is also a cage. In the final battle, when she and Akio compete to take the Power to Bring the World Revolution, neither gets it, even though Akio wins the battle. But by offering help, by inspiring and performing as an example, Utena is able to give that power to Anthy.

It is not enough to merely perform the “good parts” of the role of the hero, because by its very nature, the role of the protector is the role of the jailer. But as Utena shows us, there is a use for heroes, and there is a way forward for our own project, a way to break the superhero away from its tendency to fascism.

The model of our new kind of superhero, unsurprisingly, will not be Superman. He’s the model of the old kind, after all. Steel is a lot closer–and the end of this season will reveal to us another that’s closer still.

“For the revolution of the world!”


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