By Chiho Saito
There is something both epically heroic and tragically Shakespearian about this series.
A valorous knight fighting to save a trapped princess is a tale as old as time, and modernizations of such a familiar plot are abundant, especially as romances. Utena is one such series. It features a helpless princess trapped in poor circumstances and kept under guard by a band of conscripted knights; there is a cruel prince and a witch that keep her trapped; there is a knight who arrives to save her, and a kingdom to be liberated.
The kingdom is an academy and the knight is a woman.
Utena, the girl knight, wears the boy’s uniform instead of the girl’s and quickly finds herself taking on the role of both protector and partner to Anthy, the Rose Bride. She begrudgingly accepts such only after witnessing the abusive knights – and therefore Anthy’s romantic options – and the harsh circumstances that she lives in. Utena finds it all unacceptable, which is a normal reaction to the amount of abuse Anthy is exposed to during the series – though she also downplays her own issues.
There is plenty of physical abuse – mostly by sword fighting or against Anthy. Sexual abuse is thematically present and holds a large part in the narrative, as well. Nothing is shown on screen, but the viewer is told through the character’s reactions, words, and symbolically through the images that are substituted.
This is a coming of age story that throws the young characters into harsh circumstances tailored to each of them – even the side characters get dragged through hell and back – that leaved them helplessly exposed to their cores, completely bared to the audience and vulnerable to each other.
Both forms of abuse portrayed in the series are not random or inserted for jump scares: there is a message. The abuse is deliberate on the part of the abusers, who intend to manipulate their victims. It is shown starkly that what is happening is wrong and that the abuser is a villain for their actions.
This is not a series about forgiving your abusers: it is about killing them. Mostly this is figurative – destroying the image of a past abuser and learning to cope and gain agency is highlighted, but sometimes what has been done or threatened is unforgivable beyond words, beyond reality. Utena is highly symbolic and surreal; still images, stylized duels, and fairy tale elements are featured heavily – all of which are used to both expose and shadow the vicious reality that the characters exist in.
In Shakespearian tradition, a chorus of silhouetted fairies introduce the major question and conflict in the series: Do you know? Do you know? Do you know the truth? There is so much hidden by each character that the resounding answer is no from every other character – the abuses they go through, their relationships, sexuality, fears – it is all exposed to the audience while remaining shrouded in the series. Character relationships are fascinating to watch play out: each conversation is a dance of unspoken accusations, withheld apologies, and fearful silence. Every relationship is under fire, even the ones that seem the strongest – of siblings, best friends and lovers, and knights and princesses.
Utena uses fairy tale themes to instigate a conversation with the audience about growing up and the powerlessness of childhood; the very real violence of the series is juxtaposed with knights dueling for roses; the sexual abuse exists in the center of a triangle where one angle is built on love, trust, and a knight’s resolve to protect her princess; and the juvenile simplicity of an academic setting is surrealized into myth with crumbling buildings, enormous rose gardens, castles in the sky, and towers like bird cages.
Healthy relationships and consensual desire are also explored, though few of them work out. There are three lesbians and at least two two gay men – who are also some of the series’ only survivors. Not only do the lesbians live, but they are the main characters, heroes, and the most consensual relationship shown. It is compulsory heterosexuality that is exposed as a damaging force for the queer characters and it is the villains and abusers that cling to it.
The series is 39 episodes long, with several filler and compilation episodes. Both of these are important to watch: character relationships and development continue through them, even if the plot is weak in those instances. The Adolescence of Utena is a follow up film that first retells Utena in a highly condensed and even more fantastic plot, then dashes the audience expectations to pieces with its ending. The conclusion is hell to get to for the characters, but is shockingly optimistic and wonderfully fantastic.