#1 It does not respect your time
Prior to writing my own review, I decided to see what other people thought of the show and kept running into the same criticism: “It’s a good show, but very repetitive.” I can certainly agree with that last part.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is a very formulaic show. Most episodes are a set up towards a duel that acts as its climax; A character is put into the spotlight, we see how their situation drives them into conflict with Utena, and then there is a quick duel to round off the episode and resolve the problem. The show sticks to its formula so rigidly that several minutes of each episode are nothing but repeat content. That scene of Utena approaching the arena with Absolute Destiny: Apocalypse playing is pretty rad the first 3 times, but you’ll be seeing (and hearing) it a lot more often than that.
While the individual episodes can have fun stories, they don’t serve to develop the main storyline much. This means plot twists become scarce and the whole story crawls along at a glacial pace. I struggled to keep watching it, especially when each new arc feels like a minor variation of what came before it; just more excuses for people to fight Utena, often with the same characters that already tried and lost before.
#2 Lack of character development
Revolutionary Girl Utena is, unsurprisingly, about a rebellious girl called Utena. She is a pink-haired beauty whose life was changed by an encounter with a man who was like a fairytale prince. This meeting left such an impression on her that Utena decided to become a prince as well. She started dressing in male clothes and would keep this up even as she became a teenager and memories of that fairytale prince grew hazy.
Her school life then changes drastically when she witnesses a girl called Anthy being abused by her boyfriend. When she attempts to intervene, she is challenged to a fencing duel and discovers that there is a bizarre tournament going on, with Anthy’s romance being the reward. Several people, mostly members of the student council, are all dueling for who gets to be Anthy’s partner; with an “eternal” reward being promised to the last man (or woman) standing.
The show is not exactly forward with its lore or what exactly Utena and Anthy are ultimately working towards, but that is mostly because it starts to lose itself in that episodic format I mentioned before. Episodes begin to focus on side-characters and how they come into conflict with Utena, but this leaves no room to actually work on Utena herself or her budding friendship with Anthy. And for what exactly? Some of the side-characters that get entire episodes dedicated to them are forgettable and have maybe 3 relevant appearances throughout the show. Why put the spotlight on them instead?
#3 Questionable tension
Many shows with promising stories have had to cut their ambition down to fit into the limited amount of episodes a TV anime can have. Anime end up with original endings that aren’t canon with the source material or have to cut out entire chapters to rush towards the finale. Revolutionary Girl Utena got a full 39 episodes to adapt a manga of 5 volumes, but could have just ended at episode 12 in my opinion.
The first arc of the show has Utena battle her way through the mysterious student council who are playing games with Anthy’s fate. These are interesting characters who all practice fencing, kendo, and other sports, which explains why they can reasonably pose a threat to Utena. After this, the show begins to tell stories about whoever it can find. Random classmates, literal children, vague acquaintances, sidekicks to side-characters. Everybody is given a sword and told to go fight Utena. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for this; how are these kids a threat to her?
And if it isn’t a side-character, the show will just bring back somebody that was already beaten before and have them do a rematch. They’re not stronger, they haven’t done extra training or learned new skills. It’s pointless time-wasting, unless you got 39 episodes to fill and only like 10 developed characters to work with.
This was a controversial anime back in 1997 and one that author Chiho Saito had to fight for to get published without censorship. It has been held up as a champion of LGBT anime, which makes it a shame that the romance is so underwhelming, if not entirely non-existent.
Utena rescues Anthy not out of love, but out a sense of justice, and is then perplexed when the two become roommates and Anthy keeps insisting they are a couple. The dueling tournament is literally a battle for who gets to be engaged with her, but Utena begins fighting out of a desire to “free” Anthy from this fate instead. A fate that Anthy herself seems unbothered by.
While the two get along well, I never got the feeling there was much romantic intent beyond the statuses given to these characters by the dueling tournament. This is partly due to the lack of character development, but also because Anthy is such a passionless character that always feels fake. She always goes along with anything Utena does or believes in, but does the exact same for anybody else when they are the current winners, betraying Utena without a second thought.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is a story about a girl with no agency becoming a willing slave and lover to whoever last won a swordfight, regardless of their gender or actual romantic interest in her. I can think of better shows to celebrate the LGBT community.
#5 Character design
Revolutionary Girl Utena is an amazing show in terms of art & music. It’s epic, beautiful, surreal, and highly impressive stuff that is still worth seeing today. Fans of Monogatari, in particular, will find much to like here.
However, I was not a fan of the character design. I felt that most characters looked very generic beyond their candy-colored hair, which is especially true for the boring designs of the boys in this story. Characters like Saionji, Aiko, and Kiryuu I am fairly sure you could faceswap without noticing, but others are not far behind. I actually forgot what the villain of the second arc looked like the day after I finished watching it and had to look him up on the wiki.
I also felt there was a problem with sexualizing the characters. With how independent and mature they act, not to mention all the sex scenes that become increasingly less obscured as the show goes on, I thought these characters were all in their late teens. But nope, Utena is 14-years-old and most other characters hover around that age as well. Yikes…