5 Reasons To Skip: Revolutionary Girl Utena

#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.

Funeral service anime

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.

Revolutionary Girl Utena Dance

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.

Revolutionary Girl Utena Fencing

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.

#4 Anthy

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.

Abuse Revolutionary Girl Utena

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.

Revolutionary Girl Utena guys

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…

12 thoughts on “5 Reasons To Skip: Revolutionary Girl Utena

  1. I’ve always had a hard time trying to figure out why everyone loves this show. I mean there has got to be something I’m missing, but I’ll be darned if I can figure it out.

    1. I don’t think it’s a show without value. Far from it, even. It’s a beautiful show with some amazing music to it, the action scenes are well-done (if repetitive) and I do like the philosophical tone it has going on, even if it makes characters seem oddly mature for their actual age. I could even see how Utena would be a nice role model for young girls, but yeah… the article speaks for itself.

  2. This whole show is built on metaphors and deeper meaning. Not for everyone, certainly, but I think you may have missed where the development occurred, why the setting was important, etc. For one, Anthy’s personality is far from sweet and submissive in reality, and while Utena begins with a sense of hollow justice, she learns that this is not helping her friend, who is in a genuinely serious situation.
    Maybe reading up on some of the cool meta people have written about this show would help with the appreciation some?

    1. Hi Hannah, thank you for your insight. It was clear to me that Utena has a lot of subtle storytelling going on, but I struggled to appreciate that because so little of the story resonated with me. I have since seen Penguindrum and Yurikuma Arashi by the same creative lead, both of which I enjoyed a lot. If possible, I’ll rewatch Utena someday and update this review where necessary.

      Btw, do you have a good starting point for the meta content you mentioned? I must admit that I’m curious as to what I may have missed.

  3. Serious question, how much of the show did you actually watch? To me this reads like a review from someone who only watched up to the Black Rose Saga, and only engaged with the themes and storytelling on a very surface level. Utena has so much more to it than what this review implies you came away with, so I really do recommend a rewatch!

    Also, if you’re looking for meta to read, this watch party has great analysis of each episode and I really recommend reading it during a rewatch: https://joseinextdoor.com/anicrit-commentary-and-analysis/utena-watch-party/

    1. Hi Ida, sorry but your comment was temporarily caught up in the spam filter due to the included hyperlink. I was absent so I didn’t get to approve it until a few hours later.

      It’s been a while now, but I watched the entirety of the Revolutionary Girl Utena TV anime. Only under unique circumstances are any reviews on this website for shows that I did not actually finish the main anime of. That’s also why some of the screenshots are from later in the series and why I brought up the series’ tendency for rematches. With that said, I didn’t get to see Adolescence of Utena because I understood, at the time, that it was a part retelling and part sequel of dubious canon.

      Thank you for the link. I’ll read up on this tomorrow.

      1. Sorry if I seemed rude! Your segment on Anthy just reads a lot like something that would be written by someone who missed the final arc of the series (ep 33-39). Three parts especially stood out to me. Sorry for the long comment in advance haha

        “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…. Utena begins fighting out of a desire to “free” Anthy from this fate instead. A fate that Anthy herself seems unbothered by.” Yeah, that’s how it starts out! In the end we do learn Anthy isn’t unbothered by it, and along the way we see them start caring for each other, which shows especially well in the last arc.

        “…but also because Anthy is such a passionless character that always feels fake.” Yes, because she is fake. For the majority of the series she’s suppressing her own thoughts and feelings to better cope with the abuse she suffers. We see glimpses of the real her around the series, but again, especially in the final arc!

        “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 don’t have much to say, did you miss the part where she leaves Ohtori? Revolutionary Girl Utena is a story about a LOT of things, but certainly not that!

      2. No worries, I am used to comments that are far more unpleasant.

        I do find myself in a difficult position here, because it’s been far too long ago for me to genuinely reply to your interpretations of the plot. Utena hasn’t been on my mind for a long time, so details about the plot have faded somewhat. I do recall that I chose not to mention the eventual payoffs that you’re addressing here for two reasons:

        1. I didn’t want to spoil the major developments from later in the show, regardless of whether I enjoyed the anime or not.
        2. By the time the last arc rolled around, I was already on bad terms with the characters. The final plot twists and developments didn’t suddenly turn that around for me to the point where my opinions on the story changed much.

        Ultimately, I fear, that Utena just wasn’t the right anime for me. I couldn’t relate to or care much for the characters, I was put off by the romances, and didn’t care much for the artsy directing. Some would argue that I shouldn’t review it then, but it’s my belief that outside perspectives have a lot of value. Both for existing discourse, as well as for people curious about Utena after seeing it being praised so much.

        Your quotes and comments did highlight to me that this review needs some tweaking. Some of language, I now realize, comes off as needlessly insensitive given the topics of abuse and manipulation. I’ll see if I can fix that over the weekend after having read up on a few sources to jog my memory.

      3. You’re right, Utena isn’t for everyone and that is a valid viewpoint that should be heard! Personally I loved it a lot, and found myself relating to some characters and fully despising others, as intended haha

        If you’re interested enough in it, I do think a rewatch could give you a different opinion on the series, its been 3 years since this review after all. Ultimately that’s only up to you though!

        Happy new year, and have a good day!

  4. A few things. First, the anime run by Ikuhara and the manga written by Saito were written at the same time. The anime was never based off the manga. Also, Saito should not be praised for the LGBTQ rep because, as she says in an interview, she was initially unwilling to show a sapphic romance as she believed it would not sell well. Ikuhara was the one who pushed for it. As we can see, Juri, the only 100% undeniably queer character, is not portrayed as such in the manga. While I’m sure Saito’s contributions were meaningful, I don’t think the queerness should be attributed to her.

    On the lack of character development: I’m not gonna write a very detailed argument because I could go on for hours, but I don’t agree. Briefly: Utena loses a lot of her naivete. Anthy, through watching Utena suffer, learns the injustice of her situation and decides to leave, a decision she would not have made at the beginning of the story.

    On repetition: The story is about cycles of abuse. Cyclicality and repetition are therefore used as a tool to structure the story. Repetition of arcs and how characters forget what happened in previous arcs are both very important thematically. It enforces the idea that Utena is simply the most latest prince in a cycle of princes (see black rose arc). With the stair walking, the repetition of it settles the watcher into a routine. When the routine is broken, it points to a major change that has taken place. Namely, the introduction of the elevator signals Utena’s loss of agency to the audience. That being said, I do agree with this point of yours. There were probably more time-effective ways to show this change in Utena’s character. However, RGU was also made in the era of magical girls, by a showrunner who worked on Sailor Moon, with long transformations being the norm.

    You are so fucking correct about character design. It is my biggest issue with this show. Give me some goddamn different proportions PLEASE.

    TW for sexual assault and mentions of rape, incest, pedophilia, and grooming in the following parts of this comment:

    On a lack of agency and icky romance: yeah that’s kinda the point. This is a show about two 14 year old girls who are groomed and raped by an adult man. The show means for the viewer to be uncomfortable. Young characters are sexualized because Akio is doing the sexualizing. Characters do not have agency because Akio’s abuse strips them of their agency. If you dislike the show because of that, that is completely understandable. However, that does not mean the show is bad. It just means that Akio is a sufficiently hatable villain and you may not enjoy this particular rape narrative. That being said, I think RGU is much kinder to its victims in terms of not doing unnecessary sexualization than most other stories, especially anime.

    On this show not being relatable: yeah maybe for you it isn’t. That’s fair. For me, I relate to Utena and Nanami heavily. As a queer girl myself, the narrative felt more fitting than any other I have encountered. Specifically, I related to the themes of compulsory heterosexuality, the whole weirdness of gender presentation, and dealing with growing into a body tied to the expectation of sexuality. I’m aro ace myself, not sapphic, so I don’t find myself well represented by most media, even queer media. A story like Utena is rare for me.
    Furthermore, I see my friends in the characters. One of my friends is taking her uncle to court for sexual assault at the moment. I know it is very easy to think of pedophilia and incest as far away, but unfortunately they are not. One of my other friends had a boyfriend who thought he had “cheated” on her because he got sexually assaulted at a party. She had to explain to this boy that getting pinned down and kissed without consent while under the influence isn’t the same as cheating. RGU’s male teenagers are all horrible, but they are also very representative of real-world struggles men and boys face, specifically ignoring sa and treating it as normal adolescent sexuality (see Toga and Akio). Just because you don’t relate to the narrative doesn’t mean that others won’t, or that the narrative isn’t important.
    I know you were just speaking to your own experiences, and this probably isn’t what you were trying to argue, but I just wanted to share my own thoughts on it.

    I also disagree with you: I think that Anthy and Utena are very much in love, even if it is subtle. Both girls are dishonest with their feelings, Utena being kinda dumb and not realizing what she feels, and Anthy’s feeling tied up in her trauma. However, they are much closer than friends and have a genuine connection (see: holding hands when sleeping, Anthy imagining Utena when alone, the cantarella scene and promising to meet again in 10 years, Utena’s main motivation being to rescue Anthy (no matter how misguided), Anthy leaving Akio to search for Utena).

    Personally, my biggest gripe with RGU is the movie. Making Anthy’s skin lighter is probably the most obvious yikes, but I also think that Toga’s sacrificial death undermines the idea that true princehood is unachievable, as established in the show. Although I do appreciate that the girls were allowed to kiss in the movie (and visually it is so goddamn pretty).

    So anyways, RGU. Not perfect, but i think it’s pretty goddamn good. I don’t mean to insult you, or say that the show is for everyone. Just personally, I find a lot of value in it and would recommend it to others who like digging their teeth into some good metaphorical and surrealist shojo.

    I am so sorry this comment is so long. I am incapable of shutting up about this show.

    1. Hi there! Please don’t apologize for the length of your comment, it was very interesting to read. It’s clear this anime means a lot to you, so I am honored that you’d take the time to so elaborately engage with my review of it. Especially considering that I was very harsh towards it here.

      Your points make sense too. The cyclical nature of the story, the topics of grooming and abuse, I can see how those were deliberate choices rather than mistakes. Even if I understand it, however, that doesn’t really change how I felt watching through it. The reused scenes and samey nature of the storylines still feels too repetitive to me, in turn making it hard to stay engaged for me. The same applies in regards to the sexually-tinted content. It feels inappropriate for me to watch, even if I can recognize how some of that discomfort is intentional.

      My format of reviews doesn’t lend itself well to nuance, but I do respect that the show resonates so strongly with people. I can’t relate to it myself, as you pointed out, but I am glad that others can see themselves reflected in its characters and draw inspiration from the story. My critical review of the show was never meant to disparage against its passionate fans or make light of the serious topics that the anime addresses.

      Thank you for sharing your story and thoughts with us. Even if we can’t wholly agree here, I appreciate you visiting my site and taking this much time to discuss my work. Perhaps there are other shows that we do agree on?

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