Revolutionary Girl Utena
Ah, this is a fairly famous anime...well, within the domain of high-romantic style shoujo anime in any case. While it's not as well known as it's shounen brethren like Tenchi or Ranma there are no shortage of people who will heap high praise on this title. Does it deserve this prominent position? well, that's a little bit more complex.
Conveniently the show includes a short synopsis of it's own. It's not played before every episode (indeed it was hard to find when I wanted it) but it is repeated several times. I think this version is from a fansub, and a touch more flowery than some, but the text reads like this.
Once upon a time a princess was grieving over the deaths of her mother and father. Before that princess appeared a prince, traveling on a white horse. His appearance gallant and his smile gentle, the prince enveloped the princess in the scent of roses and wiped away her tears. "Small one bearing up alone under grief, please lose not thy strength and nobility when thou growest up. As a token of this day please retain this (giving her a rose seal ring). We shall meet again, this ring will guide you to me". Was the ring from the prince meant as an engagement ring? This was all very fine, but caught up in her overwhelming adoration of the prince the princess made up her mind to become a prince herself! But was that really such a good idea?
At which point we break out of this dreamlike sequence and return to something closer to reality, although not by a very wide margin. In essence we follow Utena, a tall, pink-haired athletic girl who has come close to meeting her aim of becoming a prince. Strong, capable and without fear she is both compassionate and the possessor of a pure and honest heart. Which is a shame, because she's enrolled in a very strange academy that seems to be embroiled in some deeply complex, and intense, mysteries and conspiracies. Nor is it long before her own nature and her heritage have her deeply involved within them. And the prize they fight, and scheme, for is none other than the power to revolutionize the world. Although Utena is more interested in protecting the victims of this cruel struggle, most notably Anthy Himemiya who is one of the prizes to be fought over.
Some people will be thinking that the term `fought over' means some shoujo flavored emotional terrorism. Nope, not in this anime. In this anime it means sword-fighting. It seems that, in addition to the normal psychological manipulation, the core mystery has a certain structure to it. Certain powerful individuals within the school community, most notably the school council, have been recognized as key players. They receive mysterious letters, have access to a rather unusual arena and duel for the chance to move closer to gaining what they seek.
Which brings me to the first comment I have to make. Some anime uses subtle metaphor and symbolism to add depth to the literal story being played out. This anime uses these same elements, but the application is more like a sledge hammer. Psychological duels become physical duels, faith and trust produce `magical artifacts' that are visible and important weapons, a persons state is given through strong visual symbols and many abstract aims, goals and desires can be pointed at. The realm of the immortal? that's it rotating on the ceiling. And in case you don't get it there's some strong music full of fragments of heavy meaning to re-inforce it. It's somewhere in between the real world and a really twisted fairy-tale.
The style, and characters, and no more subtle. The stories, and the nature of events and the characters themselves, are carefully arranged for maximum impact. Everyone, save perhaps Utena, has deep and dangerous emotions. And this show will do everything in it's power to display them for maximum effect. The psychological knife is buried deep, twisted a couple of times, and then generally aimed at Utena. Partly because she's the hero, partly because she is the one who must be tested, and partly so that they can conclude it and torture some other member of the cast. It is so incredibly staged and contrived that it challenges credibility...but perhaps that's the point.
As a result the story itself is a rather odd creature. For one thing it's not really that important. There's always the suggestion of an explanation lurking in the background, but they're in no hurry to give it out. In the mean time it is having so much fun whacking you with heavy doses of style, character drama and conflict. In practice it even breaks into three neat parts. In the first Utena competes with the council. Then the story seems to get a bit tenuous and calls all the minor characters onto the chopping block. Finally, while moving up to the conclusion, it basically connects everyone back into the conflict. It's really not important, as long as the show has someone to play with. With the focus on style, the story is just a convenience to tie the desired scenes together.
It sounds like I hate the show doesn't it? Well, I think I have a firm basis for this. It's contrived, artificial, the story wanders all over the place and it suffers from a serious overdose of style. But, even worse, I really enjoyed the ride. I watched the last half of the series in two days, I planned to take a week, but I couldn't stop myself feeding in more tapes. A large part of this is because I really wanted to know how the conclusion could possibly tie this all together. But at the same time many of the stories did have power, did call forth an emotional response and did make me interested in the characters and their actions. The shoujo formula is much more forgiving than I thought, even though at times the show was like some warped soap opera (Touga, put the shirt on now) I simply couldn't stop watching. And the conclusion, when it came, was entirely satisfying. It didn't quite explain everything that occurred, but it did enough.
So what am I saying here. I guess the first thing is that if you detest shoujo material in general then this stuff should really bug you. It's just so aggressive in it's approach that I don't believe you'll be able to enjoy it. Even if you do like shoujo material I still don't believe it is a classic, there's too many weak parts to the series for that. Such things as the worlds ugliest anime mascot (the `breathing your own fart' bit was delightful), excessive posing on the part of the bishounen members of the cast (not even shounen fan-service is quite this obvious) and some of the least funny comedy episodes I've ever seen. In fact in general it works partly because it shoots story threads all over the place, but not all of them are entirely successful. And it was also a surprise to find that Utena is a rather passive hero, almost always the one manipulated, acted upon or forced to act rather than being the lead in many stories. Still, while I will not herald it as a classic or an anime for everyone, those who find the style compatible with their tastes will be in for quite an intense and unusual ride.
As mentioned the style on this show is aggressive. The way in which things are depicted, the character art and even the environments they occupy are simply frames for the drama. Indeed there's lots of other elements, such as the wonderfully unique shadow puppets and `visual frames' to support this. it's unusual, but quite effective. Which is good, because the animation isn't actually very impressive at all. The character designs are stylish but not too complex, backgrounds are abstracted and motion simplified and frequently re-used. The color is often quite minimal and washed out. And often the characters aren't particularly attractive (Touga, last warning, put the damn shirt on and stop posing). However since all the elements are linked into, and dominated by, a strong and coherent sense of style any technical limitations don't actually end up meaning anything. The voices are varied and quite good, the music is overly aggressive (sounds familiar?) but both end up making sense once you become used to them.