Despite being stuffed to the gills with long transformation sequences, a cute animal mascot and other standard magical girl tropes, you don’t find Revolutionary Girl Utena being described as a ‘magical girl’ series very often. A closer look at the work – adapted into one of the biggest and, surprisingly, controversial anime of the 1990s – reveals why.
Chiho Saito’s surreal, allegorical shojo manga loves to subvert and toy with the typical imagery of anime and manga. Not only does tomboyish teen protagonist Utena reject the magic that controls her surroundings (even as she uses it to prevent disaster), she also spurns the frilly, cutesy, ultra-feminine appearance of the traditional magical girl.
Rescued by a dashing prince as a little girl, Utena promptly sets out to become a prince herself – dressing, to the annoyance of her teachers, in boy’s school uniform. A series of mysterious letters lead Utena to join prestigious Ohtori Academy in search of her unknown princely saviour. There she meets the flower-themed Anthy Himemiya – a pretty, shy girl who is relentlessly ill-treated by her fellow members on the student council.
In a special forbidden area of the school, Utena confronts one of these council members in a duel, where victory goes to whomever can knock off the rose worn by their opponent. Despite only wielding a bamboo sword against her foe’s magical metal blade, Utena manages to win; gaining not only the sword, but also the Rose Bride – none other than Anthy. Inevitably, it is not long before Utena finds herself pitted against the rest of the council, as well as the acting school chairman …who just happens to be Anthy’s older brother, Akio Ohtori.
Over time Utena and Anthy become extremely close, which sparked some controversy back in the day – not so much because of the lesbian nature of their relationship, but because some Japanese readers and viewers objected to it being an interracial one! Not being homophobic and not being racist was too much to ask for, apparently.
Given the size of this comprehensive collected edition – and the slightly daunting length of the chapters it contains – it’s perhaps best to take Revolutionary Girl Utena at a leisurely pace to appreciate it fully. The artwork is good and while the plot can be confusing in parts, it’s not half as complex and convoluted as the even longer anime series it inspired.
Publisher Viz Media has gone out of its way to make a good impression with this box set of Revolutionary Girl Utena. All five volumes of the original manga plus the manga version of the movie Adolescence of Utena are housed in a pair of swish-looking hardback books, complete with occasional colour pages and a poster. It’s a quality package for a classic manga, and one that we heartily recommend. Reviewed by Ian Wolf
Credits: Chiho Saito (story and art) and Be-Papas (original concept)
Publisher: Viz Media
Release Date: Out Now
Copyright: © 1997 & 1999 Chiho Saito/Kunihiko Ikuhara & Be-Papas/Shogakukan