Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997), also referred to as Shoujo Kakumei Utena by its other fans, has been around for ages now. The anime’s known for its outlandish homoerotic moments, strange humor, and complex use of symbolism. But, most importantly, it’s a show about a bunch of teenagers fighting over a girl, named Anthy (whom they lovingly dub the “Rose Bride”), at a school — using swords. Where it’s up to the protagonist, Utena, to come to her rescue with every subsequent episode.
The anime begins with the story of how an orphaned protagonist (Utena) encounters a wandering prince during the darkest moment of her life. He stops to console her, and praise her strength, as he thought she was strong for dealing with her problems alone.
He gives her his ring — promising that they will meet again someday. So long as she maintains her “noble” values when she grows up. Enchanted by this encounter, Utena dedicates her life to becoming a heroic figure, like him. Where she aspires to live her life as the Prince of her own story. Believing that, following in his footsteps will one day reunite them.
Evolution Of Heroes In Our Culture
Which, brings us to this article’s topic. Heroes. Heroes have been within our culture, since the dawn of time. They are the characters that society sells as good, reliable people. The ones they know are capable of saving them when dark times come. They’re the people that the world admires most, and aspire to be. Heroes are those that people trust with their lives, and are expected to protect and save them, whenever needed. No matter the risks.
In anime, Heroes are the ones who often sacrifice themselves in the name of the greater good. They’re a reflection of the good that the worlds capable of, and a representation of the people’s hope. They go to great lengths to strengthen themselves for the greater good of the world. So they could use their moral values to strengthen themselves, against the growing evils of the world.
Because of this, society has always favored championing men as their heroes, more than women. They’re portrayed in our culture as characters with great strength, and features of masculinity. Often, because men are considered more “expendable” in our lives, than females. And mostly, it’s because of their greater sense of strength, and influential power within our society, that helps us create change.
Male heroes appear more reliable to keep people safe, knowing that they’ll risk their lives to save them. It feels like it’s only in recent times that, the world has grown comfortable enough to separate female characters from their traditional roles, and turn them into heroes of equal standing.
In the heroic stories of our past, women weren’t given any significant roles, until decades later. Given that, they couldn’t reach society’s standards for heroism, when they had little entitlement to anything worth admiring. They’re owned by their husbands, with no wealth or education to their name. They lacked independent resources and had little rights to any personal belongings. Because of this, society favored portraying them with weaker, and darker roles. Having them rely on deceitful, and passive-aggressive methods to get what they need in life.
Popular roles for women often set them as the damsels or villains of their stories. Rarely, have they’ve been recorded as anything else, otherwise. Because they had weaker qualities than the average hero, they’re often portrayed as malignant seducers, witches, and monsters of their world. The convention started with the creation of Grendel’s Mom from Beowulf, and have since stayed that way, until recent times. Where the convention has branched away from its classical portrayals — stories like Shakespeare — to more modern interpretations in things like comics and anime.
These traditional roles made women appear dark, and untrustworthy to the world. They took advantage of their sexuality to manipulate others into doing what they wanted. And their weaknesses resulted in them betraying their friends and getting captured by enemies. In Utena, it’s Anthy’s character who affirms the most towards this category, as she spends most of the series being owned by others.
The way Anthy (a.k.a the Rose Bride) is portrayed in this show is amazing. She’s a female character who not only closely fits the traditional conventions from an interesting angle — by being both the damsel and villain of this series. But, she does it in such a way that it grants her room for growth and redemption. Her role in this anime can be compared to Eve, from John Milton’s Paradise Loss. As she’s used by others to manipulate heroes from their paths (ideals); in ways that benefit both her and the one who controls her.
Throughout the anime, Anthy uses her powers to create facades and illusions of herself around other people. She wears different variations of herself, to help her seduce others into fighting for her. Where she offers them unspoken promises of obtaining the power to create miracles, so long as they fight for her in return.
Her “owner(s)” are often tricked into believing that their interests for the world align and that the key to achieving them is through “revolutionizing” their world — making the world a better place (through their eyes). Her manipulations are what usually brings characters to their downfall, as her promises of power are what gradually ignites their inner greed, and warps their intended ideals for the world (what makes them a hero).
However, this role changes with the protagonist’s influence in her life, as she’s saved through Utena’s kindness; while others have sought her for their own gain. Utena’s the first person to appreciate her for who she is, and not what she can do. Her open acceptance of Anthy’s existence, and desire to be friends, are what gives Anthy the courage to reform herself, near the end of the series.
Portrayal Of Heroes in Utena
In terms of conventions, Heroes in Utena falls into a mixture of both categories: they’re identified with both traditional and nontraditional elements of heroic standards. They’re conventional in the sense that their beliefs align with the traditional standards of past heroes.
And they’re unconventional in the sense that their role in society is not restricted by issues of gender. Instead, their roles are determined by the limits of the characters own sets of belief and ideology. It’s their moral values in the world — the capacity of what they believe in, and are willing to fight for — that makes them a hero. A Heroes perception of what makes them a hero is ultimately what defines them as one in this series.
Utena’s the example of a Modern Hero. She’s a girl who’s not easily put down by her own limitations, and, instead, thrives in overcoming them. As the hero of her story, she distances herself from traditional conventions, by refusing to be the damsel. She refuses to limit her dreams, by playing her expected role in society. When she dedicates herself to becoming a “Prince,” she adopts male characteristics, to fully emerge herself into the role.
Throughout the show, Utena adheres to a set of ideals, that she believes are heroes should behave. She goes her way to emulate the Prince she admires, and suppresses her femininity, in favor of adopting a more “Princely” persona around others. Her drive to becoming a Prince often results in her in behaving like a boy. Which results in her dressed in a male’s uniform, and excelling in sports, instead of more feminine activities.
She even practices chivalry around her female classmates, as she goes her way to defend them from bullies — whenever needed. In which, her classmates no longer identify her as a girl, in their eyes. Moreover, her attempts to “play” prince, are what often puts her against other heroes. As her beliefs are tested in battle when they fight to determine whether her ideals are really making her the hero, that she tries to be.
Dios is the White Knight of the Utena series. He’s a mysterious prince who goes his way to help those in need. Throughout his life, Dios traveled the world, to save those that needed him.
Frequently, he encountered girls, like Utena, who needed the courage to overcome their personal problems. And he would save them through his words of guidance. This noble act continued throughout his lifetime. And he continues to do so, in spirit, through Utena’s actions in the anime.
True to his promise, Dios reunites with Utena, as a heroic spirit; with every battle she encounters. Early on, in the series, Utena relies on Dios’ power (his sword) to help her win her battles. He appears to save her, whenever she struggles against an opponent.
She channels his “heroic” spirit to strengthen herself, whenever she fights people, with his beliefs in mind. Where he turns the battle over, by loaning her power in delivering the finishing blow. It’s his presence that pulls her through her problems, and it’s his ideals that guide her in the early battles.
His physical appearance in this show also matches the descriptions of a heroic figure from tradition. In the first episode, he shows him on top of a white horse, riding in from the distance, to rescue a grieving protagonist. He only appears briefly through the anime, and each encounter, shows him behaving noble, and chivalrous. He’s the manifestation of a true Prince, in the protagonist’s eyes, as he represents the hero she wants to be.
When Heroes Become Villains
In our culture, Villains are generally those with goals, that work against the Heroes beliefs and values. Villains are often considered weaker than Heroes in significant aspects. Which is why their lack of physical, or moral, strength has them relying on underhanded tactics to gain the upper hand. They often lack honor with their ways, as they’re desperate to achieve their goals. They will stop at nothing to get what they want, and they will risk everything to get it. They’re like society’s cockroaches waiting for an opportunity to achieve a greater goal.
One of the major things I love about this theme in Utena is that Heroes have the ability to become Villains, at any point in this anime. They don’t remain glued to one side. Their morale standpoints are interchangeable. They’re human. Their problems result from their reluctance to accept certain changes in their life. Whether the change is rooted from their need to alter their ideals in order to grow — both the Rose Bride, and Akio, preys upon their weak moments and uses it to turn them against their own friends.
Dios’ downfall, and Akio’s birth
Dios was once a hero who dreamed of changing the world. In his youth, he aspired to save all suffering maidens from despair but failed to do so, as it wasn’t in his power. He dedicated his life searching for a way to create miracles in the world — hoping that he could one-day “change” the world into a better place. Dios’ determination to “revolutionize” the world, while heroic, becomes a dark obsession for him.
And is what eventually turns him into the villain, Akio. His obsession with changing the world is an instance of a Hero “gone wrong” in this anime. His desire for power makes him shameless, as it results in him deceiving those within his reach, and using them to gain power.
Akio Throughout The Series
Throughout the show, Akio relies heavily on his sister’s magic to help him achieve his goals. His possession of her is what grants him the ability to access the sword within her. The sword is a symbolic representation of his own nobility.
It’s drawn from his sisters magic and is strengthened from his beliefs. It’s the closest thing he has to creating “miracles” in the world, as it gave him the power to save others. However, his power wasn’t enough to achieve his dreams. So, he spends the entire series plotting to create another like it.
He hosts tournaments in the school grounds he works at (he’s the chairman, and he should be fired), and offers his sister as a prize to those who battle for her power. All so, he could give birth to new heroes — ones capable of succeeding where he failed, so he can use them when the time comes.
This is why he manipulates the protagonist into being a hero, and it’s why he continues to use her throughout the anime. It’s his inability to move on from his former ideals that make him a villain. Unlike his sister, it’s his resistance to embracing his failures in life that prevents him from seeking redemption.
What Makes Utena The Hero Of This Anime?
Ultimately, it’s her self-sacrificing nature that makes her the Hero. She puts the well-being of others before herself and willingly risks herself to do so. She adapts herself to the process, as she looks for alternative ways to achieve her goals, without having to sacrifice those she cares about. She’s willing to live a life of unhappiness and accept it as it is, rather than trying to change it — at the price of letting her friends suffer in her place, for a happy ending.
What I love about Utena as a hero, is that it’s not her strength that makes her great — it’s her sense of will-power. She’s the Hero of the show because she never gives up. When things don’t work in her favor, shes adapts herself accordingly, and make it so it does. She shapes her beliefs after her own success and failures, instead of falling down an obsessed spiral of despair. Her strength lies within her autonomy, as it fuels her determination to seek alternative solutions for her own failures.
She starts the show trying to live through another person’s ideals, only to realize that doing so, isn’t enough for her. That her dreams amount to more, for her than copying someone else’s standards. In which, she succeeds in distancing herself away from things that don’t work for her, and creating what does.
With every battle that she fights in Dios’ ideology, Utena shapes a newer understanding of what it means to be a hero, through her own means. This results in her abandoning her former ideals, in favor of paving her own path. She takes control of her own life, by becoming a “Prince” with her own beliefs. Something that many in this series fail to do.
So, why should you watch Revolutionary Girl Utena? Let’s be honest here, this anime’s not for everyone. It gets bizarre at times. Especially, when it comes to episodes that have nothing to do with the main story (fillers).
You can watch this anime as many times as you want and still fall upon the realization that, you’re probably never going to understand what’s going on. It’s always left to interpretation when it comes to Utena — and that’s what I love best about this anime. It lets you create your own understanding of the story’s plot and themes, without any indications of right or wrong.
Overall, I think people should, at least, give this anime a try — especially if you’re into Shoujo-esque stories with heroic themes. It’s not for everyone. But, let’s face it, heroes are becoming a huge part of our culture, this day in age. Fictional series, especially, have only just begun separating their characters from traditional depictions of heroism.
So, it’s amazing to see what stories are crafted in the process. People are coming up with their own ideas of how heroes in society should appear, and this theme only continues to evolve. Utena is just one variation of how heroes are creatively expressed using this theme, thus far — and the results are fascinating to behold. Also, watch it because it’s cool?