Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 5, May 2001
Dir. Kunihiko Ikuhara
Utena:
Adolescence Mokushiroku
(The Adolescence of Utena)

Colour animation, 74mins, Japanese, Japan 1998.

reviewed by Sabdha Charlton


If it cannot hatch from its shell, the chick will die without ever truly being born. We are the chick; the world is our egg. If we don't break the world's shell, we will die without truly being born. Smash the world's shell, for the Revolution of the World.

  1. As its name suggests, revolution (kakumei) is a key theme in the suite of productions that go by the name Revolutionary Girl Utena (Shoujo Kakumei Utena). Like many other Japanese manga, it is a story that has appeared in three formats – as a printed comic (manga), a television series, and a film (known in English as Adolescence of Utena). Each of these formats tells more or less the same story, with more or less the same characters, and though there are also significant differences between the three versions, they all have in common a narrative trajectory that climaxes in a revolution that destroys the world of the story and releases the main characters into a new world. This review will concentrate on the film, with some reference to the series.
     
  2. Adolescence of Utena is a richly detailed and visually stunning film, with a storyline so complex that it is impossible to do it justice here. It occurs in what is commonly known as an alternate universe; that is, the story and characterisations differ significantly from the series, rather than being contiguous with
    Figure 1. Utena, Anthy and the Rose Seal
    the world set up in the series. Briefly, the film revolves around a pink-haired, boyish girl called Utena Tenjou, an eighth grader at the Ohtori Academy. When she arrives at the school, she receives a ring with a rose pattern on it from the centre of a white rose. Her old boyfriend, her 'prince', Touga Kiryuu (who we later learn is actually dead, and thus a figment of her imagination) also possesses a 'rose seal' (bara no kokuin). Utena soon meets other members of the school who wear the rose seal, and she learns that the wearers of the seal must duel each other – the winner of the duel is then engaged to Anthy Himemiya, the Rose Bride (bara no hanayome).
    The possessor of the Rose Bride receives her services (sexual and otherwise), but, more importantly, also possesses the 'power to revolutionise the world' (sekai o kakumei suru chikara). Disappointed by the failures of her own prince, Utena has decided that she wants to become a prince herself, and so duels for Anthy not because she wants the revolutionary power, but because she is angry about the way the other duellists treat Anthy when they are engaged to her. Like Utena, Anthy also has her (dead) prince – her abusive brother Akio, the chairman of Ohtori Academy and the mastermind of the Ohtori world. Anthy is drawn to Utena because of her nobility and sincerity, and Utena eventually returns this feeling. Their bond is cemented by their mutual guilt over the deaths of their princes, and together they escape both Ohtori and their princes in a climactic scene where Utena turns into a car that Anthy drives through many obstacles to eventually reach the outside world. In doing so, together they revolutionise the world of Ohtori through this act of escape.
     
  3. This revolution involves the complete collapse of the Ohtori Academy and the castle suspended above it. This castle is significant because it promises eternity and miracles to Utena as the possessor of the Rose Bride, at the price of both their freedoms, and its destruction means simultaneously the gaining of freedom but the loss of eternal life. Although the series also involves these kinds of excessive cataclysms of disaster and emotion, the Utena movie is a site of excess even beyond the series. The film is highly intertextual – at its most basic level, this is evidenced in the way that the narrative is very difficult to understand without prior knowledge of the storylines and characterisations of the series. This means that comparisons between the two are inevitable, and thus the movie is always more than the series more obscure, more symbolic, more artistically impressive. Similarly, in the characterisations of the main characters Utena is more masculine, Anthy is sexier, and Touga and Akio more princely. This excess extends to the settings and technical codes of the movie. For example, there are masses of roses as far as the eye can see where in the series there is a simple glasshouse within which the roses are contained, and all the characters have masses more hair (except Utena who, in keeping with her more sober, masculine characterisation has her hair cropped). The architecture of Ohtori academy is angular, distorted and often shown in long shots which emphasise space and distance – indeed there are huge echoing spaces everywhere, inside the buildings and out. This excess is particularly clear in the depiction of sexuality, most notably in the ending, where the same-sex love of Utena and Anthy is graphically illustrated, unlike the series where the same-sex eroticism is limited to a subtext fed by a visual vocabulary of looks and poses. Revolution is in itself a kind of excess or uprising, and thus these excesses of characterisation, mise-en-scene and sexuality in the movie are key in producing Utena as a revolutionary girl.
     
  4. However, revolution is figured in Utena in more subtle ways than through setting and narrative. Both the series and the movie are known for their extensive use of symbols and myths from a variety of sources. One of the major sources from which these are drawn is the work of famous manga artist Riyoko Ikeda, in particular her path breaking work The Rose of Versailles, and indeed Chiho Saito and Kunihiko Ikuhara, the creative team that authored, drew and directed both the movie and the series, cite Ikeda as a major influence on their work.[1]

    Figure 2. Kunihiko Ikuhara.


    Figure 3. Oscar from The Rose of Versailles.
    The Rose of Versailles is a re-telling of the French Revolution through a fictional character called Oscar, who was born a girl but raised as a boy by her father (who was frustrated by his lack of sons). Oscar goes on to become the commander of the Royal Guard, and protects Marie Antoinette and the French court. Ikeda's influence can be seen across many aspects of Utena, most immediately obviously in the use of roses as the primary symbolic sign, and the figure of revolution as the narrative engine of both series. Furthermore, all of the Utena series, manga and movie are subtitled in French (La Fillette Revolutionnaire). Revolution as it is invoked in Utena is thus inflected through this association with an allegorical link to a romanticised version of European history, specifically the French Revolution (which in Utena's subtitling becomes a French revolution). Furthermore, Saito's characters, like Ikeda's, have angular, lean bodies, long flowing brightly coloured hair, wear close-fitting, romanticised, old-fashioned military uniforms complete with tassels on their shoulders, and regularly take part in spectacular sword fights. Their genders are similarly romanticised and fluid, and the main character in both The Rose of Versailles and Utena is a girl who wears boy's clothes, uses the masculine self-referential pronoun boku and has a distinctly boyish way of speaking (especially in comparison to the hyper-femininity of characters such as Marie Antoinette and Anthy). Indeed, these characteristics of the two works are located within the broader tradition of shoujo manga (girls' comics), which abounds in floral imagery, ambiguously gendered characters, and romanticised references to vaguely historical European culture.
     
  5. The genre of shoujo manga is generally acknowledged to have been started by the 'god' of Japanese manga, Osamu Tezuka (best known in Australia for his Astro Boy series), and early shoujo manga was indeed mostly drawn by men. However in the 1970s a group of women known as the 49ers (because they were born in and around 1949) came to prominence, and the genre of shoujo manga has been dominated by women authors and artists ever since.[2] Ikeda was one of these 49ers, and is probably the most well-known of these outside of Japan thanks to Frederik Schodt's translation of a few pages of The Rose of Versailles in his book Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics.[3] Shoujo manga is known for its fascination with human relationships, and notorious for its treatment of gender and sexuality through the sub-genre of bishounen manga (comics about beautiful boys, often with romantic, homosexual storylines). Ikeda's work, and by extension Utena, is a twist on the beautiful boy story, in that the beautiful boy (Oscar, Utena) is actually a girl, yet stylistically and thematically both works are clearly influenced by this sub-genre. In drawing on Ikeda's work, Utena harks back to a period in the history of manga when women artists were revolutionising the genre, carving out a space for themes not treated in mainstream boys' and adult manga.
     
  6. This relatively new genre of manga has received much attention in the academy. Many authors have been concerned with trying to understand why Japanese girls favour stories about subjects completely removed from their own experience – stories of love between boys, manga set in the West, and fantasy and magical storylines are those most often analysed.[4] According to these scholars, Japanese girls are so subordinated and repressed in Japanese society that they turn to shoujo manga for an escape from the limited versions of sexuality, gender and desire that are proscribed for them. The director of Utena, Kunihiko Ikuhara, echoes this when he states that the reason that the female characters turn to each other, rejecting their failed princes, reflects Japanese girls' dissatisfaction with their position in contemporary society – 'women no longer wish to be subordinate. Women are asserting their position in society.'[5] Utena is thus self-consciously produced from within a discourse that is concerned with women's desires and resistances to their social positionings, and Utena's revolution is as much about the feminist uprisings of the 1970s as it is about the French Revolution.[6] In this sense, Utena and Anthy's escape from Ohtori is also an escape from dependence on men, and by association, on the society that privileges men. Their escape is not a simple running away, however. By refusing the world of Ohtori where they can only 'be alive while dead' (like their princes, Akio and Touga), they revolutionise that world – without them to prop up the fantasy of eternity and miracles that Ohtori promises, it collapses behind them (almost destroying them in the process).
     
  7. The outside world to which Anthy and Utena escape is a utopic world where 'there are no paths, where we can make our own paths.' In this line the ambivalence of Utena's revolution becomes clear, for even though it suggests that the potential to revolutionise the world lies in a rejection of dominant discourses of gender and sexuality, it does not champion the taking up of other discourses, for example that of lesbianism, despite the fact that it seems to be so clearly figured in the barely subtextual grammar of looks and shots that suggest a same-sex desire between Utena and Anthy.[7] Utena is perhaps the most popular 'lesbian' themed anime amongst fans of shoujo-ai and yuri (literally 'girls' love' and 'lily', both terms used by fans to denote anime and manga that either contain female same-sex references or in which they can be read subtextually).[8] However, the application of the word 'lesbian' by fans, and as a descriptor of Utena reflects a specifically Western desire to interpellate the text into pre-existing notions of lesbianism and same-sex desire. Utena does not invest in discourses of lesbianism or same-sex desire – in fact it paradoxically simultaneously invokes and disavows them. Rather, Utena invests in the romantic notion of revolution as being capable of fundamentally changing the world by erasing categories of gender and sexuality, even as it invests in these very categories.
     
  8. Utena is a brilliant fantasy, richly textured through its invocation of the symbol of revolution. It pays homage to both the history of manga, and the desires of Japanese women, and its complex, highly allegorical narrative and imagery allow for a wide range of identifications and viewing positions. While Utena's revolution of her world with all its gender and sexuality-bound restrictions may not be available to us in the 'real world', this utopic fantasy is pleasure enough in itself.


    Endnotes

    [1] Mona, 'Re: Utena and Ikeda Riyoko,' in Yuri: The Yuri Mailing List, 27 February 2001, (27 February 2001).

    [2] An informative site that covers the history of shoujo manga as well as information on the genre in general and some anthropological analyses, see Matt Thorn, Matt Thorn's Shoujo Manga Home Page, 9 March 2001, (21 March 2001).

    [3] Frederik Schodt, Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1983).

    [4] See, for example, Tomoko Aoyama, 'Male Homosexuality as Treated by Japanese Women Writers,' in The Japanese Trajectory: Modernization and Beyond, ed. Gavin McCormack and Yoshio Sugimoto, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 186-204; Midori Matsui, 'Little Girls Were Little Boys: Displaced Femininity in the Representation of Homosexuality in Japanese Girls' Comics,' in Feminism and the Politics of Difference, ed. Sneja Gunew and Anna Yeatman, Boulder: Westview Press, 1993, pp. 177-96; Matt Thorn, 'What Japanese Girls Do with Manga', in Matt Thorn's Shoujo Manga Home Page, 23 September 1997 (9 May 2000); Maia Tsurumi, 'Gender and Girls Comics in Japan,' in Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 29, 2 (1997):46-55; Sandra Buckley, '"Penguin in Bondage": A Graphic Tale of Japanese Comic Books,' in Technoculture, ed. Andrew Ross and Constance Penley, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991; andYukari Fujimoto, 'A Life-Size Mirror: Women's Self-Representation in Girls' Comics,' in Review of Japanese Culture and Society 4, (December 1991):53-57.

    [5] Cited in Shoujo Kakumei Utena Home Page, 5 September 2000, (22 March 2001).

    [6] For more on feminist movements in Japan see Vera C. Mackie and Japanese Studies Centre (Melbourne Vic.), Feminism and the State in Modern Japan, Papers of the Japanese Studies Centre 22, Melbourne: Japanese Studies Centre, 1995; and Sandra Buckley, Broken Silence: Voices of Japanese Feminism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

    [7] Indeed in the film the subtext becomes canon in the final scene, where 'Utena and Anshi [do] the naked street luge while sucking face' to quote one fan – that is, they exit the world of Ohtori Academy and the duelling arena on the remains of the car that was Utena, stark naked, kissing.

    [8] It is worth noting that the other series that Ikuhara is famous for, Sailor Moon, also has a canonical female same-sex couple that is hugely popular among yuri fans.


    Images

    Title Image. Utena, from Project Utena Encyclopedia, The Utena Encyclopedia Dictionary, 24 December 1999 (30 April 2001).

    Figure 1. Utena, Anthy and the Rose Seal, from Adolescence Mokushiroku, The Utena Photo Album, 10 May 2001 (23 May 2001).

    Figure 2. Kunihiko Ikuhara, from Animation Kobe Organizing Committee, Animation Kobe '97, 30 July 1998 (30 April 2001)

    Figure 3. Oscar, from the Rose of Versailles Screencaps, Atiya's Cell Gallery, 4 May 2001 (23 May 2001).


    Main

This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL: intersections.anu.edu.au/issue5/charlton_review.html.

HTML last modified: 17 March 1432 by
Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright