Saturday, June 30, 2007

Revolutionary Girl Utena

Shojo kakumei Utena; Animated fantasy series, Japan, 1997; D: Kunihiko Ikuhara, S: Tomoko Kawamaki, Yuriko Fuchizaki, Aya Hisakawa, Yuka Imai, Kotono Mitsuishi

A long time ago, when she was still a little girl, Utena lost her parents, but a mysterious prince comforted her and gave her hope. As a teenager, Utena decided to become a prince herself. She enlisted as a student into the Ohtori academy and met the arrogant Saionji, challenged him to a fencing duel, won - and got his servant, Anthy, as the grand prize. Soon, many other students challenged Utena to a duel in order to win Anthy, but they all lost. Akio, Anthy's brother, is the prince and the chairman of the academy. Anthy suffers the pain of the world for him. So Utena takes her place for her. Anthy then leaves Akio in order to find Utena.

After his bravura directed episodes in the anime "Sailor Moon", director Kunihiko Ikuhara went to Be-Papas group and quickly realised "Revolutionary Girl Utena" that gained cult status, but also signaled a step backwards in his creativity. Mixing the subconscious styles of Lynch and Godard, the talented Ikuhara got an abstract mystery that repulsed many with it's pretentious elements, like the floating castle over the arena accompanied by a song about ammonites and trilobites. "Utena" is truly a tough cookie when it comes to grading it: some episodes, like the ones where Nanami shortly transformed into a cow or imagined she laid an egg, are real garbage. And then again, on the other hand, some episodes are truly extraordinary, like number 18 (a young boy, Tsuwabaki, doesn't want to try a chocolate that was partially bitten off by a girl because he is afraid of an "indirect kiss"), 19 (the girl Wakabi gives in her apartment a shelter to the fugitive Saoinji in whom she is secretly in love with and who previously ignored her) or 30 (Utena falls in love with Akio and is, as a consequence, distracted in school the whole day), subtly mixing gay confusement with identity confusement. "Utena" impresses with her ambitious iconography that carefully shapes the events into a whole and creates a unique world, while the end masterfully hints that Utena and Anthy may be one and the same person, actually split up when traumatized by incest in childhood. Still, with all of it's over-the-top symbols (cars placed vertically, thorns stabbing Anthy...), the story can really go overboard sometimes. "Utena" is something like "Catch 22": what ever it does, it somehow doesn't work they way it should.



Cowboy Dev said...

Oh, come down: Utena is far more creative and imaginative in one finger then that overrated toy commercial $ailor Moon.

Marin Mandir said...

Creative, yes. Imaginative, yes. But far less cohesive, unfortunately. Some episodes were brilliant, but overall the series drowned in author's tenedency to impose abstract symbols without limit, sense or function. Believe me, I listened to the director's audio commentary on the series and when asked what all the smybols meant in the last few episodes, he himself did not have a clue! This all just leads me to one logical conclusion: a story consists out of empty symbolism.

Cowboy Dev said...

...But Evangelion had a lot useless symbolism too. I personally think Ikuhara's pulling our leg; he knew what he was doing, he just can't describe it - too abstract.

Marin Mandir said...

You got a point there. However, as a whole, Evangelion is cohesive and has some kind of inner logic: you can argue that the last two episodes are either a therapeutical process of psychological cleansing/healing or that the process of "Instrumentalization" has been set off - or both. I had a feeling that Utena was trying to imitate David Lynch, yet too many details lead nowhere.