Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Four-Wheel-Drive of the Apocalypse

I can never drive a car without thinking about its throbbing, pulsing engine again.

I can never drive a car without thinking about its throbbing, pulsing engine again.

My third attempt at watching and understanding Revolutionary Girl Utena (round 1: K.O.; round 2: T.K.O.; round 3: ???) has completed. I’m struck, upon completing Utena for the third time (more or less around the stroke of midnight, oddly), by how strong the feeling was to go out and do something at the end of the series was. Granted, it being midnight, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do with that sudden urge at that moment, so instead I sat around and moped about how completely useless my 24 years of life have been (not very, but under pressure from Utena, even a self-actualized individual would wonder the same).

The trickiest part about Utena, for me, has been the allegorical story of the Rose Bride. Its potential meaning, even on my third trip through the series–a far more enlightening run than the first two–still eludes me in the vaguely undefinable way that only Utena can be. The idea behind the allegorical meta-story seems to be about Anthy sacrificing herself for her idealized prince–the loving, caring man who exists only in fairy tales–only to lock herself in an illusory world of her own creation while her brother Akio, the fabled prince, practices his own twisted love on her. It’s not a pleasant thought to consider–but, expanding the allegory to the entire series, would imply that Anthy has devoted her love to the mythical, idealized prince, a childish devotion which grants her nothing but pain as her non-existent ideal ravages her inside and out.

Even in the final duel, Utena cannot stand up to the ideal of Akio (Anthy literally backstabs her) and yet, even though Utena isn’t the paragon of perfection–far from it–she brings Anthy out of the coffin she’d been hiding in–much like Utena was, until her prince, a younger, wiser Akio, came, showed her Anthy, and gave her a purpose in life, even if that purpose was to chase a nonexistent ideal. Utena’s imperfections are necessary–vital–for Anthy’s awakening, for even the prince for whom she locked herself up for was imperfect. But the imperfect Akio does not love or even respect her, but the imperfect Utena does–the imperfect Utena who would shed a tear and bear her pain willingly, exactly as Anthy had borne the pain for her (im)perfect, (un)princely brother for years.

Utena has innuendo? Well I NEVER.

The message is clear: questing after perfection, after miracles, after eternity, after the power to revolutionize the world–these are all impossible things, things that no single person can ever hope to achieve in their lifetimes. And yet, paradoxically, their imperfect analogues are all easily attainable by simply abandoning the quest for perfection. Such a change comes from within–but such a change does not come in solitude, and nor does it come easy.

Demonstrating the difficulties of accepting the imperfection of relationships and of life is none other than our intrepid Student Council members, still shrouded in the egg they always talk about smashing, grappling with the method to attain proper adulthood. Akio, of course, presents them with the highly tempting option of a car, its engine pulsing with desire to speed down a dimly lit road towards the End of the World. Yes, the car is more or less sexual desire, a place where even Akio is trapped, endlessly, as much a victim of his own planetarium as the students of Ohtori Academy.

It looms ominously, as all things that loom must.

It looms ominously, as all things that loom must.

While the way of the car is certainly a path to adulthood–and a very easy and tempting one at that–as everyone from Saionji to Akio himself finds out, sexuality isn’t a recipe for adulthood. Like the other rites of passage from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, the rite itself is not the source but the result of maturity. And so Akio leads everyone down this path, showing them the illusion of reality that they’re living, and demonstrating the power of sexuality in shattering that illusion. Yet they all fail; their car swerves and crashes, less because Utena defeats them and more because they defeat themselves in their own premature lust for maturity.

Interestingly, Utena herself falls victim to Akio’s manly guile and engages in offscreen acts of a licentious nature. Although it’s true that she’s at her “worst” and most un-Utena during the last few episodes, the story would suffer more were she not to fall from grace in such a manner. Whereas Anthy cannot break free of Akio’s lust, Utena can and does, in a sense proving to Anthy (and the viewer) that, while ideals are tempting, pleasurable, yet ultimately destructive and defiling, they are not something that cannot be overcome.

I hope you know a good tailor, and you have a large supply of buttons.

But with all rites of passage, while their undertaking does not magically and instantaneously  confer maturity, it does provide a foundation for maturity to occur. The “rite of passage” is so titled not because the rite confers passage, but because the events surrounding the rite shape the individual in passing. Indeed, the failure of their final stab at maturity wrecks and ruins the Student Council members who undertook it–but, at the same time, effects a change in them, one that gently pushes them down the road. Anthy is not the only one affected by Utena, but certainly the most dramatically so. Those who encountered her change, even in small, imperceptible ways.

It’s a bleak message, to be sure–the crushing of hopes, dreams, childhood fantasies, and fairy tales in the face of cold, hard, brutal reality (a fact made more clear in the movie, which I still cannot seem to like, although that might be that it’s 39 episodes of weirdness in one and a half hours–but which I’m still going to watch, a third time, soon)–but Akio himself stands for perfection, and perfection is a concept that could be applied to anything–including maturity itself. Perhaps, rather than “dreams” and “ideals” being the shell that prevents one’s potential from being realized, it’s the concept of “perfection.”  Nothing is perfect–least of all that which seems perfect–and abandoning a quest to be “perfect”, to be “mature”, to be “eternal” has the potential to bring about exactly what you desired in the most oblique way possible.

And–as Utena found out, the rather hard way–in the end, you cannot change others; you can only change yourself and how you react to others. And yet changing her reactions brought about change in others, simply by sticking by what she believed.

The Disco Ball at the End of the World (who says that adulthood aint fun?)

The Disco Ball at the End of the World demonstrates exactly why you shouldn't stay in that coffin all the time. Who says that adulthood ain't fun?

And, now, a parting paraphrase taken out of context for humorous effect  from Kunihiko Ikuhara himself, to put it all in perspective:

Oh, it means nothing. I did it because I felt like it.

Sage words, I think. Very sage. Maybe even cilantro.

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9 Responses to “Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Four-Wheel-Drive of the Apocalypse”


  1. 1 The Animanachronism 3 March 2009 at 11:24 am

    It strikes me that commenting on a post about Utena might not be much easier than writing a post about it. Only having seen the series and the movie once each (and not having read either of the manga versions), I couldn’t find anything in this post that didn’t fit my recollection of how the story worked.

    Though I think writing about Utena tends to reveal a lot about the writer too – I’m sure if I wrote a post like this, we’d be able to pick apart the differences in our respective concepts of, for example, coming-of-age. Maybe writing about all stories tends to do this, but Utena particularly encourages it, because it demands that the viewer supply so much to attempt a reading?

    • 2 OGT 3 March 2009 at 4:16 pm

      Writing about any story requires you interpret the story through your own life experiences and personality; this is why a book can be deeply meaningful to me and fluffy escapism for you, or vice versa. Whatever you invest in a story (intellect, mood, emotion, curiosity, passion, apathy, disgust, etc.) influences what you get out of it. But, yes; because so much of Utena is internal to the viewer, that probably has a large impact on how the series is “read”. I’ve read reams of stuff that talks about Utena having Gnostic influences; it’s certainly there, I quite like the thought, but Utena is a multi-faceted beast that no one single person can tackle.

  2. 3 TheBigN 3 March 2009 at 2:38 pm

    Oh, it means nothing. I did it because I felt like it.

    Listening to his commentary for the movie and for the last couple of episodes of Utena made me really like the guy because he gave variations of this reason for a lot of them. Or “I did it because I thought it would be cool.” Any guy who’s honest like that deserves a thumbs up from me. Just wish that he decided to make more anime related things. :P

    • 4 OGT 3 March 2009 at 4:35 pm

      Utena is a multi-faceted beast that no one single person can tackle.

      …unless that man is Kunihiko Ikuhara. I think his own blase attitude towards his own work is less the fact that he just slapped stuff together that sounded cool (if he did do this, he’s much better at it than Koichi Ohata and his trainwreck masterpiece M.D. Geist) but more of an admission that it’s not the creator who assigns meaning, but the reader. This is more or less why we have people arguing over Evangelion and whether or not it was “deep” or “meaningful” or whatever. There’s crackpots on both sides of the equation (as usual), and I don’t agree with everyone’s assertions of meaning or non-meaning for it (or anything), but if it means or non-means something for you, I can’t stop you from that.

      And on the other hand, sometimes a car, is just a car. I think, when doing any kind of analysis (personal and reflective or objective and deconstructive and everything in between) to any kind of literature (from Shakespeare to James Patterson, from Action Comics #1: SUPERMAN to Tekkonkinkreet), one must always be able to take oneself lightly while taking oneself seriously. It prevents more headaches than it might cause.

  3. 5 reversethieves 4 March 2009 at 2:07 am

    Since for a variety of reason I can’t get to sleep you get to watch me ramble on line. But it’s a topic I would have probably rambled upon here just at a later date. As always I am late to the commenting party.

    First of the bat I think there is a certain amount of skill needed to make a show like Utena. Utena has enough symbolism with solid ground worth that it’s not all just a formless head trip but it also has enough ambiguous elements to it’s nature to let anyone who gazes upon it come away with their own interpretation. Some of this as Kunihiko Ikuhara admits is symbols thrown in just to be cool and to let the viewer take the story and the meaning however they want. To do all this takes skill. To make it entertaining at the same time takes genius. Or at least a good deal of luck and skill.

    This open to interpretation nature means nothing I say is write or wrong unless I decide to use the wrong facts. Which has been done and will be done again. But I feel your analysis is great I am just going to throw on my to the pile. As you said we bring a bit of ourselves into such things.

    I don’t think Akio represents perfection. He represents maturity. The loss of innocence. But more than that a greedy maturity. Akio is the fallen prince. Adam who ate the apple. When he was Dios he had innocence and a certain set of powers. When he fell he lost those powers and gain new ones. The problem is he wants his old powers and his new powers. We are never told if he can go back to being Dios. Maybe he can and maybe that is never to be. It does not matter. Akio does not want to be Dios. He wants to be himself. He likes being Akio. What he wants is the power of innocence and all it gave him with the knowledge and power of losing your innocence. He is greedy. The problem is anyone who is greedy can no longer gain the power of Dios. So he keeps looking for the rose duelist who is flawed enough to be manipulated but has a pure enough dream to gain the power of Dios. That is why all the other members of the student council never could obtain eternity. They all had noble dreams at one point but they all had partially selfish motivations behind them as well. They all made perfect tools for Akio but not good candidates to obtain the power of Dios. The power of innocent dreams.

    Utnea secedes in the end because when she gives up everything including herself to free Anthy. Because her dream is innocent and greed free it succeeds.

    It’s 2:30 and I finally feel like I can get to bed. I could ramble on some more tomorrow/today depending on how you look at it. There is so much more to say on my interpretation but I don’t want to bore you and I need to get some sleep.

    Cheers.

    – Hisui

    • 6 OGT 4 March 2009 at 8:54 am

      Utena makes people highly prone to rambling., especially at 2:30AM when people generally have better things to do (such as sleep), so, trust me, I know that feeling. All too well.

      I don’t think Kunihiko Ikuhara is “unskilled”–far from it. The fact that I’ve watched Utena three times is probably testament enough to that. His ambiguousness is just his personality coupled with not wanting to give people clear answers–to let them “figure it out on their own.”

      And you actually clarified a point I left kind of implicit in the post proper, and took a step further. Yes, Akio is maturity, if a twisted kind of maturity. Dios was the “perfect” one that Anthy sacrificed herself for, but Akio molested her as he “matured” whilst she remained trapped in adolescence. He is both maturity and the physical evidence for the death of perfection, of ideals, of innocence. Perhaps, in addition or instead, he’s just adolescence itself? I mean, he does like being exhibitionist and flashy and riding cars down roads while riding on the root and not actually driving them.

      Maybe phrasing got tripped around (I never actually MENTIONED Dios, and I heavily implied this reading). This is what I meant by “facets”; if I or anyone else were to sit down and write everything it was possible to write about Utena in one post/book/collection of analytical scholarly books, neither I nor they would ever get it done before we died. This post still feels inadequate to me–writing it at times was hard because of all the formed yet shapeless ideas that floated around–and it’s woefully incomplete, but a drop in the giant ocean of Utena.

  4. 7 Etrangere 22 January 2010 at 11:57 am

    Hey, your blog is awesome! *subscribes*

    I love love SKU and its ending is one of my favourite of any series. I find it strongly uplifting. I even wrote an essay on my own grappling with the themes.

    I don’t think Akio represents perfection or maturity. Or, rather, Akio stands for a false kind of maturity. He’s the adult with the Peter Pan complex and the superficial trappings of everything that is cool about being an adult : the car, the authority, the seemingly wise advice, and of course the sex. But he’s the adult who flees responsibility and desperately tries to get his childhood back (Dios) yet doesn’t really try to get his real childhood back (Akio certainly does not want to become the Rose Prince again, he isn’t capable of that kind of altruism any-more); he wants the cool thing, the power and lack of responsibility of childhood, without any of the innocence or lack of power of childhood.

    Dios does represent a kind of Perfection, though, but one that could only exist in fairytales; and one which could only exist for a while until it fell down on the demands of the crowd.

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