Utena is NOT a Magical Girl

But Anthy is.

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Spoilers for Revolutionary Girl Utena.

“It’s a deconstruction of the magical girl genre.” has been uttered by countless geeks both in person and online to describe the anime Revolutionary Girl Utena. The show is about, Utena, a girl who seems…well, revolutionary. She insists on becoming a prince by wearing a boys uniform and valiantly fighting for what she believes is right. Of course, it’s not that simple. The series is heavily riddled in metaphors and mature themes expressed through everything from shadow puppetry to surfboard riding elephants. It’s a trip. (A “DEEP” trip at that.)

But I am starting to dislike how it feels like fans always shove Utena into the singular category of magical girl. Revolutionary Girl Utena is not a show that limits its storytelling to just that of the magical girl genre.

One of the reasons it’s understandable to assume Utena is a response to confines of the magical girl genre is because the anime began as a pitch for a Sailor Moon movie. The director of  the Sailor Moon R Movie and Sailor Moon S, Kunihiko Ikuhara, wanted to create a film staring Sailor Uranus and Neptune but the idea was turned down since the story didn’t revolve around the franchise’s titular character Sailor Moon. Ikuhara would finish working on Sailor Moon into its 4th season and leave Toei to create Revolutionary Girl Utena, a work he would have much more control over.

But Revolutionary Girl Utena is a show that plays with ideas from shoujo as a whole and can even be looked at in the broader sense of picking apart gendered media. Magical girl being a genre that falls under both of those umbrella-topics is “deconstructed” in the process but not by our hero: Utena. Instead I argue it is the character of Anthy who’s role addresses the idea of being a magical girl.

Transformations and Alter Egos

The most common interpretation I hear of Utena as a magical girl series is that Utena’s slight costume adjustment during her repetitive ascensions to the dueling arena stand in for what would be a Sailor Moon style transformation sequence.

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(Setting aside for now how magical girls are much more than just their transformations.)

I’ve always found this explanation not only vague but also annoying since it operates under the assumption that magical girls must be protagonists and therefore Utena is the only candidate for the role, out right ignoring that Anthy undergoes a much more lavish costume change during ascensions. When Utena reaches the dueling arena, she is still Utena. Her identity doesn’t waver. Anthy on the other hand, changes from common school girl, to the graceful and elegant Rose Bride. She is clearly not just Utena’s quirky roommate anymore and takes on a new mysterious persona. While Anthy gladly admits to her role as the Rose Bride, it’s not made clear to Utena or the viewer for that matter, how committed Anthy is to the part until we reach the dueling arena, and see Anthy’s new regal garb and watch her faithfully run to the side of each duel’s victor. Anthy playing the dual roles of smiling school girl by day and the Rose Bride by selected nights is not the only qualification Anthy has to be identified as the anime’s resident magical girl character.

The most obvious being that she is literally a magical girl. Anthy’s identifies as a witch, the Rose Bride and a regular school girl are all treated as separate layers to Anthy’s identity. Anthy herself doesn’t seem to know which of her alter egos to remain faithful to. Resembling her struggle to choose whether it is Utena, her brother, or herself she cares most about until the very end of the story when our protagonist is erased. And Anthy must decide on her own what to do next now that her princely companion is gone. Now that Utena has disappeared, Anthy gains proper candidacy for the role of protagonist and to drive her own story as both a magical girl and human being.

The Familiar

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Chuchu is a cute little cross between a mouse and a monkey who wears a necktie and never leaves Anthy’s side. He provides comic relief and the occasional visual metaphor but other wise serves no other purpose but to be a mascot character for the show and a familiar for Anthy to complete her magical girl look.

But most familiars in magical girl stories are related to the powers granted to the magical girl in question. Revolutionary Girl Utena plays with the idea of a familiar’s role. Chuchu is nothing more than a pet and companion unlike, say, Luna in Sailor Moon who not only accompanies Sailor Moon but gives her and her fellow fighters their transformation artifacts and critical instructions during battle. Luna is a critical asset while Chuchu is just…Chuchu.

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During the battles in Revolutionary Girl Utena, or duels to be specific, Anthy is responsible for initiating Utena’s costume change and then providing Utena her sword and later placing a spell on that sword for an extra boost in power. In the duels, Anthy is Utena’s familar, a critical asset like Luna in both her production of items, lent magic and in the fact that protecting her is Utena’s motivation in participating in the duels over and over again. Anthy sometimes cheers Utena on from the sidelines to reinforce this.

Anthy masquerades as a familiar to help hide her identity as a witch but once her secrets are out to both Utena and the audience, it becomes apparent that Utena was actually Anthy’s familiar, in the sense that Utena ends up becoming a critical asset to Anthy. Not only does the ascension stock footage update to have Utena’s presence trigger Anthy’s dramatic transformation into the Rose Bride but Utena becomes critical to Anthy’s life, saving Anthy from suicide and granting Anthy the power to finally abandon her abusive older brother all for the sake of Anthy living her own story.

Luna the black cat might be more fitting for a witch but with Utena gone no longer cheering Anthy on or giving her instructions (at least not in the physical world) Chuchu remains to accompany Anthy on her travels and take his place as her proper familiar. He returns his necktie to Akio, cutting his connection to the boss man and pledging his allegiance to accompanying Anthy on her new journey.

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Conclusion

Anthy goes through a typical magical girl story arc that begins with her encountering her familiar, having her secrets outed, and finally learning to accept love into her life so that she can relinquish magic in exchange for personal growth.

But the familiar dynamic is not the core of Anthy and Utena’s relationship. The two are friends, fiancees, fellow victims, master and servant, prince and damsel, traitor and betrayed, the list goes on. These more apparent character dynamics illustrate how Revolutionary Girl Utena actually addresses so much more than the magical girl genre or the director’s previous work on Sailor Moon. So it’s not fair to say “Utena is a deconstruction of the magical genre” when it’s doing so much more. Being a magical girl is one part of Anthy’s character and it’s only projected onto Utena since she is the show’s female protagonist.

So when analyzing this show that begs to be interpreted, I hope more fans will widen their scope and realize the magical girl genre is just one part of the big picture.

 

 

Related Posts:

Who was the first magical girl?

[This post was originally posted: Jun, 20th 2016 on the Otaple 1/2 Tumblr]

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