Us Living in Fictional Cosmogonies
Part XVI: Shoujo Kakumei Utena: Revolutionary Girl
by Travis Hedge Coke
“As soon as a predetermined quantity had been consumed,
the final loser would have to perform a forfeit, which was
usually obscenely biological. Ford Prefect usually played to lose.”
– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Everyone in Shoujo Kakumei Utena plays to lose until Tenjou Utena, and then Himemiya Anthy after, have something to win.
Inspired by mystic, existential, and bildungsroman narratives, Utena is a self-reflexive world, and while the egg being waited on to crack and hatch a chick is a bait as much as it is a metaphor, there is an egg being incubated by the system, by that story. In every telling, the story leads us to a fruition of Utena, herself, a maturation out of adolescence unlike the arrested development of every other human being and potentially nonhuman entities with vague yet incredible power in the whole entire world that Tenjou Utena has ever known.
Even Anthy, who has an age which is almost timeless, who has incredible power and a godlike perspective, only has a real inclination to leave, to risk, after Utena has her revolution.
“Girl power” is still a snide term.
Utena, girl in a boy’s uniform unlike any other boy’s uniform, a uniform even which is out of date, anachronistic, old style, and not aesthetically as the generic boy would wear, pink in the original manga, frilly in most versions, evoking older times, evoking youth of an older age, evoking the epaulets and regiment of the French military uniforms in Rose of Versailles, automatically separate and deeply belonging, masculine and feminine, young and old, colorful and colorless, apart and a part.
Tenjou Utena is not us. It is easier on us that she is not us, because she can do things we do not. She can have a break in her developmental path even if we are, in that moment, not. Utena is liminal, interstitial, a vibrato human being. She can step in for us and act.
And, too, even when we are her age, we can eventually understand her immaturity, her fearfulness and worry. Utena is our hero, our aspiration, and she is steps behind us. Utena’s revolution pushes ours forward because she draws us along and also keeps us buoyed ahead of her as we worry after her.
For Anthy and her brother, Akio, Utena’s revolution is a shock, something they constructed an entire world to tease out, to use as a lure, but which should be impossible to achieve. For us outside, being told, being shown or played this story, Akio, too, is a lure and a tool. They cannot know, not even in the theatrical movie, Adolescence Apocalypse, wherein Akio is pre-deceased, a dead ghost, a past phantom, that they are puppets.
In Adolescence, the most dominating male figures, Akio and Kiryuu Touga, are removed from active achievement as ghosts. Both died before the movie begins, and while Utena, as well, might be implied dead, she is only an implied dead to their much more strongly implied being dead. Couple ghosts. Couple tools.
But, what does that imply for us? If we are outside the game, and ahead and behind her?
In the television series, Souji Mikage, the ghost of Professor Nemuro, shares his pink hair with Utena, and his dynamic with Mamiya Chida is so close to her dynamic with Anthy that Anthy is able to mimic Chida, if not be Chida, to further the dynamic after his death.
It is always popular, regardless of franchise, story, world, for somebody to play a game called what if they are all dead?
So, what if they are?
What is changed between living and walking around dead? Living and an interactive recording or interacting remembrance?
What we see, in every telling, for almost the entire telling, is Utena going through mechanistic motions she cannot understand, that she can intuit from a very limited and very privileged position that is less limited than she believes, in that it is nearly universal, and that is in no way as privileged as she or others may in their microcosm believe. Big campus hero? Big campus weirdo? Campus is not even a fishbowl. It is the plastic castle in the fishbowl.
As many people view Utena as immature, naive, and ignorant as believe she is mature or knowledgeable beyond her years. Characters are sometimes surprised to learn she is more naïve than they assumed. Others take advantage of her naiveté knowingly and malevolently.
Utena’s revolution, her personal turn – a turn away from both her life-path but also from the extant world – is necessary when she makes the turn, because she is otherwise in essence a dead ghost, too. The vibrancy of her character, the vibrato nature that allows her to resonate on multiple social levels, is fueled by her discomfort with position, with a committed path and not having the freedom from responsibility sought in paths of least or performative resistance.
Is the microcosm Utena is placed into, the Ohtori school grounds, school politics, the vague outside world, modeled after Madchen in Uniform, Therese and Isabelle, Absolution, Candy Candy, The Song of Wind and Trees, which are, in turn, modeled on real school and school age experiences, those also informing the Ohtori world, a maze specifically to ensnare Utena? Is it styled “Revolutionary Girl Utena,” because she is the revolutionary girl? Is it messianic? Or akin to a child born with their buddha nature showing? All those complicated religious, political, dynastic and prophetic complexities that boil down to special child?
If so, do we give up? Are the others to be forever arrested in a frieze of child anxiety and adult failure? Ghosts and panic victims and sunlit garden memories given breath and form but only in formalized repetitions, playing scales for practice for a concert they will never attend? Is that us?
Whoever we are, there are times we forget the constructed nature of stories enough that we cannot separate what they imply is normative or achievable with what is in our world so. Some of us lament we cannot afford an apartment in the lavish style, in the prime locations of evening television lead characters’ homes and dwellings. We may face an anxiety that our student debts are not as erasable as those in A Different World, Gilmore Girls, NCIS: New Orleans or Gossip Girl. That our clothes do not vacuum seal to us sexily or hang without wrinkle every second of the day. We are surprised by farts, tummy rumbles, itchy toes, dandruff, bills coming every month, that we cannot actually pick up and travel great distances any time we feel like it or treat someone to a third date on a tropical island where our ex wife is hilariously encamped in the bungalow next-door.
At the age Utena is by the end of Shoujo Kakumei Utena, we actually face greater consequence than she does from many of our fears because we cannot part with the entire world as simply. Financial debt follows. Government attention may follow, including military drafts or their kissing cousin, selective service. Doxing and online detective services are too easily employed and a tightening net of interrelated digital social networks identify us and create what we so quaintly may still call a paper trail.
In the original manga, Utena has an aunt, in the outside world, and that explains her years between the death of her parents and her enrollment in Ohtori. In the television series, she may have always been at Ohtori, in the sense that some people have always been at the Overlook Hotel. In other tellings, she is a new student. All of these provide us anchors for our personal relation to her and her scenario, and all of them in their own ways pull us from too much attachment.
We cannot follow the model of Utena through Shoujo Kakumei Utena or other tellings. We can follow her trajectory. We can empathize and learn from her specific path. We can empathize with and learn from her as she grows, and make reference and not for ourselves. Utena is a learning module, and a self-reflective homage, ideas, thoughts, feels, but it is not a schematic.
To build ourselves from Utena, along Utena, is as damaging as trying to engineer a polycule based on Full House or a home economy off of Dragon Ball Z.
Tenjou Utena has to have an easier time than us, or she could not succeed in less-than-thirty-minute intervals of poetic and engaging narrative. We have to have time for showers where we avoid doing anything, lost minutes when we hit our alarm snooze, the two hours or ten days sacrificed to that thing we promised we would do but forgot to actually allot time for because we did not really think we would be called on but now we are and it has to be done and something else gets kicked off the schedule for it to have a place.
The chances of you reading this and being in what, at least, the original broadcasting station believed was the targeted demographic is slim. You are here for other reasons, other aspects, and if we are to assume other levels of maturation, we would have to agree on what maturity is and how to measure it, and we do not.
I do not believe in Gifted Child Burnout. I believe that high-achieving children can, at some point in their life, experience burnout, or anxiety, depression, a downturn in productivity, a leveling out on exam scores, ennui, exhaustion, self-doubt, social confusion, economic strife, and other discomforts. I cannot bring myself to believe they experience them more or in any way more intensely or truly than any other subsection of a generation or society.
Unlike Miki, Juri, or Touga, Utena exists within and outside of the social circle of high-achievement. She is a gifted/talented young person. She excels in some sports. She is bright, perceptive, she can be motivated and speak eloquently and maturely. But, she also has some academic areas in which she is behind the curve, and she is labeled a social disruption, a troublemaker, something borrowed from her predecessors, like the central protagonists of Sailor Moon and Cutie Honey.
When I was just slightly younger than Utena is, I had been in both Gifted and Talented programs and remedial and special education classes off and on throughout school. In retrospect I may have been equally annoying in both subsections, to teachers and other students in both.
Miki, offering to tutor both Anthy and Utena, is nicer than any student tutor I remember being assigned, and I will spend my life hoping I was a nicer person when I was assigned to tutor other students in things, but Miki is also doing it because he is trying to become romantically involved with Anthy.
What this means, is that I have a lot of hang ups. Some of those hang ups drive me to interpret Juri as a bully more than some other audiences perceive her. I think she is self-righteous and often simply mean, sometimes when she can be and sometimes when she is feeling threatened. To other perspectives, she is just acting like a kid, because she is a kid. Or, to others, a young adult.
The time a student-tutor volunteered to take me on just to flirt with me, unlike manipulative Anthy or her gentler facade, I was cantankerous. An ego a mile long and an open face. I could have let them feel magnanimous.
You cannot fairly gauge yourself against a cartoon teenager. You cannot even judge a teenager against other real life teenagers, much less cartoon ones. Not on any cosmic or life-value scale.
The Tsukino Usagi, the Kisaragi Honey, the Utena, the Rory Gilmore or Dwayne Wayne, is a person in whom we can all put ourselves, because they cannot be so easily boxed and in truth none of us can. None of us. Smart but naive. Smart with test anxiety. Not smart in that way but eager to please.
The way I handled that liminal existence, at Utena’s age, was that when my school offered me a chance to either take a bus to another more advanced education in the afternoon, stay in my normal class schedule in courses I was doing poorly at with a teacher who genuinely despised me, or hang out in the library with minimal supervision, I and my girlfriend at the time chose that third option. Academically, this was a mistake, but I did not want to be anywhere I had to work too intensely while being condescended at, and that was either of the other options.
My girlfriend, though, she had other reasons. Yes, it is exciting, when you are entering your teens and you can just read whatever you want or play Battle Chess or kiss quickly behind a shelf like anyone there cared, but she wore a dress once to a class we opted out of, math, and the teacher went on a whole hahahaha tear of jokes at her expense about easy access and barefoot and pregnant and six babies and a welfare check. One of the principle teachers of the advanced program we could have been bussed to felt her up under the guise of admiring how she was growing.
We all take our path. Sometimes, we can choose how we move on the path, we may even get to set the pace. Paths overlap, share time or space or rules or styles. Our path is, though, our path.
Utena leaving Ohtori is only half the story.
Less than a year earlier than the Battle Chess weeks, I was secretly sneaking out for lazy walks, philosophical talks, and nervous kissing with a girl who lived near us in a campground where both our families were homeless. I remember, once, she told me about her teacher at her old school, before they moved and were homeless, though they had been so before, and how this teacher had told her she was mature and smart and cool and how they had had sex. I did not tell her anything comforting or helpful. I did not kiss her. Or, hug her. Or, move closer. Or, get emotional. Even when she realized she had maybe said something big and wanted me to do something, I did nothing but sit there like everything was the same as ten minutes earlier or the day before.
Shoujo Kakumei Utena: Revolutionary Girl
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