- In the Sound of the Bells:Freedom and Revolution in Revolutionary Girl Utena
In the sound of the bell of the Gion Temple echoes the impermanence of all things. The pale hue of the flowers of the teak-tree shows the truth that they who prosper must fall. The proud ones do not last long, but vanish like a spring-night's dream. And the mighty ones too will perish in the end, like dust before the wind.—Opening lines of the Heike Monogatari, written ca. 1215 C.E., about the fall of the Heian dynasty in 1186 C.E. (quoted in Totman 1981)
The film of Revolutionary Girl Utena: Adolescence Apocalypse opens with a carillon of bells. A man and a woman stand on the balcony of a white obelisk stained with crimson. The bells peal again, and now the woman is alone.
Throughout its three versions—Saitô's original five-volume manga, the television series directed by Ikuhara Kunihiko, and the film plus final volume of manga—Revolutionary Girl Utena tells of the destruction of one way of life and the beginning of another.¹ Along the way, Utena and Anthy encounter not only each other and their quite personal enemies but love, freedom, and the karmic undertow that shapes their destinies. All four versions are interconnected by webs of things past, memories that shift and are reborn.
Near the beginning of the five-volume manga, Utena remembers herself as a child walking along a culvert filled with rushing water. Her parents have just died, and despondently she lets herself slip into the water. But she does not drown. Instead, a mysterious prince rescues her. Kissing away her tears, he gives her a rose signet ring and promises that someday it will lead her back to him. Utena does not forget: she decides that she will live as a prince, with a noble heart filled with high goals.
As a teenager, she enrolls in Ohtori Academy (an alternate romanization of "Ôtori" Academy), an elite private school where she encounters a young woman named Anthy in a rose-filled dueling field. The arrogant Saionji, school kendo captain, challenges Utena, and never one to turn down a fight, she defeats him in a duel—only to discover that she has now won Anthy, the Rose Bride, as her betrothed.
In all versions, winning Anthy as Rose Bride in a duel remains constant. But other elements shift, a penumbra of variable details surrounding an invariant center.
Gradually, Utena understands that Anthy is traded among the duelists as a trophy sex partner, and that behind her exploitation lie the malignant motivations of Anthy's brother, Akio, Anthy's own prince and the other figure with Anthy on the balcony of the white obelisk. The issue is power: Anthy can unlock the power to revolutionize the world, so that her ultimate owner will rule the world. Yet to those who seek such power, Anthy is surrounded by legends and dimly recollected history. Sometimes Anthy was a witch who killed the real prince; sometimes a pawn of Akio's sexual and political malevolence (he is sleeping with her); sometimes her power works through the Sword of Dios, which, with a kiss, she can make undefeatable. But never is the power Anthy's. It exists for others to use—or try to.
So, when Utena wins Anthy as Rose Bride, she disrupts an opaque political struggle. And when Utena decides to liberate Anthy, her decision destabilizes Ohtori Academy.
But another trap awaits. In the original manga, Utena ultimately confronts Akio in his persona of Dios, the god of dark. He taunts Utena, but she will not abandon Anthy. As the scene unfolds with escalating emotional power, Utena transforms. Awakened from Akio's spell, Anthy tells Utena that she needs not a prince but Utena herself. Although Akio wields the Sword of Dios, Utena crushes him to the ground, her own sword overhead, her white-feathered wings surrounding her. She has become a goddess. She heals Akio/Dios of...