Get ready to feel old: Revolutionary Girl Utena, the anime series that turned magical girl anime on its head, celebrates its 20th anniversary this week. The manga itself is a year older and has a fan based of its own, but shoujo fans of a certain age still remember their first encounter with this strange, surreal series.
In honor of its birthday, let’s review a little history… Shall we?
The manga began its run a year earlier, both versions were developed side-by-side — with fairly different stories and characterizations, and a few characters completely absent. The follow-up film Adolescence of Utena retold the story yet again, with a few more changes (and a lot more cars).
The influence of Utena spread well beyond the manga, though. There were multiple stage musicals, and even a visual novel released for the Sega Saturn. The latter, commonly known to English-speaking fans as Four Days in Ohtori, allows you (as a purple-pigtailed heroine) to take part in the various intrigues of Ohtori Academy as a new nemesis, Chigusa, appears on the scene. You can rack up dating-sim-style points with the Student Council, and potentially even become a Duelist. (A low-quality video of the game’s opening is available on YouTube, showing the new characters and some old favorites attempting to sing.)
Despite its novel, surreal approach to the genre, Utena owes a lot to 2 series that came before: Princess Knight and Rose of Versailles.
The former, created by manga god Osamu Tezuka, was the first-ever shoujo series. Released in Japan as Ribon no Kishi, it centered on Sapphire, a young princess raised as a boy, as she attempts to protect her right to the throne. The action, sword-fighting, gutsy attitude, and even Sapphire’s prince costume all swayed the creation of Utena.
Rose of Versailles was another woman-in-disguise story — this one in a historical context. Lady Oscar Francois du Jarjeyes was the last of a number of sisters, raised as a boy because her father was fed up with having no sons. Over the course of the series she becomes the personal guard of Marie Antoinette, simultaneously dealing with identity issues, potential romances, and the state of France prior to the Revolution.
Together, these two shows laid a groundwork for the feel, design, and theme of Utena — which went on to inspire, delight, and weird out generations of anime fans. Darkly psychological one moment and full of stampeding elephants the next, it’s a strange and amazing addition to the genre.
Have you seen Utena? What did you love most about it? Let us know!