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Utena, Feminism, and the Vision of All Possible Worlds

Revolutionary Girl Utena follows the life of a teenage girl, who, rescued by a prince in childhood, resolves to become a prince as an adult. The series combines a fantastic setting with realistic characters. If I sing its praises to the skies, it's because the manga, anime and movie are excellent ways to introduce philosophical ideas to thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds, like I was when I first found it.

I can still remember picking up "Revolutionary Girl Utena" in the bookstore. It was like a bomb going off. Here was a comic book, ostensibly light reading, with a feminist, artistic and philosophical message. At the time, I didn't think of it like that, it just seemed cool, and somehow different from all that Britney Spears bubblegum shlock. And it was.

Ohtori Academy, where the story takes place, is best described as a boarding school built by world-class French/Japanese (Frapanese?) architects with a Rose obsession. Every building seems to have a ground-level arcade overlooking grass. There are even stained-glass windows opposite the lockers! This architectural inventiveness intoxicated me: no freeways, no fluorescent lights, no high schools like prisons. Utena offered a welcome relief to the air-conditioned nightmare of suburban life.

Utena is an innocent idealist, with a strong moral sense and innate courage. When she sees injustice, she intervenes. When she doesn't like convention, she flaunts it. In contrast, most of the characters around her are mired in longing, mourning their childhoods and not looking towards adulthood. The unreal architecture counterpoints the anguish and bitterness of the characters, who now seem to me more like premature adults than middle- and high-school students. Though Utena has a naïve worldview, it's clear from the outset that her refusal to compromise, or take power for power's sake, puts her morally above the other students. She is a true heroine.

I'm saying this all with the perspective of advancing years. At fourteen, I just thought "Oh, wow, a girl who dresses in boy's clothes, fights with swords, and doesn't spend the whole book fawning over a lover! Awesome!" The show made a strong impression on me, and that impression has lasted, so I feel duty-bound to convey this to you.

"Why?" you ask. "So many social issues need addressing. Climate change. Overpopulation. Corporate behemoths. Almost everyone I know has some psychological ailment, self included. Shouldn't we be tackling these? Plus, I get enough recommendations already for things I must see or must read or else my life will be gnawingly, desperately incomplete. Aren't all these must read directives just more pressure to consume, instead of taking action?"

I agree with you. Feminist art is no substitution for feminist activism. The best-written book in the world means nothing if it inspires no action. An artist can be a revolutionary, or a Nero while Rome burns; the reality is usually somewhere in between.

Art and activism spring from the same emotional core, the desire to express something of your own experience, to bring people together under some common concern. Both, in their highest forms, can change the world. The similarities basically end there. Though all art is broadly political, its real purpose is to shed some light on human existence, to get the viewer to see some kind of deeper or broader truth, to expand consciousness. Activism is about creating a better world now; art, about finding what that better world could possibly be. I should tell you now that if you don't read or watch Revolutionary Girl Utena, or if you find it's not to your taste, you will be missing something. But you will not feel hopelessly inadequate or incomplete. There are so many good books, movies and tv shows out there, you could waste a whole lifetime trying to consume all of them. And the last thing we need is another wasted, thwarted life spent consuming stuff.

The reason I recommend this show is it covers so many things which, in daily life, people don't discuss or even think about, which are nonetheless very important. Art's real power is not that it gets people talking, but that it makes people listen. This deceptively simple subversion of the princess myth changed my outlook on the world: I'm more courageous, more political, and more interested in the power of art as a direct result of watching Utena as a teenager. While watching the show, in a certain way, I lost my innocence--but I gained something of incalculably more value, a sense that art and philosophy went well together. That sense has never left me.



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