Revolutionary Girl Utena
Studio: J.C. Staff (Excel Saga, Azumanga Diaoh)
Manga author: Chiho Saitō (Kanon)
Genre: Shōjo, Surrealist/Metaphysical, Romance
First complete run: 1997
Regular episodes: 39
In my opinion, Revolutionary Girl Utena is an anime you have to be constantly thinking and pondering about throughout in order to fully appreciate. For some, that'll make it an instant classic; for others, the anime's almost academic engagement with metaphysics, criticality, psychology, and epistemology will just weigh it down. And to be honest, if you don't appreciate at least some of what's taking place symbolically, the show is pretty lackluster. It is only in its blend of philosophy and fun that this anime truly shines.
The protagonist, Utena, is a hot tomboy attending a particularly prestigious middle school, Ohtori Academy. The entire show takes place at Ohtori, more or less. Utena is a "duelist," one member of a student group engaging in swordfights during their free time. The sword matches make up a larger tournament in which the winner wins an engagement to a girl called the Rose Bride, as well as the power to revolutionize the world. The anime chronicles Utena's battles on behalf of the Rose Bride, with a fair amount of Harry Potter-esque social minutiae on the side. She develops personal relationships with the Rose Bride, the other duelists, and the school's chairman.
But the show's surface level plot is only a small portion of the viewing experience. The students don't "live" in a normal world. A lot of what happens in the show are not real events, they're symbolic transgressions that are made to look like part of the real world through the screen. It is never quite clear what in Revolutionary Girl Utena is really happening to the characters, and what events take place only in the imaginary or on a symbolic level. So, beneath the anime's bland exterior dwells an unbelievably complex world which calls into question what it means to be, pushing at the boundaries of the human from a variety of critical angles.
At times, the show's critical nature is its downfall. To make the confusing transitions between theory and reality more seamless, certain scenes or sequences are re-used from episode to episode as epic formulae. Each time the same scene reappears (and each formula will appear up to 40 times over the course of the show) its meaning to the viewer shifts slightly. If you're watching very closely, the rifts from one formula to the next will help coordinate between the show's plot and thematic developments. But if you aren't a PhD, it can make for a really repetitive experience. To be honest, I think RGU should have been a 26 episode miniseries, rather than the longer 39 episode length. If you're in search of an intellectually demanding anime, look no further, as Revolutionary Girl Utena is a philosophical thriller like no other. But casual viewers beware: it may feel like a long journey.