Human relations are complicated – especially when you add swords, roses, and incest.
I think Shoujo Kakumei Utena is one of the best anime out there. While this is certainly a subjective judgment, I would nevertheless argue that I am more or less correct from an objective standpoint – this is a show that manages to both provoke a lot of questions about human nature and humanity itself, all the while remaining entertaining and interesting. Its saying something when a show contains the highest concentration of symbolism I’ve EVER seen and yet never becomes boring for it. This is honestly one of those anime that has and will continue to withstand the test of time (sadly, many folks avoid it because it initially seems so shoujo-y; while it retains some of the shoujo tropes as it progresses, it largely turns them on their head, jumping into a much darker and deeper world).
Central to all of this is, of course, our heroine Utena Tenjou, and her would-be princess Anthy Himemiya. Utena begins as Anthy’s savior, stepping into the dueling arena in a fairly naive attempt to “free” Anthy from the seemingly monstrous Kyouichi Saionji. Little does Utena know, she is simply another game-piece in a larger power scheme… and Anthy herself is even more entrenched in the entire system than Utena could possibly understand.
So begins their relationship, though – Utena as the prince, Anthy as the princess, albeit in a completely platonic sense. Utena is completely committed to playing the prince, which really has nothing to do with Anthy as a person; even here she remains symbolic, her personality and who she actually is mattering not. Utena regards Anthy as slightly odd and as needing saving, but her relationship with Anthy is purely surface. Utena’s goal was to be a prince, and it just as easily could’ve been to someone like Wakaba (who seemingly wants Utena to be her prince).
However, as time progresses, their relationship begins to shift slightly – its a very slow process initially, as Anthy likewise does not quite regard Utena as a fully formed human being – to Anthy, Utena is simply another necessary figure, a person who claims to have her best interests at heart but only wishes to use Anthy to fulfill her own desires. And, to an extent, Anthy is correct about this. But Anthy wishes to use Utena, too, but for much more complicated and darker purposes, although this is something which takes a very long time to become clear.
This changes, though, with Utena’s second duel with Touga in episode thirteen. Utena was previously defeated by Touga, a defeat she took pretty hard… and which caused her to initially cave to Touga’s desire to turn Utena into the princess. But Utena realizes that Anthy does, in fact, mean something to her, that Anthy isn’t solely important to her for her ability to render herself as the prince. And Anthy realizes this as Utena duels Touga. It is here that it can be said that Utena and Anthy’s real friendship begins.
However, it remains an extremely rocky one, as Anthy herself is so bound up within the system which seemingly uses her as merely a pawn. Anthy makes a few unintentional overtures to Utena at this time, realizing what Utena’s fate will be if she continues in her quest to find the prince of her childhood. At one point, she attempts suicide, which Utena saves her from. She breaks down somewhat, but is a combination of unable and unwilling to fully inform Utena of the entire scheme at hand. Because, even knowing Utena cares somewhat, Anthy is being fed poisonous lies and false promises by her elder brother, the deadly Akio… and she also resents Utena’s growing closeness with Akio, believing it to be evidence that she was, after all, correct in believing Utena was incapable of aiding her.
Utena faces off against Akio for the power to revolutionize the world, although Utena’s true goal is to help Anthy escape the system she has so long been a part of. Anthy literally stab Utena in the back, though, with the sword of Dios. Akio mocks Utena for what he believes is her naivete, and Anthy coldly tells her that she couldn’t be her prince since she is a girl, but Utena nevertheless persists, breaking open the door to where Anthy’s true self is entrapped within a coffin. Utena apologizes for making her continue believing in a fake prince, and the coffin holding Anthy drops as Utena is skewered by the swords Anthy had been subjected to.
Later, in Akio’s office, Akio speaks of re-starting the duels, irritated at having failed to actually obtain the power of Dios. But something new happens – Anthy tells him she’s done with the duels. Akio yells after her, but Anthy walks away, exiting school grounds with a promise to herself to find Utena, wherever she has gone. The princess ultimately saves herself.
As you can tell, Utena and Anthy have a fairly intense, complex relationship. They go from mere play-actors for each other to friends who are truly committed to each-other. Which brings up a point of debate – are Utena and Anthy friends in the end, or are they meant to be seen as something more akin to lovers?
Truthfully, based purely upon visual evidence, Anthy and Utena are not destined to be lovers – the two never show any physical affection or attraction to each other beyond what could normally be expected of friends. Utena falls for Touga briefly, and then later Akio, never displaying any sort of romantic feelings for girls. Anthy herself likewise displays no similar interest in girls. Yet there is an intensity to their relationship which makes some believe that they are, in fact, in love with one another.
However, I would argue that, while Anthy and Utena love each other, they are not in love with each other. And I will admit I am partial to this interpretation, as I feel there is a certain beauty in friendship, in that bond that is neither family nor lover. The roles that Utena and Anthy act out, as prince and princess, are a moot point in this case, as these are roles which they fully invert and challenge in the course of the story – which would’ve been impossible had Utena been a boy.
Admittedly, there is never an explicit answer to the question of whether Utena and Anthy could be something other than friends (although, for those of you wondering, the movie is much more explicit on that point), although this is a deliberate act on the part of the writers to make us think… and, probably, to draw in more eyeballs, admittedly (check out some of the artwork for the series if you don’t believe me). But I put my money on the friend angle. Utena and Anthy care very deeply for each other, having survived the tribulations of Ohtori Academy and become better for it, their friendship battered to the point of forcing them to realize each-other’s worth as a friend. Its, honestly, a beautiful story in this sense, something which I think can often get lost in the shuffle of the serious questions the series raises. They’re two people who care for each other – is there anything more lovely than that?
By the way, on a last note, I ended up using that picture up there in particular of the two because I think it does the best job out of the pictures I had of showing what Utena and Anthy really are – not a prince and a princess, not a savior and a victim, but two girls who are great friends.