Watching Utena was an interesting experience. I’d watched both Penguindrum and Yuri Kuma Arashi over a year ago, so I knew what to expect when it came to Ikuhara. That said, it still surprised me both in how well it was executed, and in how much more it appealed to me compared to the others.
My taste has shifted somewhat in the last year, so I can’t say for sure how I’d react to a rewatch of Penguindrum or YKA, but I enjoyed Utena more than either of them. Thematically Utena was very similar to that of the other shows, but where Utena really succeeded in characterization. YKA was particularly hurt by not having particularly interesting characters, while Utena’s length gives room to flesh out less important characters. Nanami for instance was given far more time than necessary, but it contributed both thematically and to the show’s enjoyment.
Utena’s themes of gender role and sexuality are inherently interesting to me, and they were done perfectly. Initially it seemed to challenge the idea that women should act like princesses, with Utena instead acting as a prince, but in the end Utena chose to act as herself in telling Anthy of her feelings. Instead of trapping Utena within gender roles which were just different from those women are stuck in, Ikuhara managed to show how they need to be shed altogether so that people may act as they truly are.
I loved how the show was able to say so much without showing anything. No other show has inspired such disgust as Akio’s rape of Anthy and Utena, and Anthy and Utena’s love for each other was never shown within the series but all too clear.
Even the show’s filler was great. The Black Rose Arc may have meant little to the show as a whole, but it was fantastic in bringing the supporting cast to life and in furthering the themes of regret and identity.
Ultimately though, where Utena appealed to me the most was in how the various elements and themes failed to come together fully. Certainly, many themes are consistent, but there are so many approaches to looking at the show, and all of them only cover part of the show. This contradiction within the show gives so many angles within which to appreciate the show, and doesn’t detract from the show in any meaningful way.
Utena’s themes of gender, identity, sexuality, and more will stick with me for a long time. The show is certainly what I’d call a masterpiece, something I won’t forget. I can’t say for sure how it compares to Penguindrum and YKA, but it’s cemented Ikuhara as one of my favorite directors and is a show I’d recommend to anyone who’s interested in slow, thought-provoking shows. I know I’ll be thinking about it for quite a while.