Let’s start this piece off right: by issuing a battery of content warnings. Kill La Kill, one of the most talked-about shows of 2013, features cartoon violence, incest, non-consensual sexual situations, and what can only be described as “rape by an article of clothing.” Revolutionary Girl Utena, directed by the legendary Kunihiko Ikuhara, began airing in 1997, and features domestic violence, sexual manipulation, incest, and a main character whose consent is at-best dubious in every episode until the last.
This will not be a discussion of whether either of these shows is problematic, or which is more so than the other. Nor will it be a broader conversation about whether problematic media is worth watching, or if the label “problematic” can be fairly applied to legacy media, if this kind of media should even be subject to this kind of scrutiny.
I’m not going to smugly point out similarities between Revolutionary Girl Utena and Kill La Kill. Instead, I’m going to smugly assert, right out the gate, that they’re the same show. Both shows portray the same exaggerated coming-of-age story of a woman fighting against the established infrastructure of her society. The question is this: how has the revolutionary girl narrative changed over time? And why?
What does it take for a heroine to fight against the establishment in 2015? Let’s find out together.
Note: this essay is a deep dive. If you haven’t seen both of these shows, none of this argument will make sense. I’m going to spoil Utena in line one.
Tenjou Utena: the titular heroine of Revolutionary Girl Utena. Stricken with misery at the death of her parents, our heroine was rescued from her depression by a prince who encouraged her to keep her nobility “until she grew up.” This half-remembered incident gives her one drive: to either find her prince or become him. Given no clues except a rose-crest ring, she opts for the latter, cooler option, attending Ohtori Academy in a men’s uniform and engaging in activities among the masculine: when she plays basketball, track and field, and baseball, her competitors are always unnamed men, not the hordes of named female students at Ohtori.
Utena’s gendering as female diminishes her princely qualities. We see this twice: once when she’s defeated by Touga and dons the female school uniform, and throughout the Akio Ohtori Saga, when Akio’s sexual interest makes her more feminine. He rescues her on horseback, he gives her earrings, and Utena appears in feminine street clothes—when earlier, another character observed that she rarely appears out of her male school uniform.
Several characters point out the change in Utena—this not-so-subtle analysis is provided not only by Utena’s shifting attitude towards her duels, but by the side-characters as well. Anthy, in particular, is stricken by Utena’s more feminine mannerisms.
The final episode of Utena is hard to forget. Anthy, having betrayed Utena, stabs her from behind with the sword of Dios. Beyond Akio’s hearing, she whispers, “You can’t be my prince, because you’re a girl.” But it’s impossible to say if she means that Utena has no penis, or if her sexual awakening as a woman has taken away her princeliness. In previous episodes, Utena outright rejects, ignores, or is ignorant of her classmates’ various advances; this leadup to the final episode certainly suggests that Utena’s status as a viable prince is shaken because of her sexuality, but it’s open to interpretation.
Matoi Ryuko: rebellious heroine of Kill La Kill. Having partially witnessed the murder of her father, Ryuko is on a classic revenge quest, which, like all revenge quests, is actually a pursuit of information. Who was her father, and why was he murdered? Throughout Kill La Kill, Ryuko is struggling to understand her own legacy, which includes her mysterious bond with the sentient god (kamui) uniform, Senketsu. Midway through the series, a scientist and ally reveals that Senketsu’s material (Life Fiber) is an alien symbiote (or parasite) that overwhelms the nervous system of humans as they “reach maturity.”
Both women have to grow up before unlocking their full potential.
Throughout the first half of the show, Ryuko is embarrassed about donning Senketsu, even though his alien powers enhance her own fighting skills and bring her closer to her goal. Those who have watched Kill La Kill undoubtedly remember the racy transformation sequence, which is both a play on the traditional magical girl anime transformation, and a deeply invasive exposure of Ryuko’s body. In their fighting forms, she and rival Satsuki (who also possesses a transformational kamui uniform) are left with buttocks and breasts mostly bare. (Video NSFW)
It’s easy to criticize these uniforms under the auspices of male gaze or the equally reprehensible “cheesecake shot.” That aside, compared to Utena, their revealing combat uniforms of Kill La Kill are about more than giving the female-fascinated something to look at. Whereas Utena is disarmed by her sexual upcoming, Ryuko and Satsuki are granted magical powers by becoming more sexual. And it’s not just that the kamui uniforms impart their destined wearers with magical strength. Ryuko can’t unlock Senketsu’s full potential until she accepts how revealing he is—this process is goofily named “Life Fiber Synchronization,” but you get the point. By embracing her powerful outfit as an ally, she’s also embracing her own body, the body of a mature woman.
Near the climax of the series, when Ryuko is forcibly donned by another kamui uniform Junketsu (I did mention rape by an article of clothing, didn’t I?), she is able to overwhelm its influence by accepting her own independence from her super terrible legacy—the mother who engineered the uniform weapons and then tried to infantilize and shame her daughters so they’d be forever subservient. It’s no accident that when Ryuko is wearing Junketsu, she daydreams of a non-violent, female upbringing—she’s rescued in the midst of her dream wedding, white gown and all.
Utena’s revolution is defined by her absence of parents and family in general. She has to make it through the world creating her own context, only to find that her earliest formative memory—that of the faceless prince—was just another mode of manipulating her growth. But in 2014, we’d risen beyond the absence of context. In order to succeed, Ryuko must fully understand her context, accept her maturity, and escape the fate that’s been woven for her.
Well, let’s say something that’s both obvious and uncomfortable: it’s rare to see a dark-skinned main character in anime, rarer still when Utena was on air. After twenty-four episodes exploring the duelists’ infrastructure and history, we learn that Akio and Anthy, brother and sister, have manufactured the narrative of the Rose Bride, the prince, and the End of the World. Akio, once a fairytale prince, is overwhelmed by being princely for all the women in the world. Anthy, who loved him best of all, sacrifices herself to protect him, effectively unprincing him. Trapped in this narrative cycle, Akio and Anthy engage generations of Ohtori Academy students, searching among them for the perfect prince to replace Akio’s abandoned self.
Whoa, okay, more discomfort. This narrative is directly paralleled to the Christian story of Sodom. Just in case the crucifixion of Anthy didn’t make the visual idea obvious, she literally leaves a barn to protect the integrity of her brother, the perfect prince, the way Lot sent out his daughters to sleep with the men of Sodom, so they would leave the angels alone. Anthy and Akio are deeply othered in this show, and to an extent, the entire plot of Revolutionary Girl Utena is the recognition of Anthy as a human person, not the Rose Bride, who is a status symbol with no agency, or as the wicked witch who deprived the world of its true prince.
Akio and Anthy’s status as Others are the Establishment of Utena. In the final episode, Utena demonstrates her heroism: she pulls Anthy from the narrative cycle of the Other. Anthy leaves the infrastructure of Ohtori Academy and strikes out into the world on her own. Tenjou Utena is a girl without legacy, and only by her own strength does she unravel a narrative that extends backwards beyond her imagining, and beyond even the apparent memory of Akio and Anthy themselves.
By contrast, Ryuko’s Establishment is her family. She learns about the origins of her alien uniform just before she learns about her own history: her mother is the woman who awakened the Life Fibers, and her father is the creator of the first kamui uniform. The Goku uniforms, invested with one Life Fiber each, are slaves to Ryuko’s mother. As in Utena, the Student Council has special uniforms (although in Kill La Kill, these uniforms grant powers in addition to social status). The first five minutes of episode one are an establishing shot of an undistinctive student attempting to steal a uniform and being gravely punished for it.
At the low-point of the narrative, all of the main characters (Ryuko, Satsuki, and the Student Council) are portrayed without their uniforms. Their revolutionary wherewithal has to be established: the uniforms convey power, but only because the Establishment has invested them with power.
The uniform parallel is obvious, so let’s spend some time with it. Utena’s status as a prince is most certain when she wears a boy’s uniform, and feminine clothes physically represent her powerlessness. In addition, the Student Council’s uniforms are distinct from the rest of the Ohtori Academy student body; they are powerful both in the infrastructure of the school and in terms of the amount of information they have about Akio and Anthy. Nanami, whose uniform is distinct from everyone else’s, learns about Akio and Anthy’s incestuous relationship (and the context of their Otherness) in a moment of horror. The audience immediately knows that her character is distinctive, which makes her disgust more palpable.
And in Revolutionary Girl Utena’s Dark Rose Saga, we learn about other duelists and other replacement Rose Brides. We’ll learn why Anthy is special later in the series, but at that point, the Rose Bride status is just a uniform, which is part of the infrastructure of the world. Anyone can be a Rose Bride, which Saionji learns at the beginning of this story arc. But not every Rose Bride is good enough.
Utena is defined by the uniform she chooses to wear. Ryuko is defined by the uniform she chooses not to wear. The distinction seems a little elementary, but speaks to how the narrative of the revolutionary girl has changed. Utena defies the conventions of her society. Ryuko has to exceed them. She engages in the final fight in only her underwear, having internalized all she needs to succeed. “Nonsensical is our thing,” she screams in the final encounter, purging the magical threads from the world.
No revolution is complete without friends. And this is where Kill La Kill stands out above Utena as a true testament to modernity. First, the instruments of the revolution: the allies of the apparent boss. Shall we do a side-by-side comparison to make this one more obvious?
Utena’s Nanami (left) vs. Kill La Kill’s Gamagori (right) is an interesting case. Both are fighters and devotees to their respective masters. But Nanami is set up both as an audience ally—an incredible amount of the Utena story is told from Nanami’s point of view—as well as a parallel to the incestuous relationship between Anthy and Akio. Throughout the series, Nanami’s jealousy and possessiveness over her brother Touga is teased and ultimately deflected when Nanami sees the results of such a relationship.
By contrast, Gamagoori is Satsuki’s shield. Their relationship is uncomplicated and less fraught. At the beginning of the end, when Ryuko finally questions Satsuki’s commitment to the cause, it’s the lieutenants of the revolution who rise to the challenge.
In the final episodes of Utena, Touga is stymied by his love for Utena. The rest of the Ohtori Student Council stands aside, choosing to show their devotion to the revolution by keeping their duelist rings on, but they can have no other role in the final battle. In fact, the denouement of the series shows the members of the Student Council returned to their normal roles at the academy, unaffected by changes to the school structure. It’s even implied that they begin to forget Utena’s name, role they entrusted her with, and the sacrifice she made.
Utena’s only consistent ally throughout her series (especially after we find out that Anthy/the Rose Bride is merely a construct of the narrative, who admits in the end that she received only a “taste of friendship”) is an awesome girl named Wakaba. But in the final fight, Wakaba is barely present, and in the denouement, she appears in Utena’s place, symbolically echoing Utena’s heroism, while unable to take her place.
Ryuko’s best friend Mako, by contrast, is a real character in Kill La Kill. She follows Ryuko into fights, and her mode of dress is constantly an echo of Ryuko’s mindset. At the beginning, she wears a normal schoolgirl uniform. At the narrative low-point, she is naked, along with the rest of the powered characters—even though she has no reason to be. She joins in the combat not because she’s a fighter, but because her friendship renders her fearless, a point she brings up in a motivational speech at the end of the show, right before Ryuko strikes the final blow against her mother.
And at the end? Despite being unpowered, Mako dons a military outfit. Ryuko unclothes all of her allies to power Senketsu for the final fight—including Mako. Despite her outfit having no Life Fibers, Mako’s commitment to Ryuko is the impetus for the final fight, and she gets counted amongst the nude revolutionaries.
Utena is a show about one female friendship, and it’s a friendship predicated on a false belief. Utena dies or leaves this plane of existence, according to Anthy, and only Anthy is left to support her. Revolutionary Girl Utena is, as its heart, a story about a single female friendship, deceptive, lonely, and ultimately futile.
Ryuko’s sacrifice leaves her in the upper atmosphere, naked. But she’s caught by her sister, and collapses in a pile of naked bodies, amongst her fellow revolutionaries. Kill La Kill is, at its heart, a story about a modern female friendship, which is traced through her entire network. Mako is lesser without her deranged family. Satsuki is lesser without her Student Council friends. But all of these stories are intertwined to support Ryuko’s.
The modern trope of the revolutionary girl is not about personal defiance. Comparing Revolutionary Girl Utena and Kill La Kill, we can see how the world has changed. Female revolution is now about accepting maturity, tearing down assumed infrastructures, and most importantly, the support of the network around you.