Revolutionary Girl Utena is a shojo classic that I only recently read. Because of my recent exposure, news of an addition to the series, After the Revolution, released in 2020 in English excited me. Overall, I see threads in the series that a younger me would have loved. Unfortunately, neither the original Utena series nor After the Revolution speak to me now.
Content warning: This review contains a non-graphic discussion of child abuse and intimate partner abuse. Additionally, this review contains spoilers for Revolutionary Girl Utena and Revolutionary Girl Utena: After the Revolution.
Revolutionary Girl Utena: After the Revolution
Story and Art by Chiho Saito Original Concept by BE-PAPAS
6 October 2020
After the Revolution takes place 20 years after the events of the original run of Revolutionary Girl Utena. The volume combines three short stories that follow the members of the former student council– Kyouichi Saionji and Touga Kiryu, Juri Arisugawa, and Miki Kaoru — in a world that never knew Utena.
The three stories follow similar arcs that bring the characters back to Ohtori Academy. For each story, the conflicts fit to the student council members’ current lives. Saionji and Touga are there because of an art deal. Juri follows her assistant back to the school. And Miki returns after rumors surface of him playing piano. They all experience a blackout, electrical and mental, and have a vision of Utena that helps them resolve their conflict.
Chiho Saito wanted to signal that this was still Utena, so these thirty-somethings do not change their visual style. Additionally, many of the covers rehash images from the original series. For example, Juri’s story’s cover Beautiful Thorns places Juri in Utena’s place with Shiori as the Rose Bride. However, I appreciate that the council members have moved on from Ohtori. Twenty years is a long time, and Saito quickly develops realistic adult lives that demonstrate the characters are not obsessed with their younger selves.
While some of it is a stretch, Saionji and Touga each other regularly because of work, Saito depicts this as a happenstance rather than an obsession with the past. The same can be said of Jiru and Miki’s stories. Until a mysterious or special event that draws them back, Ohtori is where it should live, in the past. The characters have moved on enough that the memories and effects of that time arise at appear at specific moments so they can reflect on where they are and who they were.
Overall, the volume reads as formulaic. Saito discusses, in a creator’s note at the end, that they wrote the stories to celebrate 20 years since publication. Not because they were inspired to write more Utena. This gives context for the stories feeling constructed and if Viz published the English comics as three separate works over multiple months this effect would be less obvious.
The real problem is that these stories add more abused people as plot points to the series in a careless way. Careless, because the takeaway seems to be that some kinds of abuse are open for debate. For example, after Touga and Saionji collapse and share a dream of Utena, the two argue about an artist that Touga supports. The authorities arrested this artist for kidnapping and abusing children. Touga focuses on how “important” his art will be. While Saionji says, “He [the artist] doesn’t deserve to create art,” because even if the artist says he’s changed it is clear from his “new art” he’s back at it.
Saito depicts Touga’s whole face while he describes his reasons for supporting this abuser. In contrast, we get Saionji’s words about this abuser, who he investigated, lettered in angular text boxes over a vague image, implied to be an example of that creator’s art. Then they get into a sword fight. Saionji, who abused Anthy at Ohtori, suggests Touga does not deserve the art piece they came to get. They exchange words and blows. Then Utena appears and gives Touga the power to revolutionize the world. Eventually, they walk off, Saionji leaning on Touga. They never resolve the fact that one of them supports a child abuser.
This is not out of step for the series. As a previous WWAC article pointed out, there are glaring problems with the original Utena. For example, Saionji’s abuse of Anthy. The concept of the Rose Bride. The issue with Anthy and her brother depicted as darker skinned and as either abused or evil. And, when combined with this volume, the idea that the world of the series does not remember Utena.
As someone who picked up Utena later in life, I recognize the ideas I would have loved. The girl who is great at sports and who dresses in the boy’s uniform standing up for people without power. The gorgeous character designs and queer signaling. The ways that Utena became her own and others’ prince. These are awesome and inspiring. Yet, the world we see in After the Revolution, does not measure up. The world does not look much different than the world before. If that is the case, what Utena’s sacrifice was for?
Obtaining the power of the revolution required removing a strong, confident, capable, girl from the world. However, this is not revolutionary. It already happens. Unintentionally with feminine clothing going down to 0, literally nothing. To the overt, when we consider statistics around missing and murdered women. So to have the revolution remove a girl’s existence makes it hard to enjoy. This is even more uncomfortable when there is no mention in the dialogue of Anthy. Or even any depiction of her as an active agent in After the Revolution. Enslaved by magic but given the power of the revolution at the end of the original series, her voice should be central to After the Revolution. Instead, the volume relegates her to images. The eternal damsel in distress.
Maybe I’m too old or missed something. Maybe I can construct something out of this vagary to make meaning. Something about being there for each other or that the revolution is in the small things we can control in our daily life. Maybe Utena is just…fine. Mostly, this volume leaves me lost. I’m torn between the place Utena lives in pop culture memory and that, as an adult consuming the series for the first time, I’m not sure what the hype is about.
Does this volume look like Utena? Yes. Does it have a clear queer storyline? Yes, Juri says she loves her assistant Shiori in Beautiful Thorns. Does it continue to be problematic? Yes. Does it have to be? No. And I guess that’s where I am. After 20 years of Utena, I’m disappointed that according to its creator the revolution is about small gestures rather than real change. I’m glad that Utena inspires so many, and hope that this volume gives them more from characters they enjoy. For me, I want more than a shoulder to lean on after the revolution.