It's a Magical Girl anime with so much symbolism and metaphor that it's impossible to say where text ends and subtext begins. It's about a little girl who becomes a prince and saves a witch in a magic castle. At school. While fighting duels. Its references include Rose of Versailles, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, the House of Borgia, Paradise Lost, William Shakespeare, Cicero, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Manet and the existentialist German war novel Demian.
It's mental. It's one of the most stylised, stylish things I've ever seen, but it's also completely accessible on a kiddie level. Well, ish. That's up until the final story arc and especially the ending, which is disturbing and barely comprehensible.
I loved it.
Utena is a pink-haired girl who dresses as a boy. She plays in the boys' basketball team, she doesn't give a damn what anyone else thinks and she can defeat experienced fencers even though she's never touched a sword before. She wants to be "a noble prince who saves princesses."
Himemiya Anthy is the Rose Bride, a disturbingly passive girl who appears to have no desires of her own. She's a prize. The school's student council members fight duels for the right to possess her, after which she will give herself body and soul to the victor and do everything he asks, without question. As the series begins, she's the property of one of several impossibly tall, beautiful, arrogant young men who populate the school campus and will seduce any girl who crosses their path. This one's Kyouichi Saionji, who's the most openly unpleasant of them and regularly hits Himemiya. She doesn't resist, protest, or try to run away, because she's the Rose Bride.
Utena of course finds this offensive and disturbing, so she starts a fight with Saionji. She thus unwittingly becomes a duellist and, when she wins, is awarded with the prize of a human being as her pliant, submissive possession. Utena now has a bride.
After that, it only gets freakier.
It has so many themes. 1. It's about how friendships between girls can be destroyed by boyfriends and sex. 2. It's about exploring its duellists' psyches, which are can be startlingly dark and twisted. 3. It's about how we project our own desires on to others. 4. It's about objectifying people (including those to whom one's sexually attracted) and turning them into mere possessions, without free will of their own. And those are just the first four that occurred to me.
The symbolism and stylisation is staggering. Admittedly anime is hardly known for its realism, but even so some of the characters here are strikingly angular, almost insect-like in silhouette. Meanwhile the sexual metaphors keep getting ever more rich until something you thought was surely just your dirty mind (e.g. incest) becomes an explicit part of the plot. Consider the duels. These are fought with a magical sword that you pull from the Rose Bride's chest and they're won not by killing your opponent, but by knocking a rose from their lapel. In other words, almost every week, gender-bending Utena's pulling her mighty sword out of Himemiya and, literally, deflowering her opponents. And that's only at the beginning of the series! Himemiya will later stop having her skirts fly up and will instead simply strip naked in order to strip Utena. Then, afterwards, the end of the fight is signalled by (wedding?) bells. Meanwhile the enemy duellists in the Akio Ohtori saga are recruited by being taken for a night-time car ride in the back seat by hot men taking their clothes off.
Is there homoeroticism? Do you need to ask? It's explored in various forms and comes in boy-boy and girl-girl flavours.
There are phallic symbols (towers, swords, candles). There's a title sequence that's making Utena and Himemiya look like a sexually aware married couple. There's a massive influence from Takarazuka, which is a Japanese all-female form of musical theatre and the campest thing I've ever seen, largely because it's presenting itself in such deadly seriousness. In some ways it's practically a cut-and-paste of The Rose of Versailles, which was set at the court of Louis XVI before and during the French Revolution. It has balls, duels, princes, stunning dresses, aristocracy and near-impenetrable social protocol.
Coming down to earth, what's it like to watch?
It's good. It's fun on a simple episode-by-episode level and the show's plot template is familiar and straightforward. It's a magical girl anime with regular fight scenes. The only thing that's different is that the repetitive nature of, say, Sailor Moon has been formalised into something with its own customs, codes and manners. That's kind of brilliant, actually. It's at once subverting and paying homage to its apparent genre. (It's from the director of Sailor Moon, incidentally, which has got me wondering about the filthy or strange symbolism I'd occasionally notice in that show too.)
The characterisation is strong. Often twisted, of course. Tsuwabuki is just... wrong.
The show has a handful of disorientating filler episodes with its Bitch Queen character, Nanami. The first couple are annoying. You might think you're watching an episode that's merely a bit goofy, but that's until you meet the runaway boxing kangaroo (ep.6), or the personality-swapping curry (ep.8). That made me roll my eyes, but then I hit the surrealism of the Cowbell Episode (ep.16) and all was forgiven. It's magical realism. It's also very, very funny.
Is there anything I didn't like? The sillier Nanami episodes, I suppose, and if I'm going to be ultra-critical then I could have lived without Himemiya's pet monkey Chu-Chu. He's harmless, but he's neither cute nor convincingly drawn.
I've been banging on about the symbolism and subtext in this one, but I wouldn't want anyone to get the wrong idea. It's not the anime equivalent of James Joyce's Ulysses or anything. It has memorable characters, good jokes and a simple (and, sometimes, slightly repetitive) format. Fortunately it often deviates from the latter. It's just that it also has things like the Kashira-Kashira Silhouette Girls and their increasingly surreal flights of fancy, e.g. the monkey-catching alien robots.
It won the "Best TV Animation Award" at Animation Kobe 1997. Apparently the follow-up movie is even more surreal and explicit in its representation of its themes. I can't wait.