Do you ever remember the old stories about a mystical land where a prince would fight a duel outside a mideval castle in order to save a a maiden from having to be engaged to a power vilian? And remember when the mystical land was actually a school, and the prince was actually a girl who just dressed like a boy, and the castle hung upside-down, and the villian was actually a group of students, and the maiden was a Rose Bride whose Groom would have the power to reshape the world? Remeber that? Well, if you do, then chances are you've been waching Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Here's the real story: Just after Utena's parents died she was consoled by a prince who gave her a ring with a rose crest on it. Utena was so impressed by the Prince that she vowed to become one herself one day. Flash forward a few years to Ohtori Acadamy where Utena Tenjou is a new student. She's a strong-willed girl who annoys the teachers by insisting on wearing a boy's uniform. After having her friend insulted by a member of the student council, Utena agrees to take part in a sword duel in order to defend her friend's honor. As it turns out, the duel is just one in a series that only those who wear the rose-crest ring can participate in. Whoever wins the duel is automatically engaged to a girl named Anthy Himemiya -- aka. the "Rose Bride". And whoever is engaged to the Rose Bride will eventually recieve the power to "revolutionize the world".
To be sure, there is a lot of weird stuff going on and when I first started watching this show I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. But I kept with it anyway because I was interested in some of the mysteries in the story: Like who exactly is "End of the World" and why does it keep sending letters to the student council? And why is Anthy bound to be the Rose Bride? And who is Utena's prince? And why is there an upside-down castle hanging over the dueling arena? And just what the heck is the deal with those shadow girls? And what is Chu-chu? A mouse? All these things kept me interested long enough to discover some of the other interesting elements.
The first half to two-thirds of the show follows a regular pattern: First, Utena is introduced to a new member of the Student Council and learns why they want to have the power to revolutionize the world. Then the Council member challenges Utena to a duel in order to achieve the power to realize their goal. In the end, Utena almost always wins the duel and the challenger learns to accept their situation.
After Utena deuls her way through all the Council members, she ends up fighting some of the minor characters in a much darker (and in my opinion cooler) story arc called the "Black Rose Saga". It's not until the end of that that arc that the series breaks from its usual pattern and finally makes an effort to move the story forward and explain some of what is going on.
The duels, I think, are used as a means of exploring and developing the relationships among the different characters. Each character has their own personal reason for wanting to deuling and most of the time it comes down to "I want to revolutionize the world because I want such-and-such a person to like me." So the duelists just want to use the Rose Bride as a means to their own end. Utena is the only one who doesn't have a selfish motive. She wants to win in order to keep Anthy from being used by everyone else. It's her independence and selflessness that are her strengths and the reason she is always able to win. So the show is basically saying that if you want to improve your situation in life, then it's better to change yourself than to try and change (or "revolutionize") the world.
Themes aside for a minute, the thing that will probably put most people off to this series are the romantic relationships which are pretty unconventional (to put it mildly). You've got a brother-sister thing going on, and a couple girl-girl, and an older-younger pair, and in finally you've got a kind of adulterous situation. There's even a hint of yaoi inuendo going on with the three of the main (rather effeminent-looking) male characters. There's nothing that you'd feel guilty about watching because it never gets graphic. In fact, there's hardly any phycial-ness to the relationships at all until near the end. But even then they only show you just barely enough to give you an idea of what is going on. The show focuses more on the emotional aspect of the relationships than the physical. But however unconventional these romances might be, I don't think the story would work quite as well without them. It's the "forbidden" nature of the relationships that gives the show it's conflict and really drives the story.
There's also a lot of symbolism that appears as a bunch of seemingly random visuals. You've got school desks that appearing out of nowhere and than move on their own, convertibles racing around on their sides then jutting up from the ground, or Anthy disappearing and turning into a tree. I don't have much analysis for that, though. Sorry.
With all the symbolism and "unconventional" relationships, the show could have easily turned sour from the weight of its own pretentiousness. But there are a couple of things that I think prevented this from happening. The first thing is that the show has going for it is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. It can be funny and fun, at least for the first part of the series. And that definitely helps make it easier to watch.
The second thing is that no matter what happens, the show never stops focusing on it's characters. In my experience, when a show focuses too much on symbolism, the story tends to get lost under a heap of esoterica. And if the relationships are too graphic, it distracts from the emotions. But characters can both push a story forward and also create a connection with the audience. So focusing on them makes the keeps the story on track.
The end of the show did end up explaining a few things, but by no means everything. It was interesting, but I can't say it was totally satisfying. But maybe that was the point.
The animation quality is average. There is a lot of recycled animation in this show. They always replay the same scene of Utena acending into the arena, and later on there are other scenes that are constantly recycled. So those scenes and the last few episodes are good quality. But for the most part it's nothing special.
The music was strange and sometimes even haunting. But nothing that I was especially in love with.
In the end, I'm glad I watched this show. And even though I wasn't sure what to make of it at first, I was able to get into it after I got over the initial weirdness. If you are into shojo titles you will definitely want to check this out. But if you have low tolerence for strangeness you'll want to run far far away.