Medium Matters: Revolutionary Girl Utena

One of the fun elements of the otaku culture is that it embraces multiple dimensions.

One is the Japanese lifestyle. I’ve mentioned I am learning Japanese. Did I mention that I figured out how to use chopsticks finally this year? And I hang Japanese-style artwork by my friend Bronwen MacDonald around my house?

More important to us here is that it embraces the use of Japanese media, and particularly three media: anime, manga, and light novels.

Some of our favorites exist only in one medium. So be it. Is there a Samurai Champloo manga? I hope not. (Later: There is. It has to suck.)

But many of them exist in multiple media, and that matters. It matters a lot. It matters because The Medium is the Message, as Marshall McLuhan put it. The nature of a medium influences the nature of the story it tells.

You can see that quite clearly in the Black Lagoon anime and manga. The anime is pure action-adventure, well-suited to a visual medium. The manga slows the story down, makes it deep rather than fast. It’s in the manga we learn Revy’s backstory, for instance; that’s missing from the anime because in the anime she’s busy shooting off her gun instead of her mouth.

Sometimes the story is very different from medium to medium, and sometimes that’s not just because one medium is more active than another.

Revolutionary Girl Utena, the anime, is in part a study of both sexuality and gender role identity. It becomes clear that the lead characters, Utena and Anthy, are physical lovers even as Utena shatters gender role expectations.

Anthy and Utena (anime)

Utena and Anthy’s bedroom, anime. One large bed. Contrast to below.

This works for me because the anime is clearly designed as a work of art in the literal, or perhaps literary, sense. It is hip deep in symbolism and historical/literary reference; it is explicitly based on ideas Herman Hesse explored in his novels.

An anime with literary antecedents. Hmm. That’s funky.

In contrast, the manga is a much more straightforward heterosexual romance story. Through it all Utena seeks to be a Prince: her desire to be a Prince (that is, someone who saves people; that’s her definition of “Prince”) is what motivates her as a character. If that little bit of gender role slippery didn’t exist, she wouldn’t be Utena.

But at the same time in the manga she’s always searching for Mr. Licky Lick, the man who smells of roses and saved her from accidental (or possibly suicidal) death when she was a child. (Yes, that’s her nickname for him. She was only a child when it happened, so she can be forgiven for coming up with such a silly name, one hopes.)

In the manga there’s no question of her sexuality. In the manga she’s STRAIGHT, period. She spends all her time looking for Mr. Licky Lick. She dates Anthy’s brother Akio, and the head of the student council, Touga. She insists, repeatedly, over and over, that she wishes to free Anthy from her role as Rose Bride because they are FRIENDS.

Anthy and Utena (manga)

Utena and Anthy’s bedroom, manga. Twin beds. Anthy (right) even wears a nightcap!

Why the two media are so different in the construction of the main character, well, I think that stems from the nature of art. Two different artists can look at Utena Tenjou and see her in very different interpretations because that’s the nature of subjectivity. And in an important sense subjectivity is the nature of art: in a work of art the artist shows you what THEY see. What you take from that is up to you.

Seriously, look at a painting, especially a really good one, and see what you see in it. I have a strong affinity for the works of Mary Cassatt myself. Her works are pervaded with a sense of love, especially motherly love, I find moving. But the power of the work is what YOU see in it, your subjective response.

I look at the anime of Utena and I see a work of sociology, a story about gender role and gender role identity that runs deep into fundamental questions of feminism. I read the manga of Utena and I see a ripping good story about a strong woman trying to find love in this crazy old world and also trying to protect her friend/roommate.

That’s interesting for two reasons. One: They are different stories. That’s to be expected, since they are different media, and medium matters. Two: The manga story is simpler than the anime story. That’s unexpected: usually text is a deeper and more complex medium. But Utena is a unique story and told in unique ways.

I suspect the reason for different interpretations of Utena’s sexual orientation between the two is simple: her sexual orientation isn’t the element of her character that is central to the story. Utena’s story isn’t about sex, it’s about gender role orientation. The fundamental contradiction of Utena, the conflict that exists in her character, has to do with whether she will be a princess or a prince, whether she will play stereotypical female roles or break those boundaries. THAT we see in both versions of the story, and we should; that’s what Utena’s story is really about.

Two media, two stories fundamentally the same but told differently. Medium matters.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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