Creative spotlights are easily digestible overviews of a director or animator’s body of work, style, and vision. My goal for these articles is to highlight some of the exceptional and possibly lesser-known creative voices in anime. I’m hoping these write-ups encourage people to explore more of what anime has to offer.
The spotlight for the next few weeks will be on Kunihiko Ikuhara, the mastermind behind Shoujo Kakumei Utena, Mawaru Pengiundrum, and Yuri Kuma Arashi. This article is the second of four parts looking at Ikuhara’s career, and will be focused on Shoujo Kakumei Utena.
Although Kunihiko Ikuhara was an invaluable creative asset for Toei Animation’s Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon, the aspiring director was destined to break free from tradition. The longer Ikuhara worked on Sailor Moon, the more he became interested in creating a work that challenged the preconceived image of a heroine in shoujo anime. One aspect that frustrated Ikuhara about Sailor Moon’s narrative was despite Usagi’s combat abilities and emotional stability, Tuxedo Mask would always appear to aid her in battles. Usagi was a heroine who was strong-willed, beautiful, and could fight by herself, but was always protected by a man at the climax of her fights. Ikuhara saw this as an outdated ideal, and sought to create a narrative where the heroine fought against the prince (both literally and figuratively) to achieve her own independence.
Riding the tides of change, Ikuhara became a paramount figure in revolutionizing shoujo and magical girl anime in the late 90s. Along with manga artist Chiho Saito, scriptwriter Yoji Enokido, and character designer Shinya Hasegawa, Ikuhara formed the studio BE-PAPAS to create one of the most monumental anime series of all time, Shoujo Kakumei Utena.
Shoujo Kakumei Utena was unlike any anime that preceded it (and to this day, there still hasn’t been an anime that has managed to recapture its unique flavor). Traditional shoujo imagery such as roses were adorned with abstract shadow puppetry and the discord of J.A. Seazer’s psychedelic rock operas. As if he were creating a work that embodied all the chaos and conflict of Japan’s shifting gender roles, Ikuhara’s Shoujo Kakumei Utena set out to subvert all audience expectations.
Ideologically, Shoujo Kakumei Utena is a work that examines gender through the lens of traditional fairy tale imagery. It is through these parables that Ikuhara is able to successfully break down the barriers of an oppressive patriarchal structure across the anime’s 39-episode run. The heroine, Tenjou Utena, is an honest and forthright girl who was so enamored with the prince of her childhood that she grew up wanting to become a prince herself. Though Utena is initially depicted as virtuous, her character is thrown into turmoil when she is forced to duel for the possession of the Rose Bride, Himemiya Anthy.
A shy and submissive girl whose fate is to become the property of the victor, Anthy is a tortured soul who shifts between states of helplessness and passive-aggressive frustration. As all the characters in Shoujo Kakumei Utena see Anthy as a duel prize that will grant their wishes, the oppressive cycle continues into perpetuity. Even Utena herself becomes caught up in her own chivalrous tendencies, and becomes a product of the warped duel system in order to keep Anthy by her side. Utena’s naïve ideals are put into question by her eventual friendship and romance with Anthy, as she begins to see her as a person and not an object.
Utena’s prince complex is just one of many psychological uncertainties that encompasses Shoujo Kakumei Utena’s multifaceted cast. The students of Ohtori Academy are all adolescents drowning in the anxieties of their own self-worth and sexuality. To give form to all their intricate emotional states, Ikuhara shapes the setting of Ohtori Academy into an ever-changing stage where physical space becomes a manifestation of lifestyle and personality. For example, Miki’s music room is depicted as a dark space with a single piano in it, while Juri’s fencing club is a large, cold room with nothing but empty chairs.
Ikuhara’s visual direction in Shoujo Kakumei Utena possesses a unique surrealist quality that furthers the emotional narrative of its cast. As the series progresses, mundane objects such as baseballs, desks, and cars begin to appear in environments that they would normally be far-removed from. In one scene, a baseball match will take place in the background of a student council meeting. Likewise, in the middle of the dueling arena, cars will abruptly emerge from the ground with their lights flashing and alarms sounding. As out of place as these phenomenon may seem, none of the characters in Shoujo Kakumei Utena ever point out the oddity; rather they accept them as natural occurrences. Ikuhara’s mysterious and playful visual direction is rife with symbolism, as fragments of the cast’s psyche manifests itself in weird and wonderful ways.
The physically-impossible architecture of Shoujo Kakumei Utena presents an image of a high school that is far removed from the confines of reality. From a spiral staircase with a glowing castle at its peak to an enormous gate crowned with a stone rose, Ohtori Academy is a school that strikes a delicate balance between a dream and a self-contained theatre play. None of the characters ever question the fantastical environment that they consider their school, rather the space acts as a representation of their conflicted emotions and repressed memories. Ikuhara even cranks up his fixation for architectural manifestations in his film retelling, Shoujo Kakumei Utena: Adolescence Mokushiroku.
While sadly forgotten by the younger generation of anime fans, Ikuhara’s Shoujo Kakumei Utena is a landmark work that revolutionized shoujo anime storytelling. Its avant-garde visual direction and soundtrack, combined with an intricate examination of gender and sexuality cements it as one of the greatest anime of all time. For those that enjoyed Ikuhara’s Yuri Kuma Arashi or Mawaru Penguindrum and are interested in checking out his most famous work, Shoujo Kakumei Utena is a must-watch.
Stay tuned next week for Part 3 of the Kunihiko Ikuhara spotlight, which will cover Mawaru Penguindrum! Let us know your thoughts on Ikuhara in the comments below!