Shohjo Battle Evolution and Utena: Just how Revolutionary IS this Girl??

time for battle

I’ve come across a great essay on shohjo comic history and imagery, written by a Nagoya University teacher Hiromi Nakagawa, and titled Shohjo Cultural Theory – the Portrayal of Girls in Shojo Manga.  Her online works (in Japanese) are here, the one I mentioned being the fourth on the list.

Ms Nakagawa has an interesting section on the evolution of shojo battling; she doesn’t mention Revolutionary Girl Utena, but the text really makes we wonder about the place of Utena in this historical flow.  Seven episodes into the show, I’m eager for any non-spoiler data that might help me to understand the show and this sort of text is perfect for that.  I’ll first give a summary of her discussion and then see how it might relate to Utena.

According to Nakagawa, the whole concept of “fighting” was initially only confined to shohnen stories.  This assignment of course reflected social stereotypes in Japan at that time.  Girls would show up in battle scenes only to cheer their man on, helplessly.  Prior to the 1970s there were no shohjo manga centered around battles and fighting.

Princess Knight

Princess Knight

This is not to say that there weren’t any fighting girls at all.  Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight (begun in 1953)  had her share of battles.  But here the story was a melodrama with fighting as a supplement or extension of that.  Even the famous Rose of Versailles (1972-3) wasn’t really centered on battles.

Rose of Versailles

Rose of Versailles

The first true battle shohjo was Sukeban Deka (1976-82), and the main character Saki Asamiya is revolutionary in more ways than one.   The reason will take some explaining, as follows.

Sukeban Deka

Sukeban Deka

Nakagawa asserts that the “battle method” of the character is very important.  Princess Knight and Rose of Versailles feature women who dress as men in order to fight.   Significantly, the much newer (1990s) Basara also follows this pattern.



In the older series the women are fighting as men becuse it is the men that are supposed to be fighters.  In Basara it is simply a matter of convenience at times.

Another “battle method”, very popular is the transformation.  The most famous example is Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon (1992-7).  From a progressivist, feminist point of view, Sailor Moon is very ambiguous.  On the one hand, the transformation doesn’t involve crossdressing.  This is an indication that it’s become acceptable for a woman to fight and defend herself in manga and anime.

Sailor Moon

Sailor Moon

On the other hand, the transformation overemphasizes the female sex, and this in turn indicates that the creators are thinking of men as consumers and no longer (just) of girls.  Evidence of this is the proliferation of doujinshi for Sailor Moon, created and consumed mostly by men.  The success of this series has spawned a huge number of other works, and its influence is undeniable.

There is still a third “battle method”, the simplest one: just fight as you are.  Nakagawa cites Sukeban Deka and Flowers of the Asuka Gang (Hana no Asuka-gumi, 1985-95).  In these shows there is neither crossdressing nor transformation with a sexual component.

Flowers of the Asuka Gang

Flowers of the Asuka Gang

Nakagawa doesn’t say this explicitly, but I think she would agree with this interpretation: there is an evolution of shohjo battles that goes somewhat like this:

a) girl shrieks and cheers while boys fight

b) girl dresses up as a boy in order to fight; fights in order to gain love, etc.

c) girl fights because she wants to.

d) girl fights to save the world, and she looks sexy while she’s at it.

The implication is that the last step is a devolution, rather than an evolution.  I also find it extremely interesting that the two series in step (c) involve characters who are quite literally social delinquents: Saki Asamiya and Asuka Kuraku.



There’s quite a bit more to Ms Nakagawa’s analysis, but I’m gonna stop it there for now.  How do the battle scenes in Revolutionary Girl Utena fit into all of this??

1. Even before we get to the battle scene, Utena dresses and enjoys dressing as a man.  She doesn’t pretend to be a man, though, as everyone is aware of her gender, but she still chooses to crossdress.  What does this mean??

2. There is a definite transformation at the beginning of the battle scene.  In fact, Utena‘s director worked extensively on Sailor Moon.  Is the transformation sexy?  To the extent that it is, I find the focus to be on Anthy Himemiya, who during the battle happens to fit the old shohnen stereotype of “look pretty, stand there and wait”.  Utena herself handsomely pulls out the sword from Anthy.  What does this mean???

3. Utena’s attire changes, but I think the strongest hint of transformation here is not in what she wears, but in what she says: “Grant me the power to bring the world revolution!”  Considering that during her everyday life she berates the attitudes of those on the student council and thinks it’s all nonsensical, it’s surprising that she should parrot that classic line, like an automaton or one possessed.  What does this mean????


Of course, seven episodes in, I don’t know.  Comments would be appreciated but please no spoilers.  And I must make it clear I haven’t read the manga mentioned in the post: it’d be great to hear from people who have.  How do you see Nakagawa’s take on things?


~ by Haloed Bane on September 24, 2009.

14 Responses to “Shohjo Battle Evolution and Utena: Just how Revolutionary IS this Girl??”

  1. 1. We don’t know how female fencers dress yet don’t we? The answer to this question depends on this I feel!!

    2. We’ve seen Saionji pull the sword out, but I forgot what he said as he did thus. I think if he says nothing, there’s something in your claim that Utena’s declaration is the focus. Otherwise, it’s not very meaningful since everyone says it!!!

    3. See no 2. !!!!

    3.1 If any other female duelist does not shout it in a similar situation… see no. 2. !!!!

  2. @Ghostlightning

    1. Do you mean female fencers in Utena or real life? In real life they wear the same as male fencers. That shit is made out ballistic armour, apparently O_O.

    If you’re referring to fencers in Uteana, AK has watched the 7th episode and thus he’ll have seen Juri’s duel. Additionally, when the fencing club appears, all fencers, male and female, are wearing standard fencing gear.

    2. Saionji does, in fact, say this when he retrieves the sword. And AK’s point was that Utena is not fighting for revolution, or so she constantly declares, so why does she parrot this phrase?


    I question whether Utena’s “crossdressing” is in the same vein as the crossdressing in other shoujo stories. In both Princess Knight and The Rose of Versailles the characters crossdress to deny their femininity; to present themselves as a man. Utena, by contrast, is almost violently opposed to the suggestion that she is anything other than female. She is most emphatically fighting as a girl.

    I would no more consider Utena “crossdressing” than I would any girl who wore trousers to be “crossdressing”. As clothing goes, it’s pretty gender neutral at this point.

    Interestingly, in the movie (MOVIE SPOILERS!), Utena /is/ mistaken for a man by Saionji; he doesn’t realise his mistake until he cuts her blouse open and she, uh, “falls out”. But the movie is so distinct from the show I don’t think it should have any bearing in this discussion.(END MOVIE SPOILERS).

    Utena’s transformation: not sexy. Actually, it’s so superficial it’s no more a transformation than a closed flower blossoming. If anything, rather than emphasise her femininity it does the opposite: it makes her look more “princely”.

    Is this meant to say that Utena can only fight in her masculine aspect or that she is closer to her goal of being a prince when she is fighting for Anthy?

    The latter, I think; in the first episode, importantly, Utena fights untransformed, which implies two things to me, a) she /can/ fight in her feminine aspect, and b) the transfomation is linked to her position as Anthy’s defender. In the first episode, uniquely, she is fighting to /win/ Anthy; those where she transforms she is defending Anthy- she occupies the position of her prince.

    And, from a more meta point of view, if the show is “about” anything, it’s about Utena’s rejection of the traditional female role without rejecting being female. To portray Utena as strong only when masculine would run counter to that.

    The sword-drawning phrase stumped me for a bit. Let’s start with the “ritualistic” nature of the fight scenes; if they are a ritual, then these words are part of that ritual. They are the magic words that pull the sword out of Anthy’s chest.

    Let’s examine that for a second. Utena pulls a sword out of Anthy’s chest. How does that /work/? What does it /mean/? Why is there a sword there in the first place?! (>_______>)

    In order to use the sword she has to implicitly accept the rules of the situation. In fact, she has to accept those rules as soon as she steps through that water/door thing. Outside the arena, she is free to berate the student council and belittle their “nonsensical” contest. Inside, she cannot. Not if she wants to defend Anthy- if she wants to play the part of the Prince.

    The shadow girls pretty much spell it out in episode 2 (which seems to be their function, in a Shinbo-esque “telling you what’s going on while it’s happening” way), “losing might be harder than you think”. She can’t reject the rules of the arena (deliberately losing) without rejecting the desire to be a prince which is central to her character.

  3. I would also like to note that a lot of pertinent stuff happens quite soon in the anime. Is it spoiling to give an episode number?

    Episodes 11/12 are the ones to watch out for.

  4. @ghost

    Yeah, I meant it as autonomous thought. Everyone does say it, but Utena is supposed not to be into the whole thing as everyone else is, so it’s significant that she does. I guess it can be explained as easily as “you either say this and open sesame the sword of dios comes out, or you get buttmunched by the enemy”. Still, it’s kinda interesting right?

    On the dresses, I definitely think this is a complicated thing. It seemed to me like Utena’s shorts develop a little frilly dress thing when Anthy starts her “spellcasting” or whatever it is. All in all, though, the transformation is subtle.


    Well, thanks so much for not bringing up spoilers for the show (BTW I did NOT read what you wrote about the movie!!). You obviously care a lot about the show and it must be hard to restrain yourself..

    Anyway, you said this:

    “And, from a more meta point of view, if the show is “about” anything, it’s about Utena’s rejection of the traditional female role without rejecting being female. To portray Utena as strong only when masculine would run counter to that.”

    In the first chat post I said this:

    “she wants to be a man (i.e., do as she wills, be strong) while she’s quite strongly against men (they travel in groups and beat the weak). She wants to be a prince, basically…”

    We’re on the same page here.

  5. I’m with the ritual theory. Regardless of Utena’s reservations in participating in the whole Rose Bride mess, she will still need to call upon the power of Dios to maintain possession of Anthy.

    I like how Utena finds a reason to keep Anthy to herself using the “if others took her, they would surely abuse her–but I won’t” card while denying the rest of the WORLD REVOLUTION business. However… watch on and find out!

    Have you also noticed how Utena never trains with the sword in her own free time? Bears mentioning, too.

  6. @schneider

    Training is for wimps. And people in the real world….but people in the real world are wimps so..yeah, training is for wimps 🙂

  7. Had to note:

    “step d” girl fights to save the world, and she looks sexy while she’s at it.

    That doesn’t really constitute a step back — feminism evolved to accept/embrace femininity and sexuality in a way that people still don’t give it credit for. Of course, the way you put it, in the context of Sailor Moon and the discovery (or is it creation?) of a male audience for this stuff — that does make it seem a bit regressive.

    So in that case, could Utena be reclaiming a bit of that strength from the seifuku crew while maintaining her own sexuality/hawtness? After all, it’s not as if her boys’ uniform is exactly what the boys wear. I think I’m just rambling and trying to connect random points here, but that’s where my brain traveled. It should be noted that anything I know about western feminism probably doesn’t apply to Japan anyway…

  8. @otou-san

    According to Nakagawa, the way Sailor Moon’s transformation works is meant to please men and not girls, supposedly the target audience. She doesn’t go into how she knows this and well… I haven’t seen the show so I can’t really comment on it.

    I think you might be right on with the second paragraph. Ultimately though, it’s so hard for us men to really discuss these things intelligently, isn’t it?? How can we ever know if we’re right???

  9. […] On Another Revolution On Depositfiles On Mediafire On Megaupload […]

  10. Sooo… update? :p

  11. […] Heh. I’ve got the best and most understanding waifu evar, you gossipy shadow puppets can’t worry me. I’m not as updated in gender theory, and I admit I haven’t paid any attention to it at all for years. But I think I’m going to watch this show and learn lots along the way. Animekritik already gets the ball rolling. […]

  12. […] how revolutionary is Utena exactly (animekritik […]

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