I decided on a whim to fire up the first episode of Utena again tonight, and something about this sequence struck me for the first time.
There’s no shortage of people pointing out just how obviously not a boy’s uniform that is. We all see it. The jacket is not the right color, what is with that skirt thing, no one else is wearing hot pants, etc. etc. The jokes are too easy, and there’s also a good deal of very insightful meta about how Utena’s sartorial distinctiveness is part of what marks her out as one of the “special” “chosen” people whose position the show interrogates, or how her dress is less a “boy’s unifrom” and more of a “prince’s uniform” and the assimilation of “prince” into “male” in the narrative system, and that’s all good as far as that goes.
But I’m struck by a much more basic thought. Utena asserts herself to be wearing a boy’s uniform, and the rando teacher agrees with her assessment. At the same time this dialogue is happening, in some of the very same shots, the camera shows us actual Ohtori Academy boys, wearing actual Ohtori Academy boys’ uniforms. And just so we know exactly what we’re looking at, this episode has also made sure to show us actual Ohtori Academy boys wearing actual Ohtori Academy boys’ uniforms since the credits, and in multiple shots leading up to this point that have multiple Ohtori Academy boys in them.
This was done on purpose, and there is no plausible way a viewer could miss this. If you can see the screen, you can see that Utena is not in fact wearing the boys uniform of Ohtori Academy. You can see that these two characters are saying things - appearing to believe things - that are just not true. At four minutes and thirty seconds into the first episode of the show, you, the viewer, are presented with a contradiction, and a choice. Whom do you believe? The characters living in the world?
Or your lying eyes?
The joke is that, for all the wisecracks, nearly 100% of viewers will write off the obvious contradiction as a stylistic choice. Yeah, that doesn’t look like the other boys’ uniforms, we’ll say, but I’m sure they just did that to make the character distinctive. Because we’re familiar with that kind of maneuver, the artistic decision to make the main characters visually obvious by depicting them with implausible features or implausible clothing, we figure, eh, it’s a trope. And we decide to ourselves that, artistic tropes notwithstanding, the character dialogue is basically trustworthy. We note Utena from that point forward as a character who wears a boy’s uniform. We describe the show’s protagonist as being a girl who wears a boy’s uniform. Shoujo Kakumei Utena becomes famous as an anime about a girl who wears a boy’s uniform.
It’s like the show is Police Chief Wiggum: “Listen carefully, and watch me wink as I speak, OK? Here are the students of this academy, the girls wearing puffy-shoulder sailor suits, and the boys wearing puke-green jackets and white slacks. And here’s our protagonist, a girl wearing a purple jacket and red hot pants. And here is some dialogue where these two characters talk about the “boy’s uniform” she’s “wearing,” wink. Yep, definitely a lot of character conflict all centered around this girl who “is” wearing a “boy’s uniform,“ WINK, WINK.”
The characters of this show cannot be trusted to describe to you what is happening in this show, on even the most basic level. They are all eating so deeply from the trash can of ideology that narrative overrides even basic physical facts for them. And so are we. And that’s why the show can tell you the plain truth right from the start… and just count on you to ignore it.
wanted to draw utena in some armor with anthy and got inspired by these paintings of joan of arc because their lovely, also apparently the 24th of december marked the day the final had originally aired!