By the magic of perseverance, I watched all 200 episodes of the 1990s Sailor Moon, plus the three movies and a few appendages. I can’t recommend it. The creative enemies and ridiculous attack names are not enough to make up for long tedious stretches of monster-of-the-week with predictable fights. The world is made up of vague elements like “darkness” and “energy”, and the various powers have whatever relative strength the plot calls for at the moment, with no underlying rationale. And, forgive the nitpick, it bothered me that Jupiter was counted as an inner planet.
Stay away from the Sailors. Wherever they go, danger appears.
Ikuhara (Wikipedia) directed large parts of Sailor Moon (Anime News Network Encyclopedia) before Utena. It would be astonishing if there were no influence. Sure enough, Utena can be read as a direct answer to Sailor Moon. As I understand it, Sailor Moon was a progressive step in the magical girl genre, the first to give its protagonist a fighting role rather than a purely traditional female role. Utena carries that over and replies, “Oh, such a small step? What about the rest of the way?” Like The Rose of Versailles, it’s a work that was progressive for its time and is already out of date. Really now, “moon prism power make up”?
Sailor Moon’s message of working together to solve problems, aka defeat evil, is the same as Utena’s, depicted in a different context. Utena also equates solving problems with defeating evil. They share the same conventional, anime-standard thematic kernel of individuality plus teamwork as the ideal. And the same conventional structure of working up through a series of fights to a big fight at the end.
Did years of work on anime for a younger audience distort Ikuhara’s sense of anime humor? Is that why Utena’s comedy episodes contrast so jarringly with the serious episodes?
A question about the story. The villains have various teleportation powers, which they use easily and frequently. The Sailor senshi can teleport as a group, but it’s cumbersome. How did the bad guys ever lose?
Magical girls. I read that Sailor Moon introduced the magical girl transformation sequence. Anthy’s transformation of Utena in the dueling arena is a magical girl transformation sequence. Utena’s transformation is not intrinsic to Utena but to Utena and Anthy as a pair, because the two are aspects of a whole. On the one hand, the transformation points out that Utena has the power of miracles, a kind of magic that acts for good. On the other hand, later we realize that the transformation is mediated by the planetarium projector, evil magic controlled by Akio and used by Anthy. Evil and the idealistic reaction to evil, or idealism and the evil reaction to idealism, are also aspects of a whole—from an abstract point of view, the same whole.
Chu-Chu is the magical girl mascot animal, which I imagine developed from the witch’s familiar. Chu-Chu corresponds to Sailor Moon’s cat Luna... loosely. Chu-Chu does not introduce Utena to her powers or act as a mentor, which are conventional magical mascot functions. Chu-Chu is mainly an authorial convenience and a way to make the show richer, a character who can quietly update the audience and stay out of the way of other action.
Small stuff: The sailor senshi are “chosen”, like Utena’s duelists. Tuxedo Mask’s cape is lined with red like Dios’s. A theme of Sailor Moon is controlling people through their romantic desires—not a big difference from sexual desires. Utena’s astronomy references might be inspired by Sailor Moon. The color purple is associated with evil. Plants are evil surprisingly often (compare Anthy watering her roses). In episode 30, Wakaba tells Utena “If you’re so uptight—” and the scene cuts to a teacher saying “you’ll never fall in love.” It echoes an event in Sailor Moon episode 2, where Chiba Mamoru (still a stranger) tells Usagi that she’ll never get a boyfriend that way. Is it a genre trope that I don’t know, or is it a direct reference? The locket in episode 42 reminds me of Juri’s locket, both in its meaning and its effect when destroyed.
Nail polish. In Sailor Moon, nail polish is standard. In Utena, nobody wears nail polish. How curious!
Hair hearts. Sailor Moon’s hair displays a thematic heart shape front and center, closed at the point by the jewel in her tiara. Her red-jewel hair buns can be the lobes of a larger heart shape. Anthy’s hair makes a heart closed by her bindi (Wikipedia), and the rolls of hair at the sides align with Sailor Moon’s buns. Both are princesses. Both are bad at schoolwork. Sailor Moon/Usagi is a glutton, and Chu-Chu’s gluttony reflects on Anthy. It’s a surprising connection between characters that seem poles apart, hero and victim. It suggests that Anthy is a hero in her own way, a survivor who wins through in the end; after all, she and Utena are parts of a whole. And it points out that Anthy is ultimately driven by love. Her love of Dios was key in forcing her into the psychological trap she is in, and her love of Utena is key in her escaping it. Anthy’s purple hair means that her heart is corrupted. (To an American, a purple heart (Wikipedia) could mean she was wounded in combat, which seems sort of appropriate but is probably not intended.) Sailor Moon’s name is Tsukino Usagi, which flat out means moon rabbit—she is The Rabbit in the Moon. Tying Anthy to Sailor Moon makes Anthy the Rabbit in the Moon too.
Utena also has parallels with Sailor Moon: Both are heroes low in insight who often stray from good action but believe in themselves and do the right thing when it most matters. And Utena is independently tied to the Rabbit in the Moon—see the constellation Lepus the rabbit.
Miki draws from Mizuno Ami, Sailor Mercury. Both are academically superhuman, short-haired, short in stature, and associated with the color blue. Sailor Mercury’s blue is specifically the blue of water; in Japanese, Mercury is the water planet. Miki’s blue means naive acceptance of illusions. Both have a sense of justice and are slightly shy. Miki’s androgynous character design helps make the connection, though it also connects Miki with Kozue. Ami’s earrings (standard in Sailor Moon) match the earrings worn by Kozue. Miki lacks the aggression of most male Utena characters and has to be manipulated into fighting for Anthy. In episode 5, Juri tells Miki that his sword is not for battle. Sailor Mercury’s water powers are related to obscuration and illusion, a thematic match with Utena. Her character is about knowledge and information, and her powers are initially about denying information to the side of evil (though before long they morph into attacks).
Nikita Chestnov wrote to me to mention that Miki and Mizuno Ami are played by the same voice actor, Hisakawa Aya. I have to imagine that the audience is meant to notice that! But it went over my head. It makes Miki’s gendermixed nature unmistakable, which equates him with gendermixed Utena. In other words, not only Utena + Anthy = Kozue + Miki holds, but also Utena + Anthy = Miki + Kozue.
Utena draws from Tenou Haruka, Sailor Uranus. Their names are similar, and both refer to the sky: Tenjou (天上) heaven above, Tenou (天王) king of heaven (Uranus (Wikipedia) is god of the sky). Both are heroes. Both excel at all sports. Both mix male and female aspects. Both have a close relationship with another woman. Haruka is the wind, which in Utena is associated with the prince and therefore with Utena.
Akio draws from the villain Nephrite, introduced in episode 14. He guides himself by the stars, he drives a red sports car, women fall for him on sight (and he makes use of it), and he leaps over a fence with a flip similarly to how Akio leaps over his car’s windshield. Nephrite is cooler, though: He does the flip with his hands in his pockets.
In episode 21, Nephrite calls on his monsters Castor and Pollux, whose strength is the teamwork that arises from their friendship. They are defeated when their friendship and teamwork fail. Utena seems to draw directly on that meaning of friendship and working together—and their breakdown. See celestial bodies - Gemini and the episode 25 shadow play.
Wakaba draws from Nanako, starry-eyed guest character of episode 152 in Sailor Moon SuperS. Nanako sees her own dreams as impossible and follows other people’s dreams instead. The lesson of the episode is that that’s a poor idea. Wakaba sees her dream of Saionji as impossible, and follows Utena instead, wanting to be special like Utena. Her feeling could be: Maybe if she is special she will deserve Saionji. Wakaba borrows Nanako’s hair color and forehead curl.
A meaningful reference. Usagi passes by an advertisement for the Sailor V video game, and her hair trails behind her. It foretells her future. She is destined to become the hero Sailor Moon, but she coincidentally meets Luna and at first is pushed unwillingly into the role.
Utena charges Saionji with her stub of a bamboo sword. Her hair trails beautifully behind her. Utena will become a hero. She coincidentally falls into the dueling game, but Akio manipulated her into being susceptible to it—she was pushed into the role. The aspects line up fairly neatly. Utena gets more mileage out of the image than Sailor Moon.
This lighthouse resembles Akio’s tower, which also projects light. The tower visually divides the newly-introduced Sailor Venus from the four established sailor senshi. Compare the obelisk in episode 2 of Utena. In general, I felt that this Sailor Moon episode made heavy use of visual framing devices of the kind that Utena also likes. And, well, it’s episode 33. The episode number alone may have earned this Sailor Moon episode extra attention from the Utena crew. (The Rose of Versailles episode 33 definitely got extra attention.)
In the following episode 34, Sailor Moon’s tear activates the MacGuffin and undoes a tremendous amount of work by the bad guys. It reminded me of Utena’s tear in episode 39 that opens the Rose Gate and undoes a tremendous amount of work by Akio.
I see a lot of similarities in this run of Sailor Moon episodes. On the right is a view from the palace on the moon, Silver Millenium. The Earth is reflected in the water and seems afflicted by a dark cloud representing the threat of the Dark Kingdom. The pillars remind me of the pillars in Utena’s architecture, and the crenelations are like those at the edge of the dueling arena.
This I read as visual influence (possibly both are influenced by other sources). Pointy shadows are cast by imaginary spotlights. Neither image is realistically lit. Both have diagonal compositions across the frame, with a prominent triangle in the middle. Both emphasize the person at the top vertex of the triangle. There is a reference in the Utena image, but it is to Nadia (three versus four points), not to Sailor Moon.
A meaningful reference. Usagi/Princess Serenity is equated with princess Utena, and Tuxedo Mask/Prince Endymion (Wikipedia) with Dios. In both, wind blows in two directions at once. Sailor Moon depicts an idealized relationship, an ancient true love unbroken by minor setbacks like reincarnation with loss of memories. Keyword “eternity”. I think Utena reverses the characters’ positions to reverse the meaning. Utena loves Dios due to trickery by Akio; Dios is not real when little Utena meets him, he is played by Akio. The aspect that is ancient and true is that Akio controls and exploits Utena, as he does all women.
After this, Tuxedo Mask/Endymion is corrupted to the side of evil (temporarily). Compare Dios and Akio. Utena becomes corrupted too. When evil, Tuxedo Mask’s red rose turns black.
The ice rink shutters slamming closed in episode 39 reminded me of the shutters of Akio’s tower. The ice rink was a trap intended for Sailor Moon, so it’s a meaningful reference. Akio’s phallic tower, which is equated with the dueling arena, is a trap for Utena. She does not escape the duels until she has fought all of them.
Utena, the first season of Sailor Moon, and Sailor Moon S all associate climactic tragic moments with the crucifixion of Jesus, though they don’t take details literally. The tragedies are followed by rebirth, like the resurrection of Christ. This is the point at which it makes sense to equate the Fenghuang bird with the Western phoenix.
Queen Serenity dies on a cross formed by the fallen columns of her palace. In Sailor Moon S, Hotaru is shown bound to a cross. Akio turns Utena into a princess (murdering the prince) on a cross of shadows. Anthy is nailed to the air with her sword, and then the Swords of Hatred turn her into a floating crown of thorns, mocking her princess crown. A girl who cannot become a princess must become a witch, it seems to say, but the witch will then become a princess, and it works out the same in the end. As Anthy said in episode 37, all girls are like the Rose Bride.
In Sailor Moon R, episode 74, four sailor senshi are immobilized on crosses. It’s a lesser climactic moment.
Princess Serenity and Prince Endymion reach hands toward each other, and then are forced apart. Utena echoes the images when Utena and Anthy reach hands toward each other in Anthy’s coffin, and then Anthy falls away as the dueling arena crumbles. Anthy is reaching with the opposite hand, but her fingers are splayed in almost the same pattern. Anthy reaches with her left hand, the hand of illusions, because she sees Utena as her prince.
When Usagi and Mamori are told that Chibi-Usa (with pink hair) is their daughter from the future, they run through a range of reactions. After several seconds, they realize what it implies and are deeply embarrassed. Never mind that they both dream of eventually marrying, for now neither is anywhere close to ready to advance the relationship that far.
It’s a gag, but it’s about right. Usagi and Utena are both 14. Utena is at a similar level of emotional readiness when Akio maneuvers her into a sexual relationship in the First Seduction. Utena is out of her depth, and remains so at least until the middle of episode 37 when she looks outside her coffin and starts to make sense of the world—and perhaps throughout, considering her temptation in the final showdown.
A few shared elements are meaningful references. Some look like Utena borrowing either from Sailor Moon or from the same wider media universe that Sailor Moon and Utena are both embedded in. Some may be bits that Ikuhara likes, or came to like. I imagine that most came to the minds of the creative team because they’d seen them not long ago.
Elements Utena shares with Sailor Moon R, the second season of Sailor Moon and the first that Ikuhara (mostly) directed. There are more shared minor elements than in the first season.
aloneness versus family and friends - badminton - barely able to walk - basketballs (see Luna-P dribbled like a basketball) - clocks striking the hour - cracked picture - dream control - exchange diary (2) - fairy tales - free will versus control by others - illusions (Sailor Mercury’s powers, and episode 80) - miracles - pink hair for a key character - rabbits - redirected love and the power of seduction - splash of a water drop (Sailor Mercury) - stress eating (like Chu-Chu) - time travel - UFO
Elements Utena shares with Sailor Moon S, the third season of Sailor Moon, directed by Ikuhara. There are more, I left out some minor ones that I noticed.
acting - birthday - car standing on end - Cinderella - corruption as losing your pure heart - distracted from studying by battles - donating blood - elephants - handkerchief as hand bandage - harassment by snails - hatching from an egg - locker messages - objects extracted from the heart - octopus balloon - Old Maid card game - opera glasses - planetarium with projector - rose garden and greenhouse - streetlight blinking on - sword fighting - two characters as one person - underage car driving - underground professor character - winning by caring for another
Elements Utena shares with Sailor Moon SuperS, the fourth season of Sailor Moon, directed by Ikuhara.
Utena borrows some of its thematic structure directly from SuperS. The Crystal Forest, located in the World of Dreams, is a fairy tale enchanted forest and corresponds to the dueling forest. The unicorn/flying horse (Wikipedia) Pegasus with alter ego Helios corresponds to prince Dios. Dreams, children’s dreams, and immaturity and wishing for adulthood are themes of the season; compare Utena’s childish dream to become a prince. Calling on Pegasus to protect dreams corresponds to Utena calling on Dios during a duel—Pegasus powers up Sailor Moon’s fancy weapon (the Moon Kaleido Scope), which is not sharp but resembles a sword. Utena might wish her dreams were protected. The villains believe that a child who destroys their dream becomes an adult who cannot use magic. (Episode 164. Sailor Moon answers that a truly beautiful dream cannot be destroyed.) It corresponds to Utena becoming an adult and losing her power of miracles. Pink-haired Chibi-Usa corresponds to Utena, starting from the kiss by Helios/Pegasus that matches Dios kissing little Utena’s tears away, all the way to Queen Nehalennia and Akio saying (in different words) that a child like you could not understand. Helios is guardian of the dream-powered paradise Elysion—which I read as a portmanteau of “Elysium” and “illusion”. It sounds like the castle in the sky.
The mid-level villain Fish Eye is decorated with a fish skeleton like Utena’s fish skeletons, and a spherical hair tie like Akio’s.
Episode 138 has a car theme. The villain’s car arrives with a skidding stop much like Akio’s car. It crushes a blooming dandelion; you can see it under the wheel. Akio’s car is worse: If its destination is inside a building, it breaks in.
The Sailor Moon image emphasizes the villain’s uncaring nature and gives some prominence to the background. The heroes win with only one episode’s worth of trouble. The image of Akio’s car emphasizes the car’s coolness and power and obscures the background, representing Akio’s dominance.
This time I was clever enough to write down episode numbers. Besides the numbered episodes, there is one special episode and a movie.
becoming adult in a moment of realization (150) - boxing kangaroo (133) - breaking a long-standing seal (164) - carrot as unicorn horn (129) - corruption by temptation (156) - cuckoo clock (movie) - finding thematic love/adulthood after many experiences (141) - impersonation, imitating another (148; see the TV impersonation contest in episode 33) - immortality by consuming the dreams of others (166) - jumping to conclusions (138) - koi pun, fish and love (159) - merry-go-round (143) - mirrors show the truth, people’s hearts distort the image (though in the season’s final showdown, mirrors are associated with illusions) (156 and movie) - naked are clothed in the opener - pinned in place by thrown knives (132 151 153) - purple hair with earrings similar to Anthy’s (Lilica the vampire in the special) - silhouettes (130) - time stopped by falling in love (159) - trapped in coffins (movie) - unfree princess (146, princess Rubina)
Elements Utena shares with Sailor Moon Sailor Stars, the fifth season of Sailor Moon, directed by Igarashi Takuya (Wikipedia; not Utena’s Ikuhara). This season finished less than two months before Utena started to air, so influence is probably limited. There are fewer shared elements.
The enemy Galaxia is a former hero, like Dios turned into Akio. It may be a coincidence. The lighthouse of Sailor Moon episode 33 returns in episode 179.
betrayal, no true friendship (197) - dunking a basketball to cheering fangirls and other sports superskills (174) - exchanging thoughts wordlessly (189) - ferris wheel (190) - forced forgetting through dreams (171) - gleaming tears on a black background (191 and others) - making decisions for others (190) - refusing to give up hope (200) - train vendor (183) - “who are you?” (200) - winning by forgivenness (172)
Galaxia. Unless both borrowed this from somewhere else, it must be a meaningful reference. Galaxia is a hero who knows that she will be corrupted by evil and prepares for it by releasing the means to defeat the evil. The color is pink for love. Utena is a future hero who does not know she will be corrupted. The color is shaded toward purple for corruption. The Utena scene tells us that Utena wants to be a princess and marry the prince, which is the handle that Akio grasps to control and corrupt her.
Both are looking upward. As in the princess-prince reference above, Utena flips the picture left-to-right to flip the meaning: Galaxia looks forward toward a realistic hope. The flower petals are constantly moving, but in many still frames, as here, they give Galaxia wings. Utena looks left toward an illusion—she’s looking toward the castle in the sky, where the prince and princess will live happily ever after (though the castle is not visible from where she is).
Galaxia is defeated when she is corrupted by evil, but planned ahead and won through in the end thanks to the help of Sailor Moon. Utena is looking toward an illusion and cannot see what is coming—her situation is worse than Galaxia’s, and her column of light is narrower and dimmer. Utena is corrupted by evil, and defeated in Akio’s eyes though not her own, and wins through thanks to the betrayal and the help of Anthy.
The picture makes Galaxia=Utena. But Galaxia is a hero of the distant past, and it makes sense to set Galaxia=Dios. It makes the parallelism closer in two ways. First, Dios like Galaxia changes from hero to villain. Second, it suggests that Dios knew he was to be corrupted by evil and performed the miracle of creating the Rose Gate and the dueling arena, with their rules of admission, to prepare for a future hero to defeat the evil. Dios’s interaction with Utena in the final showdown says that he wasn’t expecting the future hero to overturn his sexist world order. Dios’s goal is to save all girls, so under this interpretation the dueling apparatus will continue to exist down the sequence of heroes until all girls are saved, which requires that Akio is defeated.
Anthy and Utena’s dance in episode 3 comes with a somewhat similar image with a column of light and flying petals. The effect is quite different.
Jay Scott <email@example.com>
first posted 20 January 2022
updated 13 August 2023