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The power of libraries and card catalogs: Revolutionary Girl Utena shines through

Recently, I was watching a Japanese anime, Revolutionary Girl Utena, which aired in 1997, I stumbled upon scenes showcasing libraries, reference, and much more, time and time again. This is a series that can be watched on YouTube, with subtitles, or dubbed, whichever you prefer while having over 973 fan fiction works on Archive of Our Own. There was much more than other series, or even Hollywood films like The Public, The Truman Show, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Wear-Rabbit, the latter that had a brief library scene. It’s actually extraordinary as I’ve never seen an animated series feature libraries as many times like this one!

In the show’s fourth episode (“The Sunlit Garden – Prelude“), part of the Student Council Saga, there is a short scene in a library that is clearly very scholarly. This isn’t a surprise as all of the characters are students of Ohtori Academy, set somewhere in Japan. In this scene, Juri Arisugawa, the fencing team captain at the academy meets Miki Kaoru (the person with the blue hair), secretary of the Student Council.

Miki is correcting a test for Anthy, the Rose Bride, and is studying in the library, clearly dedicated to his studies. The whole scene is not even a minute long, but it portrays the library as a serious place when you do serious work, with the lighting on the table reminding me a bit of the Library of Congress. It’s very different from the library depicted in Steven Universe, Futurama, or the ones in that 2008 Harold & Kumar movie and The Truman Show. It also reminds me of a brief scene in a church library in the Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) film, which ends up being a key part of the story.

This brings me to “The Boys of the Black Rose,” the 14th episode of the show, and part of the Black Rose Saga. In this scene, Mikage, the head of the Mikage Seminar at the academy, who wants to gain power for himself, is using what looks like a microfilm machine to examine a newspaper:

He is greeted by two men in business tricks saying his “paper” did the trick as it allowed for their research office to be chosen for a consulting office. He almost laughs them off, continuing to look at the paper.

After these men try to give him a gift, he brushes it off, and they soon walk away, calling him a genius. He sure looks like one with all his books on the shelves and materials on the desk! It’s almost the stereotypical portrayal of academia, as aloof and dedicated to their work. This is reinforced by the fact that after this he continues to look at the scanner like little has happened:

Later on in the episode, I thought it was a little comedic when Miki tells Utena (the girl with pink hair), the series protagonist, with Anthy standing beside her, about the research building right after he has come back from the reference area, which is a lie, as he was actually talking to Mikage about how he wasn’t “good enough” to be part of his seminar. He almost acted with a shock that Utena didn’t know about this, almost like a person telling something they just learned for the first time:

I’d also like to point out there was one scene in this episode that seemed to be an homage to a scene in that episode of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power that focuses on the magical library, where Utena and Anthy were sitting on a couch, with Akio on the other couch, but maybe this was just a coincidence. Regardless, none of these libraries are like the hilarious sewer library from Futurama!

Jumping to episode 18 of the show, “Mitsuru’s Growing Pains,” in the Black Rose Saga, the academic library is featured again. In the library, Mitsuru, who is looking through books, asks Utena and Anthy what it means to be grown up. Anthy says that she and Utena have done “some adult things” which is undefined, although there may be some romantic connotations there.

After this, he ends up going to the Black Rose Seminar and tries to fight Utena, almost in a trance. Like with all her duels, apart from when she battled Touga, she wins, and the Black Rose is destroyed. The episode goes on, the mentions of libraries and archive-like environments are not over.

This theme is followed in another episode, part of the Black Rose saga, episode 21 (also known as “Troublesome Insects“). During the episode, one of Nanami’s followers, Keiko misses a party. Instead, she goes to a presumed library, or perhaps an archives, to get student council records that Nanami didn’t want to do.

Of course, this makes her jealous and able to be manipulated by the easy Black Rose Seminar, who deviously use him for their own means. In some ways, his action, which is ultimately unsuccessful since Utena is one of the best swordfighters in the show, makes no sense. If she really wanted to get back at someone, why would Utena be a target? It was Nanami who, in her typical fashion, was an utter jerk to him, yet he attacks Utena, who has the supposed power to “revolutionize the world.” The sword is literally taken out of Anthy’s breast, one of the obvious lesbian themes of this anime, with the series seeming very queer, getting more so in the Akio Ohtori Saga where Anthy loses her clothes and redresses in the elevator leading up to the dueling arena using magic, changing Utena’s clothes. [1] But her actions obviously don’t make sense because she is brainwashed as she is under the control of the Black Rose.

Then there’s episode 22, also known as “Nemuro Memorial Hall.” This has the most involvement with card catalogs which has been seen in the series up to this point. The three members of the Student Council (Nanami, Juri, and Miki) go to the same place as Keiko, examining the card catalogs. They want to learn more about this secretive Black Rose Seminar and pull papers on the topic.

They ultimately end up learning more about the seminar and the reason behind the Rose Crest ring is revealed: everyone enters into a contract with Akio, although the reason for this is not shown at this time. This makes all the duels Utena has engaged in to be an utter sham! Then, in the last episode, you learn that Mikage was caught up in this as well, trusting his memories, when Akio manipulated him. So, Utena beat the manipulator…but not the manipulator who manipulated him (a.k.a. the master manipulator). The memorial hall vanishes, and no one can remember it existed. That raises the question: aren’t there any records that give its name? Or were those somehow changed by magic? This isn’t totally explained.

In the end, I think these scenes are worth mentioning as another example of the portrayal of libraries within animation which are not covered elsewhere.

© 2020 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.


[1] As Bobduh writes on Wrong Every Time, not only is this a good show but it is a “a grand stage for some grounded revelations…nothing if not theatrical” with the tricks of stagecraft and theater defining the goals of Utena, her world, and those “trapped within that egg’s shell.” There’s much more in their post, but I’ll let it stand on its own rather than trying to summarize their detailed analysis here. I’d also like to highlight how the show “follows a cute tomboy who decides that she doesn’t want to be a princess” as she “wants to be a prince instead so she can protect everyone” as argued by The Outerhaven, or the description by Otaku Dome, that the show “went on to become not only one of the most important anime in the yuri genre,” a 1997 shojo, yuri anime series, following a different direction than the manga, which argues that this series, which has “themes focused on sexual orientation, LGBT, personal identity, and other mature themes that was somewhat unheard of at the time, especially for anime,” and stated that the show will “have you smiling with joy upon your first watch” with “mature themes, characters, and writing” making this a “timeless classic.” Apart from these analyses, others have noted that the anime has “beautiful character design…was directed by Sailor Moon director Kunihiko Ikuhara,” going through all the sagas of the show: Student Council Saga (episodes 1-13), Black Rose Saga (episodes 14-23), Akio Ohtori Saga (episodes 24-33), and Apocalypse Saga (episodes 34-39), or have called it a fairy-tale inspired by European roots. Additionally, the fairytale, is, as some have argued, often “overlooked than its contemporaries – Sailor Moon, Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, and so on,” with those adding that it is “equally important to those juggernauts of anime…nothing less than a work of art both visually and narratively…and packs a jaw-dropping wallop of a feminist allegory,” other highlighting how the show is about power and control, especially in Akio Ohtori Saga. There have also been sites that highlight “tropes” in this anime, like TVTropes, and AlltheTropes (which has a wiki).

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on my History Hermann blog but has been re-edited and fixed before being posted on this blog. Enjoy!

By Burkely Hermann

Burkely Hermann joined the National Security Archive as an Indexer and Metadata Librarian in March 2020, using his experience with arrangement, indexing, electronic databases, cataloging, metadata creation, and knowledge of history on a daily basis. In December 2019, he completed his Master of Library and Information Science, specializing in Archives and Digital Curation, at University of Maryland. In 2016, he received a Bachelor of Arts, with a major in Political Science and a minor in History, from St. Mary's College of Maryland. He previously interned at the National Archives II facility in College Park and worked at the Maryland State Archives, Digital Curation and Innovation Center, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library. He is also a member of the Society of American Archivists. In his free time, he researches his family genealogy, serves as a judge for National History Day, which he participated in for several years, writes fictional works, and keeps up with changes in the library and archives fields. He currently runs seven WordPress blogs, primarily about his family history, or reviewing archives and libraries in pop culture.

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