This wiki used to have this series listed as Anime First because Chiho Saito was the last member to join Be-PaPas — which may be true, but the manga was being published several months before the anime started airing, which is referenced by Saito-sensei in the early volumes. It's also worth noting that many tropes that are deconstructed in the anime series are played much straighter in the manga.
Many people have only seen Adolescence of Utena, partly because it's easier to find on torrent sites and partly because it was the only version released in places like the UK. (And, okay, it's known for its Fanservice as well.) It's also been shown at some LGBT film festivals, giving it exposure outside the anime fandom.
The series was partly based on the novel Demian by Hermann Hesse, which most anime fans wouldn't know because it's never mentioned ANYWHERE EVER. Particularly, the egg speech is a direct reference - expect anything else which references the egg speech to be assumed to be referencing Utena.
Every. Single. Character. To one degree or another, anyway. Given the often ambiguous nature of the show and the complexity of many of the characters — even minor ones — this isn't surprising.
Some fans view Akio as just as much a victim of circumstances as Anthy. This could be an understandable interpretation given that things might've been different if the angry villagers hadn't demanded so much of Dios in the first place but nevertheless, it does usually result in him getting the Draco in Leather Pants treatment.
The different versions themselves have been claimed to be alternate interpretations of Utena, with the manga as Chiho Saito's vision, Adolescence of Utena as Kunihiko Ikuhara's vision, and the TV series as a compromise between the two; there's also the manga adaptation of the film, which is Saito's own spin on it, and the light novels, which were written by someone else entirely (specifically, Ichirou Ookouchi). Characterisation varies wildly between all these versions, to the point where the differences between portrayals of any given character can be quite jarring.
Is Saionji just a jerk who constantly abuses Anthy? Or a sweet but troubled guy with little hold of his emotions and ambitions? He only is a cruel abusive jerk when engaged to Anthy; at any other moment, he's actually capable of showing vulnerability, openly tries to be romantic when wooing her, and even exchanges diaries with her. On the other hand, acting nice after mistreating their lover is a very common tactic of abusers. To muddle things further he's nothing but sweet while living in Wakaba's dorm until he's presented with the opportunity of returning to the council as if his ambitions turn everything else secondary. Even then, he's still just a teen and a victim of manipulation himself.
On first viewing Touga comes across as a deeply manipulative, even petty figure with little to no redeeming qualities, whose behavior makes the audience feel sorry for Saionji, the guy who literally slaps women around when he doesn't get his way. He's one of the only major student characters we never really see from "inside" his head, which can make him fall oddly flat. But taking in Word of God's claim that his fate in Adolescence of Utena where he is sexually abused by his stepfather, not that he drowns was also supposed to carry into the TV series (and perhaps wasn't due to Touga's VA being absent for most of a whole arc, giving him less time for development) not only makes a lot of his behaviors make more sense - manipulative to the extreme, a hatred/distrust/outright refusal to believe in friendship, and over-sexuality (a common warning sign in children who have been sexually abused) makes a second watching deeply upsetting, particularly when he's around Akio. He seems to be under the impression he's in control, but we already know that Akio is playing him like a fiddle, and likely all the easier due to his prior abuse. And just try to listen to his line about a relationship between step-siblings being more "romantic" while remembering what his step-father did to him. Brrrr.
And just to prove once again how flexible the fourth wall is in Utena, the Akio that wants to keep Anthy in the academy's world in Adolescence of Utenais Anthy's own Alternative Character Interpretation (of sorts) of the real guy that died ages ago. Something similar seems to be the case with Touga; compare his scenes with Utena to his scenes with Shiori, for example.
Anvilicious: A clear case of Tropes Are Not Bad though.
Strictly defined gender roles are crap. Those who believe they can do something should not let societal norms stop you. Also, you don't have to be imprisoned by your family; if they bring you down and you can't help them, well, better save yourself.
Abuse isn't always apparent or easy to identify. Also you often can't rescue someone from an abusive relationship- they have to do it themselves.
Sexual abuse doesn't need to look like rape. Akio gets the consent of definitely Anthy and probably Utena before initiating sexual intercouse with them, but this is obtained with lots of backhanded manipulation, hidden ulterior motives and emotional abuse, so even if they weren't technically raped they were still very much sexually abused which is just as despicable.
Especially for places where minors are considered to be pure and sexless or where you're only considered a kid as long as you look like one: Teens, even middle or late ones, even those who have physically developed and may seem mature for their age and may be indistinguishable from adults are still vulnerable to being emotionally and psychologically manipulated by abusive adults.
Don't hate on women, and double if you're a woman yourself. Because a woman who hates other women will never be able to love herself.
Applicability: There are a lot of feminist themes revolving around the character of Anthy, but because she is dark-skinned, westerners (particularly Americans) may see racial themes there as well.
Anthy, Anthy, Anthy... see Alternative Character Interpretation above for just some of the details. There's no middle ground on a character as complex as she is, especially on her relationship with Akio and her stabbing Utena at the end. Is she the ultimate example of The Woobie who is broken beyond belief after a millennium of pain and abuse and therefore is not responsible for anything either good or bad that she does, or an evil Manipulative Bitch who played everyone as fools as either her revenge for said millennia of pain and abuse, or as her way to grasp power for herself after having been powerless for so long, and torture everyone (Akio included)? Either way, don't ask: the mere mention of Anthy can send the whole fandom into hategasms or lovegasms.
Orshe has been rendered borderline insane and barely has grips of herself.
Depending on what part of the fandom you're looking at, Touga can be anything from an over-princified Draco in Leather Pants (particularly on older fansites) to a much-loathed Scrappy (particularly on Tumblr, though the DILP crowd shows up on there as well). Balanced opinions on him are very rare.
On a balanced opinion on him, he's an asshole that hits the scrappy heap on his manipulation of his own sister but he isn't heartless as Akio and seems to be able to redeem himself, it also seems that he genuinely loves his sister but he was played like a fiddle by Akio's enchantments just like almost everyone else and he betrays Akio the moment he's called out on this.
Akio, Akio, Akio. A flawless Chessmaster who controls everyone and everything via Anthy so he can re-shape the world to his liking? An absolute monster who toys with everyone solely for his own gratification and power? A Tragic Hero who got way too broken in the past and reacted to the trauma by becoming a massive ass even to the persons he should protect? A pathetic manchild who has no intention of changing or taking responsibility and just wants to feel powerful by lording over a bunch of insecure teenagers? Can it even be ALL of the above?
Ruka, Ruka, Ruka. He's another particularly divisive character whose actions even today, years after the series has ended, are hotly-debated.
Nanami, while her unbalanced mental state isn't questioned; Is she a spoiled Rich Bitch that wants everything her way or a pampered girl that, when push comes to shove she, surprisingly, of all people proves to have morals if skewed points of view?
Is Tatsuya/Prince Onion a genuine Nice Guy who is rejected by Mikage for being a truly good person or an entitled faux "Nice Guy" who is rejected by Mikage for not needing to revolutionize a world that already serves his ends?
When there are no fewer than five different Utena canons (the TV series, the manga by Chiho Saito, Adolescence of Utena, the manga based on the film that's also by Saito, and the virtually unknownLight Novels) some breakage is inevitable. Try bringing up any kind of comparison between these media; fans that support one version will be trying to murder the fans who prefer the others within seconds.
Complete Monster: Akio Ohtori is the epitome of heartless, callous selfishness. Once the heroic Dios, Akio grew disillusioned with being the hero and allowed his sister Anthy to be tortured for what amounts to centuries. As one of the prime figures at Ohtori Academy in the present, Akio seduces many high ranking figures (including his fiancées mother) in order to manipulate them, and runs the Rose Duels that essentially pimp his sister Anthy to the victors, abusive or otherwise. Akio gains a cold enjoyment out of mentally ripping apart those near him, including his fiancée, who it's possible he's physically poisoning to get her out of the way. He views Anthy as nothing more than a means to ultimate power and when at one point she's hesitant to continue their weekly tryst one night, he angrily rapes her anyways. Akio seduces Utena and takes her virginity, manipulating her feelings for him to send her into a final confrontation to be sacrificed for his "revolution," where he will rise above the world. Akio views people around him as nothing more than pawns or toys, to be mentally or physically used and discarded as his plans or his whims demand.
Crack Pairing: Miki/Juri has some vocal fan support. As far as crack pairings go, this is a fairly reasonable one; the characters interact on a regular basis, move in the same social/extracurricular circles, and get along the best out of all the Student Council members. What makes it crack is Juri's canonical lesbianism (at least in the series; she teases him in Adolescence of Utena and is straight in the manga).
Cry for the Devil: Akio is as much of a victim as anyone else in the series despite being the Big Bad. Though it's debatable whether Akio or Dios was the victim.
Cult Classic: The series as a whole has become this to fans who had either grown up with it or don't disregard it due to its tropes being later done to death. It's viewed as one of Kunihiko Ikuhara's better shows that used his often repetitive tropes well, making some of his latter works pale in comparison to some of his fans. In fact, it wasn't until the release of Sarazanmai that any of his shows following Utena had gotten any mainstream recognition on its level while they were airing, with Sarazanmai being popular enough to retain its fanbase after it concluded in the same way that Utena had.
Akio and Touga are givens here, since they're assholes but also very handsome and stylish.
Yes, Saionji has his pitiable moments (mainly due to Touga's REALLY sucky treatment of him) but he's still a massive Jerkass and domestic abuser who slapped Anthy around while acting possessive of her, decked Miki as well at one point, and threw Wakaba under the bus to return to the Council and Ohtori.
The fact that his assholishness is rather animalistic and lacks control makes him look less of a jerkass compared to sociopathic and manipulative Akio and Touga.
Mikage is a very tragic character, to be sure, but the fact remains that he's a Manipulative Bastard who effectively brainwashes four teenage girls (Keiko, Wakaba, Kozue and Shiori), a young woman who's barely out of teenage-hood herself (Kanae) and a prepubescent boy (Mitsuru) - all of whom were troubled kids to begin with - into becoming would-be murderers; plus, fans love to erase most of his wrongdoings, such as the fact that the hair-clip incident that broke Wakaba so hard was just as much his fault as it was Saionji's, as he was the one who made the fateful offer to Saionji in the first place.
Ruka Tsuchiya. Apparently, some fans believe that using different kinds of sexual manipulation on two really screwed-up young girls is a valid way to help one of these girls. No, sexual assault should never be used like that for any reason.
To an extent, Juri Arisugawa. Fans are more than happy to make her out to be a helpless victim of Shiori, ignoring how she hurts Shiori by expecting her to read her mind, not really trying to understand her feelings, and holding an over-idealized image of her. Miki, another character who has an over idealized view of someone and lashes out when they don't fit that view, gets a lot more flack for it than Juri does. Not to mention she slapped Anthy to the ground after Utena left the room and attacked Utena by aggressively trying to take her Rose Seal after acting friendly towards her. None of this stops fans from calling Juri "innocent" and attacking anyone who points out her flaws.
In some circles, the manga version has the not-exactly-flattering nickname of "Utena Lite".
Fan Wank: There's a small group of people who think every single thing that Anthy does in the series is manipulative and for ulterior motives. Yes, even getting (re-)stabbed with a million swords in the last episode. Yes, even when Anthy disappears behind the coffin and reaches out for Utena's hand. All this is supposed to be an act to make Utena feel sorry for her so Anthy can have a prince to manipulate forever so the Rose Bride can finally leave Ohtori.While Anthy is very manipulative and much of her actions in the series are malicious, the above interpretation contains several logic bombs: 1.) If Anthy wants a prince to save her from Ohtori, she could've refused to betray Utena in the penultimate episode, because Utena was already doing everything in her power to help Anthy get out of Ohtori. Anthy's actions make no sense unless you interpret Anthy as being hesitant about leaving. 2.) As the series points out, it's not a lack of a prince or any inherent magic which prevents the Rose Bride from leaving Ohtori; it's the Rose Bride's own personal choice to stay. Utena's feelings for Anthy, or Anthy's lack of a prince, have nothing to do with magically binding her to the duels.
The ridiculous speculation that young Anthy rapes young Dios in flashblack, just because the two of them take shelter in a barn (as per the English double-entendre "rolling in the hay"). Supporters of this particular Tree insist that Anthy was waiting for the "perfect moment" to "taint" her brother and "claim him for herself", forgetting that this is the same Anthy who took thousands of stab wounds to keep him, and neglecting to explain at all why anyone (much less a small girl) would stop to rape their older brother when being chased by a sword-wielding mob.
Faux Symbolism: Various weird visual cues, the most common being rotating stylized roses, which don't appear to have any particular meaning. Ikuhara doesn't help either — he gives vague, non sequitur comments like saying the Shadow Girls are aliens (which would explain the repeated flying saucer imagery in their performances...). On the other hand, the pointing fingers in episode 22 seem to stand for Ship Tease.
Fetish Retardant: Akio, Touga, and Saionji are often seen shirtless, especially in the Akio arc. However, it falls kind of flat for some fans since the audience is also forced to watch how abusive they are.
Growing the Beard: The first arc is fairly generic and lighthearted (barring episode 9) and despite common mentions of End of the World, it hardly feels like a massive shadow is looming in the background. In the Black Rose arc, however, things get a lot more sinister and weird.
Anthy's discomfort around crowds of people is so much more affecting when we learn what the angry mob did to her.
In Neon Genesis Evangelion, Maya had a crush on her superior Ritsuko, who was tragically involved with her superior, Gendou. In RGU, her colleagueinverts this dynamic―she has a crush on her inferior, who is tragically involved with her superior.
The preview of episode 17 features Juri's romantic attraction to Shiori sailing right over Utena's head. The English dub team would make the exact same mistake.
In episode 31 Akio tells Nanami that Ohtori campus rule 34 forbids students from sleeping in the quarters of other students, but she's welcome to stay at his place. Rule 34, you say...
A Tumblr user pointed out two panels◊ in an Archie Comic in which Veronica shows off a cowbell around her neck and Betty demanding that she removes it, which is strangely similar to what happens with Nanami in the episode "Cowbell of Happiness". It is debated whether it was published before or after the anime.
The motorbike episode has Saionji stand up with his arms stretched out and his legs together, in an attempt to mimic Akio's jump-to-the-hood-of-the-car-and-pose move. He's T-posing to assert dominance.
Iron Woobie: Utena. She gets hit with a lot of manipulation and betrayal over the course of the series, but still manages to rise up again every time.
Nanami Kiryuu. Good lord, what a bad day she has had... After discovering that her beloved brother, Touga, was not her blood sibling, she feels like the connection she had was fake, and now has nothing to hold on to. After that, she runs away from home, into the house of a pair of close, happy siblings, only to walk in on them having sex. And after that, she walks in on Touga making out with a member of her old gang, to hear her brother say that he never loved her to begin with and to have her ex-friend claim that she has no connection to her anymore. And then after that, she gets the Akio Car treatment, where Touga attempts to rape her, which she fights off in fright, and then loses her duel, sobbing that she feels like she's just a face in the crowd and has no way to reconnect with the brother she loves. It's very hard not to feel sorry for her after all that, even though she was a raging Alpha BitchYandere most of the time. She does seem to become nicer afterward, too, warning Utena to not hang around with Akio or Anthy anymore as she thinks they're up to no good, but her warnings fall in deaf ears. Ouch.
Mikage Souji could qualify as well. Just as he was beginning to evolve out of his computer-like personality and developed feelings for a woman named Tokiko, Akio seduced her just so he could manipulate Mikage into burning down the memorial center. And, of course, killing the 100 boys trapped inside. Not only that, but Akio gets Mikage to work for him years later as a puppetmaster, pulling the strings of the black rose duelists. Unfortunately, Mikage doesn't know that he's a puppet at all and that Akio has tampered with his memories.
Shiori Takatsuki, whose crushing inferiority complex drives her to lash out at Juri because not only does she think no one could possibly genuinely love her, but she hates being treated with pity, which she believes is the only reason Juri was friends with her in the first place. Then she's humiliated by Ruka, the first person to make her feel, for once, good about herself.
Anthy herself is eventually revealed to be this. She was forced to eternally bear the pain of 100 swords being stabbed into her body at once for trying to protect her brother, who would gradually devolve into a Complete Monster in the centuries to follow. Akio rapes and regularly abuses her despite him being related to him, and she's used as a prop to be abused by him and those manipulated by him for years before watching the first person she made a true connection with possibly die. On the other hand, she went along with and facilitated his horrifying schemes, which included raping numerous other people and well as murdering them.
Launcher of a Thousand Ships: Name one major character who is not. (Example: Touga. There's Touga/Utena, Touga/Saionji, Touga/Nanami, Touga/Akio, Touga/Miki, Touga/Juri... Touga/Anthy is a bit of a stretch, but it still exists.)
Kids, if Akio Ohtori offers you a ride in his very phallic shaped car, SAY NO. His molester status is hardly memetic, given that Utena and Anthy's consent to his advances is shown to be very dubious and Adolescence of Utena has him actually drugging the latter's drink in order to rape her.
If you see Touga Kiryuu shirtless, ladies, GET AWAY. You too, Miki.
And if Souji Mikage says you should "go deeper"? REFUSE. In fact, his body language and facial expressions towards characters like Miki and Tsuwabuki make him come off as a pedophile to some viewers — which isn't helped by his relationship with Mamiya, who appears to be about fourteen years old at most.
Those who think Anthy is nothing but a Damsel in Distress forget her convoluted machinations and deep resentment of humans in general. Those who think Anthy is nothing but a Wicked Witch forget that fear and anger is likely going to be the typical reaction of a person stabbed by a million swords and faced with eternal torture on top of several kinds of abuse. Both of these viewpoints are also represented in-universe as well by different characters, indicating that Be-PaPas knew full well how people were probably going to react to her.
The fandom seems to think that being a prince is "the bestest thing ever" and being a princess is "liek totally ewww". But who incarnates the concept of a prince even better than Utena? Prince Dios... alias Akio Ohtori. This means that being a Prince doesn't automatically make anyone better!
Related to the above point: many fans who idealize the "princes" in the series miss the point that the entire concept of "prince" is just as heavily deconstructed and as the entire concept of "princess", with both being shown as incredibly problematic in several ways, and that even the way Utena herself plays the prince role is very flawed because she was doing it to bolster her own ego, without any real consideration for her "damsel" Anthy's feelings. Even more meaningfully, she eventually comes to realize her mistake and makes up for it via actually helping Anthy and giving her back her hope, instead of just whiteknighting for her.
Saionji kickstarts every continuity by his physical abuse of Anthy the Rose Bride, spurring Utena to try to save her.
Nanami is revealed in episode 10 to have crossed it when, as a child, she killed the kitten she gave her brother because she thought it was taking away too much of his attention and this is part of why she fears her brother might want to make her pay with her life. Touga's horrible, abusive treatment of his sister well past the point where it's justified could also be considered his own MEH crossing.
Akio crosses it when he rapes his sister who's hesitant to continue their weekly tryst one night.
Ruka crosses it when he abandons Shiori after having sex with her.
The English dub is kinda dorky and often sounds like a high school drama club performance (Nanami especially), but somehow it seems to work in the show's favor, adding to the general strangeness of the show.
Older Than They Think: Utena makes heavy use of tropes and visual elements from classic shoujo series such as The Rose of Versailles, most of which were not familiar to American audiences before the popularity of this series.
Realism-Induced Horror: Despite being in a surreal Mind Screw series that largely operates on symbolism, Akio is still a disturbingly realistic villain. Unlike most fictional pedophiles, you wouldn't suspect much from the guy at first glance. He's handsome,sophisticated, charming and polite to such an extent that it's easy for him to make people let their guard down, he subtly emotionally manipulates them and serenades them with gifts and applause along with attempting to deflect blame onto them when he's called out for being a rapist, and his victims are generally people he knows and are close with, most horrifically extending to his own younger sister.
Ron the Death Eater: Shiori Takatsuki gets this a lot. While even her fans would agree that she is a heavily flawed person, her haters often make her out to be a monster, some even calling her worse than Akio. The fanbase, especially Juri and Ruka fans, often ignore that Shiori isn't just a monster who torments Juri For the Evulz, and that Juri contributes just as much to their broken relationship as she does. In fact, Shiori actually tries to make amends when she returns, only for Juri to refuse to listen out of bitterness. She also gets called a monster for what she did as a Black Rose Duelist (ignoring that she was no different than Kozue and Wakaba) and some even say she deserved being humiliated by Ruka.
Shiori is easily one of the most hated characters in the fandom, mostly due to the way she lashes out at fan-favorite Juri. Ironically, she's one of Ikuhara's personal favorites, with him having stated that he tends to "like girls who are mean but has [sic.] sexual tones".
Nanami is also rather unpopular in her own right, being frequently written off as annoying comic relief and an unpleasant Alpha Bitch, as well as hated for drowning her brother's kitten out of jealousy as a child (despite the fact that she showed clear remorse for it). On the other hand, episodes 31 and 32 tend to get her Rescued from the Scrappy Heap as many viewers end up pitying her too much to hate her anymore.
Manga!Juri has absolutely no fans thanks to being shallow and immature compared to her beloved anime counterpart, to say nothing of the Adaptational Sexuality issues that surround her.
"Seinfeld" Is Unfunny: Coupled with Values Dissonance, but some modern viewers, especially Western ones might see Utena as a little flat, all her quirks and ticks have been copied to death, the fact that she's tomboyish might fly over people's heads who now not only don't see anything odd with it unlike back in the day, but in the west almost expect it. Also, her motivation to protect Anthy like a prince to his princess by confronting her abusers is not easily understood since in the west that would be the logical, decent thing to do unlike the "don't get involved" Japanese custom. This can come to a point where they think Utena to be flat until she starts showing more emotional vulnerability and stereotypically feminine behavior later in the series. To make matters worse, Utena herself is a very reactive character rather than proactive usually dealing with the stuff thrown at her for about the first 30 episodes.
Lisa Ortiz took Shiori's venom-filled soft spoken dialog and gave her a nasty, vindictive edge to it without overdoing it, making her come across as far more nasty and downright evil, and yet could also make her sound especially pathetic and self-hating, than in the original material. It's the reason why she's considered one of the better actresses in the English dub. The highlight would be Shiori's breakdown in the elevator:
Shiori: Oh, what to do. Knowing my friend's secret turns everything I felt around. I'm so happy! There'd she be, alone and miserable, looking at my picture. So vulnerable. Just like me. ...it's not enough! It's still NOT ENOUGH! Why do you ALWAYS look at me like that?! Why?! WHY WON'T YOU ADMIT HOW YOU REALLY FEEL?!
Anthy hits this hard in America, where a dark-skinned person being treated as property by light-skinned people brings up some uncomfortable cultural memories that Japan doesn't have (and where dark skin color typically indicates that someone is Indian, for whom these aren't stereotypes, especially not in Japan).
Chigusa's backstory involving her rage at Masaomi choosing the girly Koto over her, and her subsequent hatred of passive, feminine girls, from the video game makes more sense when one considers how strict Japanese gender roles are (especially since her story took place in the past, when they were even stricter). Her dominant personality and masculine interests are seen as "undesirable" and something to pressure girls out of in Japan, and her height, which of course she can't help, would be seen as extremely intimidating. Chigusa was not just lashing out that a guy chose another girl over her, but lashing out because it seemed everything about her being undesirable was confirmed.
Values Resonance: This series features largely modern views on homo- and bisexuality, defying traditional gender norms, and domestic abuse. It stars a girl who excels at sports and swordfighting, who dresses in male clothing, and dreams of becoming a "Prince" while falling in love with the "Rose Bride" Anthy Himemiya. Compared to how these subjects were usually played in the 1990s when the series was made, the show comes across as being twenty years ahead of its time.
Viewer Species Confusion: Chu-Chu tends to be mistaken for a mouse due to his small size, round ears, and the fact that "chu" is typically a Japanese sound effect for a mouse's squeaking. He's actually supposed to be a very small monkey.
What Do You Mean, It's for Kids?: The series is full of mature themes and taboo sexual relationships/metaphors, and as such has never received a rating lower than 13+ on a North American release. However, the show is indeed a shoujo, and was scheduled at a timeslot on TV Tokyo in which lots of young children would be watching (for a few months, it aired right before Beast Wars).