This Steven Universe article contains spoilers up to the episode “Mr. Greg.”
Steven Universe loves tipping its hat to anime. It regularly references various anime series including Neon Genesis Evangelion, Captain Harlock, and Cowboy Bebop. It’s even involved animation greats like Takafumi Hori from Studio Trigger (famous for Kill la Kill), who animated several sequences in the Steven Universe episode “Mindful Education.”
The influences of anime go far deeper than just references though. Anime makes up the DNA of Steven Universe. Series creator Rebecca Sugar, as revealed on the Steven Universe podcast, grew up watching various anime such as Detective Conan, One Piece, and especially Revolutionary Girl Utena.
The Revolutionary Girl Utena anime, released in 1997, follows Utena Tenjou, who in her youth was saved by a kind prince and was inspired by him that she strives to become a prince herself. As a teenager she dresses in a boy’s school uniform and fights to protect a fellow student, Anthy Himemiya.
Sugar says that as a teenager the Utena series, “was an epiphany for me. The way that it plays with the semiotics of gender. I was a bisexual teenager watching a show like Utena. It was stunning, I related to it in a way that I had never really felt before and it really stuck with me.”
Sugar’s love for the show can be traced back to before Steven Universe even premiered, fanart for the series being posted on her personal tumblr in 2012.
Utena’s influence can be felt throughout Steven Universe. The show has directly referenced the series several times, especially in the episode “Steven the Sword Fighter”. In that episode, Pearl and Holo-Pearl’s battle includes several shots that are direct homage to the choreography of Utena’s fights. Even the way Steven pulls Rose’s sword from Lions’ head in “Lion 2: The Movie” is similar to how Utena draws the Sword of Dios from Anthy.
The number of direct references are too numerous to count, but the themes of Utena have been with Steven Universe from the very beginning, particularly its portrayal of gender. Utena regularly subverts and inverts gender roles. While Utena dresses in male clothing and use the masculine form of “I” (“boku”) she also keeps her long flowing pink hair. Her deep love for Anthy and their realationship is one of the cornerstones of the series. Much of the show’s plot can also be interpreted to be about struggling with and being constrained by the gender binary.
All of this had a huge impact on Sugar.
“I love that she (Utena) decides that after being saved by a prince that she wants to be a prince, It’s great!”
In Steven Universe, the titular character often subverts gender expectations, not being afraid to show his feminine side and even dressing up in women’s clothing in “Sadie’s Song.” The women characters in Steven Universe also aren’t constrained by gender roles, with many being excellent fighters, sometimes coded as more masculine, and often taking charge. There are also multiple LGBT characters and relationships portrayed throughout the series, including Ruby and Sapphire, Pearl and Rose, and even the nonbinary Stevonnie.
Utena has also influenced some of the humor in Steven Universe as well. As Sugar explains, “(Utena) is so extreme that it’s funny. That was a huge influence on me as well, that something could be so dramatic and so, beautiful, but also wacky.”
Sugar clarifies the wacky elements were drawn from the series weren’t ones like the infamous outing where Nanami wears a cowbell and turns into a cow. “I wasn’t a huge fan of that one”, Sugar says, but she did like how “Akio will flip onto the front of the car, or the way that (the student council members) want to shatter the world. It’s so extreme that it’s powerful and almost even funny, it’s really exciting.”
The Utena series itself also drew inspiration from the Takarazuka Theater, which performs shows featuring all-female casts. Recently Sugar got to visit Japan and said it was incredible.
“I saw them do Guys and Dolls, which is one of the greatest things I have ever seen. And there’s huge, huge Takarazuka theater influence to Steven Universe, I feel like I got a chance to see some of the deepest source material for that whole genre, and it was hugely inspiring.”
In the Emmy-nominated Steven Universe musical episode “Mr. Greg”, the Utena and Takarzuka theatre influences truly come together. In the episode Pearl wears a suit, dances, and even proclaims her love to Steven’s now deceased mother, Rose Quartz.
Pearl wearing a suit is exactly the kind of gender inversion Utena always played with and the theatircality of her singing and dancing is right out of the Takarazuka theater.
“Mr. Greg” is a gorgeous entry in the series that demonstrates not only how much of an impact Utena has on Steven Universe, but also how elements that influenced Utena have a place in Steven Universe as well.
No matter where you look in the series, a little piece of Utena is there.
If you’re interested in the series, you can watch all the episodes for free (and legally!) on YouTube.
Thanks to Abby Murphy for her help with some of the finer points in this article.