Even before I watched it, I associated Utena very closely with Evangelion. Both of them were supposed to be subversions of their respective genres and filled to the brim with weird as hell symbology and abstraction. The difference is that after actually watching them, I ended up liking only one of them (I’d come around to the other one later on, after a viewing of Rebuild).
In terms of weird stuff and layers of meaning, Utena definitely wins out. Okay, Evangelion is filled with religious symbols and references, but it doesn’t push abstract symbols as blatantly as Utena does. Weird psychology and stuff about singularity can’t really match up to twirling roses and heavy use and repetition of motifs. I thought people weren’t serious about the repetitiveness of Utena until the second or third time Utena grabbed the handle to open the door and ZETTAI UNMEI MOKUSHIROKU poured out of my speakers.
I think my problem with Evangelion is that I’ve experienced about a decade’s worth of influence from it, to the point that the things that made it special didn’t wow me when I got around to watching it. It’s kind of like the people who really love fantasy but are bored by Lord of the Rings. Utena doesn’t have this problem because it’s so crazy that no one has attempted to emulate it. So, watching it was actually a really new and refreshing experience.
Of course, I lied when I said that no one has tried to make anything like Utena, because Star Driver is something that is like Utena, even if it doesn’t take it to the same extent (no huge twirling roses here). Being written by the same guy probably helps. But I imagine that half the reason I’m enjoying it so much is because I “get” it. The repetition doesn’t bother me at all and the weird non-sequiturs and general quirks aren’t as jarring as they would have been if I wasn’t watching out for those things.
It definitely makes it a lot easier to reconcile things like the weird intersection of school life and magical robot fights. The obvious parallel and precedent is the Utena duels, but there’s no way for anyone who isn’t aware of this already to pick up on the fact that the robots punching each other and the characters’ personal struggles from the first half of the episode have anything to do with each other.
Beyond the structural similarities though, the other thing that I really like about both Utena and Star Driver is that they have style, likely a product of the symbolism they’ve tried to inject into each show.
But yeah, I don’t think any other show has quite impressed instances into my mind like ZETTAI UNMEI MOKUSHIROKU and friends.