Revolutionary Girl Utena The Movie: Adolescence Of Utena Blu-ray Review
SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOR THE TV ENDING AND MOVIE FOLLOW
So what, in the end, was all that about? If you’ve come to my review of Adolescence of Utena hoping that it will answer some of my lingering questions about the TV series’ finale, then you’ve come to the wrong place. It’s hard to describe what this movie actually is. Is it a higher budget, thematic retelling of the TV show? Sort of. Is it a sequel? Umm… maybe? Is it its own thing, separate from its progenitor? Not… really... Should you watch it without first watching the show? No. That would be a terrible idea. It would almost be as bad as watching End of Evangelion without first experiencing the pseuodoepigraphically bonkers series, or Madoka Magica: Rebellion without first suffering the prior twelve episodes of candy-coloured despair.
Despite its ambiguous canonicity, 1999’s Adolescence of Utena assumes the viewer’s absolute familiarity with the 1997 TV anime series Revolutionary Girl Utena — not only with its plot but also with its more esoteric metaphors, motifs and fixations. This is blockbuster cinematic anime by way of The Golden Bough spliced through with Songs of Innocence and Experience. Much like the final few episodes of the series, it’s almost pointless to break this down into a beat-by-beat plot analysis because much of the “action” is almost certainly thinly-veiled metaphor for growing up, choosing to pursue your goals and leaving the strictures of adolescence behind to plunge into the inexplicable unknowns of adulthood. If that all sounds somewhat flowery and highfalutin, that is exactly what you get with this movie, for better and for worse.
At the conclusion of Utena’s 39th and final episode, Anthy Himemiya seizes her own destiny to leave behind the timeless and cage-like Ohtori Academy, freed by Utena from the malign and abusive influence of her brother Akio. In the final scene, she walks confidently into the future to the sounds of ringing bells. Not coincidentally, the movie opens to a shot of ringing bells, an implicit link to the preceding story’s ending.
However, this does not simply follow Anthy’s journey to search for Utena after she disappeared and left Ohtori — once again this is set at the surreal academy, but many things have changed. For one, the school’s architecture is now like something from a nightmare M C Escher drawing, all weird perspectives, impossible staircases and shifting buildings. Even the classroom blackboards float around seemingly at random, conjuring an unreal, disquieting environment for us to be reintroduced to Utena once more — this time as a bewildered new student, unsure of why she is there. She looks even more boyish in this incarnation, with short pink hair and a significantly more serious demeanour.
There’s no childhood prince to give Utena a Rose Seal ring in this version of the story — instead she finds it within a rose flower and with it gains entry to the Dueling Arena. This time it seems to be an intrinsic (yet vertiginously raised) aspect of the school’s architecture and there’s no fake inverted castle or phallic cars to be conjured by a phantasmagorical planetarium. On her first visit, she meets a new version of Anthy — lighter-skinned (though still tanned compared to Utena) and finds herself compelled to fight the ever dickish, green-haired Saionji for the hand of The Rose Bride (Anthy). So far, everything looks to be a loose retelling of the early parts of the show. Utena obviously wins and Anthy practically throws herself at her, marking a significant difference from the TV show in the presentation of their relationship.
It’s well-documented that original manga author Chihiro Saito and anime director Kunihiko Ikuhara conflicted in their opinions regarding Utena and Anthy’s relationship. Saito did not support the concept that the show would ultimately be a love story between two female characters and their disagreement threatened to derail the entire production. Eventually Ikuhara, through presumably sheer force of will, more or less got what he wanted — though not without adhering to strict broadcast codes. TV anime in the 1990s was not permitted to depict explicit same-sex romantic behaviour, therefore everything was communicated using deep metaphor and allusion to at least provide a (very thin) smokescreen of plausible deniability. Paradoxically, the continued fan deconstruction of the series’ complex narrative contortions are what likely led to its longevity and beloved status 24 years on.
Big-budget late 1990s cinematic anime was a different matter altogether — here the attraction between Anthy and Utena is far more obvious — from their first scene in the Duelling Arena, to the second where Anthy turns up in Utena’s bedroom and quickly falls onto the bed, Utena seemingly up for taking their relationship forwards at light-speed — until Anthy’s motives are understandably questioned, of course. “Do you do this with everyone who wins you?” asks Utena. Because if Anthy throws herself at anyone with authority over her, then that makes Utena no more special than anyone else — whether male or female.
This is where I don’t really buy into Anthy and Utena’s relationship. This isn’t that long a movie — 90 minutes or so — barely a moment is wasted, but as like many TV-to-movie transitions, the story and relationships are barely given time to breathe, racing from one scene to the next. It’s like the Cliff Notes version of the TV series — very beautiful and evocative, yes, but at the expense of any character interiority or development. Anthy is much more pro-active in the movie, even dragging Utena to a remote tower in the school with the intention of nude painting each other(!) — something I could not imagine TV Anthy doing. But is this change in characterisation due to her development from the TV series? Because she almost seems like a completely different character.
Utena herself is also relatively passive for much of the runtime — admittedly confused about why she is there, with very clear gaps in her memory that tie into one of the strangest aspects of the story, that of Touga Kiryu. In the TV anime, Touga pretended to be Utena’s prince but they never embarked on a relationship. In the movie, bizarrely, Touga is Utena’s ex-boyfriend and she’s clearly still hung up on him. Weirdly, Touga appears to have a sexual relationship with (worst, most hateful character ever) Shiori. Shiori is unsubtly portrayed as somewhat parasitic — at one point she even grows cabbage-moth-like white wings. (Cabbage-white moths are a notorious garden pest that destroy crops.)
While Touga seems to interact with at least one or two other characters apart from Utena, in a seemingly nonsensical plot twist (executed with far superior precision in a couple of high profile Hollywood films I won’t namedrop here) it somehow turns out that actually he was dead all along and Utena had conveniently forgotten this and had interacted with some kind of apparition of him. As did Shiori, in a scene completely disconnected from Utena’s viewpoint. Remember in the TV show they referenced a nameless boy who had leapt into a river to rescue a drowning girl, only to drown himself? Yeah, so in the film that role is attributed to pre-Ohtori Academy Touga. Utena witnessed the scene and was apparently so mentally broken by it she forgot it happened. What?
At least all this confusion over Touga leads to a very effective and heartbreaking scene in the Mikage Seminar elevator where Utena remembers Touga’s fate and experiences the despair of losing him all over again. It makes absolutely no coherent narrative sense. Poor younger Kiryu sister Nanami is even more worse off than her brother — her single appearance in the film is on a videotape recording as her yellow cow persona. (Oddly, this is also Chu-chu’s only appearance.)
The other major character with a hugely changed role is Anthy’s brother Akio — main antagonist/Satan-like tempter figure from the TV show. He appears mostly in flashback, along with his shiny sports sex-car, but he’s lost his keys and is now orders of magnitude more pathetic. He continues to sexually abuse his sister, but when he realises that the drugs he’d used to sedate her had never worked and that she was always aware of what he was doing to her, he stumbles backwards through a window to his death. So when Anthy introduces herself as “the chairman’s sister” she knows full well that he is already dead and has concealed his body beneath a rose garden (where Utena gleans her rose seal ring).
The thematic meaning of this is somewhat muddled. In the TV show, it was Akio’s malign influence that kept Anthy prisoner in the school, and kept all the other pupils in a state of almost eternal arrested development — never progressing to adulthood, squabbling amongst themselves over vague concepts and imaginary rewards. So what, in this version, keeps Anthy tied to her role as the Rose Bride? I don’t know for sure, perhaps someone more perceptive that I could explain? If we view this as a sequel then we can see that Anthy’s/Utena’s actions have stripped Akio of all power, yet they are still somehow trapped in an endless cycle within the school. Is there something else that keeps them there? Perhaps it is intended to be a looser metaphor about the constraints that society places upon women — even after succeeding in breaking through one barrier at the end of the show, there are still other almost insurmountable barriers that follow?
So that neatly leads to the ending sequence of the movie, in which Utena and Anthy finally attempt to break free of Ohtori Academy once and for all. This scene seems to spring up from nowhere, like the director said “eek, we’re almost out of runtime, better jam an incongruent climactic action sequence in here.” Yes, this is the part where Utena turns into a car. This was the point during the film that my 15-year-old daughter (who really enjoyed the TV show) turned to me and said “I hate this. This is shit.” I found it difficult to disagree with her in the moment. It is so very, very weird. Reading it from a metaphorical standpoint, I suppose it means that Utena is Anthy’s vehicle out of oppression, but Anthy as key-holder and driver must take the wheel to steer both of their destinies. Only together can they escape and make a future for themselves.
The sequence itself is bonkers, well-animated, superficially very fun, and I particularly liked the antagonist car with the “Shiori” numberplate and the ally car with the “Wakaba” numberplate carrying Juri, Miki and Saionji. Tellingly, the other characters are willing to help Utena and Anthy to progress, but don’t feel quite ready to do the same for themselves. Even seeing them working together is a sign of progress, but within the bounds of the movie’s story this development feels unearned and contrived.
I liked the shadow girls and their enormous almost Evangelion-like Nerv control centre. I’m still not entirely clear what the shadow girls are meant to be exactly, other than a funny Greek chorus, but their prominence grew throughout the TV show and their development into a massive intelligence organisation here at least seems to fit thematically. I don’t see how they are meant to be taken literally at all. Nor do I really understand why they turn into stuffed straw dolls with “Utena” and “Anthy” name tags at the end.
Anthy’s final obstacle to her emancipation is a phantasmagorical apparition of her brother — but more like how he appeared in the TV show — a powerful, seductive and silver-tongued antagonist that strips both Anthy and Utena down to their nakedness, still racing along the ground on the barest of vehicle chassis. When they erupt from Ohtori’s fantasy boundary, they’re still naked, embracing and racing towards an uncertain — but free — future. Hmmmm.
From an artistic perspective, Adolescence of Utena is a marvel. The TV show already looked pretty, but this is orders of magnitude more accomplished and can be appreciated merely for its aesthetic value. In particular, the night-time starry dance sequence is just a gorgeously staged piece of animation. The action scenes — though sparsely interspersed — look incredible, with multiple callbacks to their TV progenitors. Ohtori Academy is almost a character itself with its ever-shifting architecture, some of which homages its appearance in the show, Akio’s tower broken to foreshadow his movie version’s impotence.
Where this movie falls down for me (and my daughter) is in the general lack of characterisation, convincing development and interaction. None of these relationships are properly explored or established and it seems like the characters are mere pieces on a chessboard that move in order to illustrate ideological points. This isn’t a drama, it’s a puppet show. Perhaps that is intentional, but it is hard to empathise with even Anthy or Utena when they are sketched so lightly. Their schoolfriends are bare ciphers compared to their TV compatriots and I can’t help but feel that the movie would have been better served with an extra half-hour or so of dialogue or character scenes.
Without the character knowledge gained from the TV show, this would be an incomprehensible experience, so despite its apparent disconnect, it cannot be viewed as an independent entity. I find this a bit odd, as this isn’t one of those cut-price anime TV-to-movie butchered-in-the-editing-suite monstrosities so common in the anime industry. This is an ostensibly new story, but one that references and reinterprets its predecessor almost to a fault. As a capstone to the show, it’s still very valuable to watch, but perhaps I’m something of a heretic when I say I think it is also unnecessary. The show stands extremely well without it, this beautiful but ephemeral vanity project.
Revolutionary Girl Utena The Movie: Adolescence Of Utena
Released as part of: Revolutionary Girl Utena Part 3: The Apocalypse Saga Collector’s Edition Blu-ray
Director: Kunihiko Ikuhara
Writer: Yōji Enokido
Production Studio: JC Staff
Original Japanese Cinematic Release: August 14th 1999
UK Blu-ray release: September 14th 2020
Runtime: 87 minutes
Video: 1080p widescreen
Audio: Japanese with English subtitles, English dub
Distributor: Anime Limited
Revolutionary Girl Utena Collector’s Edition III Blu Ray Review (Part 2)
With all 39 episodes of Revolutionary Girl Utena under my belt, am I any better placed to explain what the hell this…
Revolutionary Girl Utena Collector’s Edition III Blu Ray Review (Part 1)
Remember last time when I expressed my concern that Revolutionary Girl Utena might disappear up its own rear end in the…
Revolutionary Girl Utena Collector’s Edition II Blu Ray Review
With my recent week’s holiday, what better to do than relax watching strange late 90’s anime with my increasingly…