Adolescence of Utena (movie)

utena movie

ADOLESCENCE OF UTENA (Movie)

Watched via fansubs/DVD

WHITNEY

CRYSTAL

PLOT: Adolescence of Utena is a movie “remake” of the television series Revolutionary Girl Utena. While the characters and main premise are the same, the story functions in a slightly altered way. Additionally the time constraints of the movie have led to the film being a much more condensed version of the original. Because of these factors it becomes almost necessary for a viewer to have seen the series first before viewing this film. You may also be interested in reading our review for the original.

The movie starts off with main protagonist Utena arriving at a new school, Ohtori Academy. During a tour of the school Utena sees the appearance of a long lost friend and love interest, Touga. It turns out that Touga was the trigger to her wanting to become a prince, rather than some lost memory of a strange man.

While there she gets mixed up with the student counsel and their duels to possess the Rose Bride, Anthy Himemiya. Utena would rather stand up for Anthy and leave it there, but the other duelists constantly push her to fight, causing her to become completely entangled in the whole ordeal of becoming a “prince”. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but the backstory surrounding Anthy, her powers, the duels, and all of that seem much more logical in the movie, than some mystery story of a witch and a castle in the sky (like in the anime).

I don’t think the film makes that much more sense than the TV series, it’s just adapted and condensed the storyline in order to highlight themes surrounding Utena and Anthy’s agency and desires. There’s a different message, so the plot has to follow a different path.

PLOT: I’ve seen several theories for how Adolescence of Utena relates to Revolutionary Girl Utena, and I think these heavily influence how you view the anime. There’s the straightforward viewing of it as a remake, while I’ve also run across the theory that Adolescence takes place in the land of the dead. Finally, my favorite is that Adolescence takes place following the TV series, after the world has revolved and seen enough revolution to the point where Anthy actually has agency and Utena can help her escape the world.

Anyway, this movie’s plot is obscured by a lot of abstraction and symbolism, but it’s actually pretty straightforward at its core. Utena’s again a transfer student to Ohtori Academy, where she has a connection to a past student, Touga. While there, Utena meets Anthy, the Rose Bride, and finds herself interested in Anthy romantically and sexually. Utena still ends up fighting duels for Anthy, but then the movie takes a weird turn.

And by a weird turn, I mean that Utena turns into a car. See what I mean about abstraction and symbolism? Essentially, Utena takes masculinity and transforms it into her own feminine strength and uses that to escape the academy, which stands for the patriarchy in this case. I’m sure the whole car bit is confusing for a lot of people, but I found it to make a lot of sense after some women’s studies courses. It is a radical departure from the rest of this film’s plot, which seems normal enough, and it drags on for over half an hour. All of this makes the film strange and kind of confusing, though I find it hilarious and entertaining instead of being turned off by it.

SETTING: As I mentioned before, the plot begins when Utena enters Ohtori Academy. This time the Academy is even stranger than it was in the anime. The giant castle-like building, with early 20th century designs now includes constantly-moving architectural elements. There are blackboards and stairwells constantly floating around in the background as characters walk up and down the endlessly large walkways. I’m not really certain that this adds anything to the story more than creating a magical and surreal element to the film. I also enjoyed the castle in the last scene before the credits roll. As they depart with the castle in the background, it’s almost like a big “**** you” to the old ideas of Disney movies, and prince charming.

Another key aspect of the setting is how all of the symbols are used for world building. For example, cars and modes of transportation are an important symbol for freedom. I found it rather amusing how each character gets so caught up in following the rules that they don’t even think to just remove themselves from the location they are in. There’s even a scene where Jury and Miki are talking right next to a parking garage, yet they’d rather fight their way out of their battles than find an easier resolution, like driving away. There is always that hope that someone else will solve the problems for you, and that magical quality and transference of responsibility completely penetrate the visual aspects of this film.

SETTING: While Revolutionary Girl Utena has a strange setting with an upside-down castle in the sky, it takes place in a world recognizably close to our own. Adolescence of Utena, on the other hand, is more about abstraction and visual metaphor, meaning the setting is always changing and rarely makes real sense. The architecture of Ohtori Academy involves a bunch of arches that break off in the middle of nowhere and a lot of surreal bizarreness. The architecture looks a lot more futuristic and sharp, contrasting sharply to the old-fashioned, fairly tale architecture of the TV series. In that way, the film suggests how radically it will depart from the TV series, and the plot and characterization follow up on the setting’s promise.

What I find to be the most important aspect of the setting is how easily everything changes depending on willpower and the given scenario. Everything seems pretty normal at first, if kind of strange, but then Utena literally turns into a car and races away from the academy, pursued by more masculine cars. So much detail goes into this sequence that you know it’s considered critical to the film, even though it’s so strange. Nothing’s explained about the setting, because it’s all meant to be metaphorical, meaning it’s important to roll with the weirdness and try to understand the ideas behind it rather than any actual logic. If you take that route of interpretation instead of logically looking for a plot, you should be able to make sense of everything.

Another aspect I enjoyed about the setting was how it literally feels like another world/story/metaphor. I don’t want to get into spoilers, but at the very end there is some visual information which hints at the idea that the world may not have existed as previously imagined. Which isn’t really surprising given the metaphorical and surrealist feeling throughout the whole movie.

CHARACTERS: Utena Tenjou is a young tomboyish teenager. She enters the Academy in menswear and lives to achieve and subvert the ideal of being a “prince” or “hero”, typically masculine roles. While she projects confidence and power, she is naive to the world and the dangers that lurk there. That said, she comes off as a lot less gullible than in the television series.

Anthy is Utena’s “love interest”, or at the least, best friend (the coupling is more obvious in the movie than in the anime). She is the embodiment of the “damsel in distress” and serves as the Rose Bride. Her duty is to be engaged to whomever is the winner in the arena. Being engaged to the Rose Bride grants individuals the opportunity to revolutionize the world in some way, causing many to duel over the right to be with or control Anthy. She acts as a blank slate for individuals to project their ideas onto, even Utena is fooled by projecting her ideals onto Anthy in her desire to liberate her. I find it rather interesting that it is the “damsel in distress” who seems to have the most power and influence on who is able to be liberated from the world. Because of this power I think she is a perfect character study on subverting the standard roles of fantasy and femininity.

In addition to the Rose Bride/Engaged relationships being heightened, the same could be said for the relationship development between lovers and siblings. Much more is insinuated or said through imagery than in the anime. While it ramps up the drama, and one could say the fanservice, it seems rather unnecessary to have every backstory be so strongly sexualized. Even the relationship with Miki and his twin, where they are having to learn to be individuals is shown in a sexualized light. I don’t know that I’d say it means anything sexual literally, rather it seems to be more of a tool of expressing vulnerability between two individuals. I’d say the biggest downside to this story being cut down to the length of a film is that we don’t get to see these secondary characters develop as much or get the chance to relate to them.

The secondary characters see a lot less development, which is why I think having seen the TV series is necessary to understanding this film fully. Utena, Anthy, and Touga are all explained well enough in the film, but everyone else is thrown in to play certain roles without giving the viewer any other context.

CHARACTERS: This universe’s Utena is interestingly different from the TV series in that she’s less naïve and wears her masculinity and femininity differently. Here she works more to look masculine, by keeping her hair in a hat and wearing the full men’s uniform, but she’s also more aware of her romantic entanglements and forms a stronger bond with Anthy immediately. This Utena feels a step more aware than the version from the TV series, especially when it comes to taking charge of her agency and working to completely free herself and Anthy from the world’s boundaries.

Anthy also has more agency and personality than in the TV series, as she actively pursues Utena and makes her feelings known. I love this difference in Anthy, especially considering what happened with her brother, Akio. Yes, Anthy still has her passive nature and obeys anyone who possesses her as the Rose Bride, but her pursuit of Utena and eventual escape subvert that role for me, as she finds other ways in which she can make her desires known and satisfied.

Beyond those two characters, Adolescence of Utena doesn’t spend much time developing secondary characters. Touga’s role has completely changed from the TV series, making him much more important for Utena in a more innocent way, as opposed to the changes in Akio’s relationship with Anthy. Everyone else makes appearances that rely heavily on remembering their roles from the TV series, which makes the film confusing for the uninitiated. Surprisingly, Shiori plays a big role in the end of this film, which is the only part that I find confusing. Perhaps Whitney has insight on her role there, but I just found it to be a strange choice for the film’s climax. Shiori’s such a minor part in the TV series, so I hadn’t been expecting her to be important enough to feature in the big escape for Utena and Anthy.

I think the reason they picked Shiori was because there really wasn’t anyone else they could have picked without somehow disrupting the balance of their previous characterization in the television series. She’s such a minor role it didn’t matter if her character got “ruined” or altered.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Adolescence of Utena is overflowing with symbolism. Just about every scene has some sort of visual cue to help the viewer pick apart what is happening. This makes rewatching the movie a very enjoyable experience and I have always managed to find something new that makes me rethink what the story is all about.

I love how the studio took the older character designs and ramped them up a notch. The new uniforms of the counsel members look really nice and I liked the newer and more modern look of each character (and their hairstyles). Sometimes the revamped look was a bit distracting and unnecessarily over the top, like with the “shadow girls” and their command center with televisions broadcasting the events as they unfold.

Then of course there is the whole “car thing”. At the end of the movie Utena’s transformation scene literally turns her into a vehicle to lead to Anthy’s escape from the world that binds her. She is then pursued by… the forces that want to contain her in her past life? I’m not really sure why escaping is such a big deal, but the whole race thing was an interesting and new way to resolve the typical “magical girl” battle scenario.

They need to escape the patriarchy and its confining gender roles, and Utena seems to think the easiest way to do that is to co-opt masculinity (via the car) and use it in a feminine way to be free with Anthy. At least that’s how I went with it.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: This film’s gorgeous in a surreal way, particularly when it comes to the backgrounds and framing of scenes. Every scene uses fun angles and cuts to add to the visual metaphors and motifs, which makes it terribly fun to watch and piece everything together. Even when things get really strange, the movie still looks really cool and has its reasons for the way things happen. When Utena becomes a car, she becomes a pink, curvy, very feminine car, appropriating that masculine icon and using it in a groundbreakingly feminist way. Though this movie may seem like a bizarre look into the director’s head, there’s a logic to everything which is heavily indicated by the choices in the imagery.

I also love the character designs of this film, which take the classic style of the TV series and update it subtly to fit in with the futuristic, more revolutionary storyline of the film. I find the most exciting differences to happen in Utena and Anthy, especially regarding their hair. Utena initially looks much more masculine, with her hair hidden in a hat, while the more liberated Anthy has her hair loose. It’s these little bits that make Adolescence so fun for me to watch, even though it’s so thoroughly bizarre.

OVERALL: Don’t watch Adolescence of Utena without having first watched the television series. Even having watched the original series, the movie hardly makes sense to me, and I’ve already seen both several times. While the symbolism is much more straight laced and easier to buy into, there are other metaphysical plot lines that just don’t relate to anything and come across and inanely bizarre. I suppose you could say that the whole movie is a big symbol of growing up and gaining freedom through adulthood, or even a commentary on feminism. Anyways, no matter what it is, it’s still an incredibly entertaining watch.

As an avid fantasy and magical girl lover I throughly enjoyed every crazy bit of this movie, even when I couldn’t tell what was going on. If you’re not such a big fan of ridiculous symbolism, you can always give the anime or even manga a try. Either way the Revolutionary Girl Utena franchise is a must watch in whichever form you prefer.

OVERALL: Though I love and embrace the weirdness of Adolescence of Utena, it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. My roommate watched it with me and found it strange and unclear in its focus, though she also appreciates the greater focus on the relationship between Utena and Anthy, as mentioned in her review of it. I’m sure other viewers could also come out of it completely confused about what happened and why, especially if they don’t have any knowledge of abstract art or how to understand metaphors and motifs.

Basically, approach this film cautiously, and don’t go into it expecting it to be much like the TV series. Adolescence is all about Utena and Anthy, which is great after the wider focus of the TV series, but the film also gets much more abstract and metaphorical with the narrative in a way that can be off-putting. I kind of love the weirdness and laughed my way through the whole movie, but that won’t be everyone’s experience. If you’re into abstract art, you’ll probably get into this, but otherwise, approach with caution.

FINAL SCORE: (9/10) FINAL SCORE: (8/10)
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