Back in the early 2000s, with the anime boom in full swing and the market of availability much smaller, there were two easy go-to moments for ‘Anime is Weird.’ The first was End of Evangelion, Hideaki Anno’s psychological acid trip through alienation and the ruminations of mortality. The second was ‘The One Where That Girl Turns into a Car,’ aka the climactic third act of The Adolescence of Utena. It was one of those scenes that exist to be taken out of context – not that familiarity with the material helped a whole lot anyway. Or does it?
For those of you not familiar, Revolutionary Girl Utena is the story of Utena Tenjou, a transfer student who transfers to Ohtori Academy in search of a prince. When she was a child her parents both died, and that prince appeared to her and gave her a ring, saying that if she retained her nobility as she grew then they would meet again. Inspired, Utena decided to become a prince herself. She finds, however, that her ring is also the symbol of a dueling game at Ohtori, with several students vying to become the owner of the “rose bride,” who can grant her fiancé the power to revolutionize the world. Winning the bride, Anthy, almost by accident, Utena is sucked into the duels and the layers of conspiracy behind them, and finds herself growing closer to Anthy without really knowing her at all.
Let me put forth a crazy idea, gentle readers: the Utena movie is completely straightforward. When viewed through the lens of visual metaphor that defines the series before it, there might be no other solution but for our pink haired protagonist to turn into a supped up racer. Follow me down, I can explain this one.
First, let’s tackle the idea that The Adolescence of Utena can be read as a continuation of the series – a popular idea, but not a universal one. The idea of the film is stated with beautiful succinctness within the Impetuous Windmills podcast (which you can download for free on iTunes, and is a great listen), during their three part Utena discussion, as “the place Utena went.” One of the major themes of the series is the concept of breaking out of boxes that restrict the growth of the self. At the end of the original Utena was able to pull Anthy from the coffin where she had been entombed, at the cost of becoming the new target of the Swords of Hatred (a metaphor for the societal ire heaped on women who step outside their acceptable roles within society). However, rather than being forced into Anthy’s coffin, Utena simply vanishes. She has disappeared from the restriction of the societal box, but in doing so has likewise disappeared from the eyes of those within that society –Anthy, though, has had her eyes opened to where Utena might be. It’s a hopeful but open-ended finale, effective on the level of character-driven narrative as well as the rich allegory the series created.
What it isn’t (or perhaps I should say ‘isn’t concerned about’) is a thoroughly conclusive wrap up on a few fronts. Not to say it can’t stand alone – you can watch the series by itself and have it be perfectly fulfilling. The trouble starts when you try to watch the movie without the TV show (not an uncommon occurrence back in the day, since one was easier to obtain than the other). The film is simply too drenched in metonymy, metaphor, and visual shorthand from the series for it to work cohesively beyond ‘well, that was an incredibly gorgeous movie, with the most romantic dance scene ever.’
Maybe that’s just me. But I think it loudly enough for everyone
The trick of it is, when you do consider it in terms of the series, there opens a whole door of interpretative possibilities: it could be an altogether separate universe, a kind of what-if scenario; it could be reset button on the original, a la a certain other time loop theory; or (for the purposes of this discussion) it could be a second ‘trap’ on the way to revolutionizing the world. The dance is particularly important on this point, as it encourages us to observe ‘mirror’ imagery in the two main characters. Not only have the hair designs switched, with Utena having short-to-long wavy hair and Anthy having long straight hair, but their personalities and the balance of their relationship have shifted as well. Anthy is free to be assertive in her emotional and physical wants in a way that she never could before, a change that fits well with her newly confident attitude at the end of the series. There’s almost a mentoring attitude about her, as if she senses Utena’s confusion and knows the situation well enough to help her through it. And Utena’s character arc focuses on the idea of lost memories. On the surface she’s forgotten what happened to Touga, blocking out a formative experience tied to the memory of a loved one. Rings a few bells relating to her bond with Anthy, huh?
The world of Adolescence is often very pointedly reductive of the original series, especially in terms of the supporting cast. There’s a sense that the narrative wants to push them, in some small way, toward a kind of redemption. The student council members are no doubt victims of the reduced running time (particularly Saionji, often a rather nasty character but here presented without even the sympathizing element of his inferiority complex), but it’s worth noting that even they are able to band together to help Utena escape (thus also releasing Anthy, previous symbol of the magic fix to their obsessive desires). Wakaba, the well meaning but painfully normal girl who wished to be part of the larger story, is the (literal) vehicle that comes to Utena and Anthy’s rescue. Touga became the prince he wanted to be, though at the cost of becoming a figure which cannot exist for an independent adult (he saves Utena as a child, but as she prepares to leave Ohtori he can do little more than offer her a comforting farewell).
Most startling of all is the change in Akio, the playboy and on-the-nose Lucifer metaphor who dominated his every second of screen time in the original series. He’s also where the importance of the car thing comes about, so let’s take a moment to talk this out. During RGU Akio was a kind of a fallen prince – he’s formally been Dios, a godly little prince who had been sick unto death with the weight of the world’s suffering. To save him, Anthy transformed her brother Dios into Akio, who came to rule the world of man and all the pleasures of physical life. As (acting) chairman of Ohtori, Akio manipulated students into dueling in the hopes of gaining power for himself. And those manipulations almost always centered around taking a drive in Akio’s fancy car. Given the metaphorical nature of the show’s final third, it’s pretty easy to read seduction into those joyrides, but there’s a bit more to it as well. Cars in RGU represent the ideal of adulthood: its power, freedom, and status. But they’re a false ideal – adults do drive cars, after all, but it’s not what makes one. It’s a child’s idea of what the adult world holds, one that’s being used by Akio to tempt his duelists into action (notice that no one else is ever permitted to drive, as Akio would never give up the control he holds). He’s a powerful figure, cast as all but indestructible and infallible in the eyes of the much younger students who surround him. It’s one of Utena’s great acts of courage that she’s able to, ultimately, resist Akio’s temptations and save Anthy instead.
In Adolescence of Utena, Akio is a joke. He does indeed still have a car, but he’s lost the keys. And with them, he lost his charisma, his allure, and his power over Anthy beyond drugs and raw strength. When Utena saw through RGU’s Akio to his selfish, cowardly center, she stripped away the illusion of attraction he’d drawn around himself. It would make sense that the film’s Akio would be portrayed accordingly, making one last pathetic grab to keep Anthy from leaving him behind and clearly losing. Now, with the ‘cars are the image of adulthood’ theme in mind, let’s look at that most infamous of scenes.
Yup, that is a cute girl turning into a car alright
Hmm. Nope, that’s still completely insane. But it’s the kind of crazy I can explain. Take a look at the film’s title, The Adolescence of Utena. If the series was about a child’s attempt to become an individual, regardless of the expectations of society, then we can read the movie as the actual process by which she reaches adulthood. The film has a much more pronounced emphasis on the physical body than the series ever did, as well as making explicit the romantic attraction between Anthy and Utena. Partly the former is because of freedom from TV censorship, and the latter because director Ikehura was given complete creative freedom (and as a queer individuum looking for more legit same-sex romance, whose hatred for the ‘what a cute phase’/have-your-merch-and-plausibly-deny-it “Class S” genre burns with the white hot intensity of twelve thousand suns, I thank him profusely on this point). But more than that, the film’s awareness is Utena’s awareness. She’s letting go of the unrealistic white prince ideal (here symbolized by Touga rather than Dios), and becoming aware of her own desires and those Anthy feels toward her.
Utena’s transformation into a car comes at the exact moment she accepts the change within herself, and asks Anthy to see the world with her (also notice that she loses her ring, the symbol of the Prince ideal). She’s finally ready to become an adult, a process that isn’t easy or painless by any stretch of the imagination. So, she’s a car now – the image of what she thinks an adult should be. And who kindled that desire for growth and adulthood in her? Naturally Anthy turns out to be the one in possession of Akio’s keys – indeed, she had them all along. The two become a team, with Anthy the steering factor (insert your own ‘turns her on’ joke here), and Utena the ambitious force that will free both of them. And though they’re nearly crushed by Akio, they ultimately emerge on the other side into a world with no roads. This is, we’re meant to understand, the ‘real’ world. And what’s left of the car, that paragon of adulthood and self-actualization? Just the frame, and the two women who pushed each other into growing up. Both are stripped of their expectations and roles, and thus when they kiss it’s both a physical joining and a kind of naked ‘understanding’ of each other’s personhoods. For the two of them, adulthood is only the means to continue forward on uncertain paths, free and under their own power rather than anyone else’s. And without that stupid car, they never would’ve made it there.