The year is 1999, two years after the completion of Revolutionary Girl Utena’s television broadcast. The majority of the original creative team (with a few notable exceptions), have come together to create a feature film that is both a semi-encapsulation of and yet wildly different from the original story. For years it’s been sold as a introductory point or standalone for those who haven’t seen the TV series, which might be the greatest lie told since the day a Blockbuster employee put Legend of the Overfiend in the family film section.
I must warn you that I’m more or less going to bypass discussion of the infamous car transformation entirely – but on the bright side, that’s only because I dedicated an entire essay to that subject a year ago. For those of you who’ve seen the series or would just like to watch 80 minutes of beautifully animated surreal madness, you can brush up on the film on YouTube or Hulu.
Where Are We Anyway?
The film opens on almost the exact point where the series ends, encouraging a savvy viewer to draw the two together from the word go: we hear the “bells of victory” from Anthy’s departure, see a vague figure standing upon a precipice, and then zoom into the new labyrinth where things seem to begin all over again (not to mention that the final image of the credit sequence is of a ship wrecked/lost at sea). In fact, Anthy’s reactions throughout the film make much more sense if viewed with the lens that she’s the same Anthy from the TV series (but more on that in a moment); likewise, emotional moments like the Student Council coming to the rescue in the Wakaba car only have weight if the viewer grafts on the past experiences of their series duels and character development.
Over and over Utena acknowledges that “the prince is dead,” nodding to her psychological realization from the end of the series while grappling with the fact that she must still put those memories and beliefs to bed emotionally (as signified by her new-remembered relationship with Touga). And the lyrics of the music played during that famous, magnificent dance sequence (which itself does heavy dealing in mirror images and repetition) makes direct references to “promises made” and “meeting again.” Likewise, the duel against Saionji refers to the Middle Ages (a time when the wondrous knowledge of previous centuries was lost) and clocks grinding in repetition.
Even their designs reflect a state of change:
“Since we were doing a movie version, we did a complete overhaul of the character designs. Their ages went up across the board, so they’re all sexier now.”
Though, to linger on that a moment – who’s older, exactly? Miki is still noted as being a first year, at the very least (if one taking college courses). Arguably Jury and Saionji look more “adult,” but seem to be in the same relative school positions as their series selves. In fact, the only characters who seem different from the ground up are Akio, Utena, and Anthy: the prince who fell from his throne and lost sway over the Rose Bride (the “keys”), the girl who realized she shouldn’t have tried to be a prince moments before being attacked by the Swords of Hatred, and the girl who made the conscious choice to create a new self. Their respective evolutions, contingent on past growth, echo through the design choices.
Or, as Ikuhara put it:
Q: Was there resistance to the movie’s stronger romantic elements, and if so, how did you overcome it?
A: No, there wasn’t. I tried to do in the movie what I wasn’t able to accomplish in the TV series.
Ah yes, the romance between Anthy and Utena. The one that fans (and Chiho Sato herself) spent so many years digging their heels in against before finally acquiescing (incidentally, Sato’s latter day stance is “please think of [Utena and Anthy] like a married couple”). So the film is both extension of and reaction to the original work, trying new avenues now and then but mostly going for an simplified, emotional retelling that puts laser-focus on the central romance rather than the original ensemble character study. Broad strokes, just like all of the impressionistic art scattered throughout. Or, put another way: yes, the portrait scene is basically a metaphor for the film as a whole.
The Drowning Boy
One of the strangest aspects introduced in the final episode is Jury’s story about a boy who drowned saving her sister. Though she vowed to remember his name forever, Jury finds that it has slipped her mind. It’s foreshadowing, in part, for what happens to Utena – her name fades from the halls of Ohtori, but the memory of her actions linger on and influence (perhaps not even on a conscious level) the lives of others.
Like many other elements from series to film, that story serves a purpose that’s similar on the surface and divergent in execution. It replaces the death of Utena’s parents and the visitation of the Prince as Utena’s new motivation, serving as the trigger for the second (emotional) death of Utena’s prince. More than that, it becomes a means of trapping her into believing in the concept of princesses and princes even after she’d come to the very door of revolution. Stories, then, are powerful and double edged: the hand that wields them can warp them to suit any purpose; and it’s up to each individual to grapple directly with the meaning of that story, to question it and assign it power rather than letting the overriding system do it for them (note that Utena acknowledges that Touga was her prince, and that there was a time that she needed that story – but now she is ready to go out on her own).
Touga and Shiori in the Spotlight
Now the issue of characterization can get dicey when trying to link film and series. On the one hand, many follow a clear line (Utena and Anthy, as above); Saionji more or less lives out a caricature of his arc as necessitated by the plot (hence the violent droolface in the first duel but being on the Car of Aiding at the end)…and then there’s Shiori, who makes it disheartening at best to draw a direct line from A to B. Her actress, Kumiko Nishihara, described her performance for the film as “thinking Jury was the villain,” which was both technically true in the TV series and simultaneously compounded by many other nuanced feelings of self-loathing and longing.
Shiori’s relationship to Touga makes her almost unreal, in fact, nearly as stripped down and archetypal as he is. Given the extremely symbolism-oriented nature of the film, this is perhaps fitting: in the original series Jury and Shiori were only at the very beginning of being able to regard one another as real people with flaws, since they had built each other up on impossible pedestals before (“eternal love”/“obstacle to my self-worth” for Shiori and “impossible love”/”eternal out of reach goal” for Jury). Like Touga’s desire to become the systemic image of the prince leading to him existing as a literal dead ideal in this universe, Shiori’s black and white conception of abjection and villainy has reflected back to make her a purely conniving rather than complex and sympathetic figure (this, at any rate, is how I comfort myself on the subject). She exists as an opposite to Anthy: one who realized that the prince was dead because of Jury (because of her love for Jury? Touga does imply that she was spreading those rumors herself), and rather than move forward opted to force Jury onto that strangling pedestal labeled “prince.”
But the biggest area of grey, even more than Shiori, centers around the exploration of Touga’s backstory. While every other duelist gets an intimate focus at some point during the series, Touga is seen purely through the eyes of those around him – and predominantly the kind-hearted but self-centered Nanami and Saionji, characters who even with the benefit of time and character development were really only beginning to grasp empathetic insight. The guidebook included with the anniversary DVDs/Nozomi set describes it thusly:
“As for Touga, the movie zooms in on him quite a bit, since among other things he was the only one of the TV show’s main characters whose backstory wasn’t specifically depicted there. Here you can see an incident in his youth which greatly influenced the formation of his character.”
Putting aside the whole “the prince is dead” theme that many, many others have covered quite well before me, we have the issue of how much we want to retroactively apply this movie self. As the quote implies, there’s nothing about Touga’s backstory in the series that directly contradicts this reading of his upbringing (Nanami would have been too young to remember, and Saionji could easily have been excluded from such knowledge), and there’s at least a mild nod to them dovetailing in the acknowledgement that both siblings were adopted. If anything, it makes sense. Touga’s particular brand of aloofness reads well as a survival tactic, blocking out concern for others as a means of compartmentalizing his own trauma. Additionally, being treated like an object – especially by what seems to be a very successful businessman/player in the system, if the opulence Touga and Nanami come from is any indication – would serve as an example for Touga’s later treatment of others throughout the series. Even when series!Touga was doing something “good” for another character, he always went first to manipulation as his main technique (there is room to argue the exact nature and degree of the abuse across continuities, given the film’s overall larger-than-life approach, but that it existed for both seems likely)
It’s also a world apart from the trauma that we see the other duelists dealing with, which perhaps (along with the primetime slot the show was airing in) explains its exclusion. Before Akio steps in and wields his adult power as a weapon, most of the duelists’ difficulties stem from relationships with their peers – Saionji and Nanami to Touga, Jury to Shiori, Kozue to Miki, and so on. And though Utena was wounded by her parents’ death, that was not an intentional cruelty. But Touga’s backstory takes his entire persona and shatters it beneath the hammer of adult abuse from his youngest, most impressionable point, forcing him to rebuild and start over from scratch as one-who-uses-others. While the other duelists had at least some degree of agency in their situations, Touga’s only option was surviving – much as the other duelists would later be forced to do with Akio, there really is no other option but escape and rebuilding (he is surrounded by butterflies, symbols of change and rebirth, that are also robed in the color of mourning and death).
It puts a nearly unbearable undercurrent of sadness beneath the events of the film to see Touga set apart from his fellow duelists, who have finally become aware of the outside and their journey toward it, and made to play the dead prince. As with Shiori, I can only offer the headcanons that comfort me – that this is but a version of a reality that is ever reset as each duelist approaches graduation day, and that Touga’s particular role in this cycle for Utena moves him closer at the same rate if along a different methodology to escape. After all, the dolls of the emptied Ohtori show that this was Anthy and Utena’s revolution and no one else’s, and so it seems we’ve left our secondary cast with their own unique graduation days still on the horizon.
It wouldn’t be a proper Consulting Analyst without one, after all. Anthy is obviously bolder and more open in this version, aware of her own desires and willing to act on them. Her new design (which is quite lovely, though I’m not wild about how much they lightened her skin tone while every other character got a richer, deeper palette) reflects this fact: the bindi on her forehead (symbolizing wisdom) is much larger and brighter now, and the glasses are still back in the “old” Ohtori; her hair is long and straight rather than curly, a visual trait that was visually associated with “bound” characters (note that Jury and Saionji’s are both incrementally straighter, while the trapped Utena’s has become wavy instead of straight); and even her Rose Bride dress is overwhelmingly white rather than red.
Her rose garden too, is no longer a cage but a perch overseeing the whole of the school, freely indicating Anthy’s new godlike knowledge of how the system works – and yet it remains precarious, still bound to the earth by the duels and her rescue mission. As much as Anthy was beginning to come into herself before and embraced her love for Utena, it’s clear she’s not quite an adult yet herself. Her knowledge allows her to guide Utena back to knowledge of herself (transforming her back to her old design and costume over time), but she isn’t powerful enough to overpower the system entirely and pluck Utena from it. She has to play the game, and it is still painful: her past self still loves her brother, though he is now a pathetic, greasy shell of his former identity; she is shaken by the image of the dueling ring in Utena’s hand, perhaps afraid that all of the strife they shared together has vanished; there is still a literal hole in her heart from the ills she suffered, and she still needs Utena’s encouragement to take those final steps to the outside world.
In fact, one of the most perfect things about the car sequence is how it compliments and expands on the idea of revolution from the series. Utena and Anthy both reach out to each other upon meeting, but though each one is “awoken” they are ultimately separated. Rather than an end in itself (which is beautiful and lonely both), the addition of Adolescence makes that climb out of the coffin a step in a process to becoming an adult. The cars, symbols of power and agency and control in Akio’s hands, becomes a tool of intimate cooperation following Utena’s transformation – Utena cannot move without Anthy’s guidance, and Anthy cannot escape without Utena’s powerful momentum. Bit by bit, they protect one another and move toward a better future.
Even the car doesn’t remain the same. The initial escape is something of a revival of their old dynamic, with Anthy at the wheel and Utena the literal muscle (car). The musical accompaniment is even the series opening, the song speaking of lost longing and endless cycles. But as they’re both ground down by the encroaching grip of the castle and Akio’s hand, they find they can’t escape that way. Anthy’s final cry of resistance succeeds because it becomes a joint effort, a key that brings them out into the new world on the bare frames of adulthood, side by side in equality. It’s a terrifying place, the outside world, littered on all sides with the wreckage of cars who have failed in the past. But Utena and Anthy have become something else altogether, writing their own path as they expand their world and “Rinbu Revolution” once more becomes a lyric-free tune waiting to be defined. This time, fully open and honest and “born again” in love, they’ll make the journey together. For all the crap people give the film for its surrealism, the visual purity of it is one of the most memorable and powerful moments in film that I can name.
Did you know you can support this blog on Patreon?
You didn’t talk about the Shadow Players?
Had to set limits somewhere
I’m not really sure what to make of the film in relation to the original. It’s tempting to consider it a sequel and there are good reasons to do so. However, Shiori and Kozue’s characterization, Touga’s death and the changed details of the story of the drowned boy cause too many problems for me, even if you came up with pretty good explanations for them. So I guess I’m considering it a thematic sequel in the form of an AU retelling or something. However, if we do think of it as a direct sequel, might Nanami’s failure to make an appearance beyond the wrong video suggest she too has graduated/dropped out?
Incidentally, I think this and the various Eva films are the only theatrically released animated features with an LGBT lead I’ve ever seen. I know there’s something called Strange Frame, but are there any more?
I would like to think so of Nanami. Precious girl. Then again, given the straw dolls I’m tempted to believe the other students we see are mostly just memories from utena’s mind transposed as constructs, and our two girls are basically alone in Akio’s last, desperate trap.
For leads I’m coming up somewhat blank (I’m not sure the Eva films get much credit either, given how much they downplay acknowledging shinji and kaworu’s feelings as romantic compared to the original series. You could probably count Tokyo Godfathers? hanna is a trans woman and part of a more or less trio of protags, but that’s it off the top of my head
Ah, I’ve actually seen Tokyo Godfathers. It’s a lovely film that completely slipped my mind. It does have the advantage of standing alone, unlike The Adolescence of Utena and the earlier less ambiguous (…when it came to Shinji and Kaworu anyway) Eva films that recapped and then finished the series.
Speaking of which, I know this film has been shown at several LGBT film festivals outside of Japan, most of whose visitors probably hadn’t seen the tv series. I wonder what the audiences thought. Even with the general incomprehensibility I could imagine it working really well in the right film fest mood, especially if there was someone on hand to provide a little context. Erica Friedman apparently introduced it at a couple of places, so I suppose one could ask her.
Hmm. Interesting. I mean, it certainly is beautiful as an abstract, surreal art film. But I can’t help feeling the reading it would get as an exclusive entity would be a poorer one.
a red bindi, among other things, is the mark of a married woman in at least some indian cultures. juuuust putting that out there 🙂
Oh that is WONDERFUL. I like the idea of it having dual meaning
Here is a post on my blog I think might interest you, I don’t mention Utena or Lupin in it however
Not butterflies, actually. Cabbage moths, which are considered parasites and can severely mess up how a crop turns out. Shiori is literally growing wings that belong to a parasite.
Aha! A fascinating distinction
The variety of butterfly has meaning too. Commonly called cabbage moths, the pupae are parasites that attack a farmer’s crops, living in the leafy vegetables.
Shiori grows the wings of a parasite.
Touga is surrounded by beauty that came from harming others in that scene with him as a child.