In an altered re-telling of the Revolutionary Girl Utena TV series Utena Tenjou arrives at Ohtori Academy only to be immediately swept up in a series of duels with people competing for the hand of the ‘Rose Bride’, Anthy Himemiya who has a secret power. At the same time, Utena reunites with Touga Kiryuu, a friend from her childhood who seems to know all about the duels. Utena must discover those secrets for herself before the power that rules Ohtori claims her and her friends.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is a series that had always been one of my all-time favourites, and Utena in particular is one of the best protagonists. Her world is all beautiful aesthetics and allegorical fantasy focusing on social conservatism and what happens when people attempt to resist the norms of society. Even after so many years not everything has been entirely explained or unpacked because of the sheer amount of symbolism that’s always open to interpretation. Everyone who has watched it has come up with their own ideas and meanings, creating a variety of interesting hypotheses.
After adoring the manga, I managed to get my hands on the film, which had an entirely different reception. Ask most people who have seen this feature and they will likely mention two things: the story and characters are almost completely different and nothing seems to make sense. I can’t help but sympathise and agree with general opinion.
Visually, the film provides us with a combination of surreal backdrops and the aesthetic that has become archetypal for the anime. Clearly the animators were highly skilled and knew exactly what they were doing, weaving hand-drawn animation and computer graphics seamlessly. One particularly memorable scene is when Utena is exploring Ohtori Academy and the school is shown as a collection of moving platforms held together by an array of arches and pillars (interpret this how you will, since this is the work of known surrealist Kunihiko Ikuhara). All the characters are elegantly long-limbed yet statuesque and have vibrant, emotive eyes that are a known hat-tip to the anime classic The Rose of Versailles. Speculation has also been given to Utena’s character design for the film being tweaked to resemble the protagonist of Princess Knight. So, despite the fact that this feature is notoriously nonsensical, it’s quite the visual feast.
Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie does make some attempts to develop its characters, but they are so changed from their original personas that it leaves people unsure whether to attach certain personality traits and pasts to these characters that they know from the anime or try to approach these familiar faces like blank slates. Combined with the quirky and confusing nature of this plot you can appreciate why responses to this film have been rather volatile, keeping fans of the source material at arms length whilst running wild with new, unexplained approaches. The character of Akio Ohtori, Anthy’s brother and main antagonist, is usually suave, seductive and a little sinister, but he barely features in this film except to make a bit of a cameo and then have a pretty pointless death.
Utena and Anthy’s relationship has an interesting twist in this film. Instead of the slow burn of close-friendship-bordering-on-romance that we’re used to, we get sexuality thrown straight in our faces. I liked the mystery and the will-they-won’t-they feel of the anime and the approach in the film kind of undermines that particular character development, making the two main characters rather more two-dimensional.
And then we move onto one of the most confusing scenes in anime that I have ever witnessed. The car scene. As any Revolutionary Girl Utena fan about the car scene in the film and be prepared for vitriol. I admit, it’s one of those things that really has to be seen to be believed. I’m still not completely sure of the thematic motif of turning into a car and how it has anything to do with adolescence and maturity, but I’ve read plenty of theories on the subject. I didn’t see it coming and it completely bowled me over mentally. I’m going stop there before this post turns into solely an allegorical unpacking of Anthy racing from the academy in an Utena car.
The music is certainly another highlight, with chorus pieces and orchestras aplenty for that aristocratic, evocative and dramatic impact. With its beautiful melodies, catchy riffs and classically-cryptic lyrics, its a perfect overlay for this mysterious and intriguing setting.
After all these years, and having re-watched this film at various stages of my life and always drawing new conclusions, I still can’t decide if this film is a fantastic addition to the franchise or an artist’s impression of a holistic view that has been deconstructed for no other reason than to shake the foundations of the anime. It certainly is a fascinating watch, but you do have to view it through fresh eyes and separate it from all previous knowledge of the Revolutionary Girl Utena world. The DVD commentary from Ikuhara is an absolute must if you’re floundering in confusion after the end credits.
It’s anime film with a rather cloudy meaning, full of metaphysical and allegorical symbolism and beautiful visuals. It has its points of frustration, particularly if you are a fan of the anime or manga, but its layers and cryptic puzzles means that you’re going to be unable to resist the urge to watch this two, three, four times in order to reveal hidden meanings.