Stephen reviews: Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie (1999)

utenaRevolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie [少女革命ウテナ アドゥレセンス黙示録 Shoujo Kakumei Utena: Adolescence Mokushiroku] (1999)
Literal translation: Revolutionary Girl Utena: Adolescence Apocalypse
AKA The Adolescence of Utena, La Fillette Révolutionnaire Utena

Starring Tomoko Kawakami, Yuriko Fuchizaki, Takehito Koyasu, Kotono Mitsuishi, Kumiko Nishihara, Maria Kawamura, Satomi Koorogi, Mitsuhiro Oikawa, Takeshi Kusao

Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara

Welcome to my favorite anime film. It might not be the best, but it’s still my favorite. A film of absolute beauty, it’s also the weirdest thing I have ever seen. Now that’s a pretty big statement, but I’ve racked my brain, and I can’t think of anything weirder. I can hear you guys now, saying, come on Stephen, really? Weirder than Perfect Blue? Oh, yes. Weirder than Red Spectacles, even? I’m afraid so. But it can’t be weirder than those sex-changing dominatrixes from outer space in Sailor Moon can it? Now you’re getting close, but not close enough. (And it’s worth noting that Ikuhara also directed Sailor Moon.)

So what could make Revolutionary Girl Utena even weirder than that? Well, I’ll tell you what knocked it out of the park for me. An automated car wash springs out of the ground in the middle of a beautiful rose garden and promptly sucks one of the characters inside. Now if that sentence made any sense to you, go back and read it again because it shouldn’t have. The only thing weirder than that is the remaining half hour of the movie. The first time I saw it, I thought someone had spiked my Pepsi and I had hallucinated the whole thing. I literally rewound it and watched that last half hour again to make sure. And no, I hadn’t been drugged. It really was that weird, and the Cinderella Castle really did try to run the main characters off the road on a fourteen-lane highway.

kinopoisk.ruSo why do I love this movie so much then? Well first off, I love weird shit. Secondly, this film is beautiful. Lastly, this film has an incredible depth of character and meaning. Yes it’s weird, but all of that weirdness is in the form of metaphor, allusion, and illusion. Utena is the ultimate arthouse anime. It is layered and complex. It took me several watchings to understand much of anything. But if you care to look there’s a lot to find. Everything is there for a reason, just not an obvious one.

I should warn you before we get any further along that Utena is a lesbian romance, so if the idea makes you squeamish, you better leave the film alone. It’s about a tomboy named Utena. She’s the new girl in school, and while navigating the strange and beautiful architecture, she meets another girl named Anthy. Utena then discovers that Anthy is the Rose Bride, a prize for whoever is the current winner of an underground dueling club. Outraged at Anthy’s de facto slavery, Utena wins a duel and becomes engaged to Anthy. She must then protect Anthy from the other duelists who want to use her for their own desires while dealing with her own conflicting emotions at being engaged to another girl.

Despite the duels, action is not the film’s main focus. There are several action sequences — all of them beautiful — but they’re just the backdrop to the real story, which is not only about gay rights or gender equality. Those are just the surface themes. The deeper themes are about growing up and leaving the past behind. And even more so about illusion and confronting tragedy.

utena04This depth is reflected in the characters’ relationships, and especially Utena’s. Despite the sparks flying between her and Anthy, she is not a simple lesbian. Nothing in this film is plain and one-dimensional. Utena still deeply loves her ex-boyfriend Touga, and that failed relationship haunts her through the film, especially since Touga is a participant in the duels. The final confrontation between Utena and Touga is every bit as beautiful (there’s that word again!) and heartfelt as any of Utena’s scenes with Anthy.

I keep using that word “beautiful” for a reason. This film is absolutely gorgeous. (And so is the soundtrack, a subject that I wish I had more time to delve into.) The animation may not have quite the technical quality of a Ghibli film, but it is still damn good. But I’m not even talking about the animation. I’m talking about the style, the imagery, and the directing. Other films might have better animation, but none of them (Ghibli films included) are as beautiful. Every frame of this film is like a work of art. It is so fantastic, that even if the movie didn’t have all that depth, I would have still loved it for its beauty alone.

utena08Nothing in the film is more beautiful than the dance scene in the flooded rose garden. I have little experience with romance scenes, but this is easily the most romantic moment in any story I’ve ever seen. It’s enough to fill even my jaded heart with awe. Roses float by at random with the starry night sky reflected in the water. Utena and Anthy wear their normal school uniforms, but their reflections in the water wear their fancier dueling costumes.

As the scene continues, the camera flips upside-down. It focuses on their reflections which now look right-side-up. The camera pans down, err up rather, into the sky where the castle of eternity hangs in the air, upside-down, and therefore looks right-side-up. It’s a scene so odd and confusing that it took several re-watches before I figured out what was actually happening. But it’s so mesmerizing that I could never pull my eyes away from it. And the CG roses floating about only adds to the beauty.

utena13Wait, what!? Did I really just say that? Ahh man, I did. The CG in here is amazing. No matter how much it hurts to say it, it’s true. I have never seen CG this good in any other anime. It’s so seamless that unless the director’s commentary track hadn’t mentioned it, I might have never noticed those roses. There are places in the film where it is more obvious, but those scenes are still not only good-looking, but intentional, placed there precisely because Ikuhara wanted to have a CG look to the scenes.

Even better than the roses, though, is the odd conveyor-belt trap at the end of the film. It looks nothing like CG. Except that it never could have looked that good if it hadn’t been CG. Even knowing it was CG when I watched it, I still questioned my memories. I had to check that director’s commentary again to make sure. That’s how good it is.

utena05All that begs the question: just why the hell does a film made in 1999 have the best CG ever used in anime? Not even films made 10 years later like King of Thorn or First Squad come anywhere near the quality of this film’s CG. Shouldn’t technology be advancing rather than degrading? If all anime used CG as good as this I wouldn’t have to gripe about it in every review. I just don’t know why Utena is the only one to do it right.

So if I can’t complain about the CG, then what can I complain about? There are some strange decisions made for the story, not the least of which is that bizarre car wash scene which completely abandons the dueling premise for the remainder of the film, replacing it with an enormous car chase. But in a film so involved with metaphor, there is no point to the literal events anyway. Changing focus in such an incomprehensible way forces a more symbolic interpretation, which is the entire point of the film.

It’s all very head-scratching, but Ikuhara wasn’t just pulling stuff out of his ass. He clearly had a vision, and he just as clearly created exactly the film he wanted. Even after a dozen times watching Utena, I’m not sure I really understand everything, but the things I have figured out have left me astonished. This film will only appeal to a select few willing and able to see past the confusion, but even if you can only see it as random nonsense, its brilliant craftsmanship and narrative force still make this a mesmerizing experience.

14 comments to Stephen reviews: Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie (1999)

  • Another nice review, your passion for the film is palpable. I’ll have to watch it someday.

    I decided to leave both of those trailers because I figured we could break the rules on your favorite anime.

    • Stephen

      Thanks, man! And it appears that Netflix still has it in stock. Hopefully they’ll still have it when you get around to it.

      And I was rather torn on those two trailers. The second one is technically a better trailer for the film, but I love the first one, even though it seems to be a collection of unused character design sketches.

      • Oh cool, I’ll have to get it from them then! I hadn’t even thought to look yet.

        I actually watched both the trailers and like how they were both pretty different from each other, so that went into the decision too. But I agree that first one is good stuff even if it’s not the best trailer for a movie.

  • Very nice review. This is a fantastic movie, and such a bizarre one, too. Your love for it is clear. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on the TV series, as well. I made my own attempt to review/analyze it on my blog:

    • Glad you liked it! The TV series is also one of my favorite anime series, but my thoughts on that are less developed. I think it goes back to what I said in the review about the car chase forcing a symbolic interpretation. The series didn’t force me to, so I saved all my mental energy for the film and just kicked back and enjoyed the series without much thought.

      Watching the movie again has gotten me in the mood for more Utena, though, so I’ll probably run through the series again soon and maybe give it some deeper thoughts. I do like your interpretation of events, and I’ll be keeping those in mind as I rewatch the series.

  • Finally watched this and you weren’t foolin’ when you said it was weird! It sure is, but it’s also incredible. I loved it. I can’t claim to understand the finer points of the story, but I was enthralled throughout. Beautiful is definitely the right word, and its beauty is throughout every facet of the work. Direction, music, visuals, everything. Really impressed. Looks like Ikuhara hasn’t really done much else in terms of movies; it’s a shame!

    I’d have never saw this one without your recommendation, so thanks!

    • Stephen

      Awesome! Glad you got to see it. And you liked it better than I did at first. Modern Stephen loves every minute of it, but early twenties Stephen didn’t know what to do with it. It took quite a few watches for it to grow on me. Mostly I kept at it because of the music. I kept popping it in just to listen to the soundtrack, and eventually started noticing things. Eventually I rectified things by buying the soundtrack, but by then I had already fallen in love with the film.

      I’m not sure I understand the finer points of the story myself, although the biggest piece that helped me was realizing that the girl in the boat from the black & white flashback scene was Juri. That was the first domino in a chain of realizations that made the character motives a lot more understandable.

      Yeah, it’s sad that Ikuhara hasn’t done much. Aside from Sailor Moon, Utena, and the fairly recent series Penguindrum, I don’t know of anything that he’s been heavily involved with. Only three major projects in twenty years is pretty slim indeed.

      • I can imagine early twenties Will also not liking it much or knowing what to think about it. There’s just so much going on that I was always fully engaged. Like a mystery you’re trying to piece the story together, while also taking in the audio/visual delights. And the sheer level of WTF is fantastic. And then the car wash comes out and it really rockets into WTF overdrive. I just loved it. And the CG integrates really well becasue they never show it off. It’s always in service of pushing the art forward. I was surprised how much the big-eye character design didn’t bother me either. Perhaps there is a diehard anime fan in me yet!

        Hahahaha you lost me with the “Juri was the girl in the boat” thing. I mean, I remember that, but I don’t think I’m ready to comprehend it. I didn’t really focus too much on those side characters because I was trying to understand the core relationship. Oops. Oh, I was gonna ask: is the movie a edited version of the series or are they separate entities? Do they share the same overall story? Have you seen his other stuff? Is it anything like this, like in terms of the artfulness? I feel like this guy should be huge, so it’s hard to understand how he has done so little (not that multiple series is a small achievement).

        • Stephen

          The film is definitely stuffed to the brim, and it takes quite a while to process any of it. And that WTF factor is off the charts. I still crack up every time I see the scandalous video. Which reminds me that there’s an awful lot of comedy sprinkled through the film, and it’s pretty amazing how well it juggles the comedy with the drama.

          I would describe the film as a very loose retelling of the series. Almost none of the events cross over between the two, and you’ll get a very different experience from the series, though it still has the same tone and style. Obviously the production values aren’t even comparable between the two. One of the biggest differences is just how densely packed the film is, whereas the series has the time to be a lot more leisurely in its pacing. It’s not quite the difference between Nolan Batman and Adam West Batman, but it might be like comparing Nolan’s Batman with the ’90s animated Batman series.

          I can’t really say much regarding Ikuhara’s other stuff. It’s been far too lang since I last saw Sailor Moon to give it any accurate description, not only because of faded memory but also because of changing perceptions that come from a decade or more of aging. Also that one was co-directed, so it’s not as pure a representation of Ikuhara’s vision, and he may have still been developing his personal style back then. Peguindrum I’m still waiting for a reasonably priced box set, but from what I hear it’s every bit as mind-bending as Utena, perhaps more so.

          • Hahahaha, yeah that scandalous video was great. It definitely has a good mix of comedy along with its drama, and I think that’s another reason why I enjoyed it so much. It was serious but not too serious.

            So no car wash in the series? I read somewhere (Wikipedia?) that Ikuhara felt like the Utena movie might be his only shot at doing something like it so he poured everything he had creatively into it. Could be why he doesn’t do as much as some people! Hopefully Penguindrum delivers for you.

            • Stephen

              Nope, no car wash in the series I’m afraid. Cars are pretty important to the third season, though. All the duels have cars popping out of the ground, headlights flaring and engines roaring, while the characters fight, and the end of the duel is always punctuated by a car crash. I guess you could call it the prototype for what he did in the film. The series certainly has it’s fair share of WTF, so don’t count it out just because it doesn’t have that insane car wash.

              It is clear that Ikuhara put everything he had into the film. There’s no doubt it was his magnum opus. So maybe that’s why he laid low for the next decade. Talk about a tough act to follow. After making this film just how could you expect to top it?

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