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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.