A review requested by Devin, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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The housekeeping part first: the 1999 animated feature Adolescence of Utena (whose Japanese title more literally translates as Revolutionary Girl Utena: Adolescence Apocalypse, which I frankly like better; it was also initially released in the West, dubbed, as Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie. But here at Alternate Ending, as I hope you know, we don't screw around with English dubs of Japanese animation) is the third incarnation of Ikuhara Kunihiko and Saito Chiho's Revolutionary Girl Utena franchise. The first incarnation was a manga by Saito that ran from 1996-1998, and the second was a television series directed by Ikuhara that aired 39 episodes over the course of 1997, both of them (like the movie) produced under the umbrella of Be-Papas, an artistic collective Ikuhara conceived of as a means of foregrounding collaboration rather than individual artists. As I understand, all three incarnations tell approximately the same story, in varying levels of detail of course; as I further understand it, each one at least somewhat expects that you've seen the earlier versions (or, at least, the movie expects that you've seen the show).

Now, I made the calculated decision to watch Adolescence of Utena fresh, without seeing a single frame of the series, at least partially in the spirit of experimentation, and the results of the experiment are: what the fuck just happened. Though my sense is this might have also been my response if I had watched all 39 episodes, so maybe it's just as well. I wouldn't go so far as to say that what's happening here is that the film feels like it's going by too fast and not letting the story sink in, though it certainly crams a hell of a lot in 87 minutes. Rather, it's that the film's story is so heightened in its blatant symbolism, and its inclination to treat every interaction and plot point as something almost mythic in its greater-than-everyday register. It's a film where everything feels capitalised and underlined.

This is not a problem, to be clear, though it does make Adolescence of Utena extremely exhausting to watch; nor is that the only thing for which I'd say that. It's also just full of stylistic excess, with almost every new scene adding some more visual lushness, to the point of overstimulation. Even something as basic as an exterior shot of the location is so full of muchness that it's almost enough to make your eyes vibrate out of your skull: the film's setting is presented, a couple of different times, as a series of causeways rising majestically into the sky and crossing atop each other in bold diagonals, something like a very complicated city highway interchange system. Every one of those causeways is painted on a separate backdrop, and each of these backdrops is moved in a different direction than all the rest. It's a paradox, defining a three-dimensional space that feel like it has been constructed out of pure flatness, and trying to resolve that while also tracking how each layer moves relative to the others is downright dizzying. And that's one thing that doesn't even have characters in it. The whole movie is in this kind of overclocked mode.

Arguably, this is simply form following content. The film's story, which I understand to be a mercilessly stripped-down version of the comic and TV show, centers on Tenjou Utena (Kawakami Tomoko), who has just enrolled at Ohtori Academy. She is dressed as a specific kind of boy, an upper class sort of power-wielder called "princes", which seems to be figurative ("seems to be" is a useful phrase to hang onto with Adolescence of Utena); it is not clear to me that anybody actually believes her to be male, or that she's actually pretending to be one ("it is not clear to me" is another useful phrase). It doesn't probably matter; what matters is that she has positioned herself in a masculine role in direct defiance of the social structures defining the academy; one might say that she has thus made herself a "revolutionary girl", though the film is racing through ideas much too quickly to spell out any of them in such pedantic, small-minded language. At any rate, Utena finds herself almost by accident involved in a power struggle between all the princes to see who can out-duel all the rest will win the hand of Himemiya Anthy (Fuchizaki Yuriko), the "Rose Bride", whose partner will have the ability to change the course of the world. As a result of Utena's immersion into this world, she and Anthy forge a very intense connection, one that includes romantic and sexual elements but transcends them. If I am being elliptical, it's because the details are fucking hard to lay out.

Put it more simply: this is a story about hormonal teenagers being overwhelmed by desire and other passions (the fact that it's very specifically about an intense homosexual underscores the degree to which Utena finds herself at odds with the world and culture around her, but that's not what I'm driving at in this moment). There's thus a certain logic in the experience of the film, as a narrative and as an aesthetic object, being overwhelming on the viewer in the same way that Utena's titular adolescence overwhelms her. Sometimes this happens in a very literal, one-to-one way: for fear of spoiling the most wild moment in a film made up of wild moments, I would be very reluctant to say what happens in the film around the 65-minute mark, except in general terms, but it is both the most intensely, if fuzzily, symbolic event in the film, involving an extraordinary physical transformation that allows the full scope of Utena's revolutionary potental to express itself. It is also the most formally dazzling moment in the entire feature, a collection of energetic, motion-packed visuals of mechanical shapes fluidly bending around in space (it feels like a descendant of the legendary "War Machine" sequence from Richard Williams's The Thief and the Cobbler) timed to a raging, operatic pop song; it's a moment that needs to have an overwhelming impact, almost like it feels like you're drowning in the movie, and by God if it doesn't basically get there.

Even in the "smaller" moments, Adolescence of Utena is a pretty extraordinary piece of animation. I mean, it doesn't get much smaller than "the exterior establishing shot of a location", and I already described how this film handles that kind of thing. Otherwise, it's all borderline-Expressionist background paintings that render the academy as an impossible combination of airy open spaces, sharp futuristic lines, and eye-watering bright colors. This is when it's telling the "normal" scenes of its plot. When it gets to the actual visionary moments, where Utena starts to perceive the greater world than just herself (and this is, basically, the arc of the plot: it's a coming-of-age story, though one that has been buried deep below the expressive dream imagery), it turns into full-on surrealist explosions of roses, clouds, spaces defined purely in terms of line and shape with no sense of what kind of space they are, though they come across as fundamentally Gothic in their ancient weight and richness.

It's an extravagantly lush movie, basically, and that lushness amply overwhelms the already overwhelming ambiguity and emotional chaos of the story. The characters feel like grand archetypes, symbols of human feelings as much as or more than specific people with specific emotions; their extreme, exaggerated design contributes to that feeling, with every single character dominated by strong lines and acute angles that make them easier to visualise as a series of intense, dramatic poses, and not so much what they have to do in order to move between those poses. This is always striking to look at, but it pays off the most in the dueling scenes, which feel less like action sequences than like primordial conflicts between blocks of color that feel like they represent deep human truths more than normal, run of the mill humans. What those truths are, ah, well, that's where it gets tricky. Other than speaking in generalities (e.g. "well, it's definitely about capital-Q Queerness"), I am a little bowled over by the density of the symbolism, and the speed with which the film rockets through its plot doesn't really encourage one to dwell on the symbols. But the ferocity of the imagery and music are working so hard, so consistently though those fast-paced minutes that it's hard not to get the profound emotional impact of the film, even if the intellectual underpinning of those emotions can be hard to pin down.