Our guest poster today is Jacqueline Ristola. Jacqueline graduated from Calvin in 2013 with a degree in film and media studies and a minor in literature. She’s currently biding her time in Grand Rapids working, reading, and writing while she waits for her fiancé to graduate from Calvin. They plan on attending grad school together, where she will study to be a film professor with a focus in animation studies. You can read her pop culture analysis blog, Critical Hit!!, here: http://criticalhit009.
Digitally remastered and re-released on DVD, Revolutionary Girl Utena is an anime masterwork. Originally broadcast in 1997, series director Kunihiko Ikuhara thought it was going to be his final work. Suffice it to say he poured every ounce of effort into the show, forming a unified statement on liberation and personal revolution. Summarizing the show is almost a sisyphean task, but plot-wise, it is roughly as follows:
Within the walls of Ootori Academy are secret duels that determine the fate of the Rose Bride, Anthy Himemiya. Given to the duelist champion and desired as the key to receiving the mysterious “power to revolutionize the world,” Anthy soon becomes the betrothed to Utena Tenjou, who enters the duels through misunderstanding, but eventually takes up the mantle as duelist. As Utena duels more students, the darker secrets behind the Academy eventually unfold, and the true nature of the duels is revealed.
The show explores every foible of adolescence and what it truly means to “grow up,” while also serving as a pertinent metaphor of liberation from oppression. There is so much meaning bundled into the show that I just might do my PhD thesis on it. But for now, I seek to evaluate the different endings given to the television show and its film adaptation released with the new box set, Adolescence of Utena.
For a show wrapped up so tightly with pervasive extended metaphors and symbolism, it’s a surprise to say the show was a hit. After the show’s successful television run, Ikuhara, now with a substantial amount of funding, made a film adaptation of the story. What follows was Adolescence of Utena, an attempt to summarize the show’s themes and concepts into its gloriously animated runtime of 80 minutes. The basic premise of the film is the same as the show: a system of dueling for the Rose Bride that reflect the pangs of growing into an adult.
What’s fascinating is how each story resolves. Revolutionary Girl Utena the series ends with sobering truths and ambiguities. Utena duels Anthy’s older brother Akio, the antagonist manipulating the system of duels for his own benefit. It could be argued that Utena wins the duel, as Anthy leaves the system of oppression that treats her as a commodity. However, Utena is gone, and people forget her revolutionary presence. While the show breeches the depths of despair (see the second season, The Black Rose Saga), the ending forms an arc towards hope with the promise that one day Anthy and Utena will meet again.
By contrast, the film’s ending presents a triumph of epic proportions. Anthy and Utena leave the system of oppressions that bind them with an air of exuberance, leading the way for other students to follow. Plot-wise, this is achieved as follows: Utena and Anthy express their desire to leave, and a giant car wash machine consumes Utena and turns her into a car. Anthy drives her in an extended racing scene against multiple enemies (including a ghost of Akio), eventually freeing them, kissing and nakedly lunging down the path towards freedom and love, from the school and its tyranny.
Suffice it to say, the film exorcises narrative logic for sheer literalization of metaphor, and runs with it whole hog. It’s a joyous experience, and weirdly enough, compliments the show well. The film’s driven excess acts as a final celebration of shaking off the systems of your oppressors, even if it means trampling over plot logic. By contrast, the show’s ending tempers the exuberance of the film with a sense of perspective. The series never forgets all the hard work it takes to achieve the freedom that Adolescence of Utena celebrates, and painstakingly details the progressions it takes to achieve liberation.
This does not meant the film’s ending is lacking—far from it. Both Revolutionary Girl Utena and Adolescence of Utena resolve in narratively satisfying ways, but go about it through different means. As a condensed version of the show, Adolescence of Utena delivers a pastiche of metaphors, ultimately shedding them to outright state theme and intention. Revolutionary Girl Utena cloaks itself in symbolism to the very end, making you work to understand the full scope of its intentions. Though their narratives resolve quite differently, they both illuminate each other and reveal the essence of what it takes to leave systems of oppression and attain freedom.