The Adolescence of Utena (1999) Review: Anime on LSD

Revolutionary Girl Utena

Perhaps this review should be renamed “Why you Shouldn’t Watch the Utena Movie after Only Seeing One Episode of the Series”, but alas – may this be a testiment that this film does not work on its own. The “Adolescence of Utena” is a retelling of the 39 episode 1997 TV series, but requires a fair amount of background research (watching the first 13 episode arc of the TV series, which introduce all the main characters) before you jump in. Watching this film, especially without the extra character knowledge, makes titles like FLCL (2000) and Yellow Submarine (1968) look almost normal in comparison. The action-drama movie introduces Utena Tenjou, a strange girl who moves to Ohtori Academy and is drawn into a series of sword fights to win a prize: the alluring Anthy Himemiya.

The very first shot of chiming church bells gives you an idea of the level of animation quality to expect. Being a Production I.G project, Utena features distinct lines, vibrant colors, and a unique gothic style remincent to Rozen Maiden (2004). All these features, with a dose of weirdness makes Utena stand out from the crowd. The character designs are better looking than those in the TV series, especially with Anthy, but are still sharp and unappealing in the facial features at times. The backgrounds are beautifully detailed – with a major focus on surrealist-like architecture, such as narrow mirrors, floating staircases and rose gardens. The sword fights stand out with stunning direction, fluidity and imagination. Special note to the Opening credits, which is the most memorable, intriguing, yet simple sequence I have seen in a long time. Despite the misleading, ugly DVD cover art, Utena looks better than the majority of anime out today, and if it wasn’t for the character designs you wouldn’t be able to tell this was made in the 90’s – it matches the high-end animation quality of The End of Evangelion.

The story, while interesting and unique, is poorly explained and disjointed. Utena’s motives make a lot more sense the first 20 seconds of the first episode than any explanation available here. The overarching story is broken up by a stupid radio show (this time could have been used more effectively), and gorgeous artistic imagery very similar Disney’s Fantasia (1940). Heavily drenched in shots and symbolism not intended to be taken literally, it is difficult to distinguish what is real and what is not – or even the past or the present. The narrative likes to jump around without giving notice, like your brain is riding a rollarcoaster. The ending is climatic, incredibly entertaining but also near incomprehensible. Regardless of its flaws, there are some haunting, amazingly intimate scenes here that I will not be able to forget.

The characters are lightly touched upon here. While some background detail is given to Utena and Anthy, the rest of the characters’ details seem squished in. There is so much information to fill in such a short space of time a lot of it doesn’t stick. The viewer is left trying to figure out whom is whom with each passing moment. While the characters are interesting and likable it may take more than one viewing to get a clear picture of them. The majority of the soundtrack is forgettable, except in a few key scenes. The tracks that stand out are the songs by J. A Seazer which were used in the series. They are large scale, epic battle vocal numbers with disjointed lyrics (if you have the subtitles on), and are catchy as hell. Few English dubs have made me change to the Japanese track within the first few minutes, and this is sadly one of them (the other one was Comic Party). The acting (especially the ones for the girls in the radio show) sound unnatural and forced, like they are trying too hard to match the emotion of the Japanese version. It sounds annoying, awkward, and is best avoided.

This is an incredibly weird, but beautifully made movie which I would recommend to any anime fan who does not cringe at same-sex couples, likes a good sword fight and managed to enjoy the last half of The End of Evangelion. If you can wait until you’ve seen the first 13 episodes of the series, The Adolencense of Utena will bring you on a psychedelic, out of this world experience which will linger long after the film is over.


Rate 4 stars if you have seen more of the series than I have!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. pilgrim

    Cool review. If you will consider the anime on a symbolic level, it is actually so gorgeous. The problem here is of course that it will only attract the type of audience that grabs that form of symbolism and can put it into context.

  2. Ain’t this quite a dark and magical romance. You didn’t talk much about the 5 vol manga or the tv series?

  3. iDotter

    Gonna watch this next, thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Great review but maybe you could have touched more on the background and the manga, though I know you haven’t read it by the comment you left above. I love this anime.

    • Jordan

      Thanks. If I ever get around to reviewing the anime I will make sure to mention the manga and other background info a bit more πŸ™‚

  5. Ellen Andrew

    Eh, having seen both the anime and the movie, I would always recommend the anime over the movie. The anime presents a beautiful and fully fleshed out plot, with both less opaque symbolism and more build up with Akio as the villain. The movie leaves out a ton, and the only reason I would recommend it would be for a LGBTQA movie night, and that’s because you can’t watch a 39 episode series in one night. However, there is a fan theory that the movie is an extension of sorts of the anime that may or may not improve it in your eyes; I found it a while ago and it made me like the movie a bit more.

  6. uiorra

    The Adolescence of Utena is set at an alternative universe of some sort, where the basis of the story is the same as the show but with many alterations. The movie will drive out three possible reactions: Either you’ve never watched the series or read the manga, and this could be a hell of a confusing ride. Or you’ve seen the show/read the manga, and here it could be either a disaster, or the best fan-service you’d ever get. Being a big fan of the anime series, after watching the movie I kind of hated it, but at the same time was confused, and also thanked god (Ikuhara) for making it. You’d have to watch it again and maybe read about it until you understand it more and come to absolutely love it. It would never top the 39 eps series, but I don’t think it was meant to top it. Since when they were making the series they couldn’t show the ‘gay’ more, I think the movie was a service for the fans who longed to see some LGBTQ action, and thankfully, we got 3 kiss scenes of Anthy and Utena. Whether you’ve watched the movie before the series or after, I’d recommend you still watch this beautiful series, and if you haven’t already do watch the movie, and try not to judge it the minute it’s over.

  7. β€œThe narrative likes to jump around without giving notice, like your brain is riding a rollarcoaster.”

    Personally, I would find this troubling on its face.

  8. I agree that it’s a beautiful and symbolically rich film, but I definitely recommend that you finish the whole anime series before watching it.

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