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