Review: Revolutionary Girl Utena (the Movie) (1999)

Directed by:
Cast: ,

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A while ago – at the first Japanimation festival to come to Brisbane in fact – I saw a little film called Revolutionary Girl Utena. And what I mostly remember thinking as I left the cinema afterward was ‘What?’.

And so I decided to give this title another go, and funnily enough I discover I don’t really seem to understand it any more now than I did then.

Revolutionary Girl Utena is the kind of feature one might be more used to seeing from a director like Lynch or Tsukamoto, or from perhaps the closest animated equivalent, Satoshi Kon. Its reality defies stability, challenges the traditional, logical narrative, and one gets the feeling that almost everything on screen is somehow symbolic, significant. Watery transitions between scenes, children’s shoes floating as if sinking, the dominating red of the Rose Maiden’s flower garden, the layers upon layers of structures and the endless, endlessly connected hallways, all lend themselves to the sense of some deeper mystery beyond the visible, deceptively straightforward drama of the story.

But what is this mystery? Utena is a girl so impressed with her childhood prince she decided to follow in his footsteps. Nothing terribly shocking there; gender-bending themes in anime are a subtext convention of long and well-respected standing. Even the mild, unashamed yuri (lesbian) exchanges between Utena and Anthey, the Rose Bride who stands as a ‘prize’ for those skilled and brave enough to fight for her, are likely not enough to scandalise (or excite) the experienced anime viewer. But for all the cross-dressing, the ‘is that a girl or a boy’ uncertainties and the girl slash girl touching, making the mistake of thinking this title is just an excuse for a little homoerotic action is bound to end in trouble. This show has a feminist message sharp enough to cut, a sword wielded for the liberation perhaps of a generation of shoujo fans taught to think that everything is supposed to be perfect, and that when they grow up, the best thing they can hope for is to become the Princess.

Utena however, on some fundamental level, has had that hope well and truly dashed, and now she walks the halls of the academy as an obvious agent of change. Her boyish attire, her refusal to treat the Rose Bride as a possession, her independent, pro-active attitude, all point to a sort of social/emotional/sexual freedom from expectation. And in this, the story demonstrates a surprising sensitivity to the ideal of the liberated woman; Utena does not position herself as equal to a man by becoming one. No, she is clearly not of the same build (both physical and psychological) as the broad shouldered, arrogant rivals she crosses swords with, but she is not of the vacuous, decorative breed of women sweeping the floor of the drained school pool either. Instead she is, and it becomes at least visually obvious when she transforms into the sword fighter Utena, an entity somewhere in between, a combination of the two worlds and yet constrained by neither. She is a revolutionary in the true sense of the word; through word and deed, she inspires other people to break away from the constraints of the status quo.

And this is quite a straightforward message, but what is the status quo? Certainly on one level there are the normal gender roles, the typecast parts of the hero and the heroine in relation to each other. But beyond this is where things start to get a little fuzzy. The lack of a proper fixed reality, the dreamlike, staged quality to certain key scenes and the sometimes discordant way they patch together points to something much more fundamental than messages of social liberation, and much more personal than sexual freedom. Everyone at Ohtori Academy seems to have something they are hiding from themselves. Past events become known as they bleed into present crisis, and the truth, couched in a mix-bag of story-telling formats, is about as far from fairytale as things get. No-one, it seems, is a hero, and the princess does not really exist. And believing that she does, Revolutionary Utena Girl seems to say, is to live a life of self-delusion which in the end is far more asphyxiating than any restriction imposed from outside.

And this is the reason why, even on the second viewing, I really can’t say I truly understand this film. Not because of its messages and themes, but because of the somewhat metaphorical, whacked out way in which they’re expressed. It’s not a show where meaning comes easily, and it’s not something to watch just to relax unless your recreational habits normally include reality-altering substances. It’s deep, but obscured, and the single biggest hurdle to enjoying it is that if you don’t at least try and think about it, it probably won’t be handing you any satisfying answers.

Which, when you think about it is fair enough, I suppose. After all, being treated like a princess isn’t exactly all it’s cracked up to be.

5 Idyllic Summers out of 10.
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