Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Revolutionary Girl Utena
Blu-Ray 3 - The Apocalypse Saga
With the Black Roses gone, the manipulator who has been hiding in the shadows all along steps forward: Akio, Anthy's older brother. Akio is the instigator of the duels and the dueling system, and he does his best to get inside the minds not just of the student council members but also anyone he can use from their lives. As he works his wiles on Utena, she must reconcile her emotions, sexual awakening, and desires from the past if she wants to win the final duel and bring about a true revolution at Ohtori Academy.
With this final arc of the Revolutionary Girl Utena narrative, the story throws all subtlety out the window. That's not strictly a negative in terms of getting the most out of everything the series has built up, because when the visuals aren't constrained the show can get its point across in as wild and bizarre a way as its creators wish. As Utena is shoved down the Freudian and Jungian rabbit hole, her world is turned more upside-down than ever, and the struggle to find her prince or become one herself takes on a much more internal aspect.
This internalizing of the narrative has strong elements of influential early psychologist Jung's idea of the shadow. According to his theory, the shadow is something that all of us live with, a piece of our personalities that is obscured from us and a play on Freud's idea of the unconscious self. In this case, Anthy and Utena function as each other's external shadow selves: both represent pieces of the other that she cannot accept or see. In its simplest form, we can read Utena as masculine to Anthy's feminine, which also ties in with Akio's seduction of Utena in a bid to “feminize” her and steal away her princely power. But things also take a turn for the sexual – early on, we realize that Akio and Anthy are sleeping together with the strong implication that this is a forced relationship from Anthy's perspective; she's been putting up with it so long that it's just something she does habitually now. Meanwhile, Akio is doing his best to seduce Utena into a sexual relationship, culminating in the incredibly uncomfortable (but very well-executed) episode thirty-three. Utena is clearly uncomfortable with her newfound sexual relationship (and possibly her sexuality), but unlike Anthy, she is able to acknowledge this to find new strength when Akio tries to make her shoulder the blame for his actions in their final duel. Anthy's passivity and Utena's aggression help balance one another, and that may be part of what draws them together.
That's not to say that Anthy is strictly passive in this final arc. She's actually beginning to show real emotions in her day-to-day interactions, and at first it appears that she's relieved Akio is shifting some of his attentions to Utena. Following the story of Dios and Anthy's past, the audience may begin to wonder if this was Anthy's story all along, and Utena is merely playing a part in it. Certainly Utena is the key that enables Anthy to finally seize her freedom and understand that she can be powerful on her own, a revelation that becomes more literal in The Adolescence of Utena film when Utena actually becomes the vehicle for Anthy to escape from the academy. But perhaps the point of the story is less that Utena was trying to save someone (possibly herself at first) and more that Anthy was desperately searching for someone to understand and save the real her. That she finds this savior in another woman who can be read as her shadow self might indicate that rather than being physically saved, she simply needed to find the power within herself to take a stand.
Of course, part of what makes Revolutionary Girl Utena so enduring is that it can be read in so many different ways. While this arc certainly lends itself to a psychological interpretation, it can also be seen as a story of several people being trapped in a hell of their own making. Every character has something that holds them back, and while that came to a head for many of them in earlier story arcs (allowing Saionji to take on a more supportive role early on in this arc), it is now Utena's turn to wallow in her issues. Her questions surrounding her own gender and sexuality are something that Akio is all too eager to use against her. Akio clearly feels that the best way to keep a woman (or any person really) under his control is to have sex with them. He believes his efforts to seduce Utena and force her into so-called womanhood will disempower her and allow him to take back the power of Dios for himself (and simply continue his rule over the school and the duelists if that doesn't work out). He also uses sexual domination to win Touga to his side, and it becomes clear early on that a ride in his car is symbolic of sex. (The upright cars on the dueling field are among the least subtle elements of this story arc.) His control over prior manipulator Touga highlights his ability to manipulate others to his will, and his near-success at taking Utena's self-worth away from her speaks to his level of expertise at dehumanizing others.
That's why his role in the attached film is so interesting. Film Akio is reduced from the ultimate manipulator and villain to a sad, pathetic man who only puts on an act of being suave and persuasive. When he realizes that Anthy's always been aware that he was drugging and raping her, he panics. Having lost the keys to his car, he cannot function – it's like his armor has been ripped off, leaving him small and vulnerable. And although this Anthy has also internalized her own victimhood, she's also more able to see an escape from it – unlike the TV series' Anthy, film Anthy puts on a show of being just fine until someone points out that she doesn't need to pretend; to put an end to what's been going on, all she has to do is decide that she deserves to leave.
Both the film and this final TV storyline emphasize parallels to a kind of purgatory. The film's Touga plotline takes this more literally, although it is worth noting that when Juri tells a similar story in episode thirty-nine, there's a clear shot of Saionji looking over at Touga, who doesn't seem to react. Toward the end of the TV series, Touga remarks that Utena is still in the coffin that the boys found her in as a child, and Saionji comes back with, “We're all trapped in our coffins”. While it's hardly meant to imply that these characters are literally dead, it's easily one of the truest statements in the series. Everyone is in a hell of their own making, and it's not easy to move the lid of that coffin aside. The only one who may not fall into this trap is Touga's sister Nanami, who is the only person to resist Akio's allure. Perhaps as a result, her only devoted episode in the final arc is a thinly veiled exploration of menarche and only appears in the film as a cow in a throwaway comical scene.
Visually speaking, the film is the stand-out disc in this set. The picture quality is spectacular, and the bright reds really stand out from the less saturated colors. The M.C. Escher-inspired buildings feel like something from a dream, which is one of the more interesting interpretations of the film itself; perhaps it is Utena's dream as she waits for Anthy to come and find her, which ties in with the thorny vines, roses, and towers that make up the Sleeping Beauty imagery of the TV series' final episodes. The animation in the film is also spectacular, and even if you barely pay attention to the plot (although you definitely should pay attention), it's easy to just lose yourself in the beauty of the animation. The dub does improve for the film version over the TV show dub, although the sub track is still largely the better option. Extras are the same as on previous releases of all things Utena – interviews with English and Japanese cast and staff, largely – which are interesting if you've never seen them before.
Revolutionary Girl Utena holds a special place in anime history, not only for its still-striking themes of gender and sexuality, but also for the way its story is told. Despite its age, this final arc of the story and its film reimagining hold up well. Whether they're trapped in purgatory, within the complexes of their souls, or just in a really creepy academy, the characters must ultimately make their own choices to learn and live or refuse and stagnate. It's a message about adolescence that definitely still resonates today.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Satisfying conclusion that's open to many diverse interpretations, Adolescence of Utena film is visually exquisite, music enhances the whole experience
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