Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie is an animated adolescent apocalypse directed by the Japanese version of David Lynch featuring drag races, lesbians and girls who turn into cars
Sometimes, a movie has all the ingredients of a masterpiece but goes up merrily in flames. That movie is Sucker Punch by Zack Snyder, a film that singlehandedly disproved the collective infallibility of Jon Hamm, Oscar Isaac, Oscar Isaac dancing, Oscar Isaac dancing with Carla Gugino while lip syncing to their own cover of Love is the Drug, mechas, people named Rocket, feudal Japan, and a Bjork remix. Others of its ilk include Paterson (Adam Driver, Jim Jarmusch), Demonlover (dueling hentai companies, corporate espionage, Chloe Sevigny), and (fight me) The Beguiled. The genre is rich and plentiful.
Sometimes, though, movies are just the opposite: Would-be shit-shows which quietly attain perfection. This genre is very small, consisting largely as it does of Spring Breakers, Elle, Constantine, and Face/Off, as well as The Young Pope for an example on the small screen. To join their ranks I submit Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie, translated literally as Revolutionary Girl Utena: Adolescence Apocalypse, the 1999 film adaptation of manga and anime series Revolutionary Girl Utena. This is a tale of dueling schoolchildren, perpetually raining rose petals, an upside down castle in the sky, broadcast journalism, whistleblowers, Jungian symbolism, girls who want to be princes, girls in relationships with other girls, girls who transform into cars, girls who lead the revolution in car form, and a climax consisting mostly of a drag race between the aforementioned werecars. It will be one of the most incoherent 85 minutes you’ll ever see, but also one of the prettiest. In honour of its 18th birthday, we celebrate all the things that make this “anime on LSD” a cult favourite.
THE DIRECTOR IS A LYNCHIAN ECCENTRIC WHO TRIED TO KILL TUXEDO MASK
The plot of Utena differs considerably across all of its incarnations, which also happen to include three stage musicals, one called Hell Rebirth Apocalypse: Advent of the Nirvanic Beauty. Fans of the anime will tell you the movie makes very little sense without first seeing the series. But I watched it just fine this way, and besides, it's not exactly something to be enjoyed in full possession of your mental faculties. They revolve, more or less, around the titular Utena, a pink-haired tomboy who takes the futch thing very seriously and duels other overachievers for a shot at “winning” the Rose Bride. The lucky winner also gets the go-ahead to incite a revolt. If any of this sounds familiar, this is because the film and anime series’ director, Kunihiko Ikuhara, was behind many episodes of a much more famous queer girl anime staple – Sailor Moon.
After a few seasons and spin-offs, Ikuhara left due to creative differences (i.e. for not being allowed to kill off Tuxedo Mask). But not before cosplaying as Sailor Mars. That's the least interesting thing, though, about the auteur who was once called the David Lynch of Japan (until Satoshi Kon usurped his throne), dreams of collabing with David Lynch, grocery shops in a leather catsuit and corset, and seems to find meaning in fucking with interviewers. His many infamous exchanges include this explanation for Utena’s creation:
“This is just between you and me, but when I was fourteen, I saw a UFO. That UFO telepathically told me this prophecy: ‘When you grow up, you will direct an anime about girls revolutionizing various things.’ Surely you jest. ‘You must not tell anyone about me. If you ever do…’ Wh-What will happen to me? ’People will call you a sketchy guy.’”
THE AESTHETIC IS TOP-NOTCH
Only someone so suave could have been behind such a good look. Ikuhara is a huge fan of experimental jazz anime film Belladonna of Sadness (itself drawing inspiration from Aubrey Beardsley and The Yellow Submarine), and it shows. The inspiration for the academy comes from a mix of Constructivist, Deconstructivist, and Art-Nouveau architecture. Quite a few characters appear in the guise of shadow puppets. Entire sequences are rendered in stained glass or take place in the center of rumpled white sheets that fill up the whole page. You could freeze the film at any point and pretty much walk away with a good cover photo. And everywhere there’s roses. You're stalked by roses from start to finish. Rose tornadoes, an infestation of roses in the grave, a very gay waltz in a flooded rose garden. And I can't emphasize enough that the characters turn into cars in the third act. Complete with Rodarte-baiting seat and steering wheel covers.
“The film isn't just aesthetically pleasing. It's also aesthetically precise”
But the film isn't just aesthetically pleasing. It's also aesthetically precise. A brief sampiling, in no particular order, of things that look like Utena the movie: Sasha’s “So Emotional” wig reveal in the Drag Race season 9 finale, Art Angels, Alessandro Michele’s Gucci, E•MO•TION era Carly Rae Jepsen as heard through the ears of Pure Heroine era Lorde, Halsey in this Dazed shoot, the Suspiria remake probably, 2 Fast 2 Furious, FlyLo, this scene from Velvet Goldmine, Kunzite and Zoisite from Sailor Moon, Gaylor Moon, fully automated gay luxury space communism, Young Thug’s Jeffery, Perfume Genius, Princess Nokia DIY’ing rose facial mist, Floria Sigismondi, all-women MCR cover bands, this dog, these nails, my ex. It may not have invented the aesthetic of the modern NB, but it definitely invented an aesthetic, of a modern NB.
IT’S QUEER AS HELL
The plot is, after all, taken from what would have been a movie about Sailor Moon chasing Sailor Uranus on pegasii to the End of the World because Sailor Uranus stole a talisman to wake up Sailor Neptune from a coma, which culminates in a rodeo between Sailors Moon and Uranus. (The producer walked off before production began, so Ikuhara did too. Like I said, creative differences.) The series merely flirts with the gayness of Utena and Rose Bride Anthy’s relationship, but the movie makes clear it won't tolerate your “just gal pals” nonsense. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t get gayer than speeding naked with your girlfriend on the remains of your former car-self into the void of the glorious unknown.) Writing an essay about Utena and queer identity – from a first person Autostraddle piece to heavily annotated, Sartre-invoking academia to s p i c y discourse – seems to have become a beloved WLW pastime.
“It doesn’t get gayer than speeding naked with your girlfriend on the remains of your former car-self into the void of the glorious unknown”
But one of the best things about the film is the gender expression. To watch Utena is to receive a visual taxonomy of entire provinces of Leftbook. Come for one girl’s princely aspirations, stay for the evil pretty boys, bad Judith Butler, and excellent send-ups of aggressively heterosexual car commercials.
A journalist once asked Ikuhara, “What exactly is ‘revolutionising the world’?” He replied “It means to break the eggshell.” Break the eggshell. Take a chance with Revolutionary Girl Utena: Adolescence Apocalypse.
You can find the whole movie with the English dubbing on YouTube. Purists will insist on the Japanese audio, but this version is worth it solely for one actor’s flawless delivery of, “It’s a big mistake to think you’re the only one who can turn into a car!”