The Adolescence of Utena is a very difficult movie to understand on first watch. Some people may be quite thrown by it; one image that comes to mind immediately is when Utena actually transforms her body into a car.
If that first statement's a bit awkward to swallow, then you may have to read further to see whether or not this movie's for you. Then again, I've heard people say that Utena turning into a car was pretty cool.
It may be worth saying that this is a more strongly toned interpretation of the television series, much more mature, dark, and heavily symbolic. When I make the statement of mature, it's obviously not for the same audience as the television series. The theme of this movie challenges gender stereotypical roles and turns the overall story of Utena in a one shot, coming of age story through symbolic means. I would say that it's beautifully told, but perhaps more for engaging the mind and the unique visual representation rather than basic entertainment purposes. Think of Kate Chopin's novella "The Awakening", about a woman challenging her stereotypical role in society and, in the end, taking hold of that identity in only the way that she can express it best, free of confines. The Adolescence of Utena pretty much asserts the exact same thing, through visual means. Utena challenges her social identity as a woman and seeks breaking the bonds pressed upon her, and, if you can think of it on a serious note, seeks to bring Anthy out of that frame as well. Many of the same characters that are in the frame of the TV series are here to challenge or aid Utena as she makes this journey into her coming of age in an abstract representation.
In short, there is a definite, and beautifully told story here. It just takes a bit to see it. I would also argue that this isn't for young audiences based on not only the mature thematic, but also some nudity and sexually strong scenes peppered throughout the movie. Yet if you consider it all on a symbolic level, the movie is really gorgeous. The problem is that this may only be for that audience who grabs that sense of symbolism and can take it into proper context. That limits entertainment value on those who would most likely casually watch this movie and not go into it with any prior expectations or knowledge of the series.
If you think of nudity as a vehicle for showing vulnerability or freedom, whichever context it's used within, then that would be more appropriate to place in the scenes that are portrayed, even where it's not inherently obvious. The progression of Utena's maturity and the emotions conveyed in the film are quite smooth on most parts, but probably won't hit the viewer until the very end of the movie where it all seems to come together.
I would emphasize that this movie is not for all audiences, but if you have viewed the TV series and are looking for an additional, brilliantly though abstractly told rendition of that, I would highly recommend this movie. I'd also recommend it for those who want to read between the lines and are interested in some of the themes that I mentioned above.
For the time it was animated, the Adolescence of Utena does an excellent job. The movie relies on its visual imagery to convey the story within, so it would make sense that this aspect has to be strong in order to communicate it's point effectively. I loved the background cels and fluidity of the animation here. I'm not sure if I felt any differently about the character designs, which were quite different in modes from the TV series, but I think they were well represented on most points.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie, and one I remember the animation the most for was the dance scene between Anthy and Utena, just a beautiful scene between the characters on an animation standpoint, and that was perhaps, further emphasized by the backdrop and sequencing with the music in the background.
I've always been fond of the soundtrack for Utena, and the movie proves as equally strong as its predescessor in that department, bringing Masami Okui back for a few performances in the movie, including a new remix of "Rinbu Revolution" (which doesn't sound too different from the TV series opening, save for the slightly different arrangement) and perhaps my favorite theme of the movie "Toki ni Ai wa", a smooth, beautiful ballad with great piano accompaniment.
Some might also recognize the famliar battle theme of "Zettai Unmei Mokushioku", an edgier battled ready tone that might not suit all preferences, but at least, unlike the TV series, it's not played to tears.
The BGM is quite gorgeous when it's featured, but overall, I felt in retrospect that it was mostly minimalistic on the overall spectrum. Voice acting for both the Japanese work and English dub are quite good on both points. My own personal nod would go to Utena's Japanese VA, who did a great job in some of the more challengng scenes the movie had to offer.
The Adolescence of Utena is a very difficult movie to analyze on a character standpoint, because aside from Utena and Anthy, none of the characters undergo much change, and some of them aren't even featured for very long to have much of an impact. That's perhaps the difficulty of creating a animated film told primarily through symbolism, but surprisingly, it works rather well. Again, this is provided that you're actually reading between the lines a bit as you watch it. And unlike most stories that are told with characters as the vehicle to drive it, this is actually more of the story driving the characters, if you think about it in a reversal role. I was left with mixed feelings as to how to interpret whether or not the characters left any lasting impression on me aside from the main two. They didn't, but the story did, and perhaps that's the point and what the director/animator really wanted to come across in the overall interpretation.
If you're looking for characters that charm you, this wouldn't be a movie to engage your senses, quite frankly. Yet, it does such a good job with the technicalities behind the characters that I'm giving it a higher ranking on that note.
Utena persues her goal to "become a prince herself" and seek the prince, long ago, who gave her the duelist ring: she's a tomboy in every sense of the word and finds herself in the heart of the duelist battles on the part of the ring. Anthy is the subservient Rose Bride, abused and mangled on the part of that role and often watching her does give a sense of frustration. Yet she also serves a greater purpose when the movie's themes come to fruition, and in the end, while you may not like her character any more than when the movie began, at least you could understand what role she plays and how it call comes to port by the film's end.
The secondary characters play their roles accordingly, but are more of an illustration for the conflict rather than three-dimensional beings in themselves.
This movie truly is a masterpiece. No matter how many ways I look at it there is always something new to see; which is exactly what a multi-faceted masterpiece should be like. I have seen this movie about 15 times and everytime there were things I was noticing that I didn't before.
The animation is simply gorgeous in this Utena outing. It is even better than the TV series, being a movie it should be no surprise, which in my opinion was pretty amazing. The colours are vibrant, the backgrounds are beautifully detailed, the artwork is gorgeous (I bought the artbook for this movie and the artwork is brought to life amazingly well).
The character design is very accomplished and gives it the "get go" it needs in establishing itself. There is melancholy in everyone's eyes that I have not seen anywhere else before. Just a close up of a character's face tells a story of a thousand words and that's exactly what the movie needs as it aims for implied/symbolic rather than descriptive in its execution.
The sound is equally well-executed in this movie and the imagery that goes with it is breathtaking. Toki Ni Ai Wa is just amazing with the motif of floating roses. The music is a bit more dramatic than that of the TV series but when you see what goes on in the movie it is just impeccable.
Zettai Umnei Mokushiroku goes so well in the sequence it is that the scene does not feel disjointed or out of context. Instead it helps the flow of the story.
The story, seemingly random, is the most complex one I have seen as it explores so much in a short timeframe. It is even more complex than the series when you take its length into consideration.
You will have to rely on the placement of objects and the more direct symbolism (transformations, wounds, pace) to fully appreciate the story. In my eyes, that just makes it all the more unique and enthralling.
The characters are probably the only aspect that is sub par in comparison other elements the Utena movie just excels in.
Not to say that they are not wonderfully portrayed but to fully appreciate what they are going through; one must see the TV series. Because it is there that they are explored to their full extent. Here they are used as tools to drive the story forward as opposed to them being pushed forward. Overall though, they are still a majestic and solid cast that many anime wish they had. In addition they serve in pushing the story forward splendidly.
All in all watching Adolescence of Utena is an incredibly rich experience as it opens so many doors of possibilities. It is one with the most value and enjoyment since you have to see it more than once to comprehend the full story. And this movie is quite a ride no matter how many times it is viewed. Plus the American release is filled with amazing extras such as a director's commentary, art galleries, scripts, behind the scene featurette and they can definitely help in answering some questions you might have about it. I highly recommend it.
What I Liked: The set designs were interesting. Akio's demoted to the level of a truly pathetic kid. Costume designs are visually appealing and suit the aesthetic of the series.
What I Didn't: Everything else. Skit-show-like approach to character development meant that all of the main characters are just plain unrelateable and unlikeable. Utena herself just seems like a jerk-ass with very little reason to be a prince. (No-glasses) Anthy's demoted to Tart With A Heart. Akio's demoted to the level of a truly pathetic kid. Shiori's promoted to...uh...primary antagonist...? Why does sexuality seem to be the focus of all the characters? The car symbolism in the series, which was dumb in the first place, was taken up to eleven in this. Nudes everywhere why? The haphazard pace of the movie makes it incoherent and confusing.
Final Verdict: This retelling of the famous series of the same name is less a satisfying reimagining and more a convoluted arty-farty mess from start to finish. The characters aren't fleshed out beyond who they're sexually or romantically linked to making them unlikeable or just plain forgettable, the plot bulks under the copious amounts of symbolism that's crammed into it and ultimately it just feels like an uninspired art-for-the-sake-of-art shock piece. At least it's pretty - if you like female nudity and Art Nouveau-cross-Constructivist architecture.