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Style, Substance, and Adaptation: Examining Revolutionary Girl Utena and Adolescence of Utena

1. Introduction and Context

Anime serves as a fruitful medium for discussing adaptation. Beyond the basic process of adapting manga into anime, franchises such as Sailor Moon, Pokémon, and Dragon Ball have expanded into new spaces. Even in a media landscape with so much variety, the cult classic film Adolescence of Utena (1999, dir. Kunihiko Ikuhara) proves itself to be a unique case of adaptation. It is a film adaptation of the TV anime, Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997, dir. Kunihiko Ikuhara). Despite their similarities in genre, the same target audience, and the same director, the difference in medium between TV and film creates two stories with distinct meanings. Revolutionary Girl Utena’s serialization suits its large ensemble cast and leads to a deep dissection of the ways systemic patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia harm marginalized teenagers. In contrast, the film Adolescence of Utena, due to its higher budget and time constraints, loses much of this messaging in favor of telling individualized stories of abuse divorced from their systemic context. Ultimately, it produces a problem of style over substance. A larger budget permits the audience to enjoy the spectacle of striking animation and romantic emphasis at the cost of a shorter runtime, loss of narrative and character complexity, and limitations in storytelling potential.

Before discussing Utena in more detail, let’s situate it in a larger context of anime and adaptation. Generally speaking, most anime are adaptations of manga. Two of the top grossing franchises previously discussed, Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball, both began as manga. As they were adapted into anime in the 1980s and 1990s, both gained wider audiences in Japan. Further expansion into the USA came with localization and English dubs. To this day, this state of original manga and adapted anime drives the industry. Further adaptation may be found in the form of dramas, live-action films, and stage plays. This “adaptational triangle” and its dynamics are examined in Beáta Pusztai’s article, “Adapting the Medium: Dynamics of Intermedial Adaptation in Contemporary Japanese Popular Visual Culture.” Pusztai outlines an adaptational triangle of a source text of manga, an anime adaptation, and a later adaptation into a live-action medium (142). Anime films themselves are not unusual within the industry. However, they often serve as direct adaptations of manga (Sailor Moon Eternal) or spinoff stories created wholecloth (Hunter x Hunter: Phantom Rouge).

Revolutionary Girl Utena and Adolescence of Utena both differ from this standard due to their creation circumstances. Revolutionary Girl Utena is not an adaptation. Instead, it is an original TV anime. Though there is a Revolutionary Girl Utena manga, it was developed concurrently with the anime based on the concepts and story developed by Kunihiko Ikuhara for Revolutionary Girl Utena. In this way, Revolutionary Girl Utena represents a reversal of the standard dynamic. The anime came first while the manga is an adaptation. This adaptational order puts the film in a unique position. It is not an adaptation of a manga nor is it a spinoff of the anime. It does not fit cleanly into the common “adaptational triangle” outlined. Instead, it is an anime film adapting a serialized TV anime. Because of this difference in standard adaptation order and the overlap between the texts’ producers, Adolescence of Utena is not bound by the question of fidelity. Instead, the way the mediums’ similarities and differences of budget, time constraints, and subject matter produce two texts with different meanings is brought to the forefront.

2. Utena and the Magical Girl Genre

The magical girl genre, to which both Revolutionary Girl Utena and Adolescence of Utena belong, has always been deeply concerned with gender. Kumiko Saito’s article, “Magic, Shojo, and Metamorphosis,” provides a useful overview of the genre’s development. In the 1960s and 1970s, magic represented a carefree time of girlhood before marriage (Saito 151). Magic simultaneously enabled adolescence to be joyful and free of consequence and signaled an adulthood in which girls were expected to take on responsibility through motherhood and heterosexual marriage (Saito 151). The 1990s saw a rise of gender bending and experimentation in terms of girls’ expression. Anime such as Sailor Moon, which Ikuhara worked on as a director before Revolutionary Girl Utena, depicted lesbian and gender nonconforming characters in a positive light. Though the heroines of the show were beautiful and represented ideals for womanhood, they were simultaneously strong and challenged expectations of heterosexuality (Saito 157). The role of transformation within anime plotlines during this time was more fluid but still related to ideals of femininity. Most transformations involved a shift from masculinity towards femininity (Saito 159-160). In Sailor Moon, the Sailor Starlights are a group of supporting characters who are men in their day-to-day lives but transform into women through their magic. In this way, transformations in the 1990s were perhaps more ambivalent than the decades before. These characters represented both an idealized type of femininity and a chance for characters to break away from gender expectations.

Into this environment, Revolutionary Girl Utena was released. Just as its development differed from that of much TV anime, its transformations too were subversive. Through magic, Utena transforms into a prince; her masculinity is emphasized and her femininity deemphasized. Unlike other 1990s heroines, this transformation perpetuates evil. In her daily life, Utena is visibly female but wears a male school uniform. This preference for masculinity in her daily life is never condemned, but her attempt to embody the patriarchal, harmful role of a prince is. Utena transforms for the sake of duels. These duels are part of a system in which the Rose Bride, Anthy Himemiya, can be won and controlled by participating duelists. Despite there being visibly female participants, such as Utena, this dueling system and the titles of Bride and Prince make it clear the duels are patriarchal. Anthy does not have any say in her fate and must obey regardless of her desires. Transformation in Revolutionary Girl Utena is not merely different in terms of its direction. It is significant for standing in as a commentary about the state of systemic patriarchy. This is supported by Anthy’s own transformation. In the second arc of the TV anime, Anthy transforms into a boy, Mamiya, to trick and lure in new duelists. Anthy’s magic and male form are not a form of freedom or gender expression. Instead, her magic and potential fluidity becomes another vector of exploitation when she is forced to use it to perpetuate the dueling system. Both girls can transgress gender in some way by temporarily taking on a more masculine presentation. However, they only can embody a new set of limiting roles rather than escape patriarchy entirely. Utena’s ultimate conclusion, what finally allows her to empathize and free Anthy from the dueling system, is her realization that she cannot be a prince. Masculinity, like femininity, is part of a gender binary which enables the girls’ oppression. Transformations and magic are illegitimate, directly patriarchal, and harmful.

In contrast, Adolescence of Utena does not retain this same messaging regarding transformation. Despite telling a similar story of a dueling system, patriarchy, and escape from it, transformations in the anime film are far more positive and align with 1990s trends of idealized femininity. The order of femininity to masculinity that made Revolutionary Girl Utena subversive is changed in Adolescence of Utena. In her day-to-day life, Utena presents and passes as a male student. When she transforms through magic, her outfit and hair changes to become far more feminine. This transformation is posed as a more legitimate one than in Revolutionary Girl Utena. When Utena and Anthy dance together in the film, their transformations are reflected in the water at their feet. Partway through the sequence, the reflections flip upright and overtake the scene. These feminine, transformed versions of Utena and Anthy are what remain at the end of the film. Symbolically, magic and transformation are directly helpful and legitimized as a means for Utena and Anthy to become their true, feminine selves.

This idea of transformation as a support to the girls rather than an obstacle is seen in the escape sequence. Due to the possibilities afforded by the higher budget, Utena and Anthy escape together in a high-octane race away from the dueling arena and academy. In this sequence, Utena temporarily becomes a literal vehicle for Anthy’s escape. This transformation is not beautiful or instantaneous as in the rest of the film. It is mechanical with crushing, dark imagery (see Figure 1). As it occurs, a remix of “Zettai Unmei Mokushiroku” plays, a foreboding piece which combines with the metallic sounds of machinery to create a brutal atmosphere. Despite the tone of the transformation, it is through it that Utena helps Anthy escape. Transformation is a trial worth undertaking to support another. It is both a way to outwardly attain an inner true self and representative of the relationship, romance, and support Utena and Anthy share. It is a complete reversal of the messaging presented in Revolutionary Girl Utena and is enabled by the film’s higher budget. As a trade-off, the transformation process becomes flatter in meaning and lacks the critiques of patriarchy present in Revolutionary Girl Utena. Transformations are not a means of critiquing patriarchy but instead escaping it.

Style, Substance, and Adaptation: Examining Revolutionary Girl Utena and Adolescence of Utena
Robin Laning, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: A furnace opening as part of Utena’s transformation in Adolescence of Utena.

3. Systemic Violence or Individualized Violence

Another element which made Revolutionary Girl Utena’s critique of patriarchy strong was its vast ensemble cast. The TV anime has a total of 39 episodes, allowing for in-depth examinations of each character. Through the variety of characters presented, Revolutionary Girl Utena makes it clear that issues of misogyny, patriarchy, and homophobia do not relate to individual good or bad actors. All men and women are part of the system and are thus capable of harming or being harmed. The duelists Miki and Juri elucidate this. Miki is a young man who sincerely desires Anthy’s friendship and affection. He initially rejects the dueling system, recognizing the harm it poses to Anthy. However, an older member of the student council, Touga, persuades him to take advantage of the system and force Anthy’s affections. Through his character, Revolutionary Girl Utena demonstrates how patriarchal values are passed down and perpetuated. Despite Miki’s recognition of Anthy’s humanity and their friendship, he remains willing to objectify her to satisfy his own insecurities and desires. Juri, by contrast, avoids recognizing Anthy’s humanity. As a female duelist interested in women, Juri suffers homophobia from her peers. Despite being victimized by the way patriarchy upholds heterosexuality as a norm, Juri ignores Anthy’s humanity in an attempt to gain power. She desires Anthy’s magic and will do whatever it takes to possess it. Like Miki, she sees the advantage dueling provides her. These characters stand in contrast to more violent, direct misogynists such as the duelist Saionji. Patriarchy can be perpetuated through means other than outspoken, stereotypical violence.

Aside from this ensemble cast, Utena and Anthy both support this message through displaying how victims have the potential to harm other victims. Both Utena and Anthy are victims of sexual abuse at the hands of an older man, Akio Ohtori. When Utena discovers Anthy’s abuse, her reaction is initially to see her victimization as a betrayal. She reacts with shock and anger rather than support. Utena’s negative reaction pushes Anthy to attempt suicide. After Anthy has been saved, Utena realizes how her actions have harmed her loved one. She cries, apologizes, and reprimands her own behavior. Despite both being victims, Utena is not a flawless character. She has potential to harm others and must work through her internalized misogyny to avoid blaming the victims who are dear to her. Similarly, Anthy is not a perfect character. During the final duel with Akio, Utena gets the upper hand in the fight. Due to her fear of her abuser and internalized sense of shame, Anthy stabs Utena in the back with a sword. During this moment she verbally demeans Utena. Though Anthy is arguably the character who is most victimized within the system due to her objectification as the Rose Bride and experiences of abuse, she still is flawed. Her fear of what lies outside the system and her internalized misogyny hold her back. Ultimately, like Utena, she overcomes this. Later in the battle, she accepts Utena’s offer of love, empathy, and a life outside of the system. In short, Revolutionary Girl Utena displays that misogyny and patriarchy do not come down to individual evil abusers and innocent victims. It is a system which is perpetuated by and harmful to those who participate in it.

In contrast, Adolescence of Utena lacks this systemic messaging. Whereas Revolutionary Girl Utena spans 39 episodes, Adolescence of Utena has a remarkably short runtime at just 87 minutes. Adolescence of Utena cannot afford the time to examine patriarchy and misogyny in the depth Revolutionary Girl Utena does. In the process, it loses much of the substance and messaging surrounding patriarchy which made Revolutionary Girl Utena so powerful. The characters Miki, Juri, and Saionji provide a useful comparison. Like in Revolutionary Girl Utena, Adolescence of Utena features Saionji as the first duelist Utena faces. He is violently misogynistic and harmful to women. However, this outward display of misogyny is not made more nuanced by the presence of Miki and Juri as it is in Revolutionary Girl Utena. Miki’s presence in the film is minimal, only appearing in three scenes. Juri is more prominent as she retains her position as a duelist. She fights Utena for possession of Anthy. However, her experiences of homophobia and pain are minimized. Like Miki, she appears in so few scenes that it is difficult to understand her character and motivations. Similarly, the messaging regarding the complexities of victims is removed from the film for time. When Utena finds out about Anthy’s abuse, she immediately runs after Anthy. She does not blame her and she displays immediate concern for her wellbeing. Anthy too does not betray Utena. During the final battle, she is in perfect synchronization with Utena. She requires persuading to take the first step out of the system but, once this has been done, she displays no hesitation. Altogether, the messages of how individuals and victims participate in systems of gender-based discrimination and violence are lost in the film version. Instead, individualized heroines and antagonists emerge.

This idea of individualized violence becomes especially apparent when examining the character of Touga. In Revolutionary Girl Utena, Touga is a particularly insidious character. He is controlling, mimics the abusive behavior of Akio Ohtori, and perpetuates homophobia. Most notably, he attempts to groom his sister, Nanami. This is a replication of the methods and abuse which Akio perpetuates. He is a character who at times seems like a gentleman and less harmful than Saionji. However, the reality is Touga recognizes how a position of power within a patriarchal system can benefit him. Touga represents a point on a spectrum of the ways patriarchy can manifest. Patriarchy is not always upheld through obvious, outward violence. Violence and patriarchy can also be hidden through a chivalrous persona. In contrast, all of this is absent from Adolescence of Utena. In the film, Touga is positioned entirely as a heroic character. As a child, he saved Utena from drowning but lost his own life in the process. As a ghost he now guides Utena to the dueling arena and allows her to meet Anthy. Aside from this new helpful, warm relationship with Utena, there is a complete reversal of his status from abuser to victim. His sister, Nanami, is cut from the film entirely. Touga does not harm her, Anthy, or Utena. Instead, his story as a male victim of sexual violence is outlined. Like its examination of patriarchy, Adolescence of Utena positions the issue of sexual abuse as individualized rather than systemic. Anthy and Touga are victims due to what individual abusers have done to them. The ways in which the system enables and maintains that abuse is never examined. Like the ensemble cast, much of the messaging of how patriarchy is passed down from Akio to Touga and finally to Miki is erased. Instead, Adolescence of Utena tells a story of unfortunate individuals who are wholly good victimized by individual, wholly evil abusers. Unlike the issue of the ensemble cast, this does not entirely arise from the lack of time within the film. However, it is exacerbated by it. There is comparatively minimal time to examine victims and the complex ways they interact with patriarchal systems.

4. Medium, Style, and Sexuality

Aside from producing a different meaning regarding the messaging around systemic issues, the difference in medium between Revolutionary Girl Utena and Adolescence of Utena produces different styles and impacts the film’s messaging regarding sexuality. Revolutionary Girl Utena was made on a tight budget. The show frequently features repeated sequences, reused animation, and minimal movement during less key scenes. Although this reuse is born from a budgetary limitation, the constraints are used creatively to produce meaning. An episode late in the series is primarily a clip show featuring already produced animation from earlier in the series. However, this clip show format is revealed to be a form of dissociation Utena experiences during an episode of abuse. Though a clip show would typically be skippable, her narration and new scenery between clips recontextualizes these clips. The clip show creates meaning and significance because it reveals her disturbed thought process. Similarly, reused storyboards make new meaning as they display parallels between characters. When Juri fights Utena, a unique sequence was created in which Juri fights in a dominant role. She easily dodges past Utena, pushes her, and stands with confidence as Utena falls (see Figure 2). Later, when fighting Ruka, one of the perpetrators of homophobia against her, the sequence is reused with Juri in the weaker position. Ruka remains unfazed while Juri fails to strike, is pushed, and falls (see Figure 3). It displays Juri’s inexperienced footing and lack of confidence in the fight and draws parallels between Utena’s previous lack of power and Juri’s current lack of power. Altogether, limitations provide an opportunity for meaning despite the challenges they pose during production. It is not as stylistically striking as a show with a higher budget, but substance is produced from limitation.

Style, Substance, and Adaptation: Examining Revolutionary Girl Utena and Adolescence of Utena
Robin Laning, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Utena after being pushed by Juri in Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Style, Substance, and Adaptation: Examining Revolutionary Girl Utena and Adolescence of Utena
Robin Laning, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Juri after being pushed by Ruka.

In contrast, Adolescence of Utena is a film of excess. Due to its far shorter run time and higher budget, Adolescence of Utena features animation that is entirely unique. Referring again to the escape sequence between Utena and Anthy, what was a duel against a single man becomes a race against hundreds of other cars. Due to the expansive budget, the animators can create bombastic animation featuring dramatic crashes, complicated angles, and large set pieces. However, the sequence loses much of the intimate quality of Revolutionary Girl Utena’s duel. The fight feels less personal and more focused on the spectacle of action. The spectacle of Utena’s setting is similarly heightened due to the possibilities enabled by film. The school Utena and Anthy attend, Ohtori Academy, is plain in Revolutionary Girl Utena. There are many moments where the mise-en-scène is key to creating meaning, but even those scenes lack detail. Like the animation more broadly, backgrounds are frequently reused to save time and budget. In contrast, Adolescence of Utena reimagines the academy. The backgrounds are constantly moving, the academy like a great machine perpetually in motion. Impossible architecture, vast heights, and this sense of movement help to create a confusing and oppressive atmosphere. This can be seen in particular with the dueling arena. It is not separated from the academy as it is in Revolutionary Girl Utena. It is now central to the academy, a dark square looming over students, representing the way the dueling system is the ultimate authority within the academy (see Figure 4). Due to the amount of time that could be dedicated to animating it, the dueling arena is filled completely with red roses. Though the mise-en-scène is romantic, it's emphasized as dangerous due to the arena’s lack of walls and the color of the flowers. Red is featured heavily throughout the academy in Adolescence of Utena, linking the color to the danger and control the dueling arena represents. This connection between red and danger is further emphasized through Utena and Anthy’s romantic dance in the dueling arena. When Utena is confused and lacks trust towards Anthy, she pushes her down into the red roses. Once that trust is regained and they dance together, the roses are washed away by dark, reflective water. The new possibilities occasioned by the shorter runtime helped produce this new, dramatic mise-en-scène. Adolescence of Utena lacks the time to create unique symbols and instead uses a striking, but clichéd and common color symbolism. More manpower can be dedicated towards creating backgrounds and scenery which, while excessive and undermining the meaning displayed in Revolutionary Girl Utena, produces new meaning all its own.

Style, Substance, and Adaptation: Examining Revolutionary Girl Utena and Adolescence of Utena
Robin Laning, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Utena looking up at the dueling arena in the center of the academy in Adolescence of Utena.

Unfortunately, this new emphasis on stylization creates an ambivalent message in regard to the way misogyny can impact young girls. Romance between young women is displayed in Revolutionary Girl Utena. Anthy and Utena hold hands, confess their importance to each other, and are more open emotionally with each other than with any other characters, clearly expressing their affection for each other. However, their relationship is embroiled in conflict due to the systemic abuse and misogyny present. Their most direct display of romance, a kiss, is obscured through its composition and temporal position in the episode. Their bodies are visible but their faces are just outside the camera’s view. The kiss repeats each episode at the very end of the credits sequence, separating it from the standard events. Exactly when it takes place, in what context, and the full view of it are unknown to the viewer. It represents a small break from the systems which constrain the girls. Their romance is significant but cannot be fully centered yet. Like the rest of the animation, limitation helps produce meaning about the way Utena and Anthy’s love can flourish only just outside of view. This includes outside the view of a patriarchal system but also outside the view of the camera. Their romance is never stated outright but is developed over the course of the series’ full runtime.

Adolescence of Utena comparatively centers Utena and Anthy’s romance. In order for Utena to undergo her magical transformation, she must kiss Anthy. Within the first three scenes of the film their relationship is explicitly romantic in nature but demonstrated through simple, direct action instead of slow, subtle buildup. Due to time constraints, the romance is comparatively shallow. Furthermore, despite the dueling system still existing, it does not produce imbalance in Utena and Anthy’s relationship as it does in Revolutionary Girl Utena. In their first meeting, Anthy addresses Utena by her name without an honorific. This is something typically reserved for family, close friends, and lovers. It stands in contrast to Revolutionary Girl Utena where Anthy uses the deferential, formal honorific, “sama,” until the final episode. In the film, Utena and Anthy are on equal footing and their relationship can flourish because the misogyny they encounter is individualized rather than systemic.

However, this emphasis on romance produces ambivalence within Adolescence of Utena. Like in the TV anime, the film focuses on the struggle experienced by victims of sexual violence to escape and regain their sense of personhood. This contrasts with the presence of the male gaze in the film and the sexualization of Utena and Anthy. During a tense scene where Utena and Anthy draw each other, the camera lingers on Utena’s body and sexualizes her. The close-ups of her are objectifying and contrast uncomfortably with the messaging against the sexualization and abuse of young girls. Even in the final scene of the film where Utena and Anthy manage to escape Ohtori Academy, the camera lingers on their final kiss and nudity in a way which objectifies and sexualizes their burgeoning sexualities. The absence of limitations in foregrounding the romance in the film ultimately prevents it from presenting the same messages as Revolutionary Girl Utena. Sexualization of young girls is an issue the film seeks to examine while simultaneously sexualizing its young protagonists and subjecting them to the male gaze. This is what produces the issue of style over substance in particular. Style—beautiful animation, dramatic sequences, and sexuality—get in the way of the substance of a critique of patriarchy, systemic violence, and the way these enable abuse. The film gains much through its new medium and the possibilities afforded by it. However, it loses some of Revolutionary Girl Utena’s most poignant messaging.

5. Conclusion

Revolutionary Girl Utena and Adolescence of Utena stand as significant texts within the magical girl genre and anime more broadly. During a time already bursting with experimentation and steps forward in the industry, the TV anime and film managed to stand out in their own unique ways. Revolutionary Girl Utena was limited by its budget, but it still pushes magical transformations as part of a patriarchal system, uses an ensemble cast which examines the system from all angles, and cleverly works within limitations to produce meaning. All this results in a TV anime that stands out as Ikuhara’s magnum opus and an influential entry for the genre going forward. Meanwhile, Utena’s expansive budget allowed it to emphasize romance and create something truly spectacular in terms of its animation. However, in the process, it lacks an ensemble cast, presents a more individualized message surrounding abuse, and hinders the franchise’s previous attempts to critique patriarchy through its own patriarchal use of the male gaze. Ultimately, both texts prove fruitful for thorough examination and critical discussion, though in different ways resulting from their unique mediums, possibilities, and constraints. Within a contemporary context marred by misunderstanding and crisis regarding gender fluidity, these conversations become all the more important and relevant.

Works Cited

Adolescence of Utena. Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, Toei Company, 1999.

Ikuhara, Kunihiko, director. Revolutionary Girl Utena. J.C. Staff, 1997.

Pusztai, Beáta. “Adapting the Medium: Dynamics of Intermedial Adaptation in Contemporary Japanese Popular Visual Culture.” Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, no. 10, Jan. 2015, pp. 141–52. https://doi.org/10.1515/ausfm-2015-0031

Saito, Kumiko. “Magic, ‘Shōjo’, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 73, no. 1, 2014, pp. 143–64. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43553398. Accessed 13 June 2023.