An Apocalypse of Adolescence: Beyond the End of Utena

utena movie dueling bells Nothing like the pealing of bells to signal a duel in Utena, but I somehow associate these with the ending of the world itself.

There are quite a few shows that can be effortlessly read from the perspective of breaking free from limiting paths. The concept of coming of age to me also means choosing what’s in front of you and not merely rejecting it. But for the purposes of this analysis I place a bunch of shows that perhaps can be or is preferably interpreted from other points of view. I do not intend to invalidate those other readings.

Adolescence Apocalypse, or, The Adolescence of Utena, or Revolutionary Girl Utena: the Movie is, more than the TV series a straightforward story of the resolution of adolescence into freedom, which is an idealized form of adulthood. It is romantic and ideal, to watch a champion of individuality overcome the odds of that which keeps most people trapped.

The movie takes great pains to illustrate the artifice of the world of adolescence: High School. It is interesting how Ohtori Academy resembles nothing of my own high school and very few if at all among high schools portrayed in media. It is ridiculously exaggerated. So much so that I end up noticing similarities and commonalities, as opposed to watching or reading a ‘realistic’ presentation of high school (e.g. Onani Master Kurosawa – more on this later) where I end up noticing differences from my opinion of what is real.

The best way to illustrate how unreal, absurd, or exaggerated the ‘End of Utena’ presents high school as adolescence while getting to the bones of the theme and how it can affect a viewer I present this annotated AMV prepared by 2010digitalboy:

I promise you, no one had a high school experience like that, and yet it speaks powerfully to digiboy who just recently finished high school. He’s not alone in this, adaywithoutme writes:

I figured myself out a lot because of RGU. It gave me an example of a strong girl that allowed me to take the first steps into emotional maturity, and then later showed me that my approach to others was in need of change. It revolutionized my world.

In the movie, the core symbol is the road. A road is meant to be followed, and unless you’re a road builder yourself (and even then this is rare for you), it is a pre-determined path. The road is so cool a metaphor for a limited existence (lack of alternatives, or forced behavior) that individuals and characters in the movie literally turn into automobiles.

utena movie super car

The climax itself is a spectacular car chase, with spectacular cars! What I find interesting too is how the world outside Ohtori, where freedom lies for Anthy and Utena, is dark, foreboding, and looks kind of dead. I like this, because it tempers the idealism and dilutes the optimism in the work.

I mean, it’s been almost two decades since I left High School (‘94) and my own adolescence stretched out beyond 2002. Growing up is tough. There is a danger in presenting ‘coming of age’ as a kind of graduation, in a way how one ‘levels up’ into a more powerful tier of character. In writing about Hanamaru Kindergarten I looked into how maturity is less like the leveling up metaphor, but is rather like hygiene. You, I need to keep at it.

It’s even less like brushing teeth, but more like sterilizing an operating room after using it or before using it. I made and still make lots of mistakes as an adult. The world digiboy says he’s found freedom in isn’t a very easy place. It’s one thing to say you’re going to create your own path, but you’ll find that the masonry and engineering are laborious and back-breaking.

utena movie ohtori high school campus

But this kind of narrative is pervasive, and I think it’s because it’s powerfully uplifting. Here’s a look at some titles:

Great Teacher Onizuka

I haven’t finished the manga but I’ve seen the anime, the live action series, the live action special, and the movie. The characters within are constrained by societal roles, and struggle with freedom even when it’s there to be claimed. Onizuka himself is the anomaly – his credentials and behavior say he shouldn’t be a teacher, but instead he is a teacher who liberates, as opposed to merely transfers information. His students come of age as they survive and at times transcend high school.

Onani Master Kurosawa

The striking similarity is between this manga and the Utena TV series, in that Kurosawa and Himemiya not only dig their own holes, but resolve to crawl out of them. Kurosawa takes responsibility for the identity and reputation he made for himself (and for betraying those who would consider themselves his friends) with the view to overcome it, while Himemiya attempts to go beyond being a witch and the Rose Bride, and most importantly for betraying her friend Utena.

The Sky Crawlers

The Kildren play out simulated war with real ammunition and real consequences. When they die, they come back playing out the same adolescent lives. We see a similar road metaphor:

Even on the same old road, you can tread on new ground. Even on the same old road, the scenery isn’t the same. Can’t things just be that way? Or is it no good, because that’s all it is?

Kannami Yuichi

The characters struggle with this existence, knowing that they and the spectacle they provide are the literal keepers of the peace between humans or at least between human nation-states. But it isn’t freedom at all, and the perpetual adolescence they live and die in is a dark and twisted prison.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

The similarity is less between Simon and Utena. It’s more like the spiral race (which includes humanity) itself is imposed a forced way of living, a subsistence. On Earth  the humans lived underground, minding their population never grows beyond a threshold. Even with the cyclical uprisings of the Spiral Champions, there is a choice to keep the status quo and uphold the (quite reasonable, from the perspective of universal existence) measures of the Anti-Spirals.

Lord Genome, for a time played Akio’s role. He was the Prince, betrayer of the people he championed. Nia plays Anthy, as the witch revealed – even tortured by the Anti-Spirals as Himemiya Anthy was tortured by the million swords in the tale of the Rose Crest. Rossiu plays within the rules, with some similarity to Toga, taking the choice that the Anti-Spirals offered, the way Toga plays within the rules of the End of the World.

utena movie anthy watering her epic rose garden

The difference between the two shows is in that while Humanity – the Spiral Race goes into the future the way Anthy and Utena do in the movie, Simon demonstrates maturity by accepting how he can’t have what he wants, if it’s at the costly expense of others. He did not use his spiral abilities to restore the dead, no matter how important they are to him. This selflessness manifested in Utena TV too, in that Utena out of love took Anthy’s place not knowing if Anthy herself will choose to be saved. This is very difficult considering that in a way, Utena was led on by the hope that Anthy would rather not be the Rose Bride, until Anthy stabbed her in the back. The denial of gratification is a big part of maturity.

Simon is the Drill that Pierced the Heavens, Utena is the Car that Roared Through the End of the World.

Uplifting? Yes, all of them. I came from the experience feeling inspired, and aware how easy it is to settle in life, to be okay with being compromised. I have a role, the road lies before me and I only need to follow it; it’s not so bad, the bright lights illuminate my path. But there are always darker roads, and they may not even lead to better things. But the thing is, they’re there for the choosing.

Freedom too, is the freedom to choose to fail. I guess I’m okay with that, and I think Anthy and Utena are too.

utena movie the world of freedom outside high school

Further Reading

Some of the mentioned shows have hyperlinks to articles on WRL featuring them.
Digiboy’s entry in the Diary of an Anime Lived series (2010digitalboy 04/28/2010)
For a different discussion of adolescence in Utena, and the world that traps people in it read this (adaywithoutme 04/23/2010)
Here is a wealth of essays on Utena, prepare to spend a lot of time here [->]
Rebellion in Utena is not quite the Rebellion in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann , but what similarity there is inspired me (Iknight 02/10/2008)

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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10 Responses to An Apocalypse of Adolescence: Beyond the End of Utena

  1. This is looking more and more like a franchise that I should be making more of an effort to check out. :( Something about the aesthetics alone are really doing it for me, but the subject matter you’ve been analyzing makes it eminently desirable.

    • I don’t think you’ll regret it at all. For people who like to break down and decode media works, I think this franchise is one of the finest representatives of anime. This is not only due to the density of the subject matter, but precisely because of the imagery, technique, and overall opulence of style.

  2. coburn says:

    I remember thinking the film was a really harsh take on Wakaba, especially at the end. That’s kind of the problem with doing a retelling though. It’d be hard to really get the film without knowing the story already, but the built up sympathy for some of the cast clashesd a bit with the newly consolidated message. The bit with the castle is awesome though, and really uses the language of the franchise.

    I absolutely agree on what you said about the grimness of the road ahead too. It’s a funny contrast to the series, where there’s a kinda pretty town outside the academy, and, implicitly, the sort of environment where Anthy can be a fashionable go-getter. It’s very interesting to have the world outside their arcadia drawn in that loose, aggressive style when Ohtori has been so conspicuously moderned-up.

    • After finishing the film, I thought to myself that it knew it couldn’t possibly make all the narratives work especially for the side characters. So, instead it took the other aspects to faaaar beyond expectations, changed several things to shocking departures and portraying everything so strikingly pretty that something like what happened to Wakaba isn’t to painful.

      I don’t think the movie should be seen before completing the series, despite not being a sequel at all. All it took for me to concretize this opinion was seeing the yellow-uniformed cow with the Cowstian Dior cowbell along with Chu-chu.

      The difference in treatment of the outside world is worth a study on its own, especially after what you just said. The film made more of a prison out of Ohtori, while in the series Nanami was able to go on spectacular quests (for curry powder) and meet elephants on surfboards, as well as bring in outsiders — returnees, etc.

  3. As promised, I will bring up ef ~a tale of memories~ since you haven’t seen it.

    In ef, the ultimate purpose of the series is for each of the characters to analyze where they are and what they want in life and how they are going to grow up and come to the fulfillment of the purpose they establish for themselves. Not all of them are necessarily set in a path by the end, either, but each of them sort of awakens to the fact that ‘the future is coming, and we need to be ready.’

    The best representation is the character Hirono Hiro who has pretty much already left adolescence behind, unlike everyone else. Before graduating, he is already a successful, published manga artist, making enough to live on his own, and he is only continuing to go to high school because of societal pressure. By the end of the series, he realizes that he doesn’t have to keep going to school because he already has his path set out for him and he intends to continue along it. I found this to be a very powerful realization, though I also took it all the wrong ways in my naive high school years and wanted to drop out so badly lol.

    • Thanks for this, works with different takes on this theme start coming to mind:

      Bakuman
      Honey and Clover (substitute art school for high school)
      (ROFL) SDF-Macross

      Man I am barely kidding. The future is presented with both hope and trepidation. The possibility is rich, but also full of threat.

      Perhaps the sobering take on the road ahead is Solanin.

  4. Pingback: On the Negative-Second Day of Kurisumasu My Imouto Gave to Me: A Bunch of Shows that Didn’t Air This Year | My Sword Is Unbelievably Dull

  5. Damn. My heart broke when I heard the fateful news.

    Now that Kawakami has left this world, the one way to honor her memory is to rewatch this show once more… and to add, we raise our glasses, filled to the brim with whatever booze we love.

    We remember love; we remember Utena.

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