Prior to watching Adolescence of Utena I was expecting something that would completely blow my mind.
After all this film has something of a reputation as an exemplar of the “What the hell were they on?! And is it legal?” genre. For me the reality fell well short of that, but I did enjoy it as an alternative version of Revolutionary Girl Utena.
NB: There are some spoilers ahead.
A Classic Type of Anime Movie
In some ways I see Adolescence of Utena as a fairly classic, and surprisingly straightforward, adaptation of an anime TV series. From this perspective Adolescence of Utena is very much in the same mould as Galaxy Express 999, Macross: Do You Remember Love (MDYRL), and (if I recall correctly ) the RahXephon movie.
I grant that The Adolescence of Utena is rather more surreal than those examples , but the basic structure of a condensed, alternate, version of the TV series is clearly there to be seen.
You can even see the transitions from the Student Council Saga to the Black Rose Saga to the Apocalypse Saga, along with the key visual triggers for each arc of the TV series. For those that have seen the TV series these visual triggers, respectively, are the duels, the elevator, and the cars.
I think that not seeing the TV series first is where some people get tripped up by The Adolescence of Utena. The visual triggers probably would have confused the living daylights out of me if I didn’t already have context for them.
In this sense The Adolescence of Utena may not be particularly good example of an adaptation of a TV Series. I think that the significant risk of Continuity Lockout introduced by this may have contributed to the film’s reputation.
The Dream World
The other major trick to The Adolescence of Utena is knowing the foundation that the condensed version is built on.
Or not built on, as the case may be.
The Adolescence of Utena is a variant on the MDYRL theme: it is an entirely different set of realities  in which a similar story to the TV series is being told.
The key to these realities is provided in the opening sequence of the very Escher-like version of Ohtori that The Adolescence of Utena takes place in.
The Ohtori of the TV series was fantastical, but it wasn’t entirely impossible. The duelling arena, and the castle may have been impossible, but the entire school wasn’t .
All of Ohtori is impossible in the movie in a crazy 3D Escher-esque way that could only be a dream world, or similar .
With this the pieces are in place to lead to an ending that is actually less ambiguous than the TV series.
An Abbreviated Utena
The TV Series shows Utena fighting for her own identity and freedom from increasingly dysfunctional relationships over the course of 39 episodes. This is cut right back in the movie, there is really only one previous relationship with Touga to be resolved.
Oddly Touga is so detached from Utena in the movie that I’m not even sure that he’s really in the dream world. I suspect that Touga is a construct of Utena’s dream that is there to enable her to move on, and this fitted naturally into the visual imagery that evoked the Black Rose Saga.
In other words the development of Utena’s relationship with Anthy, and resolving her previous relationships, are completed about 2/3rds of the way into the movie.
A More Complex Anthy
In the TV Series Anthy was either a Plot Coupon or a puppetmaster behind the scenes, and it wasn’t always easy to tell which applied.
In Adolescence of Utena, Anthy is a much more active, open, and expressive character.
Anthy has been waiting for the right person to make her escape from the dream world with; none of the other duellists have seen her as more than the Rose Bride and this acknowledges her role as a Plot Coupon in the Student Council Saga.
For all that Anthy may want to escape the dream world, and for all that her growing relationship with Utena is a much healthier relationship than the other duellists offer, there is still the fear of the unknown.
It is in this context that Utena provides a measure of reassurance by becoming the, as @ryorin puts it:
…that Anthy will ride to freedom.
The escape from the dream world had to involve cars; cars were the most iconic image of the Apocalypse Saga.
I do admit that characters turning into cars was unusual, but didn’t feel out of place to me within the rules of a dream world. I suspect that the WTF factor would have been greater if I hadn’t already rationalised the setting before this happened.
In this instance the symbology felt clear to me: Utena’s story has already been told, and her decision to trust Anthy has long been made. From here Utena will support Anthy, but Anthy must make her own decision to escape to the real world.
Anthy must also face, and overcome, her own challenges without direct assistance from Utena.
The action sequence leading to the escape to reality is all on Anthy, albeit with some help from the other duellists . The implication here is that the other duellists may also have a chance to escape later, once they deal with their own issues.
As for the resolution of the escape, once you strip away the admittedly surreal imagery of dragon cars, bug cars, and a powered castle on wheels, it is actually pretty standard stuff: choosing between the prison you know, and the freedom you don’t.
I enjoyed The Adolescence of Utena for the usual reasons I enjoy any installment of Revolutionary Girl Utena: the soundtrack, the style, the general design sensibilities.
My biggest criticism would be the risk of Continuity Lockout, but based on the reputation of the film I suspect that the weirdness factor may trump this for unsuspecting viewers.
The Adolescence of Utena is the movie Revolutionary Girl Utena had to have, and definitely worth seeing at least once. Overall this one is a cautious recommendation, and is probably best suited to people who have seen at least one, and preferably two, of the TV Series sagas.
Day 2 – Naruto Shippuden The Movie (2002)
Day 3 – Galaxy Express 999 (1979)
Day 4 – Steamboy (2004)
Day 5 – Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)
Day 6 – Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Day 7 – Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Day 8 – Ah! My Goddess: The Movie (2000)
Day 9 – Summer Wars (2009)
Day 10 – Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1984)
Day 11 – Silent Mobius I (1991) & II (1992)
Day 12 – Space Firebird 2772 (1980)
Day 13 – Junkers Come Here (1994)
Day 14 – Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Day 15 – Patlabor: The Movie (1989)
Day 16 – Card Captor Sakura Movie 2: The Sealed Card
Day 17 – Millennium Actress
Day 18 – Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror
Day 19 – Gall Force: Eternal Story
Day 20 – (I actually know what this one will be, I’m just not saying yet) 🙂