Crisis on N Earths: Revolutionary Girl Utena

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It’s December 24, 1997. Christmas Eve. Of course, we’re in Japan, so that doesn’t mean much–Christmas is an excuse to decorate, go on dates, and eat chocolate and KFC. The country is only one percent Christian, after all, but they love the exotic ceremonies and customs of the worshipers of these strange gods from faraway lands.

Tonight, something far more momentous is happening than some lady having a kid in whatever a manger is: the finale of Revolutionary Girl Utena airs.

Auteur theory is largely nonsense, but nonetheless Utena is widely regarded as the brainchild of director Kunihiko Ikuhara, and comparing Utena to other projects of his, it does seem like his creative voice was the dominant, or at least his persistent concerns and themes. But to an extent it’s the other way around: the themes of Utena became the defining themes of Ikuhara’s work, both what is expected from him and what he keeps coming back to.

A 39-episode half-hour anime series ostensibly within the shoujogenre (that is, works aimed at girls in roughly the same age range we refer to in book publishing as Young Adult), Utena is an exploration of themes of identity, especially gender; queer sexuality; abuse; and the way we use stories and narrative to construct our world. Utena is a teen girl who decided when she was very young that she would be a prince when she grew up, and still dresses and acts “princely”: she is highly athletic, very popular with the girls, wears a blinged-out variant of a boys’ uniform to school, and is especially quick to rescue those she perceives as being in need. At the same time, however, she is very insistent that she is a girl, and perhaps a little too insistent that she is het, given her relationship with Anthy.

Anthy is a character I’ve written about at great length, particularly in Animated Discussions. I won’t rehash that here; suffice to say, she is Utena’s primary love interest, but oscillates throughout the story between damsel in distress, sidekick, and villain. In reality she is none of those things and all of them, because Utena is also about breaking free of the constraints created by the stories we’ve been told about ourselves and our world. What makes Utena a revolutionary girl is that she revolutionizes the world around her–the bulk of the series is her unwittingly passing test after test to become The One Who Brings the World Revolution–because she is not only determined to be a protector fantasy for everyone around her, but to protect them from abuse of all kinds. She protects people, not structures of power–indeed, the first we see her protecting someone is defending her friend Wakaba in the first episode, from a man who has greater social power, claims the “right” to do what he did, and callously dismisses Wakaba’s pain.

Utena doesn’t care about rights. She understands, at least on an instinctual level, that any society governed according to a list of rights is really an oligarchy governed by the people who decided what those rights are. That person, in the case of Utena, is Akio, the main villain of the series. Akio is also referred to as “End of the World,” but notably, while the English phrase is sometimes used, the series mostly uses a Japanese phrase which would be more accurately translated as “the ends of the Earth.” The bilingual pun, given all the discussion of apocalypse and world revolution in the series, is clearly intentional, but nonetheless the primary meaning of Akio’s title is the edge of reality, the limitation of what can exist.

The show ties these meanings together in the infamous, oft-recurring “egg speech” (which was lifted almost verbatim from Hermann Hesse’s Demian): “The world is our egg. If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without being born.” The apocalyse, the World Revolution, is necessary so that we can take form as our true selves, unrestrained by the limits imposed by the powerful.

But, intriguingly, Utena at least initially appears to fail. Akio’s strength is social power above all else: he wields his high status and charm with great skill to manipulate and control others. It is that power which he uses to defeat Utena: he persuades Anthy that Utena will fail, and in so doing persuades Anthy to ensure that Utena fails. Utena is forced to admit that she cannot be the prince, that she is “just a girl,” and cannot save Anthy or change the world into a place where she and Anthy can be together and be free.

And then she stands back up, shoves Akio out of her way, reaches out her hand to help Anthy, and ultimately Anthy breaks free of Akio’s power and walks forever out of his world.

What the show refers to as the prince is, in its fairy tale-inflected framing, another instance of the protector fantasy. This is made explicit in the episode “The Rose Crest”: “The girls of the world were all princesses! All because we were always protected by the Rose Prince.” Dios, the Rose Prince, is depicted as the hero of a fictionalized past in which he protected all girls from all hardship and pain, enabling them to be princesses–which is to say, pampered but constrained, safe but helpless.

Dios, after all, is Akio–End of the World and the Rose Prince are revealed to be one and the same. Akio compares himself to Lucifer, which is to say that he is fallen from having once been both great and good, but Akio is a manipulator and a liar. He never was a hero; the Rose Prince was always a fantasy, always Akio. Or, more accurately, they’re the same thing. As Utena tearfully confesses to Anthy: “The truth is, my protecting you was just for my own ego… I was the one who cheated you! I was the one who used you! I was the one who betrayed you!”  Akio is a thoroughly terrible, utterly despicable human being and Utena is in many ways highly admirable, yet in the role of the hero they are both ultimately toxic, becaus the role is toxic.

The only difference between a fence and a cage is whether you’re content to stay inside it. The perfect protector, as we have seen again and again, is also the enforcer of the status quo. The hero must prevent the egg from being broken, and therefore must prevent us from being our authentic selves; the Rose Prince is also End of the World.

Yet… Anthy leaves Ohtori on her own, yes, but only after being offered a hand by Utena and choosing to take it. Utena is the vehicle by which Anthy leaves Ohtori (literally, in the movie). Acting as the hero in the sense of a savior, all Utena can do is make Anthy more of a princess, building a fence around her that is also a cage. In the final battle, when she and Akio compete to take the Power to Bring the World Revolution, neither gets it, even though Akio wins the battle. But by offering help, by inspiring and performing as an example, Utena is able to give that power to Anthy.

It is not enough to merely perform the “good parts” of the role of the hero, because by its very nature, the role of the protector is the role of the jailer. But as Utena shows us, there is a use for heroes, and there is a way forward for our own project, a way to break the superhero away from its tendency to fascism.

The model of our new kind of superhero, unsurprisingly, will not be Superman. He’s the model of the old kind, after all. Steel is a lot closer–and the end of this season will reveal to us another that’s closer still.

“For the revolution of the world!”


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Otakon 2018 Schedule!

I’m at Otakon this weekend! I’m presenting two panels I haven’t done in a while:

  • Eva Pilots, Rose Brides, and Puella Magi: Heroic Trauma and Anime (10:45 PM Friday in Panel 7)
  • Hinamizawa Syndrome: Time Travel and Trauma from Higurashi to Erased (5:45 PM Saturday in Panel 5

If you’re there, come check me out!

Imaginary Story: Superman Adventures #6-13

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Most of the Superman Adventures issues which coincide with the 1997 portion of the second season of Superman: The Animated Seriesform a loose arc; #13, however, is a standalone story called “Grand Slam” about a plot by never-before-seen aliens to kill Superman and destroy the Earth by tricking him into winning a competition they made up. The story is essentially nonsense that exists solely to set up a scenario where Professor Emil Hamilton must hit a small round object with a technologically enhanced alien bat to save the world.

The arc is far more interesting. It begins with “Soenimod,” an odd scheme by Mr. Mxyzptlk, in which he transports Superman to the aftermath of a disaster that destroys much of Metropolis and kills presumably millions, including Lois. She is let back out of the fridge a few panels later when it becomes clear that Superman and Mxyzptlk are moving backwards in time, essentially watching the world rewind. This of course makes it easy for Superman to trick Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards–he just has to get him to say it normally, and since they’re going backwards in time, that counts. It’s a clever solution to the Mxyzptlk puzzle, and the backwards gimmick allows Superman to figure out a way to avert the disaster even after his powers are sapped by kryptonite.

The next two issues comprise a two-part story, “All Creatures Great and Small.” Together with issue #9, “Return of the Hero,” and #10, “Don’t Try This At Home,” they explore the limitations of heroism: the idea that heroes can make mistakes, and how the public responds to them. “All Creatures Great and Small” is the weakest of these; it brings back Mala and Jax-Ur with the excuse that the Phantom Zone is “cruel and unusual punishment.” Superman insists that while their imprisonment there was just under the laws of Krypton, it is not acceptable according to his own values (internalized from the supposed, and on rare occasions half-heartedly followed, principles underlying the American system of criminal law). Superman pulls them out of the Phantom Zone, then Hamilton uses a shrink ray on them, and they are locked away from yellow sunlight so they cannot use their powers.

Of course, a few pages in they escape, and we get miniature villains with the powers of Superman. Superman of course shrinks as well, so they can have the same kind of battle Superman typically does against his more physically powerful villains in the streets of Metropolis, but instead of the collateral damage destroying buildings and tearing up sidewalks, it breaks Lois’ coffee table and smashes her vase. It’s a cute conceit, and rather telling that when it’s Lois’ personal property being destroyed, she’s a lot more upset about it than when it’s someone else’s home or communal city property. She’ll happily go on a crusade to defend others, and she cares about harm to the city–she’s not Lex Luthor by any means–but she’s still more worried about the harm to her apartment than she was in “Blasts from the Past” when Jax-Ur and Mala brought the planet to its knees.

The point is that this is a story about Superman failing–he overestimates his ability to keep them contained, and as a result they wreak yet more havoc. Between this and him being nearly killed by kryptonite exposure from random terrorists-without-a-cause, he is clearly slipping.

The next two stories are thus about heroes being knocked off their pedestals.  In the first, a young boy living in poverty idolizes Lex Luthor as  a rags-to-riches story. Of course Luthor achieved this the same way as the other handful of people who’ve ever done it: using the people around him as a ladder, then pulling that ladder up behind him once he was on top. Nobody gets rich except through exploitation, and in this case, part of that exploitation was framing the boy’s own father. Luthor makes an uncharacteristic mistake–trusting an underling without having someone double-check their work–that results in the boy recognizing his true colors, and the boy rejects him as a hero. In the second, Toyman attempts to use Superman toys to rob families who buy them, turning their children against Superman; this fails largely because a bizarre “mad bomber” character blows up his Superman robot, so children know pretty much from the start that their hero hasn’t turned against them.

In the final story of the arc, the two-parter “The War Within,” Superman is increasingly perceived by the public as “slacking off.” Lois in particular tears into him for rescuing people from a collapsing building, but not doing anything about the corrupt politicians and contractors that allowed an inhabited building to decay that far. His argument is one that gets to the heart of the problematic nature of superheroes: “there are institutions to deal with that.” On the one hand, he is saying to trust in the established structures of power–which is to say, let the Luthors of the world run things and hope a Superman shows up to save you when the roof caves in.  At the same time, if he did take it upon himself to root out that corruption, the story would in essence be about a superior, singular man acting as the focus and expression of the will of the people to take the reigns of power, which is to say typical fascist rhetoric.

More interesting is the reason for his “slacking off”: he is gradually weakening due to a Kryptonian virus carried in the lump of kryptonite the terrorists used against him in “Seonimod,” a virus which will eventually kill him if Lois and a team of scientists led by Hamilton cannot extract the cure from the middle of an Eastern European civil war.

In an aside comment in that story, when Superman is searching for the cause of the disaster, Mxyzptlk declares that there is only one cause for everything, the Big Bang. And that is true according to the best available current physics; literally everything that has ever happened was caused by something that was caused by something that… back to the Big Bang. But every event observed by Superman in the story has an immediately preceding cause–the plane crash caused by the oversight in maintenance caused by the distracted sergeant caused by the bystander to the traffic jam calling him caused by the sergeant’s wife giving birth in the traffic jam caused by the traffic jam caused by the car accident caused by the boy running into traffic caused by the other boy’s throw going wild caused by the clock tower exploding caused by the detonation of the bomb set by the terrorists caused by Superman’s failure to stop them in time.

And the detonation of the bomb set by the terrorists was also caused by the terrorists setting it off. And also caused by whatever political ideology they were following. And also caused by the Big Bang. And…

Nothing has just one cause. Superman’s infection with the virus is as much Mxyzptlk (for sending Superman back to try again) or Brainiac’s doing (for covering up the impending destruction of Krypton) as the terrorists’. And, too, while the public rejection of Superman is initially blamed on the mass-media hype cycle, and later on the virus killing him, these causes do not contradict each other. As Superman told the boy that worshiped Luthor, heroes make mistakes; it’s okay to take on the things about them that are admirable while rejecting the things that aren’t.

Which is another way of saying that heroes in themselves are a bad idea, but admiring and imitating heroic qualities may not be, at least as long as we define “heroic” correctly. Luthor is in part a bad choice because he describes a rather pop-Nietzschean approach to heroic virtues that lionizes power, will, and the lack of compassion. All things that we have called out and criticized in heroes and villains alike throughout this series, along with similarly false, dangerous virtues like respect for authority and tradition.

But there are virtues to be found everywhere. Superman’s compassion, Batman’s empathy; as problematic as the characters are, because all characters are problematic, these are positive traits that could be emulated.

So is that our answer? Are we finished early, with a simple solution, that we just need to put together the positive traits and create an unproblematic superhero?

Of course not. And to see why, we need only consider the revolution…


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