Kill la Kill Liveblog Chat Thingy: Episode 1

Today, as promised, the Kill la Kill liveblog chats begin!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST.

Afterwards, I’ll post the chat log here!

…Or technical difficulties could prevent me from chatting. Possibly everyone, I have no idea–it certainly LOOKS like the chat server is down, but it could be an issue on my end nonetheless. Anyway, if you folks managed to have a successful chat, feel free to post the log. Otherwise, sorry, guess we’ll try again next Saturday.

Okay, log is finally done and available below the cut.


[21:20] <Froborr> Okay!
[21:20] <Froborr> Starting Kill la Kill.. now!
[21:21] <Froborr> And it’s Godwinned itself.
[21:21] <Froborr> That is an exceedingly large student.
[21:22] <Froborr> Holy crap, I assumed that kid threw a smoke bomb, not TEAR GAS
[21:23] <Froborr> Okay, so the school uniforms give superpowers.
[21:23] <Froborr> That’s… different.
[21:24] <Froborr> Lot of WWII and Animal Farm references so far.
[21:25] <Froborr> And I’ll admit, I do like these titles as the camera pulls out.
[21:26] <Froborr> Is she eating a raw lemon? Including the rind? Ew. I mean, I like lemon, but, ick.
[21:26] <Froborr> Her policy is, apparently, the same as Captain Sheridan’s.
[21:28] <Froborr> Wait, did they KILL the teargas guy and string him u as a warning to others?
[21:29] <Froborr> Wow, mushroom-hair girl is REALLY annoying.
[21:29] <Froborr> Heheh, “elite four.” I wonder what Pokemon types they use.
[21:30] <Froborr> Okay, the half-scissor I remember.
[21:32] <Froborr> I do like that we’re STARTING with an elite mook kicking the hero’s ass.
[21:33] <Froborr> White Tiger. Oh, of course. The “elite four” are the four directional gods.
[21:35] <Froborr> Convenient plot trapdoor.
[21:35] <Froborr> Oh, wait, no, the teacher did it. Interesting.
[21:35] <Froborr> Guess he probably wants to see the student president overthrown, makes sense.
[21:36] <Froborr> Ah. Here’s the part I remember, which caused me to quit watching.
[21:37] <Froborr> Yay. She got superpowers from a rape scene. Lovely.
[21:38] <Froborr> And you’ll be DEAD mushroom-head girl.
[21:38] <Froborr> *sigh* Show, lampshading bad jokes doesn’t automatically make them funny, y’know.
[21:39] <Froborr> That’s a familiar drill.
[21:40] <Froborr> I am almost completely sure those thwomp gloves are not tournament legal.
[21:41] <Froborr> Why doesnt he punch her somewhere that isn’t covered?
[21:42] <Froborr> Okay, the mech activation sequence with the uniform is cute.
[21:43] <Froborr> Hmm, glowing red thread from his uniform was absorbed by hers. Is she going to get more clothed as she wins?
[21:44] <Froborr> Hmm. So far this show is okay, but seems to be rushing. There’re no quiet or calm bits, just noise and action nonstop for 20 minutes.

[21:45] <Froborr> It’s like someone autotuned the pacing, and with the same consequences–an aggressive sort of flattening.


“Memory. That lying scumbucket.”

The woman had green hair and a large, shapeless brown jacket. She sat on the sidewalk, hugging her knees.

“I’m sorry?” I asked. I don’t know why. I normally push past homeless people, since I don’t carry cash and can’t give them anything. It’s embarrassing to have to say, because I think they’ll think I’m lying.

“Can’t trust a memory. You can only remember what you saw, for starters.” Maybe it was the hair. You don’t often see a homeless person with dyed hair.

“That’s… true, I guess?” I said.

“Even then, can’t trust it. Full of holes, and half of what is there is made up anyway.”

“I don’t have any money to give you,” I said.

She ignored me, staring fixedly at a point two feet to my left and who knows how far in the past. “All made up. But it’s what makes now.” She looked up at me, straight into my eyes. “So now’s made up too, you see?” I have only ever once seen a face like that before, on an eight-year-old at her father’s funeral.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

You’re sorry?” she demanded, and then laughed. “How do you think I feel? They’re my memories!”

I stood there for a while in silence, while she stared. She didn’t say anything more.

I tried

The next Madoka post is 3/4 done, but there is no hope of me having any time to work on it in the next few days. I have been utterly blindsided and swamped by (very time-consuming and very expensive) apartment stuff all week, which is why I have been flakier than usual. The only reason any posts are happening at all is that said apartment stuff involves lengthy Metro rides. Said apartment stuff should be over Saturday, so the Sunday post should be unaffected… But I’m massively behind on editing the book, so most of next week is up in the air. Sorry.

No Madoka today, sorry

I know I’ve been flaky lately, but I’ve just got too much going on. I couldn’t brain last night, so I left it for this morning in the hopes that a good night’s sleep would fix the problem and I could hammer out a post before work. It didn’t and I couldn’t. Sorry.

When people talk about bronies being entitled, this shit is why

So Equestria Daily has a story up about an online retailer that sells user-designed merchandise removing, apparently at Hasbro’s request, merchandise tagged “brony.” The response in comments, at least at time of writing Friday evening, is typically panicky and ill-informed.

Let me explain some basic copyright law. It will be basic, because I Am Not a Lawyer and basic is all I know; on the other hand I was the primary person responsible for keeping a $300K/yr content-generating business out of IP-related trouble for four years, so I’m not talking out of my ass, either.

Here’s the basics: Hasbro (probably to some extent shared with DHX (the production study) and maybe Discovery Communications (who co-own The Hub)) owns the trademark on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. They also own the copyright.

If you slap official MLP logos all over your stuff, you’re in trademark trouble. I’m not concerned with that at the moment–it’s obvious enough that most people get it. You don’t get to pretend to be official merch if you’re not, and using official logos and such is legally considered to be such a pretense.

People get a bit less clear when it comes to copyright, mostly because fans really, really, really want to be able to basically make derivative works whenever and however they want, including selling them, and really don’t want to believe that they can’t.

Here’s the thing: If you are making derivative works of ANY kind, unless you fall into a fairly narrow band of works protected under the principle of Fair Use, Hasbro has the legal right to make you stop. As a general rule, for most stuff, they won’t, because they don’t care–your AU crossover fanfiction where Trixie is the Element of Mustard and has a torrid love affair with Deadpool doesn’t do Hasbro any harm, so why waste time (which is money), people (who are money), and money (which is also money) going after you?

On the other hand, Hasbro makes money off of shirts, and every shirt you buy from a fan rather than an officially licensed short is money not going to Hasbro. Hasbro doesn’t like it when money goes to people other than Hasbro, so yeah, they’re going to exercise their right to get rid of those shirts. This is not Hasbro asserting ownership of the word “brony,” it’s Hasbro noticing that any shirt tagged “brony” is almost certain to be a violation of their copyrights, and therefore asking a shirt-design company to start removing the shirts tagged that way.

Not only is this completely within Hasbro’s rights, this is what copyright is for. The exact same principle that gives Hasbro the right to stop you from selling MLP t-shirts (or, for that matter, if they want to, posting MLP fanart to the Internet) is the principle that prevents 20th Century Fox from turning my bestselling novel (I haven’t written it yet, but give me time) into a movie without my permission and without paying me any money.

So, bronies of the world, do please sit down, shut up, and try to understand that just because you enjoy doing something and have gotten away with it in the past does not actually mean that you have a right to keep doing it.

(And no, what I do is not the same thing. There is an explicit Fair Use exemption for works of a scholarly or educational nature, as well as reviews, and it is one of the exemptions which is allowed to be for-profit. Hasbro has the right to make me pull down my fanfic, but not to make me stop selling my books.)

I wonder where I’m going now/What my role is meant to be/I don’t know how to travel/To a future that I can’t see (Magical Mystery Cure)

No, seriously. The first image Celestia shows Twilight during
her song is the arrival in Ponyville; the second is this.
There is nothing remotely sudden about Twilight’s ascension.

It’s February 16, 2013. The top song, as it is for the entire month, is “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz. The song may be a clever satire of that subgenre of raps about how rich and expensively dressed the rapper is, tapping into the high levels of unemployment and debt among the current generation of young people and resulting trend of “found fashion,” i.e. using thrift store purchases as a form of expression. Or it’s a brainless and repetitive novelty song that is annoying the first time and grows more obnoxious with each repetition. Probably both, but it could be worse–March’s charts are all topped by “Harlem Shake.”

The top movie is Identify Thief, an alleged comedy. In the news, “We Are Young” by fun. featuring Janelle Monae, the only Billboard top song I have actually liked in the history of this blog, wins the Grammy for Song of the Year; North Korea conducts a successful nuclear test, prompting the EU to tighten trade sanctions; and the Large Hadron Collider shuts down for a couple of years for upgrades, after nearly five years of significantly advancing our knowledge of fundamental particle physics while not destroying the world even a little bit.

Oh, and Twilight Sparkle is dead.

For the length of one commercial break, anyway.

Which is part of why, as I mentioned in the last article, this could not have worked as a two-parter. The only cliffhangers in the episode are at the end of the cold open and Twilight’s death, so the division would have to be at her death. This creates two problems. The more severe one is that, after the “Twilight’s been vaporized” cliffhanger is resolved, there is no conflict whatsoever for the rest of the effort–workable as an act-long detournement, not so much as an entire episode. But there is also the problem that we are dealing with a very young audience here, and leaving Twilight dead for an entire commercial break is bad enough. Doing it across the end of an episode and into the next one, or worse, still, across an entire season break? That’s just cruel–not so much because the kids will think she’s going to stay dead, as because of the tension of how she’ll be brought back.

Because she is most definitely, unquestionably dead, sacrificed to restore the rightful destinies of her fellow ponies. She is burnt to a smear of ash in the shape of her own symbol, annihilated by the potent magical forces she has tapped in messing with destiny itself. She ascends to a dark and empty space illuminated by a distant light, the classic depiction of the liminal space between life and death, and there her entire life is presented to her by her mentor, now taking the role of a psychopomp. She is transformed, acquiring wings and a full-body halo of purple light. Pretty much the only thing she’s missing is the harp.

And then she returns from beyond to establish her kingdom in the earthly realm. Behold: a Christ-figure, which is to say a sacrificial deity, which means it’s time to recall some foreshadowing I noted way back in the Season 2 premiere.

You see, one of the most influential takes on the sacrificial deity in pop culture is a book which has nothing to do with pop culture, John Campbell’s study of folklore and mythology. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. That book is in turn primarily about the Hero’s Journey, a structure which Campbell constructs primarily from elements of Mediterranean sacrificial deities and cherrypicked bits of a handful of European folktales (and to a much lesser extent, myths and tales of other cultures), then declares it to be universal by tying it to the big psychological theory du jour, in his case Jungian psychology. (Which, to be fair, is how every Grand Unifying Theory in literature and mythology gets made. If it weren’t for the Science Wars, we’d probably have a major theory explaining how all stories are representations of concepts from evolutionary psychology by now.)
The influence on pop culture came indirectly; George Lucas was a fan, and treated Campbell’s descriptive theory as a prescriptive framework, trying to hit every beat of the structure over the course of the original Star Wars. Before long, cribsheet versions of the Hero’s Journey were floating around Hollywood, and the structure became intimately tied to popular film, particularly the action-fantasy blockbuster model Star Wars helped create. From there, it has infested pop culture, a straightjacket which demands far, far more than their fare share of heroes need to be wide-eyed farm-boys (and it is almost always boys) or the modern equivalent, the working-class kid, whose wise old mentors die halfway through their conflict with a dark figure tied into the hero’s origins.

This is not to say that the structure is inevitably bad or even that it’s inherently problematic that it’s widespread. Like it or not, the most popular religion in the world, the dominant religion for most of our culture’s history, is devoted to the worship of one of those Mediterranean sacrificial deities; the Hero’s Journey is going to show up a lot. And sometimes it’s used well in popular culture–Harry Potter is pretty decent until it flubs the ending, most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is quite good; there are plenty of examples of it being executed well and plenty of examples of it being executed poorly, just like pretty much any structure.

The problem is in its ubiquity and its prescriptive force; the Hero’s Journey has become the standard, and as a consequence it has become predictable and boring. But as foreshadowed by the Star Wars homage in the Season 2 premiere, Twilight is on just such a journey in the third season, although the highly episodic nature of the season (and probably also its short length) compresses that journey into the two-part premiere and the finale.

As is often the case in serial works–and as Campbell himself noted is often the case with the Heroine‘s Journey–the result is a sort of spiral structure. Taking all three episodes as a unit, Sombra takes on the role of the Journey’s first challenge, the Threshold Guardian, who represents the protective parent who won’t let the child out into the world. Twilight’s conflict with him, however, contains within it a miniature Hero’s Journey in itself, with Celestia taking on the role of the Mentor, representing the parent as teacher, Cadence as the Goddess who provides protective gifts (in this case, keeping Sombra at bay until Twilight is ready to deal with him), representing the parent as nurturer, and Sombra as the Dark Father, the menacing figure connected with the heroine’s origin (in this case he is a villain defeated by her Mentor returned for revenge), who represents the necessity of rebelling against the parent to attain adult independence. Twilight sets out on the Road of Trials in a quest for the Crystal Heart, experiences a descent into the Belly of the Whale at the door which forces her to face her greatest fear, and then acquires the object of the quest and overcomes the Dark Father, taking a step out into the adult world.

And yes, that is how the Hero’s Journey works: anything novel or unique to the story is stripped away so that it can be pulled apart, its bones neatly labeled and placed in boxes, each of which has a prescribed metaphorical meaning. It’s like TVTropes, if there were only twenty-odd tropes. And much like TVTropes, it can be an amusing diversion for an afternoon, but is more hindrance than aid to real analysis, and actively destructive as a guide to writing.

Anyway, as Sombra was only really the Threshold Guardian within the larger story, Twilight has not yet proven herself, and a second cycle of the Journey begins, deploying a different set of the archetypal stages of the journey. Here, the Dark Father is notably downplayed, but nonetheless is clearly Starswirl the Bearded, the ancient unicorn whom Twilight sees as a role model, but whose spell has quite maliciously disrupted her friends’ destinies. (Note that each of them has quite possibly the worst possible job for their personality: Rarity must work outdoors, Rainbow Dash needs to be a caretaker, Fluttershy has to make people laugh at her, Pinkie Pie is forced to do constant chores entirely by herself, and Applejack is obligated to make the dresses she hates wearing).

But Twilight saves them using the same technique Celestia used to save her from Discord, and from that experience gains the inspiration she needs to complete the spell–finishing the work Starswirl couldn’t, a form of the Atonement with the Father, the reconciliation with the parent that the young adult comes to post-rebellion. By finishing the spell, she triggers her own Apotheosis, ascending into the heavens to be granted divine power, and returning to the world as the leader she was foreshadowed to be all the way back in “Winter Wrap-Up.”

And that’s where, for those trained by TV and movies to expect the standard-issue Hero’s Journey formula, this all starts to feel wrong. If Twilight has accomplished her destiny, and completed the journey, what else is there? The formula is fulfilled–how can there be any more show after this? Twilight becoming an alicorn and a princess is series finale material, not a mere season finale with another season to come already confirmed! Won’t she have to leave Ponyville to take up whatever her new duties are? Won’t this unbalance the friendships of the Mane Six that are the core of the show? From that perspective, this is a narrative collapse, a direct challenge to the ability of the story to continue.

Yet the episode itself takes great pains to assure us that no such collapse has occurred. There is no conflict after her transformation, just celebration, a coronation and an assurance that “Everything’s going to be just fine!” How can this be?

The Hero’s Journey is, supposedly, a metaphor for adolescence, for leaving the safety of childhood, acquiring skills and learning one’s destiny, pulling away from the guidance and protection of one’s parents and establishing oneself as an adult. This is supposed to be the universal story, the monomyth–but life doesn’t end at 20. It’s barely begun. The problem with treating the Hero’s Journey as the only story–or, rather, one problem among many–is that it robs children and adults of all their stories, and creates a culture in which adolescence is the only narrative.

You may have noticed a glaring omission, verging on outright lie, in my description of “The Crystal Empire”: Twilight didn’t defeat Sombra. Spike did. Indeed, the entire point of the test Celestia set Twilight to complete was for her to learn to lead rather than try to do everything herself, to let others act when they are in a better position to do so. The Hero’s Journey is all about the hero becoming independent, shaping their own destiny–precisely what Starswirl tried to do with his spell. But instead Twilight shows her friends how to help each other recover their lost destinies, and then they help her open the path to hers. The mistake in Starswirl’s spell was in treating destiny as something that he creates and completes himself, but it’s not.

Oh, each person does define their own destiny, that much is clear. Given the same cutie mark, Rarity embraces a destiny as a weather manager, while Rainbow Dash maintains weather management as her day job and pursues a destiny as a racer and stunt flyer. That’s the diegetic reason so many background ponies have the same handful of cutie marks–even if they look identical, they are still different destinies because the ponies that bear them are different, and thus necessarily interpret them differently.

But no one achieves their destiny alone. Everyone has caretakers as a small child; the Hero’s Journey reduces parents to archetypes, but they’re not. They’re people. The companions met on the path are not The Companions Met on the Path, to be placed in a box and labeled; they are individual and unique people to be related to. The Hero is not the only one on a Journey; never forget Lesson Zero, that everyone is the main character of their own story.

“Everything is going to be just fine” because the Hero’s Journey is not the monomyth. There is no monomyth, no magical formula to crafting Story, which is far too large and wild a thing to be pulled down and trapped in little cages. Season Three has flirted repeatedly with the formulaic, from the Return of Fan-Favorite Rival to the Very Special Episode, from the Parody of a Popular Movie from Decades Ago to the sitcom flailing of the four episodes prior to this finale, and at first glance “Magical Mystery Cure” is just as formulaic. But it is also a denial of the formula, a declaration that there is story to be found beyond this and every other formula.

Season 3, especially toward the end, showed serious signs of illness. The show seemed to be losing its magic. It needed, desperately, a cure, a restoration of magic–and this episode delivered precisely that, by adding precisely what the show, by becoming increasingly formulaic, was losing: mystery.

After this episode, it is impossible to say what the show will do next. What could be better than that?

ETA: “Du jour,” Froborr, not “de jure.” Kind of a bit of a difference in meaning, there.

Utena dump, and a brief introduction about truth

Reminder: Next week, we will be starting liveblogs of Kill la Kill on Saturdays at 2 p.m. EST. Not doing them this week because I’m busy. Also, Netflix fortuitously just added Kill la Kill, subbed and in its entirety, to their streaming service.

Normally, when we talk about something being true–in the everyday sense, or the sense used in the sciences–we mean that it possesses two properties: it is consistent with a larger body of truth, and it corresponds to some standard.

Consistency is the requirement that, to be true, a set of statements must not contradict one another.

Correspondence is the requirement that, to be true, a statement must be testable against some standard. In the sciences, that standard is careful experimental testing or close observation of natural phenomena; in everyday life, it is consensus reality and our own personal experiences.

However, some fields use different models of truth. Mathematics, for example, follows a consistency model only–a statement is true as long as it does not contradict some fundamental axiom. Alternative mathematical systems can be created by choosing different sets of axioms; some of these do correspond to some standard–for example, Euclid’s Postulates describe the behavior of geometric figures on a flat surface, and fiddling with the Fifth Postulate can create systems corresponding to different types of curved surfaces–but it is not actually a requirement to do so.

The humanities, on the other hand, and particularly in the analysis of the arts, follow a correspondence model. This is necessary, as the works being analyzed themselves are under no requirement to be consistent. Thus, the only real rule is that analysis must correspond to the work being analyzed; while most analytical essays try to be consistent within themselves, and sometimes attempt consistency with particular paratexts or broad theoretical schema, this is no more a requirement than correspondence is in math. (One even, occasionally, encounters critics who insist on only ever applying one theoretical model to all texts. How sad and tiny their literary worlds must be!)

These concepts are implicit in everything I do for this site, though I came close to making the non-necessity of consistency explicit in my first essay on Rebellion. The reason I am making a point of being explicit about them now is because Utena positively revels in inconsistency. One of its main themes is the unreliability of memory and story, so often events recalled by different characters or at different times will alter substantially. At the same time, it has enormous semiotic density–the highest of any TV show or film I’ve ever seen–so there are a wealth of interpretations, many of them contradictory, for each version of each memory/story, and all of them are true.

That’s the key point I want to make: unlike math or the sciences, in the humanities two statements can contradict each other and still both be true, as long as they have justification in the text.

Actual dump of Utena thoughts (eps 1-5) after the cut. Unmarked spoilers abound!

Episode 1: 

Revolutionary Girl Utena is the single most semiotically dense thing I have ever watched (although the Madoka movie is a close second). Everything in this show means something, and most things mean multiple things, many of them contradictory.

Case in point: color symbolism. I believe the colors in this show all have specific meanings, as does the positioning of those colors—for example, the rose frames in the corners of the screen indicate subjectivity, and the color of the roses indicates how the subject is looking at the scene. Lighter colors indicate “purer” or “higher” forms, while darker colors indicate “distorted” or “lower” forms (so black is distortion itself). In this episode, prominent colors include white (purity and the prince, notable as the color of the prince’s hair and clothes, and the color of the roses at the edges of the screen when Utena first sees Anthy), red (Utena and Touga’s hair, (I’m counting pink as a very light red) and Anthy’s dress in the dueling arena), and green (Saionji’s hair). The meaning of most of the colors and positions is spoilery; I will say that the color of the rose characters wear when dueling indicates their desires, hence Utena’s white rose reflects her desire to become the prince.

Names have meaning too! Utena means “calyx,” the part of a flower that protects the petals. Read as a single word, Tenjou means “ceiling”; however, if split into component parts it can be read as “ten,” which means “heaven,” and “jou,” which means “above.” Utena Tenjou is thus something like “the paragon of calyxes.” Anthy, more commonly spelled Anthea, is a Western, not Japanese name. It is derived from Antheia, the ancient Greek goddess of flowers. Himemiya is written as two kanji, “hime,” which means “princess,” and “miya,” which means “shrine or palace.” Anthy Himemiya is thus something like “the flower princess in the shrine/palace.”

Any association between Anthy and a shrine is interesting, because the combination of dark skin color and bindi is normally associated with characters from or connected with India in anime. The reason this is notable is because of the two dominant religions in Japan, one is homegrown (Shinto) and the other originated in India (Buddhism). (Note: Most Japanese people practice both Shinto and Buddhism more or less equally. Also, yes, I am aware that bindis are a Hindu thing; I’m not sure that animators are, though.) We can thus presume that the shrine with which Anthy is associated is a Buddhist shrine.

This seems like a suitable juncture at which to point out that, while the architecture (i.e., the design of individual buildings) of Ohtori Academy is modeled on Versailles, the layout (i.e., the positions of those buildings and the big mound o’ trees as seen in the brief aerial shot in this episode) is modeled on the Osorezan Bodai-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple in Japan. Specifically, a temple designed to evoke traditional depictions of Buddhist “Hell,” which is actually more like a purgatory.

Given recent media consumption, I am hard-pressed to make it through the subverted-fairy-tale opening without mentioning either Princess Tutu or the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Note that it’s not the only strange twist on a fairy tale in this episode—there’s that upside-down castle, too. Saionji claims it’s a “trick of the light,” and illusion. Thirty-seven episodes later, Akio will turn off the projector, and commence with the disillusionment of Utena… only to follow it up a few minutes later with some actual magical stuff. I meant it when I said this series likes to contradict itself!

There are few things greater in life than Utena determinedly climbing a spiral staircase while accompanied by a Satanic children’s choir. For the record, the “darkness of Sodom” is cruelty to strangers and lack of charity, the notion that it has anything to do with homosexuality is an urban legend of medieval origin.

The song for the fight with Saionji is fascinating. It’s mostly about Utena, who has been cast into a role she doesn’t understand and is trying to barrel through on the strength of her passion and righteousness.  Of course it is also a song of praise to Akio/Dios. 

Utena’s discomfort in the final scene is palpable. She thought she was striking a blow against an evil abusive man and saving an innocent woman, but now she learns that she has instead become part of an evil abusive system, Anthy was an apparently willing participant, and Utena is now the “owner” of the woman the system treats as property. Oops. Perhaps rushing in to play the savior in a situation you don’t fully understand isn’t necessarily a great move.

Episode 2:

“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.”

Demian, Herman Hesse, 1919

One of the reasons I love Revolutionary Girl Utena is that it introduced me to one of my favorite books, which is also one of the main inspirations of the anime, Herman Hesse’s 1919 novel Demian.
Demian is a bildungsroman about Emil, a young man torn between being “good” as defined by his parents and the culture around him, and being true to himself. On the cusp of puberty, he meets Demian, a charismatic boy with whom Emil develops an intense fascination and friendship (the homoerotic subtext is quite prevalent). In time, Demian introduces Emil to the cult of Abraxas, a Gnostic deity who is the creator of both God and Devil and thus combines good and evil into a single supreme being. Recurring throughout the book is the idea, as expressed in the quote above, that goodness is determined by societal norms that require people to deny their true natures. In order to be both good and true to oneself, it is necessary to first have a world revolution to sweep away those norms, destroying the old order to make way for a new world in which people can be truly and fully themselves.

Throughout Utena, Anthy is caught between the demands of being the good “Princess” and her nature as the “Witch”. Inspired by the titular character, she helps create a revolution that empowers her to set out on her own, finally true to herself. (Yes, I am arguing that Anthy is the real main character, and this is the story of her growing up. The story of Utena growing up will have to wait for the movie.) 
An exchange diary is a thing young couples, particularly teens, sometimes do (did?) in Japan. It’s pretty much just a diary they pass back and forth, taking turns recording their entries. It’s a surprisingly intimate and romantic thing for Saionji, who previously has been just an abusive asshole, to do. Of course he still is an abusive asshole, that’s why his hair is DARK green.

Because that’s what green, the next color on our list, signifies: relationships (romance, family, friends) and loyalty. And hair color represents the character’s path or destiny, which in the case of the duelists means it represents their path to attaining the Power of Dios. Saionji’s dark hair indicates that he is very, very far from getting there—his path is relationships, and he’s HORRIBLE at them. Utena’s very light hair is an indicator that she’s much closer—in fact, she’s so close that Dios emerges from the castle to possess her during the duel.

This is one of my favorite duel songs in the series. If the Discworld’s God of Evolution had hymns, this would be one.

Anthy is totally manipulating Utena here. Note how she sends Chu-Chu to fetch Utena just in time to see Saionji hit her. She needs to get Utena into the dueling arena, after all–a duelist who won’t fight is useless to Akio.

However, I do believe she is genuinely surprised, touched, and happy when Utena doesn’t throw the duel. She isn’t used to being treated like a person by her “fiancé” and she is finding that she likes it.

Utena’s discomfort at being called “Miss Utena” by Anthy is probably at least in part that it’s what Anthy used to call Saionji–“Miss Utena” is a translation of “Utena-sama” and last episode, “Saionji-sama” was translated as “Master Saionji.” 

Episode 3:

This episode. I love this episode SO MUCH. It’s weird, because the first time I saw the series I kind of hated it? But now it really speaks to me. I think because I have some of the same issues as Anthy with crowds? And for some of the same reasons…

Touga is such a creeper in this episode.

Nanami is so evil in this episode! It really sets her up to be a significant villain. (Which of course she isn’t remotely. Poor girl.)

Okay, I know those are dessicants that Chu-Chu pulls out, but they REALLY look like condoms. That is a creepy thing to be giving the dance queen nominee!

Both dresses are kind of awful tbh?

I like that we see a bunch of male-female couples with their arms linked, and then Utena and Anthy enter in the same pose, only more colorful. One of the great things about this show is that what would be subtext in another show is straight-up text here.

I don’t think the character’s “normal” outfits mean anything, but I think very often when they wear something special it does. Specifically, it shows what role they’re taking on—so the green dress symbolizes that Anthy is in the role of “friend,” foreshadowing that Nanami’s treatment of her as a friend is just that, a role. I’m holding on to the full meanings of yellow and purple a while longer, because they’re spoilery, but Nanami’s dress holds a similar meaning. Among the meanings of purple is wickedness, and one of yellow’s is childishness. Nanami is being evil in a very high school way, in other words.

Everything about Utena’s rescue of Anthy, from the music to the poses to the framing, is the dashing prince saving the princess in distress.

There’s some great work being done here in terms of contrasting Nanami, who wants to possess her brother and deny him any relationships with others, and Utena, who currently has possession of Anthy but wants her to be free and make friends. Nanami really is playing the role of the rich, mean, popular girl… but notably she only seems to have three friends, and everyone else just kind of shows up at her parties. While Utena is genuinely popular, but really generally a nice person.

This episode also puts a bit of a twist on Utena’s victim-blaming, which has probably been her most consistent flaw so far. Namely, that there isn’t a trace of it when she’s confronted with an immediate threat to Anthy; she jumps in and helps. Unlike most victim-blaming, hers seems to be simply internalized attitudes she can potentially grow out of, as opposed to an ingrained reflex excuse to not do anything.

Ultimately, not a lot really happens in this episode, but we get the introduction of Nanami and her possessiveness of her brother, and massive Utena-Anthy ship bait. It’s nice.

(Addendum: Several people on Mark Watches questioned whether it made sense for Utena to think Touga might be her prince, given that he looks NOTHING like the prince in the opening. I don’t think it’s an issue, because it’s clearly a very emotionally charged memory for Utena. When people are in a highly emotional state, they tend to remember the details related to the emotion very well, but unrelated details very poorly—for example, people who have been threatened with a weapon can usually describe the weapon in great detail but often have difficulty remembering what the attacker was wearing. So it’s not that surprising that Utena remembers some elements very specifically (his words, the smell of roses) but others not at all (what he looked like). And, of course, there’s no particular reason to assume the opening is true… 

Episode 4:

Now we get the episode focused on one of my favorite instrumental bits from Utena’s soundtrack, The Sunlit Garden!

(Have I mentioned how much I love the way the duelists are animated in the OP? Because I love that sequence.)

I love a good in medias res opening.

So Miki’s a Sensitive Artist ™, and Anthy’s his crush/muse. Yeah, I’m definitely WAY less sympathetic to him than last time I watched this part of the show, which is several years ago. Now I just find his whole “worship from afar,” “dedicate my art to her” act to be creepy and gross. I think I’m dropping him out of my top five.

I like that Utena is (a) good at math, but (b) only if she works at it. She got complacent and lazy, which is most definitely something she’s shown hints of before.

And now Nanami has a new excuse to send her minions after Anthy. Which backfires into causing the two of them to meet… or was Nanami deliberately setting up for that to happen to enable what she does later? I’m really unsure.

Okay, WTH is a “middle school freshman”? Is that someone in their first year of middle school, meaning Miki’s a year behind Utena and Wakaba? I have never heard of middle schools having freshmen, though, so for all I know it’s a way of saying that this is one of those weird middle schools that goes up to ninth grade, and he’s a high school freshmen=ninth grade=equal third year of middle school=a year ahead of Utena and Wakaba. Not that it matters, since people don’t age at Ohtori…

Really, Wakaba? A couple of people about the same age are hanging around, talking and laughing, and you can’t figure out what in the world they could be doing together? Especially given that both are affiliated with the student council?

I do really like the relationship between Juri and Miki, it has a sort of big-sister little-brother vibe right from their first scene together in the library. And it’s pretty much the only healthy sibling-like relationship in the show, so…

It’s really, really important that Miki ends up helping a bunch of people with their math rather than just Anthy. It helps clarify that he’s a nice guy, not a Nice Guy ™. In the same sense, his lack of interest in dueling Utena or possessing Anthy makes it clear that he doesn’t want to control or manipulate the woman he’s interested in, the way Saionji and Touga do.

Ah, the “shining thing.” It is, of course, inspiration, and part of the complex of concepts associated with the color blue in this show. Blue is the color of the mind in all its various aspects: intellect, inspiration, expression, and most prominently memory. Miki’s blue hair represents that he is destined to walk the path of the mind, that intellectual and artistic pursuits are his key to self-actualization.

The Shadow Girl play this episode is about the myth of love from afar. The boy has a crush on the girl as long as he doesn’t know what she’s really like; once he finds out, he loses interest. (By the by, my last serious relationship was with a woman who, among many other things, liked pro wrestling and garlic ramen.) You cannot possibly love a person you do not know; all you can love is an image of them, which is your own creation. “Love from afar” is thus a form of narcissism.

It’s also about calling attention to the fact that we viewers don’t know Anthy as well as we think we do.  

I like Nanami’s annoyance at Miki’s complete rejection of the idea that she might be his girlfriend. Does she have a bit of a thing for him? It’s possible, though I’m sure she’d deny it. Mostly though I think it’s just that her ego demands that all boys have a thing for her.

The whole “Nanami tries to sneak animals into the dorm room, gets one-upped by Anthy” is glorious nonsense. Very, very funny stuff. It’s also massive foreshadowing. Did you catch what Anthy was drawing while giggling to herself? AN ELEPHANT. And she’s *animating* it, i.e. bringing it to life. Anthy’s revenge on Nanami for last episode’s dance party has barely begun. But honestly, Nanami, what did you expect after trying your mean girl act on an actual, bona fide, fairy-tale witch?

Also, the “build up” music before Nanami opens the pencil box/desk drawer/closet for real (as opposed to her fantasy sequences) is exactly the same as the loading screen music from the game Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Weird.

I like that Nanami actually considered the possibility her first two plans would fail. And that she brought gloves to handle the octopus, and tongs for the snake. She worked hard on these ridiculous plans!

I like that Anthy can’t cook. It helps reduce the level of uncomfortableness in the dark-skinned character being super-domestic. (Which wouldn’t be an issue in Japan, I think; her skin color and bindi would cause her to be read as Indian, which in anime means she gets stereotyped as “exotic” and mystical. Not any less racist, mind you, it just means that her cleaning and service would not be read as part of the stereotype, where to American viewers they very much are.) Plus it is a traditional property of witches that their presence causes food to go bad and milk to sour. As well as, oh yeah, power over wild animals. As much as this episode is about setting up for the next one and the Miki duel, it’s even more about establishing Anthy as the witch. But in a way that is completely non-obvious if you’re not looking for it.

Okay, so Miki refers to Anthy as Nanami’s upper-classman. So… Nanami and Miki are in the same grade, but Miki is taking some college courses as well? Then Utena, Wakaba, and Anthy are in the next grade up? And Saionji, Touga, and Juri are all in high school, presumably seniors? Do I have that right?

And by coincidence, the song Anthy chooses to play just happens to be the one that Miki is obsessed with. Except that everything else that Anthy has done in the episode so far makes it clear that this is not remotely a coincidence. This is how she manipulates him into dueling, because she needs Utena to beat all the other duelists. There needs to be a clear and dominant champion for the Black Rose duelists to fight, after all. It won’t work if she’s never been tested against Miki.

(Comments when I posted this to Mark Watches eventually produced a really fascinating discussion of seat placement in shows with classroom scenes. Basically, it’s very common for the main character to sit next to the window in the second row from the back, with a major supporting character behind them. This arrangement has a number of advantages both in terms of making scenes easier/cheaper to animate and in terms of story convenience, since the character can see things happening outside.)

Episode 5:

I have a new, silly theory: martial prowess in the Revolutionary Girl Utena universe is directly proportional to how gay you are:

Ruka: Homophobe; loses his only duel, dies the next episode.

Nanami: Not at all gay; gigantic butt-monkey.

Saionji: Pretty shippable with Touga, but that barely counts, Touga ends up with everyone eventually; slightly less of a butt-monkey than Nanami.

Miki: Maybe a little gay; loses consistently to Utena.

Touga: Bi; can beat Utena if he cheats.

Utena: Pretty darn gay, except for her prince/Akio, but again, that barely counts because Akio; only ever loses to cheating cheaters who cheat, but only ever beat Juri through accidents/flukes/miracles/Anthy’s witchery.

Juri: Totally gay, only duelist Utena never beats in a fair fight.

That aside, this is the second Miki episode. And basically it’s the story of a boy who really tries to be a decent person, and rebel against the patriarchal system that treats Anthy like property to be passed around. But then another man, Touga, reinforces Miki’s nascent sexism, and he chooses to objectify Anthy down to her piano playing and try to possess it. In the process he forgets that Anthy is a woman with preferences of her own, so while he’s busy projecting all over her his desire to possess her and “protect” her piano playing, she’d actually rather that Utena wins the duel. Boo, Miki! Like Mark says in the video, you were so close!

(Another commenter on Mark Watches put this point well: basically, what they said was that this is a great example of the social reinforcement of misogyny. Miki starts out feeling entitled to “take back” his “shining thing,” objectifying Anthy, but as he interacts with her he starts treating her as a person. However, then Touga comes in and convinces Miki that he needs to “take what’s his,” and he starts objectifying and projecting all over poor Anthy. The fact that Anthy’s trying to manipulate him into dueling at the same time doesn’t help! All that said, none of this excuses Miki’s actions, only explains them.)

Throughout all this, he’s driven by the memory of his piano playing with his sister, which helps obscure his ability to see what’s happening in the present. His eyes are fixed on that memory, distracting him from his path; instead of developing his skills and expressing new feelings, he’s fixated on the one song he played in the past. That’s what Juri’s trying to tell him in their fencing match—his obsessive perfectionism is holding him back. It’s the point of the pirate sketch, too—the Shadow Girl pirate has been trapped in a cycle of acquiring things for so long that he’s stopped caring about the things he acquires, and just goes through the motion, rather than figure out what he truly wants and seek that. And, again, it’s the spira mirabilis of the duel song (one of my favorites, by the way), the perfect mathematical spiral that keeps returning to where it started instead of striking out into the world.

Miki is trapped chasing after a memory, and if you’ll remember, I mentioned last time that blue is the color of memory. His blue eyes are fixed on a blue memory, and that’s no coincidence; the characters’ eye colors show what it is that they’re fixated on, which is to say the primary obstacle to pursuing their path. With that, we now have the three main color-symbolism elements of the characters, though we don’t know what all the colors mean—in fact, Miki is so far the only character for whom we have a full explanation: his blue hair shows his path, which is intellectual achievement and artistic expression. His blue eyes show his fixation, which is his memory of the sunlit garden. And his blue rose shows his desire, which is divided between recovering that memory and achieving greater levels of expression and skill.

I say “divided” because, as the end of the episode shows, recovering that garden and the experience of playing with his sister won’t help him. His memory is false, as memories always are, because all memories are stories and all stories serve their tellers. (MAJOR SERIES THEME ALERT!) He is as deluded about his sister’s piano playing as he is about what Anthy wants, projecting himself onto both of them.

There’s really only one other character whose eye color is interesting at this point: Anthy. We just don’t know enough about the other blue- or green-eyed characters to explain their colors, but Anthy’s green eyes are plainly a reference to the fact that her loyalty to her fiancee and the dueling/Rose Bride system in general are putting her in a submissive, servile role, leaving no freedom to explore whatever her path may be (we don’t yet know what purple means, so we can’t pinpoint it). And as we’ll see later in the show, the other meaning of green—relationships—is a huge obstacle for her, too, specifically her relationship with her brother.

Only other comment I have is that Miki’s sister tends to be subjected to a lot of slut-shaming by the fandom, and it annoys me. I actually rather like her; it’s rare to see a girl so young who so thoroughly owns her sexuality and openly refuses to apologize. Touga’s still a total creeper, though. Isn’t he 17 or something like that? He really should NOT be messing around with a 13-year-old girl, that’s seriously gross.