Utena Dump: Episodes 36-39

And so at last we come to the end of me dumping thoughts about Utena. I’m a bit sad. For things I literally just dashed together as comments on someone else’s blog, I feel like there was some good stuff here. Also any time spent thinking about Utena is time well spent.

Next week is another Sailor Moon liveblog. Week after that, a new feature that’ll run on alternate Wednesdays through, if I’ve done my math right, most of the rest of the year. (I probably haven’t; calendar math is hard.)

Episode 36:

There is a fairly slim chance that the “doorway of night” is a Tolkien reference. Specifically, the Door of Night is the gate between Arda, the universe of material existence that includes Middle-Earth, and the void. It was created at the end of the First Age to seal Morgoth, the first and most powerful Dark Lord [ed: and blatantly modeled on the popular Christian conception of Lucifer, so there’s your connection to Akio], into the void. So if it’s opening…

More likely, however, it’s just a cool- and ominous-sounding phrase that evokes darkness and the day’s end.

Actual thoughts on this episode mostly involve Touga and Saionji’s friendship, and what I think is going on in the sidecar scene. Like a lot of conversations in this show, it’s heavy on fugue, which is sort of halfway between code and subtext. It’s like a code that is perfectly understandable to the people using it and opaque to everyone else, not because they’ve agreed on some symbolic schema beforehand, but because the people using it know each other well enough to understand what the other person means.

So for starters, this is CLEARLY Touga doing his “Akio Jr” schtick, and Saionji wanting none of it. From there we get Saoinni saying he doesn’t like Touga’s manipulation of him. Touga’s response is care and concern for Saionji, his way of saying “I actually don’t like hurting you and I’m sorry I’m a dick.”

And from that point on, Saionji is snarkmaster, no longer chasing after the incatchably pedestal-occupying Touga ribbing and advising his friend. And Touga accepts this with good grace. They’re equals…

…which means they have the closest bond of any pair Anthy and Utena have ever faced, and are therefore the most dangerous foe. The false Rose Brides have previously always been associated with the cars, and here for the first time both cars and duelist attack Utena. Touga and Saionji are working together, and therefore almost as dangerous as Utena and Anthy.

Which brings us to the ending. As others have pointed out, Anthy knew Utena was not really in bed and likely to wake up. It’s very probable she planned, or at least hoped, for Utena to see her. One final effort to drive her off?

Episode 37:

So. Very. Much. is happening in this episode.

[Last episode] I talked about fugue. Today is the best example in the series, the poison scene. But sometimes fugue and implication aren’t enough, which is why we get one of the most important moments in the show… But more on both scenes below.

Mostly, this episode is a reflection of Episode 12, “For Friendship, Perhaps.” In that episode, Utena’s confidence was shaken by her defeat at Touga’s hands, and she temporarily abandoned her quest to become a prince and became more “girly.”

Here, Utena is not trouble by a [personal] loss, but rather by a feeling that she has lost her nobility and worthiness. She feels betrayed by Anthy and Akio, confused, dirtied by the echo between what she’s done with Akio and what she saw Anthy doing, and she feels she can no longer be the Prince. On her date with Akio she wears a red sweater like the one Anthy made in the cowbell episode; as always, costume changes suggest a character is filling a new role, and in that episode the sweater represented Anthy weaving the bizarre situation. Here Utena is playing the part of Anthy’s victim, wrapped in her spells and manipulations, seeking rescue by the Prince from the Witch.

But Akio isn’t interested in the stars. He isn’t interested in romance or playing the role anymore; there is no salvation for Utena with him, only another trap. Utena even begins to recognize this–Akio’s comments about how girlish she looks are couched as complements, but really they’re statements of contempt. Sure, she can become his Princess in the castle, but in so doing she is just another Rose Bride, forced to play nice or else be labeled as Witch, blamed for everything that goes wrong in everyone’s lives, and stabbed by the swords of humanity’s misogynistic hatred.

Nonetheless, even Akio knows the choice belongs to Utena. She can still choose to reject the roles created for her by others, if she can withstand humanity’s judgment. But does she even want to? She sought to become a Prince, joined the duels to save Anthy. Now–just as in Episode 12–she questions whether Anthy is even worth saving. Both times it was because Anthy “cheated” with the person Utena was starting to think might be her Prince. But this time Anthy is still around for Utena to vent her frustrations, and she shreds the letter inviting her to the final duel. Akio is on the verge of victory; he feared the relationship between Utena and Anthy, and it is on the verge of falling apart.

But then comes the glorious, glorious badminton game, where Utena sees that her friends–and Juri, Miki, even Nanami are now clearly her friends, though Nanami remains one of those people who expresses their concern by yelling at its object—support her. Maybe she has to choose between surrendering to Princesshood or becoming a Witch in the eyes of the world, between the trauma of breaking the world’s shell and dying without ever truly having lived as herself–but she doesn’t have to do it alone. There are people who support her. Who know who she is and see that she isn’t the Princess and value her anyway.

It is here that Utena realizes what a terrible friend she’s being to Anthy. The Shadow Play is all about the trap Anthy is in, where the only way for B-ko to find her place in the world is to play the “whore” part of the Madonna/whore complex; the casting couch is a horrible thing, but our social structures force B-ko to use it (and the media-scandal route to fame, which is a sort of media equivalent) if she is to get the role she sees as the only path to her dreams. However, just because this is the way our society is constructed does not excuse C-ko’s judge character from moral culpability for his choice to benefit from it, any more than Akio’s claims that “the World” is the source of Anthy’s pain excuses him from his choice to aggravate it.

Utena soon realizes she’s done something similar to Anthy, judging her for her “choice” to sleep with Akio when there is every reason to believe she’s being coerced. And all it took was some friends showing they support Utena for Utena to realize she has the strength to break out of society’s Princess/Witch trap; maybe she can do the same for Anthy, and the fugue/poison scene is her attempt to do just that, to find out what Anthy would do if she weren’t trapped and support her in that goal. Unfortunately, in light of episode 38 it’s clear that Utena and Anthy were reading that scene differently; what I posted above is deliberately the read of a person who (like Utena) doesn’t know what’s to come (paraphrased):

Anthy: Are you familiar with cantarella? Also, do you like the cookies? I made them myself. (I’m dangerous, poisonous. I’ve hurt you and will continue to hurt you.)
Utena: I poisoned your tea. (I hurt you too.)
Anthy: It’s delicious. (I know, and I still value your friendship.)
Utena: So are the cookies. (Likewise.)

But Anthy knows what’s coming, so to her the conversation is very different:

Anthy: Are you familiar with cantarella? Also, do you like the cookies? I made them myself. (I am going to betray you and hurt you very badly. It might even kill you.)
Utena: I poisoned your tea. (I hurt you too.)
Anthy: It’s delicious. (You aren’t a threat to me.)
Utena: So are the cookies. (I’m too naïve to recognize how dangerous you are.)

(Cantarella is a great choice of poison, too, given its association with the Borgias. Lucrezia Borgia is the most famous of the family, supposedly for killing a whole bunch of people. Historians agree that she almost certainly didn’t, and everything written about her is basically centuries of people piling lurid, made-up detail on lurid, made-up detail, until what actually happened is utterly obscured in favor of a depiction of a most likely ordinary woman as a terrifying monster. Sound familiar?)
Utena’s ensuing promise, revealing she forgives Anthy utterly–that Anthy’s last and most desperate attempt to drive Utena away before she is destroyed by the powerful energy field of fucked-upped-ness that surrounds Akio and Anthy has failed–forces Anthy to an even more desperate move, a suicide attempt. I’ve seen some fans questioning whether Anthy can even die–aren’t she and Akio heavily implied to be eternal?–but that’s mistaking this for what Gayatri Spivak dismisses as “gossip about imaginary people,” the form of reading/watching in which fiction is treated as a window into a consistent and coherent other world, as opposed to a deliberately constructed artifice in which all elements are entirely invented and entirely under the control of the author(s). Anthy wants to die so she tries to die; it doesn’t actually matter whether at some other point in the story she survived being impaled with hundreds of swords. Or, to put it another way, in real life there are “layers” of reality, sets of experiences which vary in how real they are, with material reality the most real, followed by the consensus reality of social constructs and perception, and then the unreal, such as fiction and dreams. Most fiction mimics this structure, but there is no actual requirement that it must, since of course all layers in a work of fiction are part of the unreal layer in real life. Utena is an example of a series that doesn’t bother; the events we see unfolding around the characters when they are awake and active are no more or less real-within-the-show than a Shadow Girl play or a dream sequence.

Or if you prefer, maybe the Rose Bride is eternal but exists on the layer of story, while Anthy is mortal on the material layer–in other worlds, she’s only immortal and eternal when she’s playing the role of the Rose Bride.

Regardless, this suicide attempt, on which more when I talk about episode 38, serves to patch things up for Utena and Anthy. Utena now realizes her real role; she is not the Princess or the Witch, and maybe not even the Prince. She’s the Fool, one of the great literary archetypes—she belongs in a class of characters that includes such luminaries as Twoflower, Sam Gamgee, and (he grudgingly admits, still hating the characters) Isaac and Miri. [Note for non-Watchers: I picked these three particular characters because all three works, The Colour of Magic, The Lord of the Rings, and Baccano!, had been covered by Mark Watches at the time I originally made these comments, and thus could be presumed familiar for the audience.]  She’s the one who has no idea what’s going on and therefore can cut through the biases and assumptions of others. The one who, in her obliviousness of what is and isn’t possible, can accomplish the impossible. The one who, precisely because the normal sources of wisdom are denied to her, possesses intuitive knowledge unavailable to the wise. The one who possesses the power of an adult and the naivete of a child, and therefore can bring about new beginnings.

She is the One Who Brings the World Revolution.

And, Anthy at her side, she is heading for the arena.

The Duel Named Revolution has begun.

Episode 38:

So, one thing people occasionally ask is whether and how much Akio was manipulating Touga. The answer is Yes and Lots. But I think, given the amount of panic he shows when he first says it, that Akio is honest about wanting someone to beat Utena in the Car Saga duels. He clearly wants to take the heart sword of the One Who Brings the Revolution of the World, but he’s also clearly worried about Utena and Anthy’s closeness–Anthy is also necessary to his endgame. So plan A was to work with Touga to get someone to beat Utena and become the OWBRW. But Akio is a master manipulator; he knows better than to assume Plan A will work. So Plan B is to get close enough to Utena to drive a wedge between her and Anthy and make her surrender the sword herself, becoming a pseudo-Rose Bride. Plan C is to take the sword by force in a duel. And Plan D? Anthy backstab.

So he reveals himself as the Prince, and nearly persuades Utena to become his princess. But as he feared, she is too close to Anthy, unwilling to leave her behind and ascend to eternal bliss with Akio. The key moment is Utena’s flashback to the aftermath of last episode’s suicide, the overt version of what was merely implied in the cantarella scene: Anthy has been manipulating and using Utena both in an attempt to alleviate her own pain and at her brother’s behest. But Utena doesn’t blame her; Utena at last realizes her own greatest flaw, her “cruel innocence” and savior complex.

As I mentioned before, a key theme of this series is that the concept of the savior, the “prince” in the show’s own parlance, is inherently flawed. Saving others is about providing the help you want to give to the problems you perceive them as having–it is entirely about yourself. Helping others, by contrast, is about reaching out to them and letting them decide what you can do for them. It renders you vulnerable, but is the truly altruistic option. For the first time, Utena realizes that in trying to save Anthy she has been treating her as an object, talking over her, perpetuating a system that victimizes her, failing utterly to try to learn Anthy’s point of view.

Utena recognizes this at FOURTEEN. Some people spend their entire lives without understanding the difference. This is a pretty huge achievement on Utena’s part.
So Akio falls back another technique, a classic tactic of the abuser: gaslighting. That is, he attempts to convince Utena of things she knows aren’t true, so that she will lose confidence in her own perceptions and attitudes and rely more on his. His opening move is to reveal that the castle in the sky is (as Saionji said it was in the first episode!) an illusion created by his planetarium, the dueling arena itself simply his bedroom. Everything that Utena experienced there, he claims, was his creation. (This is nonsense, of course. Even if the imagery was his, the dueling arena has never been about the images; it’s about the emotional realities of the clashing characters, and that is their own creation, even if Akio has been exploiting it.)

He tries to undermine her moral sense, too, pretending that a 14-year-old girl being seduced into an adulterous relationship by an older, more experienced man is just as bad as an adult who rapes and abuses his underage sister. Unfortunately, Utena doesn’t have the words in the heat of the moment to articulate why it’s different–again, this is classic gaslighting. Finally he tries to convince her that her goal is false; Anthy does not want to be rescued and there is no such thing as a prince.

But Utena stands firm, and forces the duel.

I adore this scene with the Student Council that follows, the first time all five of them have ever been in the same scene together. The egg speech has always been another core theme of the series. As I explained before, it is a Hesse reference, and describes the necessity of either breaking the world’s shell, the social structures that both maintain society and oppress individuals, or living out your whole life and dying without achieving your fullest potential. It is the arc of most characters in the show: In the beginning is the fairy tale of childhood, where you are safe and protected and powerless like the princess. Then comes adolescence, where you begin to assert the power that all human beings naturally possess, albeit in varying measure–physical power, social power, moral judgment, sexuality–and become aware that the world is not a safe and comforting place, but corrupt and full of darkness and dangers, as well as confining, arbitrary social norms that deny you full self-expression “for your own good.” That is as far as Akio can reach–but the other characters, most notably Utena but the entire student council as well–is on the verge of reaching beyond that, to adulthood, where you recognize that much of what holds you back is your own shortcomings and start working to overcome them; that much of the rest of what holds you back is arbitrary judgment by people you don’t actually have to listen to, so you stop listening to them; and that what remains can be defied and fought.

The Duel Named Revolution is fought against the world, yes, and all the judgmental and manipulative bastards who want to prevent you from being who you are, too, but it’s equally fought against oneself. (That’s a clue to whose duel this really is, by the way. Utena’s internal conflict here is nothing compared to Anthy’s.)

But mostly I love this scene because the five of them have finally come around to supporting Utena wholeheartedly. She represents them all against Akio–and they all have some pretty darn legitimate grievance against him!

Their five colors plus the Prince come together as one: Utena’s pink.

At last the duel proper begins, as Akio talks about his unstated “ideals” which are so lofty that Utena cannot comprehend them, and which justify his actions. The planetarium immediately belies his words, displaying Black Rose Saga-style desks with nothing on them. The Black Rose duelists all had a signature object that signified what it was they were seeking after; Akio has nothing. He believes in nothing, and his ideals are as much an illusion as everything else.

And Utena reveals that Akio has failed; she will not abandon her own ideals. Here the prince has ceased to be Dios, the savior, the empty myth that becomes Akio; now the prince is the ideal self, the Utena-who-is-a-better-Utena. Dios shatters, the castle crumbles; Utena has taken the concept of the prince away from Akio and made it her own.

Anthy wakes, and sees that Akio no longer has the power to face Utena. With no other options left, Akio throws Anthy at her. And for just a moment, it is almost enough… Anthy hesitates.

But in the end she does what her brother wants. The world revolution is too new, too frightening; better the eternal familiar agony than the danger of hoping and being disappointed.

Anthy stabs Utena, her dress spreading out around them like a pool of blood.

The Duel Named Revolution…

Episode 39:

Akio’s greatest weapon is the internalized misogyny of others, as Anthy demonstrates when she explains her reason for stabbing Utena: girls can’t be princes.

Akio’s second-greatest weapon is blaming others for his own treachery, as he does when he tells Utena he warned her.

Juri’s story is interesting; it is again a story of the prince, and showing yet another flaw in the ideal: you might fail and be forgotten. Fooooooooooooooooreshadoooooooooowiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.

But there is another source of foreshadowing here: Anthy hesitates to give Akio the sword. She cares about Utena, regrets stabbing her—and Akio deftly makes it all about him. Subtly he blames Anthy even while forgiving her (arrogating to himself the right to forgive her!): She knows he blames her for him no longer being the prince, so when he says this might be different if he were still the prince, it’s a subtle way of blaming her while appearing to blame himself. Their oddly ritualistic exchange about knowing and loving is similarly abusive; Akio is saying that someone who truly knows Anthy and still loves her is rare. It’s the classic “no one could ever love you but me” trick; like gaslighting, its goal is to undermine the other person’s confidence and increase their dependence on their abuser. (The Raven pulled precisely the same trick on Rue in Princess Tutu.)

Anthy’s dress stands empty. The Rose Bride was as much an illusion as the arena. The true Anthy is, has always been, impaled on a million swords of human hatred, imprisoned in the realm of the rose gate. This is the true function of the Rose Bride: to be Eve. To be the woman blamed, to take the swords of humanity’s hatred in the place of the prince, the savior, the true villain who wants humanity to suffer so he can play at rescuing them.
The Rose Gate is, of course, the same as the gate to enter the arena way back in the first episode. It’s as yonic as ever, and Akio approaches it by attacking it with a phallic symbol. He is wielding the sword of Utena’s heart destructively, and it puts her in agony.

Meanwhile, the “true” prince appears, and he’s not all that different from Akio, looking down on Utena, seeing her as weak and childish and in need of protection. Akio isn’t the corruption of Dios; they are Abraxas, one being with two faces. The “good” and “evil” faces are both masks over a single underlying reality, a being that sees itself as superior. Akio, Ruka, Touga, Wakaba’s Onion Prince; all are the same twisted approach to life expressed in different ways.

And Utena is having none of it. She stands. Even as her heart(-sword) breaks, she stands. She shoves the prince, the ruler of the world, out of the way, and as she does we see a brief glimpse of Wakaba. Wakaba, Utena’s friend for whom she started this all. Wakaba, loyal, loving Wakaba who faced and overcame her desire to be special in the Black Rose Saga; Wakaba, who doesn’t need to save others, just to be with them. At the same time, Akio speaks of his quest to win the power to revolutionize the world, because power is all he knows and all he understands. He wants to stand alone, to wield the power alone, and looks down on those who depend on others.

Which is his mistake. He insists on being the one with the power, on refusing to become vulnerable. Utena doesn’t. She admits that she loves Anthy, that she needs Anthy, that she cannot ever be truly happy without Anthy. Utena’s tear falls and becomes the drop of water that opens the gate. (Yes, once again and as always, the key to making the flower open is getting it wet.) But less crudely, the swords stop, as they must. They represented that the world hates Anthy, that it refuses to accept a woman who chooses not to be a princess. But the world doesn’t hate Anthy; misogynistic assholes like Akio do. Utena loves her.

Utena opens the coffin, her coffin, which is Anthy’s coffin. The eternally pierced Anthy was an illusion too; the real Anthy is the cowering, frightened girl, hiding in a terrible dark place because she fears the world outside is even worse. But Utena holds out a hand and lets Anthy decide whether to take it; no longer saving, but helping, letting Anthy make the choice. And as the heartbreaking strains of the series overture swell, Anthy does it. She takes Utena’s hand, willingly tries to take her hand. The arena, Akio’s corrupt system for controlling and manipulating others, Anthy most of all, falls apart as Anthy rejects it, choosing real love over the abuse she has known.

And then she falls.

Because the danger of helping instead of saving is that it means surrendering control. The other person might fall, leaving you with hand outstretched. Even worse, the world loves a savior, but often hates a helper. By helping someone the world has targeted you become a target yourself. Utena is not a princess, not a prince; in the eyes of the world, she must therefore be a witch.

Yet the series is not over. The shadow play girls step in to discuss the future–yet, oddly, there is no shadow, the familiar buildings emerging instead into light. Utena has been forgotten, and yet, much as with Mikage’s erasure before, some of the changes she helped create remain. Miki is teaching Tsuwabuki to use the stopwatch; Miki is moving on and needs someone to take his place. Saionji has abandoned dueling and wants to move ahead with his studies; he and Touga interact as friends and equals once more. Nanami has a tea dispenser similar to the one Wakaba had when she was living with Saionji; it’s ambiguous, but I think it’s an implication that Nanami and Saionji are dating–and their interactions and growth in the last arc suggest to me that they might possibly be good for each other. Or spectacularly terrible; either way, it implies both of them have moved on from their respective obsessions. Juri is still captain of the fencing team, but Shiori is now on the team with her; their relationship, too, has moved into new territory. Even the barbershop trio have transferred their interest from Nanami to her former minions, who appear to now be an independent gang of their own. Most interestingly, Wakaba seems to be shifting into an Utena-like role… (Who is that pouncing on her, anyway? A-ko? Keiko? [Another Mark Watches commenter suggested it is the girl from the first episode who told Wakaba her “boyfriend” Utena had gone on without her. This appears to be correct, and is intriguing.])

The only one who hasn’t moved on is Akio. He has moved backwards, intending to start the cycle of duels over again from the start with a new batch of duelists. He can’t move on, because he can’t let go of his power and control. As much as he uses his power to manipulate others, in the end he is enslaved to it more than anyone else, a pathetic figure gnawing away at the bottom of a pit that he’s persuaded everyone is a giant phallic tower. But he may have no choice but to change now, because the unthinkable has happened: Anthy rejects him and walks away.

And then we come to the closing credits, as my favorite track in the entire show, the triumphant “Rose and Release,” plays. (And for the second time in the episode, the first being “Overture,” I cry. Even on what must be my 20th viewing by now.) Anthy walks out of her prison, as she always had the power to do and yet never could before. She is free; she can grow up.

Of course she is doing it to find and save her love. Clad in Utena’s pink, she takes on Utena’s role as quester, protector, bringer of revolution, fool.

And what is it she walks out into? What are the images behind the credits? A gate. Trees, suggesting a forest. A long road winding into the distance. The common element is that all of these are liminal spaces, places you cross on the journey, not destinations in themselves. And indeed, we see Anthy walking ceaselessly and without hesitation through them. She does not stop until she is past all of them.

And listen to that song again. “Rose and Release” is very obviously the opening credits music, but with the lyrics replaced by vocalizing. They are ostentatious by their absence, so let us consider them.
Heroically, with bravery
I’ll go on with my life,
just a long, long time.
But if the two of us should get split up
by whatever means,
let go of me,
Take my revolution.

“If we are separated, one of us will have to change the world.”

In the sunny garden, we held each other’s hands,
drew close together and soothed each other with the words,
“Neither of us will ever fall in love again.”
Into this photograph of us
smiling cheek to cheek,
I took a bit of loneliness,
and crammed it inside.

This is clearly Anthy talking about the keepsake photo she took with Utena, which appears again at the end.

Even in my dreams, even through my tears,
even though I’m being hurt,
reality is approaching now, frantically.
What I want now is to find out
just where I belong,
and my self-worth, up through today.

Again, very clearly something Anthy would say, and not Utena. This and the preceding section establish this is Anthy’s song.

Heroically, I’ll throw away
my clothes ’til I’m nude,
like the roses dancing all around me, whirling free.
But if the two of us should get split up
by whatever means,
I swear to you, I will change the world.

“Wait for me Utena! Even if it means destroying my brother’s system, I will find you!”
Song and imagery taken together make it clear: Yes. Anthy finds Utena. They are together in the end, hand in hand. Someday, together, they shine. (Note that the title of the episode replaces the normal “to be continued” card. This is the end of the show, and the end of the show is Anthy and Utena, shining, hand in hand.)

Utena failed to save Anthy and failed to be the Prince. That’s because, as I’ve said before, the ideal of the savior is fundamentally self-contradictory and flawed. But, perhaps without realizing it, Utena helped Anthy, gave her the tools she needed to finally walk out of Ohtori Academy and the cycle of abuse she’d been trapped in for what seems like centuries. Utena is the vehicle by which Anthy escapes Ohtori, but it’s Anthy in the driver’s seat.

Which brings me to one final image and question: every duel in the series ends with the clanging of bells as the winner is revealed. But when the swords destroy the arena, there are no bells.

Not, that is, until the end of the episode, when Anthy tells of Akio and walks out. Then they ring riotously as Anthy sets off. In other words, the duel didn’t end with Utena’s defeat, it ended with Anthy’s liberation.

The Duel Named Revolution is over.

Anthy won.

Utena Dump, Episodes 31-35

Yes, two Mark Watches Utena comment dumps in a row. There was no Sailor Moon Crystal this weekend, because it’s not biweekly, it’s ever first and third Saturday of the month. In those rare (though not as rare as Tumblr would have you believe) months with five Saturdays, there is no SMC on the fifth one.


Nanami’s world comes crashing down around her as she learns she is not Touga’s sister. Anthy has tried and tried to get that tap flowing. But now that it is, can she control it?

Nanami has always been the Fool, the child, the butt of every joke, the one who brings disaster upon herself. It is the prerogative of the Fool to see the world that is hidden from others.

No one ever said it would be pleasant for the Fool.

Nanami was the innocent (painfully, cruelly innocent) princess, living comfortably in the castle with her prince/brother… but only as long as she wasn’t “the sort of girl who lays eggs.” Anthy’s revenge, ultimately, is forcing Nanami to grow up and move on. But what is she, if not her brother’s princess?

A girl who cannot be a princess…


…has no choice but to become a witch. Nanami has heavily internalized the Madonna/whore complex society thrusts upon her, and so her hatred of the “vermin” that swarm her brother turns on herself. This is inevitably blended with her discovery of Anthy and Akio’s abusive sexuality, which given her innocence is probably the first time she has ever seen sex.

So she blames Anthy, as everyone always blames Anthy, and challenges Utena to a duel. Which she loses… massively, crushingly, leaving her with nothing. She is not the princess. She is not the witch. She has no idea what she is.

But another word for “without identity” is “protean.” Now that she is no longer trapped by the princess/witch binary, Nanami can become anything. She’ll be all right. Like Juri before her, her pain at the end of the duel may well be the birth-pains of a new self, the agony of newfound freedom.

For Nanami, this is the Absolute Destiny, the Apocalypse. This is her Revolution.


Akio went out to get the flowers.

“Utena” is Japanese for “calyx,” the protective sheath around the budding flower.

Akio tells Anthy he took the flowers.

He deflowered Utena.

“Anthy” comes from the Greek for “flower.”

Anthy doesn’t seem too happy about all this.


How much truth is there in the Shadow Girls’ play? How much truth is there in any of their plays? Exactly as much as there is in anything else that we see in this show. Which is to say, none whatsoever. All fiction is equally fictional.

Which is to say, it’s all real.

There is a line missing from the speech the Student Council used to give almost every episode. After the chick breaks its shell: “The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.” Abraxas is present in the show, though; the organ piece that plays during that speech is called “That God’s Name Is Abraxas.”

He’s present in more ways than that. Abraxas is the two-faced god of the Gnostics, above both good and evil because he is the creator of both. He is the equivalent of Zurvan, the supreme creator god of the branch of Zoroastrianism named for him, who is likewise father of both good and evil, and Lord of Time. (Yes. Your suspicions were right all along. Akio is a Time Lord. Anthy is a TARDIS.)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Once upon a time there was a man and a woman and an apple, and everything was the woman’s fault. Awhile later the man got pierced and suffered and sacrificed and so he saved everyone. Except that everything was still the woman’s fault.

Or maybe it’s the one where the woman insisted on acting like she was the man’s equal, so she was driven off, tormented by angels until she became the mother of monsters, the succubus, the witch.

None of it’s true. Here’s what really happened, for certain values of “really”: The woman saved the man. Nobody was supposed to do that, so they sacrificed her instead. But that wasn’t how it was supposed to go, so humanity pierced her with a million stiff pointy hard things and made her suffer forever and take all the blame for everything. And the man, prevented from his dramatic and heroic act of self-sacrifice, who loved his sister and hurt to see her hurt, came to blame her for that pain, came to hate her, torment her, abuse her forever and ever. She trapped him in life, so he traps her in his castle, and blames her for everything.

Another girl saw them. She decided to save the woman from her pain. “But is that really a good idea?” No. No it isn’t. Saving others is about your own ego, your own desire to be the savior. Wanting to be a savior is wishing for others to suffer so that you have something to save them from, isn’t it, Homura.

Helping others is different. It’s much scarier than saving them, because it involves putting yourself out there, making yourself available, vulnerable, and letting them decide how to use your assistance. You may well end up with the hand you offer just hanging out there in space while they decide whether to take it. That’s the price of respecting the agency of others.

And now, at long last, we can talk about one last color: purple. The antithesis of yellow, which is adoration. What is adoration? It is looking up to the object of one’s love, putting them on a pedestal, worshiping them, perhaps not even noticing how that degrades yourself. It is the princess, the Nanami, the one who plays by the rules and is accepted by society as “good,” no matter what she’s really like.

Purple is hate.

Purple is the witch.

Purple is what they’ve all been fighting for all along.

It is that which dwells in the castle.

It is something shining: the morning star, the deceptive beauty, the light which casts the shadow.

It is the power of miracles: the terrible sacrifice, the dark magic of blood and death.

It is something eternal: suffering that never ends.

It is the revolution of the world: the apocalypse.

Purple is the end of innocence. It is corruption and it is maturation. It is stasis and it is change. It is Da’at, the terrible black abyss that is nonetheless the path to enlightenment.

Purple is time.

Purple is putrefaction, the endless decay that endlessly brings forth life.

At last we meet, Anthy Himemiya.


[Mark said:]I’m also curious what it is that Akio has promised Touga. There’s that hint in the previous episode when the Shadow Play Girls portray each of the duelists that each of them want something – the power to make miracles happen, the end to loneliness, the existence of something eternal – and I’m guessing this is how Akio has been able to manipulate them all through his End of the World identity. So what does Touga get? Why are all their scenes together so blatantly homoerotic?

This got me thinking. Touga seems to be associated (in the play, mostly, but also in the egg speech from the first arc) with “the power to revolutionize the world.” Then we’ve got his homophobic comments to Nanami that sound suspiciously rehearsed and directly contradict the homoerotic nature of his relationship with Akio, the weird ways in which his relationship with Saionji mirror the Shiori-Juri dynamic…

Then remember the context of the egg speech: in Demian it was about the fact that in order to be fully, truly yourself, it is first necessary to change the world to eliminate the outmoded and unfair social norms that hold you back.

So, what I’m starting to wonder: Is Touga possibly gay or bi? Does he–possibly even without realizing it himself–want the power to revolutionize the homophobic world so that he can openly explore that side of himself?

Dunno, just thought it interesting to consider. Honestly I think Touga just wants power for its own sake, because he likes controlling and abusing people.

Utena Dump, Episodes 26-30

I have a guest post on Doctor Whooves up at Phil Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorum. Give it a read; then, on the off-chance you haven’t already, read everything else he has ever written. He does to Doctor Who and British comics what I do to ponies and Madoka, only better.

If you’re coming over here from there, welcome! A brief explanation: what you’re looking at currently is a biweekly dump I’ve been doing of my comments on Mark Watches, another site at which I am a semi-regular commenter. As the title implies, this particular dump is my comments on Revolutionary Girl Utena, episodes 26-30.

If you’re looking for something more in-depth and Eruditorum-y, I recommend clicking on either of the two Readers’ Guides links in the sidebar. My Little Po-Mo is my ongoing project studying My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, while The Very Soil is my now-complete project on Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Ep 26-7

[Due to illness, I never commented on Mark Watches Utena 26. My irate paragraph of comments on MWU 27 was an apology for this. We pick up with the second paragraph:] Fortunately, if I HAD to miss an episode, at least it was Miki’s Nest Box, which I find the least interesting episode of the series. I am pretty sure it is only there because the formula demands that a duel with Saionji be followed by one with Miki.

This episode is, fortunately, a lot more interesting. More than any prior episode, it really makes clear that for all her cruelty and posturing, Nanami is incredibly, toxically innocent. It is an important contrast to the Akio car and its offer of the adult experiences unavailable in Ohtori. As horrifying as that is, this episode is a reminder that being stuck in childlike innocence is no less horrifying. Whatever the path away from horror is, it lies through experience and out the other side, not cowering and clinging to a safe, comfortable past.

Poor Nanami. Her Tragedy is that her sense of worth is entirely wrapped up in the approval of others, and as the rich little princess that approval comes not from anything positive she does, but from remaining in her define place and following all the (impossible, contradictory) rules laid down for her. Of all the characters, she is perhaps the one who needs to break the shell most–and, interestingly, in this episode she metaphorically does so by exploring her maternal side in defiance of social rules that say when and how she is permitted to do so.

And Chu-Chu hatches, leading me to my latest theory: Chu-Chu IS the World Revolution. He is what breaking the world’s shell creates.

Ep 28

One thing that really stands out to me in this episode is the scene of Shiori and Ruka first meeting. First, it definitely foreshadows the end of the episode, but I’ve never seen anyone (myself included) actually catch it on first viewing: Shiori HAS to be lying about polishing his sword every day since he’s been gone, since Juri’s been captain of the fencing team since the first episode and Shiori only transferred in partway through the Black Rose Saga.

Shiori’s hair looks brown in the orange light bathing the lockers. Given that orange is Juri’s color, it may be a reference to how Juri makes her feel so ordinary and unspecial.

Anyway, I utterly despise Ruka, and this episode contains one example why: He lied about someone polishing his sword, and Shiori lied about being the one who did it, so apparently in Ruka’s eyes that makes Shiori a liar and himself cunning. Yay double standards!

It’s appropriate his hair is a darker version of Miki… he’s basically what Miki could become if he let his entitlement overwhelm his empathy and crossed over into full-on manipulative bastard–he’s basically the PUA to Miki’s Nice Guy Syndrome.

(Of course, “Miki lets his entitlement overwhelm his empathy” works as a capsule description for basically every Miki episode. When he’s not the focus, he’s a pretty cool kid who needs to mature up a little. Moment he gets to be the focus character, he starts getting all “Mine!”)

And then there’s Shiori, who… yeah, okay, she lied to get the boy she liked and was a willing participant in his schemes against Juri. But I don’t think she’s acting out of entitlement, but rather the same horrifyingly low self-esteem we saw in the Black Rose Saga. Shiori has always struggled with feelings of inferiority, and always believed Juri looked down on her. Compounding that now, Shiori also hates Juri because she believes Juri pretended to be her friend just to get into her pants. This doesn’t justify Shiori’s actions, of course, but it does help make clear how Ruka is able to manipulate her in this episode. (Surprise surprise, the proto-PUA predator went after the girl with low self-esteem that he could easily control. What an upstanding guy.)

Have I mentioned that I utterly, ferociously despise Ruka?

As for Juri… Eh. We don’t really learn anything about her we didn’t already know. After Miki and Saionji, that’s kind of becoming a pattern in he Car Saga.

Ep 29

Trigger warning: rape, homophobia, sexual violence against lesbians

Shiori is a WRECK when Juri talks to her. She really did develop feelings for that asswipe Ruka.
Ruka physically pins Juri and forces a kiss onto her. So we can add straight-up sexual assault to his list of sins. Then he threatens to destroy Juri’s most precious possession, all to make her hate him enough to duel him, even after she’s agreed to do what he wants, all so he can set her up as “to blame” or a “willing participant.”

And now that he has Juri doing “whatever he wants,” Mr. Sexual Assault takes her on a ride in the sexmobile so that they can take the role of bride and groom in the duel.

And then at the end of the episode we learn that this was all a scheme by Ruka, who’s got a crush on Juri, to “free her” from her destructive crush on Shiori.

So, yeah. He sexually assaulted the woman he’s interested in to end her same-sex attraction. That’s called “corrective rape,” and it’s a real thing that happens to lesbian women.

Ruka is a complete, utter monster who never shows a trace of doubt or remorse. He cares only about HIS wants and HIS perceptions, and uses his strength and fencing skill to violently force them onto Juri. He is the worst person in this entire show, and the fact that he’s deathly ill excuses NOTHING.
At least we get a fucking amazing dueling song?

And Juri is still, 29 episodes in, the only member of the student council Utena has never actually beaten.

But whatever, Ruka’s a homophobic, misogynistic, rapist asshole and we’re well rid of him.


Ep 30

What’s most interesting to me about this episode (besides it being just generally relentlessly uncomfortable) is how much like typical, non-fantastic, generic shoujo soap opera it is. I mean, Utena looks older than she is thanks to being a billion feet tall, so it would be easy for a viewer who’s never seen Utena before to think this is about a high school girl with a crush on her best friend’s kinda skeevy older brother, as opposed to RELENTLESS NAIL-BITING HORROR.

Utena Dump, Episodes 21-25

Continuing the fortnightly series of posts collecting my comments on the Mark Watches reviews of Revolutionary Girl Utena:

Ep 21:

The only real support for fans who regard the Black Rose Saga as a filler arc, so I’m going to limit myself to noting [in response to Mark commenting that, had he watched this series in high school, he might have avoided some toxic relationships] that alas, Mark, I’m not sure watching this would have helped. I DID watch this show in high school, when it was new, and I was still all Nice Guy Syndrome until my mid-twenties.

Ep 22:

Mikage’s chalkboard when Akio visits him in the flashback is interesting. For a big scientific research project, it contains very little math. It does have what look like I Ching hexagrams and an inverted symbol of Venus/feminine/copper. Something to do with the Eternal Feminine, maybe?

As several people have noted, time is SERIOUSLY broken at Ohtori, possibly as a result of the project Nemuro was working on. Clothing styles have gone from 70s to 90s, and Tokiko has aged from maybe early 20s to maybe 40, but Mikage and Akio haven’t aged a day. Neither has Mamiya, but either his death was faked or he’s undead. Meanwhile, there’s hints of time going faster than it should (the tea, the cats reproducing in the course of a conversation), slower (the stopped hourglass, the teacup still being there), and even backwards (the butterfly becoming an egg on a leaf).

Meanwhile, we see the duelists planting trees, and their sacrifice is so that one day the path to eternity can be opened from the school. Saionji stated that the upside-down castle is the place where eternity can be found; the implication would seem to be that the goal of the project was to create the dueling forest and arena.

The Shadow Girl play seems to be about Mikage, an apparently unfeeling robot. But note, it says it never gets lonely because it has the monkeys for company–that lack of feeling is just Mikage denying his emotions and therefore being controlled by them. (Hi there, Spock!) The monkeys he catches are, of course, the Black Rose duelists. The implication, then, is that his nefarious scheming is a doomed attempt to cope with his loneliness.

Of course, there’s another way to read the play: Who else do we know that hides (from) their true feelings, pretends to have no will of their own, and has a monkey for a friend?

Oh, and I forgot: on the time is broken thing? That’s the common fan theory on why Miki is always fiddling with the watch. He’s noticed, and is trying to catch time in the act, so to speak. Note also that he’s the first character to know anything about Nemuro Hall–I suspect he’s figured out its somehow connected to the time distortions.
Ep 23:

Best duel song of the arc, IMO. Weirdly straightforward Shadow Girl play, too: it’s pretty clearly about how pathetic it is to cling to past accomplishments instead of moving forward into the future and forging new ones.

Mikage/Nemuro’s goal, we learn, was to make his memories eternal. I’m guessing what happened was, roughly, that they opened the path to eternity just too late to save Mamiya, and Nemuro burned the place down in rage and grief, or possibly as part of a bargain with Akio to make his memories of Mamiya last forever. (It’s not Nemuro Memorial Hall because Nemuro died there; it’s called that because his memories are stored there.)

Either way, the result was a haunting. Anthy in the form of Mamiya stuck by Mikage (which is why she’s been so tired–being two people at once must be exhausting), and the two preserved memories–ghosts, in other words–lingered on the campus, stuck in their pasts.

(I mistyped the preceding line as “stuck in their pasta.” VERY different show, that would be.)

The question then becomes, what was the point of all this? What did Akio gain by manipulating Mikage into manipulating the students?

Well, it’s hard to say what he gained, but something did change: time is now even more broken. Mikage never existed to begin with, and the memories of the Black Rose Saga are, for Utena, seemingly erased? Did the Duels happen without them ever figuring out who was behind them? Or did they all just get a couple months’ break from dueling?

More importantly, Miki remembers that the building is called something Memorial Hall… But if it wasn’t rebuilt after the fire, that means it was named that BEFORE the event that caused it to be renamed!

So now the question shifts: Who and what ARE Akio and Anthy? It’s now clear that Anthy’s insight and the strange events that happen around her aren’t coincidental… She has power of some kind, and she’s actively working with Akio. But to what end? How much is her involvement willing and how much is it coerced, given the abusive sexual relationship between them? (Her smile at the end of this episode suggests that she did derive some pleasure from manipulating Mikage.)

And what on Earth could their goal be, that breaking time is part of it? Are they after eternity, or something else?

Ep 24:

I kind of perversely love this episode? I mean, objectively it’s not very good, but the sheer audacity of doing a clip show made of clips from filler episodes fills me with glee. The only clip show I like better than this is the Greatest Clip Show of All Time, from Clerks the Animated Series. (It was the SECOND EPISODE. They only had one clip. They showed it about 20 times over the course of the standard-issue clip-show frame story.)

Anyway, this makes perfect sense. It’s the end of the arc, so we need a clip show. But the conclusion of the Black Rose Saga retroactively deleted the entire plot, so what can we show clips of? Why, the not-plot, obviously!

There’s also something a bit subtler going on, too–the last episode showed that Anthy has (currently vaguely defined and of unknown origin) Powers, that her manipulations and insights are NOT an accident but tied in directly to the weirdness of Ohtori Academy. This episode thus does to the Nanami Has Wacky Animal Adventures episodes what the previous clip show did to the Student Council arc, namely recontextualize it to show how it all tied together into an ongoing plot orchestrated by a hitherto unsuspected shadowy figure.

EVERYTHING bad that has happened to Nanami thus far is Anthy’s doing. Remember the elephant she drew in the margins of her textbook during the study session with Nanami and Miki? And now we see that she fed her curry to the Barbershop Trio and elephants, creating elephants that wanted to pursue Nanami.

This is a silly, pointless filler episode–TVTropes calls it the only entirely dispensable episode of the series. Yet it’s also the episode that demonstrates PRECISELY how powerful, dangerous, and frankly sadistic Anthy can be when provoked. She is not the innocent princess–but that does not necessarily mean that she is pure evil either, of course. Thus far there have not been any purely good or purely evil characters in this show–even Mikage was more misguided than malicious in the end, and Akio, for all that he is a sexual abuser and Mikage’s puppet-master, has also been giving Utena actually pretty good advice all arc.

(Also, surprise return of the monkey-catching robot, who carts C-ko off into space in a ship that looks suspiciously similar to the one A-ko and B-ko left in at the end of the last arc. Does that mean we’re going to get a D-ko taking over Shadow Play duties? Or Shadow Play Girls In Space? Only time will tell…)

 Ep 25:

Oh man. So much momentous stuff happens in this episode. The new arc really kicks off with a bang. Too bad it then immediately loses all momentum while it spends the next six or seven episodes cycling through the contractually obligatory duels with all the student council members. Have I mentioned that I really dislike the Car Saga enough times yet?

So, big revelation number one: Akio is named after the Japanese name for the Morning Star, and I’m just going to quote (warning: the text I quote in the next few paragraphs is safe, but the rest of the article contains extensive spoilers for the Madoka Magica movie, Rebellion) myself on this:

There is a recurring myth in the ancient Mediterranean. In it, the Shining One (Hebrew: Helel, Greek: Phaethon) tries to usurp the Sun or the supreme deity, and is cast down or punished for his presumption. This is a familiar myth in our culture, due mostly to the Greek version. The Semitic version is less well known, in large part because one of the few written references we have to it has been lost in translation, Isaiah 14:12-15 (NIV version):
“How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit.”
The English term “morning star” is being used to translate the Hebrew Helel. We can imagine the mythology here fairly easily–the brightest star in the sky, refusing to share its place with the other stars, and instead jumping up into the sky at dawn, ahead of the sun. Then at sunrise it is wiped away, only for the story to repeat the next day, an endless cycle of celestial hubris.
Of course, most of us are more familiar with another translation, the King James, and another variant of the myth, which uses the Latin name for the morning star: Lucifer.

So that’s the first big revelation: Akio’s relationship to Dios, whose name comes from the Latin for God. Akio is casting himself here as the noble Satan from the common misinterpretation of Paradise Lost, who deems it better to “rule in hell than serve in heaven.” Of course, in the actual epic it’s blatantly obvious that Satan is expressing sour grapes and trying to look good in front of his followers when he says that–it’s still open whether Akio is the same.

His role as a Satan-analogue is even clearer in the car scene, where he tempts Saionji by showing him the world. It’s a pretty blatant reference to the story of Satan doing the same to Jesus, only with Saionji it, y’know, works.

Of course, he and Dios are also the same. The last two lines of the egg speech from Demian, which the student council always leaves out, are “The bird flies to God. That God is Abraxas.” Abraxas is the two-faced god who created both good and evil.

Second big revelation is that apparently the Black Rose Saga DID happen in some sense, even if no one except Anthy and Akio remembers it: First and most obviously, the gondola appears. It appears that, just as Mikage was used to create the path to the dueling arena in the first place, he was used again to create this new path, which apparently leads to a higher order of duels.

More subtly, Anthy and Utena are now close enough for Anthy to draw Utena’s soul sword the way the Black Rose duelists drew the student council’s. Notably, however, it is Utena who wields the sword; Mikage mentioned that most people aren’t strong enough to wield their own swords, but Utena apparently is.

Trigger warning: discussion of rape in the next two paragraphs
Third revelation is that Anthy definitely does have a will of her own, confirmed by the fact that Saionji says she doesn’t. Er, I mean, confirmed by the fact that she initially resists Akio at the end of the episode. So he rapes her. (There are fan theories that Akio is LITERALLY the Devil, but I think that cheapens his horrifying actions. He is a man, who chooses to do incredibly evil things to children. Pretending he’s some kind of supernatural, cosmic force is too easy, it lets us pretend that evil is somewhere Out There instead of right in here.)

(I am honestly not sure whether to call their previous sex scenes rape. The relationship is clearly abusive as fuck, but that doesn’t necessarily make the sex nonconsensual, and I’m not sure how age of consent applies to someone who may or may not have been 14 for the past several centuries or longer.)

Trigger warning over

Going back to the car, it’s common in the fandom to view it as a metaphor for sex. I think that’s true but incomplete. No one in Ohtori is allowed to grow up (which is one of the most horrifying things I can imagine). Akio is showing people trapped in a perpetual adolescence a glimpse of the adult world. Sex is definitely a part of that, but so are power, freedom, and sophistication. Notably, Nanami emphatically rejects the sex but accepts the temptation, so it must be more than just sex.

So, my interpretation is that Akio expected the Sword of Dios to vanish, but that Anthy helped Utena more than she was supposed to. I think this was a test of whether Utena has become strong enough to wield her own soul sword; the goal of the next series of duels is to refine that sword to the point that Akio can use it to open the Rose Gate after all. But then why is he upset by the end of this duel?

The only explanation I can see is that Utena was supposed to use her soul sword, but Anthy wasn’t supposed to help. The fact that she does so not only means she choosing to help Utena of her own accord, beyond her role as the Rose Bride; it also means that she feels a bond to Utena as close as the Black Rose duelists to the people they pulled swords from–siblings, close friends, years-long crushes. Abusers depend on isolating and controlling their victims, so Anthy developing that kind of bond is incredibly frightening to Akio.

Utena Dump: Episodes 16-20

Onward with Utena thoughts! This next block of episodes contains some of my favorites in the entire series, and also one of my least favorite.

Episode 16

Not much to say on this one. Nanami’s got a fever, and the only cure is less cowbell.

The Duel song (as far a I’m concerned, this counts as a duel) is “Donna Donna,” a Yiddish music hall song from the 1940s, though in the US the English cover by Joan Baez is better known. It is about a calf who is carted off to die just because he’s a calf. He complains about how unfair this is, when birds get to fly free, and is told it’s his fault for not being born a bird. Given Utena’s exploration of gender roles and sexuality, there’s a lot of resonance here. (Given it’s time and place of origin, the song is usually interpreted as being about the Holocaust, however.)

Anthy spends the whole episode knitting a red scarf. Just as green is the color of friendship and choice, red is the color of manipulation and control. She’s weaving this whole episode, her ongoing revenge against Nanami. My first time watching, even not having the color symbolism, I was sure she totally ordered the cowbell on purpose. (Not just for the party and the dress, either. Anthy did nothing but protect her brother, and was hunted as a witch. Nanami “protects” her brother while treating everyone around her like crap, and is still treated as a princess.)

Red is also the color of self. These little escapades of tormenting Nanami are as much a part of Nanami regaining her independence as her relationship with Utena is.

Episode 17

Oh, it’s a Juri episode. That’s okay, I wasn’t using my heart anyway.

Poor Shiori. No, really. She’s one of the most hated characters in the fandom, and I can understand why, but I really feel for her.

Think about it: she literally cannot conceive of any reason Juri might have been nice to her as a child except pity. Her self-worth must have been really low to start with, and unfortunately it’s easy to imagine potential reasons why. Then Juri starts protecting her, and it makes her feel even weaker and more pathetic. (Hi there, Anthy parallel, I see you. Note the similar hair colors. I promise I will eventually explain what purple means in this show, it’s just that I have to wait for a fairly late episode to do so without spoilers.) She resents Juri, her only friend, for making her feel this way, and in her desperation to find a way to feel like she has some power, she starts dating the guy she thinks Juri has a crush on.

She mentions feeling disgusted by the things she did with him. That might just refer to the betrayal of Juri, but I feel it’s more. The way she reacts to discovering Juri’s attraction to her suggests she’s really uncomfortable with idea of someone being sexually or romantically attached to her. It’s possible this is homophobia at work, but I don’t think it is. The episode points quite a few times to the question of why Shiori broke up with her boyfriend, but avoids answering it. Personally I think that it’s related to her distress in her elevator and her being disgusted by things she did with him: something involving sex went wrong in their relationship.

I don’t necessarily mean there was any kind of assault or abuse involved. (Though let’s face it, are there ANY non-abusive relationships in this show?) It’s quite possible that she just wasn’t as ready for whatever it was as she thought. Maybe he wanted her to do things she didn’t, and they broke up over that.

Regardless, Shiori thinks she has power over Juri at last when she discovers the locket… But she’s still incredibly upset underneath, because now her belief that Juri wasn’t helping her out of friendship is, in Shiori’s mind, confirmed: she now believes it was out of lust. She feels utterly worthless, and her only remaining option is to revolutionize the world.

All this great character development really makes for some short duels, doesn’t it?

Thought on the Shadow Play: it’s obviously about Juri and her struggle dealing with her romantic feelings and her fears regarding the closet. Utena’s response is heartlessly innocent: just change.

Episode 18

Meh. This is my least favorite episode of the Black Rose arc. The formula is established now, and this sticks to it closely, so there’s no plot surprises. And as a character piece… again, meh. It’s just nowhere near as interesting as the last two. Tsuwabuki is an entitled little Nice Guy ™ who knows that being “nice” is a bare minimum, not some kind of achievement that earns you the attention of others–but still believes he’s entitled to them, and gets all butthurt because Nanami has a life of her own that doesn’t revolve around him. Waa waa waa.

Lest we forget, this is the guy who repeatedly endangered Nanami’s life so he could act out his White Knight fantasies, and from his perspective it “earned” him a place at Nanami’s side. He’s very precocious at being an entitled misogynist; he’s probably hanging out on MRA fora or buyin PUA books already, too.

He gets two swords because Nanami used a two-sword style in her duel. There’s a fan theory that it represents dependency–that one sword is their own heart and the other sword the person they’re using as a basis for constructing their own identity. So for Nanami it represents Touga, and for Tsuwabuki it represents Nanami.

There is one shot I really like in this episode. In the elevator, Tsuwabuki has a photo of Nanami with half his face on the edge. For all his entitled possessiveness, the reality is that he’s on the edge of her life, partially cut off. That’s not the shot I mean–the shot I like is the last we see of Nanami in the episode, her face cut off the same way. She’s now being partially cut out of Tsuwabuki’s life as he chooses to spend time with a girl his own age, and she’s okay with it, commenting casually on the weather.

Culture note: “Indirect kissing” is a thing I’ve seen in a few anime. Basically, the idea is that sharing food with someone is an intimate act. But it’s frequently used in a pretty gross way, with one character using it to pretend to an intimacy that doesn’t exist. It seems to have faded out since the 90s? Or maybe I’m just not watching those sorts of anime anymore.

Episode 19

A lot of people [on the Mark Watches thread] have already commented on the question of whether Tatsuya is really “too good” to be a Black Rose duelist. [These comments were mostly variants on (correctly) pointing out that trying to date Utena because he wants to be close to Wakaba is cruel, cowardly, and deceptive.]

My own take is that this has to do with the Egg Speech from the first arc, which was a reference to (almost a quote from) the novel Demian. One of that book’s major themes is the conflict between being “good”–which explicitly means conforming to the conventional rules of the society around you–and being true to yourself. The only way to achieve true adulthood, according to the book, is to break free of those conventions. This does not mean being amoral (Demian himself specifically mentions rape as something a person who is really true to themselves would never want to do), but rather answering to the dictates of one’s own conscience. To achieve this, one must break free of the systems that sustain conventional morality–break the world’s shell, revolutionize the world, etc.

I think that’s what Mikage means. All of the other Black Rose duelists are opposed to the normal social rules of love and friendship and desire freedom from them. Kanae wants to get married without joining her husband’s family. Kozue wants her brother all to herself. Shiori sees friendship as a contest to be won. Tsuwabuki wants a girl who’s much too old for him. And by contrast, Tatsuya just wants a “normal” relationship with the most “normal” possible girl, Wakaba.

So when Mikage says he’s too good for the Black Rose, it’s not praise. It’s a derisive dismissal, saying that Tatsuya is too conventional in his desires to want to revolutionize the world.

Episode 20


So yeah, if you haven’t already gathered as much, brown is the color of normality, the masses, the non-special people. It is a plain and drab color. Wakaba’s path, her destiny, is an ordinary, unremarkable life.

Depressing? Perhaps. But as another magical girl show would say a decade later, “Happiness to those who accept their fate. Glory to those who defy it.” There are distinct advantages to being ordinary and unremarkable. The spotlight isn’t always a good place to stand.

But it doesn’t feel that way to Wakaba. Just for a moment, she tasted what it’s like to be a protagonist instead of the secondary character most of us are, and she has no way of knowing whether she will ever get to taste it again.

Utena Dump: Episodes 11-15

More of my comments from Mark Watches Utena! Today’s batch carries us through the end of the Student Council arc and into the beginning of the Black Rose, which is my favorite part of the series.

Episode 11

Well, that was fun. Touga here completes his evolution from creep in the woods to master manipulator, and the last several episodes become clear as Touga’s lengthy scheme to win his duel with Utena, from manipulating her into believing he’s her prince to manipulating Nanami into giving him a front-row seat to watch how Utena fights someone using a style based on his own. He also wants to see if he can, through manipulation, create a scenario where he wins against the previously guaranteed-victory of the Power of Dios. Probably because he thinks if he can beat that, he can beat Akio in the duel named Revolution. (It’s really only on this watch that I’ve begun thinking about Touga’s goals and long-term plan. I think he’s playing the Kefka game–let Akio lead, open the path to power, then shove him aside and claim it. Of course Akio knows this, and Touga knows he knows, and so on ad infinitum, which makes it a game not of deception but of timing and control.)

This manipulation is key to Touga’s power and status; he believes in basically nothing, and is a master at identifying, using, and subtly altering the beliefs of others. That is one of red’s two aspects in this show: belief, faith, and convictions. Touga’s hair represents, at least in part, his skill at manipulating such things—for example, making a flock of schoolgirls all think he’s interested enough in them to date him, even though they all know about each other. For Utena, by contrast, it represents how her ideals drive (and occasionally blind) her.

One other thing: the Shadow Girls play, about an endless cycle of a story that will continue until either some outside force ends it or someone involved screws it up, is pretty obviously about the now-formulaic duels, and the fact that, under the influence of outside force Touga, Utena is about to screw it up. It’s also a reference to the duels in general, with Utena now as the outside force that influences Anthy into “screwing it up.”

Episode 12

So, this episode is all about Utena regaining her identity, her sense of self, which is the other half of what red means. That might seem an odd combination–what does “self” have to do with “belief”–but they make sense in the context of this episode. Utena, defeated, has lost her way, and puts on her school uniform, choosing to play the role of the “normal” girl. I’ve made a big deal before about how costume changes in the show represent the characters taking on roles, and that’s clearly what’s happening here; for people like Wakaba, for whom the standard-issue school uniform is their usual outfit, it represents who they are–it’s “normal for them.” But for Utena, suddenly wearing it is taking on a role that’s alien to her her, “not normal for Utena.”

The half-seen crowd of cheering girls, our Greek chorus now that the Shadow Play Girls have flown off, are as enthusiastic about Utena in a girl’s uniform as they were for her old uniform. Or possibly it’s a different crowd of cheering girls. Either way, they represent a world celebrating that Utena is now “normal,” conforming to the standards of others. This episode thus places the self (“normal for Utena”) into tension with the beliefs of others (“normal for everyone else”).

Which, of course, is what Touga’s been talking about for ten episodes now: “If it cannot break out of its shell, the chick will die without ever being born. We are the chick. The world is our egg.” We cannot be truly ourselves within the constraints and rules laid down by society. “If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without ever truly being born.” It is only by pushing back against those constraints that we can fully become ourselves. We must defy the norms of society and others’ beliefs about who we should be in order to become who we believe we should be, our own best selves. “Smash the world’s shell. FOR THE REVOLUTION OF THE WORLD!” To be truly oneself, therefore, is to rebel. The power to be oneself is the power to revolutionize the world.

The world presses in on each of us, pushing us to conform; when we are true to ourselves, we push back. The inevitable consequence is that either we surrender, stop pushing, and remain contained within the world’s demands, or we force the world to accept us as we are, smashing through into the sunlight and, in at least a small way, revolutionizing it. German-romantic ethical philosophy as a universalized application of queer narrative. I love it.

And this is where Touga fails, because he is doing it backwards. Touga endlessly plays roles, never showing his true face, manipulating the beliefs of others instead of following his own beliefs, all in his quest to acquire the power to revolutionize the world, presumably so that he can then be free to be himself. (Which I rather suspect to him means “Do whatever I want,” which isn’t really the same thing at all.)

But note Utena’s rose. This episode is one of the strongest pieces of evidence that rose color represents one’s desires, because this is the first fight where Utena isn’t motivated by wanting to be the prince, but rather by wanting to reclaim herself–and her rose takes on a red tint. Utena doesn’t want the power to revolutionize the world; she wants to be who she is and act according to her ideals, and as a result is much closer to that power of revolution than Touga is.

But this isn’t just about Utena finding her lost self. Anthy is awakening too, as we see when she imagines Utena sitting across from her. Anthy misses Utena. Which means Anthy is actively wanting something in opposition to her fiance’s wishes–a huge step forward for her.

Then, in the arena, we see Anthy evolving rapidly over the course of the duel. First she is completely submissive to Touga, kneeling at his feet to “abandon her body” in a scene which, given how he’s holding the sword and how she kisses it, is rather uncomfortably blowjob-esque. It is her power which Touga wields against Utena, shredding the uniform of her false self. He slices through her sword just as Saionji sliced though her bamboo sword in the first episode, yet Utena fights on in the face of unexpected power that she cannot hope to defeat. This is what prompts Anthy to remember “that time,” when she first met Utena–and once again, it is memories of the prince that save Utena. But not Utena’s memories–it is Anthy seeing the prince in Utena that causes her to revoke her power from the sword, giving Utena the opening she needs to win.

This is where things get complicated. I mentioned putting on a new outfit can symbolize the character taking on a role. What, then, does it mean that in the dueling arena, Anthy puts on an outfit the color of the Self and Ideals. Is it saying that she takes on the role of the Rose Bride out of some ideal? That she is playing a part, but that part somehow is (or has become) her real self?

Whatever, the point is that Utena got a giant metal penis sword from the openly (to the audience, anyway) gay member of the Student Council and used it to overcome Touga’s blowjob-enhanced sword in order to claim Anthy as her bride. This ship is under full sail.

Episode 13

Clip shows are a common practice in the longer-running anime, and episode 13 or 14, being the closest episodes to the middle of a 26-episode run, are the most common episodes to have a clip show. Occasionally, a show will do something clever in the clip show, like using it to recontextualize past scenes in light of future information, juxtapose things the audience might not have connected otherwise, or using a framing device that advances the plot or drops clues. This has largely become the norm for clip shows in anime, but in the mid and late 90s was only just starting to catch on, so Utena is a bit ahead of the curve here.

The duel names are, you may note, the same as my revised interpretations of the colors. In the past, I had noticed that the names were strongly associated with colors, but still rejected them as the actual meaning of the colors because I couldn’t make red fit. Then I realized that I had missed two important things; one, Touga’s “egg” speech links the two aspects of red by way of Demian, and two, each color carries not only it’s own meanings, but meanings in opposition to its opposite color. So red is not manipulation and power in its own right, but in opposition to friendship and choice. This has the handy advantage of explaining both why Utena is closer to the prince than Touga and why her hair is so much lighter: she has partially embraced her color’s opposite. The fusion of two opposing additive colors (as when dealing with colored light, for example a TV screen) is white.

Episode 14

Quick Japanese culture note on last names: Somebody more versed in Japanese culture than I can probably explain this better, but I’ll take a crack at it. You probably noticed Anthy and her brother, Akio, have different last names. This is most likely because of a fairly feudal practice still done to this day in Japanese corporations, whereby sometimes the owner of the company will adopt a favored employee and/or arrange a marriage between the employee and the owner’s daughter, thus making the employee their heir. Said employee will then usually take the name of the company’s owner. This practice reflects a difference between Western culture, where family names were until recently strictly patrilineal (that is, upon marriage a woman joins her husband’s family and therefore adopts his last name), and Japanese culture, where the situation was slightly more complex, and could be either a wife joining a husband’s family or a husband joining his wife’s family, depending mostly on which family was wealthier and more powerful. (The practice is, of course, equally heteronormative in both traditions.)

TL;DR: Akio has changed his name to Ohtori to represent that he is the heir to the Ohtori Academy.

Note 2: This was actually written more or less stream-of-consciousness while watching the episode, hence being more disjointed than usual.

Given what we learn later, one has to wonder whether the real Chairman Ohtori even exists, however. Unless previous cycles of the Rose Bride duels happened somewhere other than the school, and the Mikage cycle was the first? Hmm, actually, that makes a lot of sense…

Mikage is apparently some kind of supergenius who writes papers for professors? And rather than accept bribes or payment, he’s more interested in building a network of people who owe him favors. Building the Science Mafia, basically. Creepy.

Do the Circle of the Black Rose and the Circle of the Black Thorn hang out?

Also, “Seminar” implies some kind of self-directed educational society.

And it looks like we have our plot! Mikage and Mamiya need to have someone duel Utena and win Anthy so that they can sacrifice her, with the goal of making Mamiya the Rose Bride.

Apparently in addition to whatever educational purpose it serves, the seminar provides counseling services to students? In a creepy confessional/elevator. Fun. Plus the elevator appears to be actually powered by the occupant’s emotions. “Going deeper” causes them to go literally deeper underground until they reach the basement/morgue… which as what appears to be the lowest place on campus, serves as a dark mirror to Akio’s apartment in the Cock Tower. (Speaking of which—if he’s interested in stargazing, why does he have a giant projector? Why not a similarly big/expensive telescope instead? Foreshadowing…) Anyway, as Kanae talks, the butterfly becomes a crysalis becomes a caterpillar. Like the occupant, it’s regressing…

So the hundred dead boys were ALL duelists. That implies A LOT of duels before the current student council. And now that they’re dead, Mikage is having them… sort of possess? Kanae. Or something.

Kanae, on the other hand, claims that the black rose has released her true self. Interesting, given that black roses normally represent death. I’m… not actually going to go further than that in regards to the color symbolism this episode, it’s too spoilery.
Also, the stair-climbing music changed! There are some much deeper voices joining in. Those’d be the hundred dead boys added to the choir of the damned, I imagine.

Hey, remember back when you thought Nanami and Touga had an uncomfortable sibling relationship? About that…

Episode 15

Somebody last time [ed.: i.e., in the comments on Mark Watches Utena Episode 14] was talking about the Black Rose as emblematic of the Jungian Shadow archetype, so let’s talk about that for a bit.

Jung’s theory of archetypes was based on his idea that folklore and religious narrative were based on a sort of instinctive understanding of human psychology, and so there were certain recurring character types that represented aspects of the human psyche and stages of the developmental process. These are the archetypes.

As a theory, either for psychological or literary analysis purposes, it’s basically buncomb, but it has some practical applications, both in therapy and as a writing tool.

And we’ve actually had a bit of it floating around in the series already, in the form of the Prince, a classic storybook character who also seems to represent the kind of person Utena is trying to become. The Prince is not actually one of Jung’s archetypes, but seems to basically correspond to the Hero, with maybe a bit of the animus (but that seems too heteronormative a concept for this series) mixed in.

The Shadow is one of the most important archetypes in Jung’s system, and probably the one with the most literary influence. The Shadow is the dark, suppressed self–not precisely one’s “dark side” in the sense of being necessarily evil, but rather all the things which you wish weren’t true about you and try to suppress and deny. Impulses and desires you don’t want to admit you have, capacities that frighten you, strengths and weakness that do not fit with your usual self-image, that kind of thing.

As I discussed in regards to FMA:B, where there are Shadow archetypes ALL OVER THE DAMN PLACE, the thing about the Shadow is that it is a representation of your own internal conflict, and thus fighting it only makes it stronger. The only way to defeat your Shadow is to embrace and accept it, make it a part of yourself.

It seems very, very likely that the Black Rose here represents the Shadow, and that the purpose of the confessional is to get the potential duelist to confront and admit the inner darkness they’re hiding from, so that it can be unleashed against Utena and Anthy. For Kanae, that was her anger, hatred, and suspicion toward Anthy. For Kozue, it’s her possessiveness of her brother and jealousy of Anthy.

So let’s talk about Kozue. One great thing about that elevator is that it is an effective form of what I’ve dubbed in my books and blogging “character ablation,” where you strip away the layers of a character’s personality, from shallowest to deepest, until you’re left with the core of who they are. It’s one of the fastest ways to develop a character, so within just a couple of episodes we understand what motivates Kozue about as well as Juri, Miki, Nanami, or Saionji and better than Touga. The Shadow Girl Play, about not wanting something until it’s suggested you can’t have it, and then immediately trying to take it, confirms it: she wants Miki’s attention. It must have been very gratifying to be the center of her brother’s world, and so she deliberately makes him worry about her by dating boys he disapproves of and so on, in order to keep his attention. But now his attention is drifting to Anthy, and Kozue feels lost. At the same time, she can’t admit that she wants him watching her (which is why she doesn’t seek positive attention from him by, for example, playing the piano), and instead on a conscious level she watches him. (Including threatening his maybe-a-pedophile piano teacher? But I don’t think Miki is actually being abused yet, just targeted. I can’t explain why, maybe it’s just because Anthy is enough sexually abused characters for one story arc.)

The milkshake is a significant image here. As someone else [on Mark Watches] explained several episodes ago, flavors have connotations regarding maturity in Japan; certain flavors are regarded as more mature than others. Sweet things in particular are seen as being less adult/more childish (and also more feminine, yay sexism). So rejecting the milkshake may be Kozue’s way of saying she’s too old for such things–and, by extension, too old to need Miki hovering around protecting her (especially since he’s the same age as her). Rejecting the milkshake, protecting him, and having lots of boyfriends are all ways for her to assert her adulthood–but she’s 13, and it’s pretty common at that age to want to assert adulthood and independence while at the same time wanting to hold on to childhood and safety.

Note, however, that there are two milkshake cups, one with a blue handle that Miki drinks and one with a sort of purplish handle, presumably the one he made for Kozue. And it’s MIKI’S cup which is on all the desks; perhaps it is Miki growing up and away from her that Kozue fears most, and Anthy drinking all his milkshakes is representative of Kozue blaming her for stealing Miki’s innocence or sweetness by being the object of his attraction. (Yes, blaming Anthy for Miki being attracted to her. That’s… pretty par for the course, really. Nanami and her cronies kept blaming Anthy for boys liking her throughout the student council arc. It’s pretty sick, but sadly common.) Not to mention darker, more psychosexual interpretations of Anthy stealing Miki’s sticky white fluid from Kozue–o hai there, end of the episode.

Interesting parallel: Utena couldn’t win the duel with Miki until Anthy cheered for her. In this duel, she again needs Anthy’s help–looks like Utena combines the sparkly Rose Bride power Touga showed her with the Power of Dios. So she is now wielding the power of Rose Bride and Dios simultaneously, no wonder the duel ended really fast at that point.

[In response to comments about the duels being a bit lackluster:] We have, I think, been spoiled by [prior Mark Watches projects] Cowboy Bebop and FMA:B, both of which have spectacularly good fight scenes in which characters have clearly defined capabilities and you can actually follow their tactical decisions, attacks, and counterattacks. Utena is much closer to the norm for anime fight scenes (and, to be honest, filmed swordfights in general), which is to say a minute or two of random flynning followed by SuperMoveThatWinsTheFight.

Utena Dump 2

Given it’s been over a month, here’s a link back to the first Utena dump. Basically, I’ve been watching the show along with the Mark Watches crowd, and these are my comments on each episode. This second dump covers episodes 6-10.

Episode 6

Yes Mark, there are a lot of runaway animals in this episode. It’s almost like Nanami pissed off someone three episodes ago who was shown to have a whole bunch of animals available to her two episodes ago.

That is, for the record, what I believe is happening in this episode: Tsuwabuki’s schemes to get Nanami to notice him are colliding and interacting Anthy’s ongoing schemes to torture Nanami. “Nothing that can be traced back to her” indeed.
As an aside, a theory (even SILLIER than my theory about martial prowess mapping to the Kinsey scale) on what Ohtori is that I haven’t seen before: a Witch’s labyrinth. Yes, from Madoka. Anthy is the Witch of Stories. She contracted with Kyubey to save her brother Dios from having to constantly save everyone. Given that the Tale of the Rose has echoes of both the Eden myth and Lucifer’s fall, she may have been the very first Puella Magi.

Silliness aside, I do believe that is basically the extent of Anthy’s power: she can do anything as long as it’s consistent with being either a fairy-tale princess or a fairy-tale witch.

And yes, I’m including the bull attack that Tsuwabuki remembers happening years prior to the ball. This is Ohtori. Time is broken. Memories are created at the moment of remembering, and the world shifts to match—the end of the Black Rose Saga demonstrated that much, which was kind of the whole point.

Anyway, Tsuwabuki. I hate him? Like, I think he’s probably fifth on my most-hated Utena characters list? (Saionji, Touga, and two characters who haven’t shown up yet round out the list. One of them is one of the characters you’re probably thinking of, the other isn’t.)
I mean, I think given the way Miki sort of oscillates on the edge between nice guy and Nice Guy Syndrome, the writers are aware that Nice Guy Syndrome exists, even if AFAIK it hasn’t been given a name yet in 1997. (A quick and dirty review of the literature does not reveal any references earlier than 2002 that I can find.) It was definitely around, since there are fictional instances of it at least as early as Shakespeare. (Unsurprising; romantic comedies are pretty much Nice Guy Syndrome as a genre, and Shakespeare more or less invented the genre with Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew.)
Anyway, Tsuwabuki is Nice Guy Syndrome and White Knight in their purest forms. He is deliberately inflicting danger on Nanami so that he can fulfill his fantasy of swooping in and saving her (oh look, Utena is anticipating yet another thing Madoka did by critiquing moe almost before it began), and then acts as her servant just so he can be “close to her.” Saionji claims that “just wanting to be near the one you love” is “a kind of love”—Utena rightly points out he’s full of shit. That’s not a kind of love, because it reduces the object of love to, well, an object, a location, treating reciprocation as irrelevant, which is to say, treating the feelings of the loved one as irrelevant.
Of course, the mere fact that Saionji relates it to his own imaginary relationship with Anthy helps clue us in on what this (otherwise easily mistaken for filler) episode is doing: after all, isn’t Tsuwabuki’s role in Nanami’s life very similar to Anthy’s role in Utena’s? The Shadow Girl play calls attention to it as well, being all about self-deception and the way that we use narratives to shape our lives, sometimes clinging to them even in the face of a contradictory reality. Utena has her narrative as a heroic prince, and cannot see through it to the reality that she won Anthy in a game. Nanami cannot see through either the story she usually tells herself about the incredibly close brother and sister who need no one else, or the story she tells herself in this episode about her brother and Anthy plotting to kill her. And Tsuwabuki cannot see past his own story in which he sees himself as the heroic “elder brother” saving Nanami.

 (Note, by the way, that Tsuwabuki is motivated by, and driven to his incredibly unchildlike and creepy behavior, by a memory. Yet another blue-eyed character led astray by their memories…)
Speaking of colors, I mentioned back on episode 3 that yellow can mean childishness, so it’s no surprise that the two most immature characters, Tsuwabuki and Nanami, are blondes. Of course, the stereotypical fairy tale princess is also a blonde, and that’s the real source of yellow’s meaning in this show: it is the princess, and by extension all that is associated with her: traditional femininity, innocence (including innocent cruelty), lack of experience/ignorance, childishness, and foolishness; the Madonna side of the Madonna/whore complex (which brings us right back to Tsuwabuki placing Nanami on a pedestal; she’s the Madonna, he has the complex).

Of course, the logic of the show in equating princess to innocence to inexperience to foolishness means that Nanami and Tsuwabuki are also the Fool, and often in fiction the Fool is able to see things that the Wise cannot. Thus Tsuwabuki is the only one who sees through all of Nanami’s schemes, and, more importantly, Nanami is the one who gets to really see just how messed up things at Ohtori are.

So far, other than Nanami’s and Tsuwabuki’s hair, indicating that they are both on the path of the princess, the main instance of yellow in the show is Utena’s dress in the flashback to her encounter with the prince, signifying that in the memory she is adopting the role of princess.
Three more observations that didn’t particularly fit anywhere:

  • Gee, it sure is entirely unsuspicious that, in an episode involving a guy plotting to create dangerous scenarios for Nanami so he can swoop in and rescue her, thereby earning her trust and affection, a dangerous situation JUST HAPPENS to occur involving Nanami so Touga can swoop in and rescue her, since he JUST HAPPENED to be wearing boxing gear, and this JUST HAPPENS to earn him back Nanami’s trust and affection.
  • Kids, don’t get in fistfights with kangaroos. They will straight up murder you. They will use their forelegs to hold you in place and then tear your intestines out with their immensely powerful legs and sharp hind claws. It will not be a pleasant diversion for you, although it might possibly be one for the kangaroo.
  • Current theory on why Nanami suddenly has recording/listening equipment: It represents the rumor mill.

Utena 7

 Juri episode! Yay! Juri is among my favorite characters, so I’m really happy to see her here. I mean, she’s honestly a really unpleasant person, but she’s also utterly fascinating to watch.

I honestly can’t remember if it’s ever explained what sort of hold Juri has over the staff that she can outright bully them. Touga’s reputation doesn’t seem to include that power. Though, did they ever establish what her role precisely is on the student council? Touga and Saionji are President and Vice President, IIRC, and Miki is Secretary… does that make Juri the Treasurer? And given what the Vice Principal says to her at the beginning of this episode… it’s possible that she’s got some influence over the school’s funding? Which seems utterly ridiculous for a student to have, but, well, this is the most ridiculous super-serious overpowered student council ever, so. (“If elected, I promise to have pizza available in the cafeteria every Friday. Also I will win the Rose Bride and use my power to revolutionize the world to cancel finals! Woo! Go Krakens!”) (Yes, the Ohtori High mascot in my imagination is the Krakens. You can blame Mark for that.)

Anyway, this episode should really annoy me because it’s another standard-issue Skeptics Are Willfully Blind Because They’re Bitter piece, and that’s a really boring, not to mention wildly inaccurate, cliché. But it largely redeems itself with the final twist, which turns Juri’s skepticism into a metaphor about being closeted. “The miracle” has nothing to do with religion here; it’s the possibility of a lesbian finding love when she’s unable to come out and has no access to any sort of LGBT community.

Up to that point, it’s a pretty standard version of the cliché, though I will admit to liking the scene with the knife-throwing. Something amazing and borderline impossible is happening while Juri is looking the other way and refusing to look.

The one thing I don’t like about the final recontextualization is that, looking back on scenes like the knife-throwing, it kind of implies that it’s Juri’s fault she’s lonely—that if she just turned around and looked (i.e., came out of the closet and tried to meet women) she’d be okay. And it’s true that the school does seem to be pretty accepting of things like Wakaba calling Utena her boyfriend or Anthy and Utena being engaged. But we never get to really see Juri’s reasons for keeping her sexuality private; it’s likely that she has some pretty good reasons for doing so.

Anyway, Juri’s path is obviously the miraculous, which is what orange signifies. There really hasn’t been much of any orange in the series so far; pretty much just Juri’s hair and rose. (Note, by the way, that her rose color suggests that deep down she really wants the miraculous to exist. Compare the Shadow Girls play in this episode.) Juri’s green eyes, of course, mean that she is focused on a relationship, specifically her feelings for the girl in the locket.

(It is no accident, by the way, that reason and the intellect are blue in this show, while miracles and the spirit are orange. Opposite colors have opposite meanings.)

Other than that, my only real comment is that this is my single favorite duel song in the series. I’ve not particularly tried to work out what it means, I just really like how it sounds and how it fits with the duel (which is the most intense in the series so far). My initial suspicion, given the large number of contradictory phrases and a reference to the hierarchies of Heaven and Hell, is that it’s about the futility of trying to approach the spiritual rationally.

Episode 8

I love this episode. It’s hilarious! Surfing elephants! Presumably the same ones Anthy animated back in episode 4. Although the ep about Tsuwabuki’s diary suggests Anthy also swapped the minds of the barbershop trio with elephants, which explains them chasing Nanami all episode and is yet another case of her using masculine entitlement and possessiveness of women to do her dirty work.

Now that I know that this and episode 6 are swapped, it seems really obvious. Utena initially assumes Touga is behind it because she hasn’t seen the shenanigans Nanami gets up to, while in ep 6 her dismissiveness regarding the threats to Nanami and question about who Nanami’s screwed over recently makes more sense if the Nanami curry adventure happened first.

Not much else to say about this one, except a horrible thought for people who’ve seen the whole series: How long do you think Nanami’s adventure took? Was she gone over a weekend? Did Anthy-in-Utena’s body have a visit with her brother?

Episode 9

I think they mentioned at some point that Saionji is captain of the kendo team, so I think he and Touga were dueling in that capacity, rather than as Duelists. Japanese culture note: a hundred years ago, Japanese physical education consisted of kendo and nothing else (for boys, anyway–I think girls may have leaned naginata fighting? At least in Fushigi Yuugi Genbu Kaiden they did). I believe it is still a significant part of many/most schools’ gym and sports programs. Actually knowledgeable people feel free to correct me.

Anyway, I’m having to do a lot of rethinking of how I constructed the color symbolism… but the episode that made me rethink it isn’t until next week, so let’s leave that be for now and just focus on the one color, green.

Green, you see, has two meanings, I’m coming to understand. One is the one I already identified: friendship and everything associated with friendship, like loyalty. (Notably, it is NOT other kinds of relationships, and specifically NOT romantic love. That was an error on my part, and one I’ve been making for years.) The other is choice. That may seem like a weird combination, but this episode kind of shows where it’s coming from, as Saionji is utterly undone by his poor choice in friends. (Dear Touga: You suck. I can’t stand Saionji, but nobody deserves YOU for a friend.)

We also get to see what drives him: his desire to defeat Touga, to find something eternal that he can depend on, his unfulfilled need for meaningful relationships, and the feeling that he somehow failed that girl (Utena, of course) long ago and has to make up for it with Anthy now, all converge to create a confused, angry young man who lashes out at the people closest to him. (Remember: explanations are not excuses. Knowing why someone does something does not require forgiving them for doing it.)

And the thing is, we all need friendship, companionship, to feel like we are part of a community and have bonds with others. It’s a fundamental human need, the emotional equivalent of food and water. The problem is, in order to not be overwhelmed with social anxiety, we need to believe in unconditional love, that our relationships can last forever… which has the slight problem of being factually untrue. People change, they leave, they die, they fail. Every relationship is built on sand.

So we have to choose to believe contrary to the facts. Some choose to simply not think about it and believe that their friendships will last forever until and except when they don’t. Others believe that they and their loved ones will be reunited someday, in the next life or when the Chosen One (Hebrew: Moshiach, Greek: Christos) fixes everything. Still others believe in a castle in the air somewhere where some eternal prince loves them forever, and where they and their loved ones can dwell in eternity.

Today that castle fell on Saionji, and he lost everything. I do pity him; he stands revealed as just through and through a complete loser in every respect. He chose poorly, and in the end had no friends to stand by him.

Episode 10

Nanami killed a kitten.

I mean, literally. That’s the kind of thing you say as hyperbole, to suggest someone’s an absolutely terrible person, isn’t it? “They kill kittens.” Nanami actually DID.

On the other hand, Touga looks about the same age as in the 10 years ago ish flashback, so Nanami is what, four? Five? Young enough that it’s possible she was just trying to make the kitten go away, and didn’t really understand she was KILLING it until it went over the waterfall–at least, that’s how I read her gasp when it does.

I have little evidence for this, but something about the interplay of the flashback with Nanami crying and begging forgiveness makes me think she never told anyone what happened to the kitten, and has kept it a secret shame for years. She’s definitely genuinely regretful here, as opposed to the big show she put on in the curry ep.

Speaking of which, if the two Nanami comedy eps hadn’t been swapped, we would have had a progression of Touga saving Nanami, then saving Utena, then comforting Nanami at the end of this ep. I think he’s intentionally putting on a show of being “princely” for Utena.

Revised view of what yellow is: “the princess” is actually a secondary, not primary, meaning. The primary meaning is hero-worship or adoration, and the baggage that comes with that: submission, passivity, the princess waiting to be rescued. It is that last which then, in turn, identifies yellow with traditional femininity. (Yellow and green, by the way, are the biggest challenges to trying to interpret the color symbolism according to the traditional language of flowers, since yellow roses mean friendship, but Nanami doesn’t seem like the character to associate that to.)

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.  

Are deliberately confusing premieres a thing now?

Started watching Baccano! along with Mark Watches. The first episode confused the heck out of me, and it occurs to me that the first episode of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is probably almost as confusing for someone who doesn’t already know the characters. (Though, admittedly, at least FMA:B’s first episode occurs in linear time, with one clearly demarcated flashback.)

This isn’t to say I’m not enjoying it, just… that was clearly designed to be disorienting, which for me is intriguing, but it’s also surprising. Most series start out by trying to ease new viewers in, take them by the hand and explain things to them. There might be, for instance, a bizarre opening scene that will eventually be explained, but the entire first episode of Baccano! is essentially made of scenes like that.

Again, I’m not complaining (except about Ladd, he’s horrifying and awful), just curious if this is starting to be a trend. Is it an adaptation thing? FMA:B is obviously based on a wildly popular manga, and Baccano! is based on a light novel series. Is the idea for the first episode to showcase all the characters and have a lot of cool moments for the current fans, as opposed to explaining things to new fans? Does that mean that, like FMA:B, the next episode or two will be about spelling things out for us newbies?

Well, I guess I’ll find out as I go.


Fullmetal Alchemy

Apologies for this being a few minutes late. It is, as you may note, rather a bit longer than the typical Wednesday Whatever (in word count, it is more than ten times the minimum length I shoot for on the Sunday articles).

So, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I’m a regular commenter at Mark Watches. Today, he finished Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the anime adaptation of my favorite manga. Throughout his reviews of the series, I’ve been posting what I call Episode-Specific Alchemy Lessons, quick mini-essays on the history and practice of alchemy in the real world, tied in to the events of the show. I didn’t do them for every episode (not by a long shot), but they were a lot of fun to write and hopefully will be interesting for all of you. All of them are behind the cut, with the rot13 I used to hide spoilers removed.

Episode One: Chinese Alchemy

Alchemy most likely originated in China. There is some evidence for India as well, and Indian and Chinese alchemy cross-pollinated heavily, but China is where we find the oldest documents talking about mixing chemicals to make gold or create life-extending elixirs, dating back to about the second century BCE. The peak of Chinese alchemy was around 400 to 800 CE, and a literal golden age–this was when the Chinese alchemists were most interested in creating gold, while later alchemists were more interested in immortality.

It might seem weird to see alchemy treated like bending–the Western image is mostly of people making potions or mixing hot metals in a lab–but Chinese alchemists often claimed magical powers, because alchemy was as much a spiritual, religious, and magical pursuit as a practical one. The Chinese word for alchemist, fangshi, can equally well mean magician, wizard, monk, mystic, or technician. In particular, many Chinese folktales refer to alchemists—once they have performed the correct rituals to give themselves the power—being able to transmute materials at a touch or with very short, simple rituals.

Al is an interesting case. There are Western precedents for what he is, but we’ll talk about those more later in the series because it has better examples of the Western equivalent to Al. In Chinese alchemy, however, there’s that branch concerned with creating elixirs, and that ultimately evolved into a quest for Immortality. The capital “I” is important, because this was not about extending the lifespan of one’s physical body indefinitely, but rather a quest to transcend the limitations of flesh and become a perfect, eternal spirit being without dying. Al is a sort of parody of this idea, someone who has become a spirit being without dying and desperately misses having a body.

Episode Two: The Sephiroth

The diagram which appears near the beginning of the explanation of alchemy at the episode’s beginning is known as the Sephiroth, and originates in the Jewish mystical tradition of Qabbalah, which influenced medieval European alchemy. The ten Sephiroth represent several related concepts: they are the component parts of the soul, each representing a different aspect of self. They are the body parts of the primordial Man of Light, about whom possibly more in a later alchemy lesson. Read from top to bottom, they are the creative process from initial inspiration to the creation of the physical work, and therefore also the path from God to humanity. Read from bottom to top, they are the stages of progressively more challenging meditation and enlightenment that lead from humanity to God. They are also the Tree of Life, the source of immortality which humanity lost in the expulsion from Eden, which in alchemy represented revealed truth (while the Tree of Knowledge represents truth acquired through reason and experience).

In other words, the Sephiroth are Truth, the world, the universe, God… and they are also you.

Episode Three: Religion vs. Science

Religion (a better term might be mysticism) vs. science is an old debate in alchemy. In the West, alchemy originates in Roman Egypt. Alexandria was one of the world’s greatest centers of learning, and alchemy was no exception. Khemia, as it was called (probably derived from the Chinese word chim, meaning gold), mixed spiritual and practical pursuits just as in China, but instead of Taoism it was rooted in a blend of Aristotelian and Archimedean natural philosophy, Jewish mysticism, and Christianity. As time went on, the center of learning shifted to Byzantium (modern Istanbul), and became much more focused on the mystical and poetic aspects than practical applications.

Following the conquest of Egypt by Muslims, the center of alchemical thought moved to Baghdad. The next few centuries were the golden age of Islamic science and culture, and an enormous outpouring of scholarship and research into the sciences occurred that would later form the foundation of the European Renaissance. Alchemy (Arabic al-khimia, literally “the khemia”) was no exception. While the Egyptian alchemists were more interested in gold, Muslim alchemists focused primarily on the medical applications and secondarily on transmuting metals.

This is where the debate arises; many scholars argued over whether transmutation of metals was real or a metaphor for spiritual and medicinal transformations. (Some even argued with themselves. Ibn Sini, known in the West as Avicenna, both wrote that transmutation is impossible and wrote instructions on how to accomplish transmutation, though modern scholars believe that the latter was actually written by someone else using Ibn Sini’s name to get attention.) A cottage industry of debunking alchemists as frauds grew up, with many scholars (even some who acknowledged that transmutation might be possible under rare circumstances) warning against fake elixirs and philosopher’s stones (though they didn’t use the term).

By the twelfth century, Jewish and Muslim scholars in Cordoba, Spain were translating alchemical works into Latin, making them available to European scholars. Many were quite popular, and less than a century later Roger Bacon was making the argument that ignorance of alchemy and the practical techniques and empirical approach developed by the Muslim alchemists were impeding the progress of natural philosophy and medicine in Europe, an argument which has been frequently cited as one of the first statements of something resembling the scientific method.

Early European alchemists focused mostly on the production of gold, because that’s what their state sponsors wanted. Interestingly, the first religious condemnation of alchemy, by Pope John XXII, was not on grounds of resembling witchcraft but because alchemists were getting involved in making counterfeit coins.

In other words, throughout the early history of alchemy there is a tension between mystical/religious and practical/scientific approaches, and this tension is intimately intertwined with fraud.\

Episode Four: Putrefaction
Western alchemy has a peculiar relationship with death. Chinese alchemy, as I believe I mentioned back in Lesson #1, was based in part on Taoist beliefs, and as such put heavy emphasis on balancing the opposing principles of yin and yang, usually by having a husband-wife team perform the ritual. This in turn led to a surprising (for the ridiculously sexist ancient Near East) number of women among prominent Egyptian alchemists, and it also interacted curiously with the Christian and Gnostic undercurrents in Egyptian thought of the time, particularly the Christian focus on death and resurrection. The result was the concept of the alchemical wedding, which was later elaborated by the medieval and early modern European alchemists.
The alchemical wedding is the key process and spiritual core of Western (which, since I’ve never defined what I mean by that, includes Egyptian, Arabic, and European alchemical traditions) alchemy. I will most likely go into more detail about it in a later lesson; for now let’s just say that it is a process of death and rebirth that involves the fusion of opposites: male-female, sun-moon, gold-silver, mercury-sulphur, matter-spirit.
The first stage of the alchemical wedding is associated with the process of putrefaction, which in alchemy is a technical term that refers not only to death and rot, but to the way in which death and rot bring forth life. Consider a rotting piece of fruit. It is revolting to human senses, black and ugly and foul-smelling, but it is also a riotous explosion of new life such as mold and maggots. These in turn serve as nourishment for “higher” forms of life (remember that European alchemy takes the Aristotelian Great Chain of Being as a given), until ultimately even the most exalted creatures depend on rot for their existence.
This is more than just the life cycle of biology, it is one of the most profound spiritual teachings of alchemy: Death brings forth life. Rot and creation are one and the same. Decay is evolution.

So yes, a little girl has died, and that is a tragedy. It is revolting to the senses. But perhaps something can come of this death, so that even though it remains tragic, revolting, it nonetheless can bring forth good. Maggots might grow to flies that are eaten by birds, that they may sing of Nina forevermore.

Episode Five: Nigredo
The first stage in the magnum opus—the alchemical “great work,” the production of a philosopher’s stone and/or elixir of life—is nigredo, “blackening.” In this stage, the prima materia, the substance from which the stone will be made, is burned or dissolved into an indistinguishable black mass. This is the phase of chaos, the primordial state from which creation emerged. It is death and destruction, putrefaction, and its associated humor is melancholia, black bile, which represents depression and despair. It is the black night of the soul, the lowest point.
Everything is awful. Everything hurts. Fire burns everything in its path. Nina is dead. Ed and Al are in despair. Their bodies are broken. The people of Ishval are dead. And yet… always something is left. That little black lump, that pile of ash that not even fire can destroy. Broken, ruined… but needing only to be washed clean–but more on that when we get to the next phase.

One of the most fascinating things for me, both as a writer of fiction and as someone who dabbles in the study of alchemy, is that FMA:B is not structured like a traditional story, where things get steadily worse and worse until we reach a climactic catastrophe. There is a climax, and bad things happen at it, but the tone by that point in the series is triumphant; emotionally speaking, the most awful parts of the series are here at the beginning: The revelation of how the brothers lost their bodies, Nina, Hughes. That’s because the series is structured alchemically, and we’re now at the heart of the nigredo phase.

Episode Six: The Philosopher’s Stone
The first traces of the philosopher’s stone as an idea can be found, like much else in the Western alchemical tradition, in the work attributed to the Egyptian alchemist Maria the Jewess (first century CE?). She is said to have devised a process by which copper was transformed through four stages, first turning black, then white, yellow, red, a process equivalent to a cycle of corruption, death, and rebirth. Another alchemist, Kleopatra (first to third century CE? Not to be confused with any of the queens of the same name) wrote of a similar process of death and rebirth whereby lead-copper ally is “killed” by heating, creating an inert black “corpse.” Sulphur water poured over it turns it white, a “marriage” which leads to the mass turning yellow as the “spirit of gold” in the sulphur causes the mass to be reborn as “gold.”
Centuries later, the Arab alchemist Al-Razi (ninth and tenth centuries) wrote of a four-stage process similar to those of Maria and Kleopatra by which an elixir could be created that could transform base metals into silver or gold. His four stages were cleansing/purifying, reduction, dissolving and recombining, and finally coagulation.

Move forward to 1266 and the publication of Roger Bacon’s Opus Tertium, in which he argues, among other things, that an elixir capable of perfecting metals ought also to be capable of extending life–that medicinal alchemy and transmutation have the same ultimate goal. More on his theories tomorrow.

The process of creating the philosopher’s stone, at least in Europe, was eventually canonized as four stages: nigredo, blackening, which I wrote about yesterday; albedo, whitening, in which the material is washed clean of its impurities; citrinitas, yellowing, in which the marriage of opposites sparks inner light and the material becomes gold; and rubedo, reddening, in which the opposites achieve full unity and the material becomes a philosopher’s stone.

Later authorities dropped the citrinitas stage, presumably because it sounds like an energy drink. If only they’d gone with the Greek name, xanthosis! That’s way cooler. (More seriously, it was probably a result of alchemy become more a Protestant thing than a Catholic one after the Thirty Years War. Citrinitas was associated with Mary, while the other three were associated with aspects of the Trinity, so…)

Episode Seven: Assorted Miscellaneous Symbols
I know, I said I’d talk more about Bacon, but I’m actually going to put that off another day or two. Instead, I want to talk about a hodgepodge of random symbols, mostly because of a comment Mark made in the video about all the wind. It actually does mean something! Specifically, remember I mentioned there are four stages to making the Philosopher’s Stone? Well, in addition to each one having a color, they also each have their own humor (as in the four humors), moods, metals, seasons, and elements. Guess which element goes with rubedo, the final stage in which the stone is created? Yuuuuupp: Air. All those characters in the opening are being buffeted by the element most closely tied to the Stone, which also symbolizes life itself and especially rebirth.
Speaking of the four stages, remember the four colors associated with them? Black, white, yellow, red? Look at Ed’s color scheme. Black shirt, boots, and symbol on his back. White gloves and accents. Yellow hair and eyes. Red coat. And he’s *real* insistent on fixing that coat every time it’s damaged, isn’t he?

Which in turn brings us to the symbol on Ed’s back. It’s actually two symbols superimposed: A cross and a curve wound around it. The cross, of course, is a symbol of resurrection and rebirth, recalling Ed’s sin of resurrecting his mother. The curve is most likely meant to be one of the two snakes twining around the caduceus, the staff of Hermes. Legend attributes the founding of alchemy to Hermes Trismegistus, who is both the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. The caduceus, in a simplified form, is also the symbol for both the planet and metal mercury, which is extremely important to alchemy as the symbol of changeability and transmutation. Thus, Ed’s symbol represents resurrection and transformation, appropriate for the poor kid.

Speaking of snakes, the symbol on Lust’s chest is an Uroboros, a snake eating its own tail. This is an ancient symbol of alchemy that goes back to the Egyptian period, and represents the way the base material devours itself and is reborn in the alchemical process. It is, in other words, another symbol of resurrection, but Ed’s is both aggressively masculine and rather spiritual, while the Oruboros is more feminine and material. Ultimately, though, they mean the same thing: transformation and restoration. [Ed.: Another commenter at Mark Watches, who goes by vicemage, pointed out that Ed’s symbol (which of course is actually Izumi’s symbol) is a variant of Flamel’s Cross, as in Nicholas Flamel the real-life alchemist. Its meaning is not entirely clear, but is most likely a messianic reference.]
Episode Eight: The Philosopher’s Stone, Part II
I mentioned Bacon a couple of days ago. He is basically the originator of the idea of the philosopher’s stone in the West, or more specifically the idea that the elixir of life and the secret of transmutation were one and the same. He believed this purifying elixir was most likely made from human blood, which is the closest I can find to any historical precedent for Arakawa’s idea that philosopher’s stones are made of people.
Among its many names, the philosopher’s stone is said to be the Quintessence, the fifth element, the one which permeates all things and grants them life. It is variously referred to as Aether, Spirit, or (in Japan) Void. Note the five blood-stained circles on the perimeter of the transmutation circle Ed finds. Speaking of which, while I don’t find much record of magical circles being used in alchemy, Chinese alchemy labs were designed to be microcosms of the universe, arranged in a ring with the central apparatus where the actual transmutation occurred representing the creative spark at the heart of the universe. The circle here is something of a dark parody of that idea.
Episode Twelve: As Above, So Below
One of the core principles of alchemy is “as above, so below,” or as it’s stated here, “one is all, all is one.” The principle is that the universe is effectively fractal; the macrocosm of the universe and microcosm of the body reflect one another. This is expressed in many ways: The process of perfecting the physical Philosopher’s Stone is the process of perfecting one’s soul and the process of redeeming the universe, for example. Astrological factors are of vital importance in many scholars’ formulae; it is not enough to mix the right materials in the right proportions, but it must also be at the right times according to the motions of the stars.
This all derives from the Taoist principles of Chinese alchemy, where the internal balance of the alchemist’s body and spirit, along with the geomantic arrangement of the laboratory, had to reflect the cosmic forces being tapped into. For the Chinese alchemist, transmutation was a matter of accelerating a natural process, and therefore as much a part of the holistic flow of the universe as the alchemist’s own life processes; for the European alchemists centuries later, transmutation reflected the divine process of Creation, and was a method of achieving oneness with both that creation and the divinity behind it.
[Ed.: Added later in response to another commenter asking about the relationship between AASB, equivalent exchange, and contagious magic.] Equivalent exchange is not actually a principle of traditional alchemy. Arakawa sorta made it up? Though it’s obviously based on the principle of conservation of mass, by the time that shows up alchemy and chemistry are already starting to diverge. It’s possible that Newton’s alchemical writings discuss it (he’d be the likeliest place, anyway), but it’s hard to say because Newton’s alchemical work has never been indexed and is scattered between libraries on three continents.
That said, what you’re describing is actually contagious magic, or “once together, always together.” AASB is a related concept, but not identical–the idea with contagious magic is that anything that was once connected is still connected, so you can influence a person by using, say, a toenail. The idea of AASB is that EVERYTHING is connected with EVERYTHING ELSE, and thus you can tap cosmic forces by mucking around with solvents and rocks.

Another way to put AASB is that it’s a total denial of the signifier-signified distinction. The relationship between a symbol and the thing symbolized, according to alchemy, is not only non-arbitrary; the two are one and the same.

Episode Thirteen: Homunculi
The interest in creating life through alchemy first appears in the Muslim period, but may have been influenced by the occasional invocation of demonic or spirit-being assistants in Chinese alchemy. Regardless, Muslim alchemists did research the possibility of creating living creatures, even humans, through alchemical processes.

Later European alchemists made similar claims. The homunculis was a thinking, speaking creature created through alchemy who, rather like a witch’s familiar, served as an assistant and a repository of alchemical knowledge. Although artificial humans, homunculi were not necessarily human in appearance; usually they were described as much smaller, rather doll-like creatures. What made them humans was their capacity to speak and act, not their physical shape.

As a general rule, homunculi had a father but not a mother, being made from the blood or semen of the (almost always male in the European period) alchemist and processed through various stages. By the nineteenth century and the fusion of alchemy with other magical traditions to form the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the homunculis was fully fused with the concept of the witch’s familiar, and served as an alchemically created shell which a spirit–either a soul taken from a deceased human or a demonic spirit–can possess and animate in service to the alchemist.

There is thus a case to be made that Al (or Hohenheim) is as much a homunculis as Greed, but within the mythology of the show the term seems to apply specifically to the Uroboros Gang (spoiler: and Father).

Episode Fourteen: Greed
Greed was a recurring problem for alchemists, but also a major boon. On the one hand, in basically every culture that had alchemists there were cases of frauds who exploited the belief in alchemy for personal gain, as well as people crusading against alchemy with the claim that it was all fraud. On the other hand, there’s some evidence to suggest that the reason Muslim scholars started translating Greek philosophy and alchemy into Arabic was because of a shortage of coins—they were looking for secrets of metallurgy and transmutation they could use to make coins more cheaply, and they largely succeeded since among the first texts translated were basic techniques for gilding. Greed, commerce, and monetary policy are thus arguably the reason we had a European Renaissance, since the spark for that was in large part the release of Latin translations of Arabic translations of Greek philosophy.
In a broader sense, alchemy, as a highly syncretic tradition, has an odd tension with the Christian concept of sin. By the time European alchemy hit its height, there were a few major threads running through alchemy (chronological order by when they started influencing alchemy):
  1. The original Chinese magical tradition, which shares a common origin and many features with Taoism.
  2. Jewish mysticism.
  3. Neoplatonic mysticism and Gnosticism (an early alternate form of Christianity).
  4. The Arabic experimental/pragmatic tradition, which ultimately split off to become chemistry and metallurgy.
  5. Christian mysticism (which is really more neoplatonism).

This creates a tension between, on the one hand, Taoism, Judaism, and Islam, and on the other hand Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Christianity, in terms of their conception of good and evil. In the first three traditions, matter is fundamentally good and (particularly in Taoism and Judaism) the stuff reality is made of—we live in a material universe, and while spiritual affairs are important, they are necessarily expressed through material experience. The universe in which we live is fundamentally good, but flawed, and our job is to fix it. To put it in Jewish terms, the most important part of the creation story is God looking at the world and finding it good.
In Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Christianity, on the other hand, matter is fundamentally evil, and gets in the way of our experience of the true spiritual reality. We are spiritual beings suspended—trapped, even—in a material prison, and the sooner we can transcend or escape it the better. The universe in which we live is fundamentally evil and corrupt, and our job is to find salvation from it. To put it in Christian terms, the most important part of the creation story is the Fall.
Which brings us to the question of human impulses, and a major split between the Jewish mystical tradition and the Christian, both of which feed into alchemy. Jewish mysticism views humans as having two major inclinations, the positive and the negative. The positive inclination is toward God and obedience to the Law; the negative inclination is toward pleasure and self-indulgence. However, they are both a necessary and good part of being human. One comparison I’ve heard (and quite like) is that the negative inclination is the engine, the positive inclination is the brakes and steering wheel. Sexual desire unchecked is destructive, but properly channeled creates romantic love and new families. Anger unchecked is destructive, but properly channeled creates justice.
Which brings us to Greed, who channels his desire for possessions into rescuing people from being experimented on by the military and forging them into a family. He opposes the Homunculi! He defies Father to the end! He is, frankly, awesome!

Ever since its Taoist roots, alchemy has been about balance. A key part of any alchemical ritual is finding the right balance, both in the material and in the self. Part of that is accepting and embracing one’s own drives and motivations, at times in opposition to Church teachings that rejected some impulses as being inherently sinful. There was only occasional tension between the Church and alchemy, but nonetheless alchemists often sought alternative paths to the salvation the Church offered, seeking to blend the material and the spiritual rather than reject the material.

Episode Fifteen: The Alkahest
The alkahest (like most scientific and protoscientific terms starting with “al,” like “algebra,” “alchemy,” and “Aldebaran”) originates in the Golden Age of Islam. Muslim alchemists believed the alkahest would be the ultimate solvent, capable of dissolving any substance, which in turn meant it could be used to transmute anything into anything else. (The question of how you would keep it from eating through every container you tried to put it in was never, to my knowledge, addressed.)

Xingese alkahestry doesn’t actually seem to have much to do with the alkahest, since they’re explicitly more focused on medical applications and the search for immortality, but remember something I brought up back on (IIRC) episode 3:

One of Roger Bacon’s big contributions to alchemy was suggesting that the alkahest and the immortality-granting elixir of life were the same thing, originating the idea of the philosopher’s stone. The search for the elixir of life, in other words, IS the search for the alkahest, and completing it necessitates finding the philosopher’s stone. It all hangs together.

As for Xingese alkahestry itself, as near as I can tell it’s as accurate to Chinese alchemy as Amestrian alchemy is to European. In other words, it gets enough right (including fairly obscure stuff) that you know the deviations are due to artistic license, not ignorance. Geomancy was extremely important to Chinese alchemy—among other things, it was vitally important to make sure that your alchemy lab was correctly laid out, with the room aligned according to the compass and various equipment placed at precise points around it—so it makes sense that alkahestry is based on the flow of geomantic energy.

In Taoist belief and Chinese alchemy, that flow is equivalent to the flow of chi (life force, more or less) in the body. It’s that “As Above, So Below” idea of the microcosm: the flow of energy through the Earth IS the flow of energy through the body, and therefore someone who has mastered control of the former can use it to heal the latter. It’s quite interesting, actually, that Izumi introduced this idea to the Elrics—where did she learn it? Is it related to the fact that she has Xingese-style eyes and black hair? Amestris *is* something of a melting pot, we’ve seen that already. Is she part Xingese? Did she learn some philosophy from her Xingese grandma or something?
Episode Nineteen: Fire
Let’s talk about fire. This was a very important element for alchemy, because so many alchemical processes involved it–not just in the obvious sense that heating, burning, and melting materials all require fire, but in the sense that corrosive chemicals and rot (remember my previous discussion of putrefaction?) were seen as kinds of fire, usually referred to as potential fire as opposed to the actual fire we think of as fire.

Fire has many associations: It is defined as being the hot, dry element, and associated with the East, Summer, yellow bile, the choleric personality, and the xanthosis stage of the magnum opus.

Note that several of these associations work well for Mustang in this episode or the series as a whole: He arrives in Central from a post in the East, has the same eye shape as characters from the Eastern Empire of Xing, and as for being choleric, well…

The choleric personality is described as ambitious, domineering, passionate, quick to anger, not dealing well with setbacks, fiercely protective of others… any of this sound familiar?

As for xanthosis, we’ll talk about it more much later in the series, but for now let’s leave it that xanthosis is the third stage of the alchemical process, yellowing. It is the stage in which gold is produced–a valuable product but not the true Stone. The material is transformed, but not itself capable of causing transformation. Contrast end-of-series Mustang with end-of-series Ed, I think you’ll see why this is appropriate for him. There is a reason Mustang will be the last Fuhrer rather than the first leader of the new democratic order.

Xanthosis is the clash of opposites, where the opposing principles within the material–usually the masculine and feminine–meet and unleash energy. That’s definitely happening in this episode, but it’s not the true xanthosis stage of the series–that’s a long way off.

Rather, the process here is something much earlier in the magnum opus: The use of fire to reduce the raw materials to ash, the end product of nigredo. The phase of darkness and despair is drawing to a close–albedo is nearly upon us, bringing with it blankness, purification, the washing away of past sins, and the discovery of potential–as well as the emergence of the opposing forces that will clash in xanthosis.
Episode Twenty-Three: Arms
In Qabbala, which as I’ve mentioned before is one of the major mystical traditions that fed into European alchemy, the two arms have very specific significance. The right arm signifies the sephirah Chesed, which means love, compassion, or kindness. It is the giving of gifts freely and without expectation of reward. In the journey to enlightenment, it is the kind of love that God feels for humans and vice versa; in the creative process, it is the inspiring vision. It is the sword-arm, which protects that which is good, and draws it close in an embrace.
The left arm signifies the sephirah Gevurah, “Severity,” also commonly known as Din, which means power and judgment. It is the ability to discern between good and ill, the rejection of that which is harmful or dangerous. In the journey to enlightenment, it is the awe that humans feel toward God; in the creative process, it is the will to better that which is inadequate. It is the shield-arm, which rejects that which is evil and pushes it away.

So: Scar, Scarbro, Ed, Lan Fan; the last couple of episodes have been LOADED with characters gaining arms, losing arms, giving their arms to one another… there’s an enormous amount going on here with arm symbolism, too much for me to record it all.

So, in a slight twist on the usual alchemy lessons, I’m leaving it to all of you: Given the significance of arms I outlined above, what do YOU think is going on with the different characters? How do the events that happen to their arms reflect their characters and their relationships to the others around them?

Episode Twenty-Five: Da’at, the Abyss
More Qabbalah today. Last time we talked about arms and the associated Sephiroth; today let’s talk about the Sephiroth that isn’t.
If you look at a traditional arrangement of the ten Sephiroth into the Tree of Life, you’ll see that there’s a square near the top with a gaping hole in the middle—a point where paths cross, but no Sephira. This bugged people, so medieval Jewish scholars proposed a new Sephira in the center of the square, Da’at, “Belief.”

To these scholars, Da’at represented the ten-in-one, the unity of all Sephiroth into a single shining light. Da’at is not a true Sephira, but rather a space within which all the Sephira can coexist. We’ll talk more about Jewish interpretations tomorrow, because spoilers.

Non-Jewish interpretations of Da’at generally depict it as a full Sephira, but remove one of the other Sephira so that there are still ten. Most commonly, a Tree with Da’at will lack Kether (“Crown,” divinity and enlightenment, the uppermost Sephirah) or Malkhuth (“Kingdom,” matter and the divine creation, the lowest Spehira). One common depiction was a pair of Trees, one with Da’at but not Malkhuth, representing the primordial state before the Fall, and the other with Malkhuth but not Da’at, representing that the Fruit of Knowledge has been removed and replaced by the Abyss, and the material world created.

By the 20th century, Da’at and the Abyss were identified with one another. Da’at is the gateway beyond which the Sephiroth are inverted, becoming the dark and terrifying qlippoth of the Abyss, which Aleister Crowley (not an alchemist per se, but an influential occultist who did include alchemical concepts in his writings) describes as “the gap… between the Real, which is ideal, and the Unreal, which is actual.”

In Crowley’s belief system, only the spiritual is real, and material things are unreal and illusory, so to put it another way, the Abyss is the crevice between the Truth and the world. Add in that the Abyss is where the spiritual seeker must confront the shapeshifting demon Choronzon, and it seems difficult to believe that this is a coincidence—it seems near-certain to me that Arakawa is familiar with and intentionally referencing Crowley. But more on what happens to the traveler in the Abyss tomorrow…
Episode Twenty-Six: Ed and Al’s Gates
(I know I promised Da’at/Abyss part two, but I realized I could make that relevant to next episode, while the Gates are relevant to this episode. So, sorry, that’ll be Monday.)

This is one of the first times in the series where it becomes really noticeable that different people have different Gates of Truth. Al’s was shown a dozen episodes ago, but it’s easy to miss that it’s different from Ed’s until they’re shown together here.

Ed’s Gate:

This is the Sephiroth of medieval alchemist Robert Fludd. It’s a variant of the Tree of Life depiction, and a particularly mystical, religious, ethereal one. Unlike most Trees, in which Malkhuth is depicted as the material realm, this has no connection to Earth at all. Each of the branches ends in a fruit that is labeled with the name of a Sephirah and one of the names of God–the one Ed punches is Malkhuth, which is here associated with the name-of-God Adonai (usually translated as “Lord”), and has ten feathers coming out of it. Each of the feathers is labeled with one of the Sephiroth (so they’re each on the chart twice) and the name of an order of angels. So basically, an army of angels holding the Tree of Life aloft, away from the world and human reach.
Note that the roots on Ed’s version of the tree are at the top, and the feathers at the bottom could equally well be leaves. The tree is rooted in Heaven and growing down toward Earth, in other words. That may be the real reason it’s associated with Ed, given that his final triumph consists of telling Truth “Screw enlightenment, I’ve got friends.” His motion is downward, from thinking of himself as a godlike alchemist to thinking of himself as what he actually is, an ordinary man.

Fun fact: In one of the other ways of drawing the Sephiroth besides a tree, as the primordial man of light Adam Kadmon, Malkhut is the genitals. So Ed just dick-punched the Lord.

Al’s Gate:

Okay, I don’t know much about this one, and I can’t find a decent-quality image [Ed.: Here’s a better one! http://s21.postimg.org/7sliq6hvb/Catholicon_Physicorum_p5_selke_mpiversio.jpg] so I don’t know most of what the text says. It’s clearly not the Sephiroth, but it does appear to be a Tree of Life… it might be showing some alchemical process? Maybe even the making of a Stone?

I do know it’s an illustration added in the 17th century to a manuscript from the 15th century, George Ripley’s The Marrow of Alchemy. I have no idea where in the manuscript it went, and I haven’t read the manuscript, but there’s a translation here: http://www.levity.com/alchemy/ripley_medulla.html (I think it’s the whole thing? It inexplicably starts with chapter 61, so I’m not sure.)

One thing I can read on it, though, is that at the bottom, the set of roots on the left are labelled Corpus (“Body”) and on the right Spiritus (“Soul”). So we have the Tree of Life (that is, the Gate) separating Al’s body from his soul… works for me.

Episode Twenty-Seven: Da’at, the Abyss, Part II
So, in Jewish thought Da’at eventually evolved to be regarded as two gateways. One, the higher gateway, lies within the Sephirah of Kether, and is the gateway that connects the two halves of the human intellect (Wisdom and Understanding, represented by the Sephiroth of Chokhmah and Binah) with the divine consciousness of Kether. The lower gateway lies in the Abyss, and is the gateway between the intellect and the emotions. This form of Da’at functions as a way of integrating the truths one learns into one’s determination and will—it is what enables us to change course when we receive new revelations. Such as, say, Ed re-emerging from despair upon realizing what the Xerxes transmutation circle did? Or discovering that Al’s body still exists, and revitalizing his purpose?
But as I’ve already said, it seems like episodes 25 and 26 were heavily influenced by Crowley’s interpretation of Da’at and the Abyss, so it is perhaps worth considering what happens in the Abyss in Crowley’s beliefs, namely that the soul encounters Choronzon, a shapeshifting demon who represents those aspects of the ego unwilling to face the divine—the resentment and stubborn self-centeredness that is the ultimate obstacle to Enlightenment. Oh, hi there, Envy.

Once in the Abyss, the traveler must battle with Choronzon, but not with the goal of defeating him, because Choronzon is formless and shifts endlessly, being not really an individual but rather a chaotic amalgamation of potential entities. Rather, the ultimate victory here is for one’s ego to be destroyed; broken and dissolving, the self is able to integrate into the cosmic, shedding the illusion of individual existence to become One with the All.

It’s rather like the experience depicted as the passage through the Gate of Truth… but then why I am talking about this as being relevant to episode 27?

Because Hohenheim’s dream is serving the same function for him. His self is dissolved, divided into at least four separate voices: Hohenheim A, that-which-chooses, Hohenheim’s identity; Hohenheim B (possibly Father?), the cynical, despairing side that is only interested in other humans as far as he can use them, and regards them as beneath him; Pinako, his conscience; and Trisha, his hope and idealism.

So we have in these three episodes four characters entering and confronting the Abyss: Ed’s is the most literal, while Al descends deep underground in the company of Gluttony and Mustang confronts the Fuhrer in his lair and thereby loses the most important part of himself, his connections to his underlings. But it is Hohenheim who has the most mystical and hallucinatory journey into the Abyss, who truly allows himself to dissolve and fragment so that he can confront and overcome himself.

There’s more than just mystical traditions tangentially related to alchemy here, too, because Hohenheim’s dream falls rather neatly into three parts. In the first, he and Pinako come to understand humanity and his relationship with them. In the second, Father challenges and deconstructs the idea of humanity, depicting them as worthless and weak. But then Trisha reconstructs the humanist ideals of the series, with the rather astonishing “we have to be weak so that we can grow.”

This is once again a spiritual alchemy, a process of death and rebirth through the marriage of opposing forces (indeed, multiple such marriages, Hohenheim/Pinako, Hohenheim/Hohenheim, and ultimately Hohenheim/Trisha, which unsurprisingly is the one that resolves the dilemma). It will hardly be the last.

And the alchemy doesn’t end there. Hohenheim’s dream was brought on, it seems, by drinking himself to sleep with whiskey. The significance there is that whiskey is one of a great many distilled spirits named “water of life,” in this case the Gaelic uisce beatha. The “waters of life” are also a name for the philosopher’s stone in its form as the alkahest/elixir of immortality.

Hohenheim is washing himself clean, in other words; purifying himself in the mystical waters of life—the function of the albedo phase of the magnum opus, which has been starting to emerge in the last few episodes of the first season and is now fully upon us.

The Abyss has been braved, the lowest depth achieved—now we are starting to climb back into the light. The reduction to ash is ended; now the washing-clean begins.

Episode Thirty: Albedo
Hey, an actual lesson about alchemy, as opposed to a mystical tradition tangentially related to alchemy! Woo!

Albedo, “whitening,” is the second phase of the magnum opus, the process of creating the philosopher’s stone. At the end of the first phase, nigredo, we are left with a burnt and blackened mass, the destroyed remains of the original material. In the albedo stage, this mass is washed, dissolved, and processed to create a uniform white substance. Albedo is associated with the element of water, the season of winter, the bodily fluid phlegm, and the phlegmatic personality, which is to say calm, quiet, observant, kind, and passive.

According to Paracelsus, there are three basic substances through which the four elements are expressed; all things are made from these three substances, namely salt, mercury, and sulfur. The nigredo stage expressed the salt within the original material; the albedo phase is about presenting the mercury. Mercury has a number of qualities symbolically important to this stage, but the most important are that it is fluid, and that it is silver in color and highly reflective.

The latter property represents one of the most important elements of this stage. Where nigredo was the Earth, albedo is the Moon, one step higher and brighter. Like Earth, it creates no light of its own, but unlike Earth it can reflect back light from other sources. It brings a cold, pale light to the night, but it is light nonetheless. Unlike the product of nigredo, which is just useless muck unless processed further, the product of this stage (if the alchemist should abandon the work of pursuing the stone) is silver, a substance valuable in itself.

The Moon is notoriously inconstant, however, and so it is with albedo. This is a fluid stage, an unstable and ever-shifting state. It has no true identity or properties of its own—it is a blank that reflects its surroundings. It is empty. It has infinite potential, but actualizes none of it.

Finally, this is the stage in which the opposing principles within the material—the masculine and feminine forces of the alchemical wedding—become defined; in the next stage they are brought together.

In Jung’s model of alchemy as a spiritual process, albedo is a phase of introspection and coming to terms with oneself. After the despair of nigredo, albedo is not yet hopeful, but it nonetheless recognizes the possibility of change. It is a time of facing past sins and acquiring self-knowledge, a time of spiritual cleansing and absolution in which one faces, and accepts, the demons and errors of the past.

For Ed and Al, this process began with learning that they never truly resurrected their mother, but it continues here with Ed learning the truth about the monstrous past of his country and his allies. Scar is in a similar place, discovering the truth about why his people were killed. Mustang, meanwhile, doesn’t get any self-discovery; nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that he’s in the albedo stage because he is suddenly in a position of being able to do anything, but having no clear idea what to do next—infinite potential and blankness. All three of Ed/Al, Scar, and Mustang are in a similar position—we have no idea what any of them are going to do or where they’re going to go, and it seems clear that they don’t either. At the same time, all three now have a clear sense of who the enemy is—Father—so the opposing principles are beginning to form. We are beginning to get a clear sense that the opposing principles will be Father and his allies against the good guys—but we do not yet have a clear picture of exactly who is on each side, or what form the clash between them will take.
Key to the albedo phase of the alchemy of the self is the emergence of the Shadow. This is the opposing principle within the self, but in fiction it is usually depicted as a separate character. It is not yet clear who the Shadow of the characters I’ve discussed is—Mustang because of an abundance of choices, including Wrathley and Greedling, and Scar, Ed, and Al because no clear option presents itself. But as the series continues, it will become more clear:
Ed: Pride
Scar: Wrathley
Mustang: Envy [Ed.: In the original post on Mark Watches, I named Wrathley, but later realized this is a mistake. Wrathley is Mustang’s foil, but not his Shadow.]
Ling: Greed
Hohenheim: Father
Al: Pride, also Kimbley [Ed.: In the original post on Mark Watches, I named only Kimbley, but later realized Pride belongs here as well.]
Episode Forty: A Philosopher’s Stone in the Form of a Human (Jung)
By the twentieth century, alchemy was basically dead. Its scientific aspects were absorbed by chemistry, and in particular the mantle of transmutation was picked up by nuclear chemistry. Meanwhile, its mystical and magical aspects were absorbed by other occult traditions, mostly the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its descendants among mostly British and American mystics.

But then Carl Jung came on the scene. A student-turned-rival of Sigmund Freud, Jung’s rather complex views can mostly be summed up as a belief that stories were the key to understanding people–that the stories we tell ourselves and one another contain fundamental truths about ourselves. He was particularly interested in stories of the fantastic, as these (in his view) contained the purest expression of the universal symbols of the human psyche. (This is back during that brief period between the discovery of the signifier-signified distinction and the realization that it was insurmountable, so the idea of “universal symbols of the human psyche” was not immediately dismissed as nonsense.)

Jung’s belief was that folklore and magic were symbolic systems for grappling with the great psychological truths in ways “primitive” minds and philosophies could handle. He thus argued that the claims of the alchemists were neither fraud nor error, but rather that they underwent a mystical self-realization, and mistakenly attributed their new perspective on things to a change in those things, rather than a change in themselves.

He thus tied the process of alchemy, the magnum opus, to what he saw as the transformational process of self-actualization, and used it as a central metaphor for his entire understanding of the process of psychological development. The first stage, nigredo, corresponds to the realization that one is inadequate–it is the mental illness that compels one to seek treatment, feelings of failure and guilt, or simply a realization that one is not achieving one’s full potential. This leads to “blackening,” psychological darkness and self-hatred. In the second stage, albedo, one is cleansed. This can be in the form of confessing and performing recompense for past sins, or facing and accepting one’s dark side (symbolized in Jung’s system of archetypes by the Shadow). As in alchemy, this is an acceptable stopping point for some people, but not the complete process; it is only “silver,” and both “gold” and the “philosopher’s stone” await.

In the third stage, xanthosis or citrinitas, the true underlying conflict emerges between the Animus (the conscious self and masculine principle–in addition to being kind of a privileged dick about “primitive” cultures, Jung was sexist as fuck) and Anima (subconscious self and feminine principle). As with the Shadow, the two cannot truly defeat each other, but must rather understand one another and find a way to come together in harmony, the “alchemical wedding” that gives rise to the fourth and final stage, rubedo, in which enlightenment is achieved and the full potential of the self unlocked.

Jung believed that, historically, attaining rubedo was a rare thing accomplished only by a select few, the great alchemists and mystics of history, such as Jesus, the Buddha, Avicenna, and Paracelsus. The key feature of rubedo is that, like the philosopher’s stone, the one who attains it not only transforms themselves, but gains the power to transform others, to help them along the path of self-discovery. Jung’s goal was to find a way, through psychology, to understand this process better and make it more accessible, so that most or all people could eventually achieve self-actualization.

Obviously, he failed, because this is all a bunch of mystical nonsense and real-life alchemy was more complex–the key historical fact Jung missed was that the alchemists did not draw the same distinctions he did–the material and mystical were not separate categories for them, and in addition they did not distinguish between solid gold, gold plating, and yellow substances, considering all to have some element of gold in them.

Like pretty much all of Jung’s theories (and unsurprisingly so, considering he was more interested in stories than people), it makes for very interesting literary theory but is largely twaddle as psychology. (Oddly, many of his techniques prove useful despite the theories on which he based those techniques being nonsense–yet another thing he has in common with the alchemists.) Still, as literary theory it’s particularly interesting here, since FMA:B is one of the few series I’ve encountered actually structured on the magnum opus.

Hohenheim, interestingly, doesn’t follow the pattern, even though he is described here as a philosopher’s stone in the shape of a man. He doesn’t go any particular journey of self-discovery that we see, and he is not self-actualized, based on his severe personal issues depicted in the other flashback episode or inability to talk to Ed when they met. The two characters who do seem to be on journeys of personal growth are Ed and Scar, so it’s perhaps interesting that they both have signature items (Scar’s eyes, Ed’s coat) the same color as a philosopher’s stone. Both are also in the albedo phase of development at the same time that the series is–both confronted and attempting to redeem past crimes by way of their interactions with Winry.

Episode Forty-Five: Xanthosis
I have mostly used the Latin names for the stages of the magnum opus, rather than the Greek equivalents favored by the Muslim alchemists. However, the Latin, European name for the third stage is citrinitas, which sounds like an energy drink, while the Greek name, xanthosis, is badass and has an “x” in it. Regardless, xanthosis is yellowing. It is the phase at which gold is created, and therefore where a lesser opus ends–the true magnum opus, however, continues on into a fourth phase in order to make a philosopher’s stone.
Xanthosis is, as I wrote way back when (I think it was when Mustang killed Lust), associated with fire, summer, the sun, and yellow bile. It is also, in the mapping of the phases of the magnum opus onto the Trinity, associated with the Virgin Mary, which is probably why it was increasingly skipped in descriptions of the magnum opus after the Hundred Years War. Alchemy was increasingly a Protestant rather than a Catholic thing, you see, and they’re not huge fans of anything that could be read as ranking Mary on the same level as the parts of the Trinity. (For the record, since I don’t think I covered it back when, nigredo is God the judgmental Father and albedo is the Holy Spirit that washes away sin.)
Ever since its Chinese origins, the union of yin and yang, the masculine and feminine principles, has been a key element of alchemical transformation. This was then imported into Egyptian alchemy in the form of the alchemical wedding, the fusion of different substances dissolved in liquid or melted together in a crucible, from which a new substance is born. That European Christianity is institutionally afraid of sex changes nothing; the coming together of the opposites is still the core of the alchemical process. This is xanthosis: when the masculine and feminine principles become one, the water of albedo meets fire, and the inner light is kindled.
As I said in my review/recap/rewhatever, this episode is an incredibly clear dividing line between the albedo and xanthosis phases. There is one coming together in the episode itself, and at least three more heavily implied to be coming in the following episodes. (Gurer’f gjb zber jr qba’g xabj nobhg hagvy gurl unccra: Fpne if. Jengu, naq zbba zrrgvat fha va gur rpyvcfr.) First, in the episode, we have Ed joining Greed. Ed is human and Greed is a homunculus, of course, but there are other senses in which this is a coming together of opposites as well. We’ve seen some reason to view Greed and Pride as oppositional: Pride looks down on humans, Greed is part human, Pride is the oldest and Greed arguably the youngest, Pride the most offensively dangerous and Greed the strongest defensively, and of course Pride is the most loyal to Father while Greed betrays the homunculi in both his lives.
Ed, meanwhile, is in many ways equivalent to Pride (to the point that one can make a case, no pun intended except possibly by Arakawa herself, that Pride is Ed’s Shadow archetype), most obviously in that pride is Ed’s primary sin. (Not wrath–Ed gets angry a lot, but it’s his pride that gets him in trouble and his pride that he’s shown slowly overcoming, including in this episode.) Also, Ed and Pride both the shortest members of their respective families. 😉

Bringing Ed and Greedling together has already had some interesting results, in the sense that it’s driving the development of both characters forward. Greed is starting to reflect on his loneliness and need for companionship (and as others have commented, I love love love that the greed for personal connections is a huge part of his character), while Ed is forcing himself to put aside his pride and work for a (former?) “bad guy.”

We also have a literal bringing together of masculine and feminine principles in the form of the northern and eastern armies coming together, and by extension Olivier, the icy unbreachable wall, the immovable object who plays at being soft and feminine to manipulate Raven, and Mustang, the fiery destroyer, the irresistible force who plays at being a ladies’ man to hide his spy network and alchemy research. They’re perfect opposites, fire and ice, offense and defense, man and woman, yin and yang–and on the Promised Day they and their armies will be working together. (Okay, technically the East is Grumman’s, but screw that old pervert, we all know Mustang is the real character we’re supposed to associate with the East.)
One of the functions of the albedo phase is to separate out the opposing principles within a substance so that they can be recombined in xanthosis, and that’s definitely happening with Ed and Al. They’ve been contrasted throughout the series, with Al the calmer, quieter, and probably smarter of the two, while Ed is more energetic and impulsive, but also more proactive and better suited to leadership. They’re a traditional pair from anime, the Red Oni (Ed) and Blue Oni (Al), which is also identified with yin and yang. Since they’ve been together all series and we love them, the show is priming us to anticipate their eventual reunion, which Ed outright announces will be on the Promised Day–that will be when these essences recombine, and the results will no doubt be spectacular. And the fact that Al is possessed by Pride when they meet just means we get two combining oppositions at once for extra fun.
The final coming together of opposites we’re teased for is Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, represented by Hohenheim’s declaration of war on Father. These two are literally one blood, separated with what we can only assume is the intent of recombining them explosively. Hohenheim’s story always had to culminate in a showdown with Father, while for Ed that’s a stage in his journey but not his ultimate goal–fighting Father is important to him, but only tangentially related to getting his and Al’s bodies back. It’s really Hohenheim that has the nemesis relationship with Father, and so the battle we see coming in the next phase really amounts to Father and his allies against Hohenheim and his. That, ultimately, is the main thing the montage ending this episode succeeds in doing, is clearly defining the two forces that will clash in that battle: on the one side we have Father, the Homunculi, Central Command, and an immortal army. On the other, Hohenheim, Ed, Al, Greedling, the chimeras, the Curtises, Team Mustang, Armstrong, Olivier, Briggs, and the Eastern army.

Day of Reckoning indeed.

Episode Sixty: The Alchemical Wedding

Although there are intimations of it as early as the first century Egyptian alchemists, the alchemical wedding originates as a coherent concept with the Rosicrucian hoax, a set of three documents purporting to be the founding texts of a secret mystical society of great knowledge and power, the Order of the Rosy Cross. Said society did not actually exist at the time, though of course in the centuries since people have occasionally started societies with that name or claimed to be the “real” Rosicrucians.

The third document, The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rozenckreutz, is a lengthy allegory about spiritual enlightenment that combines Christian and a little bit of Jewish mystical thought around the central image of a wedding taking place at Easter, and the usual interpretation of it is as an argument for rejecting the Pauline epistles and all the gospels except John from the Bible.

This use of a wedding as a symbol of enlightenment, however, resonated quite a bit with alchemy, and in particular with the bringing together of male and female that characterized xanthosis, while Easter recalls the principle of Putrefaction, of life emerging from death.
This gives us a new way to look at the alchemical magnum opus, as a life cycle (returning to the Chinese origins of alchemy, in which it was seen as a way of accelerating the natural processes of evolution that were believed to occur in all metals). Nigredo becomes a death, albedo the mourning and cleansing of the corpse, following which there is the wedding of xanthosis and the birth of new life in rubedo. By the early 17th century, when the Chymical Wedding was published, the stages were already identified with the Trinity (except, as I mentioned before, xanthosis, which was identified with the Virgin Mary or Mary-Magdalene, or increasingly dropped outright). The alchemical wedding added a new mapping onto the crucifixion of Jesus: nigredo is his death, albedo the three days he spent dead, xanthosis the appearance to Mary-Magdalene and return to life, and rubedo the ascension to Heaven. Plus, by making the entire process about a fusion of masculine and feminine principles, it restores that element, which was starting to be lost as xanthosis began to be dropped from the process.

This bringing together of long-separated opposites and counterparts is all over these last few episodes, especially this one, which opens with the reunion of Denny Brosch and Maria Ross, continues with the violent bringing together of the perpetrator of genocide Wrathley and the survivor of that genocide Scar, and concludes with the merging of Father, our devil-figure, and Truth, the closest thing we see to a God. All of this has at its center the merger of the Sun and Moon, which in alchemy represent the masculine and feminine principles respectively (though they sometimes share those functions with Mars and Venus, which is why the alchemical symbols for those two planets, not the symbols for sun and moon, have become known as the masculine and feminine symbols).

The masculine and feminine, you see, are both inherently incomplete. To have a gender is to not be the other gender; to be a man or a woman is less than the totality of being human. Bring the two together, however, and the infinite potential of humanity is unleashed, and it becomes possible to create life. (To paraphrase Ed way back when, “Alchemists have been trying to create life for years, but we still can’t do what a mother can.”) This can refer to a sex act or hermaphrodite, but in alchemy the symbol is the thing; bringing together symbols of the masculine and feminine principles can be just as (or more) powerful. Also we’re talking about European alchemy here, so it’s heavily influenced by Christianity’s massive sex-negativity. (And yes, I’m aware of how immensely heteronormative this all is. It’s Renaissance Europe, what can you do?)

An eclipse is one such marriage of masculine and feminine principles, and Father uses it to create a twisted parody of the alchemical marriage. He uses the mass deaths of the Amestrian people to create a featureless, blank Gate the size of the country, from which he emerges so that he can drag Truth down. He forces a marriage between the Mother Goddess of the Earth and the Allfather of Heaven, from which there is a burst of light. But far from creative, it is destructive; Father is an inversion of Chronos, a Titan born from the Earth who (rather than devouring his children) consumes his own heavenly father.

And of course there are other examples of this alchemical wedding in the episodes left to the series: there is the union of Mei and Al to bring back Ed’s arm, the union of Mustang and Hawkeye working together perfectly to fight Father, and of course finally the actual wedding of Ed and Winry and their resulting babies.

Episode Sixty-One: The Shadow Archetype

Jung, whom I’ve occasionally discussed before, is an important figure in the history of alchemy, as he is almost singlehandedly responsible for bringing it out of occult obscurity and into the realm of serious scholarship. He is one of the first people to study alchemy not as an occult art or science that works in a material sense, but as a social, cultural, and psychological phenomenon that worked in a spiritual sense. He approached it, in other words, as a belief system, not a source of power.

As with most of his theoretical work, Psychology and Alchemy is more useful and interesting as literary theory than as sociology or psychology. (His practical techniques, on the other hand, remain an important part of talk therapy to this day. Kind of like alchemy, when you think about it.) Regardless, he described the alchemical process as a spiritual process, in which the product appears to have changed because the alchemist’s entire worldview has changed.
One of Jung’s most interesting ideas, from a literary standpoint, is the Shadow. The Shadow comes from Jung’s theory of archetypes, rather than his ideas about alchemy, but nonetheless fits into them well, as the Shadow is a part of the self that is split off and later confronted, much as opposing principles are divided and then recombined in xanthosis.

The Shadow, as a psychological or philosophical concept, is a part of the self that has been rejected. One creates a Shadow by declaring a part of oneself as being unacceptable, usually because one sees it as weak, immoral, frightening, or painful, but sometimes just because it conflicts with one’s self image, and then burying, suppressing, or isolating that part. An essential part of achieving one’s full potential and psychological growth, therefore, is to confront the Shadow.
The Shadow, in other words, is a symbol of everything you hate about yourself. The thing is, the Shadow is created by rejection, and thus it is impossible to overcome it by fighting it. The only way to defeat the Shadow is to accept it and become one with it. Put another way, you cannot change something about yourself until you accept that it is a part of your self, and only then can you make the choice to either channel it to positive ends or grow beyond it.
As a literary concept, the Shadow is closely related to the foil. A foil, remember, is a character who is exactly like the protagonist in some ways, and their exact opposite in others. If a story has a big enough scope for multiple protagonists, it is not uncommon for a character to have multiple foils, and some protagonists may even be foils to each other. Ed, for example, has foils in Al, Mustang, and Hohenheim, while Mustang has foils in Ed, Hawkeye, Olivier, and Bradley. The Shadow, on the other hand, is the dark reflection of the protagonist, the character who personifies everything they reject in themselves. This can be the same person (Ling’s foil and Shadow are both Greed), but isn’t necessarily (Father is Hohenheim’s foil but not his Shadow; Envy is Mustang’s Shadow but not his foil.)

Mustang’s Shadow, as I said, is Envy, the one opponent he cannot burn without losing a part of himself. Envy is a shapeshifter, a deceiver, a trickster who revels in making people dance to his tune, much as Mustang pretends to be a frivolous womanizer to hide his true ambition and truly enjoys the game of feeding false information to the Central forces when Ed and Al try to draw out the homunculi by fighting Scar. Mustang also covets that which others possess, namely the throne of Amestris, and has a furious temper, much like Envy. He tries to separate himself from these truths, but ultimately he cannot; he must accept how close he has come to straying off the path and becoming the monsters he fights, and the only way to do so is by not killing Envy. It is a textbook confrontation with the Shadow.
Another major confrontation with the Shadow occurs in this episode, as Scar faces Wrathley. Last episode, to fight Wrathley Scar had to embrace an aspect of himself he’d long denied, namely that, like his brother, he is an alchemist. Wrathley, however, is in many ways the person Scar began the series as: a human being transformed into a creature of pure anger and violence by Amestrian alchemists, a nameless being who cares about nothing (not even survival) except destroying the enemy in front of him. Scar has tried to reject his rage and violence for some time now, and the result has been subtle but clear: he went from one of the most terrifyingly effective combatants in the show to being almost entirely ineffectual against the Immortal Legion and Wrannabes. Once Wrathley begins insultings Ishvala and suggesting that Scar has abandoned his faith and people, however, Scar once again strikes out in anger. His final speech on activating the alchemy circle makes this clear; he accepts that he is still full of anger and hatred, but that this does not have to be all he is. As he puts it, within him the positive and negative streams are one.
The most literal Shadow in the show, of course, is Pride, who serves as a Shadow to both Elric brothers. Pride represents a host of things Al rejects about himself—that he is an empty shell, a soul devoid of any real flesh, a created thing superior to normal humans. Al’s fights with Pride are all inconclusive, but note that once Al rejects the chance to get his body back—accepting, in other words, that he is living armor and that this does have its advantages—he does not fight Pride again. (Last episode he almost did, but got distracted by Mei’s injury.)

That leaves the main confrontation with the Shadow this episode, the fight between Ed and Pride. Pride is, of course, Ed’s defining sin—his hubris that led him to try to revive his mother in the first place—and Ed has attempted to reject pride from time to time, but never succeeded. He’s still basically an arrogant person, quick to gloat and prone to getting in trouble as a result of underestimating his opponents. He’s gotten better about the last, but note that just one episode ago he was gloating that he could easily beat Pride because he “knows how short people fight,” and now he comes within a hair of being killed.

There are other traits Ed tries to deny about himself that Pride embraces, such as sadism. Pride enjoys making his enemies experience intense physical and emotional trauma, true, while Ed restrains himself to pranking and trolling, but isn’t that just a sanitized form of sadism? The underlying principle—pleasure at making others suffer—is the same. Ed is also, like Pride, a very angry and violent person, but Ed tries to reject this side of himself with his strict taboo against killing, while Pride embraces violence wholeheartedly.
But probably the biggest aspect of Ed which Ed rejects and Pride embraces is the one Ed specifically calls Pride out on: Pride has been abandoned and betrayed by his father, and continues to work with him, continues to feel love and loyalty toward him.

Because for all that Ed hates his father, refuses even to call him that… Ed’s anger is rooted in loss. Ed hates Hohenheim for taking Ed’s father away from him, a loss Ed still feels keenly because Ed still loves his father.

And so, with only a few episodes left, if Ed is to have any hope of completing his growth as a character he must become one with Pride, which he does literally, by becoming a philosopher’s stone and entering his body. Ed strips away everything Pride is, leaving only an infant pleading for its mother—strips it away and takes it into himself.

Because one more feature Ed and Pride share in common, one they have both embraced throughout the series, is the ability to absorb the powers of others. Pride ate Gluttony’s sense of smell and Kimblee’s knowledge of alchemy, just as Ed copied Scar’s deconstruction attacks and Greed’s Ultimate Shield. So as Ed walks toward the final battle, he has taken from Pride the things he rejected from himself: Now he accepts that he is proud, which means he is capable of being humble. Now he accepts that he loves his father even as he hates him. And now he accepts that his hands are not for healing or building like Winry’s, but for fighting.

Within Ed, the opposing forces are at last aligning. He has been largely sidelined the past dozen episodes, one of many equal protagonists… but there is a reason this show is named for him. It’s time once more for him to step into center stage.

Episode Sixty-Two: In the Beginning

This lesson is actually more related to episodes 60 and 61, but there is SO MUCH going on in those two episodes, alchemically, that I moved it here. Plus, there’s a little bit of it happening.

One of the fundamental principles of alchemy was “As Above, So Below,” and one of its major focuses was on the process of creation. It should come as no surprise, then, that alchemical thinkers were interested in the origins and destiny of the universe. In Europe, alchemy was primarily practiced by Christians and so the dominant origin story was the Christian account familiar in our own culture.

However, alchemy drew heavily on two traditions that had Creation myths of their own, and alchemy made frequent use of their symbolism and iconography. The first of these, and less important of the two where FMA is concerned, was the Gnostic account. Gnosticism is generally regarded as a Christian heresy, but historically speaking it is more accurate to say that it was one of many competing Christianities that proliferated in the first three or four centuries after Jesus, of which one happened to get a big-name convert in Constantine and aggressively wiped out the others, establishing itself as a root religion from which most modern forms of Christianity descend. That one wasn’t Gnosticism, but because Gnosticism was a mystery religion (that is, a religion whose rites and beliefs are supposed to be secret to outsiders, and only revealed bit-by-bit to worshippers as they advance in a spiritual hierarchy—Scientology is a good modern example) practiced in secret, it took longer than most to wipe out, and traces of it remained in occult lore down to modern times, when the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library (a veritable treasure trove of ancient Gnostic texts hidden in an Egyptian monastery for centuries) brought it back into the spotlight.
By its nature as an often-persecuted, deeply mystical, secretive belief system, Gnostic beliefs varied quite a bit, but the most common and influential begins with the perfect God, whose divine light trickled down in a series of emanations called Aeons. The Aeons come in male-female pairs, and each pair is lower and less perfect than the last, but still divine, until at last one reaches the lowest and least perfect pair, Sophia (Greek for “Wisdom”) and Christos (Greek for “Messiah”; of course this is the English word Christ, but I’ll use the Greek name because the concept is rather different from modern mainstream Christianity). Sophia has a desire to create, and tries to make a divine being, but because she is the lowest of the Aeons she fails and instead creates Ialdabaoth, the Demiurge, who is variously described as being evil, mentally unbalanced, or simply massively incompetent. The Demiurge believes itself to be the supreme divine being, and creates the material universe, an utterly corrupt place of pure evil and darkness. However, he unknowingly traps Sophia within it, and she becomes the sole source of light in that darkness; specifically, she becomes the human soul. The Demiurge becomes the God of the Old Testament and tyrant of the universe (why yes, Gnosticism DID start as one of the Hellenistic, anti-Semitic branches of Christianity, how could you tell?) until finally Christos comes to try to rescue Sophia. Working through a purely human mouthpiece, Jesus (and helped by Sophia’s human mouthpiece, Mary-Magdalene), Christos spread the secret knowledge (Greek gnosis) that grants Enlightenment and salvation, allowing those who fully comprehend it to escape their material shell and become pure soul, merging back into Sophia—and when everyone is free, she will be free and this corrupt universe of darkness will collapse.

(Fun thought: Christos is an alien being who works through human agents to spread occult knowledge and secret rituals that cause those who know them to die, with the ultimate goal of wiping out humanity and destroying the universe. The only difference between him and Nyarlathotep is whether or not you like material existence.)
Truth seems rather inspired by Sophia, a divine being of light and knowledge who does not take any active role to govern the universe or claim to have created it, and who exists both as an independent entity and within every human soul. Father also seems quite demiurgic; he is a tyrant who pretends to godhood but is actually pathetic and corrupt, the creator of Amestris, and responsible for trapping both Truth and countless human souls. However, there really doesn’t seem any parallel to Christos; Hohenheim and Ed are, ultimately, human, while the Christos stand-in would be on the same order of being as Truth.

This Gnostic creation myth is basically a dark retelling of the rather more positive Qabbalistic story of creation. This story is a parallel of sorts to the Genesis accounts, meant not as a correction or replacement (as the Gnostic story explicitly is) but rather as an alternative view of events that are ultimately beyond human comprehension anyway.

The Qabbalistic myth begins slightly before the Genesis account, with a perfect, infinite, omnipresent Light, the chief Qabbalistic metaphor for God. Because this Light is omnipresent, nothing else except perfect Light can exist. Since God wishes to create, he must first make a space that isn’t him, so he retracts his light from the universe, creating the primordial darkness, the chaos of Genesis 1.

But God wants more than just darkness, so he trickles a little bit of Light into the dark, creating the universe. This Light is gathered into ten vessels, the ten Sephiroth, but it is too much for them to contain; they shatter into a multitude of tiny sparks of Light, scattering the Light throughout the universe. This is no accident, however—God is perfect, and makes no mistakes. Rather, this is intentional, to give the universe purpose—the sparks must try to gather again together, and restore the universe to its primordial perfection.
The sparks are fractal—each contains the complete Sephiroth within itself, albeit in a fractured and imperfect form—and of course they are the souls of humanity. Through meditation and spiritual practice, this inner Sephiroth can be ascended, reconnecting with the Source of the Light, the Aur Ein Soph, God, but it is an enormous challenge that few achieve in their lifetime. Ultimately, however, everyone will manage it, and the original state of the universe be restored in tikkun olam, the healing of the world and fulfillment of its purpose and promise.

The alchemists saw in both Gnosticism and Qabbala mystical systems based on knowledge and scholarship. In Gnosticism, the material world is an illusion and a trap, and the spiritual is real; in Qabbala the spiritual reality and material reality are one. In either case, the gathering of knowledge is a spiritual quest, and the immortality promised by the philosopher’s stone could be considered the same immortality as that of the soul, a way to ascend and connect to the source of all things.

The Qabbalistic Tree of Life, one of the ways to depict the Sephiroth, was thus identified with the process of creating a philosopher’s stone, and we see this in the progression of Gates of Truth, which we can now understand as fragments of the primordial vessels of the Sephiroth. The first Gate we see, Ed’s, is a purely spiritual Sephiroth, rooted in the heavens and borne up by angels. Al’s is a hybrid, a process of making the philosopher’s stone depicted as a Tree of Life. And finally, Mustang’s has no trace of the Sephiroth or Tree of Life, a purely alchemical diagram that nonetheless depicts a path from Earth to Heaven.

The ultimate goal of the process is thus not merely to make an elixir that maintains physical life or a stone that allows unlimited, perfect transmutation. It is a spiritual transformation, a union with the Divine… but that discussion is for tomorrow.

Episode Sixty-Three: Enlightenment

There seems to be a pattern to alchemy, where in a given culture it starts out pragmatic and exploratory, then gradually turns inwards and becomes more spiritual, after which its cultural relevance fades. It happened in China with the increasing pursuit of the immortal, spiritual self rather than making medicine and transmuting elements. It happened in Egypt, where it coincided with the shift from Alexandria to Byzantium. And it happened in Europe, where it formed one branch of the split between alchemy and chemistry.

In Europe, the quest for physical immortality and the transmutation of the elements became a quest for spiritual immortality and enlightenment. But what is enlightenment?
Literally, of course, to be enlightened is to be illuminated, to discover or release light. There are, very broadly speaking, two ways to go about doing this, the inward-pointed and the outward-pointed. The inward-pointed involves private study and meditation with the intent of finding light within oneself; the outward-pointed involves going out in the world and working with the intent of finding light within others. The former is what we usually mean by little-e enlightenment, but the latter is the kind found in the big-E Enlightenment, the rise of modern science, humanism, and democracy in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Alchemy, like Qabbalah and Gnosticism, largely pursues an inward-pointed enlightenment. In the case of the latter two traditions, the goal is to reach inside oneself and find the part that connects to the divine. In alchemy, the goal is to create a perfect substance, and by dint of having created perfection, become perfect oneself.
But what is the point of linking in and up if you do not also link out? What is the point of finding your own light if you don’t find the light in others?

FMA:B is not kind to those who turn inwards for their enlightenment. The clearest example is Father. He does exactly what the medieval alchemists were trying to do: he uses alchemy to perfect himself, to attain oneness with God and yet remain on this Earth. But in so doing he sacrificed any possibility of connection to others, and found no light at all, only more and greater darkness. His Gate is blank.

My own theory on Father, based on the blankness of his Gate and his pleading not to go “back” when Truth pulls him through it, is that he is a fragment of the darkness behind the Gate. What, then, is that darkness? It is the stuff of which the universe was made, the primordial, chaotic darkness from which God withdrew his Light before trickling it back in. That is why the Gate contains infinite knowledge of alchemy, because it contains the makings of the entire universe.
And it’s also why Father craves to absorb God so very much. The darkness remembers that once it was full of Light, and it wants that Light back.

Father contains no Light, nothing for his Gate to depict. He has no trace of the positive inclination. But he’s tried to sever all of his negative inclination instead of channeling it, and as a result he is nothing but negative inclination. Put another way, all seven homunculi are Father’s Shadows, aspects of himself he has rejected, and because he is never able to accept any of them, he is never able to escape the flaws they represent: arrogance, an instrumental approach to others, a desperate craving for recognition and power, a tendency to react rather than act and let others do the work for him, jealousy of the light within humans, the desire to consume and absorb that light, and vicious, raging hatred. He insists that he has severed these things from himself, and so of course as a result he is incapable of seeing that they control and define him; that’s how it always works with the Shadow.
Had he confronted himself, accepted and embraced these aspects of himself, he might have put aside his anger and his arrogance to see that the light he envied, wanted to possess and devour was in others all along. He might have put aside his reactivity and passivity and instrumental approach to others, worked past his hatred, and attained the second kind of enlightenment, the kind you get by connecting to others. As Truth says, he saw the answer, but he rejected it.

Ed, on the other hand, embraces it. He realizes that the enlightenment offered by alchemy, the inward turn, is inherently self-centered and selfish. It cannot transcend, only send someone deeper into a cycle of sacrifices that ultimately ends up rejecting the world and becoming like Father. But who needs alchemy, anyway? All the light he needs is in other people. He can see the light in himself reflected in them, and reflect their light back at them.

Mark asked, “Is he transmuting himself?” Yes, Mark. Yes he is. The question is, into what? But that’s for tomorrow’s discussion.

Episode Sixty-Four: Rubedo

The final stage in the creation of a philosopher’s stone is rubedo, reddening. This is the stage in which the stone itself is produced. If nigredo is the black night of the soul, albedo moonrise and xanthosis sunrise, rubedo is the bright new morning. It is the new life created by the alchemical wedding, associated with the element of air, the humour blood, the sanguine temperament (cheerful, impulsive, creative dreamers), God the Son, and spiritual enlightenment.

The power of rubedo is the power to transform. Throughout the magnum opus, the material has been acted upon, transmuted—but the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life, can transmute other things. It is the reification of change, a perfect substance that transforms and elevates everything around it.

To Jung, the magnum opus was a purely spiritual process. He believed that the alchemists, on attaining rubedo, thought the material was perfected and exalted because they were looking on the world with new, enlightened eyes. This appears not to have been the case; Jung underestimated the cultural differences between himself and the alchemists (who regarded as fundamental changes in materials we would dismiss as superficial), as well as their capacity for wishful thinking and, occasionally, outright fraud.

But the creation of the philosopher’s stone is, nonetheless, a deeply spiritual process, because the core principle of alchemy, “As above, so below,” means that the symbol is the thing, the spiritual is the material. No less notable an alchemist and occultist than Sir Isaac Newton gave us his third law, “for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.” To transmute something is to yourself be transmuted.
This series, I’ve noted more than once, is structured like the magnum opus. It begins with darkness and horror and death: the Elric brothers transmuting their mother, the death of Nina, of Hughes, the revelation that the homunculi control the state, the descent into Gluttony’s abyss. It continues into a cleansing phase, all white snow and the revelation of sins past—Briggs, the Ishbal flashback, Hohenheim’s flashback, Scar’s slow turn away from vengeance. Then there is the clash of opposing forces and rapid transformation of the Promised Day. And here, in the final episode, we have the product, the new day.
But have we gained a philosopher’s stone? This episode makes a point of showing to us, in two separate scenes, two moments of characters pulling out trump cards: Knox pulls out Marcoh, and Ling pulls out the stone Marcoh showed the Elrics in Episode 6. Remember that episode? Marcoh explained that the stone, like all the stones produced by the Amestrian researchers, is incomplete. It is not a perfect substance; it can be used up. Nor are Father’s and Hohenheim’s stones complete, for the same reason. Up until this episode, we have never seen a true philosopher’s stone, only an incomplete, fake stone.

And of course they’re incomplete! They are not created via the magnum opus, but by consuming human lives as a shortcut, a cheat. They’re all false stones, full of blood but without the breath of life. But the show, the show has followed the recipe. It is a magnum opus, a true and traditional one. So there should be a true philosopher’s stone, here at the end. Something which has been transformed, something which has been broken down, cleansed, tried by fire, and emerged with the power to create transformation.
“You can’t gain anything without losing something first. Although, if you can endure that pain and walk away from it, you’ll find that you now have a heart strong enough to overcome any obstacle.”

That is the true philosopher’s stone. It is Ed, who finally, by uniting with Winry, has the power to create life. It is Al, who, returned from the dead, journeys to the east to find a cure for chimerae. It is Scar, who has left the path of destroying his people’s enemies and instead works to use those same hands rebuilding his people’s culture. It is Mustang, who helped destroy Ishbal, and now helps restore it.

The magnum opus is a material process with a spiritual product. The true philosopher’s stone can take many forms: it can be an elixir, a crystal, a gel, a stone… or a heart.

“Yeah, a heart made fullmetal.”