A panel I gave at Anime Boston 2016, talking about Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Early access to all videos for Patreon subscribers: http://patreon.com/froborr
A panel I gave at Anime Boston 2016, talking about Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Early access to all videos for Patreon subscribers: http://patreon.com/froborr
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.)
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?
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
Continuing the fortnightly series of posts collecting my comments on the Mark Watches reviews of Revolutionary Girl Utena:
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.
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.
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?
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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…
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.