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.

One thought on “Utena Dump: Episodes 11-15

  1. Catching up now that I've watched the whole show: I read a lengthy tumblr post on Akio's adoption, which claimed (credibly) that there is a strong patriarchal stigma against men who enter their wives' families.

    Like

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