Utena Dump: Episodes 16-20

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

Episode 16

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

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

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

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

Episode 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 18

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 19

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

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

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

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

Episode 20

WAKABA.

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.

One thought on “Utena Dump: Episodes 16-20

  1. Food for thought: what makes Juri's obsessive crush on someone who doesn't like her okay, while Tsuwabuki's makes him a scumbag? The photograph, the “being there,” the refusal to express their feelings honestly and openly…

    A lot more parallels that I'd realized before this rewatch.

    Like

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