At the request of Ana Mardoll–who has just started a blog series on Revolutionary Girl Utena that you really ought to read, because she’s awesome–I am compiling all my thoughts on the use of color in Revolutionary Girl Utena in one place. This is a more than usually off-the-cuff post, drawing together (and in some cases copy-pasting) stuff from a bunch of different blog posts I’ve written and notes I’ve taken, so I’m not worrying to much about flow.
The main, most solid sources for what color means in the show are two episodes, “Tracing a Path” and “The End of the World.” The former is a clip show that assigns names to each of the duels in the Student Council Saga. As each duel is named, a stained glass panel is displayed showing the French word for the concept the duel is named after, and dyed the same color as Utena’s opponent’s hair. The latter episode then shows a similar panel as Utena faces off against Akio in the Duel Named Revolution. However, almost every episode has some use of these colors, and there are several prominent colors not assigned duel names, so ultimately the only source I can give for this is “the show as a whole, watched many times.”
So, let’s get into the colors.
Green is associated with the Duel Named Friendship and the Duel Named Choice. That is, therefore, what green represents: friendship and choice, interpersonal connection and free will. Generally speaking, a character’s hair color indicates what their path or destiny is–what road they are on. Thus, Saionji’s hair is green to indicate he is seeking and defined by his relationships, his friendship with Touga and his (imaginary) romance with Anthy. It is also the color of the dress Nanami sends Anthy to wear to the ball; at the time, Nanami is pretending to be Anthy’s friend, and Utena is trying to get Anthy to make choices for herself. (When characters wear something other than their usual uniform, it generally indicates they are taking on a role or playing a part.)
Green’s opposite color is red; hence it is also the color of the concepts in direct opposition to red’s: doubt or confusion (opposing conviction) and loyalty (opposing the self in both senses of selfishness and self-reliance). Again, these are strong traits in Saionji, who frequently misinterprets situations (such as the whole exchange diary fiasco), and whose loyalty to Touga remains unshakable even when Touga repeatedly demonstrates he doesn’t deserve it.
Blue is associated with the Duel Named Reason; blue represents reason, the intellect, and the mind, memory and self-expression. Miki’s blue hair indicates his genius, both academic and musical, as well as his fixation on a specific memory he wants to return to, the feeling of playing piano with his sister. Ruka’s blue hair, meanwhile, indicates his calculating, ruthless approach to dueling.
Blue’s opposite color is orange; hence it is also the color of possessiveness (opposing love), the idea that another person is “rightfully” your property. Again, see Ruka; also, that is frequently how Kozue presents herself, and even Miki in his focus episodes tends to start seeing Anthy as someone who “ought to” belong to him.
Orange is associated with the Duel Named Love; orange represents love, passion, and yearning. Juri’s orange hair indicates that she is driven by both a specific lost love, and quest for love in general–she is a closeted lesbian, and wants the power to revolutionize the world so that she can achieve the miracle of being allowed to love, and being loved in return.
Orange’s opposite color is blue, so it is also associated with that which cannot be understood through reason, the miraculous, the mystical, the spiritual. Again, Juri is seeking a miracle.
Yellow is associated with the Duel Named Adoration, and represents that which is placed upon a pedestal, the object of worship and protection. Nanami’s yellow hair signifies both her adoration of her brother, and that she is an object of adoration, the queen bee of the school. Similarly, Tsuwabuki’s yellow hair represents his adoration of Nanami.
Yellow’s opposite color is purple, and so yellow is also the color of stasis (opposing revolution). In the context of Utena, this stasis takes the form of an inability to age or mature, a perpetual childhood or adolescence. The adored child who must be protected and cannot grow up is the Princess, which combines all the meanings of yellow in one; hence the princess in the fairy tale that opens the first episode is wearing a yellow dress, because at the beginning of that story Utena is playing the role of the Princess.
Like green, red is associated with two duels: the Duel Named Conviction and the Duel Named Self. Red is the color of belief, selfishness, self-reliance. It is the color of knowing who you are and what you believe, and acting accordingly. Touga’s red hair and Utena’s pink both represent characters who are confident, proud, certain of their own identities, and always ready to act on their beliefs; the difference is that Touga’s beliefs are cynical and Utena’s idealistic.
Red’s opposite color is green, so it is also the color of manipulation (in opposition to friendship) and power (in opposition to choice). Touga, Utena, and Mikage are the strongest duelists, and all three are highly manipulative in very different ways: Touga uses promises, lies, and seduction; Utena swoops in to save Anthy and in so doing pushes her into performing Utena’s ideas of the savior-prince narrative; Mikage discovers the darkest desires of others and twists them to his purposes. And, of course, red is the color of Akio’s car, where he demonstrates his power and manipulates the duelists into fighting Utena again.
Purple is the color of the Duel Named Revolution. It is 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.
Purple is Anthy.
There are three prominent colors in the show that are not associated with named duels: white, black, and brown.
White is strongly associated with the Prince: it is the color of Dios’ clothing, Utena’s rose, and the rose frames that appear around Touga when Utena thinks he might be her prince. Lighter colors thus indicate closeness to the Prince and what he represents, so for example Utena is closer to the power of Dios than Touga–pink is red and white combined.
It is tempting to conclude that white is therefore “good” and black “evil,” and to an extent that’s true, but it’s important to remember that one of the strongest influences on Utena is Herman Hesse’s novel Demian (among other things, it’s where the egg speech comes from, as well as the use of apocalypse and global revolution as metaphors for growing up). In Demian, “good” does not mean acting ethically, but rather conforming to social norms, and likewise “evil” does not mean doing harm or violating others, but rather defying social norms. In that respect, it might be more accurate then to say that white represents that which is accepted and black represents that which is rejected, white is the socially acceptable and black the abject.
Sometimes, this aligns with morality: Ruka’s hair is a darker blue than Miki’s, and Touga’s a darker red than Utena’s, and they are definitely much worse people. However, that’s not why they’re darker; Ruka’s blue is darker because sexual assault is less socially acceptable than Nice Guy Syndrome, and Touga’s red is darker because being a lying, cheating playboy is less socially acceptable than being a heroic savior. To use an example where it definitely isn’t aligned with morality: Anthy’s skin is dark because she is utterly abject, the Witch whom society seeks to punish eternally for the sin of being a person instead of a perfect little princess.
Pure black, as we see in the Black Rose Saga, is thus that which is completely rejected, that part of ourselves which we push away so hard that we start to deny it even exists–the Jungian Shadow, in other words. Each of the Black Rose duelists descends into the deep darkness underground and the darkness within themselves, expressing and demonstrating the hidden parts of the people whose heart-swords they wield. For example, Kozue acts on the possessiveness that Miki tries to deny he feels toward Anthy; Wakaba acknowledges feeling unremarkable and overshadowed by her more popular and athletic best friend, while Saionji tries to deny that he feels this way about Touga. The darkness of the Shadow is not the darkness of evil, however, though it is where the idea of evil comes from; the Shadow is dark because it’s hidden. It must be not only faced, but accepted–Utena fights and defeats her Shadow Mikage, and in so doing rejects the aspects of herself he represents, allowing Akio to use those very same traits to manipulate her in the next arc. It is only when she admits and accepts the ways in which she has used Anthy–the same ways Mikage used people–that she becomes able to face Akio in the final duel.
Finally, there is brown, the drab color of the plain, ordinary, unspecial people. Wakaba, in other words, as well as Nanami’s hangers-on, that trio of boys always hitting on Nanami, and the vast majority of the unnamed masses who populate the school. But again, this doesn’t mean that brown is bad, just that it’s neutral; it is the color of not being particularly any one thing. In a way, the brown-haired characters are lucky–they have conventional dreams and acceptable desires, and therefore don’t need to break the world in order to become truly themselves. They get to just be.