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.

Utena Dump: Episodes 11-15

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

Episode 11

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

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

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

Episode 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 13

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

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

Episode 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Utena Dump 2

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

Episode 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Utena 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 8

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

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

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

Episode 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 10

Nanami killed a kitten.

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

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

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

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

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

Utena dump, and a brief introduction about truth

Reminder: Next week, we will be starting liveblogs of Kill la Kill on Saturdays at 2 p.m. EST. Not doing them this week because I’m busy. Also, Netflix fortuitously just added Kill la Kill, subbed and in its entirety, to their streaming service.

Normally, when we talk about something being true–in the everyday sense, or the sense used in the sciences–we mean that it possesses two properties: it is consistent with a larger body of truth, and it corresponds to some standard.

Consistency is the requirement that, to be true, a set of statements must not contradict one another.

Correspondence is the requirement that, to be true, a statement must be testable against some standard. In the sciences, that standard is careful experimental testing or close observation of natural phenomena; in everyday life, it is consensus reality and our own personal experiences.

However, some fields use different models of truth. Mathematics, for example, follows a consistency model only–a statement is true as long as it does not contradict some fundamental axiom. Alternative mathematical systems can be created by choosing different sets of axioms; some of these do correspond to some standard–for example, Euclid’s Postulates describe the behavior of geometric figures on a flat surface, and fiddling with the Fifth Postulate can create systems corresponding to different types of curved surfaces–but it is not actually a requirement to do so.

The humanities, on the other hand, and particularly in the analysis of the arts, follow a correspondence model. This is necessary, as the works being analyzed themselves are under no requirement to be consistent. Thus, the only real rule is that analysis must correspond to the work being analyzed; while most analytical essays try to be consistent within themselves, and sometimes attempt consistency with particular paratexts or broad theoretical schema, this is no more a requirement than correspondence is in math. (One even, occasionally, encounters critics who insist on only ever applying one theoretical model to all texts. How sad and tiny their literary worlds must be!)

These concepts are implicit in everything I do for this site, though I came close to making the non-necessity of consistency explicit in my first essay on Rebellion. The reason I am making a point of being explicit about them now is because Utena positively revels in inconsistency. One of its main themes is the unreliability of memory and story, so often events recalled by different characters or at different times will alter substantially. At the same time, it has enormous semiotic density–the highest of any TV show or film I’ve ever seen–so there are a wealth of interpretations, many of them contradictory, for each version of each memory/story, and all of them are true.

That’s the key point I want to make: unlike math or the sciences, in the humanities two statements can contradict each other and still both be true, as long as they have justification in the text.

Actual dump of Utena thoughts (eps 1-5) after the cut. Unmarked spoilers abound!


Episode 1: 

Revolutionary Girl Utena is the single most semiotically dense thing I have ever watched (although the Madoka movie is a close second). Everything in this show means something, and most things mean multiple things, many of them contradictory.

Case in point: color symbolism. I believe the colors in this show all have specific meanings, as does the positioning of those colors—for example, the rose frames in the corners of the screen indicate subjectivity, and the color of the roses indicates how the subject is looking at the scene. Lighter colors indicate “purer” or “higher” forms, while darker colors indicate “distorted” or “lower” forms (so black is distortion itself). In this episode, prominent colors include white (purity and the prince, notable as the color of the prince’s hair and clothes, and the color of the roses at the edges of the screen when Utena first sees Anthy), red (Utena and Touga’s hair, (I’m counting pink as a very light red) and Anthy’s dress in the dueling arena), and green (Saionji’s hair). The meaning of most of the colors and positions is spoilery; I will say that the color of the rose characters wear when dueling indicates their desires, hence Utena’s white rose reflects her desire to become the prince.

Names have meaning too! Utena means “calyx,” the part of a flower that protects the petals. Read as a single word, Tenjou means “ceiling”; however, if split into component parts it can be read as “ten,” which means “heaven,” and “jou,” which means “above.” Utena Tenjou is thus something like “the paragon of calyxes.” Anthy, more commonly spelled Anthea, is a Western, not Japanese name. It is derived from Antheia, the ancient Greek goddess of flowers. Himemiya is written as two kanji, “hime,” which means “princess,” and “miya,” which means “shrine or palace.” Anthy Himemiya is thus something like “the flower princess in the shrine/palace.”

Any association between Anthy and a shrine is interesting, because the combination of dark skin color and bindi is normally associated with characters from or connected with India in anime. The reason this is notable is because of the two dominant religions in Japan, one is homegrown (Shinto) and the other originated in India (Buddhism). (Note: Most Japanese people practice both Shinto and Buddhism more or less equally. Also, yes, I am aware that bindis are a Hindu thing; I’m not sure that animators are, though.) We can thus presume that the shrine with which Anthy is associated is a Buddhist shrine.

This seems like a suitable juncture at which to point out that, while the architecture (i.e., the design of individual buildings) of Ohtori Academy is modeled on Versailles, the layout (i.e., the positions of those buildings and the big mound o’ trees as seen in the brief aerial shot in this episode) is modeled on the Osorezan Bodai-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple in Japan. Specifically, a temple designed to evoke traditional depictions of Buddhist “Hell,” which is actually more like a purgatory.
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Given recent media consumption, I am hard-pressed to make it through the subverted-fairy-tale opening without mentioning either Princess Tutu or the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Note that it’s not the only strange twist on a fairy tale in this episode—there’s that upside-down castle, too. Saionji claims it’s a “trick of the light,” and illusion. Thirty-seven episodes later, Akio will turn off the projector, and commence with the disillusionment of Utena… only to follow it up a few minutes later with some actual magical stuff. I meant it when I said this series likes to contradict itself!

There are few things greater in life than Utena determinedly climbing a spiral staircase while accompanied by a Satanic children’s choir. For the record, the “darkness of Sodom” is cruelty to strangers and lack of charity, the notion that it has anything to do with homosexuality is an urban legend of medieval origin.

The song for the fight with Saionji is fascinating. It’s mostly about Utena, who has been cast into a role she doesn’t understand and is trying to barrel through on the strength of her passion and righteousness.  Of course it is also a song of praise to Akio/Dios. 

Utena’s discomfort in the final scene is palpable. She thought she was striking a blow against an evil abusive man and saving an innocent woman, but now she learns that she has instead become part of an evil abusive system, Anthy was an apparently willing participant, and Utena is now the “owner” of the woman the system treats as property. Oops. Perhaps rushing in to play the savior in a situation you don’t fully understand isn’t necessarily a great move.

Episode 2:

“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.”

Demian, Herman Hesse, 1919

One of the reasons I love Revolutionary Girl Utena is that it introduced me to one of my favorite books, which is also one of the main inspirations of the anime, Herman Hesse’s 1919 novel Demian.
 
Demian is a bildungsroman about Emil, a young man torn between being “good” as defined by his parents and the culture around him, and being true to himself. On the cusp of puberty, he meets Demian, a charismatic boy with whom Emil develops an intense fascination and friendship (the homoerotic subtext is quite prevalent). In time, Demian introduces Emil to the cult of Abraxas, a Gnostic deity who is the creator of both God and Devil and thus combines good and evil into a single supreme being. Recurring throughout the book is the idea, as expressed in the quote above, that goodness is determined by societal norms that require people to deny their true natures. In order to be both good and true to oneself, it is necessary to first have a world revolution to sweep away those norms, destroying the old order to make way for a new world in which people can be truly and fully themselves.

Throughout Utena, Anthy is caught between the demands of being the good “Princess” and her nature as the “Witch”. Inspired by the titular character, she helps create a revolution that empowers her to set out on her own, finally true to herself. (Yes, I am arguing that Anthy is the real main character, and this is the story of her growing up. The story of Utena growing up will have to wait for the movie.) 
 
An exchange diary is a thing young couples, particularly teens, sometimes do (did?) in Japan. It’s pretty much just a diary they pass back and forth, taking turns recording their entries. It’s a surprisingly intimate and romantic thing for Saionji, who previously has been just an abusive asshole, to do. Of course he still is an abusive asshole, that’s why his hair is DARK green.

Because that’s what green, the next color on our list, signifies: relationships (romance, family, friends) and loyalty. And hair color represents the character’s path or destiny, which in the case of the duelists means it represents their path to attaining the Power of Dios. Saionji’s dark hair indicates that he is very, very far from getting there—his path is relationships, and he’s HORRIBLE at them. Utena’s very light hair is an indicator that she’s much closer—in fact, she’s so close that Dios emerges from the castle to possess her during the duel.

This is one of my favorite duel songs in the series. If the Discworld’s God of Evolution had hymns, this would be one.

Anthy is totally manipulating Utena here. Note how she sends Chu-Chu to fetch Utena just in time to see Saionji hit her. She needs to get Utena into the dueling arena, after all–a duelist who won’t fight is useless to Akio.

However, I do believe she is genuinely surprised, touched, and happy when Utena doesn’t throw the duel. She isn’t used to being treated like a person by her “fiancé” and she is finding that she likes it.

Utena’s discomfort at being called “Miss Utena” by Anthy is probably at least in part that it’s what Anthy used to call Saionji–“Miss Utena” is a translation of “Utena-sama” and last episode, “Saionji-sama” was translated as “Master Saionji.” 

Episode 3:

This episode. I love this episode SO MUCH. It’s weird, because the first time I saw the series I kind of hated it? But now it really speaks to me. I think because I have some of the same issues as Anthy with crowds? And for some of the same reasons…

Touga is such a creeper in this episode.

Nanami is so evil in this episode! It really sets her up to be a significant villain. (Which of course she isn’t remotely. Poor girl.)

Okay, I know those are dessicants that Chu-Chu pulls out, but they REALLY look like condoms. That is a creepy thing to be giving the dance queen nominee!

Both dresses are kind of awful tbh?

I like that we see a bunch of male-female couples with their arms linked, and then Utena and Anthy enter in the same pose, only more colorful. One of the great things about this show is that what would be subtext in another show is straight-up text here.

I don’t think the character’s “normal” outfits mean anything, but I think very often when they wear something special it does. Specifically, it shows what role they’re taking on—so the green dress symbolizes that Anthy is in the role of “friend,” foreshadowing that Nanami’s treatment of her as a friend is just that, a role. I’m holding on to the full meanings of yellow and purple a while longer, because they’re spoilery, but Nanami’s dress holds a similar meaning. Among the meanings of purple is wickedness, and one of yellow’s is childishness. Nanami is being evil in a very high school way, in other words.

Everything about Utena’s rescue of Anthy, from the music to the poses to the framing, is the dashing prince saving the princess in distress.

There’s some great work being done here in terms of contrasting Nanami, who wants to possess her brother and deny him any relationships with others, and Utena, who currently has possession of Anthy but wants her to be free and make friends. Nanami really is playing the role of the rich, mean, popular girl… but notably she only seems to have three friends, and everyone else just kind of shows up at her parties. While Utena is genuinely popular, but really generally a nice person.

This episode also puts a bit of a twist on Utena’s victim-blaming, which has probably been her most consistent flaw so far. Namely, that there isn’t a trace of it when she’s confronted with an immediate threat to Anthy; she jumps in and helps. Unlike most victim-blaming, hers seems to be simply internalized attitudes she can potentially grow out of, as opposed to an ingrained reflex excuse to not do anything.

Ultimately, not a lot really happens in this episode, but we get the introduction of Nanami and her possessiveness of her brother, and massive Utena-Anthy ship bait. It’s nice.

(Addendum: Several people on Mark Watches questioned whether it made sense for Utena to think Touga might be her prince, given that he looks NOTHING like the prince in the opening. I don’t think it’s an issue, because it’s clearly a very emotionally charged memory for Utena. When people are in a highly emotional state, they tend to remember the details related to the emotion very well, but unrelated details very poorly—for example, people who have been threatened with a weapon can usually describe the weapon in great detail but often have difficulty remembering what the attacker was wearing. So it’s not that surprising that Utena remembers some elements very specifically (his words, the smell of roses) but others not at all (what he looked like). And, of course, there’s no particular reason to assume the opening is true… 

Episode 4:

Now we get the episode focused on one of my favorite instrumental bits from Utena’s soundtrack, The Sunlit Garden!

(Have I mentioned how much I love the way the duelists are animated in the OP? Because I love that sequence.)

I love a good in medias res opening.

So Miki’s a Sensitive Artist ™, and Anthy’s his crush/muse. Yeah, I’m definitely WAY less sympathetic to him than last time I watched this part of the show, which is several years ago. Now I just find his whole “worship from afar,” “dedicate my art to her” act to be creepy and gross. I think I’m dropping him out of my top five.

I like that Utena is (a) good at math, but (b) only if she works at it. She got complacent and lazy, which is most definitely something she’s shown hints of before.

And now Nanami has a new excuse to send her minions after Anthy. Which backfires into causing the two of them to meet… or was Nanami deliberately setting up for that to happen to enable what she does later? I’m really unsure.

Okay, WTH is a “middle school freshman”? Is that someone in their first year of middle school, meaning Miki’s a year behind Utena and Wakaba? I have never heard of middle schools having freshmen, though, so for all I know it’s a way of saying that this is one of those weird middle schools that goes up to ninth grade, and he’s a high school freshmen=ninth grade=equal third year of middle school=a year ahead of Utena and Wakaba. Not that it matters, since people don’t age at Ohtori…

Really, Wakaba? A couple of people about the same age are hanging around, talking and laughing, and you can’t figure out what in the world they could be doing together? Especially given that both are affiliated with the student council?

I do really like the relationship between Juri and Miki, it has a sort of big-sister little-brother vibe right from their first scene together in the library. And it’s pretty much the only healthy sibling-like relationship in the show, so…

It’s really, really important that Miki ends up helping a bunch of people with their math rather than just Anthy. It helps clarify that he’s a nice guy, not a Nice Guy ™. In the same sense, his lack of interest in dueling Utena or possessing Anthy makes it clear that he doesn’t want to control or manipulate the woman he’s interested in, the way Saionji and Touga do.

Ah, the “shining thing.” It is, of course, inspiration, and part of the complex of concepts associated with the color blue in this show. Blue is the color of the mind in all its various aspects: intellect, inspiration, expression, and most prominently memory. Miki’s blue hair represents that he is destined to walk the path of the mind, that intellectual and artistic pursuits are his key to self-actualization.

The Shadow Girl play this episode is about the myth of love from afar. The boy has a crush on the girl as long as he doesn’t know what she’s really like; once he finds out, he loses interest. (By the by, my last serious relationship was with a woman who, among many other things, liked pro wrestling and garlic ramen.) You cannot possibly love a person you do not know; all you can love is an image of them, which is your own creation. “Love from afar” is thus a form of narcissism.

It’s also about calling attention to the fact that we viewers don’t know Anthy as well as we think we do.  

I like Nanami’s annoyance at Miki’s complete rejection of the idea that she might be his girlfriend. Does she have a bit of a thing for him? It’s possible, though I’m sure she’d deny it. Mostly though I think it’s just that her ego demands that all boys have a thing for her.

The whole “Nanami tries to sneak animals into the dorm room, gets one-upped by Anthy” is glorious nonsense. Very, very funny stuff. It’s also massive foreshadowing. Did you catch what Anthy was drawing while giggling to herself? AN ELEPHANT. And she’s *animating* it, i.e. bringing it to life. Anthy’s revenge on Nanami for last episode’s dance party has barely begun. But honestly, Nanami, what did you expect after trying your mean girl act on an actual, bona fide, fairy-tale witch?

Also, the “build up” music before Nanami opens the pencil box/desk drawer/closet for real (as opposed to her fantasy sequences) is exactly the same as the loading screen music from the game Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Weird.

I like that Nanami actually considered the possibility her first two plans would fail. And that she brought gloves to handle the octopus, and tongs for the snake. She worked hard on these ridiculous plans!

I like that Anthy can’t cook. It helps reduce the level of uncomfortableness in the dark-skinned character being super-domestic. (Which wouldn’t be an issue in Japan, I think; her skin color and bindi would cause her to be read as Indian, which in anime means she gets stereotyped as “exotic” and mystical. Not any less racist, mind you, it just means that her cleaning and service would not be read as part of the stereotype, where to American viewers they very much are.) Plus it is a traditional property of witches that their presence causes food to go bad and milk to sour. As well as, oh yeah, power over wild animals. As much as this episode is about setting up for the next one and the Miki duel, it’s even more about establishing Anthy as the witch. But in a way that is completely non-obvious if you’re not looking for it.

Okay, so Miki refers to Anthy as Nanami’s upper-classman. So… Nanami and Miki are in the same grade, but Miki is taking some college courses as well? Then Utena, Wakaba, and Anthy are in the next grade up? And Saionji, Touga, and Juri are all in high school, presumably seniors? Do I have that right?

And by coincidence, the song Anthy chooses to play just happens to be the one that Miki is obsessed with. Except that everything else that Anthy has done in the episode so far makes it clear that this is not remotely a coincidence. This is how she manipulates him into dueling, because she needs Utena to beat all the other duelists. There needs to be a clear and dominant champion for the Black Rose duelists to fight, after all. It won’t work if she’s never been tested against Miki.

(Comments when I posted this to Mark Watches eventually produced a really fascinating discussion of seat placement in shows with classroom scenes. Basically, it’s very common for the main character to sit next to the window in the second row from the back, with a major supporting character behind them. This arrangement has a number of advantages both in terms of making scenes easier/cheaper to animate and in terms of story convenience, since the character can see things happening outside.)

Episode 5:

I have a new, silly theory: martial prowess in the Revolutionary Girl Utena universe is directly proportional to how gay you are:

Ruka: Homophobe; loses his only duel, dies the next episode.

Nanami: Not at all gay; gigantic butt-monkey.

Saionji: Pretty shippable with Touga, but that barely counts, Touga ends up with everyone eventually; slightly less of a butt-monkey than Nanami.

Miki: Maybe a little gay; loses consistently to Utena.

Touga: Bi; can beat Utena if he cheats.

Utena: Pretty darn gay, except for her prince/Akio, but again, that barely counts because Akio; only ever loses to cheating cheaters who cheat, but only ever beat Juri through accidents/flukes/miracles/Anthy’s witchery.

Juri: Totally gay, only duelist Utena never beats in a fair fight.

That aside, this is the second Miki episode. And basically it’s the story of a boy who really tries to be a decent person, and rebel against the patriarchal system that treats Anthy like property to be passed around. But then another man, Touga, reinforces Miki’s nascent sexism, and he chooses to objectify Anthy down to her piano playing and try to possess it. In the process he forgets that Anthy is a woman with preferences of her own, so while he’s busy projecting all over her his desire to possess her and “protect” her piano playing, she’d actually rather that Utena wins the duel. Boo, Miki! Like Mark says in the video, you were so close!

(Another commenter on Mark Watches put this point well: basically, what they said was that this is a great example of the social reinforcement of misogyny. Miki starts out feeling entitled to “take back” his “shining thing,” objectifying Anthy, but as he interacts with her he starts treating her as a person. However, then Touga comes in and convinces Miki that he needs to “take what’s his,” and he starts objectifying and projecting all over poor Anthy. The fact that Anthy’s trying to manipulate him into dueling at the same time doesn’t help! All that said, none of this excuses Miki’s actions, only explains them.)

Throughout all this, he’s driven by the memory of his piano playing with his sister, which helps obscure his ability to see what’s happening in the present. His eyes are fixed on that memory, distracting him from his path; instead of developing his skills and expressing new feelings, he’s fixated on the one song he played in the past. That’s what Juri’s trying to tell him in their fencing match—his obsessive perfectionism is holding him back. It’s the point of the pirate sketch, too—the Shadow Girl pirate has been trapped in a cycle of acquiring things for so long that he’s stopped caring about the things he acquires, and just goes through the motion, rather than figure out what he truly wants and seek that. And, again, it’s the spira mirabilis of the duel song (one of my favorites, by the way), the perfect mathematical spiral that keeps returning to where it started instead of striking out into the world.

Miki is trapped chasing after a memory, and if you’ll remember, I mentioned last time that blue is the color of memory. His blue eyes are fixed on a blue memory, and that’s no coincidence; the characters’ eye colors show what it is that they’re fixated on, which is to say the primary obstacle to pursuing their path. With that, we now have the three main color-symbolism elements of the characters, though we don’t know what all the colors mean—in fact, Miki is so far the only character for whom we have a full explanation: his blue hair shows his path, which is intellectual achievement and artistic expression. His blue eyes show his fixation, which is his memory of the sunlit garden. And his blue rose shows his desire, which is divided between recovering that memory and achieving greater levels of expression and skill.

I say “divided” because, as the end of the episode shows, recovering that garden and the experience of playing with his sister won’t help him. His memory is false, as memories always are, because all memories are stories and all stories serve their tellers. (MAJOR SERIES THEME ALERT!) He is as deluded about his sister’s piano playing as he is about what Anthy wants, projecting himself onto both of them.

There’s really only one other character whose eye color is interesting at this point: Anthy. We just don’t know enough about the other blue- or green-eyed characters to explain their colors, but Anthy’s green eyes are plainly a reference to the fact that her loyalty to her fiancee and the dueling/Rose Bride system in general are putting her in a submissive, servile role, leaving no freedom to explore whatever her path may be (we don’t yet know what purple means, so we can’t pinpoint it). And as we’ll see later in the show, the other meaning of green—relationships—is a huge obstacle for her, too, specifically her relationship with her brother.

Only other comment I have is that Miki’s sister tends to be subjected to a lot of slut-shaming by the fandom, and it annoys me. I actually rather like her; it’s rare to see a girl so young who so thoroughly owns her sexuality and openly refuses to apologize. Touga’s still a total creeper, though. Isn’t he 17 or something like that? He really should NOT be messing around with a 13-year-old girl, that’s seriously gross.  

Favorite vs. Best

Since there’s no new episode of Friendship Is Magic today, have a short post instead.

Do you distinguish between your favorite examples of a genre or form and the best examples? I was musing the other day about the fact that my five favorite anime and the five anime I consider the best of what I’ve seen are the same five anime, but if I were to create actual top five lists, they’d be different.

In fact, here are those lists, plus an explanation of why the anime is where it is.

Favorites:

  •  Princess Tutu: The most badass anime about a ballet-dancing duck ever. Also, super-secret ultra-hidden direct Neverending Story reference.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood: It makes me laugh, it makes me punch the air and cheer, and certain episodes make me cry no matter how many times I watch them. Also it just looks great.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Total brainsink. I can just watch and think about it for hours. Also, it’s absolutely visually stunning.
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena: Compelling, emotional, intriguing, great fight scenes, and an utterly kick-ass soundtrack.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: Explosions, giant plot twists from nowhere, and an emotional continuity that more than makes up for the plot spending most of the middle part of the series meandering aimlessly, and then, just as it’s finding its feet again, collapses into total incoherence.

Best:

  • Revolutionary Girl Utena: The most semiotically dense thing I have ever watched, easily surpassing any other TV show or film.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Packs more thematic complexity, character growth, and intriguing ideas into 12 episodes than most series manage in 50.
  • Princess Tutu: Masterfully constructed as a pastiche of dozens of classical ballets and folktales, and yet despite the fact that in each episode the characters are playing out the roles of characters in a given source story, there is also a strong character arc for each of them across the series as a whole.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: The last two episodes are a staggering work of absolute genius and the best-executed narrative collapse in all of anime.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood: A masterclass in creating a sprawling, complex plot with a massive cast (by the Promised Day arc, there are fifteen separate groups of characters being independently followed by the narrative) and still making sure that everything is driven by the choices of the characters, and every character’s choices are consistent with their distinct and idiosyncratic personality.

How about you? Do you distinguish between “favorite” and “best,” and if so, what are some examples?