Revolutionary Girl Utena
by Jacob Chapman,
"Having the same image of happiness is very important. If someone says, "this is happiness," it's more like having a mentor. You follow him to get happiness by his side. But a man who's like "I'm not sure where happiness is, but let's find it together!" is better. [...] With that image of "You, being just the way you are, I accept you entirely." Everyone is seeking that kind of miracle partner."
— Kunihiko Ikuhara, 2010 Kikan S magazine interview
Now that Touga has his conquest Utena emotionally prepared for his seduction attack, he just needs to find the perfect angle to swoop in for the kill. In other words, he's gotta learn how she duels if he wants to actually beat her bad enough to steal her heart. There's just two problems standing in his way: Touga can't suddenly get better from his injury without looking suspicious, and he can't risk blowing his chance by not knowing how to counter Utena's style on his first try. What's a phony-baloney prince to do?
Oh right, that's why he keeps that little sister around. She can be his guinea pig and give him a front row seat to all the action. And the best part? She'll think he's doing her a favor and become dependent on him even more.
Episode 10 can be seen as a tipping point for many Utena viewers. Its subject matter is so bleak and its characters at their most unlikable (even Utena herself can frustrate for her naivete in the face of such clear manipulation) that it plays like a "if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen" moment for the darkness of the show's two-thirds to follow. That's not to say there won't be many moments of levity in the future, but episode 10 is easily the harshest Utena has been so far, and yet it's only a fraction of how harsh it will become in the future. I mean, the comedy villainess literally kills a kitten, and we're still supposed to see her as sympathetic comic relief in the future! Above all else, episode 10 sells the necessity of Nanami "filler episodes." After seeing her become so ugly in her darkest moments, we need to be reminded of that goofy side of her to remain sympathetic to her victimhood.
In a shocking twist on shojo anime expectations, it's actually the bullying ojou-sama who may be the biggest victim in Revolutionary Girl Utena, leading her fans to adore her on one side and her haters to loathe her just as deeply. What in the world makes Nanami act so frail and powerless when she has so much fiscal and social power compared to the other characters, especially the other girls? As always with Revolutionary Girl Utena, the answer doesn't come from what Nanami does (more petty bullying!), but the emotions behind why she does it. When it comes to Nanami's own fight for revolution, the calls are definitely coming from inside the house more than anyone else in the cast. She may be her own worst enemy, but that doesn't mean it's all her fault.
Setting aside the twisted backstory leading up to her duel, Nanami's fight with Utena draws a massive contrast between this debutante and all the other duelists, because she completely disregards the rules of the arena. Nanami doesn't seem to care whether the fight is fair or whether she wins or loses, which means she has zero interest in stopping her assault when the rose is knocked from her breast. While the other duelists are fighting to revolutionize their world by gaining the power of Dios, Nanami couldn't care less about any of that; she's not in this to win Anthy's hand, she's only fighting to put Utena in her "place." To Nanami, this is a world of princes who protect their princesses, and Utena can't just steal away her own prince, Touga, while foolishly insisting she's some kind of prince herself. People love and hate Nanami because she's the only character actually fighting to protect the status quo instead of breaking it. It's pretty easy to see why this difference would make her such a villain to viewers, so why do her fans seem to see it as a reason that she deserves more sympathy instead?
This brings us back to the sad story of Nanami's childhood, where she was denied love so thoroughly that she cannot fathom being able to love herself even now. In the posh Kiryu family, older brother Touga was the blessed child, surrounded by lavish attention and endless approval, while Nanami was an embarrassingly ordinary girl who seemed tolerated at best by the adults around her. This episode only offers a glimpse at the gulf of neglect that separated them in the family, but the storyboarding makes up for those gaps in exposition by always depicting Nanami alone in the frame, at best overshadowed and looked down on by the grandiose scenery of her estate and the shadowy grown-ups who never seem to share a single word of encouragement. While other members of the Kiryu family can offer Touga opulent gifts for his birthday, all Nanami can manage to find is a homeless kitten, whose little filth-caked body seems to mirror her own in the eyes of all the disgusted grown-ups at the party.
By embracing the kitten (and Nanami herself), Touga becomes the only person with any warmth in her past, as she clings to memories of the scraps of affection he offered. Of course, as the siblings have grown older, other women have started to enter Touga's life in ways that Nanami can never reach. Even the tiny gestures of affection that once gave her life meaning are fading now, like when Touga says he's getting too old to kiss her tears away anymore. While more comical past episodes seemed to paint Nanami's love for Touga as an incestuous exaggeration of shojo cliches, this episode reveals that her feelings come from a much darker and more codependent place. Nanami doesn't need Touga to keep being her prince so she can feel like a special princess, she needs Touga to keep being her prince so she can feel worthy of any love at all. Touga is worth everything, and she is worth nothing. But if he loves her, even just a little bit, she can keep living no matter what she has to do.
Because Revolutionary Girl Utena is so concerned with how gender affects people, it's easy to read this divide as an imbalance between how girls and boys are raised. The number of unwritten rules placed on how girls should look and act to be worthy of love or respect is nigh astronomical compared to boys (who simply "will be boys," after all), leading girls to develop much lower self-esteem and signs of depression and self-hatred at earlier ages, which can only be worse for a girl being raised in an environment as austere and traditional as the Kiryu family seems to be. The belief that you are worth less and powerless to change that because of your gender takes root like a weed within abandoned girls like Nanami, growing into a force more powerful, ugly, and seemingly impossible to escape than even the most tragic outside forces like Utena's loss of both parents.
This internalized misogyny is so strong that it turns victims into victimizers again and again, each generation holding the next back by teaching them that the world will only love you if you hate the same things that they do. While the other duelists fight against the world that binds them, Nanami defends the world as it is because she can only blame and hate herself for not belonging in it. Even if her brother might have tried to protect her from his dark worldview by doling out hollow praise (we'll get to that in future episodes), she ultimately came to the same conclusions: it's foolish to dream of a better world, so you should fight to the death to defend what little you already have.
I think that some fans, predominantly women in my experience, love Nanami's brazen ugliness because they recognize their past selves in it, and they know this kind of hatred can only be dispelled through love and acceptance, no matter how easy it might be to dole out further judgment instead. Women compete with and judge other women relentlessly through every stage of life, thanks to a world that's raised them not to trust or love themselves. Nanami and her kitten were both dismissed by her parents as a child, and Nanami and Utena are both being mistreated by Touga now, but she's willing to sacrifice her would-be allies for the approval of her abusers. Every time Nanami crushes her "competition" in the hopes that she'll finally be accepted, she hates herself even more, and no number of love scraps from Touga can change that. Nanami needs to be loved by someone who truly values her as a person, not seeing her as a silly girl or a useful tool like Touga does, and somewhere along the way, she has to find a way to love herself.
For now, Nanami doesn't seem to have learned a thing, but at least there's a flicker of hope for change if the audience can see her as more than a heartless witch. Maybe it's our job to be the first to love Nanami, warts and all.
- Chu Chu Corner: Okay, Anthy is definitely acting suspicious this week, adding to the rapidly darkening tone of the episode around her. Animal attraction or no, it can't be a coincidence that she just so happens to get Touga a kitten for his birthday, the one gift that would wound Nanami most. There's also some suspicious framing of Utena in a catlike pose when she "mistakes" Anthy baby-talking the kitten for trying to reassure her. It's a nice hint for us to draw parallels between Nanami, both kittens, and Utena as victims of an uncaring world, but it's also easy to see it as a sign that Anthy may be in a position of manipulation similar to Touga's, even if we have no idea how she could be controlling things or why just yet. At least Chu Chu's maniacal echo of Touga's seemingly friendly laugh at the party is ominous in a much sillier way that speaks for itself.
- Shadow Girl Corner: Believe it or not, this shadow play is one of the most inscrutable ones in the series, at least for this early in its run, so I'll have to come clean and admit that I'm not 100% sure what it's supposed to mean. At least the cat part is clear, since Nanami is compared to a lost kitten throughout this episode (and the next). So what about the rest of it? You could see the shadow girls as her parents, with one placing unreasonable demands on her and the other being passive to a neglectful fault, while she grows up into a "monster" without their affection. But then how does Touga factor into it? He's neither too controlling or too passive, since he doesn't seem to care about her behavior one way or the other except in how it serves his plans, in which case he cares very much. And how can we say this is about her parents when we haven't seen how their treatment of her diverged between them, if at all? Honestly, this shadow play feels like a more incomplete metaphor than most of them, and while it's easy to get its overall gist, I think we can chalk up its lack of bite to slightly confused writing. At least it's cute.
- Absolute Destiny Apocalypse Corner: Of course Nanami gets the most egocentric of the duelist themes so far. The past, the future, and eternity are an illusion beyond the perfection of a moment shared by the singer and her beloved "somebody", resulting in an evolution, no, revolution, no, Everlution created by an unchanging oneness, an entire milky way made of only two souls. It's an angry and possessive song that seems to discard all of history and existence as a "hypothetical illusion" beyond just the speaker and the person they desire. In fact, that specific line lands right at the moment Nanami decides to keep fighting to the death after losing her duel. While there's plenty of passion and romance to enjoy in Nanami's theme, it's also a stack of selfish contradictions at heart, denying the necessity of any change with childish defiance. Nanami can't help but fight to protect the status quo because even though she feels just as lonely and miserable as the other duelists, she can't imagine deserving anything better than the crumbs of happiness Touga gives her, so she'll starve herself of bigger dreams in the hopes that she can make those crumbs last a lifetime.
- As if he hadn't done enough already, that bastard Touga killed one of the show's best running gags! Right after reassuring Saionji of their friendship, Touga tosses his best buddy's diary in the incinerator. We know from past episodes that Touga "doesn't believe in friendship" (or much of anything), but just what the heck happened to him as a child to make him this hell-bent on nihilism in every little situation? It's definitely something to keep in mind for the future.
Between the expulsion of Saionji, the death of an adorable kitten, and the complete lack of progress made by anyone in the cast (except Touga toward the completion of his evil scheme), this episode is a big ole downer. Nanami has fallen for Touga's manipulation completely, consumed with renewed self-hatred over all the memories of her past failings while she cries in his arms. Utena's heart is stirred by Touga's boundless "compassion" for such a reckless and cruel little sister. And Touga has all the intel he needs on how to defeat the power of Dios that dwells within Utena. It's certainly not the most inspirational episode in this first arc, but it's an important one, as everything comes to a head in the final Student Council duel next week!
Revolutionary Girl Utena is currently streaming on Nozomi Entertainment's official Youtube channel.
Jake thinks Nanami would be much happier if she could only appreciate how rad all her wardrobe is compared to everyone else's! That dueling outfit is just the best. You can follow Jake here on Twitter.
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