Revolutionary Girl Utena Episode 17
by Jacob Chapman,
"I think Shiori comes across as a villain to the audience, but I don't think of myself as playing a villain, and I think Shiori is the same way. To Shiori, Juri is the villain, and she's just living her life, that's all."
— Kumiko Nishihara (Shiori's VA), Adolescence of Utena promo
We've met plenty of despicable teens in Utena so far, and we'll meet plenty more in the future, but for some reason, there's absolutely nobody that Utena fans seem to hate more than Shiori. Unlike characters like Nanami or Anthy who prompt plenty of love-vs-hate responses from viewers, people mostly just love to hate Shiori, making her the target of more undiluted vitriol than any other character in the cast. You'll even see apologists for Touga and Akio long before you'll see anyone defending Juri's cruelest of crushes. So what causes this backlash, and is it really fair?
This is the part of the review where you might expect me to defend Shiori, to say that people just don't understand her hidden goodness, but the sad truth is that the fans are probably right on this one. Even from the show's own perspective, Shiori appears to represent a very special kind of evil that's as fascinating as it is incorrigible. In a cast filled with roses, some blooming stronger than others but all striving to grow in their own ways, Shiori represents a bundle of thorns that refuses to be pruned, like a version of Nanami with all the good qualities sucked out.
What I'm saying is that Juri's got bad taste. But the curse of love is that it's irrational like that, not only for Juri, but for Shiori as well. I think people hate Shiori for the same reasons that they love Juri, because the two are equal and opposite sides of the same insecurities. It's no wonder they're attracted to each other, but their own self-absorption and pride has limited their view of the other as "foolish" and "innocent," unable to understand the complexity of the pain they feel. So if they're basically the same, why does Juri's pain resonate with viewers so much, while Shiori's pain is often seen as so self-inflicted that it becomes unsympathetic?
While pride stands in the way of being honest about their feelings for both of these girls, Shiori's sense of pride comes from a much darker place than Juri's. While Juri fights for a world that will accept her love (even if she can't admit that out loud), Shiori wants the world to love her above all else. However, she's already decided that her world could never embrace a girl as boring and common as she is, so she does everything in her power to try and become someone else. That's why she moved away from Ohtori the first time, wrapped around the arm of a boy she believed could give her esteem, and that's why she's come back, desperately searching for another weakness of Juri's that she can use to become greater than the girl she admires.
Like all Black Rose duelists, Shiori wants to become "special" enough to push back against the forces of adolescence that threaten to squeeze her into a drab and empty adulthood, the coffin of a living death. But unlike Kanae, Kozue, and Nanami, one special person's admiration will never be enough for Shiori. While those three girls still seem to have personal attributes they hold dear, or at least aspects of their identity that they wouldn't want to give up, Shiori doesn't seem to like anything about herself at all. She hates and judges herself so much that no one person's approval could ever make up the difference, even though she's the only Black Rose duelist whose target of obsession is actually obsessed with her right back. It's still not enough, because the last thing Shiori wants in her overwhelming self-hatred would be to fall for a girl (not even a boy) who's so much stronger and cooler than her. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened, and the more Shiori fights back against that, the more she will twist into a deceitful shell of what could have been.
Shiori is the most extreme and absolute example of what all the Black Rose duelists represent, and she takes the greatest personal pleasure in drawing her sword from Juri's chest. That's also why her dorm room is covered in blank white sheets, as if someone had just died there instead of moved in. Shiori's room echoes the theme of death that pervades the entire Black Rose Arc. When she sacrificed a friendship and left Ohtori Academy to try and make herself into someone "special" enough to be worth loving, she was actually giving up a chance at love. The same was true of her decision to move back, sacrificing a relationship and the connections she surely made at that school to scramble back to Juri, the source of "specialness" that refused to leave her heart and could surely be mined for more resources. The sad truth is that the Shiori we see in this series is probably a faint shade of whatever she might have been like if she had only been true to herself. But Shiori keeps willingly killing off her true feelings in an effort to close herself off to all weaknesses, but she's leaving very little of her true self to love behind every time she assassinates herself anew.
Above all else, I believe the point of this episode is that egotism and pride are not about "loving yourself too much." More often than not, these destructive ways of thinking can come from the exact opposite place, a pit of self-hatred so deep in your heart that no one else can survive down there but whatever's left of the scraps you've crushed yourself down into. The most honest moment we will ever see from Shiori comes when she screams at the picture of her past self in Juri's locket to stop judging her. Even as she was preparing to betray her best friend, the Shiori that Juri loved was not just a better version of Shiori, it was closer to the real her, and every step Shiori takes to become someone else only makes the beautiful person she could be that much uglier.
Why do people hate Shiori so much? I think they hate her because they have to watch her kill the Shiori they want to love over and over again.
- Chu Chu Corner: Since Chu Chu barely even appears in this episode (you can see him waving a tiny sword during Juri's fencing match but that's it), this week really will be Anthy Corner instead! While she mostly keeps her thoughts to herself this week, it seems extremely likely that Anthy was the one who put Juri's discarded locket in the vase in Shiori's room. Of course, I suppose it could have been Mamiya instead, but Anthy's warning at the end of the episode that Shiori "hasn't changed at all" seems to indicate that she's been watching her movements and knows her all too well...
- Shadow Girl Corner: Both Juri and Shiori have made their personal secrets worse by obsessing over them and trying to cover them up. Woolen underwear (being a girl in love with another girl) isn't a bad thing, even if it's sadly true that some people might mock you for it. However, trying to cover it up with several more pairs of woolen underwear, denying your feelings and hurting the ones you love to try and mask the truth, just makes the secret a far worse burden to bear. Sometimes you just need to rip off your pants and risk it all to find those other people in the world who can appreciate woolen underwear! They may be closer than you think. Of course, this is the solution Utena offers, which means it's an oversimplification that wouldn't really work in this case. After all, when Shiori found out that Juri also wore woolen underwear, she just decided to use it against her so she could draw attention away from her own itchy undies.
- Absolute Destiny Apocalypse Corner: Juri's previous duel theme compared her to light, so what else could Shiori be but shadow? While the song explicitly calls them equal reflections on two sides of a mirror, it's also pretty obvious that most people would rather be light than shadow, and Shiori is no exception. She not only reflects the dark self-hating version of Juri's more idealistic sense of pride, she also literally stands in Juri's shadow as a pair of friends, making the shot where all the birds on the desks of the dueling arena cast their fleeing shadows over her screaming face even more striking. Speaking of which...
- What's on the Desk? The birds perched on each desk are sparrows, often regarded as the most common and unremarkable species of bird. This is how Shiori sees herself, as the sparrow also makes an appearance when she tries to reconnect with Juri, cutting between them and slamming into the window to die on the ground when Juri (perhaps wisely) rejects her. Sparrows are also seen as harbingers of death when entering a home, so the sparrow's deadly failed attempt to enter Juri's room may reflect Shiori's "it's gotta be her or me" view of their relationship. This last bit of trivia might be unintentional, but sparrows were also the companions to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. If Juri represents love and its burdens within the main cast, Juri sees herself as the disposable flittering minion at her side, desperate to rise above her station. Unfortunately, she's only succeeded at lowering herself further and further away from the person she could be, falling not only in Juri's shadow but the shadow of her former self, as the sparrows abandon her in a flurry at the end of the duel.
- Mikage and Mamiya's conversation this episode reveals how the whole Black Rose process works, both metaphorically and literally. They strip the powerful rose of its "thorns" (the chosen student council member's agency in the form of their sword) by infecting it with a parasite, which neuters the rose and turns it black, so it will produce its thorns only for them, to pierce the hearts of a replacement instead (giving that person power over the sword). The "parasite" in this case is Shiori, but all Black Rose duelists serve this role to members of the student council, as people they trust, rely on, or perhaps even love who betray them out of their own insecurities and desire for the strength they possess. There's definitely a conversation to be had over whether it's fair to separate people into roses (exceptional kids) and parasites (ordinary kids) like this, but since it affects the whole Black Rose Arc on such a core level, I'll address that in a future episode.
- The imagery of the Black Rose duelists pulling swords out of their targets of obsession trips the line visually between sexual arousal and murder, but we didn't get much confirmation of what was happening until poor Miki's reaction to Nanami's curiosity about what it "felt like" makes it clear that the victim definitely gets turned on before they pass out. On the one hand, this makes sense as a reflection of the Black Rose duelist's desire to exert power over their idol. Not only are they trying to take the other person's strength for themselves, but they're forcing them to submit to their forcible control, so the sequence uses imagery associated with an intimate friend violating someone's autonomy and betraying their trust. On the other hand, Ikuhara is by his own admission a giant pervert. So while I don't think the choice was "necessary," I don't think it's explicit enough to feel gratuitous either, and thankfully the show spends plenty of time in the future exploring the consequences of more literal sexual violations between characters.
- The drops of water that pour out of the locket when Shiori opens it lend a little more intensity to an already powerful scene, but they might represent more than just emotional relief for Shiori. After all, water would not pour out of the locket if she had already opened it. This might mean that Shiori knew her picture was in the locket without even having to check, perhaps because her own feelings for Juri were so strong, no matter how much she tries to deny it.
On the topic of hiding your true feelings, the truth is that I really love Shiori as a character. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't want to be anywhere near someone like her in high school, but her flavor of villainy is just so painfully human that I can't help but want to see more of her throughout the series. If Juri's personal circumstances were just a little bit different, if she were born a little less beautiful, smart, athletic, strong-willed, or otherwise privileged in life, then my favorite character could have become someone like Shiori very easily, so I want to respect the shadows of that psyche that eat away at the corners of Juri's arc. We've all got a little bit of Shiori inside us, and while we certainly don't want to feed it, it helps to learn to recognize the masks that self-hatred wears when it sneaks up in our minds.
Juri's arc continues to be my very favorite part of Revolutionary Girl Utena, and it's far from over as she admits to herself that even throwing away her locket and getting betrayed by Shiori couldn't rid her of the love that's taken hold of her heart. Unfortunately, we'll be downgrading material next week with arguably the simplest of Utena's dramatic episodes, definitely the most trivial duel of the Black Rose Arc. But then again, what do you expect from a fifth-grader?
Revolutionary Girl Utena is currently streaming on Nozomi Entertainment's official Youtube channel.
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