Revolutionary Girl Utena
by Jacob Chapman,
Important Announcement! For as much as I've loved writing this Utena retrospective, it should come as no surprise that the process takes a massive chunk of my time and mental energy, which I need to assign to other projects at this time, not only for Anime News Network, but for a game I've been producing through kickstarter that desperately needs special attention from me at this time. I definitely plan to return to these reviews at a later date, which will be accompanied with an announcement so you don't miss their return. I only want to come back to this project when I can give it the full time and attention it deserves, which I haven't been able to do over the past couple months of skipped weeks, and I apologize to you all for those disruptive delays. So Revolutionary Girl Utena will be going on official hiatus until further notice, but I hope to see you back here in the future when I have more time to devote to the show's second half. With no further ado, please enjoy the review!
"Labyrinths are symbols of growth and death. After being hurt emotionally, people often set off on journeys into a labyrinth-esque device. The labyrinth of the mind has no physical form, so it's hard to grasp with the senses. And so you "solve" the problem by synchronizing your mental labyrinth with a visible one: you wander across a physical distance or through a physical course, and if your wound heals you've reached the center. But when a man arrives at the center of a labyrinth, he is no longer the man he was before he entered. Growth means the death of the person you were up until that point."
Even in the most juvenile episode of the Black Rose Arc, where Tsuwabuki finds himself struggling with a desire to "grow up faster" that dates back to preschool for most people, the shadow of death still looms large in the background. Not even a ten-year old can escape this macabre imagery, but unlike most of the other Black Rose duelists, Tsuwabuki seems to rise from his coffin better for the experience, even if his transformation from boy to man (okay, "slightly less boy") might leave the audience feeling wistful about their own childhood delusions they had to leave behind.
Because Tsuwabuki hasn't started puberty yet—putting him in another ballpark from the adolescent experiences of the rest of the cast—the "death" he faces in episode 18 will only be the first of many, as he says goodbye to the first shred of his innocence and accepts his limitations. After weeks of resisting advice from his classmate and even Nanami herself that he stop trying to be someone he's not, Tsuwabuki's post-duel decision to just accept that he can't grow up any faster actually made him more grown-up. While his feelings for Nanami will come back in a comical recap episode down the line, this episode is basically bidding farewell to their odd couple plotline. Tsuwabuki's childlike assumption that he can make Nanami love him just by wanting it bad enough has vanished; as Enokido explains in the labyrinth metaphor above, he went into Mikage's seminar looking to become manly enough for Nanami's approval, but he came out of it with enough pride to let go of that obsession, even if the puppy love still lingers. It seems like he's going to try focusing on girls his own age for a while, which is good news for everybody (except maybe Nanami).
Of course, the funny thing about this revelation is that Tsuwabuki himself never seemed to be aware of how it changed him, and he probably won't for many more years, until he's able to look back on his childhood with nostalgia and embarrassment, like adults always do. I think the audience goes through a similar subliminal metamorphosis during his episode, because it wasn't until this particular rewatch that I realized the weather was acting as a metaphor for Tsuwabuki's "journey through the labyrinth." Until the duel is over, every day on campus is dominated by the monotony of rain. While the drizzly days pile on one after another, Tsuwabuki can think of nothing but some break in the clouds, pacing around his own brain with frustration in a desperate search for what it means to "grow up." But by the time the sun finally comes out again in the episode's final moments, he's already taken this new plateau for granted, as if he totally forgot about that path he'd been wearing down in his brain as soon as new pathways opened for him to explore. I'm willing to bet most of the audience didn't notice this change in the weather the first time around either.
It seems incredibly unfair sometimes, but that's just what growing up is like. We wait and we wait in angst and agony to become the stronger person we want to be, but by the time we're finally ready to grow into that person, we'll scarcely recognize that it's happened, because our minds have already shifted to chasing some entirely new goal on the horizon. The sun is finally shining down on Tsuwabuki, but he won't really think about it until the next rainy day comes along. At least he'll be big enough to carry his own umbrella next time!
So this all seems incredibly straightforward, right? It's true, the metaphors in this episode are broad and obvious by Utena standards; it doesn't get much more on-the-nose than the old banana=penis gag, and while a little less clear to Western viewers, sweets as a metaphor for childishness is also an old anime standby, which gives new meaning to Tsuwabuki's turbulent relationship with chocolate. But even in the least robust Black Rose episode (and arguably the simplest duel episode in the entire series), there are a few secret twists hiding just beneath the surface.
I explained in episode 16's review why Nanami was technically the perfect candidate to become a Black Rose duelist herself, and that gets reinforced further by this episode. (Her target would almost certainly have been Touga, but thankfully he's popular enough to have several substitutes in her place for episode 21.) She even agreed to attend Mikage's seminar, which means it definitely would have happened if Tsuwabuki's jealousy hadn't prompted him to go in her place. So in a roundabout way, Tsuwabuki did end up protecting her but only by putting her in danger himself! (Basically, things haven't changed since episode 6.) The real reason for this switcheroo was to focus the arc entirely on non Student Council members, but the Utena team reconciled this thematic discrepancy by giving Nanami a faux-Black Rose duel in cow form a few episodes back.
Still, that feeling of lacking something special follows Nanami even to the end of this episode, when she shrinks down to Tsuwabuki's spot as the neglected cut-off head in the picture frame. Even if Tsuwabuki has taken his next step forward in becoming an adult, that doesn't mean it will be a continuous uphill journey, because the process of growing up is completely relative. Even with years between them, Nanami is going through all the same emotions and frustrations about being insufficient and underdeveloped. So is every Black Rose duelist, and unbeknownst to them, so are all the "special" Student Council members that they think couldn't possibly have these doubts about their futures. Everyone has to go about this growing process their own way, because everyone is more grown-up than others in completely different ways that they can't see for themselves.
Tsuwabuki's pint-sized senpai is the perfect example of this. While Tsuwabuki is behind the curve in acknowledging the practical reality of his relationship with Nanami (which his girl-friend teases him about mercilessly), it's also a sign of maturity to acknowledge and accept your own personal feelings. Childish or not, Tsuwabuki is direct about how he feels with himself and others. He tells Nanami what he wants from her, he's honest with Utena about studying ways to be more grown-up, and he even bares these embarrassing insecurities to the 6th-grade girl who teases him in return. On the flip side, his senpai sees through all the nonsense of his situation with Nanami, and her overall advice to Tsuwabuki is usually sound, but her own immaturity comes out in completely different ways. The truth is that she's jealous of Nanami, and she wants to be the one Tsuwabuki pampers instead, but she's either too in denial of these feelings or too embarrassed by them to be honest with herself, much less her would-be boyfriend. Unfortunately, her attempt to cover up the truth only pushes her crush further into a corner of feeling emasculated and demeaned in comparison.
Things would go a lot smoother for both of them if she just told him how she feels (and maybe what she thinks is so "dirty" about eating bananas), but she thinks that holding back makes her more mature, when she really needs to be more honest if she wants to grow with Tsuwabuki, just like he needs to accept the disappointment of reality to grow alongside her. And that's not to mention how Nanami's own style of immaturity got them all into this mess! If we wanted to compare all the different ways that each character is more or less grown-up than the others, we'll be here all day!
So even if this episode's message seems to skew much younger than all the others, it may be important to revisit our expectations of what "growing up" means even after we think we've already done it. Just when you think you're out of one labyrinth, life drops you right into another one, but even if you need to take a break from those twisting tunnels sometimes until the clouds clear, the good news is that there's no limit to how much you can grow.
- Chu Chu Corner: Much like Tsuwabuki, the poor snail that passes Chu Chu just wants to get where he's going, but the process is long, slow, and must even struggle against the flow of gravity. Chu Chu's decision to slow the snail's journey even further by sitting on him doesn't seem to bode well for whatever Anthy and Akio are planning for the students of Ohtori Academy either. I wouldn't dwell too much on the reappearance of that frog, though. I've considered a couple metaphorical angles on that one, but I think he just came hopping by because it was raining, and because tormenting Chu Chu with a frog is funny.
- Shadow Girl Corner: Okay, this one's pretty silly too, but I'll try to dig a little deeper. You could see this play as an example of how markers of adulthood are completely relative, and what one person thinks of as grown-up, someone else might think of as arbitrary or irrelevant. After all, giving blood is something you can only do after turning 18, making it a much more direct and literal "proof of adulthood" than having sex, but more people consider losing your virginity to be a sign of adulthood, even though you can certainly do that before you become a legal adult. This difference in the reality of what being grown up means versus what we tend to obsess over as hormonal adolescents creates way bigger problems than the misunderstanding at the heart of this skit, but the whole thing does play straightforwardly as just a dumb joke too.
- Absolute Destiny Apocalypse Corner: In the spirit of this episode's especially youthful theme, Tsuwabuki's duel theme is literally about being born! Well, it's actually about dying first, but growth in Utena is about killing your old self to become a new person over and over again, so it still checks out. It wouldn't be the Black Rose arc without more death motifs! The imagery of releasing one final labored sigh is dwelt on for most of the song, as if this last breath is a particularly heavy burden for someone who has been through so much. Then, the chorus shouts, the layers of the Absolute Man are peeled away for a new sharp intake of breath, a new life proclaimed by the violent hammer of heartbeats. After being worn down to a corpse in the "Grand Guignol" of life, Tsuwabuki is spurned to open the door on a new life. Growth is always painful, but leave it to J. A. Seazar to make it sound cosmically painful.
- What's on the Desk? They may look cute, but the little clay statues holding up Tsuwabuki's chocolate are haniwa, statues meant to accompany the dead. Since they're holding up the sweets he once loved but has become bitter toward, it's my guess that they represent his desire to kill his old self, the child who can't even bring himself to finish the chocolate bar because it would be an indirect kiss. Come to think of it, his rejection of this "childish thing" is actually being done for even more childish reasons, which becomes even more clear when he skewers the haniwa holding the chocolate, only to reveal a smaller haniwa inside it that clasps its tiny hands around the sword. Tsuwabuki's mission to bury his child self has only just begun, and it's a matryoshka-like quest that might never really end.
- While the weather itself may go unnoticed, this episode's umbrella metaphor stands out a little more. Grown-ups (and teens, who are grown-up to Tsuwabuki) carry umbrellas, while children wear raincoats. It's useful shorthand for the distance between him and the other duelists, but in terms of visual language, umbrellas also loom over a person and make them seem somewhat bigger, while raincoats dwarf the wearer and make them seem more juvenile. When Tsuwabuki raises the umbrella on tiptoe to try and cover Nanami, it seems like he's overreaching to seem more adult, but it also raises the question of how grown-up Nanami really is if she chooses to rely on a child for such things in the first place.
- This is some Cinema 101 shit that probably doesn't need to be pointed out, but it's also the most emotionally effective moment in the episode, so I can't help but at least mention the scene where Nanami comes to Tsuwabuki's room. Even though Nanami is showing more kindness and honesty to Tsuwabuki than she ever has before, they remain separated in their respective shots as dramatically as possible. Tsuwabuki is small in the corner of the frame, while Nanami fills hers to the top, and his place is dominated by darkness contrasted against her lighted hallway. Her segmented arm reaching out to comfort him just isn't enough to distract from that (age) gap in his mind. It's not dwelled on much in future episodes, but I wonder how Tsuwabuki's decision to betray and then pull away from Nanami right after she opened up to him for the first time must have affected her. Poor Nanami. (Again.)
- When asked how he feels about being a child versus being a grown-up, Akio gives yet another eyebrow-raising answer. "With each passing year, a star loses some of its brilliance." This would suggest that Akio sees growing up as an entirely negative thing, which isn't reassuring coming from the oldest central character in the show. It should also be a red flag for 14-year old Utena to stop hanging around him, but being too childish to know better seems to be the very thing that entices Akio to use her for some mysterious scheme, so that's kind of a catch-22, isn't it?
It may not be the most exciting one to go out on before a hiatus, but episode 18 does mark the halfway point of my review schedule for this series. So with Tsuwabuki's adventure behind us, I must bid you all a fond farewell for several months. I'll definitely be excited to come back to a pair of my favorite episodes in the entire series, but for now, thank you from the bottom of my heart for supporting these reviews and keeping the spirit of this revolutionary anime classic burning!
Revolutionary Girl Utena is currently streaming on Nozomi Entertainment's official Youtube channel.
Jacob has now written 32,000 words on Utena so far, and he's excited to write 40,000 more when he can resume the project at a later date. You can follow Jake here on Twitter.
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