Revolutionary Girl Utena
by Jacob Chapman,
Utena's characters are all dysfunctional. And they all try to hide away that damaged part of themselves. In order to hide that damaged part of yourself, it takes strength. In this world, there are many people who are lacking for something but don't know what it is and can still continue to live. However, people who think “I can't continue this way,” can become duelists. The duels at Ohtori Academy were created for that purpose, for those who have the intense will to bury that part of themselves.
— Takuya Igarashi (aka Jugo Kazayama), "Art of Utena" artbook
While that quote provides an excellent illustration of Utena's timeless power (and the thrust of this episode's ideas about Juri's "strength"), not everything about the show has aged so gracefully. It could be argued that everything about episode 7 revolves around its ending twist, which may have been mind-blowing in 1997 (thanks to some great misdirection in the build-up), but might seem downright trite or obvious nowadays. Even if new viewers somehow managed to avoid the spoiler that Juri is gay after twenty years, they probably would have been able to guess the reveal before it landed, because anime these days from Danganronpa 3 to Love Tyrant pull out similar twists almost as afterthoughts, dramatic or comedic punchlines not meant to have the thematic weight that Utena attempts to bear down on Juri's seemingly simple struggle of being in love with another girl.
After two decades of progress have passed for LGBT awareness in both the West and Japan, being gay is still difficult but it isn't outright anathema to most of society. But for Juri in a fantasy analogue for a Japanese school in 1997, being gay was so painfully lonely that it could drive even the strongest girl at Ohtori Academy to try and revolutionize the world around her. Even if things are different now, that context of complete isolation is necessary to fully understand the impact this episode was meant to have. Heck, implications of explicit, non-exoticized same-sex attraction were still so taboo back then that episode seven was originally drafted to have an ambiguous ending, before Ikuhara decided at the last minute to just crack open the locket to avoid any handwaving.
So setting aside whether or not you saw the twist coming, what does episode seven really have to say about Juri's struggle? "Believe in miracles, and they will know your feelings" is the mantra she disavows throughout the episode, so in order to understand Juri, we have to understand what she considers a "miracle." Fortunately, the way Juri lives her life gives us a pretty big clue. Unlike the other student council members, no friends or sycophants buzz around her during school, and she returns home to a vast and empty dormitory at night. Even in class pictures from previous years, she stands at the very edge of the frame with her eyes closed. She lives completely alone, and yet she lives with absolute excellence. She's the top of her class in academia and fencing, looking down at the student courtyard below like a queen upon her subjects. Even the teachers hold no sway over her, with the insinuation that her disapproval has caused a few of them to quit! Despite all her achievements and potential to achieve so much more, Juri seems abjectly miserable.
This all makes sense if we define a miracle as "something extraordinary that no human can achieve, given to you by some higher power." Juri has no shortage of personal pride, and she's accomplished a lot to be proud of, but if miracles do not exist, then the upper limit of possibility depends solely on what she herself can achieve. There's freedom in that, which Juri revels in by molding the world according to her own will as much as she can, but there's despair hidden there too, because it means anything you can't achieve is hopeless, making unrequited love an especially heavy burden to bear. To Juri, her love is not only circumstantially impossible (you can't force someone to change how they feel), it's culturally impossible (girls can't love other girls), and that's the gap of desperation the episode wants to take you across with its twist. If Juri loved a boy, the situation would be completely different, as Miki assumes when he writes off her issues as spurned angst. Sure, the guy Juri loved may not love her back, but that's not the end of the world! There'll be plenty of other fish in the sea once she gets over this crush, so fighting to change the world over it is illogical! Once again, Miki is thinking with the wrong parts of his brain, jumping to conclusions based on imperfect assumptions.
Of course, Touga knows the truth about what's inside Juri's locket. Because Juri is in love with another girl, she's not just fighting to change one person's feelings, she's fighting to change the world into a place where those feelings can even exist. This is a harsh reality that many gay teens face as they begin to realize their own feelings, starting them on the path to either accepting those feelings or attempting to crush them, depending on how the world around them reacts to the truth. As a proud and strong woman who knows how she feels but cannot accept that it would exclude her from the world, Juri stands at the crossroads between acceptance and denial. She's been patiently waiting out these feelings until now, but her heart darkens toward the desire to crush them when she receives a shocking letter in the mail.
Juri's letter reveals that her crush, the very person who told her to believe in heart-changing miracles, actually stole the boy she thought Juri liked out of pure envy. It's unimaginably cruel that the girl who first taught her to believe in the impossible not only used Juri, but used her because she completely misunderstood Juri's feelings, destroying that hopeful platitude in every way possible. Juri sees her miracle-believing past as nothing but a history of blindness to the truth, and now she wants to use the Rose Bride to rip that blindness away from the entire world, starting with the foolish Utena still waiting for her fairytale prince. To Juri, Utena still has faith in miracles because she does not know the world is broken, and people can desire things that are simply impossible. At the same time, Juri's desire to create a world where those desires don't exist has multiple solutions, and the answer she chooses says a lot about what she would rather "fix": the world or herself.
In order to cast Juri as the villain despite her sympathetic circumstances, the episode sees her choosing the false pride of power over her own will instead of accepting her "impossible" feelings of love. After all, there are two ways to rip away the world's blind faith in miracles, as Touga points out. You could change the world into a place where such illogical feelings never happened and everything "made sense" without princes or gods giving people false hope. Juri claims this is her goal leading up to the duel, but the locket still resting close to her heart tells a different story. She still can't let go of her feelings for the girl who cruelly misunderstood and then used her, which means there's still a flicker of hope in Juri's heart that she can change the world through a self-made miracle. Maybe she can make her crush feel the same way.
But as always, duels must be won through honesty with oneself, and Juri refuses to acknowledge that she's the one who wants to believe in miracles most of all. Even though she's stronger than Utena in a fight, what defeats her is not a divine miracle nor pure coincidence, but her own doubt. She could have struck the rose from Utena's chest without hesitation, but she stood in defiance for a moment, declaring "it's over" as if to reassure herself. The sword of Dios fell just as Juri was discarding her most painful memory, because she wasn't actually ready to throw it away. It wasn't a miracle that defeated Juri, but her lingering belief in miracles itself.
Now that's where our present perspective helps us understand this episode better, because we know as adults that there's nothing wrong with having hope in what seems impossible for the world. Things have gotten much better for gay teens over time, and whether you'd call that a miracle or not, things can change in ways beyond what seems possible to you as a child. The problem is not that Juri doubts her own strength, but that she sees that doubt as something to be ashamed of instead of a sign that her pride may be sending her down the wrong path. But if Juri had accepted what she was really fighting for, Utena wouldn't have stood a chance, and then we wouldn't have a story (or at least it would be very different), so we should just thank Dios for small favors on this one. Growing up is a process of both accepting what you can seize through your own power and what you must let go beyond your control. Juri's journey to learn the difference has only just begun.
- Chu Chu Corner: Chu Chu goes out of his way to draw Juri and Utena together in this episode, first by racing up and down the halls where Juri is moping, then by needing a chaperone around campus after dark. Coincidence, perhaps? Anthy herself rather innocently offers Juri an orange rose as a token of first friendship and then consolation after her loss, but directly copying both the body language and the words of Juri's crush seems a little too odd to be in perfectly good faith. And what's with the mime of the dancing rabbits she performs on her desk as the duel between Utena and Juri approaches? Does she see them as similar in some way? Are they "dancing" for her or for someone else?
- Shadow Girl Corner: This shadow play's meaning is incredibly straightforward, but its relevance to the episode may be unclear at first, since the headstrong Juri has seemingly nothing to do with the wishy-washy schoolgirl missing a field trip due to illness. However, the parallels become clear when you realize the shadow girls are performing their own version of "The Fox and the Grapes", a story about denying the desire for something you want more than anything but cannot have. It's this "sour grapes" denial that keeps Juri from winning the duel, since her strong proclamations of a world without miracles are really just hiding the feelings she's too ashamed to admit are actually driving her fight for change.
- Absolute Destiny Apocalypse Corner: Hypocrisy and discord are at the center of this duelist theme about "divine light," which usually accompanies miracles, after all. The song begins by bringing light gradually down from heaven through a litany of angels to exist in the life of every person, which brings to mind Juri's assertion that life should be all about what you can achieve yourself because miracles do not exist. However, the song quickly turns dark when it reveals that light in a human body also means the inevitability of death, a return to the "primitive beginning," perhaps without even having lived. This warning about the limits of human achievement leads into the last verse, which is all about conflict: heaven and earth, good and evil, male and female, all within one person, but all they feel in the center of this storm is hollow. No matter how much power and knowledge Juri accrues, it will never be enough until she acknowledges the limitations she cannot change, perhaps even if she acquired the "divine light" of Dios.
Sometimes simple is best, and while this start to Juri's arc is pretty basic in its ideas compared to many others, it evokes some of the strongest emotions even this early in the show's run. You can expect that to continue through the rest of her arc, which I would argue is the best in the whole series not counting the main plot. Next week, we finally get to that danged curry episode, but more importantly, the shocking truth behind Utena (and Touga)'s past!
Revolutionary Girl Utena is currently streaming on Nozomi Entertainment's official Youtube channel.
Jacob admits that he also found the twist at the end of this episode mind-blowing when he first saw it. How times have changed! You can follow Jake here on Twitter.
discuss this in the forum (214 posts) |
this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history