Revolutionary Girl Utena
by Jacob Chapman,
"When I was a child, I thought the world was a solid place—I was living in it, and all I did was experience the existing world. But later on I realized that there were people in authority that were trying to change the world according to their own desires. This is true not only in a small world like a household, but also true in as large an entity as society. Those authorities can alter the world's ethics and morals, and use them as their tools. So, at that point I realized that morality was altered by those in authority, I felt released. Since the restrictions on me as a woman were imposed by people rather than the universe, I realized I didn't have to be restricted by them."
— Chiho Saito, 2001 Animerica Extra magazine interview
Of all the outcomes you may have expected from Touga and Utena's inevitable showdown, Wakaba winning the duel was probably not one of them. Okay, that's not literally what happens, but it does happen figuratively, and nothing matters more in Revolutionary Girl Utena than what happens underneath its surface. Utena fought to protect Wakaba's feelings way back in episode one, and it's finally time for her to return the favor.
But before I can talk about Utena or Wakaba, I (sadly) have to talk about Touga. After weeks of obfuscating the true depths of his nihilism, Touga finally reveals his darkest beliefs, perhaps coerced into a moment of vulnerability by Miki's accusation that he treats his sister more like a pet than a person. (Miki was so shocked at how long this burn shut Touga up that he even timed it! 6.5 seconds! Maybe Touga still has feelings for his sister that he resents being unable to throw away?) Even though Touga keeps his cool throughout this spiel, it's hard not to see his response as wildly defensive when he resorts to blaming victims like Nanami for letting themselves be tricked by him in the first place.
Touga sums up his life's motto with a blank and despairing smile. "If one has deep feelings for a person, it's only a matter of time before those feelings betray them. Betray them as strongly as those feelings are strong." Just like Nanami, Touga has shut off his ability to believe in a better world, but for very different reasons from his sister. Unlike Nanami, he wants to possess the Rose Bride more than anyone, and he wants to possess Utena on top of that. Where's all this ambition coming from if he doesn't believe in anything? Once again, the difference lies in the gap between how different sexes are raised, and Touga's dilemma is uniquely masculine in nature.
While Nanami refuses to wish for change because she thinks she doesn't deserve it, Touga doesn't believe in the possibility of change at all. We won't learn about the catalyst for his nihilism until much later in the story, but for now it's at least clear that Touga has been struggling to quench an insatiable thirst for happiness for a long time. To the outside observer, he has everything: prestige, wealth, intelligence, good looks, and the admiration of seemingly everyone around him. He stands at the very top of Ohtori Academy, but none of these achievements can make him happy, and he can't seem to find a reason for this void in his soul. While the other duelists have something more concrete to fight for, be it power or love or justice, Touga already has all the agency in the world to take whatever he wants, but unlike Miki, he already knows that every new "shining thing" he pursues will soon feel meaningless.
It's a uniquely masculine sort of problem because, as diametric opposites to how girls are raised, boys are taught that they are responsible for their own happiness however they can get it, and if they've failed to rise above their emotions and find success, it's because they are weak. Touga suffers from a wealth of worldly riches but a dearth of any healthy way to process the depression he cannot escape no matter how much success he achieves. Something important from his childhood was lost in the process of trying to become a prince, along with his ability to trust other people or his own feelings, but he hasn't been able to mourn this loss because unhappiness would be a sign of weakness. As he approaches his senior year, an adolescence spent denying himself any vulnerability has left him as bankrupt in spirit as he is rich in privilege, and now all he can do is bitterly defend his position at the top of a rotten world. After all, if starry-eyed women can simply wish for a wayward prince to give them happiness someday, even having the audacity to play at being princes themselves when they don't know what it is to bear that weight, then all of Touga's futile struggles for meaning only prove how weak and worthless he really is.
Of course, even if we can understand Touga's perspective, that doesn't mean we have to sympathize. Just because he can't escape his own depression doesn't mean he has to bring everyone else down with him, but that's exactly what he's decided to do with his life, prioritizing his need to give the world the finger over the freedom of others to dream of positive change. When Touga promises Anthy that he'll keep her locked away in her birdcage forever, he means it with all his heart. He needs to believe that the Rose Bride is a hollow shell, whose dreams of freedom and friendship were just delusions Utena fostered after getting too attached. His goal is to keep the power of Dios for himself as a trophy, alongside Anthy and Utena, for the glimmer of happiness they will give him before he needs to pursue the next fleeting joy. Unfortunately, Touga's conviction about the brokenness of the world isn't entirely wrong, so he can easily use his own version of this harsh reality to take Utena down.
Just as Touga denies his need to dream, Utena drowns herself in dreams to avoid a series of uncomfortable realities about society. For one thing, she's a girl, and the world doesn't let girls become princes. Touga betrays this dream for her by demeaning her "abnormal" decision to be a prince; that's not what he wanted for her when he gave her the rose crest. No, he's not really her prince, but she doesn't know that. For the first time, Utena faces rejection from someone she trusts, echoing the experience of every girl whose mentors told her she can't be a scientist, a police officer, or even just a boy. To make matters worse, she's infatuated with Touga too, and she can't force herself to not be attracted to him even when he disrespects her. This also echoes the early relationship experiences of every girl who's fallen hard for some boy, only to discover that she can never be nice or patient enough for him to treat her fairly, sometimes even finding out that nothing she does will make him see her as an equal, realizing for the first time just how dirty a word "woman" can be even for men who claim to love them. Those two things alone are enough to lose Utena the duel, as she lets her conviction (and the power of Dios) slip away just long enough for Touga to land his perfectly rehearsed finishing blow.
But none of that compares to the pain that comes after the duel has been lost. At first, Utena's spirit doesn't seem shaken at all. She aggressively challenges Touga almost immediately, pleading that she'll do anything to make Anthy's dream of freedom come true. It's only the reveal that Anthy cares nothing for her that finally shatters Utena's beliefs. If Anthy is just an empty shell who parrots people's wishes back to them, then Utena was playing prince for no reason, and all those feelings of righteousness and deep friendship that came with her quest for justice were just as fake. Her prince, the voice of absolute truth in her world, tells her that she's been wasting her time dueling for this empty dream. She can only find happiness as a "normal girl" instead.
Heartbroken, Utena trudges through life as a normal girl the next day. She decides she'll wear a girls' uniform from now on, and she'll stop trying to outshine the boys. She'll go on a date with Touga and try to forget about Anthy. She'll follow the path of normalcy that Touga has laid out for her, which we know from his example will never bring her happiness, only make her even more miserable than him.
And that might have been the end of the story if it wasn't for Wakaba, the most normal girl around.
Wakaba's surprise spotlight-snatching is one of my favorite moments in the whole series, because it emphasizes that you don't have to totally understand someone's differences to support them. Wakaba may never know how it feels to dream of protecting princesses or be more comfortable in a boys' uniform, but she loves Utena enough to stop her friend from throwing away her true self. By commanding Utena to basically "man up" and take back the things that made her happy, Wakaba becomes an Onion Princess who rescues her own prince. Utena realizes that, even if the Rose Bride is just an empty shell, being Anthy's prince made her happy. Pulling Wakaba close to comfort her with a princely kiss makes Utena happy. It feels right, even if the world or her own prince says that it's wrong. That's what it means to revolutionize the world, and in that moment, Utena finally understands exactly what she must fight for. If the prince from her childhood denies her own princehood, and if Anthy can't wish to be free on her own, Utena will have to change the world into one where those things are possible.
At this point, it's a foregone conclusion that Utena will win the duel, so it's up to Anthy to deliver the episode's last surprise. We get a glimpse into her internal monologue for the first time, a voice that seems even more bitter and forlorn than Touga's. She condemns the entire duel as pointless and sees Utena's struggle as pathetic, but things take a different turn when Utena counters the full power of Dios in Touga's sword with a mysterious power all her own. Just like in episode one, Utena wins her duel with nothing but the broken stump of a sword, and we see tears slip down Anthy's face for the first time as she recognizes a new power of Dios in Utena, pulled from nothing but her own soul. Does this mean Utena has the true heart of a prince after all, even without possession of the Rose Bride? Is this the true key to bringing the world revolution, giving Anthy back some hope she seems to have lost?
Well, we're only one third of the way through the series, so there are many more questions to ask before we can solve that mystery of what lies at the End of the World.
- Chu Chu Corner: Anthy's behavior largely speaks for itself this week. Even before we see Utena finally inspire some emotion from her in the duel, she seems to long for her former prince's company, imagining her in an empty chair on the academy roof. Even her confession about wanting to make friends, unlike all the other things she's said to Utena in the past, isn't prompted by someone else's suggestion or wish. Even if it's buried deep down, there is a part of Anthy that wants to be free and forge real connections with other people, which begs the question of what could have crushed her spirit so badly to give up on such a simple dream. Anyway, Chu Chu's actions only reinforce these hints. For the whole time Anthy's acting as Touga's bride, Chu Chu continues to munch the crackers he was eating in Utena's dormroom when Anthy confessed her desire to have friends, and he turns to face Utena whenever the trio share a scene too. The neverending critchety-crunch of that cracker lets us know that Anthy hasn't stopped thinking about that moment or Utena herself no matter how much she's pretended to move on.
- Shadow Girl Corner 1: Since episode 11 is more about Touga, this shadow play reflects his struggle and hints at the cyclical problem of the duel system overall. William Tell and his son (notably figures from a tale about masculinity) repeat a dangerous and nonsensical ritual over and over simply because it's what people expect of them, just as Touga duels to own the Rose Bride for its own sake after giving up on his more personal dreams. While his son is understandably nervous about putting his life on the line hundreds of times in a row, William asserts that they have to keep going because "no one has told us to stop." Just because the world (or the king in this story) says something should be a certain way doesn't mean you have to listen, and accepting dangerous assumptions blindly will eventually lead you to make a mistake you can't take back. Touga's further gone than any of the other duelists in denying his true self for the sake of the world's acceptance, so we can only hope he's not beyond redemption completely.
- Shadow Girl Corner 2: I mentioned way back in the first review that the shadow girls aren't meant to represent the voice of the author himself, and episode 12 finally reveals their true identity: they're the aliens who told Ikuhara to make Revolutionary Girl Utena in the first place! Extraterrestrial twist aside, this shadow play is nice and straightforward. All the things that the world tells you are "normal" aren't necessarily right for you, so if your true self is an alien from outer space, you'd best embrace that and zip through the stars on your way to true happiness! But beyond that, what's the shadow girls being Ikuhara's aliens really supposed to mean, anyway? If they're just voices in his head, isn't that the same as them being his own voice? Well, yes and no. We'll only be able to answer that question when we learn even more about them in future episodes.
- Absolute Destiny Apocalypse Corner 1: Touga's duel theme, much like Nanami's, sounds downright angry compared to the other more poetic songs. As if to make up for how cryptic Touga himself can be, these lyrics are pretty clear-cut. Just like Nanami's theme, the song evokes imagery of the universe as a frozen illusion, but instead of spinning that sad idea in romantic directions, the song despairs over it, firmly dividing the uncaring lawless universe from the "make-believe game" of humanity, which makes rules for itself to give the world some illusion of meaning. "Drowning themselves in lessons, the words of man become human nature, a mask of words whose origin is You!" Touga seems to understand that the rules of his world are meaningless constructions of society, but instead of accepting the potential freedom this gives him to live however he pleases, he intends to bitterly exploit those rules until he stands above everyone else who is foolish enough to believe in anything better.
- Absolute Destiny Apocalypse Corner 2: True to its roots as a piece for the stage, this dueling theme explicitly calls out the artifice of society as a grandiose theater production in a wilder world. "I can become anything, I can become anyone!" the song declares, creating its own light in the darkness of a world without objective answers. This bittersweet power to "shine then disappear" allows Utena to embrace her own freedom, sacrificing the false dream of security with her prince, now content to risk her life for the happiness that accompanies becoming your own unique kind of weirdo, something Touga's masculine pride and fear of his own desires refuses to let him do. It's a rejuvenating song, perfect for ending this arc on a high note, even if Utena's greater troubles are far from over. Self-actualization is great and all, but if the world could be conquered just by saying you don't care about society's rules, then it wouldn't be so hard to do...
- Wakaba wasn't the only girl in the cast to help Utena beat back her demons. Juri was the only one who saw Touga's defeat coming, warning him at their student council meeting that he shouldn't gloat until the story was over. Then she meets Utena outside the dueling arena to give her a strong sword for the rematch. Frankly, I think Juri has just noticed a kind of love blossoming in Utena that she recognizes intimately, a love that she knows Utena can't help but fight for now that she's found it. Utena still thinks she's fighting for friendship with Anthy, but Juri might have figured out the truth before anyone else.
- This probably doesn't need to be pointed out, but there is definitely some blowjob imagery going on when Anthy kneels down to kiss Touga's sword. The camera lingers on her lips and hands, Utena looks away in discomfort, and Anthy even tenderly wipes her lips after imbuing the sword with power. Gross. It's an unpleasant scene, but it's important for reinforcing the difference between Utena's relationship with Anthy and the controlling dominance that Touga exerts over her as "his" Rose Bride, a trophy and a symbol of power rather than a partner with her own personhood.
- The heated student council conversation in episode 11 builds to a reveal of hundreds of balloons floating around the academy, presumably representing the diverse and fragile feelings in everyone's hearts that Touga says can be easily shattered. (Note that Touga has plenty of red balloons alongside everyone else's colors, so he's definitely lying about how far he's grown past the need to believe in anything.) While all the duelists' colors are represented across dozens of balloons, we only catch a glimpse of one purple balloon right at the end. I'd like to think it represents the shred of hope Anthy has regained after bonding with Utena.
You probably don't need me to tell you that these episodes were fantastic. While I wouldn't call it the highest watermark for this series, the Student Council arc finale is still some of the most cathartic and satisfying stuff in any anime ever. It's both thematically complex and dramatically simple, as our heroine crumples under the rejection of what is basically God to her, the only truth and inspiration she's known in the world, who's now trying to deny her happiness. It's hard, and she doesn't have all the answers yet, but Utena ultimately fights for the right to be her true self and wins, even if it means a life that forces her to throw the world away and forge ahead with nothing but her own strength. It's a triumph that anyone who's felt discarded by society can relate to on a profound level, giving these episodes a deep satisfaction beyond even watching Touga get his ass kicked.
Fortunately for Utena, that power hiding inside her seems to be greater than anyone was expecting, even Anthy! Will it be enough to survive a brand-new round of duelists? Next week, we finally get a look at the real Dios, as the story descends into some unexpected madness.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is currently streaming on Nozomi Entertainment's official Youtube channel.
Jacob would love to see a spin-off called "Revolutionary Onion Wakaba." You can follow Jake here on Twitter.
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