Revolutionary Girl Utena
by Jacob Chapman,
One day, a girl I saw on TV said, "There are only two types of people in this world: the ones who are chosen and the ones who aren't chosen."
That gave me a start.
"To not be chosen is to die," said the girl.
I decided to try my hand at that.
The Black Rose arc.
— Kunihiko Ikuhara, RGU Remastered Commentary for Episode 14
And just like that, the first of Utena's three arcs has come to a close. Episode 13 acts as a post-mortem for its heroine's hard-fought victory over the student council, but it's far from a disposable recap episode. We not only get a fuller picture of everything that's come before, the episode also spends a lot of time foreshadowing the dangers to come. Now that Touga is a cracked shell of his former self, listening to his old proclamations of victory on loop in a daze while Nanami worries over him, it's time for a new imposing figure to take his place. Unlike the previous imposter, this school chairman Akio Ohtori actually does look like Utena's original prince as an adult, which makes it all the more confusing when he effortlessly enters the castle (!) to confront the child-prince, still very much alive and frozen in time, cursed by some "seal of Dios" that's left him powerless.
It's a heck of a lot more new info than anybody thought we'd get after such a major climax, but Akio speaks almost entirely in vagaries (and the prince doesn't speak at all), so despite all the hype in the air, we don't seem to learn much about what's really going on. All we can tell so far is that Utena's prince still has the utmost faith in her, but this Akio guy doesn't seem so sure. The seal of Dios has gradually begun to break as Utena summons its power, but is that what the prince wanted for her when he gave her the rose seal or is it just what Akio wants for his own reasons? What will happen when the full power of Dios unites with Utena's soul?
It's not yet clear if these two share the same goal of resurrecting Dios's power, or even if their relationship is merely apathetic or outright antagonistic. At the very least, they don't seem to be on friendly terms, since the prince also holds out hope for Anthy's future, while Akio (who we later learn is her brother) sees her only as a doomed tool of some kind, who lives only to serve a greater purpose as the Rose Bride. Dios also glares at Akio when the subject of being freed from their curse comes up, despite the fact that it's something they both seem to need. This implies that they want the same thing in incompatibly different ways, which means Utena is headed down a path where one little stumble can mean the difference between victory for herself (reaching Dios) or victory for someone else who may not have her best interests in mind (reaching Akio). So are Akio and Dios father and son? Time-displaced twins? Two different versions of the same person? All those answers remain tantalizingly out of reach as Akio leaves to rejoin Anthy in the world beneath the eternal castle.
So in retrospect, what was the Student Council arc all about? The answer to that question will give us a helpful roadmap for the two arcs to follow, so let's follow the colorful signs in its final episode: Friendship, Choice, Reason, Love, Adoration, Conviction, and Self. Since it's not fair to try and boil every duel down to one word, these words each signify one specific thing about each duel: what it was fought for. The challenger of each duel is the one who wanted to defend this virtue, while the winner is the one with a greater grasp of that virtue at the time. You don't have to break them down one by one to uncover what they represent overall, but I'm going to do it anyway. Hey, I'm not obsessed! I'm just being thorough.
- Friendship: Utena challenged Saionji to defend her wounded friend, Wakaba, and Saionji lost because his own friendship with Touga is fraught with resentment and dishonesty, which we can see even in this first episode through their uncomfortable interactions.
- Choice: This word can also be interpreted as "willpower", which Saionji sought to exert by taking back Anthy and proving he wasn't just a pawn for Touga to mock. Unfortunately, he lost when Utena's will to "lose on purpose" transformed into a drive to win when she realized how badly Saionji would abuse Anthy if he won her back. Her will to protect was stronger than his will to prove his own strength, which is probably because he doubts and despises himself so much despite all his bluster.
- Reason: Miki fought to make sense of his own world, which has been challenged by the growing inability to get the same happiness out of things that seemed so perfect to him as a child (exemplified by a worsening relationship with his sister). He lost this duel because his reasoning that Anthy wanted to be rescued was completely off-base; Utena may be naive, but she's still not as delusional as Miki, who tries to support his childish worldview with biased "logic" instead of letting that logic show him the way to the truth.
- Love: Juri wants the power to revolutionize the world so she can make her impossible love come true, but her inability to acknowledge such an idealistic dream, choosing instead to lie about some wish to destroy all miracles and false hope, cripples her love with dishonesty, which true love cannot abide. Utena is completely straightforward about the love she has for her own prince, so she wins the duel.
- Adoration: Nanami claims to be fighting out of adoration for her brother, but she's motivated far more by hatred for herself. This force of loathing is so reckless and at obvious odds with her stated motives that she loses her duel faster than anyone else, but because she doesn't care about winning the Rose Bride, she refuses to stop attacking even after she's lost according to the rules. Anyway, it's an understatement to say Utena's adoration toward her prince, Anthy, and probably even Touga (at the time) was more pure than Nanami's.
- Conviction: Touga seems to do everything in life under the conviction that, well, everything in life is pointless, even winning the Rose Bride just to say that nothing happened when he did. As dark a motive as that is, he was committed to it so completely that Utena's own conviction in battle wavered, torn between wanting to be a prince herself and having to fight the prince that originally inspired her, who didn't seem to believe in her anymore. In this moment of indecision, Touga's nihilistic beliefs won out.
- Self: Thankfully, Touga's strong conviction requires a total denial of his true humanity, lying to himself to spare his own heart the pain of living. By embracing her pain and resolving to move forward even without her prince, Utena allows herself to believe in the prince she's become instead, and she challenges Touga for the right to "take her true self back." After all, a prince needs a princess, and Utena can't be herself if she can't save a girl in need like Anthy. The power of Dios in Touga's hands was somehow weaker than the power of Dios in Utena's heart, which has left him wallowing in depression to question his beliefs all over again.
Through all of these duels, we see a common thread that becomes most direct in the final confrontation; these are all contests of self-actualization. No matter who first poses the challenge or claims to believe in the virtue at stake more, the real winner of each duel is whoever's choices are most true to their personal ideals. The final duel allows Utena to unlock the power of Dios without possession of his sword, which makes "self" the most important belief of all. To self-actualize is not just to pursue dreams or goals, but to match these dreams and goals with your own individual needs and strengths through the power of self-awareness, as Utena did when she realized she could not attain happiness by living the same life that made other girls happy, so she had to pursue an "impossible" life that was nonetheless normal for her.
Ideally, this level of self-actualization will be achieved in late stages of childhood. (This isn't always the case, but it seems to be this show's thesis considering what comes next in the Black Rose arc.) Just as Miki obsesses over the passage of time taking him further and further away from his "shining thing," this aging process forces us into the process of self-actualization whether we like it or not. (Each window devoted to a student council duel is controlled by an hourglass that must eventually run out.) As they begin the process of puberty, most children start to understand the limitations and flaws of their reality and the ways in which they want to change it for themselves, especially children like the student council members who feel that their true selves have no place in this world. The Student Council arc represents the end of childhood for our cast and the start of their adolescence.
So what is adolescence? Well, in the world of Revolutionary Girl Utena at least, adolescence appears to be death. And you thought your puberty was hard!
In all seriousness, the Black Rose arc revolves around death to a truly morose degree. Black roses not grown in a garden, but artificially preserved in an aquarium, are stabbed into the hearts of zombified duelists, who can only be freed from their bloodlust by destroying this rose and collapsing onto chalk outlines of their host's corpse. The black rose rings they wear are pulled from the corpses of ex-duelists (who were buried alive), and they duel in an arena filled with desks memorializing those boys' deaths. All of this is orchestrated by a morose (and male) version of Utena named Mikage, who lives underground and plots to kill the Rose Bride under End of the World's orders, so he can replace her with his own (also male) version named Mamiya and enjoy Dios's power without Anthy's help. It may seem odd for pubescence, the period of most rapid change in a person's life, to be compared to death so much like this, but it will start making more sense as the Black Rose duels continue.
For now, all we can do is analyze what happened to poor Kanae, school chairman Akio's fiancée. In the seemingly haunted Nemuro Memorial Hall, student-professor Mikage is rumored to hold amazing seminars that can turn anyone's life around, which really turn out to be sweet-smelling traps for his black-rose-ification experiments, and Kanae is his first victim. Obviously, Mikage would prefer stronger guinea pigs, so he invites Miki to join, but he doesn't seem interested. In fact, none of the student council members will come to Mikage's seminars in the future, perhaps because they're all still reeling from the epiphanies of their past duels, and they don't really want to have their heads examined right now. This means we'll get a whole new passel of duelists for this arc, and our job is to figure out what they all have in common that would lead them down this dark road.
For Kanae, all she wants to be is the perfect wife to her future betrothed, who she loves and trusts with all her heart. Unfortunately, Akio's sister Anthy is always in his life, a strange woman with haunting dead eyes. Kanae can't think of herself as a good person and a good wife if she can't love her beloved's own sister. But Anthy seems completely alien to her, prompting only fear and mistrust and even suspicion of Akio for being so close to a woman who seems to feel no emotion and perhaps even hates Kanae for no reason. There's just something wrong with the Ohtori family, exemplified by the hollow look in Anthy's eyes, and it's destroying Kanae's ideal of a happy life with the perfect husband. Instead of comforting her after this dark moment of vulnerability, Mikage tells Kanae that she has no choice but to revolutionize the world. But of course, that was his plan all along.
In order to get his victims ready for possession by the Black Rose, Mikage first forces each subject through a period of regression, taking them "deeper" into their feelings as his counsel-room-turned-elevator sinks deeper underground. He prods his pupils to explore their ugliest emotions, as the elevator plummets faster and faster to take them to an emotional point of no return. While indulging these ugly feelings can be very important in a therapeutic setting, they must be followed with some form of catharsis or closure to be vented in a positive way that allows for healing and emotional progression. Your darkest impulses are a defense mechanism to emotional dangers that you face in an imperfect world, but they aren't who you really are. Putting these dark feelings in a realistic context is an important step of the process, but Mikage tosses that part out and forces regression on people instead by asserting that his subjects' ugliest feelings are the absolute truth of the world, cornering them by literally blocking off their exit with his ultimatum to revolutionize the world. In case these other clues weren't enough to get across the idea of emotional regression, there's also a butterfly mounted on the wall (another emblem of death) who transforms into a cocoon, a caterpillar, and finally an egg before the elevator finally crashes to the basement.
Even with all these clues, it's still too early to say what emotional regression has to do with either puberty or death, but Mikage's experiments are far from over. Even if her attempt to kill Anthy was the wrong solution to her problem, was Kanae on to something when she sensed some kind of alien evil in Anthy's heart? Maybe there's a good reason to try and replace the Rose Bride after all...
- Chu Chu Corner: While Anthy has become plenty suspicious over the past several episodes, episode 14 gives us our first hint that Akio might be up to no good as well, scarcely one episode after he's been introduced. After all, Chu Chu's dislike of Saionji or Touga was played for laughs, but he seems genuinely terrified of Akio, refusing to go with Anthy on her weekly visits with a worried expression on his face. Does that mean Anthy herself is afraid of Akio? Or is Chu Chu once again reflecting the feelings of someone else in this instance and why?
- Shadow Girl Corner 1: While there are two shadow girl plays across these two episodes, I don't think the first one merits much analysis all on its own. Echoing the first play (just with the shadow girls in their true alien identities aboard a UFO), their performance simply warns Utena that her fight won't be over that easily. However, it's also pretty suspicious that their UFO literally leaves the world of Ohtori behind by getting reeled out of a picture of the background via fishing pole, touching down later on their new stage above Mikage's secret chamber. Could Mikage's morgue of black rose duelists be part of another world literally and not just figuratively?
- Shadow Girl Corner 2: Extra! Extra! Extra! This arc introduces us to a third shadow girl, who reflects Mikage's role as the editor of the school newspaper with her own paperboy theme. The Black Rose shadow plays are also unique in that Utena watches along and makes snide comments, which just raises a whole heap of questions about who the shadow girls really are and how they interact with this world. This first shadow play is a pretty basic metaphor for puberty, with a bait-and-switch gag revealing that what sounded like chatter about a girl getting her first period was actually referring to her first wisdom tooth. Utena doesn't seem to understand the girl's overwrought angst over the tooth and simply suggests she get it removed, but that's because while many other characters will go through the angst of pubescent change in this arc, Utena is once again the last to catch up thanks to her passionate but childish worldview. In every shadow play going forward, she'll offer a blunt and straightforward solution to a problem that's actually more emotionally complex, as in this "wisdom tooth" metaphor for puberty where simply removing the tooth won't relieve the deeper anxiety that comes from losing it (childhood) forever.
- Absolute Destiny Apocalypse Corner: We got a new version of the pre-duel song! Nothing really to say about it, I just like the industrial remix. Anyway, Kanae's dueling theme is about willful delusion, something that a real therapist would have helped her work through after that venting session instead of stabbing her with a rose. I almost think it's too direct compared to the more poetic and fantastical duel themes of the past, as it asserts that people cling to false treasures out of fear, denying that good and evil both exist even in heaven and hell. This suggests that the "alien hatred" Kanae senses from Anthy is probably more nuanced than that, but she's already not interested in nuance because her only motive for wanting to love Anthy is to create a forced atmosphere of domestic bliss that might disregard Anthy's real feelings. Kanae's problem isn't that she can't understand Anthy, but that she doesn't want to, and she should probably reserve some of that suspicion for Akio too. He's fulfilling her ideal of the perfect fiancée a little too well, don't you think? Maybe there's evil hiding in her heaven, just like the song forebodes.
- What's on the Desk? This is a new segment just for the Black Rose arc, as the desks that surround the dueling arena will change depending on who fights. Since we don't know much about Kanae, this first duel's desks are pretty straightforward: lilies for the dearly departed. Of course, there's another meaning to them that becomes clear when comparing them to the lily-like color and texture of Kanae's hair. They memorialize the loss of her innocence, as her dream of perfect domesticity vanishes into the cold, hollow eyes of Anthy watching her every move.
- Kanae repeatedly refers to Anthy as "alien," (the Japanese word is the same as the one for extraterrestrials), which is a curious choice of words now that we know the true nature of the shadow girls. Do these literal space aliens have any relation to Anthy, Akio, Mamiya, or Dios? Akio does seem curiously obsessed with gazing at the stars...
- Mikage insists that Mamiya will become the Rose Bride even though Mamiya retorts that only "Rose Groom" makes sense for him, being a boy. Mikage argues that Mamiya can't be a "Rose Groom" because "Bride" really suits him better, so why is Mikage so focused on Mamiya becoming a "bride" specifically?
- This is dumb, but I love that Utena is so accustomed to Anthy's weirdness that she immediately assumes her "big brother" might be a planetarium projector instead of a person. Bless her heart.
Mysteries pile upon mysteries in this unexpectedly packed pair of Utena episodes. The world of Ohtori Academy is apparently much deeper and darker than that first arc led us to believe, and the stakes have definitely been raised now that duelists are trying to straight-up kill Utena and Anthy for the power of Dios. Thankfully, the start of the Black Rose arc isn't just confusing and weird for its own sake, and savvy viewers can already start putting some of its puzzle pieces together while enjoying all the dramatic imagery. This arc is my personal favorite of Utena's three segments, so I can't wait to dig into its depths with everyone in the weeks to come!
Revolutionary Girl Utena is currently streaming on Nozomi Entertainment's official Youtube channel.
Jacob can't help but think a stepladder is a poor location for a makeout session, especially when there are two couches right there, Akio. You can follow Jake here on Twitter.
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