Revolutionary Girl Utena
by Jacob Chapman,
Calves are easily bound and slaughtered
Never knowing the reason why
But whoever treasures freedom
Like the swallow has learned to fly
— "Donna Donna", 1960 Joan Baez version
It's been a while since the last review, so let's continue our journey through the Black Rose Arc by getting a little personal. Forgive me if this doesn't gel with your own life experience, but I've always found the old canard that "boys gotta be the ones to chase after girls" to be totally false. And not just false but totally backwards; guys might go overboard with big romantic gestures meant to win a girl's affection, but these gestures usually come across as unnecessary at best and unwanted at worst, something the guy thinks broadcasts his value as a partner to everyone, but not something that actually convinces the girl to date them if they weren't going to already. On the flip side, I've seen so many girls deliberately change their appearance or behavior not just to potentially impress a guy, but even at his own request to be pretty or "nice" enough to be dateable, leaving them chasing the boys' approval in ways that seem to go totally unappreciated. From where I've stood, I've always seen more boys rushing off to get whatever they want, as girls chase after them with growing anxiety about the uncomfortable territory they must pass through along the way.
You may or may not agree with my observations, but based on these two episodes, Revolutionary Girl Utena seems to see things the same way. Kozue and Nanami are just two girls desperately chasing the attention of the men in their lives (even if those men happen to be their brothers!), but they're far from the only ones in this story, because the Black Rose duels all seem to have this factor in common. In every case but one, Black Rose duelists are girls who feel inadequate, often because of the pressures placed upon them by their gender. (The one exception to this gender rule isn't really much of an exception, but we'll talk about him when we get there. And no, Nanami isn't technically a Black Rose duelist, but I'll get to that soon too.)
Anyway, if the Student Council Arc was about the struggles of extraordinary teens fighting back against the pressures of an unfair world, the Black Rose Arc is about the struggles of more ordinary people who fear they're being washed out and swept away by that same tide. For the strong-willed student council members, growing up feels like a life-or-death struggle for their dreams. But for more tender souls like Kanae or Kozue who don't know what they want to fight for, growing up just feels like death, as the simplicity of childhood disappears and they're left questioning if they're okay with the new roles they're slowly being squeezed into. If they don't want to die, they must struggle to survive even if they don't know the way forward, which sounds an awful lot like the raison d'etre of the student council duelists! The only difference is that the Black Rose duelists are ignorant, indecisive, or just not ready to self-actualize. Their attempts to achieve self-awareness about their desires only regress them into a more closed-off state, thanks to Mikage's backwards therapy. They don't know what dreams they're fighting to pursue yet; they just know that they don't like the direction they're headed. It's why they awaken from the whole ordeal without any memory of why it happened, after they've screamed out all their confused emotions and collapsed in the arena.
Of course, Mikage knows that no duelist can fight with the power of indecision, no matter how emotionally powerful that feeling may be. (Just handing Kozue a sword didn't go so well, since even though she was emotionally prepared to fight, she didn't really know what she was fighting for.) Swords can only be wielded by the kind of conviction the student council members have displayed. If Mikage can't find victims with that kind of conviction to win, he'll have to go one step back and find victims who simply want to win conviction itself. So he decides to target people who envy the passion and power of duelists enough to take it from them by force. The goal is to find Black Rose duelists who are so obsessed with each student council member that they will fight in their place for their assumed approval, literally ripping their agency from them in the form of a sword. They cannot fight for the true dreams of the students whose conviction they've stolen, but by fighting for their love (against their will, which is why the sword extraction looks so painfully nonconsensual), the Black Rose duelists hope to become part of those students' dreams. It's all very experimental both artistically and emotionally, and Mikage is the mad scientist twisting these people's feelings in directions they were never meant to go.
Enter Kozue, who's already no stranger to forcing her wishes on the lives of others. She spends every new day doing whatever she can to get her twin brother Miki's attention, and she violently cuts down anyone who tries to take his eyes away from her. Of course, we know from episode 5 that this attention she's earned is almost entirely negative, so it seems strange at first that she would focus on acting out in ways he disapproves of. You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar, right? Why is she stressing him out by playing the bad girl instead? Well, maybe things would be different if they weren't twins. They began their lives as perfect reflections of one another, but as adolescence approaches, those reflections have began to warp in different directions.
While Miki pines for the perfect sunlit garden of his childhood, that place never really existed for Kozue. She was aware of the great gap in talent between her and Miki from a young age, so instead of thinking back to the piano they shared in the sunlit garden, Kozue's mind turns to the milkshakes they would drink together after practice was done. Both glasses are filled equally, with gentle butterflies facing each other at rest on the even tilting straws. Everything felt right when they could be the same as children, before individuality was demanded of the twins as the expectations of adulthood loomed, but unlike Miki, Kozue holds no illusions of getting those harmonious days back, because she can't see herself as a person who ever belonged in that sunlit garden. Miki is growing into a promising young valedictorian, while she's only growing into the girl who chases his shadow.
Of course, we hear her play the Sunlit Garden piece beautifully once she's decided to revolutionize the world, so she might be seeing that gap between them as much wider than it actually is, simply because she's the "lesser sex" between them. But even if Kozue's perception of herself as inferior isn't fair, these feelings of hopeless inadequacy seem to have consumed her completely. This is reflected most clearly in the pool water she angrily grasps over and over, only for it to slip through her fingers. It's a futile effort to try and hold onto the water by force, but she can't help doing it, just as she can't help but demand her brother's attention by acting out negatively instead of either giving him what he wants or pursuing her own dreams. Either one would mean committing to serve her brother or reject him, and she doesn't know how she wants to move forward just yet, so all she can do is rebel against the ultimatum and wish for a better world where they were bound together as one again.
Unlike Nanami, Kozue can't be content with playing sycophant to her brother, because she wants more than just approval; she yearns for the equality of a truly intimate connection she believed they once shared. Doing things the way Miki would want them (playing piano she doesn't enjoy and isn't good at) will only make her feel worse as she pales in his light. So Kozue knows she has to become her own person, but she still has no idea what kind of identity she wants for herself, so she clings desperately to the idea of dragging her brother down to her level instead. Make him mad, trip him up, make him worry about her. If they can never share those sweet milkshakes again, at least there will be harmony as their straws rest evenly in empty glasses. Even though her psychology is very different, Kozue is just like Nanami in that she's given up hope of a promising future for herself, so she relies on scraps of attention from her brother to feel like she's worth caring about at all.
Of course, the "just like Nanami" thing is arguably a major problem with this arc. While it's beautifully presented like most Utena episodes, Kozue's arc is (just like her brother's!) perhaps not as complex as its grand visuals and narrative obfuscation imply. The other major difference between Kozue and Nanami is that Kozue's love for her brother is explicitly sexual as well as emotional, albeit for the same possessive reasons. Nanami may be romantically obsessive about Touga at times, but she doesn't think of her brother sexually, more as an angelic mentor figure than anything else. Kozue on the other hand wants a singular "oneness" with her brother that's personified as more physical lust, and even if you choose to see it as metaphorical rather than literal (there's room for both interpretations), twincest themes are pretty on-the-nose and even tacky for a show that dabbles in much more complex emotional dynamics throughout its run. While I do understand Kozue, I feel like I could have empathized with her a lot more if they'd toned down the mystique-of-twins aspect and focused more on Kozue's specific emotions and thoughts.
Heck, even Nanami's role in Kozue's episode is more emotionally accessible material, before we even get to her own episode. Nanami's laughable attempts to take her brother's place as the president of the student council come with their own silly inadequacy metaphor, as she whips back and forth like a little portable fan to try and force her authority on the others. (The student council clearly isn't buying her bluster though, as Juri's giant wall of tiny pinwheel fans easily overwhelms the fan with passive confidence.) But even if Nanami easily matches the profile of Mikage's other marks, she can't be one of the Black Rose duelists, because those duels are for side characters only, no major characters allowed. So as not to break the motif, Nanami gets a pseudo-Black Rose duel instead, fought not with swords but a pitchfork, because she turned into a cow. But I'm getting ahead of myself, let's start from the top.
Although Nanami's posse all agree that she's always the best-dressed bitch in the cut, this glowing approval isn't enough for her when Juri shows up to a party wearing more expensive jewels. Not to be outdone, Nanami mail-orders an extravagant necklace to be unveiled at her next party, and one shipping mishap later, she's prancing around with an enormous cowbell around her neck. The more she flaunts this cowbell, the more Nanami begins to transform into a bovine herself, until the whole cow-tastrophe has to be resolved matador-style. On its surface, this might appear to be a simple and silly morality play about the dangers of vanity, like "The Emperor's New Clothes" with an udderly absurd twist. But relating this preposterous parable back to the themes of Nanami's previous episodes reveals another layer of meaning with much darker implications.
It all comes back to the episode's most frequently recurring line: "But a cowbell is for cows to wear, isn't it?" It seems innocuous at first, but it begins to make more sense when paired with Nanami's nightmare, the only appearance of her beloved Touga in the episode. In her waking hours, Nanami denies to the very end that she's turning into a cow, but her dream tells a completely different story. She sees herself as a calf being cared for by her brother, eventually fed her last meal of hay and sent away to be turned into Salisbury steak without so much as a tear in Touga's eye. On some subconscious level, Nanami knows she's being manipulated, but her decision to live for her brother's happiness keeps her from acknowledging this to anyone else. She must keep up appearances, she must claim that the cowbell she received is a luxury item from a famous jewelry designer, or else everything will fall apart and no one will care about her anymore.
This proves that Nanami knows her childish decision to protect the status quo that holds everyone back will not end well, despite the morsels of happiness and security it gives her in the moment. She knows that cowbells are for cows to wear, and cows go to the slaughterhouse. Blindly supporting a broken world means becoming its victim eventually, but if the alternative is to admit that you were wrong and try to start over in humiliation, pitied by both the people you hurt and the abusers you supported, well that's not something Nanami is willing to do. It would have been easier if she had accepted her mistakes and changed her ways earlier on, but the more time passes, the harder it gets, until she's too ingrained in the system to survive without it, just like passive livestock behind a fence of superficial safety. The self-hatred that drives her fruitless quest for happiness at the expense of others will get heavier and heavier, she'll moo along with the crowd all the way to the butcher shop, and for now it seems like there's nothing anyone else can do to save her.
Of course, all these morbid messages are totally tenderized by the ridiculous reality of this episode's plot. Even Nanami's potentially horrifying nightmare about being sold into slaughter by her brother and eaten (underscored by a somber folk song) somehow gets played for comedy in a masterstroke of surreal absurdity. Episode 16 is a truly impressive tone exercise in a series that's already packed with superb balances of silliness and depth. You don't have to catch any of the more complex ideas in Nanami's Cowbell Adventure to get the emotional gist completely and have a great time watching it. That's one of my personal hallmarks for excellent storytelling; it's great entertainment on its own whether you want to dig into its complexities or not. That can't be said for all of Utena's more challenging episodes, but the show's ability to achieve this balance so often has definitely helped to make it a timeless classic. You gotta have more cowbell!
- Chu Chu Corner: After a few weeks of Chu Chu being more confusing than usual, it's refreshing to see him voice Anthy's feelings so clearly in episode 15. She may greet Miki warmly when he visits her apartment to ask her out, but Chu Chu's irritated screeching at a pesky fly buzzing around his head lends a sour note to her empty smile. (He also eats an absurd amount of watermelon to show the passage of time as Miki awkwardly fails to flirt with his would-be "shining thing." Anthy probably wishes someone would yank him offscreen with a cane.) In episode 16, Chu Chu's antics reflect on Nanami specifically, after he drinks a little too deep from a milk bottle and finds himself squished past the point of no return. Even if Nanami's own dairy dilemma ends with unexpected salvation, her decision to don a misdelivered nose ring the next day implies that she didn't learn much from the experience.
- Shadow Girl Corner 1: Just because you can convince someone to buy a sandwich doesn't mean they'll like it! When Kozue acts out to force her brother to show concern for her, she's only getting the short term result she wants, the purchase without the desire. You can force the symptoms of love if you press hard enough, but you can't force love itself, and the limits of this short-term solution are finally beginning to weigh on Kozue. (In a smaller way, this is also true of Nanami's attempts to force her will on the student council without End of the World's support.) Utena's simplistic solution to the shadow girl's dilemma is to just ignore the pushy food vendor, but it's not so easy to ignore family, much less your own twin. To reverse something that Akio says about siblings in this episode, you might as well try to ignore the moon above you in the night sky.
- Shadow Girl Corner 2: Since episode 16's plot is a variation on The Emperor's New Clothes, why not a variation on another fable for the shadow girl play: "Belling the Cat." In this version of the story, however, one of the mice does volunteer to do the deed, but only because they're in cahoots with the cat in exchange for their life. This reflects Nanami's increasingly stubborn commitment to preserve a harmful system that will only consume her in the end. "You reap what you sow," Tsuwabuki says, but he'd better hope that doesn't happen to Nanami! On an unrelated note, the shadow girl's cartoon bones vaulting through the air makes me laugh every time.
- Absolute Destiny Apocalypse Corner: Finally a duel theme that doesn't have to be explained at all! "Time Machine" is plain and simple nostalgia for the past, reflecting both Miki's wish to recapture the sunlit garden and Kozue's wish to recapture a connection with her increasingly distant brother. Once again, Miki's arc blows surprisingly simple ideas into unusually large-scale imagery, and I'm not entirely sure how to feel about it. Sorry, twins. You're just kinda boring compared to everyone else.
- What's on the Desk? Of course, the sweet milkshakes that Kozue remembers from her childhood are on display, and given that they represent an impossible, perfectly equal intimate connection between the twins, it's largely up to the audience whether Kozue's desire to share one with her brother again after the duel is a good sign or a bad one. Interestingly, Anthy has no problem drinking these sweet milkshakes herself. I wonder if they remind her of her own brother?
- Touga has given up listening to the student council mantra on loop and is now listening to a recording of Dvorak's 9th Symphony, specifically the second movement that has been frequently re-recorded on its own as the pseudo-spiritual anthem "Goin' Home." The piece is largely associated with adolescence and nostalgia in Japan, and even its composer originally described it as "a moving expression of that nostalgia of the soul all human beings feel." With his old plans dashed, Touga may be undergoing his own regressive transformation, drifting back to a time when he believed in something eternal, so he can emerge from his stupor with a new view of the world and new plans to match. But that won't happen for a long time yet.
- The folk song that underscores Nanami's transformation into a cow is called "Donna Donna", and you could think of it as her own pseudo-duel theme for the episode. Although its lyrics about the tragic impossibility yet necessity of defying society to find your own personal freedom are spot-on to Nanami's central conflict, director Ikuhara was completely unaware of the song when he wrote the scenario for this episode. Someone else on staff brought up its potential relevance during a story meeting, and he realized that he had to include it then.
- Akio's metaphor for what it means to have a sibling makes sense at first, but it becomes suspicious the more you think about it. "You don't really think about them most of the time, but when you remember they exist, you're glad they're there." It might be how people think about their siblings a lot of the time, but it's certainly not the platonic ideal of brotherhood that Utena seemed to be asking Akio to describe. I'd say that if you were to interpret it uncharitably, it rings far more of a manipulative relationship driven by egotism, similar to Kozue and Nanami's relationships with their own brothers. This unsettling impression doesn't get any better when the end of episode 15 reveals that Anthy and Akio may be doing it under the haunting glow of the planetarium projector. But why?! We won't know the answer to that for a little while yet.
- Alright, this is just to sate my own curiosity. At the beginning of episode 16, Nanami starts literally pounding mochi when Juri arrives at her party in what looks to be a throwaway gag. Is "pounding mochi" some kinda Japanese figure of speech for something like "struggling for attention" or "stewing with jealousy" or something like that?
In a twist on expectations, I actually dug the wacky Nanami filler episode in this pair far more than Kozue's dramatic Black Rose episode. While her material isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, Kozue's arc mostly repeats themes exemplified better by more complex relationships in the show. On the flip side, the cowbell episode revisits and gently builds on familiar ideas through a new lens of pure comedy, delivering one of the funniest and most memorable vignettes in the show that still gives the audience just enough to chew on. Next week, we'll be resuming my favorite arc in the show, as the ghost haunting Juri's precious locket finally appears in the flesh at Ohtori Academy. Has she come back to apologize? Well, this is Revolutionary Girl Utena, so the truth is bound to be a lot more thorny than that.
Episode 15 Rating: B
Episode 16 Rating: A-
Revolutionary Girl Utena is currently streaming on Nozomi Entertainment's official Youtube channel.
Jacob literally just got that "Cowstian Dior" pun. To be fair, it sounds much closer in Japanese than it does in English. You can follow Jake here on Twitter.
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