Revolutionary Girl Utena
by Jacob Chapman,
Q: "Chiho Saitō has said that you have never told her the truth about it, could you explain the significance of Mickey and his stopwatch?"
A: "It has a very deep significance. His stopwatch contains the key to open all the mysteries of the world. And Mickey is the only one who knows that. So I don't know what it is either."
— Kunihiko Ikuhara, SciFi.com interview conducted via IRC Chat for New York Anime Fest 2000
Over twenty years of Utena fandom, perhaps no specific question about the show has come up more in interviews than the "stopwatch question." Maybe it's because Miki's stopwatch appears in the show more often than almost any other recurring symbol, yet always remains sequestered to its own shot with very little other context to go on. Whatever the reason, people have become obsessed with the meaning behind Miki's stopwatch, even speculating on what the specific numbers that accompany its appearance might mean, but the creators of Utena (especially its director) never seemed interested in quelling those obsessions. While Ikuhara had given more helpful (but still vague) answers to the "stopwatch question" in previous interviews, the quote above saw him at his most "trollish", scarcely three years (and 300 stopwatch questions) after the series had been made. At least by the time of this interview, the "official" answer had become "just figure it out for yourself."
Of course, that makes the stopwatch question my own burden instead, right after I promised that this review series wouldn't become a bulleted list of symbolism explanations. So how about we turn our thinking around on this one? Instead of trying to take apart the stopwatch, maybe reversing our attention to take apart the person holding it will yield more useful insights. (Sorry, Miki.) Fortunately, that's exactly what not only this episode of Utena, but basically every episode to follow, wants you to do with its cast.
While those first three episodes helped ease us into Utena's world and characters, episode four is where the show really embraces its true nature. Going forward, Utena will preface each new duel for the Rose Bride with another wildly unique deep-dive into a character's heart, each one revolving around the point where the tumultuous emotions of adolescence converge into a full-blown storm for their subject. Since her heart is initially much less stormy, Utena herself largely acts as the glue holding all these conflicting character motivations together, so you know things are getting serious when even her noble heart starts to waver with adolescent confusion later on...
Anyway, when it comes to emotional transformations, Miki gives us the perfect place to start. All the other student council members already have their own reasons for wanting the Rose Bride, but little Miki seems content to act as secretary to his upperclassmen as they discuss End of the World's plans. (On that note, his stopwatch does serve an obvious literal purpose; as the council secretary, he uses it to take the minutes of each meeting!) When we get to the other council members' arcs, we'll have to do some deeper digging to find out how they went from nice kids to desperate revolutionaries, but with Miki, we get to watch the shift happen in real time, as he goes from wanting to befriend Anthy to wanting to possess her over the course of just two episodes. Miki's not only the youngest member of the cast, he's also an incredibly late bloomer emotionally speaking, since he's just now undergoing the same emotional transformation that took Utena from grieving little girl to aspiring prince as a child. But as the Shadow Girls might say, was that really such a good idea?
Our first impression of Miki is that he's a consummate perfectionist. We're introduced to him playing a beautiful piano piece (that he composed as a child prodigy) but coming away from the performance unsatisfied enough that he's decided to drop out of piano competition. He complains that the piano is out of tune at first, but when Nanami asserts that it sounds perfectly fine to her, Miki immediately assumes that he's the one that needs tuning. He's a flawless student who even skipped grades on his way to the top of the class, and he's the top male athlete in the academy's fencing program. (He can't quite match his female combatant Juri in skill most of the time.) But despite so much achievement at such a young age, Miki remains dissatisfied. Rather than looking to the future, he spends a surprising amount of time dwelling on one "mistake" from his past.
Well, that's one clue about the stopwatch already! Miki is more than a little obsessed with the passage of time, which seems ludicrous given his age at first, but it starts to make more sense when you consider that his youth also puts him closer to the loss of childhood than the other characters. Clearly, elegant duelists like Juri and Touga have put childish ideas behind them to embrace a more mature appearance and ambitions, but Miki's charmed days in the "sunlit garden" of his childhood still dominate his thoughts. Now that he's entered puberty, Miki's brain has started evolving at a rapid rate, so he longs for the simpler times when he could glean so much pleasure from just playing the piano with his sister.
No matter how many times he revisits "The Sunlit Garden" or how perfectly he plays it, Kozue is gone now, so it will never sound the same in his head. It's a complicated emotion for Miki to process, something unique to the world of adulthood, so even if he can't turn back the clock, his nerdy proclivities force him to try and make sense of it through study, taking note of every passing moment with a stopwatch and notepad. Just as Saionji's sword collection speaks to his need to overcompensate with masculine symbols to feel in control, Miki's meticulous timekeeping is a surface reflection of a much deeper anxiety. Indeed, time seems to follow him wherever he goes, from the clock chiming the end of his tutoring sessions with Utena and Anthy to a metronome in the piano room window. Even with so many academic, athletic, and artistic successes and distractions, the passage of time remains the greatest thing on his mind.
So now that we know what the passage of time means for Miki, what does it mean when he chooses to stop time? Curiously, he seems to snap that stopwatch a lot when Anthy is around (even if it's just while grading her test paper!) It's as if her presence places him right back in that sunlit garden, like nothing ever changed, leading him to examine these feelings of time "stopping" closely and take notes on how to capture that feeling. Every snap of the stopwatch is like a little "aha!" for Miki, coaxing the audience to question what he considers meaningful in any given scene, even when he's not the focus of that episode.
While the other students tease Miki for having a crush on Anthy, the truth runs a lot deeper than simple puppy love. Being with Anthy makes Miki feel like he never got the measles right before a big competition, forcing his sister to perform without him. Like she never gave up piano because of it. Like she wouldn't be gone from his life now, if only. So even though Miki considers the duels barbaric at first, even arguing for their dissolution the more he gets to know Anthy, he can't help but notice that his studies, fencing, and piano performance improve whenever she's around. He's closer to the perfection he desires when those simple days of his past seem closer to his present reality. He can't risk Anthy giving up piano now! She should be free to do whatever she wants, and Miki is sure that means playing beautiful music and tending to her own sunlit garden, even if he has to win her hand as the Rose Bride to make that happen.
Then again, Miki's sister is still exercising her freedom to do what she wants, throwing a big monkey wrench into everything we thought we knew about Miki's noble intentions. Surprise! Miki's sister isn't actually "gone" as in dead, but there's a good reason the show wants you to think that until the very last quarter of this two-parter. Miki's other half, his perfect and pure twin sister, has become a slacker and a sex-haver, carefree in all the wrong ways. He's long given up on her ever playing piano again, now that he can no longer understand the person she's become, which makes his decision to turn Anthy into a symbol for his sister's lost purity all the more alarming.
From Miki's perspective (and ours for an episode and change), he's just trying to regain his childhood joie de vivre by winning Anthy only to set her free. It's a pure and noble goal, not unlike Utena's, right? But everything changes when we find out his twin sister is happier without playing piano, yet Miki has rejected her and blamed himself for her "loss" because of this. For this very reason, Juri warns Miki that fighting to protect his "pure" ideals will destroy his real purity, which lies in his imperfect yet earnest childishness. It's one thing to be deluded about the world because of your own childish fears of your sister growing up without you, but that goes from charmingly harmless to villainous when you dress those childish fears up in an adult sense of justice. On the opposite end of things, Touga once again makes a surprise appearance as the puppetmaster toying with others' emotions when he lords his sexual dominance of Miki's sister over the guy, appearing in Miki's imagination as everything he himself is not: perfect, mature, able to bend Kozue to his will. (Also extremely virile as he lounges around on a bed tauntingly, but Miki's fears about his perceived lack of masculinity are a whole 'nother can of worms that's explored in more depth by Saionji's episodes, so we'll cross that bridge later.)
Miki isn't ready to deal with his perfectionist complex as an adult, so he starts childishly looking for replacements for the factors that made him totally unaware of this complex in childhood. He's looking to one woman after another to make him feel as secure as he did when he was a child by becoming his "shining thing," but since women are complex human beings with their own problems to deal with, neither Anthy nor Kozue can possibly be his mother, sister, girlfriend, and goddess all in one like that. The Sunlit Garden was always an illusion, but Miki didn't know that back then because children can only process a simple version of the world with their undeveloped minds. In truth, while Miki's childhood was mostly blissful and idyllic, his sister Kozue had no love for playing piano, was never good at playing piano, and didn't even have the same hairstyle as Anthy, despite Miki's rose-colored memories turning them into the exact same girl in silhouette. In a memory of childhood where everything revolved around Miki's happiness, he thinks his sister abandoned piano because she was traumatized at the thought of playing without him, but her need for him at the piano bench was purely practical; she couldn't play at all without his amazing skills to drown her fumbling out.
In Miki's awakening as a duelist, we see the birth of the basic ideals of modern chivalry: boys fighting to protect their own insecurities from the world by writing "logical" rules about a man or woman's role that allow them to pour all those fears into woman-shaped vessels. The perfect performance of the piano piece Miki wrote was never played by his sister; it was played by him, but much like playing pretend with action figures loses its majesty as you leave childhood behind, Miki can't understand why his truly perfect rendition of that piece sounds wrong to his ears when he plays it now. Instead, he starts hearing his missing melody from beguiling new women to replace the ones who've betrayed his childhood memories, like Kozue did. That's hardly fair to the women, but that's why "chivalry" sounds like such an unreachable, starry-eyed ideal to so many men but a laughable dirty word to so many women who've been harmed by the self-righteous "good intentions" of chivalrous men. It's a philosophy built around objectifying and categorizing women to justify whatever will make the man feel like he's in control of his own life.
Now this is certainly not because men are evil or anything cartoonish like that; it's easy to sympathize with Miki even if you strongly disagree with him. Even setting the dreaded patriarchal reasons aside, there are more "innocent" reasons for this pattern developing in young boys. Because girls start going through puberty about two years before boys, seeming to tower over them in emotional and physical maturity for a few formative school grades, many guys go through this process of pedestalizing (Anthy), demonizing (Kozue), and universally objectifying women to cope with a scary emotional transition they not only don't understand, they're also way behind all the scary girls on. Their rapidly broadening understanding of the world can't keep up with the emotional pain of its idyllic magic disappearing just a little more every day, but since girls are ahead of them in this process, there must be some secret to dealing with these feelings that only girls understand, which makes girls all the easier to idolize when they're mysterious enough or demonize them when they aren't. Little does Miki know that his prodigious intelligence is working against him in his desire to take back his Sunlit Garden! The more he studies the world around him, the more his delusions about the past will fail to hold up.
In the end, this vast difference between his ideals and reality costs Miki the duel, when Anthy cheers "Get him, Utena!" just when he's most confident that Anthy secretly wants him to win. Despite his defeat, Miki still hasn't gotten a clue by the end of episode 5, so we'll be revisiting his chivalrous ideals along with his sister's own issues much later. In any case, whatever childlike purity Miki was holding on to before, he's lost it for good now, as we see the Sunlit Garden of his memory shatter with the piercing of his rose.
- Chu Chu Corner: Chu Chu and Anthy mostly work in tandem this week, cluing us into some more suspicious intentions behind Anthy's placid smile. Chu Chu seems to enjoy antagonizing Nanami after her wacky schemes fail, right next to a scene where Anthy giggles at a flipbook of an elephant accidentally bonking itself on the head. When Anthy wanders over to the piano, Chu Chu quickly digs up the Sunlit Garden piece specifically, which of course brings Miki to the tipping point of making Anthy his new "shining thing." Chu Chu also interrupts Miki's moment with Anthy in their new sunlit garden by getting Utena to chase him in on a skateboard. Just like Anthy, Chu Chu's adorable facade hides a series of decisions that just-so-happened to lead to Miki's awakening as a duelist.
- Shadow Girl Corner: Both Shadow Girl plays are pretty easy to decipher this week. (I know I keep saying this, but trust me, it won't always be the case.) The first one depicts an idyllic relationship that goes wrong when the girl displays the smallest imperfections, which at first seems like a commentary on Miki's own self-punishing perfectionism, but takes on new meaning when we realize that he's rejected his sister for "new" imperfections she always had at the end of the two-parter. The second play acts as a warning for Miki going forward, through the tale of a pirate whose endless treasure hunts can never seem to give him the treasure he's really after, until his rowboat goes under after one expedition too many...
- Absolute Destiny Apocalypse Corner: Following up on all that ammonite imagery from the previous duel song, this song revolves around the "spira mirabilis", which is both a really fun word to say and an illustration of recursive or self-similar patterns in nature that scientists and mathematicians obsess over. Basically, the spiral is a miracle shape and metaphor for all life that the song marvels over, as the nature of death and rebirth it symbolizes is echoed in theater, geometry, but most importantly, self-examination. (Even if this sounds kinda wacky to you, it's not really an original poetic metaphor in literary history. Heck, even in anime, it was used as the basis for Gurren Lagann!) It definitely reads like the kind of poem an egghead like Miki would write, but of course the irony of the song's "miracle" is that it's so recurringly common. Miki's personal awakening is identical to many other boys just like him, all chasing their "shining thing" driven by many of the same feelings and desires that they see as unique to themselves. "The origin of all life" indeed.
- Wakaba jokes that "a real woman can force her logic onto any man," which is on its surface a hokey old saying sort of like "the man is the head of the household, but the woman is the neck, and she can turn him any way she wants to." However, there may be some truth to it when it comes to how the very "logical" Miki is so easily deceived by Anthy. Assuming it's not all innocent coincidence, why would she go out of her way to entice him into the duels when he had no interest in them before?
- With so much else going on, a couple clever visual metaphors slip through the cracks in Miki's arc. First of all, there's an apple on the chair in the student council meeting where Miki argues that they shouldn't try to "break the world's shell" if it means shattering other people's dreams. Touga hints that Miki's motives for breaking up the student council lie in hypocrisy, which causes the apple to split into cute little bunny shapes. Slicing an apple into cute little bunnies like this is a common cliche in Japan for treating a sick child, both by peeling an apple for them and making the result a cheery sight. By "shattering the apple's shell," we can see the heart of Touga's argument; some childish delusions were meant to be shattered, and cutting to the truth reveals that Miki's desire to free Anthy (the apple) is really his attempt to make up for a "mistake" from his childhood that still haunts him (getting the measles and ruining his sister's piano career).
- Then again, even Miki's rose-colored memories betray some of the truth behind his sister's feelings. When they played piano together, there were various shots of birds in cages, but after Miki gets the measles, birds are seen flying free of the mansion. Divorced from the truth, we could just see those birds as endearing childhood pets and the dramatic flight over Miki's bed as a harbinger of doom. That's probably how he sees it. But given the freedom his sister enjoys without having to try and be like him, it's easy to see the meaning behind those birds that Miki is missing. On that note, Anthy's own sunlit garden just so happens to resemble a birdcage...
- Since Nanami made her debut as a largely threatening presence, these episodes go out of their way to reinforce her appeal as comic relief for future episodes, which also goes a long way in making the most antagonistic member of Utena's cast more likable. The ridiculous animal gags that Nanami falls into in episode four will follow the poor girl for the rest of the show to come, so if you're a fan of dumb animal jokes, you're in for a treat whenever Nanami starts scheming!
Well, that was a pretty exhaustive writeup for just two episodes about a very normal boy! Despite its excellent pacing, payoffs, and clever metaphors, that really is the biggest thing holding Miki's arc back compared to some of his comrades. His story is important for breaking down the "everyboy" struggles for self-identity that many teens experience (and how they can negatively affect both women and the everyboys themselves), but it's also less captivating for being so "normal." Next week, we get a break from the duels once again for the first true "Nanami episode" of the series! I'll definitely be down for something simpler to write about.
Jacob thinks Miki is timing how often that damn stopwatch question will be asked before the apocalypse comes. You can follow Jake here on Twitter.
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