Revolutionary Girl Utena
by Jacob Chapman,
Q: How do you decide on the songs for each duel?
A: We match them with the character's personality. - (Ikuhara)
Q: So does that mean that in the second episode, Saionji who holds “paleozoic within his body” is an ammonite?
A: He is an ammonite. - (Ikuhara)
A: It means that he's bound by old-fashioned ideas. - (Enokido)
— Kunihiko Ikuhara and Yoji Enokido, 1997 Animage interview
It's probably not surprising that I won't spend much of this review talking about episode 8. As silly episodes of Utena go, it's hard to get much sillier than the curry episode, but sillier doesn't always mean better when it comes to comedy. The Body-Swapping Curry Adventure was not only delayed due to production problems, it was basically completed with bare-bones resources by the skin of its teeth for the same reasons, so it's fair to call it a somewhat compromised comedic vision. Unlike the more rapid-fire episode 6, there are fewer gags stretched out over a longer period of time. Even when the gags are good (Saionji's diary makes its intended first appearance, giving new meaning to the scene where Utena expresses disdain for it in episode 6), they don't quite add up to much you can't find in other classic shojo series, which revel in plots about mistaken identity and wild goose chases.
It's a fun little comedy episode with some nuggets of foreshadowing I'll address at the end of this review, but it would have been more welcome earlier in the show's run, before the emotional weight of Juri's episode—and this next Saionji episode—could sandwich it into relative disposability. Nanami does look great with a tan, though! I wouldn't recommend skipping the curry episode, since it's a totally pleasant diversion, but I would say it's among the least of what Utena has to offer.
But since we're on the subject, it's a good time to think back to that ole switcheroo. Episode 6 ended with Utena feeling a little "something there that wasn't there before" toward Touga, after a series of successful schemes he'd cooked up to mess with her heartstrings. If episode 3 was strike one for Utena's refusal to acknowledge her crush, and episode 6 was strike two, episode 9 is strike three, Touga's masterstroke in getting Utena to fall for him. Now all that's left is for him to take her down in a duel. But how did we get there so quickly? The answers lie in the past for both of them, in a plot-driven episode that's once again part of Saionji's arc. If it seems a little unfair to you that the other duelists get their own focus episodes while Saionji always has to share his arc with main story developments, well, there is a reason for it!
While I joked about Miki's arc of idolizing both his childhood and women being common for young men to go through, there are also darker details to his story that will take it in stranger directions down the line. This is not true of Saionji's struggle, which is such an ordinary conflict affecting the overwhelming majority of men that it can be called downright prehistoric. That doesn't mean his arc isn't important or complicated (he's my second favorite duelist after Juri), but it is primal in nature, basically a crash course in a phenomenon so common that academia has given it a nickname: toxic masculinity. So perhaps the reason behind folding Saionji's character development into main story episodes was that his problems were just so typical, they didn't need much more space to be explained.
You can read about toxic masculinity as a concept in a million other places with more nuanced and thorough breakdowns, so I'll only be discussing the idea in terms of how it affects Saionji specifically. All his life, Saionji's been green with envy over Touga, but as the cheering girls personified as his collection of bamboo swords make clear, his jealousy extends far beyond just who's better at kendo. With each squeal and gasp, Saionji is counting the girls cheering his name against the girls cheering Touga's, thinking of them as tallies in a contest between men rather than people, but even when the score is basically even, he feels like he's the one coming up short against Touga. Ever since childhood, if Touga and Saionji were going somewhere together, Touga would pedal the bike in front while Saionji would carry their things in the back. Whenever Saionji tried to succeed by following the rules, Touga excelled by creating his own. Saionji wants more than anything else to become a prince, but Touga seems to have already become one without even trying. Clearly, all he needs to do is surpass Touga, and this inferiority complex would go away, right? But maybe not. After all, Saionji had clearly beaten Touga at the very beginning of the series, and he didn't seem very happy then!
That's because Saionji 's rival isn't Touga, it's his own perception of himself. He's trapped by a belief in the dichotomy of "alpha" and "beta" males, where those who epitomize masculinity (alpha Touga) can control and mock those who struggle to do so (beta Saionji). If you have any doubts at all about the hypermasculine way to live (including using women as tools and trophies, which Saionji struggles with as revealed by the sensitivity he pours into a diary that he longs for Anthy to read and understand), then it has to be your fault, not the world's, because some people (Touga) are clearly very good at living that way and must therefore be happy as "true" men. Saionji is an "old-fashioned ammonite" because he has believed in this ancient yet false dichotomy of manliness from a young age, as we can see when he perceives the two shadowy adults who approach them to ask about Utena as a tall leader and a short follower, an alpha and a beta male, the future he is doomed to under Touga's wing. Even when Touga tells him otherwise, Saionji is convinced that he did something to rescue Utena that night after Saionji fled without even touching her coffin. He has to believe it because he has to believe that Touga represents a true "alpha male," an ideal he can become only if he works harder to become more manly.
Even without Touga in the picture, Saionji won't be able to escape his belief that he's too "un-princely" as long as there's someone out there who seems stronger than him, but expressing girly emotions like sadness and doubt over it would make him feel even weaker, so he tries to channel all his frustrations into anger, violence, and dominance instead, with poor Anthy as the recipient. It had to be her fault that he still didn't have what he wanted! After all, he was doing everything else right as a man, denying his true sensitive self and the complicated source of these feelings he held toward Touga. Even though he wants Anthy to love him (and maybe even a girl as cool as Utena to like him), Saionji is far more cruel and despicable to them than self-assured duelists like Juri who couldn't care less about the girls' opinions, or Touga who only cares about their feelings if it gets him what he wants. Saionji cares more than anyone else, which could be a very positive thing, but instead of embracing his clear femininity relative to other men, Saionji detests and flees from it. Of the whole cast, his true self is the furthest from matching his public self-expression, so he's the most miserable at heart. Even if it's a tale as old as the Cambrian explosion, for as long as men have compared themselves to other men, there's still sympathy to be had for Saionji's impotent rage. (Just maybe not very much.)
Let's face it, forcibly opening the dueling arena was a massive dick move on his part, with severe consequences that have permanently blown open the Pandora's Box hiding Revolutionary Girl Utena's biggest secrets. The scene of the floating castle "coming down" in a way more literal sense than Saionji thought is haunting and powerful, even if we're not really sure what it means just yet. The image that stands out most amongst all of this is Anthy sleeping in a rose coffin, mirroring the darkest day of Utena's childhood when she climbed into a coffin of her own to try and join her parents in death. There have been hints before this that Anthy and Utena share a bond with the prince "Dios" that the other duelists do not, but this is the clearest sign yet that they may be more alike than their opposite personalities suggest. While there's no telling what the coffin signifies for Anthy just yet, it's the perfect opportunity to look back on what the coffin means to Utena, so we can bring Touga back into the story.
The fairytale voiceover telling us that Utena was "very sad" over her parents' death doesn't come close to describing the reality of her darkest day. Even if it's only in silhouette, this is the first time we've ever seen Utena in despair, coming to terms with great loss at such a young age. Curiously, this despair is what draws Touga to her side, as if he understands her sorrow and desire to give up on the world. At first, it seems like he really might be the prince from her story, even though his appearance is so impossibly different. Seeing her so vulnerable, we doubt Utena's memories for a few fleeting moments, expecting Touga to be the one to pull out the rose ring—but when Utena mentions her belief in a perfect world that she has lost, Touga backs off. While he seems to have sympathy for her sadness, he has no sympathy for her lost sense of hope. He doesn't believe that he can show her "something eternal" to save her, and he doesn't seem remotely interested in the possibility. It's our first of very few glimpses into this false prince's true motivations.
Saionji refuses to believe that Touga didn't go back and rescue Utena, because he believes Touga is such a perfect man that he must be hiding the answers to this princely confidence from his inferior friend. Of course, that just reveals the falseness of the alpha/beta dichotomy. Touga soon reveals that he doesn't believe in anything, not just that he isn't a prince, but that princes themselves do not exist. If he really believed in the duel system, he never would have had the gall to impersonate End of the World by sending Saionji a fake invitation letter. Touga's supposedly noble confidence comes from a hardened heart in the face of a cruel world, and while we don't know what could have made him so cold yet, it's safe to say that he's held this "belief in nothing" from a young age, since he abandoned Utena when she mentioned such foolish faith as a child. This makes Touga the most dangerous duelist of them all. Unlike the others, he has no reason at all to possess the Rose Bride (or any of the other dozen women we see wrapped around him in bed after Saionji's expulsion). But he wants both her and Utena added to his sword collection all the same, so he'll act the role of a prince if that's what it takes, selflessly "saving" both girls from Saionji in a trap he set for all three of them. Creepy! If Touga doesn't believe in "something eternal," what is he really after?
- Chu Chu Corner: Since Anthy's interactions with Chu Chu often get brought up in this section, you might be wondering why this isn't called "Himemiya Corner" instead. While Chu Chu's behavior often reflects Anthy's feelings, his true nature is wrapped in a few other twists, which can lead him to reflect the feelings of other characters depending on the situation. In the case of episode 9, his losing fight with the frog who thoughtlessly chomped up his little pillbug friend is not a reflection of Anthy's feelings, but Saionji's, who sees himself as working hard for little victories that Touga seems to snap up effortlessly and take for granted. So why would Chu Chu reflect Saionji's feelings just this one time if he's supposed to be Anthy's pet? The answer will only become more clear as we learn more about her past, so keep an eye on Chu Chu Corner as the lid to Anthy's coffin of secrets gradually peels back in future episodes.
- Shadow Girl Corner 1: Some shadow plays are simpler than others, but the one in episode 8 literally explains itself. "Divine Retribution" comes into play when Nanami is repaid for her futile bullying effort with an equally futile quest to undo the damage. By the same token, Anthy was painlessly "suffering" through the unusual consequences of a well-intentioned dish she made herself. (It is odd that she didn't seem to mind living as Utena instead. Is she really that passive, or could there be another reason?) And of course, Saionji also faces divine retribution for his possessive cruelty by becoming the curry's last victim. It's silly, but delightfully straightforward. At the same time, since the episode switcheroo was on my mind, I can't help but notice that episode 6's shadow play used curry as its central metaphor. I do wonder if the shadow girl plays were rewritten as part of the episode reshuffling, or if it was just a funny coincidence!
- Shadow Girl Corner 2: I said in the first episode review that the shadow girls don't represent the "voice of the author" in this story, but that begs the question of whose voice they are supposed to reflect instead, and we get our first big hint in episode 9! Director Kunihiko Ikuhara has related his wacky stories about meeting UFOs to Revolutionary Girl Utena many times, so it only makes sense that some UFOs would appear in the show as well! In this case, the shadow girls talk about desperately wanting to believe in aliens because they know that things like Santa Claus and true friendship aren't real. Obviously, you might argue that Santa Claus is fake while true friendship is real, but the point of this play is that these beliefs are relative. To Touga, the idea of friendship is just as fictional as a belief in princes, while both of those things are very real to people like Utena and Saionji, even though Utena briefly lost her belief in those things when she crawled into the coffin. (I wonder what Anthy believes in, sleeping in her own coffin?) In any case, this is far from the last time we'll see those UFOs, so maybe they mean something more to the world of Utena that will lead us to the shadow girls' true identities!
- There are a couple more details from episode 8 worth mentioning. Anthy's decision to immediately throw Saionji's diary away does seem almost spiteful in the moment, as if she's passive-aggressively overplaying her eagerness to follow Utena's wishes by jumping to conclusions that Utena's frustration implies even if it's not what she says she wants. It's another suspicious sign that she may know Utena better than she knows herself. Also, the re-ordering of episodes 6 and 8 did give the series an opportunity for a new gag in a future episode that wouldn't have been possible with the old order. Remember those three elephants out to ruin Nanami's pursuit of the miracle spice? While it's true that animals just seem to hate Nanami in general, it's worth remembering those meddlesome elephants for an incredibly silly future reveal.
- It's blink-and-you-miss-it, but Touga isn't talking to a teacher or principal on the phone at the end of episode 9; he's talking to End of the World itself! Apparently, this mystical force doesn't mind Touga borrowing its identity and breaking the rules of the duel system for selfish reasons, which means it probably isn't the prince from Utena's childhood, even though both entities are able to give people rose seal rings. What does End of the World really want, if it doesn't care whether or not people win the Rose Bride in a fair fight?
Questions upon questions flood Utena's universe after this game-changing ninth episode, but it's an excellent watch just for the peek we get into Utena's insecurities and just how dangerous Touga can be now that he knows her secrets. Above all else, that image of the castle crumbling over Anthy sealed in a black coffin stands out. Is the castle that holds the secret of eternity dangerous after all? When the illusion faded, everything went back to normal, but is the peaceful dueling arena reality, or is the apocalyptic scene of death and destruction closer to the truth these duelists are fighting for? Next week, Nanami's got a bone to pick with Utena for getting her brother injured, and unlike previous Nanami episodes, this time she really means business.
Episode 8 Rating: B-
Episode 9 Rating: A
Revolutionary Girl Utena is currently streaming on Nozomi Entertainment's official Youtube channel.
Perhaps having known too many Saionjis, Jacob thinks laying face down in a fountain with his butt in the air is the best look for the guy. 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