Utena Watch Party: Episodes 1-3

Let’s get ready to d-d-d-d-duel!

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Click here for an explanation of the watch party, and an invitation to chime in with your own thoughts (Tumblr tag: #Utena Watch Party).

For newcomers still on the fence, Caitlin Donovan wrote a nice, long recommendation post for The Mary Sue about Utena, where she discusses some of the overarching themes and character arcs. If you’d rather go into a show completely blind, then obviously don’t read it, but if you’re curious for a little more insight into what Utena is all about, it’s a great read.

For Returning Viewers, Vrai’s episode-by-episode analyses are here for your reading pleasure:

And my far less organized newbie-friendly commentary is hanging out below the jump.

Notes from Next Door

This commentary assumes you’ve seen the episode(s) under discussion. It occasionally hints at future events or calls attention to recurring themes, but will be free of specific spoilers unless otherwise noted. These early ones are going to be rather long since I’m covering multiple episodes at once, but I should be able to make the later ones a more manageable length.

Please note that I welcome comments in the Disqus thread below, but since I do want to keep this newcomer friendly, if you wish to discuss something that hasn’t happened yet, please mark your post with a “spoilers” flag in nice, bold letters. Let’s not ruin the experience for anyone who’s entering this world for the first time.

Welcome to Ohtori Academy! It’s a prestigious school in the Greco-Roman architectural style that provides classes and dorm rooms for students from elementary through high school. Our student council wishes to “smash the world’s shell” and “revolutionize the world,” there’s a dueling arena out back where the chosen few fight beneath a literal castle in the sky, and the winners get to be “engaged” to the Rose Bride, a girl who can pull a sword out of her chest. Oh, and this one girl, Utena? Yeah, everybody loves her. She wants to be a prince who rescues princesses. What do you think? Good idea? Bad idea?

If you’re confused about what’s going on here, that’s all right, you kinda should be. Utena is a series that teases out new details about its world, characters, and plot from beginning to end, which is what gives it such great rewatch value. It’s a series that rewards patience and viewers who pay attention, so keep your eyes and ears open for hints of future developments.

One of the great things about Utena, though, is that unlike some artistic endeavors where if you don’t “get” it then you can’t really enjoy it, this is a series that can be enjoyed on multiple levels and for multiple reasons. My first time through, way back in middle school, I enjoyed it purely on a “good storytelling” level, appreciating its complex plot, unraveling mysteries, and especially its characters.

It was only after I’d finished it once (and watched it again) that I started paying attention to other elements: Recurring themes, repeated imagery, direction and music and how it all came together to form a bigger picture, and what it all “meant.” Another great thing about Utena? It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I don’t think there’s one “right” way to view it, which is why I encourage people to develop their own theories and write in with thoughts and comments.

Things to watch as you go:

  • Fairy tales, and how Utena uses them, particularly when looking at gender roles.
  • Tropes in shoujo and “magical girl” anime, and how Utena uses them as well (e.g., princely figures, transformation sequences, and so on).
  • Anthy’s an easy character to write off or overlook. Try not to do so. Everyone in this series has hidden layers, extensive histories, and complex character arcs. Yes, even that abusive asshole Saionji. Try not to write him off, either.
  • In their own increasingly abstract ways, both the shadow puppets and the cryptic choral dueling numbers touch on the themes under exploration in each episode. For me, these are the kinds of things that are easier to notice on your second time through than your first, but I know they can seem a little random when you’re starting out, so keep in mind that they do indeed serve a purpose.
  • Oh, and stick through the ending credits to watch the Next Episode Previews. The voice over interactions actually do give you a little more detail about characters and their relationships, so it’s worth the 30-odd seconds to check it out.

For Your Consideration

In which the Josei pulls some spoiler-free snippets from Vrai’s posts for all your newbies out there, piggybacks off of them a bit, and poses some questions you may want to consider going forward.

The Absolute Destiny Apocalypse

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I want to draw newbies to some excerpts from Vrai’s discussion of the recurring duel song, “Absolute Destiny Apocalypse” (Zettai Unmei Mokushiroku), played every time Utena enters the arena:

The beauty of the lyrical vagueness is that it can have a multiplicity of meanings as the show changes subject and theme, but let’s take the baseline for the moment. The song’s lyrics refer to records, or the recording of a life. […] The song goes on to describe paradises of two broad strokes: Shangri-La, a mythic paradise; and Sodom, a symbol of excess and carnal impulse… And, of course, both are lands of parable – while they may once have had a very loose connection to historical reality, they are now illusions representing something more. (The Rose Bride)

The lyrics also mention Shitsurakuen, the Japanese translation for Paradise Lost, John Milton’s tale of how Lucifer tempted Adam and Eve into disobeying God. So in addition to our symbols of paradise and destruction, we have the symbol for temptation, disobedience, and the loss of innocence (so, basically, a paradise that was destroyed). This bodes well for our plucky protagonist!

And this is the music chosen for our “transformation” sequence, for the moment when our girls leave their ordinary public lives and transfer to a private, “magical” one unknown to all but a select few. Compare it to the upbeat transformation music of Sailor Moon or most other magical girl or superhero series, and it certainly seems that Utena views these transformations as much weightier (even tragic?) than that of its predecessors.

Smashing the World’s Shell

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From Ikuhara’s creator commentary (translated by Sarah Alys Lindholm for Nozomi’s Student Council Saga Special Edition box set):

“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxis.” – Hermann Hesse, Demian (translated from the German by Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck)

[…] I experimentally added another passage to Hesse’s: If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without being born. / Smash the world’s shell. For the revolution of the world.

Since Ikuhara cites Hesse’s Demianas such a major influence, it’s worth some discussion. Vrai has written up the following explanation:

[Demian is] essentially a story of self-discovery, awakened in the narrator (who feels as though he exists in a world of illusion) by the titular Max Demian.

That realization comes heavily by way of Gnostic principles which, for the grossly simplified purposes of our discussion, i[s] a faith contending that good and evil are both equally important to the human experience – that God (the Abraxis mentioned above) is a combination of all impulses rather than an ultimate good that seeks to shun or banish the evil inherent in humanity.

Likewise, the world of that God is reached by the pursuit of knowledge and the shattering of the material world, overcoming one’s own limitations and embracing the unlimited potential of the self as a spiritual being (there’s quite a bit in the novel about influencing things to go as you want them through the power of individual will[…]). By contrast, as the speech goes, an unwillingness to throw away one’s assumed knowledge means dying without ever finding any reality of truth. (For Whom the Rose Smiles)

The song that plays when the Student Council recites its “pledge” and holds its meetings is entitled “Legend – The God’s Name is Abraxis” (Densetsu – Kami no Na wa Abraxis), furthering the connection between the Student Council’s goals and the story of Demian. There are spiritual elements all over Utena, most notably in the Power of “Dios” (Spanish for “God”) and in the Student Council’s meetings. In both cases the characters ascend, riding elevators and taking staircases to higher realms, places that are not only metaphorically separate from the rest of the school and its more mundane goals and concerns, but seem to exist in a different physical space entirely.

Adolescents seeking to “smash the world’s shell,” to “revolutionize the world” through “the power of Dios,” rising above their classmates and teachers to battle for a “bride” who can give them… what, exactly? This is the world Utena finds herself suddenly a part of, a world she doesn’t understand but whose power she is instinctively able to wield. It’s a fairy tale, a legend, a spiritual text – and how the characters (particularly Utena and Anthy) react and grow in response to that text will form the heart of this series.

Clothes Make the (Wo)man?

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Another kind of “ascension” that gets a lot of discussion in these early episodes is Utena’s own identity, as she in many ways seems to be trying to rise above traditional gender roles. Except is she, really? I want to quote Vrai again, because all my comments below are really just adding to this:

Utena’s place at the beginning of this narrative is an interesting one. She’s chosen a role that is not the traditionally accepted one, playing a ‘prince’ despite the coded expectations of her femininity, but she’s very much operating within the assumptions and values dictated by that same system even as she takes a unique place within it (in other words, she might be taking on a role typically designated as male, but she still starts with very restricted, traditional views of what male and female ‘should’ be).

…[She] might wear the ideal of prince, but she seems almost dysphoric as far as reconciling her ideal with her day to day goals: she wants to rescue princesses, but she’s also a ‘totally normal girl’ who wants a boyfriend; she enjoys sports, but doesn’t actually want to be part of the formal team because of all that smelly boy sweat; and so on. (The Rose Bride)

Mostly I just want to include a section here about how everyone dresses, especially Utena, because although her teacher accuses her of wearing a “boy’s” uniform, none of the other boys actually wear these clothes. It is distinctly “other,” separating Utena from the pack similar to the way the student council members dress—well, all of the student council members except Anthy, who wears the standard girls’ uniform and thus blends in with the rest of her female classmates (all of whom are ignorant to the bigger “game” being played in their school).

And oh, look, both Utena and Jury (the only female StuCo member) wear pants, which not only slots them into traditionally “masculine” roles of assertion and control, but sets them apart from all of the other girls in the series—which, again, includes Anthy. There’s a sense that both girls (and perhaps all of the StuCo) are trying to break out of those “restricted, traditional views” Vrai mentions—to “smash the world’s shell” of current norms and knowledge—but that they are so immersed in those traditional views that they don’t know how to do it yet.

Because, really, why can’t you fight duels and help “princessess” (and why “princesses,” exactly?) while dressed in traditional feminine clothing? Why is it that Utena feels like the only way to become a heroic figure is to become a “prince”? And what is a heroic figure, anyway? And all of this, I think, ties back in to the very first question the series poses: Is becoming a prince really such a good idea?

Food for thought as we continue through the Student Council Saga.

Next -> Episodes 4-5

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