Utena Watch Party: Episodes 4-5

In which we are introduced to the lovely piano piece “The Sunlit Garden,” and spend time meeting the first member of the Student Council we don’t want to strangle with their own hair.

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

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

Notes from Next Door

This commentary assumes you’ve at least 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. As a reminder, please be courteous to newcomers in your comments and mark all spoilers as such.

Opening Chatter

Oh, Miki. I always liked this kid. I think it’s hard not to like Miki, even when he makes you facepalm, because we’ve probably all been friends with someone like him and we’ve probably all been someone like him at one time or another. “The Sunlit Garden” is his theme both musically and psychologically, a “song about how I can’t express the eternal beauty I feel inside,” he says.

It’s a song of nostalgia and yearning, of a time he desperately wants but can’t get back, a rose-tinted childhood that (as Kozue informs us) never really existed in the first place. And when he finds a person who seems capable of returning him to those days, of living up to his ideals of perfection, he clings to her with everything he has. Which, you know… always turns out so great. But we’ll talk about that in lots more detail down below.

You know what else these two episodes are? A whole lot of fun. Nanami’s “Operation: Anthy is a Weirdo” is one of my favorite gags of the series, an escalating cycle of failed attempts at being awful, and each failure met by the same nonchalance from Anthy, Utena, and Miki (“I keep telling you…” “I think it’s cute!”).

This is also the first time we see Anthy deflecting attacks against her person, to the point where it almost feels planned, and it creates a power balance between Anthy and Nanami that hadn’t existed before. These scenes abruptly shift Nanami from the serious antagonist of Episode 3 to the comedic one we see in Episode 4. (Side note: Although he very much poses a real threat instead of a comedic one, I also find Sexy!Man Touga to be freaking hilarious, but that could just be me.) Utena has an absurd sense of humor, so I hope you enjoyed the silliness, because it’s only going to get more awesome from here.

The Sunlit Garden – Etude

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Excerpts from Enokido Yoji’s commentary (translated by Sarah Alys Lindholm for Nozomi’s Student Council Saga Special Edition box set):

[…T]he moment comes when, quite by chance, you notice the existence of that “labyrinth.” There comes a time when you realize you’ve lost sigh of the path you must take, and now you’re lost… There comes a time when you feel something the word “nostalgia” alone can’t encompass; something heartrending that you feel throughout your whole body. “Ah, that’s right, I remember this sensation. It’s nice, isn’t it…”

It’s not like you want to board a time machine and go back to your past, but you do long to savor past pleasures one more time, to experience them vicariously… Our philosophy of love, our ideal of the future – I wonder if those things aren’t largely rooted in that “yearning for vicarious experience.” […]

Setting aside the question of whether that’s most properly called a learned motive, a desire for the sense of omnipotence we once had, or something we can write off more simply with the word “sentiment,” the point is that there comes a time when it’s brought home to you that the “yearning for vicarious experience” is something you have within your own heart as well – a force almost like gravity.

“The same tone as my sister’s…” Miki blurts in a whisper. “That sunlit garden… I’ve found it. My ‘shining thing.’” And we instinctively know that it’s dangerous. There’s nothing inherently wrong with sentimentality, of course… However, because humans are fundamentally beings which live in the future, if we are ruled by sentimentality, we lose the momentum to keep flowing forward and become stagnant. That’s why we call this a “labyrinth.”

By the way, labyrinths are symbols of growth and death. After being hurt emotionally, people often set off on journeys into a labyrinth-esque device… and if your wound heals you’ve reached the center. But when man arrives at the center of a labyrinth, he is no longer the man he was before he entered. Growth means the death of the person you were up until that point.

I transcribed all this mostly because I quite like the idea of labyrinths as a metaphor for the cycle of growth, death, and rebirth. The winding halls of Ohtori Academy are a maze in their own right, each piece never quite seeming to connect to the one before it, as if the players have remained in place and the sets have merely moved around them.

I suppose we can see middle/high school as a labyrinth itself, a confusing place of physical and psychological change, of becoming more aware of others and adjusting one’s own ideals and worldview in response to that new awareness. There’s a lot of wandering around, of finding dead ends, but if/when you reach the end of it (and some people never do, sadly), you come out changed, a little less lost than you were before, and hopefully the better for it.

Then there’s also the labyrinth of the mind which Enokido discusses here—of memories, and secrets, and trying to understand oneself. Also, the concept of gardens as labyrinths, particularly the sunlit garden where Miki is lost, but also perhaps the rose garden which Anthy tends and (in the early episodes) where she often seems confined.

Of course, Utena’s many labyrinths are missing one key element: David Bowie. There is a severe lack of David Bowie.

The Faceless Players

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During Miki’s flashback scenes, Vrai notes that:

The ‘faceless shadowed individual’ motif [makes] its first appearance outside of the Shadow Girls – on the one hand it makes for an aesthetic uniqueness, and thematically it creates an uncanniness to the scene (in contrast to a lot of flashbacks, which are by default ‘aww, look how cute!’).

More importantly, it makes the figures in the memory general rather than specific – they’re not two unique people who played the piano together, they’re stand-ins for feelings of disappointment and nostalgia and loss, contained in the unfortunate body of a person (whose personhood has been lost along the way). (The Sunlit Garden – Prelude)

The faceless player also means that Miki can slot anyone into that position, providing they match his (impossible) ideal. I think this analysis is spot-on, although isn’t technically the first time we’ve seen this imagery. In the opening “fairy tale” that began our story (the tale of the sad little girl and the prince who gave her strength), both the girl and her savior are faceless shadow players dressed in the traditional garb of princes and princesses.

While we know this is Utena’s story, it’s also the story of every princess who’s ever been saved by a prince, and the story of the ideals such a tale embodies—ideals of nobility and courage and love, certainly, but also of “feminine” weakness and “masculine” strength, of the idea that some people are always the rescuers and some people are always the rescued, and of the rigid gender roles Utena simultaneously wishes to shake off and embody.

Miki’s story is the first time we’re really made aware of how the shadow figures are being used, and also of the possible danger in turning people into symbols or ideals. Vrai again:

At the end of things, Miki’s duel focuses on a troubling aspect of the word ‘ideal,’ an important one that’s often ignored in favor of focusing on its positive connotations – ideals are lofty things, but they are also rigid. And when one becomes too focused on them they can warp to a mythic status, they can begin to hold both themselves and others to a standard that is impossible. (The Sunlit Garden – Finale)

We can view this as Miki’s fatal flaw—but isn’t there a danger that it could also be Utena’s? Her life has been shaped by a past event that’s been elevated to “mythic status,” the same as Miki and his Sunlit Garden. Something to remember as Utena continues her life as a prince and seeks to find the giver of the rose signet.

Miki and the Unknowable Being

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I want to make sure anyone watching this for the first time can read this commentary from Vrai:

During my Fujiko Mine series I talked about the Charlotte Perkins Gilman novella Herland, a bit of early 20thcentury feminist dialectic that lays out three male ‘types’: the man who views women as lesser beings to be controlled by men, the man who puts women on a pedestal as completely unknowable beings, and the man who views women as equal partners and fellow human beings (guess which one is the ideal).

Miki, I’m sure you can gather, falls squarely into that second category. He’s in awe of Anthy, and he views the abstract of ‘his sister’ as a sort of vessel of good memories and happiness that he’s lost by losing her (even if he hasn’t really ‘lost’ her so much as gone away from her). And it’s difficult, intentionally I think, to find his actions anything other than endearing in [the prelude]. He’s kind and helpful, and positively in awe of Anthy when every other character besides Utena has only shown her contempt.

But when women are placed on a pedestal they’re not allowed the frailties and failings of other human beings – and any woman who falls from that ideal all but ceases to exist, as we’ll come to see. Compounded, as it will be, by the ways in which that awe can be corrupted into condescension and selfishness masquerading as the desire to ‘protect.’ (The Sunlit Garden – Prelude)

While I’m inclined to sympathize with Miki as I do think he’s basically a good kid and will probably get this all straightened out eventually—and because I do think that on at least some level he believed he was helping Anthy—the unfortunate truth is that, like Saionji before him, Miki’s motivations for dueling are ultimately selfish.

For Miki, the castle in the sky represents his “shining thing,” and the Rose Bride (and, in turn, the sword she manifests beneath the castle) are the ways for him to reach it. In the end, he does treat Anthy like a prize or a goal, a stand-in for both his sister and his own lost (nonexistent) paradise, and he’s doomed to fail because of it. The moment Anthy cheers for Utena, Miki’s ideal shatters—I think on some level he realizes he’s no longer the hero but rather the villain, trying to steal the “princess” from her “champion” for his own selfish purposes—and, reeling, he loses.

The good news for Miki is that there are no hard feelings—the duels do, after all, exist on a plane separate from everyday reality, and when Anthy invites him to study with her again, she’s assuring him that the battles fought above won’t affect their relationship below. Which is good for everyone involved, really, as Anthy needs people in her life that aren’t (a) engaged to her and/or (b) constantly slapping her, and Miki needs to hang out with a few girls so he can see them as human instead of otherworldly beings. It bodes well for these kids as they continue to work their way through the labyrinth of adolescence (to say nothing of that whole world revolution stuff).

The Theories Next Door

A semi-recurring segment that lets me ramble about the more abstract or vague elements of Utena (because as you can see, there are so few of them!). Some will contain spoilers, but this one does not, so you newbies can have fun with it, too.

What’s the deal with Miki’s stopwatch?

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No one really knows! In one translated interview, Ikuhara stated: “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.” If you ever read Ikuhara interviews, he does this all the time, either giving intentionally vague answers or deflecting the question entirely.

I tend to change my mind about the purpose of the stop watch every time I watch the show. This time, I decided about halfway through this fourth episode that Miki was timing the moment he discovered a problem or question to the moment when he solved it. He clicks it before he answers a couple of math problems, right before he breaks up the girls who are bullying Anthy, and he often clicks it during Student Council meetings after one of the other members reveals some new piece of information (or when they ask a question and he reveals some new piece of information, such as during the meeting in “The Sunlit Garden – Finale”).

This is my favorite personal interpretation up to this point, as I think it fits Miki’s character and forwards the themes that surround him: He’s a smart kid and a perfectionist, someone who wants his music to sound “just right,” who’s prone to putting people on pedestals and chasing Platonic ideals. It’d be just like him to time himself on how quickly he can “fix” things, shifting trouble to peace and confusion to understanding. Would Miki’s aim, then, be to click the watch at zero—to solve the problem immediately, without any confusion or pain from any involved parties? Another impossible goal, that.

At some point I think the stop watch imagery drops off, but I’ll be damned if I can remember where. I’ll come back to this if something new reveals itself, but for now I like this idea, so I’m inclined to stick with it. Sound off in the comments if you have your own competing theories.

Next -> Episodes 6-8

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Massive thanks to Empty Movement for providing the Interwebs with a huge, wonderful Utena screenshot gallery, and saving me from the annoying process of snipping images from Hulu videos.

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