Utena Watch Party: Episodes 11-12

In which… ah, the hell with the classy headings. Kick his ass, Utena!

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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 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

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Okay, but seriously, 13-Year-Old Me: Why did you like Touga? Like, I REALLY liked him the first time I watched this series, and now I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Maybe I should blame it on his voice actors (Takehito Koyasu and Crispin Freeman). I had crushes on both their voices (yes, dammit, you can have crushes on voices) as a young ‘un, so it’s possible those feelings of affection just carried over. Or perhaps it’s as Vrai states in their own analysis, that:

It’s the natural impulse to look at a character’s role in the story, compare it unconsciously to other stories that have had the same sort of role, and forgive them in the name of how things will end. In other words, ‘it’s alright that he’s a jerk now, because eventually he’ll totally realize he was wrong all along and fall for the heroine.’ (Gracefully Cruel – The One Who Picks the Flower)

So maybe I had just fallen into the trap of the fairy tale/romance story conventions and was so busy waiting for Touga to “see the light” and become a Proper Prince that I brushed aside his current callous, manipulative behavior. Granted, I still find him fascinating as a character, because I appreciate crafty antagonists and trope deconstruction, and also because his motivations are still so opaque and his past so closely linked to Utena’s that I’m curious to see more about it, but… likable? Nope. Nuh-uh. No, sir.

I kinda get the feeling the other characters in the series are starting to feel the same way. Miki and Jury are clearly unsettled by Touga’s machinations—for all their flaws, these two do have a sense of propriety and an honor code of sorts. Like Touga, they’re in contact with “End of the World” and have a better understanding of the “game” than the other duelists, but unlike Touga, they’ve never been willing to use that knowledge against others. Seeing how he treats Nanami, Utena, and Anthy, Miki very nearly has a breakdown during a StuCo meeting, and Jury even helps Utena, supplying the sword that ends Touga’s short reign.

My favorite image during these final two episodes is the balloon parade floating past the StuCo meeting when Touga first reveals a few of his plots to his two closest allies. The StuCo imagery up to this point has been primarily of collusion, unity, and basic trust: An apple split and shared, cards laid out on a table, even Miki posing so Touga can throw knives at his outline. Here, though, the imagery is scattered, individual balloons floating away in opposite directions, hinting at the rifts that are forming between the three StuCo members.

There’s a second idea here of “Icarus flying too close to the sun,” I think, an image that is punctuated by the sound of a popping balloon that ends the scene. In Episode 11 it seems that the one flying too high, destined to take a fall, is Utena; by the end of Episode 12, it seems more likely that it was the arrogant, cynical Touga, or perhaps even the student council itself.

Utena’s Castle in the Sky

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The big question throughout these two episodes has to do with both Anthy and Utena’s motivations and their understanding of (and relationship to) one another. Is Anthy truly just a reflection of her “fiancee’s” desires and wishes—and if not, then what version of her is the “real” Anthy and what version(s) are protective masks? As for Utena, I think the questions here are twofold, and they’re the two questions posed before all of the duelists: (1) What do you believe is in the castle, and (2) who is Anthy to you?

I’ll come back to Anthy in the next section, but for now let’s focus on our protagonist. First, the castle. I think the big question for Utena throughout this season (and perhaps throughout the entire series) is what does she really want: To meet her prince, or to be a prince? Or, as Ikuhara puts it in his Episode 11 commentary: “Why did she want to become a prince? Who was it who wanted to become a princess?” When Utena harnesses the “power of Dios,” it’s an image of a prince who imbues her with the power of a prince, suggesting that she still believes her strength and nobility comes from a force outside herself, a “manifestation of her power channeled through the ideal of the prince” (Vrai, Episode 11). And, when she thinks Touga might be that prince, she starts to wonder if her journey is over, if she’s found the goal she sought. So she hesitates, and loses.

The thing is, while Utena does “take back” her role as prince by the end of these episodes, there’s still the question of whether this is because she recognizes that Touga is not the prince she’s searching for, or if it’s because she’s come to understand her own goals and values. I think it’s a little of both but moving toward the latter, particularly given that she fights Touga in the girls’ uniform, suggesting that she is moving away from her rigid previous notions of what makes a “prince” and what makes a “princess.” Even without her princely attire, Utena is still strong enough to not only challenge Touga, but also to beat him (with a little help from Anthy, that is).

From Ikuhara again, this time regarding Episode 12:

A “prince” is “someone who can exercise power.”
What is that power for?
Who is it for?
I stopped seeking to be sought after. That wasn’t being true to myself.
I want to become “someone who can exercise power.” I want to become a prince.
–For friendship, perhaps.

Now, as for Utena’s relationship to Anthy. We’ve talked at length during the other duelist’s episodes about how they each see the Rose Bride and how easily they all (even Miki) fall into the trap of using her as a reflection, a stand-in, or a “key” for something they want rather than seeing her as a person. While Utena certainly treats Anthy as more than just a walking doll, she’s also guilty of this as well, as “defending” Anthy allows her to become the prince who rescues princesses. Of course, she’s only rescuing Anthy if Anthy truly wants to live as an “ordinary girl,” which may be why it’s so important (for Utena) that Anthy admit this herself. As Vrai notes when Utena tells Touga that Anthy hates being the Rose Bride:

Anthy’s features are conflicted, and it looks as though she might even speak. But Utena is impatient, and rather than helping Anthy find her voice she shouts opinions over her, asking for nothing more than a ‘yes.’ While to Utena’s mind it’s freeing Anthy from her prison, it’s truly just conforming her to a different set of standards without Anthy herself having any say in the matter.

And that is a child’s idea of saving someone – that if they would just do what you say, then they would be much happier. We see Anthy realize it as well – the struggling answer she might have made is put away in favor of a bland face and the answer her fiancée wants to hear… Utena is like any of the other duelists at this point. She wants to ‘save’ Anthy because she enjoys the feeling of having someone who needs her, because it pushes her closer to what she believes a prince should be. (Gracefully Cruel – The One Who Picks the Flower)

As much as I love Utena (and how can you not?), she’s not a perfect protagonist by any means, and she’s as guilty as the other duelists of shoving Anthy (and herself, to be fair) into boxes that fit her idea of what the world “should” be like. By the end of Episode 12 I’m not sure we’ve come to any real conclusions about this belief system, and about whether Utena might be changing her mind or not. True, she challenges Touga so that she can “take back” herself, not the Rose Bride, and this is great, because it suggests she’s moving away from this idea that her worth lies in being “princely”—that is, in living and fighting for others.

But how does Utena feel about Anthy when this is all over? She’s seen Anthy parrot first her words and then Touga’s, suggesting that she really does just feel however her fiancee tells her to feel. The fact that Utena fights for herself and not for Anthy even implies that Utena may believe Anthy is perfectly fine following Touga around. I’m not sure we’re supposed to be clear on this just yet (there are another two cours left to explore this central relationship, after all).

What is important, though, is that Utena may have at least realized that she was foisting her own wishes onto Anthy—trying to make her into someone in need of rescue and protection. Into a “princess.” And hopefully recognizing that will encourage Utena to change the way she both views the world and interacts with Anthy, shifting away from ideas of princes and princesses and moving more towards equality and mutual understanding, to asking Anthy what she wants, rather than simply telling her.

The Rose Bride’s Reflection

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Sometimes I get stuck on bits of imagery. One of those (as you may have noticed from my Utena/Jury discussion) are the reflections and mirrors prevalent throughout this show. We see them often in the dueling arena, such as when Anthy is reflected in the sword pulled from her chest (at an angle that is not, by the way, physically possible for it to actually be her reflection), but also in water, windows, mirrors, and so on. In these two episodes, I think we see reflections used both literally (a person’s actual reflection) and structurally (“mirror” scenes) to give us a hint of how Anthy might actually be feeling, and to suggest that she might not be the hollow echo Touga believes (and, admittedly, I sort of believed my first time watching, too).

In Episode 11, when Utena and Anthy are hanging out in their dorm talking about their picnic lunch, Anthy glances down at her teacup. She stares at a reflection of herself in the tea and confesses to Utena that she wishes she had more friends. Now this is right after Utena sort of pushes the idea of “more friends” onto Anthy, and given the way the episode ends (with Anthy proclaiming that she’s happy being the Rose Bride and doesn’t need friends), it’s tough to say for certain if this is an echo or a truth.

But in Episode 12 we see a similar scene: Anthy and Touga having tea together. The scene is a mirror of the one from the previous episode: In that one, Utena is facing and engaging Anthy in conversation, while here Touga is turned at an angle, his attention consumed by a phone call. Again the “engaged” talks to Anthy and again Anthy agrees with what they say—but here, here, when she glances into her teacup, there’s no reflection of herself gazing back. It’s an empty mirror, void of Anthy herself.

And okay, yes, it’s pretty obvious that Anthy isn’t happy with Touga during these episodes. But what these mirror scenes do tell us that I think is so important isn’t how Anthy feels with Touga, but how she feels with Utena: That she may actually be allowing herself to slip out from behind her mask at times, and act not as an empty, reflective surface, but as a girl longing for personal connections.

“My sort of normal”

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We’ve reached the end of the Student Council Saga and my mind is officially a noodly mass of metaphor and character analysis, so rather than try to end on anything exceptionally profound, let’s just end with personal reactions. More to the point, let’s end with Wakaba, a.k.a. The Best Character In These Two Episodes. From Vrai, who nails it:

Wakaba’s actions in this episode are the perfect model of how Utena should’ve reached out to Anthy, presented without commentary or even knowledge on Wakaba’s part. Wakaba doesn’t tell Utena how to feel; instead, she begs her friend to open up to her about what’s wrong, to discuss it with someone for emotional support or some kind of input. She won’t let it go, no matter how Utena seems to want to push it under the rug, because she’s so distraught over how withdrawn and miserable her friend is. She won’t let her disappear or hide.

And she doesn’t tell Utena what to do – she reassures her that she’s loved, that she’s supported, and tells her to take ‘it’ back. Not ‘go back to the way you were,’ but ‘find the thing that makes you happy again, because that’s critical to who you are.’ Wakaba’s unnerved, no question, and she fumbles through all this in a typically adolescent way by fixating on the uniform (a physical mark of all the difficult, intangible emotional things that she can’t quite put into words), but her concern is honestly for Utena’s wellbeing over her own (even when it gets her slapped, even when saying those things risks Utena not wanting to see her anymore). That’s friendship. (For Friendship, Perhaps)

My favorite conversation in these episodes has to be the one between Utena and Wakaba under the rose wall, for all of the reasons Vrai notes, but also because of Wakaba’s insistence that “normal” is a relative term. Utena has been throwing around that word “normal” (Japanese: futsuu) since the first episode (remember how she insisted that she was a Totally Normal Girl?), without ever trying to define it. You can’t, really, something that a lot of kids struggle with during middle and high school (I know I did), trying to “be true to ourselves” without alienating ourselves from those around us.

If we’re lucky like Utena, we’ll find someone who loves us for who we are, someone who knows that a mask of “normalcy” would be far stranger than whatever “weirdness” we might display when we’re being open and honest. Wakaba is that kind of friend, a girl who knows what Utena’s “normal” looks like and loves her for it, and is there to help her find that normalcy—perhaps we should drop that stupid word and instead call it “happiness”—when it seems she’s lost it. There’s a lot of darkness in Utena, more so as the series progresses, so these simple yet profound moments of genuine love and friendship are vitally important, both for the characters and for us at home.

The Party Continues

Thus Endeth The Marathon! Now that I’m all caught up with Vrai, I’ll be posting single-episode commentary the Sunday after they post their Friday analyses. Vrai takes a week off at the end of each Nozomi disc (about every four episodes), so I’ll be following suit. That means no post this Sunday, but we’ll both be back the week after with Episode 13: “Tracing a Path.” It’s a recap episode, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty to discuss.

In the meantime, you’ve still got a week to join the Watch Party and get all caught up in time for the upcoming Black Rose Saga. I encourage everyone to join in with whatever stray thoughts and personal reactions you might have. Utena is a huge story with a lot of worthwhile talking points, and any additional opinions are heartily encouraged.

Until then, go forth, smash some shells, and steer clear of any runaway kangaroo boxers. See you next week!

Next -> Episode 13

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Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.

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