In which Utena proves that it can pack imagery and meaning into absolutely everything, even a recap episode.
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 analysis is 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 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.
I feel it important to let everyone know that when I first discovered this series, this was the last episode available stateside, as Central Park Media was having licensing issues with the rest. So you can imagine my friend’s and my frustration when we received what was basically a huge tease for the next season and then left with nothing else. (CPM would later license and release the rest of the series in 2002-2003, but in 2001 we didn’t know that and we could not afford to wait—hence, my first trip to eBay, and my first experience with fansubs. Ah, memories.)
This episode functions as both an epilogue to the Student Council Saga and a prologue to the Black Rose Saga, as it shows us Touga post-duel in “blue screen of death” mode (as Vrai wonderfully puts it), introduces a new character apparently able to enter the castle and speak to “Dios” (Utena’s prince?), and throws a slew of images at us that I’m sure will have no bearing on the coming episodes.
What we do get here is all fairly vague but also seems like it might be important, and it’s worth coming back to this episode later as there are lots of nice “aha!” moments stuffed inside of it. For the moment, though, let’s focus on the imagery and patterns in this episode and how it relates to what we’ve seen so far.
A Rondo Revolution
Repetition has been used throughout Utena—from the running gags around Nanami to the Student Council’s mantra to Utena entering the dueling arena—and we see it all over this episode as well, as images keep cropping up with minor variations (usually in regards to color, which we’ll get to in a minute).
The most notable repetitions are of the hourglasses and the colored windows to portray each of the duels—images of time (specifically of time running out) and… well, the windows have a variety of purposes, I suppose, as they serve as both a transparent surface through which we can view the duelists and the stories regarding their reasons for fighting, as well as a reflective surface, where those who peer within can also see themselves. And, of course, all the dueling windows have our new stranger standing in shadowed profile, his outline illuminated in such as a way as to make him a part of the duels, although his specific features and characteristics are left a mystery.
Another repetition: the audio in Touga’s room. “If we don’t smash the world’s shell, we will die without truly being born,” played again and again, until, although the tone doesn’t actually change, it seems to take on a frantic sound, that of obsession or perhaps accusation. As much of a massive a-hole as Touga has been up to this point, I confess to feeling some pity for him in this sequence—whatever his goal, he has failed utterly, despite all his knowledge and schemes. There’s the sense of a boy (and he is still a boy, for all that it’s easy to think of him as a man) broken by his own blind ambition—for, if the ends justify the means and you fail to achieve those ends, then what’s left of you, really?
And finally there’s the repetition on the macro level, as we see the duels laid out as a sequence of similar but varying battles, all a part of what seems to be some larger scheme to “revolutionize the world.” There’s also very much the sense that Utena and her fellow duelists are just one group in a long line of challengers, as if our two mysterious figures (constantly cast in a spotlight but with their features forever in shadow) have been playing this game for much longer than what we’ve seen on the series. It’s the first time we’ve been given any notion of the broader scope of this world, both in terms of time and space, and it’s something to consider as we move into the next arc.
To Each His Shade: The Colors of Utena
Vrai spends much of this week’s post discussing the use of colors in Utena, so I wanted to make some of that available to any first-time viewers and add a few notes about specific places where we see these colors used. As I said above, much of the “repetition with variation” that we see in Utena has to do with recurring images with changing colors, such as the windows and hourglasses seen in this episode, but also in the spinning roses that so frequently frame our characters throughout the series. I’ll be quoting Vrai (all from Episode 13: Tracing a Path) and then adding a bit of my own input.
Green: Envy and loyalty (a great many of the colors have dual meanings or applications throughout the series). Saionji’s color, tied to the young man fixated on his own weak inadequacies and desperate to possess that which others consider important – but also almost blindly devoted to those he’s considered ‘essential’.
Since roses are such a major part of the story as well, I did some brief research on the “meanings” behind the particular colors. It’s a bit all over the map, but there are some consistencies. Green roses are fairly rare and are primarily a symbol of fertility, abundance, or the “rejuvenation of the spirit” (I’m pulling this from multiple sources so no real need to cite here)—in other words, of transformation. A curious choice for Saionji given that he seems to be fighting against change, although I get the “abundance” as he’s certainly one of the more openly passionate and heart-on-my-sleeve characters in the series.
Blue: Intellect and distance. Miki… who might be at once called the most clear headed and rational and yet also the most divorced from [his] true desires by the complexity of [his] schemes.
Blue roses don’t actually exists in nature—there’s a genetically engineered lavender rose, but all blue roses are just white roses dyed as such. They contain meanings of nobility (as in “royal family”) and the unattainable or impossible. Fitting for Miki, desperate for his “shining thing,” and the fact that his is the only manufactured rose adds to the sense of “intellect and distance” that Vrai notes.
Orange: Miracles and delusion. Flip sides of the same coin, reflected by inner strength of conviction versus fear and an inability to acknowledge one’s own desires.
Jury’s color. Orange roses are generally a sign of desire or enthusiasm. Another clever choice as, for all that Jury wears a mask of cool-headed maturity, her worldview is defined by that which she wants but cannot have.
Yellow: Innocence and childishness. Through both Tsuwabuki and Nanami, strong emotions for others can be either selfish or selfless (and are always heartfelt but rarely circumspect or self aware).
Nowadays yellow roses convey friendship and happiness, although interestingly enough, during the Victorian era they were a symbol for jealousy. And really, how perfect is that dual-meaning for Nanami, who initially approaches Anthy as a friend but really wishes to cause her mischief because she is jealous of all the attention everyone else gives her?
Red: Power, used either to aid or subjugate others. A color Touga possesses… also the color of the Rose Bride, nodding to Anthy’s immense power even if control of it has been taken from her.
This is primarily Touga’s color, although he fluctuates between red and white when Utena thinks he might be her prince. I think pretty much everyone knows that red roses symbolize love and passion, but they also have the meanings of respect and courage. Touga spends much of the first season making the other characters believe that he possesses all these qualities—love and respect for Utena, passion for “the revolution,” the courage to jump into harm’s way to protect others—but by the end of the season it seems to all be a facade, qualities feigned but not truly felt (except for that passion, perhaps). All part of how this first season plays with expectations, and with our ideas of what a “prince” figure should be.
Brown: The mundane – the most frequent hair color of the ‘normal’ students, from Wakaba’s grounded support to the overshadowed members of Nanami’s gang.
White: Purity and potential. The prince’s color, which also dominates the color scheme of Ohtori’s uniforms – while other colors might make their way in, beginning to have sway, we mustn’t forget that our cast is still very young, and that they have the potential to learn and change even still…
Also from Kitty, a friend who commented on Vrai’s blog but won’t write her own Utena posts, even though she totally should:
During her first duel, Utena is given the white rose, instead of a pink rose as one might expect. Did Anthy recognize her potential [as a]… princely figure from the beginning? Or is this just another clue that Utena… only sees herself as powerful when inhabiting the role of the stereotypical prince? She continues to fight as the white rose duelist until her final battle with Touga. Then she’s given the pink rose (embracing her self instead of relying on the power of the “prince”).
White roses share the same meaning of purity, and (like the “engagement ring” that Utena receives from her prince) they’re often associated with marriage and weddings.
Purple: Corruption and loss. Anthy’s signature color.
I had to cut most Vrai’s comments on this to avoid spoilers, but I think we can see this connection in the first cour, as most of the cast (even Utena, to an extent) use Anthy as a mirror or an echo, forcing her into a role that suits their own needs. There’s a question of whether this is a loss of agency and vocalization or an actual loss of self (i.e., is Anthy really just an echo at this point, or is she simply acting as one?), but it’s a loss either way. Purple (okay, lavender) roses generally convey enchantment or love at first sight. Like blue ones, they are also associated with royalty and a sense of impossibility or “magic.” Consider that as we move forward in the series and learn more about the duels and the Rose Bride at the center of them.
Pink: Harmony between power and ideals, a self-conviction mixed with compassion for others.
Utena’s color. Pink roses are the most common in the wild and, as such, were the first ones cultivated by humans. In general, pink roses have a connotation of grace and elegance; darker pinks are used to convey gratitude while lighter ones symbolize admiration or sympathy. These are emotions Utena both feels towards others (her prince, Anthy, Wakaba) as well as emotions she inspires from others, which is a large part of her charm as a character and her strength as a duelist.
Staining the Windows
Last note on color, I swear. The stained glass windows in this episode feature two colors: The first is the primary color of the person dueling Utena (green for Saionji, blue for Miki, etc.), but each has a unique secondary color as well which highlights the window and specifically the rose at the top. I don’t have any hard theories about the meanings here, but I wanted to get them written down with some commentary as food for thought. In order:
- Amitie & Choix (Friendship & Choice): Saionji’s windows. Stained green with pink highlights. Is the pink there because Utena is about to step in and supplant Saionji as “the engaged,” or does it imply similarities between Saionji and Utena, particularly in their shared past and desire for “something eternal”?
- Raison (Reason): Miki’s window. Stained blue with yellow highlights, perhaps to denote the friendship he develops with Utena and Anthy, or perhaps to point out that for all his intelligence and “reason,” he is still one of the youngest and most naïve characters in the series.
- Amour (Love): Jury’s window. Stained orange with purple highlights. Taking Vrai’s reading of purple into account, this may be there to remind us that Jury’s love is corrupted by selfishness, or possibly to point out that she’s doomed to lose because she won’t admit her own desires (how badly she wants to prove the existence of miracles) to herself.
- Adoration: Nanami’s window. Stained yellow with red highlights. The sense of confused love and passion she feels for her brother, the courage she exhibits when “defending” her brother, or the way Touga has “colored” her worldview.
- Conviction & Soi (Self): Touga’s windows. Stained red with green highlights. A hint that he might feel some kind of jealousy towards Utena? And if so, why? For possessing the Rose Bride or for something else? Or, taking Vrai’s secondary meaning, could the green signify the sense of loyalty being built between Utena and Anthy? This and the first window are the ones I’m least confident about in terms of meaning. (Or, you know, my brain could just be overloading on imagery and I’m rambling like a crazy person. That’s possible, too.)
One (other) thing I love about this: The way the first cour bookends its episodes with dual duels (I’m sure the pun wasn’t intentional but I heartily approve anyway), where Utena is the challenger in both the first and final episodes, forming a kind of mirror-image or even a sense of circularity/repetition.
Gah, THIS SHOW. I could seriously talk about this show for days. But this post is already getting up there, so let’s wrap up with a wild theory that I’ve been wanting to get out there but just couldn’t quite cram into the other posts. Spoilers for the rest of the series below! Enter at your own risk.
Or you can avoid the spoilers and go straight to the Next Post.
The Theories Next Door
Warning: Here There Be Spoilers. And general ramblings. Should be fun.
The Rose Bride, Anthy, and Chu-Chu
My first time watching Utena, I pretty much just wrote Anthy off as a Macguffin. Then the series unveiled her backstory and I realized I’d been hilariously wrong. Still, I admit that I’m often inclined to think of her as a symbol or a cipher rather than an actual human person. This is unfair and one of the reasons why I’m really enjoying Vrai’s commentary, as it paints Anthy as an actual individual, abused and conflicted. It’s been really illuminating for me to look at her that way.
That said, I do think that just about everything in Utena can be appreciated on both an emotional and symbolic level, and during my second rewatch in high school, I came up with this idea of Anthy as a split being, with part of her self trapped in the coffin/by the swords and the other part existing within Ohtori Academy. (Probably there are other analyses out there that have said the same thing, but I haven’t read them, so let me enjoy a brief moment of feeling unique before I remember that every story has already been told a hundred times before, and that this is doubly true of LitCrit.)
In the past I referred to the trapped part as her “soul,” and used it as an explanation for why everyone was able to pull a sword from her chest. I generally see the swords as a physical manifestation of will and ideals (again, I use the term “soul” for this, but you certainly don’t have to). something that only someone close to you could access. But, since the Anthy of Ohtori Academy didn’t have her soul, everyone was able to project their own will and ideals into her, forming a sword that was basically a reflection of their own heart/mind.
Anyway, all of this is a long preamble to say that, during this rewatch, I started to see Anthy as a trinity of personalities rather than a pair, and that the third may very well be Chu-Chu. (Yep. That sounds as crazy typed out as it did in my head. Awesome.) This idea is inspired largely by Ikuhara’s other recent (excellent) work, Mawaru Penguindrum, where the penguins generally function as extensions of their owner’s unspoken thoughts and motivations. Their behavior is a visual/physical representation of what their human wants or feels.
So I’ve started to see Chu-Chu this way as well, which has led me to wonder if there isn’t some Freudian imagery going on with Anthy, where Chu-Chu is her id (instinctive reactions, as demonstrated in his gluttony or his aggressive response to Saionji), the girl in the coffin is her super-ego (the conscience that develops ties to others and feels guilt at manipulating them), and the “rose bride” is the ego, rational and calculating and simply trying to stay alive. I suspect it’s a flawed metaphor, and I’m looking forward to continuing the rewatch and seeing how well it holds up. But right now I like it because it makes Chu-Chu more than just a humorous sight gag—and also because I love the idea of looking at Chu-Chu to get an idea of what Anthy is really feeling behind that conciliatory mask of hers.
Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.