In which we learn the dangers of interviews, elevators, and family fun time, and why it’s always important to knock before entering a room.
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 own 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.
Welcome to the Black Rose Saga! And boy, if you thought things were a little grim and symbol-heavy before, just you freaking wait. It strikes me that Utena and Evangelion followed similar approaches in their storytelling, using the trappings of familiar, accessible tales in the early episodes to “hook” a large audience, and only introducing the darker, more psychological and surreal themes in later episodes.
This isn’t to say that the early episodes of either show don’t hint at the more mature directions they will later go, but there’s a lightness and straightforwardness to both—Utena’s magical girl school story with fairy tale vibes, and Eva’s mecha action laced with harem comedy—that falls away as both series progress. It’s a clever way to expose a large audience to some difficult, heady topics, while also helping to ingratiate you to the characters and their world before tossing you into increasingly abstract battles of ideologies. It also leads to some excellent genre deconstruction, something at which both shows excel.
In some ways the Black Rose functions as a kind of bridge between the relative simplicity of the Student Council Saga and the surreal complexities of the Apocalypse Saga, easing us deeper into the world’s mythology, introducing us to new (hugely influential) players, and giving us a better taste of what’s to come. Or, as Vrai puts it:
Almost as if it’s preparing us for the straight up surrealism that is the [next] arc, this season’s going to go out of its way to throw in bits of background symbolism… and general bits of weirdness: the obvious camera focus on the devolving punned butterfly as the (trapped) candidates regress to their most primal fears, the inclusion of a significant thematic object cluttering the dueling arena, as well as the victim outlines all over the ground. Call it immersion therapy. (Vrai, The Boys of the Black Rose)
We’re entering a whole new stage of the game here, so rather than zero in on any one thing in this episode, I thought we’d do the same thing here that we did in our first Student Council post: Look at some general ideas and themes, and consider how they might play into later episodes.
The New Boys in Town
Touga is absent and the school is lacking a puppetmaster, meaning Ohtori Academy has been nice and quiet as of late. Naturally this power void must be filled or we wouldn’t have a series, so in step two new elements: the “Boys of the Black Rose,” as the title suggests, and Akio, Anthy’s brother. Even the transformation music has been remixed (what the OST somewhat clunkily calls “The Revelation of Absolute Destiny with Universal Gravitation”) to highlight these new (male) influences,as “there’s an insistent downbeat underpinning it… and a strong baritone voice mixed in with what had previously been entirely alto and soprano singers” (The Boys of the Black Rose).
Mikage and Mamiya spend the most time on-screen and behave in the most actively antagonistic ways, declaring their intent to kill the Rose Bride, obtain the power of Dios, and “make his eternal secret ours.” They take a troubled young woman, encourage her to reveal “the other me I buried within myself,” and then stab her with a black rose, effectively robbing her of her free will and forcing her to fight their battles for them. They are the antagonists existing at the bottom of the elevator, in a land of coffins and death, coming to people when they’re at their lowest and most vulnerable.
And yet it’s Akio, the man at the top of the elevator, living in a world of vaulted ceilings and light and stars high above the rest of the students, who casts the deepest shadow on this episode. That final scene of Anthy coming to his room at night—coupled with the unsettlingly frantic “Fruit of Sin” (Tsumi no Kajitsu) piano instrumental (one of the most striking pieces in a series full of them)—never ceases to make me squirm, and it casts an entirely new light on both of their characters as well as the scenes that came before, making the rest of the episode seem almost inconsequential in comparison.
Akio is a force of power (clothed in red, as Vrai notes) and adulthood in a world noticeably lacking in both, and it makes him dangerous despite Anthy’s claims that he knows nothing of the duels or her role as the Rose Bride. (Which, by the way, should sound like bullshit, given that we totally just saw him hanging out in the dueling arena with Dios last episode.)
So here we have two male figures (well, three, although Mamiya’s gender is sort of intentionally clouded, as he’s given a female seiyuu and Mikage insists that “bride” fits him better) added to the mix, and both existing in realms separate from the school. One is in the clouds, able to view everything below him; the other is beneath the ground, hidden from sight. Two figures who will drive the central stories of the Black Rose Saga, albeit in very different ways. In some ways their introductions are the first binary in a season (and series) full of them.
And hey, speaking of binaries…
The Bitter Binary Battle
I opted to use the above image to show how the series uses freaking perfect cinematography to immediately drive a wedge between Mikage (the Black Rose Circle) and Miki (the Student Council), casting them as integral pieces of the academy (literal “pillars”) while also setting them up as divided, perhaps even opposing forces. The images behind both are almost identical and yet there are subtle differences (the stained glass design, the way the light falls), as will be the differences between the StuCo’s methods in the last arc and the Black Rose’s methods in this arc. Dualities, y’all. They’re everywhere.
From Ikuhara’s creator commentary (translated by Sarah Alys Lindholm for Nozomi’s Student Council Saga Special Edition box set):
I saw a certain horror movie when I was in middle school. There was a secret mortuary in an underground chamber, and the dead were electronically transmitted (!), still in their coffins, to the “other world,” where they were forced into slavery.
The movie’s story was utterly absurd, but the division of the world into opposite poles of “living” and “dead” felt real to me, somehow.
Our world has been spoken of in bipolar fashion for ages.
In my student days, there was a popular book that compared the “affluent” with the “non-affluent,” and sorted everything into categories called “loaded” and “broke.” It was the bubble era, and the aim of the book was probably to get a laugh by saying “They call us wealthy but our lifestyle’s practically in the trash can!”
But for some reason, I couldn’t laugh.
Years later, the phrase “the winning side” was popular in the media. I thought it was horrid. And sure enough, people started using the opposite phrase “the losing side” as a masochistic joke. I still couldn’t laugh, though.
One day, a girl I saw on TV said, “There are only two types of people in this world: the ones who are chosen and the ones aren’t chosen.”
That gave me a start.
“To not be chosen is to die,” said the girl.
I decided to try my hand at that.
The Black Rose arc.
Usually I just include bits of Ikuhara’s commentaries, but this is a great place to start with this Arc, so I left the whole thing intact (and thanks to Vrai for transcribing all of that so I didn’t have to). I think we saw a little of this focus on binary in the previous arc, although more from the individuals’ outlooks than from the story itself. In other words, the characters tended to think in binaries (Anthy is either “the Rose Bride” or “an ordinary girl,” the chick breaks its shell or its dies, duels are won or lost, people are boys or girls, princes or princesses), but from an audience perspective the story existed in a hazy middle ground, where things are not all one way or the other but somewhere messily in between.
Saionji is perhaps the best example of this among the minor characters, but everyone is psychologically complex, neither all good or bad, and by the end of the arc Anthy and Utena seem to embody this middle-ground status, living somewhere between princes and princesses, “echoes” and “individuals,” girls and boys. There was a kind of balance created by the end of Episode 12, a sense of the “good” triumphing and a self-assured heroine besting her callous, manipulative antagonist (and the illusion he represented). But the story continues, and the balance is swiftly disrupted by forces that demand sides be taken and lines be drawn.
Life and death, top and bottom, winning and losing, chosen and unchosen, love and hate, male and female, child and adult—these (and many others) are the dualities that come into focus in the Black Rose Saga, setting the stage for many of the series’s major conflicts.
The Desire to be “Chosen”
The Black Rose is a strange little arc, something of an enigma to a lot of viewers and almost deliberately subverting our expectations of what constitutes the proper progression of a story. After spending 12 episodes getting to know and understand our duelists and their motivations, we swerve immediately away from them, focusing instead on previously unheard-of groups and characters, and none of whom wear that pink rose signet we’ve been taught signifies a potential threat, or at least a character of importance.
All of which ties into Ikuhara’s themes about “those who aren’t chosen.” Last arc we saw those who were chosen: The duelists, given rose signets to fight for a chance to obtain the “power of Dios” and enter the castle in the sky, said to hold… well, whatever the duelist thought it held, really, but which all came down to a kind of revolution, a smashing of the status quo in some way or another (usually in the form of reestablishing or establishing human connections, either those severed or those never fully formed).
But in this arc the focus has shifted away from our “chosen” duelists and on to those who stand at the sidelines. We immediately see this new focus with Kanae, as Vrai notes:
Poor Kanae. She’s a hell of a start for this arc and its themes of those ‘not chosen’ – unrequited lovers, cast off associates, and collateral damage. Because we all want more than anything to be chosen and accepted, and the popular narrative of the chosen one inevitably leaves a trail of could’ve-beens behind. (The Boys of the Black Rose)
It’ll be fun to discuss how the desire to move from “unchosen” to “chosen” (and the imagery associated with that) plays out in the coming weeks, but for now I just want to say that, for all that this arc can seem a little meandering and unfocused plot-wise at times, I think it actually ties in strongly to a lot of the fairy tale and magical girl deconstruction we saw during the Student Council Arc.
We were led to believe this was a story about revolutions and destiny, and perhaps it still is, but for every person “chosen” (by End of the World, by a prince, or simply by a friend or lover) there are plenty who aren’t, and the fact that Utena wants to spend not only a few episodes but an entire arc exploring the psychological ramifications of being “Character A” (both within stories and in the real world) is a testament to how thoroughly it wishes to explore—and question—the past narratives upon which it is founded.
Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.