Utena Watch Party: Episode 17

In which the past not only comes back to haunt you, but rips your heart-sword straight out of your chest.

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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 analysis is 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(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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I’m under the weather and running on fumes this weekend, and also Vrai’s post is pretty great (and light on the spoilers) all-around, so I may let them do most of the talking this week. Call it making up for lost word count, since I wrote my Episode 16 commentary early and wasn’t able to include anything from Vrai’s post.

I’ll kick this off (as I often do) with a Completely Personal Remark, which is that I very much dislike Shiori. I don’t find her as psychologically interesting or sympathetic as some of the other antagonistic characters, and my gut reaction is to read her as petty, hateful, and two-faced. Vrai nails the reason for this: “while most recipients of stunted longing in the series are some shade of unaware, Shiori has not only caught on but uses that knowledge as a weapon,” which makes her not only immature or frustratingly ignorant, but actively mean-spirited (Episode 17).

Her Elevator Confessional also rubs me every possible wrong way: Where our previous Black Rose Duelists, when prodded to “go deeper,” admitted to desperately wanting to be loved by another, Shiori’s “depth” reveals vindictiveness piled atop vindictiveness. She sees Jury’s love as a “weakness” which makes her “pitiable,” thus making the two of them “equals.” Her last, puzzling cry of “Why do you look at me like that?” hints at something sympathetic here, perhaps, but it’s unclear—is she rejecting Jury’s feelings outright, or so mired in self-loathing that she can’t bring herself to understand how someone like Jury could feel that way at all?

Down the Elevator

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Now, I began with all of that mostly so I can say that I absolutely love Vrai’s reading of Shiori, as it explains why Shiori “going deeper” doesn’t seem very deep at all, and paints her as a far more pitiable figure than she seems at first glance. So, as promised, I’m just gonna turn this one over to Vrai and let them do the awesome analyzing:

The difficulty… is that Shiori has little to no self-awareness. Her dialogue in the elevator frames her feelings toward Jury as inadequacy and jealousy, as if Jury was deliberately acting superior to her. The undercurrent of self-loathing to her words is quite powerful, and it’s not hard to see that Shiori is so wounded by Jury’s successes because she sees no inherent value in herself. Her coping trick, it seems, is to attempt to define herself through others.

Shiori’s treatment of Jury is an experiment of sorts. Jury, who Shiori thinks of as something like the epitome of achievement, thinks that Shiori is lovable. This gives Shiori reassurance that she’s worth something, a feeling she’s incapable of generating on her own. […] Afraid to go forward and to be forgotten, Shiori (like Kozue before her) is trying to keep this pivotally important love of hers from fading.

[…]

Shiori fits into the idea of the “unchosen” by virtue of how apparently normal she is… an unremarkable example of the ‘quiet, pretty girl.’ She hasn’t been marked out as strange or exceptional in the way that Jury, Utena, or even Anthy have, who are in the beginning of rejecting a system that has already rejected them. But Shiori isn’t read as outwardly exceptional in appearance or deed, so she receives the full weight of ‘normal’ expectations: desire the affections of that “totally normal boy,” live unaware of even the possibility of abnormal desire; exist as an object of pining or a satellite for your boyfriend, too well liked and physically admired to complain but not appreciated as a real individual.

You seem normal, so of course that’s what you are – pretty girls only like other girls for attention, or because they’re going through a phase, or because it’s the trendy thing to do… Even if you speak out, the overwhelming assumption will be that it’s a put on or an act, something to make yourself feel different rather than an honest expression of your character. Perhaps less dangerous a cage than those who are obviously, outwardly different; but no less soul crushing in the long haul. (The Thorns of Death)

Hidden (Woolen) Layers

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As with Jury’s first episode, this one’s all about performances, masks, dualities—how we present ourselves to the world versus how we truly think and feel, along with, as Vrai puts it, “the ideal versus projected self, and where the real one might fit in at all – between who we think we are and who we want people to think we are, there’s often a third self that we show without even realizing it through unconscious behavior” (Episode 17).

We hear it in the dueling song (where the “twins” repetition here echoes the “two of me” repetition from Jury’s own duel), and we especially see it in the shadow play, where the main player frets over her “secret” (the three layers of woolen underwear) being discovered and how this will affect the way others view her.

Let’s first take the ‘woolen underwear’ thing as Shiori’s attraction to Jury – something that… is typically responded to with melodramatic despair (and I super love that the voice of the ‘devil’ isn’t tempting her but instead the one telling her to be ashamed). Lo, comes another voice saying that lots of people ‘wear woolen underwear,’ and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But the despair continues, because of the multiple layers – in this case, the gymnastics our two girls are doing to push each other away – extra, unnecessary layers on top of a common, acceptable thing. (Vrai, The Thorns of Death)

This is a solid reading and covers the episode’s themes quite nicely, but I do want to point out something Utena does exceedingly well, and that’s the way it allows its audience’s own social context to frame the central conflict and relationships.

Ultimately what we have here are two girls grappling with their feelings: one tries to let go of what she sees as a hopeless, unrequited love, and the other grapples with a sudden, dramatic change in the way she views both her old friend and their relationship. From the context of our own society, I think it’s natural (and perhaps even quietly encouraged by the creators) for us to read Jury’s plight and Shiori’s surprise as a same-sex romance issue—in other words, we believe that Jury thinks the relationship is hopeless and Shiori is shocked about her friend’s feelings because they’re both girls, and they see this as “taboo” or “unacceptable.”

The thing is, nobody in the actual show expresses these opinions. Shiori’s reaction comes from her own low self-esteem and the sense that Jury’s affection makes her “weak” and gives Shiori power over here; not once does she show surprise or express shock about the fact that Jury is in love with another girl. The closest the series comes to making this about a “socially taboo” relationship is during the shadow play (“what will people think?”), as Vrai noted above, but even here it’s vague enough that we could read it as a general fear of others discovering our secret vulnerabilities or cruelties. Compare this to other anime, such as the more problematic of the “boys’ love” stories, where someone is nearly always crying “But I’m a guy!” at some point—an exclamation that quietly grants validity to the idea that non-hetero attraction is inherently “outside the norm” and therefore worthy of surprise.

I have a quiet hope that as time passes and society stops seeing non-hetero relationships as some kind of aberration or “other” that future Utena viewers will simply read this as a tale of two people struggling with their personal insecurities and emotions for one another. For now, though, we can acknowledge and discuss the series from a contextual perspective, and also appreciate that Utena is the kind of series that treats all of its relationships equally, making them each as “normal” (or more accurately, as unusual) as the next.

The Sensei Next Door

Ganymede and the Danger of Innocence

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Worth noting before I slowly keel over on my couch: Utena doesn’t have a whole lot to do here, but from her position of relative ignorance and good intentions, she does try to get Jury to “forgive” Shiori for whatever happened between them, and Jury calls Utena out for being “cruelly innocent.” She compares Utena to Shiori, which may be slightly true in that both girls lack a certain level of self-awareness, but from an audience perspective it’s pretty clear that Shiori’s innocence is a front while Utena’s is genuine (at worst, she’s willfully ignorant, but even that’s debatable).

When Utena discusses this with Akio (a scene that serves as an extended lesson in how to write painfully dramatic irony), he remarks that Utena reminds him of Ganymede. As with most mythology, there are variations of the Ganymede tale, but the gist of it is that he was the beautiful mortal son of Tros, the king of Troy, whom Zeus took back to Mount Olympus to become his cup-bearer. Zeus was in love with the boy (emotionally for sure, and in many versions of the tale the two had a physical relationship as well), which sparked Hera’s jealousy. To keep Ganymede safe from her rage, Zeus made him an immortal and placed him in the sky as the constellation Aquarius. The story is often read as a religious justification for same-sex relationships, particularly those between adult men and adolescent boys (called “pederasty).

A beautiful, noble prince plucked from the mundane world and set in the divine one, entangled in a relationship with a powerful being, caught between godly forces and eventually sent away, given immortality but losing all personal connections and ties in the process… the comparison seems an apt one at first glance, but it certainly doesn’t bode well for Utena’s future. And given that Akio is the one making this observation, it only adds to the sense that Utena herself is gradually “going deeper” into a world she can hardly see and barely understands. And that innocence could be very dangerous indeed.

Next -> Episode 18

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Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.

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