Utena Watch Party: Episode 20

In which it turns out that some episodes are even sadder the more times you watch them.

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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 have a little notebook that sits next to me during episodes so I can jot down plot points, quotations, stray thoughts, what have you. Normally I fill about a page. This time I filled two. “Wakaba Flourishing” has a whole lot going on in terms of overarching story, character dynamics, and even plot twists and reveals, and I kept finding myself with new parallels and contrasts I wanted to explore (Wakaba in relation to Tatsuya, to Saionji, to Utena, to Anthy, and of course to the other Black Rose duelists).

Honestly I’m not even sure where to start, and I doubt I’ll manage to cover everything. But we’ll do our best even so. A couple of quick bullets before we get into the meat of the discussion, which are worth noting but not quite worth talking about in-depth (yet, anyway):

  • This is pretty much the first time we’ve really seen the town around Ohtori Academy, which is the first sign that this episode is going to be something of a milestone in the story, and even seems to hint at Wakaba’s own “specialness” (even if she can’t see it herself).
  • I haven’t mentioned it yet, but have you all noticed that time seems to run really weirdly in this world? Saionji has only been expelled for a month? Seriously? And does Ohtori ever have seasons, or is it just perpetual summertime?
  • So Saionji gives the leaf barrette to Mikage… and then the barrette winds up with Anthy. Which sure seems to imply that Mikage’s in cahoots with her, even though we’ve been explicitly told that he’s trying to kill her and replace her with Mamiya. This plot point almost gets lost in the ensuing drama, but it’s a major one, and implies that things are not at all what they seem.

And now for those relationships, beginning with the central one of the episode.

Special by Proxy: Wakaba and Saionji

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So let’s start with a quick assumption: For the purpose of this analysis, Saionji is not callously using Wakaba, stringing her along and only pretending to feel gratitude. I start with this because the first time I watched this episode I was convinced Saionji was a lying liar who was faking his tears and his kindness to get into Wakaba’s good graces (Ikuhara makes it really easy to hate Saionji, and oh boy did I ever).

Upon this viewing, though, I’ve decided that’s an unfair assessment. Say what you will about Saionji, the guy has never been two-faced. Smug and petty and short-sighted and abusive, hell yes, but he wears all that on his sleeve, at least. (In fact next to Utena, he might be the most honest of the cast—they’re both misguided and in some ways have deluded themselves, but by God, they believe those delusions and act on them.) So based on what we’ve seen of him before, I do think he actually was grateful to Wakaba and felt some affection for her, even if it wasn’t of the romantic sort.

So now that that’s out of the way, we can talk about how Saionji and Wakaba are similar, and also why I find this episode incredibly sad on a number of levels. We’ll start with some selections from Vrai’s analysis, as they cover a hefty portion of it:

…Wakaba tries to gain things for herself it’s dependent upon the attention/approval of others, while [Saionji] views his interactions with others through the prism of how they relate to and work for/against his goals. And both of them hurt themselves by short-sightedly pursuing a goal while cutting out the things that might truly help them: Wakaba withdraws to the bare minimum of social interactions to focus all her time on Saionji, who does not perceive her romantically; and Saionji cuts off an honestly affectionate [relationship] to chase back after people only interested in using him (worth noting that his understanding of gratitude/affection is equated to his understanding of people-as-status-symbols – to him, the fact that he can buy Wakaba something expensive, a sign of wealth, is far more precious a thank you than something cheap that he made himself). They’re both chasing after recognition while also dealing in affection as commodity – Wakaba is sure that if she can keep Saionji to herself he’ll come to love her (for lack of competition and out of gratitude), and Saionji believes that possessing the affections of others, particularly Anthy, will prove his worth as a person.

[…] So we have two people desperately chasing the idea of being chosen, with the difference being internalized (Wakaba’s space is her room, usually with doors or windows shut, in the same way that she internalizes her resentment of Anthy or her feelings of sadness and loneliness) versus external (Saionji’s physical violence, ultimately making him the more toxic of this pair). (Wakaba Flourishing)

There are differences here, as Vrai notes, but what really jumps out at me are their similarities, particularly in how they believe “specialness” comes from something external. In Wakaba’s case, it’s a romantic relationship; and in Saionji’s case, it’s the status of the Student Council, the admiration of his peers, and the possession of the Rose Bride (and the “eternity” he believes she’ll show him). To highlight this, the episode uses a bunch of faceless chatter—characters gossiping off-screen about Saionji’s fall from grace and subsequent return, as well as Wakaba’s own seeming transformation—to show how these voices surround the characters, affecting their thoughts and actions as the episode progresses.

And yet for all that everyone thinks Saionji has “fallen,” one of the reasons this episode is so frustrating is because it’s actually the opposite: This is his chance to rise above the person he was and escape the destructive desires and expectations he’s placed upon himself. Now that no one’s watching him, he’s a surprisingly likable guy: sentimental and appreciative of others, kind of a goofball, and a halfway decent craftsman to boot. Note the way he’s always sitting by the window, framed in the sunset and literally “in the light.“ It’s here where he’s sitting when Mikage appears, cloaked in shadows, a “literal dark side” who tempts him with “the pursuit of power and feelings of inadequacy that led to him treating people as objects” (Vrai, Episode 20).

But Saionji doesn’t realize the opportunity he has here, in the same way that Wakaba can’t see that her specialness doesn’t need to be granted to her by Saionji. “Why not stay single?” Utena asks the shadow girls this week, but they—along with our Black Rose pair—are so bound up in cultural norms of “rules” and “traditions” that they never stop to consider this question themselves.

And so they’re both manipulated by Mikage, who uses their desire for that “chosen” status against them, leading them wherever he needs them to go (there’s a reason they’re both drinking out of sheep mugs, you know). This episode is as much Wakaba’s fall from grace (more on that later) as it is Saionji’s, and knowing that he had a chance to step away from the game and the manipulations of others (Mikage, Touga, End of the World) and didn’t makes his return to school more tragedy than triumph.

Oh, and of course—one final knife to twist in the story of “the fool” Saionji: He wants to regain his seat of power on the student council, but by the time he returns to school, the StuCo has been all but overthrown, forgotten by World’s End and attacked by the same man who helped Saionji return to his “old world.”

As if to cap off the StuCo’s gradual displacement, they are completely off-screen this week, appearing only in voiceover as Saionji reenters the school. Worse still, they have no idea how he got back in—they’re forced to listen to rumors (“I heard the Black Rose Circle had something to do with it”)—and, while they vehemently oppose the decision, given the lack of power and knowledge they currently possess, their threats hold little weight. So, in the end, Saionji has more-or-less literally (considering the sword that gets yanked from his chest) sold his soul to return to a lofty position that no longer exists.

Where the Fault Lies: Wakaba and Tatsuya

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Since Episodes 19 and 20 form a kind of two-parter with Wakaba at its center (and two love interests on either side), it’s worthwhile to look at how those two episodes relate to each other. Vrai notes that Wakaba and Tatsuya “reflect two opposite approaches to a common problem,” and goes on to explain:

Tatsuya’s life is one of unremarkable happiness – he’s kind but not bold, loved but without anything he loves enough to be proactive about. And when something he wants finally comes about, he loses it by not pursuing it directly enough. It breaks his heart, but he remains locked “on the sidelines” nonetheless. Wakaba’s happiness is increasingly a front, overtop of and later hiding an internalized resentment of her “nonspecialness.” While Tatsuya seems content until confronted with something he didn’t know he was missing, Wakaba is constantly aware of what she wants but unsure of how to get it. (Wakaba Flourishing)

These dualities also extend to where each places the blame for their current “unchosen” position. I mentioned last week that Tatsuya has fallen into the trap of accepting a damaged system, which is why he blames himself for his own inadequacies rather than lashing out at anything external. On the other hand, Wakaba recognizes herself as inadequate but directs her aggression towards an outer force: The “special” people themselves. This is the main reason why Tatsuya is rejected as a Black Rose duelist while Wakaba is not only accepted, but actively pursued: She wants to smash some world shells as badly as the student council does.

Except here’s the thing about Wakaba, and all of our duelists, really: They’re still not attacking the right problem. It’s true that Tatsuya can’t revolutionize the world because he’s too focused on blaming himself, but neither can Wakaba, because she’s too focused on blaming others. There’s got to be a balance here, somewhere, between self-awareness and social awareness. Furthermore, Wakaba thinks it’s the people—people like Utena, who aren’t even aware of their “special” status—who are to blame for the system, when they’re as much products of it as she is. Rather than fighting one another, perhaps the Black Rose duelists (and the StuCo) (and Utena) should be fighting the authority figures who created these hierarchies and orchestrated these duels in the first place.

My Sort of Special: Wakaba and Her Princes

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Another possible way to look at these two episodes is that Wakaba stands between two choices, where Tatsuya represents a bland but pleasant “normal life,” while Saionji represents the exciting but corrosive world of Wakaba’s “special people.” Normalcy chooses Wakaba but she rejects it, and Wakaba chooses specialness but it abandons her, chasing what it perceives as special (Anthy, in this case).

How we feel about these choices may say as much about our own priorities as it does about the series itself, but it’s worth noting that the creative team seems a bit at odds, too. In the Episode 19 commentary, Ikuhara makes it fairly clear that he approves of Wakaba’s willingness to fight “to be special” and disapproves of Tatsuya’s complacency, but in an interview with some of the storyboard artists, we see a somewhat different take on this:

Kazayama Jugo: I rather think that in the worldview of Utena, the people who can go on living are the ones who are lacking in some way. Its standard of “normality” is different than the general public’s.

Hashimoto Katsuyo: In the context of the student council members, Saionji is normal, but by the general public’s standards, he’s highly outrageous. […] The special people are “special” because they lack something. They’re “special” in a negative sense. Take Wakaba: she longs to be one of the special people, but those special people are actually having a rough time of it.

Kazayama: Wakaba’s not lacking anything in her outer or inner life.

Hashimoto: You’re right, she’s not. And that’s a blessing. (Translated by Sarah Alys Lindholm)

Regardless of whether you agree entirely with that reading, it does bring us to an important point: “Specialness” is entirely subjective, defined differently by everyone. Wakaba doesn’t see herself as special, but Tatsuya does, and Utena describes Wakaba as her daiji na (大事: important or precious) friend, suggesting she does as well. Wakaba sees Saionji as special while the rest of the student council scorns him. And Saionji sees Anthy as special while Utena insists she’s an “ordinary girl.”

Which circles us back to the idea of “ordinary” or “normal,” which also circles us right back to the last episode that prominently featured Wakaba: Episode 12, where she insisted that Utena embrace her own “sort of normal.”

And that brings us at last to our final pair of the episode.

The Stolen Sword: Wakaba and Utena

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The Black Rose duels have becoming progressively more difficult to watch, I think, because the people involved have become people we’re meant to like. Kanae is a stranger, and Kozue and Shiori were set up as antagonistic forces during the first season, so seeing their most negative feelings laid bare isn’t such a shocker for us. But Mitsuru was painted as a cute, well-meaning kid prior to his duel, which made it more alarming to realize just how much aggression and darkness he had buried within him.

But all that is small peanuts compared to Wakaba, an immensely sympathetic figure who’s been a recurring part of our cast from the very beginning, and who we probably all came to love when she proved herself to be an awesome friend way back in Episode 12, sticking by Utena and encouraging her to “take back” whatever it was that made her happy (or in her word, “normal”).

Wakaba is also, of course, the first duelist to be closely connected to Utena herself. She may be Saionji’s Black Rose partner, but she’s Utena’s best friend, and this is the first time we’ve seen Utena truly shaken by the recent duels. And because of this personal connection, everything that comes after the Elevator Confessional is different from what we’ve seen before.

Utena’s shock here is twofold, I think: Firstly (and obviously) because she’s suddenly being forced to fight her best friend, but also because she never would have suspected Wakaba capable of such bitterness and rage. As I said, Wakaba is the person who seemed the most at peace with this idea of subjective and varying normalcy, as she encouraged Utena to be “her sort of normal.” We’d think she’d feel the same about her own (or Anthy’s) “sort of normal,” but no—like everyone in Utena (and the real world, come to think of it), she’s a mess of contradictions, and she’s gotten tangled up in the same broken ideas about normal and special that tripped up Utena at the end of the last arc.

This is a huge moment for Utena (and Anthy, actually—she’s frantic in the dueling arena, issuing commands with an authority she’s never shown before), not just in the Black Rose Saga but in the story as a whole. She’s coming to understand how little she does understand, even about her best friend, and it’s a vital but nevertheless traumatic moment, a sense of one’s perspective shifting and expanding, seeing an expanse of unknown terrain where previously you thought you knew every hill and valley.

Utena acknowledges her ignorance and admits that there’s a lot she doesn’t understand, but—in true princely fashion—she also promises to “save” Wakaba. In an unprecedented move, Utena steals Saionji’s sword (soul?) from her friend’s hand and uses it instead of the Sword of Dios to cut the black rose from Wakaba’s chest.

And… I’m left with a slew of questions to which I have no real answers. First: What did Utena think she was “saving” Wakaba from? Did she believe Wakaba was possessed by the black rose, and that removing it would function as a kind of exorcism? Or did she believe—like I suggested the other week—that the duels are cathartic, even beneficial, allowing the duelists to vent their pent-up frustrations, perhaps even “cutting away” those frustrations altogether?

Second: Assuming that the duels do have a kind of healing power to them, was it a mistake not to use the Sword of Dios, as Anthy begged (demanded?) of her? I have to wonder about this one. Because really, where we saw small forward progress and growth from our other duelists, here we only see defeat across the board. Sure, Saionji returns to school, but no one wants him there, and we’ve already talked about how toxic that environment has proven to be for him. Utena must now live with the understanding of her best friend’s internalized sense of inadequacy, and the resentment she feels towards those she deems “special” (Utena included).

And as for Wakaba… gosh, poor Wakaba. That last scene of her alone in her dorm room just breaks my heart. There’s no peace or power balance created here like there was between Miki and Kozue, Jury and Shiori, Nanami and Mitsuru. It’s just loss—Saionji loses what chance he might have had to walk away from a system that’s slowly destroying him, and Wakaba loses her “prince,” her secret, her sense of specialness. It’s a rough ending, with none of the hopefulness we saw in the epilogues from previous duels. But again, was this due to Utena’s decisions in the dueling arena, or simply a natural result of Mikage himself, as he moves out of the darkness of his basement and into a more active role in manipulating the duels? I’m not entirely sure. I sort of feel like it’s both.

All of which is a damn depressing place to end an absurdly long post, which is why I’m very glad that Vrai was able to glean some hope from that finale. So I’ll stagger off under the weight of my feelings, and leave you with a little light at the end of the tunnel:

A great many of us have been Wakaba, with varying degrees of desperation and success. The fact that both Wakaba and Tatsuya fail in their pursuit of specialness isn’t meant to teach us that they are not special, that the everyday about them means they should stop trying. It’s that loss is a part of life, and the more we place the care of our hearts in others the more it’s likely to hurt when we fall. Not that we shouldn’t love others, but that our happiness shouldn’t be dependent on the approval of others. Wakaba is alone now, but her supposed flowering is as false as the liar who said one can only be special for a brief amount of time. One of the hardest tasks of adolescence, given to the most relatable, kind, and otherwise stable of the supporting cast, is the beginning of learning that we each must define our own path.

[…]

One can read Wakaba’s loss in a number of ways: she doesn’t seem to have realized yet that ‘specialness’ is a false standard, and she’s lonely. But she also no longer has a false hope to shut herself in with, cutting herself off from the world. Meanwhile, ‘obviously’ special Saionji has lost whatever awe and respect he might have once had among the student populace… We’ve already established early in the series that Wakaba does have the capacity for genuine concern, able to support Utena in her time of misery in a way that Utena herself hadn’t even mastered. And Utena herself had to experience the loss of her ‘prince’ in order to begin to live for herself and her personal growth outside of the system. So, perhaps Wakaba will be the next one to revolutionize the world after all. (Wakaba Flourishing)

Next -> Episode 21

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Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.

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