Utena Watch Party: Episode 21

In which the mean girls take center stage, and you just know they wear pink on Wednesdays.

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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

This is a tough episode to blog in a newbie-friendly fashion, because a lot of themes/ideas on display here are more set-up for the final act than a continuation of this act (although there is some of that, and we’ll get to it in a minute), and as such won’t really start coming into clear focus until later down the line.

In the interest of not spoilering the hell out of the upcoming Apocalypse Saga, I’m going to focus my comments on what’s come before this episode and how it ties in with “Vermin.” I will say that, like Episode 13, this is a good one to rewatch once you’ve seen the entire series, so maybe table that for a later date. But, for now, let’s talk about Keiko, Nanami, Touga, and the system that ties them all together.

Long-Distance Dueling

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This episode is quite the emotional comedown compared to the last two Feels-wracked episodes, partly because of the character under examination (Keiko didn’t even have a name before this week), but also because her relationship with “her duelist” is the weakest and most disconnected to date. While everyone else had at least some kind of previously existing emotional tie to their duelist, Keiko and Touga seem to have barely exchanged words—heck, we don’t even see them exchange words in this episode, which, coupled with “the camera’s continual refusal to show [Touga’s] eyes,” suggests that Keiko’s supposed “love” is “one more prettily dressed game of object-pursuit” (Vrai, Vermin).

Distance is a major theme of this episode, and we’ll get into how it works and what it says about Keiko and the overarching structure in a minute. But to start, I want to talk about how… well, pathetic it makes Touga look (yes, I know he’s a dick, but I’m still finding ways to pity him, damn it). The StuCo is a fairly isolated bunch in general, but the rest of its members still at least have something in the way of a personal or emotional link to the everyday, to the mundane world outside of Rose Brides and revolutions. But Touga? His closest relationships are to his childhood friend and his sister, both of whom now wear the rose signet. We’ve never seen him interact to any significant degree with anyone who isn’t directly tied to the duels. So when trying to find a duelist to pull the sword from his chest, Mikage really had to dig deep, here, finding the flimsiest of connections for the most emotionally isolated of the Student Council members.

And I find that pretty sad, in the same way I found his listening to the StuCo Manifesto or “From the New World” pretty sad, too. When you’ve devoted yourself completely to a cause or an ideal and have nothing outside of it, failure really isn’t an option, which in turn drives you towards more extreme measures and machinations, which in turn makes you even more isolated from the people who care about you, and so on in an increasingly closed circle. It’s not an excuse for being a manipulative asshole, mind you, but it is—as with Saionji and Nanami and every other deeply flawed person on this show—a reason we can understand, and maybe even sympathize with. Zealotry has a steep price, and we’ve been seeing Touga pay for it for most of the series.

Choosing the Chosen

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But the distance here isn’t just an emotional one. It’s a hierarchical distance as well, for, “we’ve at once reached the top and bottom of the food chain… with our duelist so lowly that she wasn’t even named before now… and her sword pulled from the only duelist to best our protagonist” (Vrai, Vermin).

Keiko and Touga do have one key trait in common, though: Both consider themselves one of the elite, one of “The Chosen.” They are two very different levels of chosen, mind you, both in terms of how the intermediary between them (Nanami) treats them and how the school “society” as a whole views them, but they still have this lofty image of themselves, apart and “above” the masses.

There’s an impressive web of chosen/unchosen labels swirling around both Keiko and Touga, really. Keiko is chosen by Nanami but unchosen by World’s End, which in turn makes her eligible to be chosen by Mikage. Touga is chosen by Nanami (albeit very differently) and by World’s End, which in turn makes him both chosen (as a weapon) by Mikage but unchosen as a Black Rose duelist. That said, you could argue that he was unchosen by the Power of Dios and perhaps by Anthy, hence his current depression and isolation. And of course with Touga there’s also his attempts to be someone who chooses others, most notably in the complicated issue of whoever chose Nanami to be a part of the duels—presumably World’s End has the rose signet rings, but Touga personally gives Nanami’s ring to her, making it seem as if he was the one with the “choosing” power (no doubt a decision Touga made to intentionally conflate himself with the true authority figures of the show).

It’s a magnificent tangle of titles and positions, all of which I think is to highlight two points. One is the same one the shadow girls make: That for all the endless fighting and chasing going on at the school, none of them are really in charge, and all of them are helpless to the machinations of the real authority figures, the ones who do the choosing and set up the duel system in the first place.

We’ve spent most of the last arc slowly eroding the StuCo’s power, and they’ve lost that power primarily because the one who chose them fell silent, seeming to abandon them entirely. It’s indicative of just how illusory the power structure from Season 1 really was, that our previous antagonist (Touga) can be brought down by the lackey of the sister he’d so easily controlled in the past. Vrai describes this as the “wheel of fate,” as it shows how “the lowest and the highest on the hierarchy [are] perfectly capable of switching places” (Vermin).

Ikuhara remarks in his commentary that “If there’s a rule that something must be crushed underfoot, is it a crime to want to be on the ‘crushing’ side rather than the ‘crushed’ side?” and I think we’re seeing all of the duelists trying to exist within this binary system (heyyy, binaries again, everyone do a shot!), scrambling to be on the “crushing” side—and this is especially true of Touga, who’s proven himself more than willing to trample whoever he must on his way to the top. Except, of course, that our duelists are trying to crush each other while someone else stands above them, perfectly capable (and probably willing) to crush them at any moment.

Which brings us to the second point being made here, I think: That the “chosen” status isn’t a source of pride at all. Because what we see so clearly with Keiko—and Nanami—and Touga—is that “to be chosen” is to be chosen by someone, to have one’s status and position and sense of worth determined by another. For Keiko, being chosen by Nanami means doing what she says. It’s not power but subservience.

And this is true of pretty much everyone in our cast regardless of where they stand in the social/power hierarchy. For all that the rest of the student body admires them, and for all that they see themselves as wielding a special kind of power, ultimately Touga and the StuCo and even Utena have all been chosen by someone, are all playing this game because someone gave them the rings and set up the system and told them that this was how they could get what they wanted, their “shining things” and their “miracles” and their “eternities,” that this was the one and only way one could go about revolutionizing the world.

Which begs the question: How is the chick ever going to break out of its cage if it’s following the rules set by the person who built the cage in the first place? I think there’s something to be said for Keiko’s Black Rose revelation that the one who granted her the title of chosen (Nanami) is the real “vermin,” here, and provides us with a clue for how Utena and the StuCo might just be able to revolutionize the world after all. But they’re not there yet.

Duel, Rinse, Repeat(ish)

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One last thought before we talk allusions for a bit. Utena has always been about repetition, or perhaps about variation: We see a lot of the same things over and over again (Utena’s transformation sequence is the most obvious example of this), but we also see small changes along the way, both in how characters view the world and especially in how they interact with one another.

Which is why the ending of this episode feels so strange and out-of-place, particularly when compared with the other Black Rose duelists, where there was at least some kind of forward progression, even the seemingly negative progression we saw last week for Saionji (and Wakaba, to a lesser extent). Vrai describes the reasons for this quite nicely, so I’ll turn it over to them:

Keiko’s case is particularly unique in that while many of our duelists have been in some manner of toxic situation, all those who came before had some genuine love for the person who had come to hurt them. With Keiko, putting aside her ‘lying to herself,’ Nanami is entirely a means of getting to Touga (and whether Nanami is lying to herself about truly caring for her posse, she keeps them around for the sake of her self-esteem). They use one another as objects for their personal needs from the word go, a purely base example of what the show’s other relationships devolve into or are trying to grow away from. […]

That’s why there’s that hollow sense of nothingness at the end of the episode – there’s no relationship to fix, Keiko’s revelation has not… provoked her to make a serious change in her situation, and the status goes on as quo as ever. More interesting still is the idea that this is not a ‘natural’ situation, not simply something that girls do and one must get used to: it’s the work of the system, of duels and princes and princesses, that set individuals against one another and move their lives on such mundane levels that they never thought to consider it. (Vermin)

Once again it’s that sense of emotional distance that mucks up the pattern we saw in previous weeks.

…Or actually, maybe it doesn’t. I’ve been speaking for a while about the progression we’ve seen with the Black Rose duelists, and while I was originally trying to find a common thread between all of them, maybe it’s less repetition and more variation.

The relationships we’ve seen have become increasingly less—healthy? balanced? capable of being repaired?—and so the resolutions to those relationships have become increasingly less comforting as well. Miki/Kaoru seem to regain some of their old sibling closeness; the best thing that can happen for Juri/Shiori and Nanami/Mitsuru is increased distance, which seems to give them all at least a small sense of relief; Saionji/Wakaba move on and apart, but it’s not really on their own terms the way it is with the past two pairs; and Keiko doesn’t move at all, still attached to Nanami and (presumably) stuck on Touga.

So what’s my point with all this? I’m not sure I have one, not yet anyway. But I do think it’s worth considering as we move into the final arc and take stock of the relationships and the characters and where they stand in their overall development. I also think it’s worth remembering Utena’s remark there are the end, that “the roots of hatred” can move unseen below the surface. This is true not just of hatred but of most internal change, and speaks to the gradual but important growth and revelations made during this episode—even if we can’t see the sprouts just yet.

The Sensei Next Door

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I jotted down all these names and references while watching this episode, prepared to go on an Epic Internet Hunt to shed some light on the possible significance of this constellation or that Heian literary reference… and then I read Vrai’s post and it turns out they went and did all the work for me. Thaaaaanks, Vrai!

And so, with the spoilery bits removed, I bring you a series of copy/paste lessons:

On Umbrellas:

Just in case you didn’t already know, umbrellas are a romantic symbol in Japan, and sharing one is indicative of intimacy and “couple” status. So while Nanami’s reaction to Keiko sharing her umbrella with Touga is extreme as hell, understanding the cultural context at least helps explain why this particular interaction would set her off as much as it does. And, as Vrai notes, it’s also:

…an extension of the wheel of fate idea: an umbrella is a small, individualized attempt to stop the effect of the rain; something that falls on good and evil, prince and pauper alike. It’s a bridge between two people but a temporary one, no longer viable outside of a chaotic situation.

On The Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon:

Likewise the account of a woman in servitude to a noble lady, and an interesting case of historical literature. “Pillow books” were like private diaries, commonly kept and forgotten. Yet this one was found and elevated, perhaps due to its closeness to presumed ‘greatness,’ like Keiko and Nanami.

I actually read The Pillow Book as part of the research for my honor’s thesis (I got an A on it, ah-thank-you), but this was going on five years ago, and I’ll be damned if I can remember any specifics or references to the Pleiades constellation in there. But overall Vrai’s synopsis is solid.

Only two things I want to add about this book: One, it’s full of advice on “proper” courtly behavior, particularly regarding how ladies and gentleman should behave in their respective social spheres (or “coffins” if we wanna get all Utena about it). And second, just because this one tickles me: Court poetry was often “rated” based on how much it could allude and reference other poems, and Sei Shonagon was supposedly renowned for her poetry, able to recognize allusions and reply with even more obscure ones. Some days I feel like Ikuhara is playing this game with his audience, too.

On Pleiades:

A constellation made up of seven stars. While there are several myths across various cultures (including Japan, which casts them as seven sages), the most commonly referenced version is the Greco-Roman story of the seven sisters. They were servants of the goddess Artemis, six of them beloved by Zeus and parents to gods of their own – with the exception of one sister, Merope, who fell in love with a mortal man and faded away. […] Merope’s husband was Sisyphus (damned forever to roll a boulder up a slope, only to have it roll down to the bottom as soon as he reaches the top), and Keiko certainly seems to have committed herself to a similar fate by going back to Nanami. After all, approaching Touga again will mean starting the cycle over.

On Gemini (Castor and Pollux):

Castor and Pollux, seemingly unbeatable twins separated by the untimely death of mortal Pollux. Zeus offered Castor the chance to share his immortality with his twin, binding them together forever as the constellation Gemini… The constellation is fixed in the sky… Because it’s the sign of the twins, and an air sign in astrology, Gemini can [also] be read as being flighty or two-faced. It’s a power move on Akio’s part [to remind Anthy of her position and the fact that she’s hiding information from Utena], with the cinematography purposefully giving him towering size and width in the frame.

It’s pretty much impossible to analyze this reference without discussing Act Three in depth, so if you’re reading this as someone who’s already seen the entire series, I once again (and as always) recommend reading Vrai’s post so you can get the full analysis. For you first-timers out there, just hang on to the idea of twins as we move into the next arc, and not just as literal twins but as paired groups of people. We’ve already seen pairs all over this series, and that’s only going to become more prominent as we go.

Next -> Episode 22

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Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.

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