Utena Watch Party: Episode 23

In which the Black Rose Saga ends the way it began: With a Black Rose duelist losing a fight, and Akio scaring the hell out of me.

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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

I’m writing this the afternoon before the Super Bowl (although by the time this goes up the game should be about over, and you should be fighting through your food coma as you read this) and I’m looking forward to heading over to a friend’s place, stuffing myself with junk foods and fancy beers, and hoping to heaven that I can drive myself home afterward given that we seem to be in the middle of a mini-blizzard. But first, I need to be a little depressed, because this episode is a little depressing. I think the first time I watched this arc I was too busy connecting the fragmented plot points and absorbing the shocking!reveals to really worry about the emotions of the experience, but this time… oof. Each Black Rose duelist’s story is a strange, complicated tragedy pie with a scoop of hope a la mode, and Nemuro embodies that to a T. Perhaps “melancholy” is the right word for it.

Vrai has written some great stuff about Nemuro/Mikage, Mamiya, and how their story handles queer representation (there’s even a compare/contrast to Sailor Moon’s Zoisite and Kunzite, which is glorious), and I sincerely hope that you’ll check that out as soon as you’re able (i.e., once you’ve seen the entire series and don’t have to worry about spoilers). But for this “newbie friendly” analysis, I want to walk us through the twists and turns that occur in these two episodes, look at what they say about memory and Nemuro’s journey, and also discuss the parallels drawn between Utena and Mikage and where that leaves us as we head into the final arc of the series. So let’s kick this off with some basic play-by-play analysis, shall we?

The Delusion of Memory: Mikage and the Siblings

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Nemuro/Mikage’s story is a tangled ball of deception made even more complicated because it isn’t entirely self-inflicted: Akio (and Anthy) have been pulling the strings from day one, influencing his memories and subtly altering them in ways that—given the tragedy that defines Nemuro’s life—a part of him was probably happy to have happen. Episode 22 gave us the story of Professor Nemuro as he tells it to himself; these are the “memories [he] couldn’t forget,” that he wished to “make eternal.” These are the memories he attributes to the Black Rose duelists, and the ones he says make him and Utena “alike.”

Except then we spend the last five minutes of this episode unraveling all those memories and proving that the vast majority of them weren’t even real. First, there’s the reveal of the fire: Nemuro set it himself, opening the “path to the dueling arena” and thus to eternity, likely because he wanted to use that path to both save Mamiya and get Tokiko to acknowledge him the way she acknowledged Akio.

On the coattails of this reveal comes Mikage’s sudden clarity about Mamiya (and notice how it happens shortly after Anthy “powers up” Utena, consciously or subconsciously choosing Utena’s path over Mikage’s), as he realizes that the Mamiya who has been with him all these years is an illusion, and indeed has even replaced the “original” Mamiya in Nemuro’s own memories. This, we’ll learn by episode’s end, was Akio and Anthy’s doing.

And this colors pretty much everything we saw between Nemuro and Mamiya in the previous episode, because it’s exceedingly difficult to know how much of their interactions is actually Mamiya and how much of it is Anthy (and Akio) adjusting Nemuro’s memories so he can justify his current actions. Although there are at least hints: Remember how last episode Mamiya remarked that maybe flowers don’t like
to be made to live longer, but this episode we see a rose-bearing Mamiya declaring “I want eternity”? It seems contradictory, but it isn’t if we assume that the first of those memories is Mamiya himself and the second is the Mamiya-illusion, telling Nemuro what Akio needs him to hear (and what he perhaps wants to hear) so he’ll “open the path to eternity.” To add to this interpretation:

…Even from what little we know, this Mamiya seems a shallow copy of the one Mikage fell in love with: being the Bride, after all, means not being a partner or an equal but a reflection of what the engaged Duelist wants you to be (it is no matter of coincidence that the scene shared by Nemuro and Mamiya involved Mamiya not only respecting but debating Nemuro on his subject of study, while nearly every conversation with the “Bride” Mamiya up to now has been very docile). (Vrai, The Terms of a Duelist)

All of which brings us to the careful illusions constructed around Mikage throughout this “real time” Black Rose Arc. First, there’s the Tokiko illusion(s) that plagues him, particularly in his dealings with Utena (who ultimately rejects his methods the same way Tokiko did), appearing as “a nebulous force which he cannot appease on a romantic or admiring level (if he had ‘saved’ Mamiya she might have been proud, if he had been more an ‘adult’ she might have loved him over Akio)” (Vrai, Episode 23). Then there’s the current Mamiya (Anthy), alive but existing in a realm of darkness, whom Mikage seeks to make the new Rose Bride because “if he is a ‘Bride’ then he is something eternal, a subject whose raison d’etre is to be saved” (Vrai, Episode 23).

But this “memory revision” doesn’t stop with the people around him. As Vrai notes:

[Mikage is] essentially Nemuro’s idealized self, created from a mindset that was still very much in the fledgling stages of understanding human interaction. Mikage is straightforward where Nemuro was uncertain (his blunt declaration of attraction to Utena seems to have much to do with old regrets), insightful into human emotions, the master of his own game rather than a cog in someone else’s. And most important, Mikage helps people. While it doesn’t justify his behavior (there was definitely some emotional manipulation going down with the Black Rose Duelists), Mikage’s declaration that he was helping his subjects achieve their desires seems heartfelt. When Nemuro created his second chance he made someone who wouldn’t fail another Mamiya, who could solve people like puzzles and set them on the ‘obvious’ right path as best as he could imagine it would be done. It’s not right, but it is unspeakably tragic. (The Terms of a Duelist)

So Mikage is a kind of projected revision of Nemuro himself, although I think it’s up to the viewer to decide if you want to see Mikage as a literal illusion (“mikage” does refer to a “divine spirit,” y’know) or merely a mask Nemuro has learned to wear over the years.

In the Pink: Mikage and Utena

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In effect, Nemuro is trapped in his own memories—and specifically the unrealized hopes contained within them—and projecting those hopes on the people around him, trying to fix past mistakes and regrets. The shadow girls explain all this in neat, simple terms, showing us the father who would rather relive his (no doubt idealized and altered) memories than deal with the problems and imperfections of the present.

By the end of the episode, it’s pretty clear that we’re not supposed to see this as even remotely healthy (although I think it’s easy to understand or sympathize with it), but I think it’s also pretty clear that we’re not just supposed to see this as Nemuro/Mikage’s story. Throughout both the Student Council and Black Rose Arcs we’ve seen characters strongly influenced by their memories, often to the point where those memories serve as their primary motivation. We’ve also often seen those memories proven false or at the very least skewed, selectively altered to fit the person’s “ideal” reality (which they have since lost and/or are trying to gain). Miki and Kozue are the most obvious example of this, but plenty of perceptions are colored by desires or regrets, from the way Jury and Shiori remember their past relationship to Saionji’s obsession with the young Utena, Touga, and that illusive “something eternal.”

This episode is, though, perhaps the first time we’ve really been asked to question how Utena herself fits into these overarching themes about how (inaccurate) memory affects present behavior. As I said before, Utena rejects Mikage’s methods and loudly declares them to be nothing alike, even going so far as to challenge him to a duel to prove it (only her third challenge of the series, behind Saionji and Touga). While her reaction to his extended speech about “making your memories eternal” seems to come at least in part from genuine righteous anger, there’s also a measure of fear in it (you’ll notice she doesn’t really become horrified until she sees the photo of herself on the wall, and I think Mikage rightly guesses that she’s saying “don’t touch my memories”), as well as a kind of self-denial: Utena doesn’t want to see the similarities between herself and this “monster,” so she demands a duel so she can avoid that kind of introspection.

Despite Utena’s fierce denials, the color palette alone suggests that Ikuhara wants us to draw parallels between the two. So let’s do that for a moment, shall we? They’re both increasingly entangled with a pair of siblings (the “adult protector” Tokiko/Akio and the “passive protected” Mamiya/Anthy) who are, at best, not telling Nemuro/Utena everything and are, at worst, outright manipulating them. They both became active participants in this “game” as a way to help someone else (Mamiya’s illness, Anthy’s abusive relationship with Saionji); although despite their (IMO) legitimate altruistic intentions, they’re also driven by personal, selfish desires, as Mikage wants both Tokiko and Mamiya to acknowledge/love him and Utena wants to be a prince who rescues princesses. And of course, as Mikage himself notes, they’re driven by memories that have given them strength and allowed them to keep fighting even when they were at their lowest points (I’d argue that all these delusions of Mikage’s began shortly after both Tokiko’s “betrayal” and Mamiya’s death, suggesting that he used his false memories as a kind of coping mechanism to deal with a pair of losses/failures).

And I think all these parallels are intended to make us ask questions about Utena as we move into the final arc. All we’ve really seen of her past memories is the “fairy tale” about the prince who gave the sad little girl strength—but is this the whole story? Given the way other memories have proven untrusthworthy (Mikage’s most of all), and the connection between Dios and Akio, and Utena’s increasingly close relationship to both Anthy and her brother, it begs the question of how much of this story have we actually seen, and how much do we or Utena really know at this point? Something to consider as we head in the final arc, and hope that Mikage’s story serves as a warning rather than a foreshadowing of Utena’s own fate with this seemingly immortal sibling duo.

Game-Changers: Mikage and the Unchosen

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Oh yeah, and another similarity between Mikage and Utena: They both reject the current dueling system while simultaneously existing within its structure and rules. Mikage acted like the new “World’s End” all arc, selecting new duelists and granting rose signets, and we’ve known that his plan from the start was to “kill” the Rose Bride and replace her with Mamiya. He wanted to keep the system but change the main players. And so he existed in the basement of Ohtori, the other side of the coin (as noted by his “underground” position as opposed to the StuCo and Akio’s high-rise views) but nevertheless still a part of it.

This is where the final reveal of the episode comes into play, and perhaps the reason why Nemuro’s story isn’t entirely without hope. During the duel, Nemuro/Mikage at last recognizes the lies behind his memories, and Utena cuts the black rose from his chest. As I’ve been suggesting all arc, these duels are a kind of liberation and that Utena does, in a way, “free” the Black Rose duelists from their pent-up aggressions and delusions. I think this is still the case here, albeit in a pretty dismal way, as immediately after the duel ends, Akio speaks to Nemuro on the phone and gives him the good(?) news: Nope, he didn’t actually burn down that building and kill all those boys. That, too, was an illusion, brought on by “lingering regret,” and (I would argue) was Nemuro’s first attempt to tear down the structure that Akio had built.

As Ikuhara explains in his creator commentary:

“The path you must take is no longer prepared for you. Now graduate from this place.”

Those who reject that place are, conversely, rejected by it as well. This is the nature of systems: the moment you reject them, you are forced to realize that they’re the very ground you’re standing on. Mikage noticed the trick behind the system, and he hurriedly attempted revisions. But the adult who’d created the system just said “Let’s not,” and unilaterally brought the curtain down. The system of illusion was finished. Mikage could no longer exist there. That’s why he disappeared from the memories of those who’d interacted with him.

The ending is rough from a narrative perspective as well as a personal one: Nemuro is essentially exonerated from his perceived crimes, but he’s also wiped from memory, and we’re led to believe at the end of the episode that, as far as Utena and the StuCo are concerned, the Black Rose duels never happened at all (although presumably the “mundane” happenings of the last arc were all real, given that Saionji will—spoiler alert, I guess?—be at school in the next arc, too).

Nemuro becomes, in a way, the ultimate unchosen in a season full of them, not only stripped of his rose signet but also cast out of Ohtori Academy, “graduating” at last. But is that really such a bad thing? He finally has the clarity he’s lacked for years, and there’s a sense in that last “Mamiya, it’s been decades since I saw you” line that suggests a kind of catharsis or acceptance of past events. I talked last week about how “eternity” is stasis (and therefore kinda, well, sucks), and Mikage seems to acknowledge this as well when he decides to fight Utena partly because he “needs to advance.”

And he does, I think; not in the way he wanted, but in a way that’s likely a whole lot healthier than remaining at Ohtori Academy, trapped in both a tangle of delusions and the dueling system at large. So maybe something good has come out of this for Nemuro as well, in the end.

But even if you interpret Nemuro’s finale as a complete tragedy (or even the “vanquishing” of a villain), we can at least all draw some hope from that lovely “hand-holding scene” between Utena and Anthy. As if he knew this episode was going to be a difficult one for viewers to digest both intellectually and emotionally, Ikuhara gives us this moment of genuine kindness and human connection, which Vrai describes so nicely that I’ll go ahead and let them play us off, here:

Beyond the fact that it’s a very sweet and intimate moment, a very clear marker of growth in their relationship, and the first time Utena’s initiated any kind of intimate contact between the two of them, it’s huge on Anthy’s side of things. This is the first time Utena’s been allowed to see anything like the ‘real’ Anthy, without the other girl performing any role or responding to an expectation.

Thematically, Utena being awake and Anthy asleep shows the former gaining a major step in a revelation (that Anthy can’t just walk away from being the Rose Bride…). Her eyes are being opened, metaphorically speaking. At the same time, Anthy is having a humanizing moment… reaching out for physical contact in a reach for reassurance (and… it’s something she clearly only felt safe doing when Utena was asleep and they were in the closest thing to a safe space). (The Terms of a Duelist)

And so the Black Rose Saga comes to an end, moving us gradually but significantly forward in our story, our themes, and our central relationship. Next week we’ll see it recapped—sort of—and after that? The oh-so-subtly named Apocalypse Saga. Hold on to your heart-swords, folks. It’s going to be an even wilder ride than this one.

Next -> Episode 24

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Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.

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