Utena Watch Party: Episode 24

In which nothing on Utena is as it first appears, and in other news water is wet.

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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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This week we’ve got a recap episode, although it’s about as different from our last recap as you can get. There we had Dios and the stranger we now know as Akio looking over the entirety of the Student Council Saga, weaving an overall narrative (to both the duels and Utena’s character arc) and hinting at a larger, as-yet-unseen picture. And now, after the Black Rose Saga, we get… a recap of the goofy Nanami episodes?

Well, as Vrai notes, we pretty much can’t get a Black Rose recap since the Black Rose didn’t technically happen, although we do get some hints this week that the non-Mikage-related events of the last 10 episodes were real enough: Nanami still turned into a cow, for one, but more importantly, she expresses gratitude to Mitsuru at the beginning of this episode, and Mitsuru “now wants to be ‘a man worthy of Nanami’ rather than her big brother, indicating at least a small nudge in becoming comfortable with his burgeoning sexuality” (Vrai, Episode 24). So we can confirm that the character growth we saw in the last arc is still very much in play.

Past that, there’s also some good humor here—something we’ll get less and less of as the final arc progresses—and a few of the same narrative tactics we’ve seen throughout the series, especially during the Black Rose Saga. But overall I’d say this week is something of a mini-break from most of the heavy themes and drama. And, since we’re having one of our surprise 60-degree winter days in my neck of the woods (gotta love capricious Midwest weather), I’ll go ahead and take a mini-break myself, just touching on one major topic—those narrative tactics I mentioned—and then plugging some other Utena goodies before I skip out to my patio and laze around like a fat cat in the sun.

Perspective and Retrospective

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As a hopeful writer myself, I’m always approaching stories not just from a critical/thematic angle, but also from a craft one, and Utena is no exception. So I figured I’d talk about two elements ofUtena that stick out to me in terms of structure and storytelling, and which are used in a nice, goofy, “micro” way in this episode.

So first: Perspective. We tend to approach visual media from an “eye of God” angle, where we assume the camera is an objective third-person narrator and all events we’re seeing are occurring more-or-less as they happen. Now this gets a little muddier with anime series, which (partly due to budget constraints and partly due to their close connection to manga) often rely on voice-overs and internal monologues much more than most America TV or film, so we get quite a bit of that first-person POV in terms of how we’re supposed to read the events happening on-screen. But even so, those events are generally taken to be true and complete, presented as they “really” happened.

But series like Utena (and, now that I think about it, a lot of Satoshi Kon films, too) intentionally use those audience expectations and twist them, telling essentially the same story from multiple perspectives. The most obvious examples of this in the past couple arcs are Miki/Kozue and Juri/Shiori, where our Black Rose episode gave us greater insight into what we’d seen in the StuCo Saga. And the most powerful example of this is the Black Rose finale itself, where Nemuro basically competes with his own delusions to form complex, competing perspectives on an event.

We see it again here, albeit in a sillier fashion, as Mitsuru seemingly (more on that in a minute) recounts Nanami’s past mischief, filling in blanks (so that’s where the banana came from!) and offering a semi-objective but nevertheless sympathetic interpretation of her role in the story (“No matter how she hurts people, she ends up getting hurt the worst!” he notes during the “Anthy Himemiya is a Weirdo” scheme).

I’d already decided to talk about this before I read Vrai’s post, but wouldn’t ya know it, they touch on it as well, although from a slightly different angle, as they connect this episode to Tom Stoppard’s stage play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I had the good fortune to see this in London several yeas ago, and while Tim Curry was not The Player AS I WAS TOLD HE WOULD BE (marking the second time my quest to see Tim Curry onstage was thwarted—like Nanami, I am cursed), it was still a damn good play: very funny, very smart, and far more tragic than I’d expected.

And, as to how that all relates to this week’s episode:

[Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead] follows those two side characters from Hamlet – friends of the Dane hired by his uncle to suss out why he’s acting all morose over his dead dad who get the noose offstage between acts three and four – as they stand around in that ‘offstage’ and wonder how they’ve got where they are, why they’re there, and why they don’t seem to have any control over their actions the minute the “real” plot comes onstage (the whole thing dovetails incredibly well with Utena‘s themes of the chosen vs. the unchosen, and the relative value of each). There’s much existentialism and roundabout wondering over philosophy and free will, and this is the stemming point for pretty much every modern ‘let’s revisit that scene you saw from a different observational point’ plot you’ve likely come across (related to but distinct from the Rashomon effect, which is more different POVs largely coloring what you thought was ‘objective’ truth) – hence why we’re bringing it up now.

Mitsuru’s notes begin as… ‘objective’… [but progress] from there to commentary on the action (the note that Nanami is ‘pitiful,’ and gets her fair share of karma back) to outright fantastical twisting of the narrative. So, what can be said to be ‘true’ here? It’s not Mitsuru, our third person observer (he occupies the same role that the ‘camera’ would normally have, calling into question our automatic assumption that because we are being shown something on screen that thing is really happening). But at the same time, he’s able to grasp hold of the truth of Nanami’s character in a way that [Utena and Anthy] cannot.

Which truth do we value, then? The one that we see with our eyes, fully capable of lying to us as the memories of our characters so often do? Or “the lie that tells the truth,” the fictionalization/abstraction of events that are able to portray more intangible ideals even if the images are ‘lies.’ This concern and the resulting tension is essentially at the core of the series: stories are lies, so how do we value them? Which do we hold up, and which do we discard? What perspective do we take in examining them? (Vrai, The Secret Nanami Diary)

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So, in essence, this episode is a retelling of past events from a new perspective. And it is, only not the perspective we first thought, because there’s one final, major twist: That whole scene where Mitsuru’s in the nurse’s office listening to the girls read his diary? Yeah—Nanami dreamed all of that. So the perspective we’re really getting this episode isn’t Mitsuru’s at all, but Nanami’s (and how fitting that she’d assume her boyservant writes about nothing but her).

Now, granted, it turns out she’s a little right, here: He does have “scenarios” in the notebook just as she suspected. But all those moments where Mitsuru seemed to offer surprisingly sharp insights into Nanami’s character and her journey? Those were all really coming from Nanami. Couple this with Nanami’s nightmare in “Cowbell of Happiness,” and it continues to suggest that she is (at least subconsciously) a lot more perceptive than she appears.

Which, of course, brings us to the second word in that heading: “retrospective.” Utena has one of the best rewatch values in anime because of its willingness to offer new perspectives and revelations in later episodes that cause an interpretive ripple effect all the way back to the premiere, practically demanding that we view the series again once we’ve gotten the complete (or as close to complete as we can get) picture. It’s just one more way this seeming “filler” episode connects to the primary themes of the Black Rose, for the revelation that Mitsuru’s diary was actually Nanami’s recollection of past events colors our reading of the entire episode, in the same way the reveals about Nemuro/Mikage’s faulty memory in Episode 23 color the events we saw in Episode 22.

Which, in addition to allowing the series to explore the unreliability of human memory and challenge the idea of a single objective truth, it’s also just a damn fine way to engage your audience, encouraging them to think about the story from multiple angles, reconsider their previous assumptions and beliefs, and (one hopes) carry those same questions out of the realm of fiction and into their daily lives as well. Take note, aspiring writers: This is how you turn a supposedly passive medium into an active one, making the audience a participant and not just a viewer. There’s a reason people are still writing about Utena almost 20 years after its original airing, after all.

Utena Write Party

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Speaking of those people writing about Utena: Have some additional articles! Note that all of these assume you’ve seen the entire series, so spoilers are likely. If you’re for the first time, I’d recommend just sticking with my posts for now, and then coming back to all these lovelies at a later date.

  • Unbeknownst to us over here at Team Watch Party, mageinabarrel has been working on his own extended Utena Project as well. He’s three eps into an episode-by-episode analysis and just posted a three-part essay about Utena herself. If you’ve finished the series, I recommend checking it out.
  • Somehow I missed this when I was perusing Empty Movement earlier, but they have a whole page of stand-alone essays about characters, themes, symbols, what have you. I admittedly haven’t had a chance to parse through these myself, but I fully intend to do so at some point soon (although I may wait until after I’ve completed the Watch Party, as I don’t want to be influenced by too many other works at this point). Again, I’m assuming most of these are spoilery, but if you’ve completed the series I hope you’ll have fun with a little supplementary reading.
  • …And hey, feel free to contact me if you know of some other Utena works out there that deserve attention. It’s not a proper Watch Party without fellow watchers, so I’m always looking for additional opinions and reactions.

Wellp, that’s all I’ve got for this week! (Hah, and my “short post” is still over 2000 words. If brevity is the soul of wit, I’m as sharp as a pillow.) We’ve reached the end of the final disc in the Nozomi Black Rose box set, so next week is an off-week, and then I’ll be back to kick off the Apocalypse Saga. It’s been a fun ride so far, and I look forward to continuing all the way to the final episode, assuming the combined imagery of both this and Yurikuma Arashi don’t smash my brain’s shell first.

See you in a couple weeks!

Next -> Episode 25

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Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.

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