In which Saionji discovers that dueling is a lot like the mafia—just when you think you’re out, they pull you right back in.
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.
We’re officially entering the Utena arc which I remember the least, strange as that may sound. I’ve seen the series front-to-back in its entirety twice before now, but I’ve seen the first cour and parts of the second something like 5-6 times, because I tend to introduce my friends to this show and then tell them they don’t need to wait for me to finish it. Usually they get so into it that they marathon the last arc without me. This means I’m entering these posts with memories of the finale that are something like eight years old—which also means that my promise of “newbie friendly” commentary just got a whole lot easier to manage, because there a ton of specifics I don’t remember.
Like how incredibly disturbing every scene between Akio and Touga – or Anthy – or Utena – or, hell, between Akio and anyone is. Or how the show’s shirtless dude quotient appears to have been hilariously tripled. Or those lovely not-quite-synchronized half-circle beds. There’s a bunch we could talk about, is what I’m saying, and I have a feeling if I don’t start limiting myself to very specific topics, the size of these posts is going to balloon to novella lengths. So, as we officially enter the Apocalypse Saga, I thought we’d focus on where we stand at this crossroads: What’s new, what’s similar, and how that fits in with our characters and story.
The More Things Change…
Since we did just get smacked with a whole lotta stuff, let’s quickly run down the changes that got dumped on us this week:
- Touga is back in the driver’s passenger’s seat, spending his nights with Akio in wildly uncomfortable ways.
- Utena and Anthy have moved into Akio’s “Incredibly Phallic Watchtower” (as Vrai so eloquently puts it).
- Akio seems to have revealed himself as End of the World to Touga (and later Saionji), and his “Questionable Consent Car” (again, Vrai’s eloquence) seems to be to the StuCo what Elevator Confessionals were for Mikage’s unchosen—although it’s important to note that all Mikage did was encourage his duelists to “go deeper” while Akio and Touga seem to be actively and aggressively seducing/manipulating Saionji, here.
- A gondola has appeared in the dueling arena, which in turn has led to a new ascension/transformation sequence
- A car zooms around the dueling arena
- Utena is battling with her own soul-sword rather than Anthy’s “Sword of Dios”
- There’s a brand-new ending theme complete with Yuri Approved artwork
I’m sure I missed something, but those are the highlights. And we’ll discuss a fair number of those changes and their implications later in this post, rest assured. But first I want to focus on how much hasn’t changed, as Vrai notes:
But in spite of the wave of changes we’ve also managed to come right back around to the start: Utena moves into a new place, finds herself in over her head with something (someone) she doesn’t fully understand the dangers of, and duels Saionji in order to protect a dear friend (with a very nearly identical shadow play to boot). Structurally, it’s deliberately made to echo the first episode; by the same token, it’s meant to show us the strings that we hadn’t seen before, and to rob almost all sense of triumph in favor of an eerie uncanniness. This show loves its patterns, and more than that loves knocking the feet out from under those patterns, the better to show us how the system fails to function. (Their Eternal Apocalypse)
…The More They Stay the Same
Probably the saddest “un-change” this week is Saionji, who was so close to finally growing up and away from his asshole “friend” and the system that’s arguably hurt him more than any of the other duelists. When he chooses to ignore End of the World’s letter and tells the StuCo he’s done fighting, we know it’s not true—the background baseball game is too full of strikes and outs every time someone makes a point encouraging him to stay to make us truly believe he’s winning this debate—but at the very least, as Vrai notes:
[T]he Saionji we meet is at least recognizably comparable to the one who befriended Wakaba. He’s still attached to that whole stoic pride thing, and no doubt he’s still a bundle of masculine anxiety and inferiority complexes, but he’s not the right bastard from [before]: he’s able to sense on some level that the system isn’t good for him, he doesn’t talk about Anthy and tries to avoid the subject even when Touga directly brings it up (in fact, we have no indication that Saionji’s tried to approach Anthy in any capacity since he returned to campus, as though he truly did consider her feelings and was trying to improve himself rather than chase her down), and he directly confronts Touga about the latter’s passive-aggressive approach to their relationship. Baby steps all, but incredibly important ones. (Their Eternal Apocalypse)
Then Saionji meets Akio. In his commentary, Ikuhara compares the car ride to a CEO taking an unhappy employee out to a high-class restaurant, tempting him with the promise of future extravagance (“showing him the world”) in order to get him to stay and work hard in the present. We see something similar happen here, as Akio and Touga remind Saionji of his old desires. Touga makes a point to say Saionji would be “giving up” (as if he’s quitting out of failure rather than making a conscious decision to get the hell out of a destructive system), reminds him of the girl in the coffin, and uses Saionji’s old buzzword “eternity” about as often as possible,.
In the end, he doesn’t just return to the dueling system (as we knew he would), but regresses completely back into his old role as the easy villain, the abusive jerk we all love to hate. And this time he’s not even deluded by some misguided sense of love (the exchange diary was, if nothing else, an indication that he truly believed Anthy had her own will and cared about him enough to write in it), but instead thinks of Anthy as nothing but a prize to be won. So maybe it isn’t even that he hasn’t changed, but that he’s actually gotten worse.
I’m not sure when I became Saionji’s biggest sympathizer, but man, seeing him after that car ride hurt me about as much as the end of Wakaba’s episode—this is a guy who’s been just ruined by the aggressive, objectifying world of princes and princesses, where the prince’s worth is built around if he’s strong enough to fight for and “win” his “prize.” It really is Ikuhara doing what he does best, and showing us how damaged systems hurt everyone, even those who initially seem to benefit from them.
Cars, Lipstick, and the Adolescence of Utena
I’ve already watched next week’s episode (I’m staggering the posts now, but not necessarily my watch schedule), so I can already tell you that adolescence and adulthood are going to be a majorrecurring topic this arc, even more so than they were previously. Most of our new imagery and character design tweaks all center around popular ideas of maturity or adulthood, as the girls are now frequently shown wearing lipstick, people are driving around at night in sexy sports cars with their grown-up besties, and both the new transformation scene and the ending theme are full of “blooming” imagery as well as overtly sensual artwork and animation.
Akio, the only actual adult in the cast, has become a living embodiment of what many kids and teens think adulthood (and particularly “masculine” adulthood) means: authority, freedom, and confident sexuality, all three of which are on display during the car rides. Touga and later Saionji are seduced by this image and try to emulate it to varying degrees of success. Saionji is in a particularly unfortunate position, kept in the car’s backseat and even less ready to enter adulthood than his old friend, as Vrai notes:
Saionji has, after all, been very childish up to this point… His relationship with Anthy is characterized by the exchange diary, a thing pointedly described as something for grade school students – even in the TV series there’s the implication that Anthy will become anything to her betrothed, and yet his clearest desire is to force an emotional connection.
The same with Touga – Saionji seems to believe that reaching some magical win state will make the two of them equal again, and equality has both the connotation of physical prowess and emotional straightforwardness. Saionji simply cannot play Touga’s emotional games, and it seems to both frustrate and unnerve him. And there is the fact that [the] tide of conversation turns when the element of physical seduction comes into play – Saionji’s holding his own until Touga’s shirt comes open, and the rattling effect it has is visible… it’s just not something he’s prepared to deal with. (Their Eternal Apocalypse)
Touga seems to handle this transition/seduction better and even pretends to be Akio’s equal or partner, mimicking his behavior to a startling degree. But lest we forget, Touga is still a child, unable to drive and relegated to the passenger seat as Akio pulls him along with the promises of a power he’s sought from day one.
This idea of what it means to be an adult—and how each character approaches that wild, driverless car and the myth of maturity that sits behind the wheel—will be an ongoing topic in the coming weeks, and we’ll be coming back to it in relationship to each character and the series as a whole.
The Sensei Next Door
I’ve got two research-y bits this week, although Vrai was kind enough to do the bulk of the legwork for the first one. They tie into some of what the show is exploring currently, too, so I opted to give them a fair bit of space this week.
The Lucifer Legend
Just in case you weren’t sure how to read Akio, this episode goes ahead and compares him to the fucking devil. Which seems pretty clear-cut and almost hilariously obvious, but—as with most allusions and references in Utena—it does turn out to be a bit more complicated than it first appears.
I’ve had to work some elliptical witchcraft to make Vrai’s commentary spoiler-free, but it’s a solid overview of the Lucifer mythology, for those who may not be familiar:
The conversation is a game of allusions, basically. Every piece of the conversation has a flip side. Akio equates himself with Lucifer, called the Morning Star: the brightest angel in heaven felled by pride in the traditional texts. But Lucifer’s been a tragic/romantic figure too, from Paradise Lost on up – a being felled so that there might be evil to sustain a binary system, with full knowledge on his part that he was acting within a larger plan and willingly making that sacrifice […]. Akio also calls the Morning Star Venus, the brightest star in the sky – the goddess of love and beauty, but also the mother of the founder of Rome by way of her son Aeneas.
And finally, that speech about it being the hidden star. He seems to mean it in reference to himself… But the camera is on Anthy, and it’s not hard to see the way in which she is obscured: she has the power, but Akio controls her. (Their Eternal Apocalypse)
In terms of analysis (just in case you couldn’t tell from that hacked-and-slashed mythology course), Vrai’s overall point is that, while Akio seems to be setting himself up as the “star” in question, the series seems to be setting up Anthy to share (or even completely fill) this role as well.
One other point I want to make about Akio’s little speech here: It all deals in fictions and falsehoods. First, because the Morning “Star” isn’t a star at all—it’s a planet—and second, because the story of Lucifer that so many people take as a kind of Biblical “truth” isn’t actually in The Bible. The one reference to the fallen “Lucifer” actually refers to the fall of the King(s) of Babylon, not to any angelic forces; there are bits and pieces throughout Judeo-Christian texts that refer to various tempters or evils or fallen ones, but the popular notion of Satan/Lucifer is a compilation of cultural stories and mythologies. So, even if you take The Bible to be the truth (or at least a metaphorical interpretation of the truth, as I do), Lucifer is still allegory and implication rather than actual “fact.”
Now, how much of this would the Japanese creators of Utena have known? Maybe none of it, although with Ikuhara it’s hard to say for sure. But it certainly seems to fit into the show’s overall exploration of popular mythologies (most notably shoujo and fairy tales) and how those stories can have such a strong effect on our cultural beliefs and practices, regardless of their historical validity.
“Their” Eternal Apocalypse: Pairings and Partnerships
I was struck by the episode title this week partly because of the translation and partly because of the deliberate vagueness of it. The title in Japanese is ふたりの永遠黙示録 (futari no eien mokushiroku), which gets translated to “Their Eternal Apocalypse.” Thing is, futari specifically refers to two people, so it would be more accurate (although admittedly awkward) to say “The Pair’s Eternal Apocalypse.”
I bring this up largely because the idea of futari takes center stage this week, as it seems like just about everyone is getting paired up at some point—Akio and Touga, Touga and Saionji, Utena and Anthy, Anthy and Akio, Utena and Akio (arguably this episode centers on two trios, but they’re so rarely interacting in groups of three that the pairings are more prominent). The title leaves us wondering exactly which of the “two” gets to claim that “eternal apocalypse,” but more to the point, it sets up the importance of pairs and especially of joint ownership or partnership.
We’ll see this in more detail in the coming weeks with other characters, but for now we can sort of say there are three major “partnerships” right now: Akio and Touga, Akio and Anthy, and Anthy and Utena. (Poor, stupid Saionji gets teased with a potential pairing, but he’s very much the outsider here, a fact made glaringly obvious when he duels two people while two others observe.)
I put “partnerships” in quotes up there because the term suggests a kind of equality, and the episode’s opening and ending sequences make it clear that Akio is very much in control of both of his pairings: He drags Anthy to him when she hesitates, and the writers make a point to remind us right from the get-go that Touga is too young to drive, making him a minor in the manipulative hands of an adult.
But what of Anthy and Utena and their partnership? The changes this week are huge for them, and all point to a shift in the power structure—a shift which, it’s worth noting, cuts both directions. First, they move from a hierarchical bunk bed system (and I’m somehow only just now realizing that Utena claimed the top bunk, placing her in a literally higher position than Anthy—Ikuhara, you brilliant son of a gun) to a not-quite-connected but nevertheless equal-level bed system. Then the gondola appears in the dueling arena, so that no longer must Utena “ascend” to Anthy’s level but Anthy instead meets her at the bottom and the two transform together.
And of course, the act of dueling is a much more equal effort for both parties, now. Anthy isn’t just the passive bride whose only job is to have her power taken by another, and Utena isn’t completely at the mercy of the dueling system, forced to use another’s power (sword) to win. Anthy’s role is much more active, and Utena wields her own sword. Even the sword-pulling sequence somehow feels more consensual now, using parallels and mirror poses to strengthen that sense of partnership.
Granted, as Vrai notes: “the visual symbolism [of the beds] as they face one another and take hands with eyes open, connected but with beds not entirely in synch [shows that] there are still secrets between them” (Episode 25). But it’s still a start, and a much closer and more trusting partnership than any of the others we’ve seen thus far. As the shadow girls warn us, “it’s hard to work as a team,” but this futari just may be on the right path.
Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.