In which the challengers get an upgrade—so why does it feel like a step back?
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.
My first thought this week was: “Damn it, Akio, quit undoing all that work Mikage did in moving these kids toward something vaguely resembling functional relationships!” I know it’s easy to ignore the Black Rose Arc because, um, technically speaking it didn’t happen, but as we’ve established in past posts, the effects of those duels still linger, particularly in regard to character and interpersonal growth. And remember how Miki and Kozue were starting to sorta, kinda, finallymove towards repairing their relationship and openly acknowledging their affection towards one another? Yeah, that’s gone by the end of the episode, as the two are back to hostility and distance (neatly conveyed by the ladder, vaulting Miki back up onto his StuCo pedestal as he was in the early episodes). To repeat: Damn it, Akio!
Past that, while I did say these posts wouldn’t be coming as regularly as they’d been before, I reallyam sorry this one took so long—it wasn’t supposed to, but writing the darn thing was like pulling teeth. It felt like everything I said would be a repetition of things I’d say before, so I sat on it, hoping for some kind of profound!revelation.
But then again, repetition is a huge part of Utena, so it’s no surprise that we’re getting a lot of that, here. If the first arc was for the duelists, and the second arc was for the person who was most affected by that duelist (and vice versa), then this one is about what happens when those two people come together. So we’re seeing the two characters’ mindsets (established in previous arcs) as they interact with one another, which should teach us new things about the two. The moral of the story being that, if you saw Miki and Kozue falling back into old patterns then, well, that was kind of the point—only now we’re getting a better idea of why that keeps happening.
Giving the People What They Want
We’ll kick this off with a passage from Vrai’s analysis, where they discuss the contradictions inherent in both our twins, as I think we should get a handle on our characters before moving on to other topics.
Kozue claims to be someone who never hides her feelings, but we know from the very start of this episode that that’s untrue (she’s cool, but sometimes she ‘acts weird’). Her mentality this episode is ‘become impure to get what you want,’ but at the same time she seems to value purity in Miki. Her put-downs of their missing parents seem to be a vocalization of the things Miki ‘wants’ to say (meanwhile, Miki goes out of his way to be agreeable and softspoken, only to passionately declare that he hates and mistrusts the actions of adults), but at the same time she cuts Anthy off just as she’s about to explain about attempting to return the baby birds to their parents (perhaps already knowing how savage that would be, and wanting to shield Miki from it).
[…]But hand in hand with protecting Miki’s ‘purity,’ Kozue has only come more to the idea of using people as objects, only to be used herself. […] If Miki (who isn’t so above the people-as-objects thing either, as he slides back into the argument of ‘taking’ Anthy as a thing he wants under the influence of the Questionable Consent Car) is the Champion duelist, that puts both of them out of the reach of their parents, of adults, and anyone who might try to change them. The two ultimately fail as a dueling team by becoming objects even to each other – seeing Miki as The Duelist rather than the brother who needs her support, Kozue moves in to take power for herself and dooms the both of them. (Miki’s Nest Box)
In short, the two are constantly contradicting themselves this episode (Miki’s reaction to his parents is probably the most obvious example), which I think comes down largely to the fact that both are, at heart, performers. Despite Kozue’s claims of total honesty, both she and her brother are constantly adjusting what they say and do depending on their audience, working to live up to the expectations (positive and negative) of those around them.
As a result, it’s sometimes difficult to read them and equally difficult to judge them by what they say. But we can, I think, look at what they do and get a handle on what’s driving them down their respective roads.
I mentioned in my last post that the idea(l) of “adulthood” was going to be a big part of this arc, and I think we see it again here this week with our twins. There are two levels to this, which makes it a little tricky to talk about, because each sibling is dealing with two perspectives: How they see adulthood for themselves, and how they see it for their twin. And when those two perspectives clash (as they do in this episode), things get messy very quickly.
The central problem, I think, is that neither wants to get left behind by the other, and there’s the constant fear in this episode that that’s exactly what will happen. Take Kozue as she sits (at a notable distance) from Miki as he and Anthy discuss taking care of the baby birds. She’s silent for a long stretch and then suddenly excuses herself, calling attention to the fact that she feels left out and ignored. For Kozue, her brother is growing up and away emotionally by developing close relationships with (older) girls and acting as a nurturer, becoming a parent-figure for the birds his sister saved.
Kozue senses that Miki is moving towards an idea of adulthood, so she tries to do the same, except that her notion of adulthood isn’t emotional but physical, as she uses sexual activity as a way to “keep up” with her brother’s maturation. She even approaches the only grown-up in the cast and (from her perspective) seduces him. Of course, neither she nor Miki are in control of this car, but exercising that adult-like power makes her feel like she is.
On the flip side, Miki sees his sister lounging in the front seat of Akio’s car, confidently half-dressed, and sees her moving away from him. It strikes me as incredibly important that both Touga (in the StuCo Arc) and Akio here develop a physical relationship with Kozue to goad Miki into dueling, and while I know there are some people who read this as incest or jealousy (certainly the Utena movie suggests this, too), I think it’s more about Miki trying to keep up with her in the same way she’s keeping up with him.
Touga and Akio, characters oozing sexual aggression and power, warn Miki that if he doesn’t act the way they do, his “shining things” will be taken away from him—and while they’re saying this, both are threatening to “steal” Kozue, not just from Miki but (more importantly) from the world of childhood. So Miki, trying not to get left behind, assumes that Touga and Akio’s concept of adulthood is the correct one and dons that mantle of aggression, challenging Utena to another duel with Anthy as the “prize.”
Vrai also notes that this competition between the two (and their separate ideas of adulthood) pairs nicely with the cultural expectations (also perpetuated through fiction tropes) placed upon their respective genders:
This episode is perhaps the most interesting use of their status as fraternal twins, regarding how they’re pushed to use others: Kozue seduces others into acting on her behalf, becoming an object and mirror of the desires and interpretations of others while believing she’s secretly the one in control; Miki is pushed to declare his victory over others through brute force, taking objects for himself as a sign of his own worth as a human being. Both lack the emotional maturity and context to grasp anything like the big picture of the game that has thoroughly played them. (Miki’s Nest Box)
Building the Nest Box
Probably the saddest part here for Miki is that he knows whats going on, at least on some level: He (correctly) accuses Akio of both “seducing” Touga and “manipulating” Saionji back into the duels, terms that make it clear Miki neither trusts him nor agrees with his methods. But he falls into the trap anyway, for the reasons stated previously, but also, I think, because Akio (and, from Miki’s perspective, maybe Touga, too) is the only prominent adult in the cast and thus the only example of what an adult “ought” to be.
Which brings us to my last topic: The importance of role models and what it means to be a family. Utena starts this conversation by pointing out that she has no family to speak of, and then the topic gets touched on throughout the story, from Kozue’s insistence that they’re “wild animals” who don’t need parents (despite the wild animals in their care who clearly do), to Miki’s distant (in every sense of the word) conversation with his father, to Anthy’s callous theory that parents only love their children because of genetics.
Parents are sadly lacking in this series, but their absence is used to make a statement, as Vrai notes:
Like those chicks in the condemned tree, both Kozue and Miki need support and guidance if they’re going to grow up. For all that this series deals with the toxicity and damaging influence of corrupted adulthood, it’s never been so clear that it is also necessary – or at least, a support network is (there’s hope for the chicks via the next box, after all, nodding toward the saving power of the found family over solely the biological one). And it’s clear that the twins are too alike to be that to one another, emphasizing each other’s worst traits and holding onto their half-preserved memories rather than being able to encourage growth (how can you guide another person to grow if you’re still doing it yourself?). (Vrai, Miki’s Nest Box)
As with most of the duelist’s stories, this ultimately circles us back to Utena’s situations and her own “found family”: Another pair of siblings, Akio and Anthy. Yet what’s most important about this relationship isn’t so much Utena’s part in it, but Anthy’s, as she’s the one who encourages Utena to think of them as her family.
We could see this as an extension of Akio’s manipulations, perhaps (it’s often hard to know where Anthy ends and her brother’s demands begin), but I think what we should really take from this is that, regardless of whether Anthy is being sincere or not, she’s still opened the door for Utena to grow closer to her, which in turn creates the opportunity for Anthy to develop her own “found family” as opposed to her toxic biological one. And that certainly seems like a good thing.
Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.