Utena Watch Party: Episodes 28-29

In which it’s never too late to turn your story into a CW drama (love triangles free with purchase).

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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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I opted for a double-episode combo post this week, and there’s a chance I’ll continue to do that here and there for a few reasons. First, because even though the universe continues to dropkick RL Josei, forcing me to fall further behind Vrai’s weekly posts, I’d still really like us to finish on the same week. God, Buddha, and the Great Will of the Macrocosm allowing, I can manage to catch up with a few double-episode posts. The second (more important) reason is that there are at least a couple “two-parters” in this arc, and covering the first episode without spoiling the second is nigh impossible. I considered doing an Episode 28 standalone post, but it mostly would’ve been, “Hey, some guy named Ruka showed up. What’s his deal?” which wouldn’t have been very enlightening. Combining the two just made sense from a writing perspective.

I have to confess that these are not my favorite episodes, not only because they’re pretty damn bleak, but because (as my opening line snarkily noted) it’s one of the few times where the story feels a little too standard-teen-melodrama for me. Love triangles, unrequited/spoken love, sexual assault, and fatal illnesses? It smacks of YA (or shoujo) genre tropes, and in a less subversive way than we usually see on Utena. While I think Juri’s episodes tend to be some of the more emotionally resonant ones, I also think they come at the expense of subtlety and narrative cohesion. Introducing a new duelist this late in the game without even mentioning him previously is a jarring (and arguably poor) decision, and the episodes’ primary images (triangles—triangles everywhere!) are about as direct as it gets.

Granted, that isn’t to say these episodes are bad or not worth discussing. There are some clever narrative decisions made here, such as never having the trio in the same room but saturating those rooms (particularly the ones involving Ruka and Juri) with triangles so that we’re constantly reminded of the missing third party, and made to feel that absence/presence in the same way the characters do. And it’s in the characters where the episode is most effective, as this trio are full of contradictions and anxieties just waiting for someone to come along and analyze the heck out of them. So for this watch party installment, I figured that’s where we’d place our focus.

Running Out of Time: Ruka

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We may as well start with the newcomer. Another excellent example of Utena (and Ikuhara in general) toying with perspective and audience knowledge to change our opinion of a character, Ruka spends the vast majority of these two episodes acting as an antagonist. It isn’t until the very last scene that we discover (although clever viewers who know how “mysterious illnesses” work in fiction may have caught wise a bit earlier) he’s been dying, and this return to school was a last stand of sorts, one final attempt to “free” the girl he loved from an unhealthy obsession.

Withholding Ruka’s condition is vital for two reasons: One, because it forces us to reevaluate his actions after the fact, seeing him not as merely a jerk-wad manipulator (a Touga Part Deux, if you will) but a desperate teen clumsily trying to help someone he cares about. And two, because telling us that Ruka is dying from the get-go would have made him immediately sympathetic, “woobiefying” him and all but demanding that we forgive everything he does (manipulation, assault, etc.) because “he’s dying, you guys!” Remember, Utena is all about re-contextualizing individuals, revealing new information and reminding us that even the most reprehensible actions have their reasons and motivations—but Utena has also never asked us to excuse those actions. Ruka isn’t a bad person, I don’t think, but he does unquestionably unacceptable things, and it’s important that we not forget that, either.

Beyond that (and as Vrai notes as well), Ruka isn’t so much a character as a “force of nature,” an individual that passed briefly through Juri’s (and Shiori’s) life but left a profound impact nevertheless. In his episode commentary, Ikuhara says he created this story out of an experience based on someone from his past:

He was always appearing at the same specific time. Frankly, I don’t like him. He always…he always prods mercilessly at the exact places I don’t want prodded.

One day, I’d noticed that I’d changed. I’d always hated myself so passionately, but somewhere along the line, that suffering had vanished. Was that his doing? Even if it was, though, I still hate him. And somewhere along the line, he’s left again. People say he changed schools. (Translated by Sarah Alys Lindholm)

Which is the thing about Ruka—while he arguably makes things worse in the short-term, and while his methods are really not okay, he’s the only person who sees Shiori’s ugliness and the damage she causes Juri and will straight-up say: “Hey, this girl Shiori is not a poor innocent waif who needs protection, she’s actually kind of selfish and mean, and your obsession with her is destroying you.” There’s some selflessness to his actions, in a muddled sort of way, because he is after all dying, so it’s not like he can get Juri to ditch Shiori for him; all he can do is try to help her move on. But geez, it’s a hell of a terrible intervention, as Vrai notes:

He’s the worst kind of mirror for Jury: when she talks about “making Shiori realize her feelings” way back in her first duel, we have the unfiltered ugliness of that thought made action as Ruka’s assault. Her perfectionism as a duelist and disdain for Utena’s prince is Ruka’s hate for Shiori and determination that he can help her find her “true” potential by way of the duels. They never look at one another, constantly staring in the same direction (particularly during the entirety of the Questionable Carsent Ride). Every time Ruka seems to think he’s helping her, he only becomes a reflection of the worst of her.

And in a way it’s probably important that he be part of the story. I see none of the longing-realized-too-late from Ikuhara’s commentary in this story, but one part of it does ring absolutely true: we all have at least one figure in our lives who we remember less as people and more as the Big Realization they provoked, or the internalized doubts they roused with their mere presence. And we’re all that person for someone else, leaving ripple effects that aren’t necessarily the ones we meant to impart at all. (Azure Paler Than the Sky)

I’m not sure if Ruka’s last-ditch effort was a success or failure. He still dies, and Juri never does realize how he feels about her, but there may be some hints that his words and actions have gotten Juri to reevaluate her current situation and relationships, if only slightly. We’ll talk more about that (and The Fateful Duel) in Juri’s section; for now, let’s move on to my least favorite member of the triangle.

Finding Value In From Others: Shiori

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We learned a lot about Shiori during the Black Rose episode, and while most of it wasn’t complimentary, it did at least provide a sympathetic (or in my case pitiable) glimpse into her psyche, depicting her self-loathing, lack of confidence, and her own obsession with Juri, which generally manifests as a desperate desire/need to find a way to place herself “above” her childhood friend. I agree with Vrai (and the implications in Ikuhara’s commentary) that Shiori has at least a glimmer of romantic feelings for Juri, but it’s buried so deeply under ambition driven by hatred (i.e., “if I gain power then I’ll feel better about myself”) that it’s barely visible.

As for her feelings for Ruka… there’s a wide range of ways to read this, I think, but for me, Rukaand Shiori callously use each other from day one, as objects towards an end-game rather than as actual individuals to whom they feel any affection. Shiori sees Ruka as an authority figure, someone who is “above” Juri both in club hierarchy and fencing skill. And, because Shiori defines her own value by her relationships with others, she approaches his locker and eventually becomes his dueling bride. Vrai and I take different paths with our Shiori interpretations (they’re far more generous towards Shiori’s capacity to feel affection toward others, especially Juri), but I do think we end up at essentially the same place:

…At this stage Shiori is still operating to cover up her fears and weaknesses by using the power and influence of others, and the car scene is the biggest proof of that: Ruka says “we” [will make it ours] Shiori says “I” [will make it mine]. Interestingly, while Miki and Saionji were both offered concrete things as proof of their adulthood, Shiori is only offered the vagueness of “miraculous power.” She’s so far withdrawn in her shell of self-loathing and toxic behavior that she can’t even conceive of a “true” thing to want, or a specific way to dig herself out of her own mental hole. And so, no matter what action she takes or who she hurts, that hole in her chest continues to grow. (Whispers in the Dark)

As such, when Ruka breaks up with her and Shiori has both her public and private breakdowns (which are equally important, as they make her plea in front of the other students more than just a performance), I don’t see it as a girl with a broken heart, at least not in the conventional sense. Shiori placed all her value in the status provided by her relationship with Ruka: It put her in a place of power both in terms of school hierarchy and personal self-worth, so much so that she was even able to publicly (and justifiably) tell Juri off when she tried to interfere. Losing that meant descending the social ladder again, back to the ranks of “ordinary students” and (most importantly) “below” Juri. And Shiori couldn’t handle that.

It is worth noting that in the last scene (under bare but budding branches), she follows after Juri, perhaps suggesting that she’s forgiven her or acknowledged her affections to some extent. It’s unclear. What’s equally unclear is whether Shiori learned anything about herself from this or is just glomming on to the next nearest “powerful” person until another higher-ranked authority figure comes along. I don’t have much of an answer for Shiori beyond that. I don’t like her but she ispitiable, and I think she’s as damaged by this love triangle as either of the other two. If she can find confidence or at least some value in herself, then she could maybe start moving towards a healthy relationship with—well, anyone else, really. But until that happens she’s destined to repeat the same cycle again and again, using others to help justify her own existence. And that’s a damn sad way to live.

Dropping the Rose: Juri

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Lest we forget our resident duelist, she’s one of the sharp points on this triangle as well. While these episodes paint her as the most tragic and/or sympathetic of the trio, she’s certainly not innocent of any wrongdoing this week, as she struggles with her own feelings of possessiveness and affection for Shiori. Having effectively cut Shiori off during the Black Rose arc, she has no business “warning her away” from Ruka—the two are barely friends at this point, and we’ve seen no reason for her to distrust him at this point.

It reads like jealousy, and it’s no wonder Shiori reacts to both this and Juri’s later home visit with distrust and disdain (especially if we assume the Black Rose mundane memories remain, and Shiori knows about the locket and therefore knows why Juri might act this way). Juri is guilty of idealizing Shiori, treating her like a “princess” in the most condescending sense: As a passive innocent who can do no wrong and must be protected at all costs. Which, now that I think about it, probably doesn’t help Shiori’s sense of self-worth, either.

More so than many of the others, Juri is defined by duality (most easily described as “public vs. private”) and it shows in her interactions this week as she struggles to maintain her cool mask while Ruka ruthlessly and systematically tears away the layers, revealing the insecure, terrified young woman underneath. I applaud her and the show’s reaction to his assault—one more way that Utena uses genre tropes without falling into their traps, as a lot of series would have played this moment as romantic while here it’s dark, dangerous, and worthy of retaliation and disgust—but, as Vrai notes, it’s also ultimately pretty darn depressing that Juri’s response is to challenge Ruka to a duel.

Akio and Touga do almost nothing this entire episode, beyond giving the bare minimum of “cue” lines. Ruka and Jury do all the talking to push themselves into the car, into the duel, into their mutual torment. They’re so enmeshed in the damaging mentality of the dueling system (which, amongst all the other things that it represents, reduces human beings into binaries of winner/loser, victor/prize, good/evil, and so on) that Jury’s first instinct is to challenge Ruka to a duel to sort out their conflict.

It makes sense on a mundane level in that they’re both in the [fencing] club, but going deeper it’s almost frightening – taking part in the system isn’t limited to its obvious trappings anymore, but clearly evident in the day to day actions of the characters. For all that the duelists say they’re creating a revolution, they’re truly being taught, over and over again, to become parrots of Akio’s view of the world. From the structure of the world down to the minutiae of one on one interactions. Any hope they might’ve had of growing up, becoming better people, is utterly hopeless as long as they keep relying on that system. And that’s almost too heartbreaking to bear. (Azure Paler Than the Sky)

In case you couldn’t tell, Vrai and I both had a difficult time finding anything resembling happy endings in this episode, but I will point to the end of Juri’s duel as maybe, possibly, a sign of forward progression, as it’s the first time we’ve seen a duelist willingly remove themselves from a duel. The problem of course is that there are at least two ways to read this. Did the destruction of the locket “free” Juri from her unhealthy obsession with Shiori, literally removing the secret she’s been hiding from the world? Was it a representation of Juri coming to understand and acknowledge what Ruka has been saying all week: That Shiori is “spoiled, pushy, self-centered, a liar” (essentially, that Shiori is not a perfect princess who needs you to defend her virtue)? Or is the falling rose an acknowledgment of total defeat, that Juri has been so thoroughly beaten that she has nothing left—no ideals, no goals or desires—to fight for?

It’s probably a combination of the two (Juri always was the duelist with the most tenuous “ideal,” simultaneously wanting and denying miracles), but given the broken nature of the dueling system, I’m inclined to push more for the former. The Utena creators reject this system so thoroughly themselves that they’d likely applaud any character who also rejects it, even in such a joyless manner. Or maybe I’m just reaching because it’s been a rough week and I’d really like there to be something good to take out of this two-parter. Either way, as it stands, we haven’t yet seen the effects of this round of duels on the characters, so it’s hard to say either way. At this point all we can do is keep watching and see how Juri, Shiori, and their relationship evolve from here.

Next -> Episode 30

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Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.

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