In which you almost have to admire the amount of effort and planning that goes into being a total raging bastard.
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.
This is a relatively quiet episode in terms of overt supernatural happenings. No duels, no elevator confessionals, no girls turning into cows. Were it not for some heavy recurring imagery, a car ride to nowhere, and the way characters (especially Anthy) seem to be constantly teleporting in and out of rooms—creating a sense of disjointedness and wrongness, of everyone being so focused on their own concerns that they fail to notice the movements of others—you could almost call this as a “normal” high school drama. Lofty ideals take the form of very human interactions, and it’s somehow even weirder than all the surreality that came before it.
Performances, partnerships, and trios continue to be major plot points, and we’ll discuss some of these in detail in the following sections. In terms of general personal reactions, I’m stuck on character (re)actions, particularly regarding Anthy and Touga, who are becoming increasingly harder to read (which is really saying something).
Touga claims he’s “fallen for” Utena and that his duel with her actually shook his “core beliefs” and made him reconsider how he lives. But if that’s true (and not just some kind of passive aggressive warning to Akio), we’ve yet to see it in action. Unless, of course, the “reevaluation” he came to was that he needed more power, and hence his new connection with Akio? We’ll get to him eventually, but he continues to be a strange enigma in the series, more inscrutable than even our siblings.
Speaking of one of those siblings, Anthy spends much of this week on the sidelines or in the literal shadows, her glasses covered by that uniquely anime glint that usually evokes an aura of menace, but here just makes her seem heartbroken, as Vrai notes the shadows look an awful lot like tears here (incidentally, there’s a lot of “common” imagery—candle flames, Cinderella Princes, glowing glasses—that’s turned on its head, furthering the sense of unbalance and “wrongness” that pervades). It’s clear that she’s Akio’s accomplice to at least some extent, but there’s the sense she’s wavering, and every time she says “The truth is, I…” to Utena, she comes that much closer to revealing where she really stands in all this mess.
”Kissing Love & True Your Heart”
That grammatically suspect sub-heading comes from the show’s first ending theme, “Truth,” and while the song may have disappeared from the series, many of its central ideas are still very much a part of the show. This week is all about truth, lies, and honesty, particularly where ideas of “right” and “wrong” as well as romance are involved. Wakaba—who Vrai aptly dubs our “barometer of normalcy”—vocalizes the episode’s two major concepts and conflicts: One, that you can’t always control how you feel (and there’s no real shame in that), and two, that relationships need to be based on truth, otherwise it sets up a “pattern of mistrust.” It’s essential to be honest with one’s partner and oneself, I think, and we see Utena struggling with both of these all episode.
She and Wakaba form a curious contrast, as Wakaba is open and honest about her crush on Akio (I maintain “crush” not “love,” because it’s pretty clear she’s just having fun), actively flirting despite knowing he’s engaged. Her actions may not be the most morally sound (although it’s arguably Akio’s job as the adult and the betrothed to shut that down, and he indulges in it as a way to flare Utena’s own budding feelings/jealousy—but more on him later), but we can’t deny that they’re honest.
On the other hand, Utena is trying to do the “right” thing by Kanae, her prince, and Anthy by pretending those feelings don’t exist. To acknowledge them would be, she feels, a betrayal to her “one true love” as well as to Akio’s betrothed and possibly to her developing relationship with Anthy. Utena can’t even confess her feelings to herself, let alone to Anthy, and so sets up her own “pattern of mistrust,” doubting herself and the “rightness” of her actions with Akio.
There are two important things to take from this: one, that while feelings are involuntary, actions are not, hence the contrast between Wakaba and Utena throughout… and two, that the truth can be hidden and manipulated by phrase and perspective (by illusion, in other words). (Vrai, The Barefoot Girl)
I love Utena, but her dedication to “princely” virtue—and her moral compass that allows for noflexibility concerning those values, even if it’s only internal—is her greatest flaw, and it makes her feeling guilty, hesitant, and dishonest this week. It also makes her extra-susceptible to Akio’s own games, the most complex and sinister web of lies we’ve seen to date.
The Utena Ideal
The more I think about Akio’s actions, the more simultaneously impressed and disgusted I get. From beginning to end, every moment he spends with Utena is a calculated move to ingratiate himself to her, setting himself up as her ideal romantic interest. Observe:
- He bakes a cake, establishing himself as someone who also flaunts gender norms. It’s so rare for guys to be able to bake, you know!
- He has power and wields it for just and noble causes, coming to Utena’s rescue both when the teachers are harassing her about the way she flaunts gender norms, and when she injures her ankle and needs a “noble steed” to help her get around.
- By scolding the teachers for trying to “limit the students’ freedom,” he once again shows his willingness to go against the status quo, setting himself up as “free spirit” in the same way Utena does with her uniform and princely behavior. It’s not a matter of rebellion necessarily, but of simply being allowed to live the way one wishes. (And this ironically coming from the guy who’s got the entire StuCo dancing to his tune.)
- He mimics behavior straight out of medieval romances and fairy tales, invoking images of Cinderella’s prince as well as knightly “fealty,” as “kissing the foot of a ruler denot[ed] ultimate loyalty and self-abasement” (Vrai, Episode 30).
Akio straight-up tells Utena he thinks the two of them are alike, and his actions throughout the episode are an admittedly brilliant way of proving that. He manages to both be a prince himself without demanding that she become a princess (one of the many ways Akio’s performance differs from Touga’s similar one in the first cour), fitting into her ideal of others without forcing her to change her ideal of herself.
Except, of course, that it’s all smoke and mirrors and bullshit. For instance, take a closer look at that “barefoot girl” scene. One the issue of fealty, as Vrai notes, “Akio doesn’t actually kiss her foot, you’ll notice—he assumes the trappings of it as a means of getting her shoe off and getting her to rely on him” (Episode 30). And when it comes to that “glass slipper,” Akio isn’t seeking out his true love, proving his dedication by returning what she lost. No, he steals that freaking shoe, carrying it around like a trophy of conquest. Add to that the scene with Kanae’s mother and it’s clear that this is performance, routine, a move that could easily be nestled in the pages of one of those (blegh) pick-up artist handbooks.
We’ve established over the past 30 episodes that there are some deeply problematic issues with the princely ideal. Akio takes that and twists it even further, showing how someone can embody those ideals without ever actually believing them, using them as a way to gain power and control over others.
Candles in the Wind
So. Those candles. As is often the case, I took notes during the episode and then discovered that Vrai had done a lot of my work for me, so we’ll start there:
It’s the centerpiece of the whole damn episode, and there’s a number of ways we can read it. First off, it can stand for Utena herself: we have Anthy as the holder (the observer or judge of the duelist), the flames being tested by the wind of Akio’s seductions, and a flame going out each time one of Utena’s defenses or objections is worn down and she falls a bit more into her feelings. Alternately, we can take it as our three players in this love triangle: the first flame goes out when Utena can’t bring herself to confide in Anthy, instead choosing to ride in Akio’s car; the second goes out during the kiss, as Anthy appears to observe it; the last as Utena sits alone and makes her decision. And there is, of course, the pure power play of it: Akio cuts off first Utena’s support from her friends, plants seeds of doubt in her with the kiss (leaving him to stand alone as that tall central candle), and it flares and goes out (the game is over) when he gets what he wants – Utena falling in love with him. How about those Ikuhara anime, huh? (The Barefoot Girl)
And, as is also so often the case, I have a quick bit to add, because I also see the candles as a part of this episode’s trend of utilizing common images for purposes that go directly against their usual usage. Note that the candles make their first appearance atop the cake, evoking ideas of birthdays, renewals, celebrations, and wishes. Good things, essentially. Blowing out the candles is supposed to make one’s wish come true, and if you squint your eyes and ignore all the ominous subtext, from Utena’s perspective, maybe her wish has come true—maybe this is the prince she’s been trying to find.
But of course you really shouldn’t ignore the subtext, because that’s how the imagery gets turned on its head: It’s a wish that reeks of falsehoods and manipulation, and (combined with how every scene seems to involve a sunset this week) evokes images not of birth and celebration, but rather of death and danger. The sun is going down as the story slips into its final episodes, but the “flames” Utena carries (of nobility or love or what have you) aren’t burning—they’re going out, one by one, even as night overtakes the scene and leaves our heroine in darkness.
Pretty foreboding stuff for an episode about cakes and sprained ankles, ain’t it?
Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.