Utena Watch Party: Episodes 31-32

In which the local comic takes center stage, but there ain’t no relief in sight.

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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 analyses are 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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Heyyyy, Nanami episodes! That means everything is going to be silly and fun and wait, nope, no, it’s about incest and manipulation and loss of innocence. I’ve mentioned during past Nanami episodes that it felt like we were moving further away from goofball humor into more serious issues of adolescent fears and concerns, and this week sees that journey to its final, traumatic conclusion. Puberty sucks, you guys.

The rewatch value on Nanami episodes is through the roof, and I strongly recommend it, because it paints her earlier “silly” anxieties in a much darker light. She’s never quite been able to trust her brother—remember way back when she thought he was trying to kill her, or how she dreamed he’d send Nanamoo (sorry) off to the slaughterhouse, or how she couldn’t tell him about her egg because she feared losing his approval?—and now it turns out she maybe wasn’t so paranoid after all. Our miss Nanami, for all her faults and failings, might be the most intuitive and observant member of the cast.

Sight, perspective, and understanding are going to be our major topics this week, but first we should probably touch on the central story line. Extra-long post ahead! Adjust your reading position accordingly.

The Ties That Bind (And Strangle)

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Nanami’s role as the school’s “queen bee” has been tenuous for a while now. She hasn’t exercised much power in a long while, we’ve seen that her posse feels no warmth towards her (and in Keiko’s case outright despises her), and most of the time she’s seen as something of an odd duck among her classmates (see: cowbell, egg). It’s become glaringly obvious is that every ounce of her supposed power or status comes from her relationship to Touga: She takes over the StuCo because she’s his sister, she gains her posse because they realize they can get closer to Touga (and the sex/power he symbolizes) through her, and even her dueling ring was granted to her by her brother, tying her more to him than End of the World. Simply put, Nanami has no real power—Touga does, and if she loses him she loses her social position.

Worse still, in terms of domestic or personal relationships, Nanami has sensed all series that she and Touga are drifting apart. It’s why she clings to her childhood, to a time when kisses and shared baths wouldn’t have carried the connotations they do now, and why she despises the girls who try to get close to him—not because she herself has sexual feelings for him (romantic, maybe, but not sexual), but because she wants to maintain the closeness she believes they had when they were younger. By the beginning of Episode 31, she feels like the only thing she shares with him is “blood,” and so she clings to that because she thinks it keeps her emotionally close to him, “special” and different from all the obsessed girls surrounding him.

So when Nanami comes to believe that she and Touga aren’t related, it not only shatters her social status, but also the last thread that connects her to her brother. If she loves him but they have no “bond”—neither emotional nor genetic—then what makes her any different from the other girls at this point?

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Now, I’d argue that she isn’t the same as the others: Her feelings towards him aren’t physical (she proves that when she violently rejects his kiss), and she seems to genuinely want to understand him (when she tells him she plans to transfer schools, her last request is to know the “real” him). Nanami joined the dueling system and then the StuCo as a way to get closer to her brother, to understand his action and motivations. She wants a sibling relationship, but Touga rejects it at every turn, either teasing her with sexual innuendo or keeping her at an emotional arm’s length, so that she effectively looks like “one of the swarm,” even if that isn’t necessarily the case.

Cinematography isn’t my specialty, but you don’t have to be a film major to recognize the nifty use of shots and character placement in these episodes, most of which are set to put Nanami in positions of relative weakness or distance. She’s constantly watching (more on that soon) people and places from afar, especially her brother, as the gap between them has grown to fill most of the screen these days. She also spends a significant amount of time either sitting or actually curled up on the ground, while others (Touga and Anthy in particular) tower above her. There’s no question this is Nanami’s lowest point, a “fall” both social and personal, and she’s at a loss as to how to deal with that.

That said, it is worth noting that the people closest to the “real” Touga and Nanami (Miki, Juri, Utena, even Anthy) are also the ones who have shown genuine concern and sympathy for her and growing disgust for him, so it’s not as if Nanami is without friends or allies, something she herself seems to recognize when she protects Miki from the hard truth about Anthy and her brother. (I love their relationship, by the way. It’s downplayed in favor of more dysfunctional drama, but it’s quietly become one of the more stable and supportive friendships in the series.) Nanami may have lost her position among the student body as a whole, but she’s not entirely alone here, which helps to at least dull the blow, even if it can’t keep it from landing entirely.

Seeing Is Believing (So Stop Looking)

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What struck me most about these episodes is that, for a character who’s seemed mighty self-centered and oblivious, Nanami spends almost the entirety of “Her Tragedy” observing people and things outside of herself, from her long stares at her brother (Vrai timed that shower shot at a whopping 17 seconds), to the way she notices the sexual tension between Akio and Utena, to her long silences as she listens to the girls on the phone, and on to her discovery of Akio and Anthy in the observatory.

More than just observing, she seems to have a real, solid understanding of what she’s seeing, though perhaps not on an entirely conscious level, as Vrai notes:

…our major key to it is the roses. In all of Nanami’s moments with Touga this episode, we’re never presented with a white rose (idealization, the Prince, the desired thing that every Duelist has). Instead, we get red roses – passion, yes, but more often (and certainly in these contexts) an exercise of power over another person. Always when Touga’s gone out of his way to “tease” his little sister and keep her both uncomfortable with herself and devoted to him… On some level, she seems to sense that she too is falling for his games, which plays into her acting so defensive and angry toward Touga’s lovers. She’s afraid that she’s already like them but hasn’t been able to admit it.

Even more importantly, Nanami is the only character who’s been linked with a purple rose, and specifically during her conversation with Akio. As you may recall from waaaaaaay back in the episode 13 recap [note: I covered this in my post, too], purple tends to be tied to corruption or decay. In those moments, Nanami gets a glimpse at the real Akio under all that smooth charm, and it puts her ill at ease without knowing entirely why (and her socialized instincts are to trust the adult who also seems like a Prince, shutting out those good instincts). But the fact that she was able to sense it at all, when every other character has found themselves taken in by the Chairman persona, is of note. (Her Tragedy)

As I noted in my Opening Chatter, we have (in hindsight) seen glimmers of Nanami’s keen intuition before, but this is the first time it’s really come to the forefront, impossible for us or Nanami herself to ignore. By the end of Episode 31, she’s glaringly aware of the complications (and in some cases straight-up toxicity) going on around her. Her childhood is very much at an end, but she’s still not ready to deal with it. So instead she stops watching, spending the vast majority of Episode 32 looking away from others, either staring at nothing or at her own reflection, trying to come to terms with these major shifts in her worldview. Like the shadow girls, she wants it to be a trick (or a joke), but it’s mighty hard to doubt your own eyes.

Ultimately Nanami can’t come up with an answer, not really. She knows she doesn’t want her relationship with Touga to mirror Akio’s and Anthy’s, but she’s not ready to let go of her feelings or the importance of social status. She also knows she can’t reclaim her childhood, but doesn’t have the tools or experiences needed to properly face or grapple with the realities of adulthood. Like Miki, she’s between two worlds, and both of them are stuck staring at blank sheet music, unable to play what’s before them but unsure how to write their own songs.

Instead, she makes an attempt to “surpass” (越える[koeru]: to exceed or go beyond) everything, claiming a position of power that isn’t dependent on her brother (of course, it’s still dependent on the dueling system and Anthy, but Nanami can’t see that yet either), as well as putting her above/beyond the harsh reality (i.e., adulthood) she’s glimpsed. But that world doesn’t exist, and on some level she knows it, which is one reason she’s unable to beat Utena. Welcome to adolescence, Miss Nanami.

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Compare (or contrast) this with Utena herself, who’s ignorance about the goings-on in Ohtori Tower is becoming a little ridiculous at this point. She’s present, her eyes are open, and I think she’s even trying to be more sympathetic or pensive now than she was before, but she never seems to be looking in quite the right direction, and she’s forever limited by her position and perspective.

For instance, Utena is the only person who tells Nanami that she and Touga can still be siblings—that family is about the bonds of feelings, not blood—which would be wise and worthwhile advice ifTouga and Nanami actually were bound by their feelings. She’s trying to understand and help, but (much like her intervention between Juri and Shiori) she can’t because she doesn’t know the whole story: she doesn’t realize that there really is no emotional connection between Touga and Nanami anymore. And when it comes to the Rose Siblings, Utena’s even more obtuse, to the point where she even seems to be becoming a willing participant in their performance, as noted by the photo shoot imagery in “Her Tragedy.”

Utena’s and Nanami’s positions are summed up gorgeously (and silently) in Episode 32, when the three girls are in the central room while Anthy makes shaved ice. Utena is looking directly at Anthy, but she’s upside-down, her perspective skewed by her position in the world. Nanami keeps her eyes on the wall until the last moment, when she focuses not on Anthy but on the saw behind her back. Nanami gets it but can’t handle it, while Utena doesn’t even seem to get it.

In some ways, Utena is lagging behind Nanami in terms of overall knowledge, but she still wins the duel due to her confidence in her ideals (as opposed to Nanami, who thinks of her brother and hesitates, suggesting she’s still not ready to cut those ties), her close partnership with her “bride” (Nanami would’ve been better off picking BFF Miki instead), and because Utena’s value isn’t dependent on her relationship to others (okay, there is the prince, but he’s more symbol than individual at this point).

Plus, while Utena may not know everything, she is at least trying for compassion, while Nanami’s response is to lash out, seeing Anthy as another version of herself and violently rejecting what she symbolizes. (Arguably this was Anthy’s goal all along, but I’ll leave that discussion to Vrai, as it’s easier to discuss on a rewatch.) The real question for Utena will be what she does when she inevitably discovers what Nanami learned this week. Will she hide her eyes like Nanami does, or face reality head on and find a way to grapple with it? We’ve got seven episodes left to find out.

The Sensei Next Door

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There are a couple noteworthy references and allusions in these episodes, so I figured they were worth tackling.

Statues

Others have pretty much said all you need to hear about this one, so I’ll leave the talking to them. ladyloveandjustice has parsed through the individual statues in her Episode 31 post (she uses a cipher for all spoilery bits, so newcomers are free to click that link), and Vrai tackled the subject in broader terms:

…keep the image of those Greco-Roman busts in your mind’s eye, the kind of artwork that would’ve been made to present an idealization of the human form. From the Greeks we also get the concept of the platonic ideal, which is (very roughly) as follows: everything we see in our day to day lives is a shadow of some purer concept. That cookie you’re holding is a pale copy of the universally held idea of what a “cookie” is, something that would be perfect version of that thing.

In relation to Nanami, she’s striving for the platonic ideal of love – not the complications of two individuals struggling to support one another and grow together (she’s not ready for that yet), but the pure conception of unwavering devotion and all-consuming attention that she thinks she’s previously had with Touga. [When we stare at Touga’s shadow in the shower, we’re] staring not [at] “Touga” (though we’re ascribing that identity from prior knowledge) but at the silhouette of a “perfect” male form, the thing Nanami is trying to reach but cannot grasp – in large part because it is illusory (notice the way she struggles under the weight of those statues when she picks them up, almost crushed by the weight of the burden she’s taken onto herself). (Her Tragedy)

Constellations and Carvings

I wanted to make sure everyone knew that I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to hunt down the constellation on the wall of Utena and Anthy’s room during Episode 31. And yet after scouring multiple star charts (both western and Chinese) and even going down a list of constellations, I can’t find the damn thing. If anyone recognizes it, by all means enlighten me, but for now I’m going to assume it’s a made-up constellation, and that its significance is more in the idea of constellations themselves.

Constellations are one of those uniquely human activities where we assign structure to seeming chaos, even extrapolating stories and personal destinies (horoscopes) from imagined patterns and shapes. It’s about human creativity and the impulse to find meaning, yes, but it’s also about the limitation of our individual perspectives, both on a global level (we see different stars depending on location and time of year, and even cultures who see the same stars see different constellations) and a universal one (since the patterns would change if we were located elsewhere in the universe).

All of which ties in to Akio’s speech to Nanami about “a world like a labyrinth with no way out, where you are doomed to your limited point of view to endlessly wander the same path.” It also connects to the major reference of Nanami’s duel song, as Vrai explains:

Now, about the reference-y bit. The “child of Nazca.” You might be familiar with “Nazca lines,” those intricate carvings in Peru that, when seen from the air, make enormous shapes of animals and other figures. Their exact age is unknown (though scholars guesstimate around 400-650 AD), and their purpose is even more unknown – though there’s certainly not a lack of theories. This ranges from it being a sacred ritual to an appeal for water to a cultural part of agriculture. The point, in our context, is that from a ground level (running about in the labyrinth, as Akio says) there’s no meaning to them. Zoom out and you have shapes…but you still have to describe meaning to them, because the original purpose has long been lost. So it is with the dueling system, and Nanami’s failing is that she hasn’t truly found a sense of meaning or purpose to drive her forward. (The Romance of the Dancing Girls)

Nanami is beginning to notice the world around her and draw connections between events and individuals, but she’s still struggling to find the meaning behind those connections, particularly in how they relate to her own goals, feelings, and place amidst the seeming meaninglessness and chaos.

She ends this episode lost— “What’s left for me?” she asks—but it doesn’t feel quite as hopeless as the past StuCo duels. Unlike with Jury or Miki, I think it’s easier to see (from the audience’s even more distant perspective) that this awful mess will end up helping Nanami in the long run. By the end of these episodes, she’s moved away from the increasingly toxic Touga and is all but forced to find value in herself rather than in her relationship to another.

That’s an essential part of becoming a healthy adult, but it’s a damn difficult thing to do, and she’s not quite ready to do it yet. Still, she’s proven herself observant enough and resourceful enough (and, when needed, aggressive enough) that it feels like she’ll manage to work her way out of this labyrinth eventually. As traumatic as these two episodes were for her, they may be exactly what she needed to move forward.

Next -> Episode 33

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Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.

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