In which… Oh. It’s this one.
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.
Ikuhara keeps screwing with our formula. Last week we got Nanami episodes without a punchline. This week we get a recap episode that not only barely counts as a recap, but loads itself with some of the most crucial (and disquieting) scenes in the series. In all honesty, I hate this episode. I don’t mean to say it’s bad, because it isn’t. It’s essential to the story and is both tastefully and powerfully executed. But in terms of pure, kneejerk, personal reaction, nnnggggh, I hate it so much. So if I sound slightly more distant from the material than usual, it’s because that’s the only way I’m gonna be able to talk about it without this post devolving into me shrieking obscenities at Akio.
That aside, the recaps are probably the most artfully edited I’ve seen in anime, blending scenes and dialogue to re-contextualize what’s come before in a way that’s almost disorienting. Much as I hate this one, I watched it twice—once dubbed—so I could pay better attention to the way image blended with sound. Did you know Ruka sounds like King Douchebag in English? It’s hilaribad. On the flip side, though, Rachel Lillis imbues Utena with an impressive range of emotion, and maybe even outdoes the original during The Bedroom Scene, as she’s quietly but intensely distressed, on the verge of something between panic and grief and moving closer to tears with each increasingly frantic sentence, which makes the moment even more distressing than it already was (but more on that as we go).
As per the Nozomi box sets, I’ve been referring to everything after the Black Rose as “the Apocalypse Saga,” but you can also divide the series up by using the recap episodes as arc epilogues, as many (including Empty Movement) do. If you do that, then you can think of episodes 25-33 as the “Akio Arc” and everything after that as the Apocalypse Arc. And while I still maintain that the series has a three-act format, splitting the final act into two parts does make a lot of sense. This first half is all about Akio’s rise to power, which this “recap” makes clear in just about every way possible.
Akio in the Driver’s Seat
The past two recap episodes have had a somewhat detached quality to them. In terms of “points of view,” the first was basically third-person omniscient (Akio narrating from afar), while the second used observational writing to narrate Nanami’s travails in a semi-journalistic format. This week, though, we’re slammed as close to unreliable first-person as a TV series can get, seeing the hotel room scenes through Akio’s eyes and the car ride through the “passenger seat” perspective which, as Vrai notes, makes it seem like we’re “accompanying him (and becoming complicit in) his wicked seductions” (Episode 33).
As a result, just about everything in the episode adjusts to his perspective and twists beneath the weight of his power. Instead of the usual animation, Utena’s fairy tale monologue takes place over a long pan of the amusement park as seen from their hotel room, as if to remove her from the story entirely (and put a much more sinister bent on the question of whether it’s “really such a good idea” for her to become a prince). The ending animation changes as well, switching from all those lovingly suggestive Utena/Anthy shots to Akio’s endless road. Even our distant, objective shadow girls are forced to acknowledge (and submit to) his will, speaking to him directly via the radio show, chasing him down when he hangs up on them, begging him to answer their questions directly, and basically dancing to his tune.
The scene selection and voice overs of the recaps themselves seem to be told from Akio’s skewed perspective, as he cuts and tweaks the narrative to remove himself entirely from the previous episodes:
Strung together as they are, it almost seems as though each character came to their new thoughts and feelings on their own, without being seduced or coerced at all. Which is about as untrue as it gets, of course…but from the outside, that’s no doubt what it seems like. People are happy to say that viewpoints have nothing to do with how one is raised, determined wholly by the individual free of societal pressure or unconscious prejudice. Akio is those invisible strings, that moving force of a thousand small hands moving to maintain a hierarchical power structure and perpetuate the fears and thoughts that hold that system in place. He’s more metaphor than man now, and yet retains his potent ability to ruin the lives of our cast with little more than a few well-placed words. Worse, he can make them carry out his work while thinking they’re fighting for themselves. And that makes him one of the most terrifying villains I can think of. (Vrai, The Prince Who Runs Through the Night)
Just in case there was any doubt about who was in total control here, the creative team really slams it home through the use of camera angles and character positioning (similar to how they did during the Nanami episodes). When we see the hotel room through Akio’s eyes, he’s almost always viewing it from a higher position, with Utena frequently either on the floor or angled beneath him. She’s depicted in constant motion and speech while he’s steady and silent, laser-focused in a way that becomes all the more uncomfortable as she draws steadily closer in every scene.
There are in fact only two scenes where he isn’t above Utena in some fashion: At the very beginning when they arrive in the room, and when they’re in bed together and she’s seen in profile. It suggests that these are, maybe, the only two moments Utena has any real agency—a chance to walk away from this or make a choice that contradicts his—but even then they’re still on eye level, equals. Like everyone else in this episode, she never once has any power over him.
And, unlike the others, Utena is entirely alone. Akio’s isolated her from familiar environments and faces (a fact made apparent by her two lone white pieces suddenly surrounded by his black ones on the Othello game board, as Vrai points out). All of this, combined with Utena’s own increasingly anxious monologues, makes it clear that we’re not intended to see this as anything even remotely romantic. It’s manipulative and dishonest and predatory, the very definition of statutory rape, and I’m very much with Vrai in that I don’t see how we can call it anything else.
The Utena Monologues
Utena sure spends a lot of time talking this week. As noted above, it serves as a contrast to Akio’s silence (which in this context implies dismissiveness or disinterest and all but forces her to keep talking, to find some way to engage him) and helps solidify his power over her. It also drives home her increased sense of uncertainty or anxiety about being alone with him. And, as much as the shadow girls’ quiz questions and Akio’s dismissive replies, it highlights the other major topics of the episode: Memory and identity—or, “eternity” and “the prince.”
Utena’s mini-monologues deal with an Impostor King (which is just an impostor prince all grown up, after all); a sequence of nicknames given to a teacher, which highlights both the concept of shifting identities and the fragility of memory, as Utena can’t think of all the names they’ve called this person in the past; food left out (forgotten) on the table; Utena’s tendency toward excesses in her own cooking and her inability to “figure out what she’s missing” in the recipe; and of course the last extended ramble about what she should make for lunch tomorrow, which ends in her begging to know: “What is eternity?”
A lot of this comes back to malleability and forgetfulness, which feed into the shadow girls’ own questions involving memories (eternity) and princes (miracles). Much as I despise Akio, he’s right to reject the supplied answers. We’ve learned by now that memories aren’t eternal: Mikage and a number of our duelists have shown us how memories can fade or alter over time, and Utena reminds us of that several times throughout her one-sided conversations this week.
She also adds one extra layer to the question of what is eternal—or rather, what isn’t eternal—by implicitly connecting memory and identity. Names can change. Someone can take away your title of Imposter King, or different students may call you different things at different times, to the point where you can’t even remember all the names (identities) belonging to someone. So who’s to say the same thing couldn’t happen to the people from your childhood, or even yourself?
Maybe Akio really was Utena’s prince, the man who “showed her something eternal” as a child. But he certainly doesn’t seem to be that now. And Utena is no longer a little girl in a coffin—or at least, she doesn’t have to be. Change is all but inevitable, but even if you do manage to avoid it, “eternity,” as Mikage showed us, is really just a lofty word for stasis. Which, based on how miserable everyone in the story seems to be right now, trapped in their own self-destructive dueling cycles, it seems a far worse fate than change at this point.
The other major topic of Utena’s monologues is food and cooking, which I think ties more into Anthy than into Utena herself. Cooking is a kind of stand-in for community and togetherness, of taking care of oneself and others, something that’s especially true of Utena given that she always makes too much for one person. It’s telling that she specifically states she needs to make lunch for “Anthy and me” the next morning. It keeps their relationship in focus even while the two are as far apart as they’ve ever been, physically as well as emotionally.
So what about Anthy, exactly? She’s complicit in this, sending Utena out with the roses knowing full well Akio would exploit the situation, and her glasses continue to shine with implied antagonism (especially given that Utena aired about a year after Evangelion, where Gendo Ikari made shiny glasses practically synonymous with “epic
jerkwad”). It’s tempting to think she’s simply acting as Akio’s lackey, or even that she’s lashing out at Utena for taking her place at Akio’s side. And there may be some truth to both of these readings. Yet despite her increasing inscrutability, she’s shown genuine interest in and devotion to Utena this arc (as the recaps take care to remind us), a devotion that’s made her hesitate to come at Akio’s call, and made her nearly finish that “the truth is, I…” on multiple occasions.
It strikes me that Akio is exploiting Anthy’s affection for both him and Utena, coercing her into situations where she either has to choose between obeying her brother/lover or helping her friend. And given that it’s heavily implied he turns abusive when she so much as hesitates (never mind outright refuses him), it’s not surprising that she seeks the path of self-preservation, which she’s walked for what seems like a supernaturally long time and, like the stars in the planetarium:
…are comforting: they’re familiar, and they never change. One can turn them off at any time (or at least imagine the option is there), and they can be viewed from the comfortable safety of the indoors. But they are, of course, illusions.
Outside is Utena, and possibility, and a world where new stars are constantly dying and being born. But it is dark and unpredictable, and one is at the mercy of the world. And speaking less metaphorically, leaving Akio behind means admitting that everything she’s been living for has been pointless… Likewise, it means facing the truth of what she’s done… Anthy’s been complicit in or an active party to the ruining of a lot of lives, and turning away from Akio means reconsidering those actions too. This isn’t just breaking away from a cycle of abuse (a hellishly difficult thing in itself, with all that pain and fear mixed in with memories of love and happier times) – it also means Anthy facing the darkest part of herself and trusting that there’s still something in there worth starting over with. And right now, more than anything, she doesn’t want to face the knowledge that she handed [someone] she’s truly come to care for… to the devil that calls himself her brother. (Vrai, The Prince Who Runs Through the Night)
Of course, in so doing, she creates even more layers of dishonesty and secrets between herself and Utena, and increasingly isolates them both. It’s a meticulous, vicious web Akio is weaving here, methodically cutting both girls off from the person who has become their primary support (in both mundane and magical spheres) over the course of the series.
This episode really does seem to be Akio’s moment of total victory, where he has everyone in the cast exactly where he wants them, Utena and Anthy most of all. But hey, there are still six episodes left. And judging by both girls’ increasing uncertainty and discomfort this week, it’s safe to say neither is particularly pleased with the status quo at the moment. We’re at perhaps the lowest point for our protagonist(s) this week. Time to see if they can find the strength to change, or stay trapped in their narrow eternities forever.
Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.