Utena Watch Party: Episodes 35-36

In which I am positively flabbergasted by the amount of sympathetic words I’ve written about Touga and Saionji.

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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

I somehow ended up feeling really bad for Touga this week, which startled me given that I’d named him Grand Duke of Jerkistan by the end of the Nanami Eps. (Akio’s the King of Assholia, if you were wondering. All the dukes must pay him homage!) Thing is, as big of a d-bag as he’s been, and as easy as it is for me to be harder on him because he’s older—17 or 18 and nearing adulthood in real-world legal terms—he’s as much a victim of Akio’s manipulations as Utena, if not more so, and perhaps the character whose coffin lid is nailed the most tightly shut.

As a result, this post turned into a somewhat jumbled attempt to explain the interpretations that eventually led to me down this strange path to pity. I have paragraphs. So very many paragraphs. But I did my best to break them up with screenshots, and maybe by the end of it I’ll have managed to adequately explain myself. Here goes nothing.

Stars, Camera, Action

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So. We’ve spent the past—er, lots of—episodes stacking up a big ol’ pile of lies, deceptions, delusions, and masks, much like the cars in Akio’s photo shoot (and oh, lookie there, another performance!). And yet, ironically enough, it’s the episodes that focus on the show’s longest-lasting liar and manipulator where the truth finally begins to reveal itself, albeit in fits and starts.

Most obviously we have Utena and Anthy. In Episode 35, Utena’s on the verge of remembering the real reason she decided to become a prince, and Anthy’s letting her mask to slip in front of the audience (if not in front of Utena). Then this all cranks up to 11 in Episode 36’s final scene, when Anthy not only allows Utena to see her with Akio, but meets her dead-on, challenging her to face the truth that’s been under her nose for so long.

All of which will have a major impact on the final three episodes, to be sure, and deserves mention, but isn’t really our focus this week. No, these episodes are about Touga and the two paths open to him—deceit or sincerity (neatly symbolized and vocalized by the two guys he’s rolling around shirtless with)—which influence his interactions with Utena.

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It’s tough to pin down exactly when Touga’s lying and when he’s telling the truth, because outside of the occasional flashback, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen Touga not putting on a performance of some kind, so we don’t have a “real” Touga to compare to a “fake” one. That said, I do think we get the occasional hints, often through images and scenery.

Cameras are usually a good sign that someone is being untruthful (either to another person or to themselves) and are used twice: Once when Akio gets Touga to play The Prince Game with Utena (which is really just intended to prove how ridiculously outmatched Touga is in this fight); and again when Saionji grills Touga on his feelings for Utena and Akio. When the cameras are on him, Touga avoids the question of Utena while saying he wants Akio’s power. “You’re sure?” Saionji asks (with such hurt in his eyes, and dammit, Saionji, stop making me like you!), and the camera shatters, allowing the two to have an honest moment where Saionji can point out that Utena’s “prince” not only didn’t save her from her coffin, but is now working to keep everyone else trapped in their coffins, too.

The other nifty clue is trickier to pin down, but as Anthy established a few weeks’ back, there are two sets of stars: The real ones and the fake ones. It’s fair to assume that the things that happen in Akio’s observatory are artifice (i.e., about every damn scene between him and Touga), and the ones that happen beneath the “real” stars carry at least a whiff of openness to them. Of course, “real” in the Utenaverse is plenty debatable, since the whole school seems to be under Akio’s control, but there’s a clear difference between the static, two-tone observatory night sky and the dynamic, colorful dueling arena sky. It’s this difference that leads me to believe the Starry Arena scene is Touga at his most genuine, and why despite my best attempts at cynicism and suspicion, it melts my heart a little every damn time I watch it.

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And speaking of the Starry Arena, here’s another sign of sincerity implied through mirrored actions: Touga falling to one knee and kissing Utena’s hand. Contrast this with “The Barefoot Girl,” where Akio makes as if to kiss Utena’s foot but never actually does, and ends up taking her shoe as his prize. Now, I’m on board with these kinds of princely gestures—ultimately they only serve to strengthen the walls of the gendered “prince” and “princess” boxes Touga and everyone else is stuck living inside (much like the dueling arena itself)—but I want to use them as an example of the difference in motivations, and how it highlights that Touga is, for once, trying to be honest in front of Utena.

Touga’s lived so long in his world of princes and princesses that he doesn’t know how to act outside of it, so he chooses the only gesture he knows that conveys servility, humility, and vulnerability—all those things Saionji said he wasn’t, in essence. He’s still trapped in his coffin, true (hence why his worldview is still deeply sexist and his attempts at revolution ultimately fail), but for perhaps the first time all season we see at least a glimmer of the kind boy from those flashbacks who bandaged his friend’s hand and so badly wanted to help a sad little girl escape from her coffin.

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We don’t see all the steps that led the boy in the flashbacks to become the StuCo President of the series (we get more in The Adolescence of Utena, but the movie is kind of its own thing, so I’m not sure any of it can be taken as TV canon), but we can connect some dots based on what we know of fairy tales and our other prince (Dios/Akio). Ikuhara also provides us with a rough outline in his Episode 35 creator commentary:

Touga’s character changes personalities between the beginning (episodes 1-13) and the end (episodes 25-39). What changed him?

When he was young, he met a girl. She said things like “Everyone is alone” and “There’s no such thing as eternity.” A deep despair: he couldn’t save the girl. But the next day, there she was in the sunlight, with “something different in her eyes.”

Something had saved her.

He wanted to know the true nature of the “miraculous power” that had done it.

When he met her again, he tried to “rule” her heart. His thinking was that only “the joy of being ruled” could save people. He believed that was where the “power of miracles” dwelled.

However.

The girl rejected the “joy of being ruled.” She was a revolutionary girl. And starting that day, the “power of miracles” that he sought transformed into something else. That something was…

“Shh…Koi.” (Translated by Sarah Alys Lindholm)

[JND Note: Koi can mean a number of things, but here is probably a pun on “romantic love” (恋) and a request for someone to “come here” (来い).]

But, because Touga is so mired in the prince/princess system, the moment can’t last. With daylight (and the watchful eyes of the public) upon him again, Touga chooses to play Akio’s game, take on the role of the aggressor, and kill any good will he might have earned from Utena. Which, you know, sucks, because if he hadn’t gone all “lose the duel and become my woman” on her, she might have actually listened to his very real (now that he’s got nothing to lose) warning about End of the World and the Rose Bride. But instead the rift between Utena and Touga is as wide as ever, and the amount of trust could barely fill a thimble.

Sympathy for the Devil’s Advocate

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While Touga’s connection to Utena is an important one, he’s largely defined by two other relationships, both of which are thick with sexual tension and rife with a complicated push-and-pull of emotional sincerity and manipulation (and arguably feature some form of romantic feelings, although how far that goes is up for debate). I mentioned before that Akio and Saionji represent the boxing match going on in Touga’s head between deception and honesty, but I want to push on that a little more in terms of interpersonal relations, and what they represent to both Touga and the story as a whole.

In one corner we have Akio, the man behind the wheel, in front of the camera, clothed in the red of power. I admitted to pitying Touga, and here’s where we at last get to that. While most of it has occurred off-screen, Touga’s been dancing to Akio’s tune from the very first episode, following his rules and seeking to mimic him to a greater degree than anyone else. In the Student Council Saga, his desire for power and world revolution consumed him and defined his every move, steadily isolating him from his allies both intellectual (Miki and Jury) and emotional (Saionji, Nanami, maybe Utena), to the point where failure (losing to Utena) caused him to break down and leave the game for an entire arc.

With his ideals shaken and his emotional connections all but severed, in sweeps Akio, reeking of adulthood and confidence and sex, taking Touga under his wing, teaching him “the game,” and rolling around in bed with him just to add one more hook into his already nabbed fish (to use the Shadow Girls’ metaphor). Touga was Akio’s golden boy, “chosen” to peek behind the curtain before anyone else. And, yes, Touga likely fancied that it was a give-and-take relationship, imagined they were partners or that he had some measure of control or even that he was using Akio, that he could somehow outwit the guy who’d invented the rules.

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Then Episode 35 happens, and every scene between these two demonstrates how well Akio has played Touga, manipulating him as easily as he did Utena. Their moments are characterized by performance and posing (cameras), emotional distance and barbed comments (cacti), and passive-aggressive “games” which all seek to systematically stomp out any spark of confidence Touga might have had going into this final duel (see: the “test” with the gift, the horseback riding incident).

And Akio does this all while pretending to be on Touga’s side, as demonstrated by that viciously manipulative “Although I still hope you win,” which Akio doesn’t bother to bust out until after he’s proven that Touga can never win—not against Akio, and probably not against Utena, either. (Touga spends much of Episode 35 barely concealing his jealousy, but it’s as much jealousy for Akio choosing Utena as it is Utena choosing Akio.)

Touga has been isolated, physically and emotionally (ab)used, and then cast callously aside for a better candidate. And maybe he had it coming after all the people he manipulated and used, but even so, that’s a mighty fucked up thing for an adult to do to a teenager.

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Saionji provides a sharp contrast to Akio, both in terms of power dynamic—Saionji’s the one asking the questions, pointing the lens, and Touga’s the one behind the wheel or before the cameras—as well as the road he urges Touga to travel. While Akio’s been encouraging emotional distance and deception, Saionji spends these episodes needling and prodding at Touga, calling out his vices, laying him bare (in sooo many ways), and challenging him to figure out what he really wants and how he really feels.

He is also, surprisingly enough, the first character to understand the central problem with this system, pointing out that not only did Utena never escape her coffin, but that they’re all stuck in their coffins—i.e., in their prescribed roles, following the rules set by a(n end of the) world that’s been here far longer than they have. And how can you possibly revolutionize anything if you’re just doing what the current regime tells you to do?

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For all that Saionji denies it, he still cares deeply for and is fiercely loyal to Touga, which is why he approaches him with so much vitriolic honesty and demands the same in return (as I’ve said before, Saionji is a hot mess, but he’s never two-faced). It’s why he wants Touga to stop being Akio’s “lapdog” and following the lead of a guy who’s so obviously using (and destroying) them all. And, in the end, it’s why he sticks by Touga and respects his decision to fight, becoming his “bride”—and a damn good one, to boot:

As a dueling pair, the imagery even goes out of its way to tell us how close a match these two are for Utena and Anthy. While previous opponents have done the sword pulling segment almost as a series of still images (positioning, the bride with the sword, the duelist holding the sword), Touga and Saionji have a full beat for beat animation sequence that parallels Anthy and Utena’s intimate contract (and wow is the matchup gorgeous – that one tiny bit of animation is one of my singular favorite moments in the series). Their bond, in other words, is the real deal, and what holds them back instead is the fact that they’re not fighting for the same thing (Saionji is turned away from the duel while Anthy watches, and only actively engages when he’s driving the little motorcycle that represents his and Touga’s relationship in isolation from the grander ideals at stake – i.e. the cars, adulthood, and revolutionizing the world). (Vrai, And Thus Opens the Doorway of Night).

These two have had a seriously screwy relationship as of late, but the fact that Touga seeks out Saionji after Akio has quietly kicked him to the curb is an important one, as is the fact that he seems to show continuous honesty in his interactions with Saionji (and respect for Saionji’s opinions) throughout these two episodes. The two crash and burn, but they do so together, and when the smoke clears Saionji is the one still at his side, not Akio. As strange as it is to say about our Season One cartoon villain, that may be the best thing that could’ve happened to either of them.

All Part of the Game”

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Good gravy, this post is out of control. One last topic and then we can all take a nice long breather. It’s been a while since we talked rules and rule-breaking to any great degree (it got a spotlight way back in Episodes 9-10, but has only been on the periphery since, I think), but we really have to come back to it here, because it ties a lot of this week’s plot events together and highlights the major reason (of many) why Touga and Saionji are doomed to fail.

While Vrai and I have somewhat different takes on Touga (I’m nicer, but hey, they’re nicer to Shiori, so it balances out), I am on-board with their interpretation of Touga’s flawed approach to the duels, so we’ll start with an excerpt about that:

First, a bit about [Touga’s] place as a part of the system, which I have taken to calling… “the Game of Thrones approach.” Essentially, he believes that he recognizes the system and the way it favors certain parties over others (making girls into princesses), and has set about the process of “saving” them by working his way to becoming the new head of that system. He’s seen behind the curtain, so obviously he’ll be far more benevolent than what goes on now. He’ll only use his powers for good.

And then Utena comes along. And the important thing to know is that she does shake his view of the world – or at least he thinks she does. But it isn’t his resignation to the system that’s moved. Instead, it’s his opinion of women within the bounds of that system. There are Normal Women, and then there is Utena: The One Great Woman. She is rare and exceptional, having risen above the inherent setbacks of her gender and come to stand on equal ground with male duelists. Touga’s view might be the trickiest to pin down because it thinks it’s feminism. His is the worldview that gives us the Strong Female Character… The woman who is made to stand as an impossible “ideal” (Utena herself is not any of this, but there’s no doubt it’s how Touga sees her, given how he goes on about how she’s, all together now, “not like other girls”). (Vrai, The Love That Blossomed in Wintertime)

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Neck-and-neck with my pity for how thoroughly Touga has bought into (and been seduced by) Akio’s toxic dueling system is my frustration at the way these episodes play out, because dammit, they are so close to breaking this game wide open. Utena’s shown in the past that her bond with Anthy is powerful, that she has a strong sense of justice, and that she’s able and willing to break the rules in order to help others or do what she feels is right… but her ignorance means she’s stuck in a reactionary role, defending herself and Anthy from forces she can barely see.

On the flip side, Touga knows what’s going on behind the scenes. All he’d have to do is refuse to duel—or better yet, tell Utena what’s going on, and work together to put a stop to all this—and Akio’s plans fall apart. If your ideals refuse to fight each other and instead sit down and talk it out, you can’t exactly pick a winner to revolutionize the world, after all.

But Touga never even considers this, and even says he can’t reveal everything, likely because some part of him still clings to the mystique of being that man behind the curtain. He hangs on to the framework of the system even while claiming to reject the person running it, and so he still plays by its rules even while he knows full well the game is rigged, and that Akio has chosen Utena to win it. He’s so mired in the game that he doesn’t even consider trying to find another one to play, as his motorcycle scene with Saionji reminds us:

[The motorcycle is] such a perfect visual encapsulation of where our characters are: Touga insists that he hates Akio and is only trying to seize his power, but he’s still continuing to mimic the man – and to boot, he’s aping an inferior version with less scope and influence (a motorcycle can hold only one person, a sidecar can be detached, and it doesn’t have nearly the configuring/influence or long distance possibilities of a car); Saionji claims to hate not being in control (and wow with the sexual metaphor going on in those lines of dialogue), but he’s still chosen to get in the sidecar and follows Touga’s directives, either valuing the relationship more than his resentment or simply lacking the drive to act and pull away (most likely a combination of both). It’s one of the great weird comedic moments of the late game episodes, but beneath that it’s poignant in how it represents the stasis these two are strangling themselves with. (Vrai, And Thus Opens the Doorway of Night)

Saionji’s in a similar position, although (as the motorcycle suggests) his is less a matter of buying into the system as it is of not being prepared to leave it. He stands up and cries out for them to break free, but when Touga reminds him that doing so is dangerous, he quickly sits back down again, abiding by the laws because it’s safer that way. Saionji understands what’s going on a lot better than Touga, but (like Nanami) he doesn’t have the courage to bust out of it yet.

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Which is why, I think, everything after the Starry Arena sequence feels routine, expected, and borderline defeatist. Touga slips on his playboy mask again and challenges Utena to a duel. Saionji rides around in the car, halfway ignoring the fight until the very end, when it’s more about going down in a blaze of glory than it is about defeating Utena. You get the sense that neither Touga nor Saionji believe they’re actually going to win this thing—there’s more sadness than determination in Touga’s promise to “save” Utena—because they know full well they’re playing Akio’s game, and Akio has chosen Utena.

One thing Saionji seems to know that Touga doesn’t, though: Losing your duel and becoming unchosen isn’t such a bad thing, because it means creating some distance between yourself and the ever-watchful eyes of the dueling system (and all the destructive expectations, rules, and anxieties that come with it). There’s relief in his voice when he asks Touga if they’re finished here, because while Saionji may not be ready to revolutionize the world, he’s sharp enough to know he’s not ready, at least.

And now that the two are finally, officially out of the game, maybe they can look to rebuild that old friendship (or, hell, maybe something more, given the implications of all those shirtless scenes) and salvage whatever kindness and honesty is left in them after Akio has played them so ruthlessly for so long. They’re still just teenagers, after all. There’s plenty of time for even the Grand Duke of Jerkistan to bust open that coffin and change for the better.

Next -> Episode 37

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Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.

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