Utena Watch Party: Episode 37

In which Utena wonders if she likes it and should put a ring on it.

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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 always knew I’d have to address this eventually, but given the subject matter of this week’s episode, I s’pose I can’t delay it anymore. So here it is: Up until about a year ago, I didn’t read Utena and Anthy as romantically involved in the TV series. I never questioned it in the film (you’d have to vacation to Egypt to get that deep in de Nile) but I always thought of each version of Utena (TV, film, the two manga adaptations) as different canons telling slightly different narratives, and I saw the Utena series as the story of a deep but ultimately nonsexual love—a friendship, not a romance.

I won’t deny that part of the reason for this was that I grew up in a culture saturated with heteronormalcy, which made it easier to overlook the romantic overtones, but in retrospect, I think the main reason was that I just like to friend“ship” characters, especially girls, because those stories were (are?) more important to me than romances and there were a surprising lack of them, particularly in western media (the Bechdel Test exists for a reason, after all). In even deeper retrospect this had a lot to do with my own asexuality—the Seventh-Grade Me who first watched Utena didn’t know that word, but she related to Utena’s independent “tomboyish” personality, and she read Utena as someone who valued close friendship over romance (and the series as lauding that lifestyle) because she needed that character to exist to make her feel less weird for being more interested in watching anime with her best gal pal than in playing spin-the-bottle with anyone. So, in some ways, my seeing Utena/Anthy as a close friendship was as much a kid craving representation as those who read them as a romantic pairing, I think.

Upon this viewing, I’ve changed my mind. I’m older and (slightly) more comfortable in my own skin, so I don’t need that old interpretation anymore, and from an emotional distance I think it’s pretty hard not to see the strong romantic overtones between these two. I’m not sure they’re in love at this point but they’re definitely exploring the possibility, and it’s easy to see them pursuing a romantic relationship in the future (assuming they make it out of that Rose Gate in one piece, anyway).

We’ll talk contextual details (and that misleading “my feelings are pure” line) to an extent in this post, but I wanted to get that out there in the interests of honesty and as an awkward attempt to explain why I clung to the Utena/Anthy friendship as tightly and for as long as I did. Utena is an important story in the world of anime and fiction in general, and it was an important story to me, personally, as well. Just… maybe not in the way it was for others, or in the way it was intended to be.

Okay. Personal essay time over. Blogger Hat firmly back on my head. So let’s get to the details of the episode itself, starting with our Chairman’s Tower residents.

Ring Around the Roses: The State of the Trio

We’ll have ample time to talk about Utena, Anthy, and Akio over the next two episodes, but there’s a lot of quiet tension, subtextual realizations, and subtle power shifts this week, so I did want to touch on this trio before I get into my main topic this week.

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Let’s begin with Akio, who spends this week solidifying (or at least trying to solidify) his hold on the other duelists. He brings Touga back for another creepy photo shoot pretty much just because he can and even gets Saionji involved. Arguably both sides are trying to probe for information and insights into what Utena might be thinking, hence why everyone winds up in front of the camera at some point, but since none of them have any real insight into her thoughts, ultimately Akio “doesn’t really ‘need’ for Touga to do anything… So this is just fucking around with an already beaten, confused teenager because he can, exploiting his uncertainty” (Vrai, Episode 37).

Similarly, we’ve got that brief, brutal car ride with Anthy, where Akio tells her it’s “the world” (and implicitly Utena, a part of that world) which is causing her pain, not him. While this might have been true at one point, it’s certainly not true now, and only serves as a way for Akio to make Anthy feel further isolated from “the world” and further dependent on him, the one person who supposedly isn’t causing her pain.

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There’s a question throughout this episode, I think, about exactly when (if?) Anthy is being honest with Utena and when (if?) she’s playing a part in her brother’s schemes. Given that Akio’s the one who sent the invitation, it’s fair to assume he wants Utena to go though the Rose Gate, so it would make sense to have Anthy push her toward that decision. So is Anthy genuine in her concern and affection, or is she just using it as a way to convince Utena to follow the letter’s instructions?

The answer, I think, is both. Vrai pointed this out quite a few posts back, but Ikuhara uses Akio and Anthy’s hair as a way to differentiate between their masks and their true feelings. When their hair is pinned up, they’re playing the parts of the suave, princely chairman and the demure Rose Bride; when down, they are End of the World and Anthy. So there are moments when Anthy is using her mask to protect herself and others when she’s behaving with honest, open emotion this week, and her hair seems to be the best indication of which is which.

It’s why she can stand there at night with her hair down, telling Utena that “In the end all girls are the Rose Bride” with such quiet bitterness, and why she can stand in practically the same spot in daylight with her hair pinned up, smiling congenially and telling Utena that Akio “loves” her and that she wishes they could stay like this forever. It’s also why she can promise Utena they’ll have tea together in 10 years and then smash-cut to her trying to throw herself off a building (more on that next week, rest assured). Anthy isn’t used to being unguarded, and there’s a (large?) part of her that’s still loyal to her brother, but she also truly cares for Utena and is in a great deal of pain because of it, and we can see that this week, despite some seeming contradictions.

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The good news is that Utena seems to finally be catching wise to all of this. She takes the initiative with Akio for the first time this week, both to help her sort out her feelings about him and to help her avoid Anthy (hence why her first thought when they get back from their drive is whether or not Anthy’s asleep yet). She’s tearing it up on the basketball court again, and speaking openly (if not uncertainly) with the other StuCo members. She angrily rips up End of the World’s “invitation” after Anthy says she wants things to go on like this forever, a complicated gesture that’s as much rage at Anthy (how can she possibly want things to go on like this?), defiance at End of the World (Utena’s never wanted to play his game and still doesn’t), and frustration at herself for “playing at being a prince” (as she says) but still failing to realize just how bad Anthy’s situation has been.

Her removal of the rose crest is a similar gesture filled with similar feelings. As noted by Ikuhara in his creator commentary:

Evidently, some theorize that engagement rings can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome, in the days before Christ. At the time, of course, marriage wasn’t a product of love; it was a political affair in a society dominated by men. The concept of romantic love appeared on the historical stage later. Therefore, rings weren’t “proof of love” items; they only signified “proof of contract.” (Translated by Sarah Alys Lindholm)

So, when Akio gave the duelists their rings, he “in effect stated ownership over them, and feels pretty free to do as he likes in the service of his own whims” (Vrai, Episode 37). Utena removing the ring isn’t about giving up her prince for Akio as it initially appears (and as both Touga and Akio assume), but about rejecting her “contract” with End of the World, taking back some of her own agency—and, also, as Vrai notes, about her sense of guilt and failure toward Anthy:

When she tells Akio about the ring “not suiting her” anymore she’s speaking truthfully, but not for the reason he likely thinks (that he’s successfully making her into a princess). Instead, it’s because of her anger at Anthy and the feeling that she’s failed her. This is also a fine time to echo early Utena’s “perfectly normal girl” speech, here rendered as a single line with far less impassioned fury. When she says she’s a girl it’s not out of an attempt to have Akio validate her as fitting into the societal norms of girlhood, though her remarks to Anthy later seem to imply she understands that this was partly his intent in saying so. She no longer desires to be normal, and that’s tied up, in context, with her concerns about Anthy (since she no longer wants a perfectly normal boy either). (The One to Revolutionize the World)

In the end, Utena chooses to put the ring back on, not for her prince but for Anthy, as a way to see this through and perhaps push everything out of stasis and help Anthy escape from her role as the Rose Bride. She’s still playing by End of the World’s rules, and as the episode preview reminds us, there are still some significant gaps in her knowledge of what’s really going on here. She (and Anthy) will have to find a way to overcome both of those hurdles if they’re to find a way out of this dueling cycle. But Utena’s entering the Rose Gate on her terms, at least, with a better understanding of herself and Anthy than she’s ever had before. Compared to her past obliviousness and blind dedication to the ideal of her prince, it’s definitely a major step forward.

A Little Game Between Friends: The Ohtori Badminton Club

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I adore this scene. I like pretty much every scene with the Utena and the StuCo (the one with her, Touga, and Saionji is also a nice push toward getting the two of them to realize they might have one of those “true” friendships as well, if they’d just put aside their cynicism and acknowledge it), but the badminton scene might be one of my favorite moments in the entire series. So, we’re gonna go all micro-analysis and talk about it in detail for a while.

Perhaps obviously, the scene is intended to parallel the duels we’ve seen previously, except that (1) instead of “fighting” with sharp blades, we’re “playing” with rackets and soft birdies, and (2) the trading of idea(l)s isn’t limited to two individuals, but open to first a triangle and then a quadrangle of varying perspectives—which, in turn, create a broader picture and allow the characters to see themselves and each other in ways they hadn’t before.

Their conversation also serves to hammer home something that’s always been there but never really explicitly stated: That the duels are more metaphor than reality, the “swords” everyone’s personal psychologies and ideals, and that, when dueling, the characters are opening themselves up emotionally to the other person more than they ever do outside of the arena. Hence why Utena (showing herself to be far more empathetic and thoughtful than she was when the series began) knows about Jury’s feelings toward Shiori, even though Jury has never technically vocalized those feelings.

In a way, it’s as if the duelists can “hear” each other’s internal monologues when they’re in the arena. The duels by necessity brought these kids very close to each other’s strengths, faults, beliefs, and fears, and now that they’re not competing to see whose worldview is the “best,” they’re allowed to express that closeness outside of the arena, which leads to this lovely, amicable moment between close friends rather than revolutionary rivals.

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This scene also does great work with blocking, showing where everyone stands in their relationship (and in comparison) to Utena. When shown from the arches, Miki and Utena share an arch and can see one another—indicating their friendship throughout the series—but are farther from each other in terms of actual distance and verticality (Miki sits while Utena stands) than anyone else, suggesting that Miki’s probably the one furthest from understanding himself, breaking free of the dueling system, and being ready to “graduate” from Ohtori.

Jury and Utena are separated by a column (because Jury has acknowledged her romantic feelings toward Shiori while Utena hasn’t quite for Anthy, or because Jury still can’t vocalize her emotions the way the others can?), but are back-to-back and frequently mirror each other’s poses, suggesting a psychological closeness (remember, Jury was the only character to “quit” before Utena defeated her).

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Then of course we have our Miss Nanami, back for the first time since her traumatic two-parter. She’s left the game more resolutely than anyone, returning to her school uniform (a rejection of Touga’s control over her as much as the dueling system’s, I’d say), and refuses to take part in the idea-bouncing session, instead snatching the birdie from the air and loudly declaring that Utena’s “being tricked.” She’s the closest to Utena when shown from the arches, a visual echo of the pair’s admission that they’re actually a lot alike, but she also spends a good deal of time facing away from the others or looking down while everyone else forms an equidistant triangle and looks to the sky, following the birdie’s path.

All of which just serves to reinforce what we learned from Nanami’s episodes: Her willingness to see the game as rigged and reject it suggests she’s the closest next to Utena in terms of “revolution ability,” but she’s still too immature and uncertain to face this knowledge head on and do something with it. Give her a few years, though. She may keep surprising us the way she’s done all series.

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Circling back to the idea of being “unchosen,” this is one of the few times we’ve seen the StuCo out on the open school grounds without a horde of other students around them. Usually they’re either closed off in their private spaces (Miki’s music room, Jury’s fountain, the StuCo pavilion itself) or surrounded by others (such as all those fencing club scenes), and under the constant eye of the student body or teachers. Just about every “public” scene before this one was filled with a chorus of student chatter while Miki and Jury remained silent, given personality and voice by the opinions of others. Here, though, it’s the opposite: The crowd of watchers has been silenced and (mostly) dispersed, and Miki and Jury can finally speak for themselves.

Notably, Kozue and Shiori remain, sidelined but still very much present, and a reminder, as Vrai notes, that, “Their issues aren’t gone—Jury acknowledges that she can’t let go of her feelings for Shiori and Miki’s teasing subtly reflects the fact that he’s still looking for a person to fulfill a place in his life, if not the ‘shining thing’” (Episode 37). Miki and Jury both talk (mostly jokingly) about using Utena as a “replacement” for their past hang-ups, which isn’t the healthiest declaration and tells us they still have a ways to go. But the fact that they’re looking to a person they know intimately and whom they admire as an individual rather than as an object or ideal is in itself a step forward, and speaks to the possibility that they will bring that same mindset into their other relationships as well.

To conclude: I love this scene, I love these characters, and I’m so very glad Ikuhara gave us this moment, because after everything Akio put these kids through this past arc, we really needed some indication that they were moving forward and going to be all right. This scene does that about as well as we could hope.

The Sensei Next Door

You thought I was going to be talking about cantarella, didn’t you? Nah, Vrai’s got that covered, and in just two episodes any newbies out there will be able to read those posts without fear of spoilers, so I’m gonna leave that discussion to them and you at a later date. Nope, I’m here to do that thing I sometimes do, which is grab a word and pick it apart linguistically. And that word relates to the hot-button topic of:

Utena’s “Pure” Love

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I don’t spend a ton of time on Utena and Anthy’s relationship largely because Vrai handles them so thoughtfully (and passionately) that I don’t feel like I have much to add, but I figured I’d pop in and bookend my Opening Chatter admission with some Japanese vocabulary discussion and the difficulties of translation.

The word Utena uses to say her love is different from Jury’s due to its “pure”-ness is junsui (純粋). I get why the translator went with “pure,” but “pure” in English has all kinds of Judeo-Christian connotations of (sexual) innocence attached to it that aren’t really there in the original Japanese, and a different choice here would’ve done a world of good for the English-speaking audience’s understanding of what Utena’s awkwardly trying to say here.

Admittedly my Japanese is nowhere near perfect, so I’m happy to have others weigh in, but my understanding of the “pure” of junsui (純粋) is that, if you were searching for an English synonym, it’d be a lot closer to “genuine” than it would be to “innocence.” It has an innocent quality to it, yes, but in the sense of being unmixed or single-minded, not platonic or nonsexual.

When Utena differentiates her “love” (suki; 好き) from Jury’s, I think she’s referring more to Jury’s own admission of selfishness. As we’ve discussed before, Jury’s guilty of wanting to “make” Shiori understand her feelings, and of turning Shioiri into an idol or a symbol (“the girl in the locket”) rather than seeing her as an actual, flawed person. Utena’s saying her “love” of Anthy isn’t that—she sees Anthy for who she is and genuinely wants to stand beside that person, as an equal partner rather than an object or a princess she can “pretend at playing prince” with. Or, it could be a matter of Jury’s love being mixed with fear, as she keeps Shiori at arms-length and won’t tell her how she really feels, while Utena has at least tried to be honest in terms of general warmth and emotional closeness.

Now, is Utena saying this more as a way to convince herself that it’s true than as an actual truth? Given that she’s spent the last day avoiding Anthy, I think it’s fair to say that yes, she’s still working through her feelings and is vocalizing a wish more than a fact. I also don’t think she’s sure how far that “love” goes, hence her hesitant, repeated “Himemiya and I…” that she’s never quite able to finish. But she’s not flat-out denying the possibility of a romantic relationship, either.

All of which is to say that this line doesn’t prove or disprove anything, and given the devotion and physical intimacy we’ve seen from these two, it’s far more likely that Utena does have romantic feelings for Anthy than that she doesn’t. How will Utena’s realizations this week affect her own actions and her relationship with Anthy, and how will that relationship come into play during our final confrontation? We’ll be tackling that from all kinds of angles in the next couple weeks.

Next -> Episode 38

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Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.

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