In which Utena gets us to believe in triumphant victories only to stab us in the back. Literally.
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.
I very nearly did another dual post simply because I can’t imagine anyone out there could have watched this episode and then not immediately clicked over to the finale, but judging by the size of my notes (I’ve gone from a few bullet points to basically transcribing the damn script, there’s so much to unpack each week) I figured we should take them individually so as not to overload on word count. Plus this way I can maybe work in some overarching retrospective type stuff next week, too.
So here we go. Pulse-pounding duels! Heart-breaking confessions! Shocking betrayals! Gorgeous cinematography! Just another average day at Ohtori Academy.
The Gang’s All Here
Before we get to the Absolute Destiny Apocalypse, let’s check-in with our also-ran duelists, mostly because I suspect I’ll be talking about them a fair bit next week so I want to make sure we get them established in this post. They’ve ascended to the StuCo Pavilion once again, their determined speech about “smashing the world’s shell” returning for the first time in what feels like ages. It’s a familiar scene that drives home the fact that, despite their unchosen status, they still have a good deal more knowledge (and subsequent worry) than the rest of the student body, and so can still move into this separate sphere, discussing the world’s revolution even if they can’t actually be a part of it.
There are, however, two key differences between past ascensions and this one, as it’s the first time we’ve (1) seen the entire group ascend together, and (2) had them all participate in the Shell Speech, contributing a verse and their own unique (flawed) rose to the vase. They’re haphazardly assembled on the pavilion itself, in the same place but still looking in different directions, but there’s a sense of equality and community that we haven’t seen before, and it echoes (albeit a bit more distantly) the friendliness of last week’s badminton scene. Plus, as Vrai notes:
One of my single favorite visual touches is the vase of roses on the Student Council’s balcony. Each adds their own color as the elevator rises and they recite that old oath, ending with Touga adding a white rose – Utena’s color, the prince’s color, the pure light of ideals that drew them all together in the first place and the person who helped them realize something about themselves. As soon as he does, the vase of many colors becomes one singular (pink and white) rose plant, unified by that central idea and bond. Before they were grouped together out of necessity, jockeying within a set of rules to crush the others. Having been freed from being chosen, it’s very nearly as though they’re something like companions. (End of the World)
I’m a character-focused reader/viewer, so I’ve generally written about the duelists as unique individuals interacting with Utena, but there is a way to see them all as personality traits within Utena herself, or as versions of the person Utena could have become: The way Miki clings to an idealized past/person, Jury’s unspoken desires giving way to bitterness, Nanami’s selfishness and stubbornness, Saionji’s obsession with eternity, even (especially?) Touga’s desire to become a prince, “one who wields power” (as Ikuhara once described it) and “saves” princesses. These are all parts of who Utena is, and they’re all parts she’s been having to face, deal with, and overcome these past few weeks.
But she’s also Miki’s kindness, Jury’s passion, Nanami’s straightforwardness, Saionji’s loyalty, and Touga’s determination. Separate, they’re kind of a mess; together and they become that pink rose, a self-confidence and nobility that doesn’t rely on naivety but instead on self-awareness and empathy. Maybe the same can be said of the duelists themselves: By forming a community, they can help compensate for one another’s failings, and improve each other along the way, becoming something the student body really can look to to lead them through this school and into (healthy) adulthoods.
This episode is about 80% Akio using every weapon in his arsenal to try and defeat Utena, so while I’d much prefer to just shout “boo, hiss!” at him and move on, we should probably talk about that. He begins by appealing to the part of Utena that really did have feelings for him, revealing himself as her prince and promising her a happy “eternity” with him inside the castle. It’s here that he takes her sword and dresses her like a princess—but also, implicitly, like a Rose Bride, one who’s sword (power) is wielded by another in the name of “protection” or “love.”
But all of this is contingent on Utena abandoning Anthy to her eternal torment, so she rejects his offer and takes back her sword. Akio then moves on to a rapid fire, semi-contradictory attack on Utena’s driving motivations and ideals, all of which is meant to erode her confidence and place him in a position of authority.
He accuses her of losing her nobility because she “didn’t reject him” even though he had a fiancee (boo, hiss!), which he says makes her unfit to be a prince. But hey, she still has the option to be his “lovely and unspoiled princess,” so it’s all good, right? He also insists that Anthy is here because she chose to be, because she likes it, that being the Rose Bride and a witch is what she wants, so there’s no reason for Utena to fight for Anthy because Anthy neither wants nor needs it (and all the while Anthy herself is voiceless, prone, and hey have I mentioned how easily it is to read Utena as the story of one person’s struggle to escape an abusive relationship?).
Mostly, though, what he returns to again and again is the gap in their knowledge, repeatedly telling Utena that she’s a child living in pretty, naïve fantasies while he’s an adult who understands how the world really works. To prove this, he reveals to her the truth: That the dueling arena was nothing but an illusion he cast using the world’s creepiest planetarium, and they’ve been battling at the top of the Chairman Tower this entire time, dancing to Akio’s tune even more thoroughly than any of us realized:
Really, please take a minute to think back on every scene that’s happened in the dueling arena up to now. Utena and Touga’s quiet moment of understanding? Akio was running the light show. Saionji’s very first breakdown? Akio no doubt relished cooking up something terrifying to punish him for breaking the rules (and even put Anthy in a facsimile of her real coffined self, because he’s a smug bastard like that). The breakdown of every Duelist, Black Rose and Student Council, all played out for his amusement. Less Nero fiddling as actively just setting the undesirable neighborhoods on fire. (Vrai, End of the World)
Yet despite playing on his home turf, Utena is, bit by bit, becoming less and less hampered by the ignorance and egotism which has plagued her all series. She rejects Akio’s claims that Anthy’s happy being the Rose Bride, not because it’s necessary for Anthy to be unhappy in order for Prince Utena to save her (as was the case when she made this same argument to Touga way back in Episodes 11-12), but because she’s seen it firsthand and spoken to Anthy directly about it.
That heart wrenching conversation between the two of them after Anthy’s failed suicide attempt (okay, not so much “suicide” since Anthy’s body is a projection and can’t actually die, but you get the idea) laid them both bare. They’ve confessed their past crimes and failings—how they’ve “used” and “betrayed” one another for their own ends—and Utena has admitted that her lack of empathy made it impossible for her to truly help Anthy, to be the “prince” she claimed to be. Akio’s words here do have power, and they certainly give Utena pause, but ultimately he can’t sway her because she’s already aware of all of her failings, has accepted them, and wants to move past them. Screw her own hangups. She loves Anthy and wants to help her. That’s all she’s concerned about now.
And, knowing his best manipulations have failed (his plans are literally coming down around his ears), Akio pulls out his trump card: Anthy herself, the one person Utena has come to fully trust—and, perhaps, underestimate, as she immediately seeks to protect Anthy and in so doing leaves herself open to that final betrayal.
You Say You Want a Revolution? Well, You Know…
There’s a whole lot going on in these scenes in terms of both individual character struggles and abstract ideas, but I think the majority of it comes down to what have always been the central conflict(s) at work in this story: Stasis versus change, and what it means to be an “adult.”
Akio keeps using the word “child” as an attack, as proof of Utena’s powerlessness, and there’s some truth to it. Certainly we’ve seen over the course of the series how thoughtless selfishness, naivety, and clinging to (nonexistent) “simpler times” from one’s youth can hamper a person’s ability to empathize and understand others as well as act in an informed, meaningful way (knowledge is power and all that). Utena isn’t a series advocating for eternal childhood and innocence, because that’s also a form of stasis, and this is a show that badly wants a revolution.
Akio, then, is demonstrative not of adulthood as a whole, but of the trap that so many adults fall into: Coming to understand the many cruelties and injustices in the world, disliking it but failing to change it, and eventually becoming a part of it, maybe even one of the parts that actively works to keep things the way they are, maybe even convincing yourself that this really is the best way to do things and everyone is better off under this system (and under your rule).
The ideal of the prince looms above the arena, larger than life and faceless, but for Akio it’s the grave of the person he used to be, the person who “died” as soon as he failed to save Anthy, and the person he’s only managed to half-convince himself (given the tears) was only a cultural myth that never really existed in the first place. Like the castle he created for the duelists to chase, Akio’s come to see the person he was as an illusion borne of childish notions about how the world works. He rejects that version of himself this week, advocating instead for a seat within the Chairman’s Tower (a material position based on a preexisting system of authority) and a life where his sister goes on living in agony because he’s convinced himself that “she enjoys being a witch.”
Akio says he wants to use Utena’s sword to bring revolution, but when pushed to explain what that means, all he can say is that “a child like you cannot understand my ideals.” The truth is he has no interest in revolution, at least not a meaningful one, nothing that would truly change the power structure where men wearing the masks of princes wield all authority, turning all subservient women into princesses and condemning those who would seek to wield their own power as witches. Akio’s come to believe there is nothing higher than the Chairman’s Tower. And if that’s as high as his sights can turn, how can he possibly expect to revolutionize anything?
For all her growth as a character, Utena’s still stuck in a bit of a loop herself, because while she admits to her own shortcomings as a prince, she’s still holding on to the idea(l) of a world where princes and princesses are necessary at all. She apologizes to Anthy for “acting like I was a noble prince who would save [her]” even though she “never realized the pain [Anthy was] in”—in other words, she isn’t apologizing for clinging to the the prince/princess ideal, but rather for her failure to live up to that ideal.
During the duel itself, she keeps promising to “free” or “save” Anthy from Akio and swears “I’m going to become a prince,” the kind of statements that continue to place Anthy in the position of princess (or Rose Bride, as the two images have become conflated as of late) and suggests she doesn’t have the voice or power to make changes for herself. It’s not what Utena intends, not really—we know by her actions and words from the previous night that she wants to understand Anthy as a person, not an object to pursue or “save,” and for them to face one another as equals—but she still can’t quite pull herself out of that old mindset of prince/princess duality, despite her best intentions.
And it’s this last vestige of the old power structure and ideal system that, as Vrai notes, may be what pushes Anthy to her final act:
Anthy is seeing the destruction of her entire world and the potential death of the man who’s set himself up as her sole source of emotional support in addition to the torment. And in addition to all of that, Utena is already appearing to slip back into her old ways of declaring herself to be a prince. What’s to say that it’s a moment of passion and not a sign that she’ll go back to the way she was? That she won’t become another Akio? That Anthy hasn’t backed the wrong horse out of love again? …No, far better to stay with the devil you know. Feeling cornered and hopeless, she drives the blade in and falls back into Akio’s clutches. (End of the World)
Utena’s name is in the title, but this is a series as much about Anthy as it is about her partner, meaning that it’s ultimately about how both of them, as individuals and a pair, face the “reality” of the world and find a way out of the coffins they’ve been living inside for so long. They’ve got 22 more minutes to do it. Good luck, ladies.
Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.