‘Hello, yes, welcome to Utena! Here is a lot of metaphorical flashbacks and a brief glimpse at our entire core cast, as well as intimations of their personal hang-ups! Also there’s a lot of ominous and seemingly arbitrary background detail! Do you feel overwhelmed yet? Because this is as straightforward as we get!’
God, I love this show.
Episode Specifics: As the opening spiel says, this is our concept explainin’, ducks in a row gettin’ pilot episode that so happens to have a big old hunk of foreshadowing attached (isn’t is neat when a series is meticulously plotted beforehand?). Utena Tenjou was orphaned at a young age, and received a ring from a mysterious prince who greatly inspired her. Now 14, she’s been drawn to the prestigious Ohtori Academy in search of answers (…now that I think about it, there’s a little echo of Utena to Kill la Kill in this regard). Initially challenging the haughty Saionji to a duel to defend her friend’s honor, and then in outrage at his treatment of the withdrawn Anthy, Utena finds that she’s accidentally stumbled into something altogether more complicated.
Could it possibly have to do with the rose imprinted on the personal possession
currently dictating your life choices
It occurs to me that this might become the segment where we talk about the music, for lack of a better location. To that end, let’s start with the utmost important leitmotif – “Absolute Destiny Apocalypse.” The beauty of the lyrical vagueness is that it can have a multiplicity of meanings as the show changes subject and theme, but let’s take the baseline for the moment. The song’s lyrics refer to records, or the recording of a life. In our case that means fairytales or stories: the “heroic prince” narrative Utena is trying to forge for herself, the manipulated narrative of the dueling game, and the meta narrative of the series itself.
Each episode is a duel, and each duel is a ‘record’ of the characters and why they fight. As to what it is they’re fighting for, the song goes on to describe paradises of two broad strokes: Shangri-La, a mythic paradise; and Sodom, a symbol of excess and carnal impulse. The two are neatly representative of Akio and Dios, the earthly and the ideal. And arguably, most of the duelists fall into one category or the other as well – either searching out some kind of ideal, personal desire, or (most often of all) a complicated mix of both. And, of course, both are lands of parable – while they may once have had a very loose connection to historical reality, they are now illusions representing something more.
As for the music underscoring Saionji’s duel, the lyrics and the scene’s imagery link it back to Utena’s awakening connection to the spirit of Dios – a great and passionate light that bursts forth, giving her the strength needed to win.
Creator Commentary: During the process of getting from the plan to the production deal, I needed to convey the image of the show to a lot of stakeholders in a way that would be easy to understand.
So I made the written plan an “it’s something like this” type of thing. And in fact, it got the gist across, and I think it’s what got us a green light on the production.
However, when we finally entered the production stage, I was plagued with worry. Suddenly I was brooding over what the show’s originality really was. Style of expression is key in a TV series. A unique individuality. A mode no one has ever seen before. There was this pressure of “I have to make this a show with a special type of visual expression. That’s the only way people will want it.”
I decided to use “Absolute Destiny Apocalypse.” And that prompted a switch to flip in my mind. Within myself, I could sense that this would be a special show. But, it was hard to explain that “specialness” to the public during pre-production.
I talked about the story. I explained the characters. But no matter how bombastic I was, nobody understood me past the level of: “it sounds like an eccentric show.” So all throughout pre-production, I had these pangs of guilt, like I was deceiving someone.
The first episode was given sound at last. It was complete.
The impression of the first stakeholder to watch it was something along the lines of “Huh? What is this?”
Character Spotlight: Though this is Saionji’s duel it isn’t, properly speaking, his episode. So we’re going to save the in-depth discussion of the pitiful little bastard for a bit further in. For now, let’s leave it at the little glimpses we get of everyone else: underlying the eternally confusing stopwatch, we see Miki’s jealousy of Saionji (and by implication, his interest in Anthy); we hear about Wakaba’s “Onion Kingdom” for the first time, and see Touga already trying his hand at omniscient spying a la “End of the World.” While we could peel back any of these, I’m putting any talk beyond those brief nods on hold until the next few episodes.
Just in case you hadn’t noticed those impossible proportions, we’d like to ask:
are the critical life-giving organs being stored in those puffy sleeves?
Have You Heard: In keeping with the ‘relatively straightforward’ theme, we have a proper prologue for our fairytale. Also discussed is the concept of ‘rules – on the one hand applicable to the dueling arena rules that Utena charges ahead without knowing, but also referring to one of the most important underlying rules that Utena is flouting by her very existence: that a girl who is not a princess must, by needs, become a witch. Utena’s ignorance of ‘rules’ will go on to be both help and hindrance to her, keeping her from hesitating but also causing damage to the honesty possible in her relationship with Anthy.
Just met the girl she’s gonna marry
More importantly, the first person she might actually want to
Anthy Watch: Speaking of foreshadowing, you’ll note that every time Utena mentions the scent of roses or remembering how she got the ring, Anthy is either directly involved with the action in question or framed by the camera in the next moments. Even as soon as the first episode, the show begins to clue us in that Anthy is a very present and forgotten part of Utena’s memory.
Now, it’s somewhat difficult to judge where Anthy’s act ends and her true feelings begin in this episode, even knowing that she is complicit in the dueling game. Given that we’ll eventually find that Anthy has a hand in drawing Utena into the duels (by manipulating the scenario to give her emotional investment – seriously, Saionji was the winner of the duels? We know at the very least he’s consistently weaker than Touga…but that wouldn’t make for as compelling an image re: Utena’s hero complex, would it?).
I’ve long had my doubts that Anthy wasn’t somehow involved in the love letter situation. While Saionji is, let us have no illusions, often cruel with that mammoth inferiority complex of his, and even though he does eventually cop to posting the letter (after several responses of confusion), it just doesn’t match up with any of his other actions in the series. Those trend more toward intense bouts of earnestness (the exchange diary comes to mind) followed by an attempt at control via violence as soon as things don’t go his way. But emotional cruelty isn’t his style, at least not intentionally (his actions toward Wakaba are undoubtedly cruel, but more due to his self-centeredness than an active desire to wound her).
It is Anthy’s, though, because emotional cruelty is the only semblance of a weapon she is allowed to have. Since Saionji is forever parading her around like a trophy she’d have access to his possessions, and any small amount of observation of Utena as a mark would reveal that Wakaba is her closest emotional attachment.
And yet, at the same time I think Anthy got more than she bargained for. The shock in that screenshot up there looks genuine, and there is no audience to observe it. In that moment there’s something about Utena’s honesty in not only protecting a friend but someone she doesn’t know, without any idea of how it might benefit her, that pierces a little needle through Anthy’s coffin of deadening cynicism. Not yet the hope that something might be different or possibly change, but the idea of something.
Hail fellow, well met
Themes: Let’s take a moment to talk about Utena’s theatrical aesthetic. Putting aside the shadow theater, as well as Utena’s obvious ties to the Takarazuka (a theatrical company known for their lavishness, composed entirely of women), I want to look at that screenshot up there. There’s a very Greco-Roman feeling to the architecture of Ohtori – in the coliseum-like feel (you’ll notice that observers are quite often placed at a higher level than the players throughout the series, indifferently looking on at the suffering beneath them) as well as the traditional layout of Greek theater (where open amphitheaters would’ve been common stages, and all action is restricted to one place and time before the audience’s eyes). Also characteristic of Greek tragedy is the idea of a protagonist undone by a fatal flaw, something that will be quite relevant to Akio down the line.
The arches and sparse setting look would, much later, be taken on by the Globe Theater (famous home of Will Shakespeare), placing our story in the company of a great many famous tragedies before it’s even begun. And a special color-scheme related shout out to Utena being the only character in the scene in any kind of warm colors, as well as the fact that her entrance taking place as if from a spotlight, with loudly echoing footsteps trodding the boards.
Preeeetty sure your friend there thinks Wakaba is some manner of giant cheeseburger
Now, onto the beginning of one of the show’s favorite subjects: gender roles! Interestingly enough, the dialogue sets out a fairly sharp delineation between self and role right off the bat, with roles being defined by highly traditional paradigms and the self being somewhat incidental to the needs of the role. i.e. Utena is Wakaba’s ‘boyfriend’ rather than her ‘girlfriend’ because she is the ‘cool’ and athletically talented one being pursued by an affectionate and more emotional classmate. At the same time, Wakaba’s classmates do not use anything other than female pronouns when discussing Utena (not even agendered ones) making the distinction even sharper.
Utena’s place at the beginning of this narrative is an interesting one. She’s chosen a role that is not the traditionally accepted one, playing a ‘prince’ despite the coded expectations of her femininity, but she’s very much operating within the assumptions and values dictated by that same system even as she takes a unique place within it (in other words, she might be taking on a role typically designated as male, but she still starts with very restricted, traditional views of what male and female ‘should’ be).
I have so many questions about this line of dialogue.
None of which I’m sure I want answered
There’s also a continuous undercurrent about physical bodies. As I mentioned up above, a great many of the duels can be divided between idealistic/materialistic goals, and the Akio arc forces the issue directly (I already regret that choice of wording). Utena might wear the ideal of prince, but she seems almost dysphoric as far as reconciling her ideal with her day to day goals: she wants to rescue princesses, but she’s also a ‘totally normal girl’ who wants a boyfriend; she enjoys sports, but doesn’t actually want to be part of the formal team because of all that smelly boy sweat; and so on.
Utena is, of course, a show about the process of adolescence, and a large part of that is the many changes one’s body undergoes while you’re just along for the ride. And while emotional attachment is easy to ennoble and make safe, there’s the fact that physical attraction to anyone is scary when you’re that age (not actually sure it stops being so on some level) – something powerful and seemingly uncontrollable that is intriguing and imposing in equal measure. It makes sense for Utena as a character to shy away from it. But at the same time, there’s a deeper issue that will come more into play as we watch Utena and Anthy’s relationship develop: the idea of ‘pure’ emotions separate from bodily desire that is so common particularly in anime’s same-sex female relationships (ohoho, we’re coming back to that. Count on it).
The incongruities of Utena’s statements with her reality, the abjection of her very natural physical body and the less than perfect realities of sweat and bodily imperfection, are part of the show addressing a larger genre issue of rejecting the ‘threatening’ aspect of same-sex attraction in favor of something safe, cute, and marketable (when they do not swing to the opposite end of the pendulum and use the physicality of same-sex desire as an implicit threat on the part of the villains). “Class-S” relationships: also known as ‘don’t worry, these deeply emotional and important relationships between girls are just practice so that they can then have ‘real’ relationships with boys!’
…I just saw a blue sky in my head for a minute there. I think I need to lie down before I break something.