AKA the one where Utena tries to quit fight club, and it doesn’t work out for her.
Episode Specifics: Utena wants nothing to do with this whole Rose Bridge business, so when Saionji challenges her to a rematch she spies an opportunity to back out by losing on purpose. When the moment comes, though, Utena finds herself unable to give in (whether because of guilt, duty, curiosity, or the innate knowledge that Saionji should not be allowed within 20 yards of any woman), and inherits the spirit of Dios for the first time.
Appropriately enough for the first moment of contact between Utena and the spirit/ideal of Dios, the song that accompanies this week’s duel is about origins. The building blocks of life, one might say, or at the very least the structures of life that ruled the earth before the Ice Age came along – from mitochondria on up. At the same time, Utena is able to call upon Dios, the ideal of princely heroism from which the entire plot stems for both good and ill. Ideals make up human beings past and present, pure objects that are tarnished or changed by human foibles. And often, like prehistoric creatures, they reach a point where they can no longer survive on the earth, and a new structure must rise within that vacuum (it has not, at least not yet, hence why Ohtori exists as a purgatory-like space).
I suspect Juri’s hair of being an extremely elaborate, bouncy helmet
While we’re at it, the often bizarre and abstract ‘student council discussion’ scene is downright comprehensible this week: they’re both literally and figuratively “laying their cards on the table,” capped off by a letter from the mysterious End of the World. While the conspiracies go a great deal deeper, we’re clued in quite early that our young antagonists are little more informed than Utena herself as to the meaning of the duels.
GORGEOUS COMPOSITION ALERT:
Anthy and Utena’s expository conversation is framed as brief, isolated flashes of color and light separated by deep gulfs of blackness – even as information is exchanged they do not reach each other
Creator Commentary: “The bird fights is way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxis.” – Hermann Hesse, Demian (translated from the German by Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck)
When I was in middle school, my classmate T. recommended to me a book by Hesse.
He said, “Inside this book is everything about me.” I didn’t know what he was on about.
However, that particular quote stuck with me. One day long afterwards, T. and I met up again after not seeing each other for over a decade, and I brought it up again.
“What was that, again?”
He didn’t even remember the book existed, let alone that he’d recommended it to me. To think he’d just forget “everything about himself”…I wonder if Hesse wasn’t needed in the world T. lived in after middle school. In which case, I wonder why I didn’t forget. I experimentally added another passage to Hesse’s:
If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without being born.
Smash the world’s shell. For the revolution of the world.
Assistant Director Kaneko and I discussed Anthy’s character time and again because I was obsessed with the idea that whether or not it was “good,” nobody would want to watch a dark and depressing show. That cooking smock over gym clothes look was the result of our conversations. And she finally turned fun…no, she turned into a mysterious girl (!).
Anthy is another Utena. In the initial stages of planning, I thought of the main character as someone who wanted to be a prince, but at the same time also wanted to remain a princess. However, I decided to divide that personality into two different characters. What did “also wanting to remain a princess” mean? I would agonize over the expression of Anthy for the rest of the series.
Can you say ‘foreshadowing,’ children?
Character Spotlight: I thought I could put it off for a few more weeks, but we really need to talk about Saionji. At least enough so that when I later touch on a few of his sympathetic qualities regarding his relationship with Touga I won’t feel quite so much as though I’m polishing excrement. So, Kyoichi Saionji: a petulant, abusive, hotheaded, entitled jerk with an inferiority complex the size of a sizable planet.
He is our starting duelist, I suspect, because it’s so simple to point out where and why his behavior is wrong – of course you shouldn’t hit women, any audience member might think (I hope so, anyway). Of course you shouldn’t refer to them as your property, or force them to stay with you. Saionji is an easy villain to overcome in that regard, a kneejerk appeal to protectiveness for both Utena and the audience that a lot of media calls up but never moves deeper than.
But in this show, Saionji is our gateway to thinking about far muddier, more ambiguous questions – is a woman ‘naturally’ feminine, does protective behavior overwrite or ignore the voice/desires of the protected, how does society punish women for stepping outside certain prescribed roles, and why is that punishment so much harder to weed out than Saionji’s physical abuse? And even, regarding the man himself, what structures or relationships lead a normal, even kind child to think that monstrous behavior is acceptable?
Even once Saionji becomes less threat and more comic relief, he’s still the very picture of entitlement (what feminist theory might call “male privilege”) – of course Wakaba will let him in, because he wants her to and he’s a handsome guy offering to be around her. Of course he deserves Anthy, because he’s proven himself to be the strongest and she should be grateful to be around him. Of course it isn’t fair that he would be beaten or rejected, or told he’s wrong, because the ones telling him that are just overreacting complainers anyway.
…Have you ever been on Reddit? That’s it, that’s comic relief Saionji.
Alright, that might be unnecessarily petty of me. Not all Redditors.
Have You Heard: This week’s play repeats last week’s admonition that there are rules in the forest. The imagery of an old west duel is pretty self-explanatory, but the dialogue that goes along with it is interesting. The cowboy receives a fatal wound, only to parrot a version of Utena’s line: it’s okay, because I lost on purpose.
…Sure, but you’re still going to bleed out. In other words, whether Utena acts as though losing is something she’d chose/is no big deal, taking that course would nonetheless have the very real (and harmful) effects that come from playing such a high stakes game. Pretending you don’t care doesn’t make your problems go away.
If I’m reading the art in this shot correctly,
Utena is preparing to peck him to death with her face-beak
Anthy Watch: It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where Anthy the act ends and Anthy the person begins in this episode. It would even seem that Utena’s unwillingness to claim that she won the duel for Anthy/for her own goals worked in her favor – though there’s no doubt that a certain kind of unintentional selfishness is part of Utena’s early relationship with Anthy, her very earnest-seeming fondness for Chu-Chu/concern for his safety (you are a stronger soul than me, Utena) builds her a critical bit of initial goodwill.
(It’s a grab bag how we want to interpret Chu-Chu, mind – I’ve seen and considered every option from a familiar to a Last Crusade chalice-style test of the duelists, to his being akin to a straight-up horcrux, but mostly what I keep thinking is kill it with fire).
I strongly suspect that Anthy knows what the question to “42” is
Smooth operator points for the expository dorm conversation, where Anthy subtly gives either non-answers or vague ones that Utena can interpret through her own personal bias. It’s both the most impressively subtle and saddening survival trait I can currently name.
Themes: Since it’s explicitly named in this week’s creator commentary, it seems only right that we talk a bit about Demian (and, by extension, Gnosticism). But I want to take a little time to appreciate that screenshot first. While a lot of Utena’s focus as a series is on the pains of adolescence, from the mundane to the dire, I relish little moments of joy like this one. Because adolescence is a process of good discovery as well as bad – like finding out that a book you wrote off as stupid suddenly holds meaning to your life, say. It’s a process of moving outside of ourselves to discover new points of view, and to begin to understand other people beyond the scope of our selfish desires (a theme we’ll be coming back to quite a bit).
Now, about that book. Demian was written by Hermann Hesse around the time of the first World War, and uses the adrift, impressionable narrator/seemingly wise and magnetic mentor mode of storytelling (see also: The Great Gatsby, 1984, A Separate Peace, and so on – Shinji and Kaworu’s relationship has a strong touch of it as well). It’s essentially a story of self-discovery, awakened in the narrator (who feels as though he exists in a world of illusion) by the titular Max Demian.
That realization comes heavily by way of Gnostic principles which, for the grossly simplified purposes of our discussion, is a faith contending that good and evil are both equally important to the human experience – that God (the Abraxis mentioned above) is a combination of all impulses rather than an ultimate good that seeks to shun or banish the evil inherent in humanity.
Likewise, the world of that God is reached by the pursuit of knowledge and the shattering of the material world, overcoming one’s own limitations and embracing the unlimited potential of the self as a spiritual being (there’s quite a bit in the novel about influencing things to go as you want them through the power of individual will, which likely plays into the concept of “revolutionizing the world” as well as Utena’s finale). By contrast, as the speech goes, an unwillingness to throw away one’s assumed knowledge means dying without ever finding any reality of truth.
It’s a faith that stems from a Christian tradition while embracing what might be known as “forbidden” texts, building a philosophical tradition where there is neither good nor bad knowledge but only the seeking of truth and self-enlightenment (so you would be correct in imagining it’s a slippery slope to solipsism in some regards).
In the world of the series, that translates to being able to face hard truths about oneself rather than dressing them up in ideals that the characters are either hiding behind or don’t truly understand. Those who can’t face themselves never grow up, and those who are willing to question the ideas that make up the world are the ones with the power to change it.