Or, the one where I wonder why there aren’t a plethora of Utena/Mean Girls mashups.
Episode Specifics: Local Popular Girl™ Nanami invites Anthy to the upcoming school dance, under the pretense of Anthy being nominated as “dance queen” (you may be shocked to hear that Nanami’s motivations are not, strictly speaking, on the up and up). Anthy has no interest in going, admitting an intense fear of crowds. But Utena (who was invited by student council president and grade-A skeeve Touga) is determined to help Anthy make friends whether the girl wants to or not. It…goes about as well as you’d expect, letting Utena come to the rescue for the mess she caused and leading to a lovely dance.
No song this week, on account of there being no duel (actually, the filler episodes will probably have shorter posts as a rule…there’s only so much I can pull out of these, folks).
In lieu of that, let’s briefly touch back on the imagery of the school courtyard as a place of staging. Utena’s ‘perfectly normal girl’ speech is delivered not when the two are alone together but in the courtyard, with the camera framing Utena and Anthy between pillars of the school’s architecture – as actors on a stage (notice how the nearby students are largely in shadow, acting as a faceless, general pressure that could be embodied by any stranger).
While she has an ideal of what she wants to be, much of this episode is dedicated to Utena’s uncertainty, which shows through as she enacts the normalized social conventions (predominantly that normal equates to heterosexual) she’s superficially rejected by wearing a male uniform. We’ll come back to this subject of ‘norms’ in the Themes section.
Creator Commentary: The basic plot of this episode was ready quite soon after planning started. I believe the thinking was, “We need to bring the mood of Ms. Saito’s manga into this.” But the truth is, you don’t see clichéd plotlines like this in Ms. Saito’s manga. The way Touga approaches Utena is almost uncomfortably stereotypical shoujo, but thanks to that, we were able to strongly impress upon the audience that this was a “shoujo manga anime.” Given the story’s later development, episodes like this were absolutely necessary.
Production-wise, we were in disorder. In the background art meeting, we discovered that the master layout drawings (the base sketches for the backgrounds) that were supposed to have been ready were more or less nonexistent. As the ashen-faced staff looked on, Mr. Kobayashi and I sketched like mad. It was an ordeal, but I think that, over the course of dealing with it, the two of us were able to achieve a consensus about the direction the art should take for the rest of the series.
Character Spotlight: So, here we have the siblings Kiryuu – one of whom I’m quite fond and the other of whom I am…considerably less so, for reasons we’ll get to eventually. What we have here are two characters with vaguely similar base traits that are approached in opposite manners, eventually leading to wildly differing character arcs. Both Touga and Nanami are popular and manipulative, hiding duplicitous actions behind friendly faces.
Touga’s introduction (via Wakaba’s narration) is particularly interesting – if it were truly typical shoujo the popular boy would be depicted as a shining beacon out of a uniform mass of admirers. Instead, Touga is a shadowy figure surrounded by several unique designs, making him seem both predatory and illusory – as if these individuals are chatting up what they want to see rather than a real person. Touga’s behavior to Utena is seemingly on the up and up, if overbearingly flirtatious (the ‘playboy falls in love’ being a very popular narrative).
Nanami, meanwhile, is clear and overtly present, the kind of person who would seem to wear her heart on her sleeve…which only better serves the revelation of her vindictive jealousy. So, like many popular student-type characters these two are one thing on the surface (to the unseen ‘world’) and another thing, supposedly, so us as the savvy audience. But there’s another surprise coming beneath that, the true self underneath expectations and adolescent foibles which will eventually be revealed as their ‘true’ selves…and those selves will turn out to have, in a way, more in common with the top layers than the middle ones.
Have You Heard: The word of the day is ‘gossip,’ and particularly the divergence between words and actions (what we might call reality). We cut back and forth between housewives discussing a ball, whispering in hushed tones that it’s all a glorified man trap attended by shameless girls, and…one prince and one princess, happily dancing the night away with no mobs to be seen (and let us not forget the barking dogs, which can stand for the meaningless noise of the gossip but is mostly just weird).
So, we have a scenario of adults policing young women and their behavior (or what they expect their behavior to be) without considering the facts of the scenario. Note that the prince’s intentions aren’t questions – it’s the girls who have to be kept in check for actively pursuing something.
Anthy Watch: During this episode it’s crucial to remember that Utena is only 14, with all the maturity that can be expected at that age, and that she genuinely means well despite lacking a sense for subtlety. One has to have that in mind, because hitting this episode on a rewatch does not paint our hero in a good light. Knowing the trauma Anthy has suffered it’s unspeakably cruel to make her attend a ball, the kind of event that would house more triggers than a Rube Goldberg mousetrap.
Ah, but that’s the thing. Even without knowing Anthy’s history, we do know right off the bat that Anthy is uncomfortable with attending…and Utena plows over her objections anyway, convinced she knows best. The lesson being that paying attention to people’s concerns is incredibly important – not to say that in some cases it isn’t beneficial to be urged outside of your comfort zone, but you never know if it’s a superficial concern or a deep-rooted one, and it’s arrogant to assume.
Bonus assorted points for all the rumors intimating that Anthy was the one who hurt Saionji (yeah, how dare she break up with that hot popular guy who was knocking her around), digging at a very real and ugly issue – that within groups we will often side with the popular image we think we know rather than the marginalized voice, even if there are things at play that aren’t part of that well-known image. Rumors and half-stories play on an instinctive, clannish sense of protectiveness, leading to lashing out rather than the seeking of truth (yes, I’m totally sidebarring about online communities here).
Themes: There’s a lot of talk of normal this week, both on the character and conceptual level. On the one hand, we have the idea that however Utena might change herself aesthetically, there is a certain set of ideas that remain the true/normal ones. To put it another way, while Utena is technically free to change her path the world will never allow her to forget that she is different, that what she’s chosen is abnormal and weird.
Hence Utena’s need to perform her supposed normalcy in other ways, as if to lessen the offensive difference of the way in which she is different. This is a constant and subtle pressure on the individual, and it is quite different from the true acceptance of breaking down barriers altogether.
In terms of production, the idea of the norm is absolutely critical in rooting a story’s emotional reality (especially if it’s some kind of alternate universe). The audience has to know what ‘normal’ is, what’s expected to go on in the world or how characters react to things on a day to day basis. It can also be applied to generic conventions, such as the stereotypical shoujo Ikuhara talks about.
With the norm established, the audience will have some meter of comparison when change and development are brought by the plot. We know it’s significant when Utena wears girl’s clothing, because she is brashly confident in defending her usual choice of wardrobe. Nanami’s final arc hits all the harder in light of her bullying and comic relief episodes before, so there is a significant reevaluation of judgments we’ve had time to establish.
A story is life with all the boring bits cut out, but context is crucial to assessing why what we’re seeing is meaningful rather than just a series of Stuff Happening.