This week small children discover their first existential crises, I continue to be fond of Tragically Terrible People, and Ikuhara decides I’ve had it too easy and starts phrasing his commentary in abstract poetry. Little does he know that I’ve spent the intervening weeks working on Gravity Falls ciphers, and am thusly prepared.
Also, Touga becomes a strong contender for the Kind of a Dick crown.
Episode Specifics: Saionji carries on strong in his streak of learning exactly nothing from his failures, having only become more determined to possess Anthy as part of his lifelong quest to one-up Touga. We also flashback to young Touga and Saionji meeting Utena shortly after her parents’ death, hiding in a coffin and renouncing her will to live because there is nothing ‘eternal’ in this life. The next day, however, Utena has left her coffin – and Saionji is convinced Touga found something eternal to show her, once more grasping something Saionji didn’t have.
In the present, Touga fakes a duel letter that goads Saionji into taking Anthy to the arena – a major faux paus as far as vaguely defined metaphorical sword combat is concerned. Utena is able to rescue Anthy from the crumbling arena but opens herself to an attack from Saionji…only for Touga to take the blow at the last convenient second. So, Saionji’s expelled, Utena is shaken, and Touga has planted the seeds of doubt that he might perhaps be her missing prince. Also, because I cannot emphasize it enough, he’s such a dick.
It’s why he bought a replica set from A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Ebay,
Complete with ambiguously orgiastic groupies
This week’s spotlight is on Saionji, but I want to take a moment with Touga anyway. This is the first time that he acts in the capacity of End of the World, with all that that entails – he quickly concocts a plan that works on two levels of emotional manipulation (of Utena and Saionji), he’s cynical and jaded on the phone, and he begins overtly putting on that ‘prince’ act – one that we know has to be a lie, because he looks nothing like the prince in the prologue. This whole episode is one big rehearsal run for the eventual finale, and that includes the sliminess of the False Prince figure.
Creator Commentary: “There was a little princess, and she was very sad for her mother and father had died…”
That’s a fragment of the myth that we tell in the prologue.
“Living on…It’s just making me sick.”
We lined up plot development and visuals suggestive of the series climax. Our goal was to “get viewers anticipating the series’ final scene.”
Utena saves Anthy.
Huh, so that’s what the story’s about.
But what does she save Anthy from?
That’s the central issue.
Two boys discovered an unusual toy one day.
“You got hold of it, didn’t you?”
“That’s right. I have it now.”
That’s when the game began.
It often happens that a relationship becomes stifling because of a shared past. Even if you have no particular interest in a toy, when you find out he has it, you think, “I need it too.”
They say that in that world, only one princess is chosen.
GORGEOUS CINEMATOGRAPHY ALERT: FUCK I love this shot. Touga is taller but also framed so that he’s barely in frame – larger than life to us as well as Saionji, whose grasp is trusting but also dependent. The bandage is luminescent against the greyscale, a wound that’s also the highest mark of tenderness – and both extremes from the same person
Character Spotlight: Hey, remember back when I told you that episode six was actually episode eight, and that there was one scene in particular you should hold onto? Yeah, pull that out now. I think we can all agree in broad strokes that Saionji is awful, or at least prone to doing unambiguously awful things. That’s why he’s the go to arc one villain – his flaws are easily pinpointed and decried. But he’s also damned tragic, a potent cocktail of insecurities, cultural pressures, and the worst friend since Hannibal Lector (don’t think about that time paradox very hard).
As a quick aside, I adore the imagery of the kendo match. The onlookers are visualized as objects/tools – the wooden swords – and while Touga and Saionji will prove to be tools themselves (Akio’s), their swords are holding each other up in their own, isolated space. A most excellent bit of foreshadowing.
I’ve always delighted somewhat in the reading of Saionji as a deconstruction of the BL “uke” archetype (physically frail, openly emotional, dependent on a ‘manly’ other half), but I don’t think it’s an entirely accurate fit (not least because that stupid archetype didn’t get truly, intensely cemented until after Gravitation) – or rather, it’s oversimplified. It’s true that he is initially the more withdrawn, ‘girlish’ and dependent one, and that his anger at being ‘weaker’ than Touga helped to shape a lot of his negative traits. And it’s clear that he’s struggling with some very complicated feelings for Touga, somewhere on the ambiguous lines of friendship and attraction that adolescence seemingly demands be separated out.
At the same time, though, much of Saionji’s problem ties into the idea of the cultural myth of masculinity. He can’t simply love Anthy, he must WIN her. Every action he takes is bound up in the desire to control, dominate, or defeat – something Touga has mastered and that we see Miki being lured into during his duel. It’s a powerful narrative of entitlement, as well: the idea that power makes a man ‘deserving’ above all else, and that his power gives him full rights to push others into the requirements of his life. Feed a boy that myth for long enough, prey on his insecurities often enough, and he will begin to do it to himself. He’ll hate himself for failing to live up to perceived expectations: whether in his lack of strength (he doesn’t seem to perceive that the other duelists have lost as well, and gotten on with their day to day lives) or his lack of sexual conquest (whether it be ‘losing’ Anthy or his complicated and decidedly not Bro-Masculine relationship with Touga). And he’ll punish others who don’t fall into this trap that he’s set for himself, the one even he can’t measure up to (and that, perhaps, no one ever has). And, if he is as young and impulsive as Saionji, he will utterly lack the tools to see the trap that’s strangling him.
That very brief line of “No matter how you may be abused…you’re always happy to be near the one you love” carries a lot of weight knowing it was meant to come directly before these flashbacks and Touga’s manipulation – despite his flaws, Saionji is very abused indeed. In fact, incorporating Touga’s background from Adolescence of Utena (wherein he was sold to a stepfather who sexually abused him, at roughly the age he would’ve been in Saionji’s flashback) casts some deeply needed additional depth onto Touga’s side of the situation (he’s the only character whose youth we see solely through the eyes of others). A theme the series returns to frequently with Anthy is how the abused become abusers in order to take back some sense of power for themselves. He practices kendo on Saionji because the other boy is the only one who’ll ‘let’ him practice on him, and is open in a way that’s easy for someone with more control over hiding their emotions to redirect or push – he’s someone over whom Touga can have power, creating an unequal dynamic long before Saionji realizes it and starts looking for something to blame it on.
In some ways, Saionji is even more childish than Miki. The eternity he strives for is one without complications, without adult manipulations or expectations. Where loyalty is absolute and equality is, to an extent, a given. It’s a pure honesty that one loses growing up – or at least, we lose the ability to tell ourselves that things are uncomplicated.
This dialogue is traditionally said from the bottom of a mug of ice cream
Have You Heard: Not unlike Jury’s episode, this play is about detaching oneself from painful facts. In this case, when we are hurt or let down by a failed relationship, it can be easier to tell ourselves that all relationships end in pain. That our suffering is so great that there is no real friendship or love. Shutting it out and tarring it with one brush means locking out future pain as well – but true adulthood is recognizing that it’s worth it to keep trying.
Anthy Watch: It would seem that there are things even Anthy doesn’t know about the dueling arena – and given that she and her brother made it from scratch, it would seem he’s withholding information from her as a means of control. She can tell you anything about the other duelists and their deepest, darkest fears, but when it comes to her own fate she can only cower in the dark.
“Women in Rose Coffins” didn’t have the same ring to it
Themes: Not only is this a practice run to the finale about thirty episodes from now, it’s also our first introduction to the largest themes at the core of the series: the idea of roles, boxes, and what makes life meaningful. It’s the first episode to take us to the dueling stage with no stock footage whatsoever. It’s a big ol’ sign saying ‘SERIOUSLY HEAVY SHIT DOWN THE LINE.’
And part of what ends up making the series so fantastic is that the first arc is relatively self-contained: Utena grows, there’s some slapstick and a hint of a tragic past, she confronts a hypothetical situation where her prince is not what she thought he might be, and by saving Anthy she cements their burgeoning friendship. It’s all fine. But the creator commentary is what makes it beautiful – this is not a show content to present a solid (if aesthetically weird) bit of genre fare. It wants to ask why. What makes these characters act the way they do, take on the roles they’ve ended up in (I think this partially explains the recurrence of Saionji as well – setting him up against Utena gives us one individual who was trapped by a path and one who chose theirs), and eventually grow up.
What Utena will become is the most solid metaphorical exploration of adolescence and feminist allegory of the 90s or since. Every character, we’re beginning to see, is in a box – not just Utena, but the boys who find her. Not just Anthy, but every duelist who fights for her. Literal boxes become representational ones, coffins of expectation and regret that prevent a person from growing or changing for the better. At this point the Student Council finally stops reiterating their speech about the chick breaking out of its egg. They don’t need to – we’re starting to see it ourselves.
I see a bit of a nanpa-koha dynamic, with the nanpa’s flirtiness exposed as manipulative skirt-chasing, and the koha’s reservation being with immaturity and childishness (like having an exchange diary, which is usually popular with elementary school girls). Either way, I definitely feel for Saionji, in that it’s shown very presently how Touga’s probably screwed him up worse than anything else could have.
Reading this comment sent me down a reading rabbit hole of Japanese subcultures, for which I thank you. It’s interesting that while they both very much portray those groups, they also present aspects of its opposite – Touga is the better duelist/fighter (certainly not expected of a ‘soft’ ladies man) and Saionji is very straightforward and, as you say, rather childish. They’ve got a yin-yang dynamic on multiple levels.
Nanpa/koha was unfamiliar to me as well, and I am very glad to add it to my vocabulary; I am going to have to read much more about it than what I have just found with a quick Google search. Even having read just a few webpages, however, I can definitely see that dynamic between Saionji and Touga. I may be making an incorrect leap, but it also seems to fit well with Saionji’s seeming love of traditional culture, and Touga’s more flashily modern style. I actually see the straightforward/subtle as fitting well into the hard/soft — Saionji is a man’s man, Touga is a woman’s man — thus the calling himself ‘feministo’.
I wanted to say again how much I am enjoying these, and how in particular it is a great pleasure to read a more adult analysis of this series. When I first watched it (fansubbed and quite new) I was in my early 20s, after high school but still close enough to remember it all viscerally. From my vantage point now they all seem such children, even Touga, so while on the one hand I may condemn their actions, on the other I see it in the matrix of their ages and their development and their ability to understand consequences — not excuses, it is just more nuanced to me than the ‘and this person is the villain, forever, the end’ attitude I had in my earlier years.
I like also that you see how the toxic masculinity poisons Saionji, how much he is the victim of the things he perpetuates — which does not excuse the behaviour, but I find myself wanting very much to take his hand and lead him out of the maze.
Saionji guts me everytime. Because his actions are AWFUL and deserving of retribution, no doubts, but there’s a good kid in there with his hands pressed desperately against the glass ceiling of decency. (The series really does hold up magnificently to rewatches at different ages, doesn’t it).