In which we remember that children are terrifying alien creatures with human faces and tentative grasps on the concept of empathy.
Episode Specifics: Utena is still torn up about Touga’s injury, and seriously unsettled about whether he might be the prince she was looking for. However, her attempts to tsundere her way into checking on him at his birthday party (because we might be in a bizarre limbo where no one ages but there’s no sense in wasting all this cake) are brought to a screeching halt by Nanami, who’s a whole lot less understanding about this whole apparently-grave injury to her beloved brother thing.
Also this one time when they were younger Nanami got Touga a kitten, and when she got jealous of Touga spending more time with it than her she threw it into the river. No big thing.
If Touga is anything like me, he is wondering how intentionally
Nanami’s dueling outfit looks like a Bruce Lee homage
Nanami’s duel music ties back to the theme that’s explored in the shadow play: time standing still, or time coming to an end. On top of that it layers imagery of a stage, which is associated with the idea of performance and being observed. In other words, Nanami senses on some level that childhood is coming to an end – or rather, that her brother is growing up, and that she might be in danger of being left alone. Hence her lavishly affectionate gestures toward him and exaggerated childish behavior (she talks about herself in the third person, something which is almost always a move for female characters to make themselves youthful/cutesy). Hence, perhaps, her performance as the Popular Girl, to give off the image that she’s good enough for him, that there’s an elitism to the Kiryuu siblings that no one else can touch.
Creator Commentary: When I was a child, the center of the party always seemed to sparkle.
I was standing on the sidelines, gazing at that sparkle from afar. I thought the sidelines were my place. Surely I could never approach the center of the room.
But then, I was chosen! I touched that sparkle in the center of the room, and no mistake. Still, I know full well that it’s something that won’t last forever. The day the contract ends, I’ll turn into an “unchosen girl.”
So I’ll go back to the sidelines again, eh?
-Smash the egg’s shell.
For the revolution of the world.
Character Spotlight: Let us return again to the siblings Kiryuu. Touga’s still being a dick, if you were wondering, but he’s also already trying to become Akio: he’s giving out duelist rings now, and he’s the first person to enter the dueling arena as neither a duelist nor the Rose Bride (the setup of the show to this point makes it seem as if it’s either not possible or extremely bad etiquette, since the student council members are always seen observing from a distance). In Utena’s eyes and the audience’s he is changing – but the perceptions are in different directions, since we know the game.
Explain to me how a slash on the back necessitates a sling. YOU ARE AN ENTIRE BAG OF DICKS, SIR
It’s fitting, then, that this episode’s centered around a birthday – an event that celebrates the passing of time and the implicit maturity and positive change that comes with it. At the same time, the two birthdays show us two visions of Touga: the accidentally hurtful but sincere boy and the seemingly kind, smoothly manipulative young man. As Utena questions who the ‘real’ Touga is so do we – was he already learning to close his heart in Nanami’s memory, or was it the day he and Saionji went to the church? Are we seeing (if we’re still incorporating movie canon) Touga’s last days of innocence?
Nanami’s character arc is oh-so-slowly going in the opposite direction: her associated color is yellow, a color tied (in series) to both innocence and immaturity. She duels because her brother has been injured, and she sees herself as righting that wrong…but also because she believes that Touga is more interested in Utena than her, and that winning the duel will keep him from leaving her.
While Touga has slowly become a creature of drawn out plans and facades, Nanami is as impulsive as she was as a child. The scene with the kitten sums up her struggle succinctly: she acts out of selfish, emotional desire; but once the moment has passed she seems regretful, if not horrified by her actions. She’s capable of showing concern for others, but isn’t yet able to break out of her personal shell of immaturity.
Have You Heard: And we’re off to the races. By races, I mean ‘the beginning of increasingly obtuse shadow plays that eventually require a nigh Baconian dedication to making connections.’ So, the naming of the cat. Here we have two people who have something together – a thing, a relationship, whatever. One is content to call it as it is, and is amenable to what they see as the requested changes. The other is searching for some perfect definition they can’t lay their finger on; instead, they can only react to the other person’s suggestions.
And while all this is happening, the kitten disappears without them even noticing. It becomes a cat, becomes bigger than both of them (and, arguably, becomes monstrous). In other words, focusing on the definition or the performance of a relationship (because pet names have always been more a reflection of the owner than the animal) the specialness of the moment slips away permanently.
Anthy Watch: Guys, she totally knows Touga is faking it. She knows. And she knows about the kitten, so we have further confirmation of some manner of omnipotence on her or Akio’s part.
But I actually want to talk about Anthy and Nanami. There’s a beautiful piece of art that caught my eye some time ago, and with it the theory that Anthy’s particular punishment of Nanami is because Anthy sees herself in her: a young girl who worships her brother enough to throw herself on a sword at his behest, leading to his downfall (for think how hindered Touga’s plans would be if he didn’t have Nanami as a puppet) and her trapped misery. Nanami’s petty motes of bullying are childish forms of what Anthy has been forced to perfect. Nanami’s sorrows are Anthy’s eternity of pain stemming from well-meant love.
Touga, being the ultimate big brother, does not settle for ‘got your nose’
He eats it
The visual imagery even supports the young Touga/Dios parallel to match up with the older Touga/Akio connections: he kisses away her tears surrounded by roses, the two of them the only ‘real’ people in the flashback despite the faceless mob around them.
Themes: Much of what’s going on thematically in this episode is centered around the Nanami bits we already discussed, but there’s one more scene I want to spend some time on: the dorm conversation. Particularly that shot of Utena kneeling in front of the milk bowl (and let us all be thankful that Ikuhara is a classy director, because I can think straight off of ten different modern ones who would’ve fetishized the fuck out of that image).
While the scene as a whole is Anthy’s usual diversionary tactic, talking obliquely enough to address multiple levels at once while also obfuscating her opinion, visually equating Utena with that cat seems just about right at this point in the story. Here we have a creature that Anthy has taken in, of whom she seems genuinely fond (it’s not necessary at all to be kind to that cat, nor truly to Utena – but Anthy seems to have opened up to her ever so slightly anyway); at the same time, that kindness is only a stopover in making that creature a tool in the dueling game – the cat to rile Nanami into dueling, Utena to be caught in Touga’s tightening snare. And however Anthy might feel about it at this juncture doesn’t seem to matter (we don’t ever see what ultimately becomes of that cat). Once she’s done her job as facilitator of the games she forgets, to protect herself. But pretty soon she’ll find she can’t forget Utena, a fact that frightens her as much as it awakens some long dead hope. And then we’ll have, very slowly, the beginning of our turning point.