We have another case of ‘the DVD case and the actual episode subtitles have different ideas about the episode title (‘Gracefully’ versus ‘Carefully’)’ this week. Therefore, we’re going with the tried and true method of ‘the analyst thinks this one sounds better.’
Episode Specifics: Touga springs the trap that we’ve been watching him put together over the last few episodes. Shaken by the student council president’s constant insinuation that he is, in fact, her lost prince, Utena hesitates at the moment of victory – a moment which Touga’s been just waiting to take advantage of. More, he tells her that Anthy is only a reflection of her fiancé’s desires, shattering Utena’s belief that she’d been acting as a ‘prince’ to the other girl.
Before we go any further, I want to draw particular attention to Tomoko Kawakami’s voice work at the end of this episode. It would’ve been exceedingly easy to go all out with some melodramatic shouting – anime is full of it, even anime that I love. Instead, she gives a magnificently heartbreaking performance of Utena’s breakdown (I, less than a quivering ball of emotion, get rather choked up hearing it). It’s the kind of half-held back, raw, ugly crying that I’d say most of us remember doing as adolescents, a moment when what you’d assumed to be true (because you said so, of course!) simply isn’t any more. More than anything, these few seconds sell the entire next episode.
This week’s duel music focuses on stasis – or perhaps, the idea of something eternal. The idea that human nature is constant, and that tied into that constant is the idea of masks: masks that constrain and torture, masks that hide our intentions and identities. Masks that are ideals we expect to be true, getting in the way of true self-knowledge. And while it most obviously applies to Touga, Utena comes into it too. What is the “Power of Dios,” after all, but a mask for the strength that she possesses but hasn’t yet recognized for her herself, a manifestation of her power channeled through the ideal of the prince?
Creator Commentary: I tried to live true to myself.
“You’re just like an alien,” someone said to me one day. They must have been telling me, “You’re not normal.”
In other words, apparently “living true to yourself” means “living as an alien.” And so I became “an alien all alone in this world.”
There’s a certain natural law that goes, “To gain something, you must lose something.” There’s nobody in this world who gains everything. Otherwise, there would be people who could live forever.
That is something she is blind to.
That’s why she loses what’s important to her.
Why did she want to become a prince?
Who was it who wanted to become a princess?
Do you want to be chosen by someone, too?
Character Spotlight: Every time we stop to talk about Touga I’m confronted with my staggering inabilities toward objectivity. After all, if I can be fascinated by Akio’s remorseless and ruinous seductions and piteously fond of Nanami and Saionji despite their bouts of awfulness, I ought to be able to rouse some manner of sympathetic interest in the student council president. After all, with the film’s backstory it’s entirely possible to frame Touga as another survivor, someone who reduced people to pawns in the name of protecting himself and his sister (Miki’s brief line comparing Nanami to a pet cat is spot on brilliant – Touga might sincerely love her, but he doesn’t respect or consider her wants above his own). And yet, every time he opens his mouth…
Perhaps it is a matter of extremes, that Touga is neither as weighted by knowing gravitas as Akio nor as ultimately vulnerable as Nanami and Saionji. Perhaps it is because the backstory I so often lens my sympathy through does not exist in the series proper, or because we are locked outside of Touga’s viewpoints or admissions of weakness until the very end of the series, preventing us from seeing him as a fallible child in line with the rest of the cast. Or perhaps I am only looking back on what I remember as a fairly beloved character (he’s even a proper love interest in the manga – have I ever mentioned I don’t like the manga?), and feeling slightly wrathful befuddlement.
Hey dueling Jesus, can you turn your backlights down a little bit?
But at the same time, it’s quite necessary at this stage for the story to thoroughly alienate us from this character and the archetype he represents. It’s too easy, otherwise, to make excuses for him (Utena is even doing it herself, as we can see on a visual level – Touga’s red flowers are replaced with Dios’ white ones, while his actual physical self within the frame is blurry and indistinct). It’s the natural impulse to look at a character’s role in the story, compare it unconsciously to other stories that have had the same sort of role, and forgive them in the name of how things will end. In other words, ‘it’s alright that he’s a jerk now, because eventually he’ll totally realize he was wrong all along and fall for the heroine.’
And Touga does eventually fall for Utena. But it doesn’t make him a better person, and it doesn’t change his habitually manipulative behavior. Utena is not a show that allows for the fudging of details in the name of the finish line: at every step of the way it wants you to remember the effects of little cruelties, of how one person’s actions affects the lives of others. I might not like Touga, but he’s a lynchpin of the series.
Have You Heard: And here we have a metaphor of the duelists’ treatment of the Rose Bride. Not just the student council members, either, but Utena herself. William Tell is a story about trust, but it’s also an inherently imbalanced relationship: a son has no power to ignore or override his father. It’s nice if he trusts his father not to shoot him in the head, but whether he trusts him or not changes exactly nothing about his situation. Thus do we explain Anthy’s actions at the end of the episode. She might genuinely like Utena by this point, but that fondness will not change her position as the Rose Bride, so surviving will mean doing what she’s always done.
Anthy Watch: Did you see that, did you see. It doesn’t look like much on a first watch (where it’s much harder to distinguish Anthy’s mask from her more genuine emotions), but this is a big moment for Anthy as a character. She lets her guard down (we can conjecture it’s an honest response by the fact that she gains nothing from saying it), and confides in Touga not only the safe, expected response that she enjoyed the picnic, but that she’d like to learn how to cook. And for her trouble, Touga reaffirms her status as an object, shutting down her attempt to break from her shell. Reinforcing the idea that the only way for her to survive is to remain passive and static.
Cooking is a major motif for Anthy, particularly early on, and it makes sense. Wanting to cook for others implies a want to give a piece of yourself (your time) to them, and to care for them. It’s an act, historically speaking, of trust (see the idea of ‘breaking bread’). It’s a running gag that Anthy is only able to make shaved ice, a pretty simple dessert that doesn’t actually require chef to put any of themselves (metaphorically speaking) into the dish. Desserts are sweet, and people like them, but they’re ultimately empty in nutritional value. Ice is complimentary to many things, but try to touch it and it vanishes in your hands. And sweet flavors make it much easier to hide poison.
But, well, we’ll come to that in time.
Objection! Leading the witness
Themes: And now, a word about helping others. There’s no doubt that Utena’s heart is in the right place, but she’s at the very beginning of her character arc. She’s a long way from being able to help Anthy. For the moment, she doesn’t even understand herself.
That scene in the greenhouse says a great deal about what Utena herself will slowly come to realize. Utena says that Anthy hates being the Rose Bride, and her instinct is correct. Anthy’s features are conflicted, and it looks as though she might even speak. But Utena is impatient, and rather than helping Anthy find her voice she shouts opinions over her, asking for nothing more than a ‘yes.’ While to Utena’s mind it’s freeing Anthy from her prison, it’s truly just conforming her to a different set of standards without Anthy herself having any say in the matter.
And that is a child’s idea of saving someone – that if they would just do what you say, then they would be much happier. We see Anthy realize it as well – the struggling answer she might have made is put away in favor of a bland face and the answer her fiancée wants to hear. Her brief moment of hope is traded in for the realization that Utena is like any of the other duelists at this point. She wants to ‘save’ Anthy because she enjoys the feeling of having someone who needs her, because it pushes her closer to what she believes a prince should be.
Were I feeling cruel (and I frequently am, on such subjects), I would compare it to the supposed ‘protective instinct’ moe is meant to inspire. It’s not a true desire to help so much as to be a hero, to ‘protect’ that person from everyone else so that they will be even more grateful to you and tell you how awesome you are in comparison to the rest of the world (course in moe this would also play into the stomach-churning idea of the ‘conqueror’ ideal, where a love interest is just so much better because they’re innocent about sex and love until you come along).
To actually help Anthy would be to give her a safe haven to speak her mind, to speak with her and help her get a foothold out of the hell she’s trapped in, not instituting a new life but opening the way to a world of new possibilities and self-determinism. And Utena isn’t ready to do that yet. Duelist, save thyself, as they might theoretically say.