This is not a drill. The swords are now officially sexual metaphors. It’s a whole new ballgame, people.
Episode Specifics: Utena spends half the episode in a blue funk over her loss – of the duel, of Anthy, and of her hope that Touga was what she was looking for – and runs straight into the paralyzing malaise of what she perceives to be normalcy. She spends the other half clawing her way out, at least partly due to having a damn good friend who’s spent most of this cour sitting around the show’s peripherals. A much needed dose of Wakaba-justice behind her, Utena reenters the duels with renewed purpose and retakes her place and herself.
As the old saying goes, before you can love someone else you must first love yourself. As a popular manifesto from the last fifty years or so sums up, “I choose me.” It seems obvious that we should take a moment for Utena to examine and reclaim her sense of identity – the show itself is one long variation of a theme on the bildungsroman (coming of age tale), a genre that makes its bread and butter on self-revelation. But the particular tone of it is rather unique: in most shoujo (heck, even shonen) works the emphasis tends to be more on discovering that one has the power to help others – your Sailor Moons, your Cardcaptor Sakuras, even your Yu Yu Hakushos and Dragon Balls.
It is, I suspect, partly due to protagonist syndrome (these moments have to come in the second when the chips are down and everybody loses hope, so the protagonist’s belief has to tie into their ability to pull out a win), and partly to do with the team-versus-individual victory that tends to crop up in Japanese storytelling (‘the nail that sticks up gets nailed down’ versus ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease,’ if you see). But Utena is and will continue to be a story about defining oneself apart from the system (this is the part where I once more bring up the fact that much of the Utena staff worked on Evangelion, a show whose central conflicts were deeply wrapped in the idea of individual versus societal need, as well as the one masquerading as the other coughGendoIkaricough). So here we have the first indication that the show really means it about breaking societal modes and expectations, rather than wearing them as a pretty colored hat that will sell lots of figures while reinforcing traditional ideologies of gender roles et al (do I sound bitter about the state of the modern industry? I swear I’m not).
Fittingly, as this is essentially a two parter, the backup track for this week’s duel is an expansion of last week’s: except, befitting Utena’s newfound confidence, rather than being about the endless inevitability of human masks and how we’re all constantly lying to each other it takes itself up as ‘the present is what matters and we are all constantly reinventing ourselves in that one brilliant and shining moment’ (I have got to stop watching Zero Punctuation while I’m writing these). That idea itself ties back to the idea of the prince, and why there’s a need for these dueling games in the first place – because the princely ideal that holds the world of Ohtori together is stagnated and without power, floundering in a world that constantly reinvents what it needs its ideals to be.
Apropos of very little, I massively enjoy that by this point Jury and Miki have dropped the idea of pretending that Touga isn’t a massive sack of inequity and festering, manipulative pustules, but also can’t really seem to be bothered to overthrow him because leadership is a wholly undesirable position. Pretty well fits my recollections of being in high school government.
Creator Commentary: Why did I join that battle (that game) in the first place?
Naturally, I would never forget that.
There’s no sense of reality to that memory.
Who was I, exactly?
“I’m saying this for your sake.” How many times did I hear that as a child?
An “adult” is not someone who has lived a certain number of years. We call someone who can exercise power an “adult.”
A prince isn’t “someone who looks cool”; nor, of course, is a prince “a girl who dresses as a boy.”
A “prince” is “someone who can exercise power.”
What is that power for?
Who is it for?
I stopped seeking to be sought after. That wasn’t being true to myself.
I want to become “someone who can exercise power.” I want to become a prince.
–For friendship, perhaps.
I’m just now noticing that Benedict Cumberbund stole her cheekbones
Character Spotlight: Today, a moment with a character everyone and the plot itself has put to the side – Wakaba. It still isn’t quite her moment in the spotlight, but she’s functioning very much as the breath of stability and normalcy; really normalcy, not the faceless homogenization that Utena spends the first part of the episode chasing.
There’s the bit about the uniform, of course, but it goes deeper than that. Wakaba’s actions in this episode are the perfect model of how Utena should’ve reached out to Anthy, presented without commentary or even knowledge on Wakaba’s part. Wakaba doesn’t tell Utena how to feel; instead, she begs her friend to open up to her about what’s wrong, to discuss it with someone for emotional support or some kind of input. She won’t let it go, no matter how Utena seems to want to push it under the rug, because she’s so distraught over how withdrawn and miserable her friend is. She won’t let her disappear or hide. And she doesn’t tell Utena what to do – she reassures her that she’s loved, that she’s supported, and tells her to take ‘it’ back. Not ‘go back to the way you were,’ but ‘find the thing that makes you happy again, because that’s critical to who you are.’ Wakaba’s unnerved, no question, and she fumbles through all this in a typically adolescent way by fixating on the uniform (a physical mark of all the difficult, intangible emotional things that she can’t quite put into words), but her concern is honestly for Utena’s wellbeing over her own (even when it gets her slapped, even when saying those things risks Utena not wanting to see her anymore). That’s friendship.
(A discussion for another day: how Wakaba’s enthusiastic but childish pronouncements of love reflect this universe’s representation of the dreaded ‘Class S’ friendship as a way to keep Utena and Anthy’s burgeoning feelings from getting hoovered into that deathtrap of a terrible genre).
Have You Heard: In a pretty neat twist of fate, this week’s play is an expression of what Ikuhara would later write in the Director’s Commentary: that not being ‘normal’ means feeling like an alien, something strange and alone in a sea of creatures who are the same. Hence, when our shadow girls leave it’s an embracing of the fact that they’ll never be normal, and that they’re going to stop trying.
The most depressing ‘oh, it must be Tuesday’ face ever
Anthy Watch: This week we get our first subtle hinting that Anthy’s status as universal punching bag might have a little more behind it than an unusually high quotient of high school jerks. Wakaba’s one of the kindest characters in the series – we even see that her first impulse is to apologize for catching Anthy in the crossfire of her big dramatic gesture.
And then the strangest thing happens: Wakaba pauses, like considering (or like an alien thought has entered into her mind), and then she begins to blame Anthy despite already being pretty sure that Touga’s the source of Utena’s pain. It’s as though she can’t help it. And if even a kindhearted character like Wakaba can fall to blaming Anthy for everything, maybe those swords have more effects than just an eternity of bodily agony.
By the same token, the fact that Utena seems immune to these impulses show her even more clearly as the dueling game’s finest candidate.
So, now Utena is living alone in an enormous unlocked dorm on the edge of campus
I’m not sure if this is further proof that all the adults are gone or typical campus security standards
Themes: I’ve mentioned briefly (and it’ll be more directly referenced in the next episode) that there’s a thematic color scheme going on in Utena. Red is power, yellow is innocence but also immaturity, and so on. Meanwhile, white is the color of purity and ideals – the color of the prince. Last episode we saw Touga, indistinct and colored by Utena’s doubts, framed in white roses and falsely assumed to be the prince. Today, though, Utena’s internal struggle can be summarized by that one screenshot there. She’s beginning to realize that Anthy is the one who was important to her all along (perhaps, on some level, sensing the ‘truth’ of her memories even this early on). Anthy is the pure ideal, the prince, something Utena was unable to see until she saw what her prince most definitely wasn’t (while carrying all the trappings of what she expected).
Dubious proof that there might be some timing to those background tracks,
Beyond stringing together vaguely thematically unified word vomit
At the same time, Anthy sees a sudden flash of the prince in Utena. Not the power of Dios (which can be seen to an extent, as was established with Touga a few episodes back), but a reminder of the boy she knew a very long time ago (if you’ve read the introduction post to this series you know I play fast and loose with the spoilers, but I feel like I’d better really emphasize it from here on out). In this moment, Utena is the prince without needing to borrow his veneer and without the sword of Dios, fighting to protect someone against impossible odds and with increasingly brutal damage to herself. Over the course of this episode, both Anthy and Utena begin to see gleams of something they’re missing in each other.
That ‘oh’ moment is not the moment of falling in love (I think we’ve established that love in the world of adolescents is sincere and fumbling and awkward and painful), but realizing dimly that you need this person even if you’re not sure what that entails. It’s fitting, then, that this is the episode to introduce the beginning of the sexual metaphors that will get their hooks so deep into the later parts of the show. Up to this point Utena hasn’t seemed to think much of the darker implications of being the Rose Bride (in sharp contrast with the film, which brings it up right away).
On the one hand this is technically a children’s show (a fact that will only get funnier with time), but on the other it fits with Utena’s initial worldview (expecting her wants to be universal) – her relationship with Anthy is a chaste one, and so she wouldn’t think to extend it beyond the boyfriend/girlfriend PDA she sees at school for anyone else, either. For her, the inkling of sexuality is a surprise (and an initial revulsion, if we look at her reaction to Anthy kissing the sword).
At the same time, she’s put against Touga, who is now explicitly using sex as a weapon. Because she’s seen through his disguise it also becomes transparent in the duels…but that doesn’t make it less dangerous. The overtly femme mask she’s donned takes a lot more damage than her other uniform ever did, working on dual level of Utena being physically and emotionally compromised by Touga’s actions these last few episodes. Because she is dressed in the coding of ‘girl,’ she’s seemingly helpless against the onslaught of victimization.
When Anthy recognizes Utena as a ‘prince’ though (defined up in that creator commentary not as a gendered marker but as ‘someone who wields power’) the sexual element of the sword’s abilities vanishes. Utena is still in danger – she could lose the duel, she could be cut to ribbons – but each attack is no longer defined in terms of making her a victim, of preying on her sexuality or supposed ‘inherent weakness.’ The confidence of winning this agency sets the bedrock for the next season, when the metaphor gets deeper and the animation changes…and comes to focus on Anthy and Utena working together as equal partners rather than the subject/object of power transfer.