Fun fact: I initially watched Utena while it lingered in the licensing grey zone between Central Park Media and Nozomi. While I was fortunate enough to find rental copies of the first arc, my experience with the Black Rose Saga predominantly involved filtering the available subtitles through my rusty and inefficient knowledge of the Spanish language. Consequently, my memories of the finer points are a little…vague. This may be as much an adventure for me as it is for you.
Also, we’re changing up the format this week, since applying it to what’s predominantly a recap episode would leave a whole lot of blank space. If you’re a returning viewer you ought to know this, but I’ll emphasize it anyhow: it doesn’t do to ignore the recap episodes in Utena. Ever.
Episode Specifics: Touga’s suffered a blue screen of death in the wake of his loss to Utena (this bit of plot sidelining is due to Touga’s actor being quite ill during this arc’s production), and a mysterious man is able to enter the castle to talk to what just might be Utena’s prince. So they talk about the last twelve episodes they haven’t been in.
As a quick aside, Dios’ position on the tiny floating planet is no meaningless bit of Utena weirdness. Rather, it calls to mind the famous French story The Little Prince, which might be second only to Demian in how strongly its themes reverberate throughout the show. Likewise haunting and abstract, more metaphor than narrative, the French novel is a story about (amongst many other things) the gulf between perspective that makes up ‘childhood’ versus ‘adulthood,’ the difficulty and beauty of loving someone else (and in fact, the little Prince dearly loves a rose most of all); and ends with the Prince disappearing on a difficult and unknown journey, no longer able to exist on the Earth to which he’d fallen. It tells us as much about Utena as it does the sleeping Dios.
Creator Commentary: This is just between you and me, but when I was fourteen, I saw a UFO.
The UFO telepathically told me this prophecy: “When you grow up, you will direct an anime about girls revolutionizing various things.”
Surely you jest.
“You must not tell anyone about me. If you ever do…”
Wh-what will happen to me?
“People will call you a sketchy guy.”
Have You Heard: “Might makes right” and other such binaries come up in the creator commentary for the next episode, largely in how dangerous such extremes can be. Let us take that to heart in examining the characters of this series, for few (if any) are wholly good or bad. The more difficult and rewarding path is to consider them as complex individuals, perhaps the series’ raison d’etre.
The Duels: Like the best of Batman’s rogues’ gallery, each of Utena’s seven duels reveals as much or more about her as it does about her opponent.
Friendship: Utena doesn’t have a reason to fight for Anthy yet, but she reveals herself as a candidate by fighting for someone who hasn’t the strength (physical or emotional) by coming to Wakaba’s defense (I remain increasingly convinced that the letter was retrieved and made public by Anthy as a means of testing Utena). Utena’s boldness is a double edged sword: it’s noble of her to protect others regardless of consequence to herself, but her willingness to charge ahead without understanding a situation makes it quite easy for others to lead her around by the nose (a problem she’ll have for a while yet).
Choice: Word and deed are often two different things, and (continuing with our Batman comparison) it’s what we do that defines us. Despite her desire not to be involved, Utena finds that she can’t simply turn aside from a fight (in a wonderfully complex blend of seeing the pain it would cause for Anthy, and her own not-quite-pride refusal to lose when it came to the moment).
Reason: Ideals are beautiful things, but they can too often become a rationalization that overshadows (and eventually obscures) the human beings involved – a path that ultimately leads to suffering. In defeating Miki, Utena proves that her devotion to her long-lost prince will eventually give way in favor of the real human being who needs her.
Love: Near the end of the series, Utena will say that her love for Anthy isn’t like Jury’s love for Shiori, and this is true. Jury’s love is agonized, abstracted, and intractable even as Jury hides from her desire to see a miracle. While Utena might fuss about wanting to be a ‘perfectly normal girl’ early on, her actions display a straightforward and earnest kind of love for others (slip ups aside) – the kind that’s forthright even in the face of rejection or uncertainty, and slowly but surely responds to the needs of her loved ones.
Adoration: Perhaps Utena’s biggest weakness in the first cour is her devotion to the idea of the prince, and the ways in which it blinds her. Deeper than that, her ideals aren’t rooted in herself but dependent on an outside force, allowing her to be derailed by outside influences (a common woe of adolescence, how easily we’re swayed by the desires of others).
Conviction: Utena’s one loss. She does lack conviction, but that’s not the most important takeaway from this duel. Rather, we must see how our champion deals with failure – you learn far more about someone in defeat than victory, and the ability to rebuild oneself after devastating loss is what makes heroes and survivors both (what are we, after all, if not the sum of our scars?).
Self: They say that clichés become so because they work reliably, and ‘believe in yourself’ may be the granddaddy of them all in coming of age tales. In this case, it’s important that Utena’s opponent be the embodiment of what she thought the prince ‘should’ be (whether consciously or not), and in turn what was constraining her self-image (re: gender roles) and how she relates to others (above all, and with increasing importance, Anthy).
Gorgeous cinematography alert: of course we’re framing the show’s single most powerful character in the show’s power color as he discusses the person he controls body and soul
Color Coding: You may have noticed that the students of Ohtori are a veritable rainbow of the color palette, and that I’ve been alluding to that fact quite frequently over the past few weeks. Well, it’s not (just) because ridiculous rainbow hair is a hallmark of shoujo. Our common thematic color palette:
Green: Envy and loyalty (a great many of the colors have dual meanings or applications throughout the series). Saionji’s color, tied to the young man fixated on his own weak inadequacies and desperate to possess that which others consider important – but also almost blindly devoted to those he’s considered ‘essential’ (this latter reading also ties into Akio’s fiancée).
Blue: Intellect and distance. Miki and Kozue’s color, the characters who might be at once called the most clear headed and rational and yet also the most divorced from their true desires by the complexity of their schemes.
Orange: Miracles and delusion. Flip sides of the same coin, reflected by inner strength of conviction versus fear and an inability to acknowledge one’s own desires.
Yellow: Innocence and childishness. Through both Tsuwabuki and Nanami, strong emotions for others can be either selfish or selfless (and are always heartfelt but rarely circumspect or self aware)
Red: Power, used either to aid or subjugate others. A color Touga possesses but Akio clothes himself in, revealing his far more advanced ability to manipulate power to suit his image and his ends (also the color of the Rose Bride, nodding to Anthy’s immense power even if control of it has been taken from her)
Brown: The mundane – the most frequent hair color of the ‘normal’ students, from Wakaba’s grounded support to the overshadowed members of Nanami’s gang.
White: Purity and potential. The prince’s color, which also dominates the color scheme of Ohtori’s uniforms – while other colors might make their way in, beginning to have sway, we mustn’t forget that our cast is still very young, and that they have the potential to learn and change even still. You’ll notice that Mikage and Utena, the two closest to ‘graduating,’ have almost no white on their outfits).
Purple: Corruption and loss. Anthy’s signature color, signifying the pain she’s suffered through her sacrifice. Purple also figures heavily into moments that’ve been influenced by the siblings in the name of the dueling game, and Mikage sees Ohtori through purple-tinted glasses.
Pink: Harmony between power and ideals, a self-conviction mixed with compassion for others (Utena and Mikage both have pink hair, and Anthy’s final outfit is predominantly pink).