In which we are, every one of us, raw and aching wounds desperate for the affection of others.
Episode Specifics: Wakaba has an extra spring in her step lately, thanks to the ex-student council member she’s sheltering in her dorm room. But while Wakaba’s finally feeling “special,” Saionji is in a hurry to get back to feeling special himself, and doesn’t hesitate to run out when the opportunity presents itself.
Wakaba’s duel music might be the most reference-heavy that we’ve run across so far. While most of the lyrical runs deal with lists of abstract objects or concepts, we’ve now evolved to a dramatic retelling of historical fact: the death of Pyrrhus of Epirrus, he who provided the name for the “Pyrrhic victory” (a win in which one loses more in obtaining a goal than that goal’s worth). And Wakaba is on the edge of several such victories during this duel: she’s given up the Onion Prince for Saionji, who might have genuinely appreciated her but didn’t love her; if she kills the Rose Bride she will prove her ‘specialness’ but must necessarily kill the Bride’s fiancée in the process, thus losing her dearest friend; and in disclosing herself as a duelist at all she loses what she claimed made her ‘special’ in the first place – the possession of a secret. Between her and Saionji, there’s much to be questioned about how much must be given up to be considered special.
And speaking of historical homage, there’s an interesting side note that may possibly (though less certainly) have been intended as well. Pyrrhus had a contemporary named Pyrrho, who was a Greek philosopher. In a time when the world was divided into phenomena (things one can perceive with the senses) and nomena (things unperceivable by humans, i.e. platonic ideals), Pyrrho stated that humans are inherently incapable of understanding the inner truth of things – they can only know how they appear to be. It is impossible, therefore, to be truly certain of anything – all we can do is question what a thing appears to be, and ascertain our relationship to it (and thus react as necessary). Eerily applicable, isn’t it? There’s a great deal said about how certain characters just ‘look’ special or more deserving than others, and the show’s gone out of its way to code Wakaba’s color (brown) with normalcy – non-specialness. But even by the end of this episode it’s not true. The appearance of being ‘special’ might come from within (when Wakaba is happy, she ‘seems prettier,’ and likewise Utena might seem special because of being shaped by her experiences), or an intangible truth. But looking at a person can’t tell you their inner life, the very thing that conveys specialness.
GORGEOUS CINEMATOGRAPHY ALERT: sending much of this episode being the kind
individual we saw in those childhood flashbacks, Saionji’s in the light – being tempted by the literal dark side, the pursuit of power and feelings of inadequacy that led to him treating people as objects
Creator Commentary: “Love” isn’t a word that describes a fair relationship.
“Love” is a word that describes a monopoly.
We refer to the ego as “love.”*
“Love” is by no means eternal.
Because after all.
If the ego went on eternally, we would break down emotionally.
She would not learn until much later that love is precisely that which can be lost.
*The Japanese word for “love” is ai, which sounds just like the English word “I.” This is a bit of a play on words, tying “love” to the ego.
Narrator Akio, proclaiming his broken-ass system
Character Spotlight: In trying to get a read on Wakaba’s character, I was repeatedly struck by how well she works as a foil to other members of the cast, particularly to Saionji. When Wakaba tries to gain things for herself it’s dependent upon the attention/approval of others, while he views his interactions with others through the prism of how they relate to and work for/against his goals. And both of them hurt themselves by short-sightedly pursuing a goal while cutting out the things that might truly help them: Wakaba withdraws to the bare minimum of social interactions to focus all her time on Saionji, who does not perceive her romantically; and Saionji cuts off an honestly affectionate affection to chase back after people only interested in using him (worth noting that his understanding of gratitude/affection is equated to his understanding of people-as-status-symbols – to him, the fact that he can buy Wakaba something expensive, a sign of wealth, is far more precious a thank you than something cheap that he made himself). They’re both chasing after recognition while also dealing in affection as commodity – Wakaba is sure that if she can keep Saionji to herself he’ll come to love her (for lack of competition and out of gratitude), and Saionji believes that possessing the affections of others, particularly Anthy, will prove his worth as a person.
And speaking of Anthy, neither one of them seems to view her as a person: to Wakaba she’s a nebulous competitive evil (notice she’s fine with Anthy-as-fiancée but always has something cutting to say when Anthy comes up in relation to Saionji), and to Saionji she’s a status symbol. So we have two people desperately chasing the idea of being chosen, with the difference being internalized (Wakaba’s space is her room, usually with doors or windows shut, in the same way that she internalizes her resentment of Anthy or her feelings of sadness and loneliness) versus external (Saionji’s physical violence, ultimately making him the more toxic of this pair).
Breaks my heart every damn time, this scene
One can read Wakaba’s loss in a number of ways: she doesn’t seem to have realized yet that ‘specialness’ is a false standard, and she’s lonely. But she also no longer has a false hope to shut herself in with, cutting herself off from the world. Meanwhile, ‘obviously’ special Saionji has lost whatever awe and respect he might have once had among the student populace (if we’re not just seeing the truth for the first time). We’ve already established early in the series that Wakaba does have the capacity for genuine concern, able to support Utena in her time of misery in a way that Utena herself hadn’t even mastered. And Utena herself had to experience the loss of her ‘prince’ in order to begin to live for herself and her personal growth outside of the system. So, perhaps Wakaba will be the next one to revolutionize the world after all.
I want to play this in the midst of every stupid love triangle drama ever
Have You Heard: What is wrong with being single, anyway? It’s pretty straightforward to read this play as a remark on Wakaba not needing Saionji to feel special (i.e. a romantic relationship), but it goes further than that, too. So many characters in this show base their self-worth entirely in relation to others, whether it’s friends or lovers or strangers. And that makes it fragile, even fatally untenable. That’s where the “traditions” part of the play comes in. Worth is often based in social bonds or communities: a sports star with an adoring audience, a student council member with power, a brilliant student lauded by grades. But those systems have a way of vanishing and leaving a person out to dry, and however much you didn’t pour into them is the amount you have left for yourself.
Anthy Watch: At this point the show’s tipped its hand about Anthy’s complicit cooperation with Mikage, though it’s unclear whether Mikage gave the hair ornament directly to Anthy or to Mamiya (perhaps as his own misplaced gesture of affection). Since we’re locked to Wakaba’s perspective this episode we’re as far removed from Anthy as we’ve ever been, seeing her only momentarily and with a completely blank affect.
That’s quite the separation from Anthy’s behavior in the arena this week, the one and only time she’s ever been seen issuing a command to anyone. It’s downright…panicked. It can’t be that she’s concerned for her own safety, since her Bride body is an illusion and Mikage’s game is rigged. It’s more likely we’re getting a glimpse into just how important Utena has become. We’re beginning to see Anthy lose control, if only a little. Combined, Anthy’s two appearances this episode paint a picture: she’s become less confident in her mask, and so has withdrawn even further inside herself when carrying out her tasks, and she’s both more honest and more vulnerable (literally and metaphorically in this scene) when the topic of Utena comes about. Change is happening, like movements under the ocean’s surface.
CINEMATOGRAPHY ALERT: This shot (the camera on the ground, looking up at the camera’s focus)
was invented for the film Citizen Kane. It’s meant to make the subject look
“larger than life”/towering in importance
Themes: This seems to be a pair of episodes that really, really sticks with people. At the very least, it seems to come up often and with great fervor. And this is perhaps because Tatsuya and Wakaba, like Asuka and Shinji, reflect two opposite approaches to a common problem, and between them it’s bound to resonate with a good chunk of the audience.
Tatsuya’s life is one of unremarkable happiness – he’s kind but not bold, loved but without anything he loves enough to be proactive about. And when something he wants finally comes about, he loses it by not pursuing it directly enough. It breaks his heart, but he remains locked “on the sidelines” nonetheless. Wakaba’s happiness is increasingly a front, overtop of and later hiding an internalized resentment of her “nonspecialness.” While Tatsuya seems content until confronted with something he didn’t know he was missing, Wakaba is constantly aware of what she wants but unsure of how to get it. That’s the kind of thing that eats away at you, until you no longer recognize the good things you do have in favor of fixating on the things that’s become an emblem of recognition. Rather than a sudden flash of recognition and a do-or-die moment, it’s a gradual narrowing of focus that leaves one with nothing but the feeling of lack.
And when you finally pursue that thing, the narrative becomes entirely shaped by the end result. Succeed, and you’re ambitious. Fail, and you’re a fool reaching for impossible goals. It’s the difference between stories about a young talent who leaves their school, friends, and life behind to travel to some prestigious academy or other; and the friend who leaves behind their loyal friends in a desperate attempt to fit in with some different or more popular social group. We read about ‘being discovered’ versus the ’15 minutes of fame.’ Both have their elements of selfishness or disregard for others, and both are built from a desperation to be loved and wanted for who we are.
A great many of us have been Wakaba, with varying degrees of desperation and success. The fact that both Wakaba and Tatsuya fail in their pursuit of specialness isn’t meant to teach us that they are not special, that the everyday about them means they should stop trying. It’s that loss is a part of life, and the more we place the care of our hearts in others the more it’s likely to hurt when we fall. Not that we shouldn’t love others, but that our happiness shouldn’t be dependent on the approval of others. Wakaba is alone now, but her supposed flowering is as false as the liar who said one can only be special for a brief amount of time. One of the hardest tasks of adolescence, given to the most relatable, kind, and otherwise stable of the supporting cast, is the beginning of learning that we each must define our own path.