I have three tabs of historical reference open for this episode. We must be getting down to business.
Episode Specifics: We finally make our way down to the most minor ring of characters: Nanami’s entourage. Keiko has served as Nanami’s lackey in the hopes of getting close to Touga, only to be unpersoned the very second she takes a step toward him. There’s no one the system doesn’t touch. Not even “vermin.”
Today’s duel music has layers, as I’m sure you’re all very surprised to hear. The first half of the song parallels quite clearly to Keiko’s struggles: feeling erased by Nanami’s cruelty, despairing of it only to be ‘avenged’ by the revelation of her final line, and hurtling down a road (adolescence) without seeming to be the one in control of her destination. But at the same time this is the penultimate duel of the arc, and melting away from the world only to leave on a journey is exactly what happens to those who find themselves rejected by the system. In this way, the song forms a tight bond between the very lowest of the show’s food chain and the very top, the supposed masterminds and champion duelists. All of them are, at heart, like Keiko – pining for one person or ideal who eludes them, who may not be the person they think they are, and hurtling forward without realizing who’s at the wheel (heyyyyy. I see what you did there, Ikuhara).
And speaking of those reference tabs, let’s get into the allusions from that astronomy scene (save one, which we’ll be getting to later). First there are the Pleiades, a constellation made up of seven stars. While there are several myths across various cultures (including Japan, which casts them as seven sages), the most commonly referenced version is the Greco-Roman story of the seven sisters. They were servants of the goddess Artemis, six of them beloved by Zeus and parents to gods of their own – with the exception of one sister, Merope, who fell in love with a mortal man and faded away. The parallel is fairly clear, and even more interesting for the fact that Merope’s husband was Sisyphus (damned forever to roll a boulder up a slope, only to have it roll down to the bottom as soon as he reaches the top), and Keiko certainly seems to have committed herself to a similar fate by going back to Nanami. After all, approaching Touga again will mean starting the cycle over.
Secondly, The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. Likewise the account of a woman in servitude to a noble lady, and an interesting case of historical literature. “Pillow books” were like private diaries, commonly kept and forgotten. Yet this one was found and elevated, perhaps due to its closeness to presumed ‘greatness,’ like Keiko and Nanami (a curious question: would any book have done as an example of the form, and this was a prominent one that survived, or was it the inherent literary quality of the writing that cemented the book as literature?). And as a note of foreboding, Sei Shonagon saw firsthand her mistress’ fall from favor and luxury.
Reflection/reflected self imagery! Is this worth a drinking game yet
Creator Commentary: When I was a kid, I crushed bugs and small animals with my feet for the more or less meaningless reason that they were “ugly.” A child’s world is governed by absurd and cruel rules. If there’s a rule that something must be crushed underfoot, is it a crime to want to be on the “crushing” side rather than the “crushed” side?
Special beings are beautiful, and they’re never trampled on.
That girl could distinguish between “beautiful things” and “ugly things.” I suspect that ability was her misfortune.
She thought, “What’s the difference between her and me?”
A miracle occurred. Maybe I can be a “special being” too?
Is she the “vermin,” or am I?
Character Spotlight: Keiko’s character is an interesting and sympathetic insight into the toxic relationships society seems to associate with young women – the backstabbing bitch friend, as it were. Keiko’s case is particularly unique in that while many of our duelists have been in some manner of toxic situation, all those who came before had some genuine love for the person who had come to hurt them. With Keiko, putting aside her ‘lying to herself,’ Nanami is entirely a means of getting to Touga (and whether Nanami is lying to herself about truly caring for her posse, she keeps them around for the sake of her self-esteem). They use one another as objects for their personal needs from the word go, a purely base example of what the show’s other relationships devolve into or are trying to grow away from (and yet, for all that Keiko despises being used and believes she loves Touga, his total silence and the camera’s continual refusal to show his eyes paints it as one more prettily dressed game of object-pursuit).
I can’t even get riled up about the phallic imagery
There’s way too many other disturbing elements in this scene
A++ for literal objectification
That’s why there’s that hollow sense of nothingness at the end of the episode – there’s no relationship to fix, Keiko’s revelation has not (as of yet, though it will in Nanami’s final arc) provoked her to make a serious change in her situation, and the status goes on as quo as ever. More interesting still is the idea that this is not a ‘natural’ situation, not simply something that girls do and one must get used to: it’s the work of the system, of duels and princes and princesses, that set individuals against one another and move their lives on such mundane levels that they never thought to consider it.
This also makes perfect sense as the penultimate duel of the arc. We’ve at once reached the top and bottom of the food chain (more on that in a minute), with our duelist so lowly that she wasn’t even named before now (and Utena still doesn’t know her name) and her sword pulled from the only duelist to best our protagonist (even if through cowardly means). The idea of the ‘wheel of fate’ seems strongly at play here, with the lowest and the highest on the hierarchy perfectly capable of switching places. At the same time, Keiko and Utena (the bottom and the top) are both unaware of the system in different ways – Keiko in only beginning to grasp how her life is controlled by others (i.e. Nanami’s jealousy) and Utena realizing that what she saw as her personal crusade extends to everyone, and perhaps nudging her further toward the all-loving compassionate mindset of Dios.
Keiko’s item is the use of the umbrella, which works not only as a romantic symbol (in Japan, writing two names under an umbrella is roughly equivalent to putting initials within a heart) but as an extension of the wheel of fate idea: an umbrella is a small, individualized attempt to stop the effect of the rain; something that falls on good and evil, prince and pauper alike. It’s a bridge between two people but a temporary one, no longer viable outside of a chaotic situation.
EVERYONE BETRAYS ME. I’M FED UP WITH THIS WORLD
Have You Heard: All that talk of equality in suffering, and the shadow girls are doing it up for me. Nanami can torment Keiko on a personal level, and the pain those actions cause are very real. But at the same time, when a larger force (the Dueling Arena, say) puts its foot down on the situation, both parties are hurt regardless of who the aggressor was in their smaller fight.
While normally Utena’s response is the ‘common sense’ sort of answer that shows how much she is growing outside of the establishing system. Whether it’s bug spray or perfume, if a cloud overwhelms a bug it’s going to have the same suffocating effect. There’s not really a ‘win’ scenario in this case. The bug spray (the duel) hurts Nanami, Keiko, and Touga in the end, only building quiet resentment. And left to their own devices, they’d go on tormenting each other as well.
Sorry, were there people who don’t like Anthy?
I’ve been told there are people who don’t like Anthy
Anthy Watch: And now, back to that other allusion – Castor and Pollux, seemingly unbeatable twins separated by the untimely death of mortal Pollux. Zeus offered Castor the chance to share his immortality with his twin, binding them together forever as the constellation Gemini. Now, Akio uses this allusion to refer to Utena and Anthy, but it already applies to our divine siblings. Anthy, after all, made herself a target to keep Dios from dying, creating the being that is Akio in the process. In their case immortality isn’t necessarily a gift, since it also equates to stasis. The constellation is fixed in the sky, and Akio and Anthy are trapped in a cycle of abuse and duels with seemingly no end point.
Anthy and Utena will eventually come to fill out the Castor/Pollux mold as well, with the notable difference of it being mutual. Utena saves Anthy from the burden of her living death, giving them shared experience of suffering. And Anthy, in turn, is free to seek Utena out and free her in the events of the film.
Pay special notice to his hair – wild and almost like flames, when with Utena it’s always well combed – as well as how threatening the red now looks when overtly staged as a power symbol over Anthy’s very small figure
And as for Gemini itself, what a cruel little dig at Anthy and her behavior toward Utena versus Akio. Because it’s the sign of the twins, and an air sign in astrology, Gemini can be read as being flighty or two-faced. It’s a power move on Akio’s part, with the cinematography purposefully giving him towering size and width in the frame. While cloaking his words in talk of her obligations, he’s reminding her that any relationship she has with anyone outside of him is entirely false and constructed, working to keep her ill at ease and dependent upon him in all facets of her life. Cycle of abuse, kids (Anthy’s final line of the episode is an agonizing knife straight to the heart for this very reason).
A princess alone on her tower. No rescuer, and no recourse to rescue herself
Themes: While a lot of episodes in this series have specific visual motifs, few scream themselves out so loudly. This episode is all about distance, something that’s repeated over and over in how scenes and characters are staged. Distance between individuals, between social classes, between the desires we truly want and the ones we present.
Keiko is ostracized through physical distance from others, emphasizing the pack mentality that underlies the survival of ‘vermin’ (at once setting her out while also subtly implying that they are all vermin of a sort, scurrying around for survival and basic needs while a much more abstract game is played around them). Groups are almost always observing or being observed by someone else (often silently, making the observed party a kind of Other), creating a kind of uncertain, tense atmosphere to every situation we observe. We’ve come so far from the so-called realm of ‘special’ people that every other person, every interaction is uncertain, the better to keep people within a stratified system.
I…I don’t have a comment for this. It was just cute
Likewise, distance appears as height – most acutely in the scene between Akio and Anthy, indicating his relatively higher status and how much absolute power he holds over her (whatever small moves she makes to torment him in retaliation). In fact, the one place where individuals are placed as equals is the dueling arena. Each character is given their own space, on the field and within the frame, to match them up as equal opponents. The camera comes back and takes a midshot to present them as they are, their complaints as they are, and to emphasize the actions of the duel (i.e. the fight for a belief system) over the power of the parties involved. And yet even that is a false equality, when Utena can’t remember her opponent’s name and outside observers tug at the strings of the dueling game. There’s no place within the system that is truly fair, truly equal, and thus no revising it from the inside as Mikage has tried to do. The only solution is to break it – and to disappear.
Yaaaay, team I-K-U represents! And talking about Sei Shonagon! If I remember correctly, wasn’t she pretty vindictive towards Murasaki Sakebu? I think it was that way, not the other way around.
As in, she resented her mistress rather than vice versa? Yes, I do believe that’s how it was (the article was a touch vague, but considering that’d make it an even stronger parallel, and Ikuhara loves those, I’d totally believe it).
Ahh! No sei shonagan and Murasaki Sakebu didnt associate much, but Murasaki was the most famous novelist in Japan and apparently Sei Shonagan had some choice words for her! I can see what you mean, though, the resentment angle
“I did enjoy hearing her refer to her mistress as an Insect”
I’m new to your Blog, should I assume Consulting Analyst will be updated weekly?
Touga lack of activity in this arch was because the voice actor was unavailable. Still I’m wondering how it could possibly have done without the aspect, the whole “normal theme” seems to fit perfectly with the top Dualist being sidelined.
Once a week, yup! Though to avoid burnout, whenever I reach the end of a Nozomi disc (that’s about every four episodes for now) I take a week to do a CA on a Silent Hill game.
It’s mad how well they made it work, isn’t it? I do often wonder what the original plan for the arc might’ve looked like.
As far as I remember there are no references to Murasaki Shikibu in Sei Shounagon’s surviving writings, but Murasaki left behind some unflattering remarks about her rival. In a clear contrast to Keiko and Nanami, Shounagon apparently had a very good relationship with her empress. The depiction of their friendship is one of the most charming parts of the Pillow Book.
Anyway, I like your analysis a lot. You’re making me want to rewatch Utena yet again.
Fascinating! It certainly casts the end of the duel/Mikage’s line in a distinct light in comparison to the referenced book (who’s the mistress, who’s the vermin, etc).
What is interesting to me, re-watching the episode, is it takes care not to paint the girls, especially Keiko, in a flattering light. In a sense, they ARE like insects. They DECIDE to become Nanami’s slaves once they find out she is Touga’s sister – originally they just wanted to be friends. Keiko never even puts forth a good reason why she wants to be together with Touga – at least Juri was Shiori’s childhood friend. In this sense, why shouldn’t Nanami treat them like crap, they’re only using her anyway.
I dunno, I think it goes a bit deeper than that. They’re not bad girls, any of them, they’re just young and affected by hormones and a system that keeps them all at each others’ throats. The shadow play seems to imply that they’re all ‘vermin’ to the ‘special’ people benefiting from the way things are – the Akios of the world.
I have not given it enough thought, but one might also play with the fact that Shonagon is an exemplar of a woman who is taken seriously by men because she possesses ‘male’ skills — she read Chinese & wrote Chinese poetry like the male courtiers did (as well as writing Japanese-language poetry like the other women).
First, thanks for these great articles ❤ I've been reading these articles after finishing Utena last week (I used Josei's also awesome analysis during the watch) and they're eye opening.
Second, I remember the myth of Sisphyus, but couldn't remember why he has to roll the boulder. Doing a quick google search I found different sources as to why, but all agree he was a massive jerk and manipulator. One specific myth was that he had his wife prove her love for him by not giving him proper burial rights. He then uses this as an excuse to escape the underworld until he's brought back by force.
The idea that Merope gave up godhood to be with a man who uses her fits Keiko really well, as does the idea of Sisphyus being Touga both as a manipulator and someone who is endlessly trying to achieve one task (that's impossible). Sisphyus could be a good representation of Akio as well. And Merope works for so many of the cast, giving up greatness for someone who isn't really worth it.
So thanks for mentioning that Merope reference ❤ I'm now going to try and find an endless amount of ways to reference Merope.
Love the article series and analysis you’ve done! Utena is one of those series that’s just tailor-made for writing essays about 🙂
An analysis from ohtori.nu’s site back in the day on Keiko has really stuck with me over the years. Seeing her as the “darker” version of Wakaba was an interesting metaphor that I think still holds up over time. (Especially when added into the events of episode 32 later on.)
I know you said on the “Mitsuru’s Impatience” entry you thought that sword-pulling scene was the most like sexual assault, but I thought this one was. The way that Touga trembles and groans while Keiko is moaning “Touga-sama, look only at me…” in the background, and the literal objectification.
Of course, I think all of them could be read as that depending on the angle. The way that Wakaba literally pulls the sword from Saionji with her own hands is disturbing in its own way.
They all have that element, for sure — I’ve always just found Mitsuru’s extra disturbing, because rape culture being what it is his actions would be justified (she was leading him on!) in a way distinct from the other assaults in that arc. Things coulda gone REAL BAD for that boy.
Yeah, it’s definitely a different dynamic since Tsuwabuki is the only male Black Rose duelist. (Unless you count Mikage/Nemuro himself, of course.) I always wondered why that was — aside from “the SC is mostly dudes, with one of the two girls being a lesbian, of course it’s largely going to be women fighting over them.” It’s never really that simple in this show.