This week: Symbolism for Dummies.
Episode Specifics: Mikage revisits his memories of being Professor Nemuro, his first meeting with Mamiya, and the woman who inspired him. Utena is invited to the seminar, and Akio plots in the background like the magnificent bastard he is.
No duel means no duel music, but we can talk about the goings on over at the Student Council. This is a big reintroduction of the elevator as a full sequence – we’ve seen pieces of it, including Nanami’s modified “cage” speech, but this one still stands on its own. In the first arc the elevator was an ominous thing, housing only silhouettes and a speech that at once emphasized and entirely dispelled the individual in favor of a sort of ‘higher calling.’ But as our council members become more and more unchosen, we’re allowed to travel inside the elevator with them. The elevator is almost a safe space, the backstage before the performance of the terrace. They are still ascending, trying in their way to ‘break the world’s shell’ as duelists, but it’s moved from a theoretical to an intensely personal realm for all of them – the effect of realizing that their goals are not just private fantasies but affect those in the ‘real’ world of those they interact with. And in the long haul, that can be nothing but good for them.
And I won’t ask you to repeat it because we’re MAKING A POINT HERE
The invisible train works both as a nice piece of imagery and foreshadowing of the next arc: Nanami and Miki are both starting to catch wise of the larger game that’s being played around them, and yet Jury can’t seem to hear them (by which I mean, the council doesn’t act on any of its suspicions) – there’s something in the way. “End of the World” has set his game up well, training a kind of learned helplessness into our duelists in the event that they start to get suspicious. After all, they’ve learned from Saionji (who is, you will notice, still not invited to the meetings) that taking action without a condoning letter can lead to serious consequences. So they’re wary to act on anything without a letter giving them permission – allowing Akio to keep them in a state of limbo and push them away from both the truth and any action that might upend his system.
Creator Commentary: “Research to gain eternity,” he says.
What was Professor Nemuro researching?
“Not medicine,” he says.
Maybe it was research in a field of study from the future, one we don’t know of yet.
My visual image here was Sou Kitamura’s play Aoi Suisei no Ichiya (A Blue Comet Night). I came across that piece during my student days, when I was going to playsall the time in search of something post-Terayama. A conservatory made of glass. A swarm of researchers in white coats in the adjacent sanatorium. What could their research be about? Is “that night” the eve of the world’s destruction? When they eventually look up, a comet streaks across the sky before their eyes. Is it the flash of light heralding the world’s destruction…? That’s what the play was about (I think, I could be wrong).
The carts that keep appearing are icons of “death,” perpetually stuck in the corners of your vision. The background skillfully depicts a transcendental realm* – a place where time seems to have stopped; a dreamlike place. A transcendental realm is a realm where the “End of the World” manifests itself.
The meaning of the “pointing fingers”?
They’re telling you that there’s someone controlling the laws of this world.
*The word translated as “transcendental realm” here is higan, a word used to refer to the Other Shore, and by connotation the Pure Land. When Director Ikuhara says this he is implying that these scenes depict a realm which completely transcends normal human realities;he may not be referring literally to the Buddhist Pure Land, but he is deliberately evoking images of it: a place in which one may be free of the cycle of death and rebirth.
Character Spotlight: Given how these last two episodes are set up, it’s seems fitting to divide our character discussion into two parts: Mikage-as-Nemuro and Mikage-as-duelist. So strap yourselves in, cause it’s time to talk about all those pointy fingers (which, as Ikuhara says, are meant to show someone else’s control over this world – the director’s control, that is).
And the segmentation of spaces/light at the end of the tunnel imagery is everywhere
As Ikuhara’s commentary points out, the world that Nemuro exists in seems entirely separate from the ‘real’ world – even the debatable reality of Ohtori. This also allows it to be the most heavily stylized setting in the show to date, making it a handy primer for the next arc. Background symbolism, aggressively noticeable color filters, character dialogue versus action, all things we’re not going to be able to take for even a little bit of face value and that are dumped on us by the metric ton.
While Mikage seems intent on observing others for their exploitable points and is above all a cunning negotiator, Nemuro doesn’t quite seem to understand how people work. He stumbles in basic conversation and by his own admission lacks a sense of passion for his work (though that’s going to need some unpacking). He is quite trapped in his coffin, one of rote intellectual busywork that he labels retroactively as himself being ‘robotic.’ At the same time, it’s not difficult to see Akio’s hand in Nemuro’s personality: he’s been assigned to a work group that doesn’t truly value his input and socially excludes him in a borderline open manner; and he’s deliberately shut out from even the most basic information about what they’re doing, what effects it might have, who’s ordered it all, and anything to do with the rose signets. With that level of orchestrated socialized isolation working on an unconscious level, it’s no wonder that he both shut down and was then not savvy enough to pinpoint the environment as a major motivator in his disinterest.
So now we can take all accusations of Mikage being predatory, nail them in a coffin, and kick that coffin into the sea
Lo and behold, Akio can send a beacon of compassion that he knows Nemuro (I’m going to hammer home as much as possible that despite genius status, the kid’s the same age as our student council members) will cling to like a raft in the ocean – his office in the flashbacks is awash with yellow, painting a picture of him as innocent and emotionally stunted rather than cold and heartless. Thus Nemuro’s gaze narrows even further until he’s still not thinking of the work and what it might mean (and who knows if Akio was truly using this research to try and get the door open, or if it was always part of a longer con). And on top of that, he’s completely placed his burgeoning emotional needs entirely onto two people – one of whom is quite loyal to Akio (check out the truly nauseating amount of green going on in that sitting room) and the other of whom can conveniently be offed whenever the screws need to be tightened (I’ve a theory that Mamiya’s death directly preceded the fire being set, hence why Mikage is convinced he was there).
And then Mikage started Celestial Being
And about that fire. In the episode’s finest moment in color symbolism comes into the lighting of that scene. While Nemuro is deliberately colored to resemble Utena, and was arguably the second closest to grasping hold of a revolution, there’s not an ounce of his original coloring in that scene. Rather, the pink shading that’s thrown on his body (the color that’s supposed to represent the balance between power and purity) is a result of the light of the fire. The fire that Akio persuaded him to set. So from the very start Mikage’s revolution was doomed to fail, thrown in the shadow of the man who has the least reason to want to change the system. Well done, Ikuhara. Well. Done. Sir.
And so we come around to the question of ‘so who did Nemuro do all of this for? Ehh, we need to go to the symbolism for that.
She wanted so much more for him than community theater
Have You Heard: Hey look, a parable about the implicit effects of societal pressure on an individual’s self-perception (it feels a lot more prescient when you’ve been keeping up with Yuri Kuma Arashi). As I mentioned before, Mikage sees his past self as a robot and is happy to ascribe that label, but in truth the idea originated from elsewhere. First the whispering students call him ‘dry,’ and before that Akio set the stage of who Nemuro would be and what parameters he could act within.
Hence, to the outside observer (it’s by no means an accident that Tokiko witnesses this play rather than Utena) you have a ‘normal’ human being loudly proclaiming they’re a robot, because that’s how their role was defined for them.
BECAUSE HE’S SATAN. DID YOU GET IT
Anthy Watch: It’ll be better to put this off til next week, I think. It’s mostly Akio pulling the strings this episode.
Themes: So! Mikage’s feelings. The traditional route is to fall into one camp or the other (because of course it is, pick a side we’re at war and all that): either Nemuro was madly in love with Tokiko and viewed Mamiya as a younger brother/son, making the Mamiya-bride wholly Anthy’s interference; or Tokiko is a socially acceptable front Mikage created in his mind to cover up his feelings for Mamiya. And the thing is, picking sides is stupid. Nemuro clearly had very intense feelings for both siblings (like Utena had feelings for both Akio and Anthy! Eyyyy, it’s like we’re supposed to draw parallels or something!), which he himself would’ve likely done a poor job of articulating with his fledgling emotional development. This is important when we get to talking about Mikage, so we’re going to honor the episode’s MO by spelling out the obvious.
First, Tokiko. She’s the figure who inspires Nemuro to work his hardest on the unnamed project. She’s present at every one of Nemuro’s major emotional shifts throughout the episode, triggering a massive reaction from him (hence why the giant pointers take care to point out her teacup just before he’s propositioned by Akio) that sends his character arc in a new and more obsessive direction (devoting himself to the work, burning the hall, and trapping himself in the limbo of Ohtori).
Waaaaaaay too many of Tokiko’s scenes involve reflections and mirrors
to not question her motives at least a little
We can observe Nemuro trying to model himself to her approval and falling into a kind of worship that extends to his identity as “Mikage” – in many ways, Tokiko is his prince. Like Akio, she’s an adult walking through a world of adolescence, and as such it’s occasionally difficult to trust her motives. Present-Tokiko states directly that she was in love with Nemuro, but this show’s proven time and again that love and selfishness are intertwined, and I’d wager it was only after her brother’s death and Nemuro’s breakdown that she was able to pull away from the situation (and Akio) to ruminate on her feelings and what effects she had (coming back to the green of her sitting room and her intimate scene with Akio, it seems somewhat safe to say that he was as much a motivator, consciously or not, of what she did as finding a cure for her brother was).
Funnily enough, the last flashback scene framed in yellows
You may have noticed the framed portrait of a butterfly the first time Tokiko and Nemuro are talking, just like the one in the elevator of despair. We know from the duelists thusfar that the butterfly represents the outermost shell of the duelist-to-be’s desires: the face they show the world, which they might even believe themselves before they’re forced to confront their more complicated inner thoughts. And you’ll have noticed too that when Nemuro comes to the house while Tokiko is away, the butterfly has become a leaf – the final stage of the picture’s devolution, when we reach the core desire that’s driving that duelist. Hence, we come to Mamiya.
It’s somewhat difficult to parse who the ‘real’ Mamiya was, since even after Mikage realizes the truth we’re never really allowed to see the unaltered versions of their scenes together (and how much Mamiya was just wise beyond his years versus how much of it is Anthy’s influence – just as we can’t truly separate Tokiko and Akio’s influence. Fuck, Mikage’s story just gets sadder the more I think about it). Regardless, what we are able to see is the fragile beginning of a bond between them, with Mamiya stating Nemuro was the only person he respected outside of his sister (and the fact that he is comprehends and is interested in Nemuro’s work puts them on a comparable intellectual level). And Nemuro is doing his damnedest to connect by repeating the small talk he remembers being spoken to him, to try to explore this yearning for a close, very human connection he’s feeling (and to step entirely outside of my serious pretense, it is the cutest thing).
Just planning world domination with the bae, nbd
Ah, but what would make me say that this is romantic intent? Why not have the leaf symbolize a platonic bond? Well, it’s those pesky pointers again. Remember, they’re teaching us how to read the memory: the lipstick on the teacup, the intimate scene which nurtures Nemuro’s feeling of needing that “revolution,” the leaf and the butterfly. And one seemingly random pointer as we pan through Nemuro’s fellow students, of two young men holding hands. So we’re supposed to take this on board not only as a sign that there wouldn’t be any reason for Nemuro to feel stigmatized for same sex attraction, but that we should be applying this sort of feeling to his deep-down desires (oh, and fucked if I know about the cats – my guess would be to the tune of naturally isolated creatures congregating together to the appearance of a family unit because that’s what we’re socialized to see at a glance, rather than because we have any insight. Or Ikuhara could be messing with me again).
So, Nemuro has worshipful feelings and affection for Tokiko, who seems to betray him and thus destroy the thing that motivated his new take on life. And Nemuro had feelings for and an intense desire to save Mamiya, who died in spite of Nemuro’s most fervent efforts (despite the fact that he had just been ‘chosen,’ despite the fact that he was supposed to be special. And so we come forward in time, to a Mikage who speaks obsessively of Tokiko and who has made Mamiya his Rose Bride.
They’re freakin cute, you guys. The teasing. I can’t
Damn, Ikuhara, why you gotta hit your dude ships with the tragedy stick all the time?
But that’s an examination for next week.
Hey! Just wanted to lend you a hand in the cat/tea symbolism I found through the ohtori forums:
it’s gonna sound farfetched but there’s a theory that it means that Nemuro and Tokiko are Utena’s parents. How so? Well, the pointing hands persist within the tea and cats in a window that go from lone adult cat, two adult cats and cat with kitten. Each adult drinks their tea in that conversation, and what last do we see? Pink petals floating in the water! Now this implies they had sex at some point before Tokiko’s betrayal with Akio, and Nemuro burning down everyone. Disturbing? sure.
Being impregnated with the child of a man that killed 100 students raises no wish to be a mother, so the child is given up for adoption to would be Utena’s dead parents (Note that it implies they chose to raise her, in a society where adoption is seen as something less (not sure if in Japan though but in general). This would make the bond between Utena and her adoptive family even more meaningful since it;s not “tied by genetics”)
Another line of proof is older Tokiko stepping out of Ohtori academy with pink luggage, and if my memory serves well, Utena close to the frame.
Interesting, isn’t it? The idea of Utena fighting her own biological father. Damn, and I’m not even sure how old Tokiko is since I also assumed Nemuro to be a creepy adult and not a teenager like everyone else.
Regarding the arrows pointing at the cats, I’ve read a couple of different places (but can’t remember if the sources were official or merely fan speculation) that it’s denoting the passage of time – and how it’s twisting and distorting. The cats go from one to three (a solid three months at least), yet inside the room lipstick still remains on a teacup (something that ought to be gone in a day or less). Things are already becoming stuck in stasis inside when they ought to be changing.
It’s interesting that in some ways Mikage *did* achieve eternity, the same kind that Akio and Anthy have – outside of time, yes, but he’s trapped in a perpetual bubble, permanently dissatisfied and always striving for more, yet unable to achieve his goals or let go of his past. How many years has he been trapped in Nemuro Memorial Hall? By defeating him, Utena forced him out of the bubble and he lost what eternity he had – but he also might finally be able to move beyond his forced stasis.
I feel like the real question that characters (and the viewers) should be asking is: What does eternity *mean*?