In which nothing is true but our hopes, and everything hurts. Pack a lunch, we’re wrapping up an arc here.
Episode Specifics: Backed into a corner, Mikage invites Utena to the seminar in the hopes of winning her over – all the while seeming quite confused as to who he’s talking to. Putting two and two together (but not before MIkage can draw some ominous parallels between them), Utena challenges him to a duel, and Mikage’s careful false reality dissolves at the seams. Rejected by the system, he can no longer exist in that place.
This week’s duel really takes the time to hammer home the concept of a puppeteer, not just over Mikage but the entire world (i.e. Ohtori). Everything else is a shadow/illusion, a subject for which we need to make a brief stopover into allusion town. Plato wrote a very famous work called “The Allegory of the Cave” way back when: a group of men are chained to a wall, engrossed by the shadows cast on the wall. One man is torn from the cave and, once his eyes have adjusted and he takes in the beauty of the real world, rushes back to free his fellows. But the man who has seen the real world can no longer function in the darkness of the cave, and his fellows conclude that it’s safer to stay in their world of shadows – in other words, if given the choice of a painful truth, man would sooner cling to his illusions.
This allegory will come to underpin nearly every aspect of Utena as a narrative. Most immediately it has to do with Mikage and eventually Utena’s fate, being put in the position of immense suffering and finally adjusting to the brilliant life of ‘truth’ outside the illusion of the Ohtori system – to graduate, in other words, into adulthood. But shadows are everywhere: the Shadow Girls, who give us their own allegorical versions of the goings on amongst Ohtori’s students; the shadows of the past that haunt our duelists, causing them to chase false versions of what they think they want; and the shadows of stars shown in Akio’s tower, a masquerade of the heavens (beneath an even flimsier pretense of eternity in that castle) contending that it’s the pinnacle of the world.
Yeah, stay in the past! You left your Jackie-O wardrobe there!
Creator Commentary: The climactic duel sign. I agonized over the dialogue between Mikage and Utena, and over Akio’s dialogue in the last scene. I edited it over and over, right up until the eleventh hour just before recording began.
The last scene. The original plan was for it to be Tokiko on the phone with Akio.
“Why hello, Tokiko. Have you thought about what I said? That’s right…about Professor Nemuro. He was lying to himself, clinging to his past with you.”
It was all an illusion that Mikage had created for his own sake.
“Yes…that dream that he let 100 boys die seems to be another lie he told himself to keep himself in the past. It’s just like magic, isn’t it? Why do you suppose so many people believed a false rumor like that? Perhaps they wanted to believe…that miraculous power dwells within friends.”
The illusion Mikage wanted to see. Were the Black Rose Duelists people his illusion resonated with?
“While you cling to your memories, time stops. Perhaps that was the eternity he found, though…Yes…good idea. If you’ll come and fetch him, I image he’ll be released from the memories.”
Tokiko symbolized the lost “real time.” And she said she would come for Mikage. The time had finally come for him to be released from his illusion of his lost time.
Was that really all right? I thought it over.
The story in episodes 11 and 12 about the dueling game. Episode 23 picks up where it left off in laying the groundwork for the final episode.
Wasn’t Mikage’s fate the same fate that Utena would eventually meet? In which case, shouldn’t it be crueler?
I tried making the person on the other end of the phone line Mikage himself.
“The path you must take is no longer prepared for you. Now graduate from this place.”
Those who reject that place are, conversely, rejected by it as well. This is the nature of systems: the moment you reject them, you are forced to realize that they’re the very ground you’re standing on. Mikage noticed the trick behind the system, and he hurriedly attempted revisions. But the adult who’d created the system just said “Let’s not,” and unilaterally brought the curtain down. The system of illusion was finished. Mikage could no longer exist there. That’s why he disappeared from the memories of those who’d interacted with him.
People’s happiness or unhappiness shouldn’t be determined by struggles over the device called “the Rose Bride.” Utena rejects the duel system.
In due course Utena will be rejected by the duel system and that place, and no longer be able to exist there. This foreshadows the final scene of the series.
Character Spotlight: Mikage is a character we must define primarily through his illusions, more so than any of the other duelists who’ve come before him. Even his dueling token is a lie, showing the false Mamiya until the very moment of Mikage’s defeat. In a moment that should’ve been the height of clarity for his ideals, the dueling arena has never more starkly shown itself as another web of lies for our characters to struggle within. “Mikage” himself is an illusion, albeit one Nemuro seems to have invented for himself (seems, because frankly the idea of consent is nebulous at best whenever Akio is involved). But let’s start with the illusions Mikage made before we look at the man himself.
Still not as epic as Doug Walker
You may’ve noticed the abundance of Tokikos running around during this two-parter: the older Tokiko who visits Akio, the Tokiko memorialized in photographs, the faceless secretary whose hair is styled just as the young Tokiko’s was (and who discusses, vaguely, falling in love with a younger man as if her words are engineered to wound him), and the hallucination Mikage sees when he looks at Utena. Mikage is surrounded every hour of every day by his ‘prince,’ much as Utena is when she carries that signet. But none of them are quite right, like imperfect clones whose uncanny similarities only serve to highlight how otherwise unlike her they are. Every time he sees an imperfect version he sees his own failure again, hovering in every face. This, perhaps, is why there is no one false Tokiko as there is Mamiya – she’s come to represent less a beloved (since his last strong memory of her is her ‘betrayal’ with Akio) and more a nebulous force which he cannot appease on a romantic or admiring level (if he had ‘saved’ Mamiya she might have been proud, if he had been more an ‘adult’ she might have loved him over Akio). Like James Sunderland (or rather, James is like him…hmm), he’s conjured a reminder of his inadequacy to torment him in his frozen state.
Twist the knife a little more to the left, you missed my major organs
Making Mamiya the Rose Bride would seem to be more straightforward (again with a big old caveat, since the siblings have doubtlessly been tinkering around to make Mamiya a better parallel to Anthy): Mikage couldn’t save Mamiya from his illness in life, because death is an inescapable part of the human experience. But if he is a “Bride” then he is something eternal, a subject whose raison d’etre is to be saved. But even from what little we know, this Mamiya seems a shallow copy of the one Mikage fell in love with: being the Bride, after all, means not being a partner or an equal but a reflection of what the engaged Duelist wants you to be (it is no matter of coincidence that the scene shared by Nemuro and Mamiya involved Mamiya not only respecting but debating Nemuro on his subject of study, while nearly every conversation with the “Bride” Mamiya up to now has been very docile). They’re both flawed constructions, made up not of their most memorable traits but the most powerful emotion Nemuro associated with them.
The same is true of Mikage. He’s essentially Nemuro’s idealized self, created from a mindset that was still very much in the fledgling stages of understanding human interaction. Mikage is straightforward where Nemuro was uncertain (his blunt declaration of attraction to Utena seems to have much to do with old regrets), insightful into human emotions, the master of his own game rather than a cog in someone else’s. And most important, Mikage helps people. While it doesn’t justify his behavior (there was definitely some emotional manipulation going down with the Black Rose Duelists), Mikage’s declaration that he was helping his subjects achieve their desires seems heartfelt. When Nemuro created his second chance he made someone who wouldn’t fail another Mamiya, who could solve people like puzzles and set them on the ‘obvious’ right path as best as he could imagine it would be done. It’s not right, but it is unspeakably tragic.
Wakaba’s National Socialist Worker Party leanings are a shock to us all
Have You Heard: Living in the past is a way of avoiding the conflicts of the present, not necessarily clinging to the past ‘peak’ of one’s life as shying away from the difficult task of changing old habits and reassessing old thought patterns – one can, after all, change jobs. But it’s scary and uncertain. One can start picking up their socks, but it requires conscious thought and effort. Rather than face that ongoing set of challenges, it can be easier to idealize the past and let it cast its shadow over the entirety of your life (until you are no longer living but merely remembering). The past has an indelible effect on a person, of course, but the trick is in remembering it rather than being consumed by it (and remembering what was truly important in those memories at that, as both Mikage and Utena have forgotten with time).
Anthy has no use for your “fourth wall”
Anthy Watch: There’s been a great deal of emphasis in the last few episodes on Anthy’s sleeping habits, even when no one is watching or it would seem more harm than help to her performance as the Rose Bride. We may well be seeing Utena’s influence starting to get under Anthy’s skin in a noticeable way, long before she stages her ever-so-slight resistance to Akio’s advances.
Anthy’s sleepiness corresponds neatly with increased activity from Mamiya, and yet it’s not something that seemed to affect her before (despite her having played the role this whole time). And each time she seems confused at her own body’s reactions, an exponentially stranger reaction for someone whose entire existence banks on pitch-perfect control. It’s almost as if she wasn’t there at all. And given that Akio’s speech is the first allusion to the fact that her ‘Ohtori’ body is a puppet, she might not have been. How much easier, if Akio wanted things done precisely, to simply shove her consciousness out and have the body play the role? She doesn’t become ‘herself’ again until he touches her (which is when he begins that subtextually threatening monologue about feeling remorse for Mikage, definitely Mikage and not another pink haired duelist), and we know he exists constantly within a split state as Akio and Dios. It’s not hugely outside the realm of possibility for him to have played Mamiya remotely and turned it back over, physical exhaustion and all, to Anthy when he didn’t need it. Oh, and let us not forget the chilling implications of that wordless smile. It’s safe to smile at Akio, because then you have your thoughts and he’s content thinking he’s won. It’s not safe to say a word, lest you put yourself in danger of saying the wrong thing and being punished.
As to how we know Anthy’s starting to hope, I give you the handholding scene. Beyond the fact that it’s a very sweet and intimate moment, a very clear marker of growth in their relationship, and the first time Utena’s initiated any kind of intimate contact between the two of them, it’s huge on Anthy’s side of things. This is the first time Utena’s been allowed to see anything like the ‘real’ Anthy, without the other girl performing any role or responding to an expectation. Thematically, Utena being awake and Anthy asleep shows the former gaining a major step in a revelation (that Anthy can’t just walk away from being the Rose Bride, because abusive relationships aren’t that simple – even if she doesn’t quite have the latter altogether yet). Her eyes are being opened, metaphorically speaking. At the same time, Anthy is having a humanizing moment: powerless not because of the swords but because of physical exhaustion, reaching out for physical contact in a reach for reassurance (and that Anthy fell asleep reaching out will break my fucking heart forever, because it’s something she clearly only felt safe doing when Utena was asleep and they were in the closest thing to a safe space – separate from Akio – that Anthy has). And it’s going to get so much worse before it gets better.
Ideals surrounding friendship surrounding passionate love
Ikuhara symbolism continues to be my favorite
Themes: If you thought you were getting out of this arc without a discussion of same sex relationships and the flawed effort of attempting to conform them to a heteronormative structure, I am shocked and saddened at your lack of faith in me.
While one of the show’s great strengths is its ability to function as a universe unto itself, able to reflect the societal views of the watcher but not necessarily be dated by them, the dueling system (and the mentality of princes, princesses, and witches that’s inherently tied to it) is at its core a deeply patriarchal thing. When it puts people into its boxes, they are structured to given men power over women (either as passive/beloved or active/repudiated objects) and to reinforce traditional ideas of gender and desire (hence why Akio makes Utena a princess, and seems quite certain she’ll toss Anthy aside for him). And while the characters of the show might have some freedom to express queer desire, there’s definitely no place in the system for it (you can exist, sure, but be glad for that alone and don’t expect power or a voice). In comes Mikage, seeming to believe that he can “save” Mamiya not by throwing the system aside but by rewriting it enough that a male Rose Bride might have a place in it. Wow, is there a lot to unpack there. Raise your hands if you’ve ever heard the question “so, which one of you is the girl?”
It’s no secret that portrayals of queer romance in fiction, particularly in BL and GL manga (which are, by and large, written by straight authors as escapist fantasies for straight audiences) to take their protagonists and fit them into stereotypically masculine/feminine dynamics: the icy, manhanded seme and the blushing, volcano of tears uke; the ‘cool’ ojou and the moe-faced ‘real’ (feminine) girl. This is a problem for all sorts of reasons, not least of all because it pretends to give queer relationships the go-ahead (even if nearly always restricting their existence to romance stories or comedic relief) while also cramming the hat and trenchcoat of ‘normal’ relationship expectations on them. And it’s not always uncommon, especially among younger audiences, to help perpetuate these stale tropes because they’re so slaveringly happy to be considered in any capacity at all that asking for something better isn’t even a blip on the radar screen (and there is an element of that, I think, in Mikage’s approach to revising the system).
Hell, Ikuhara himself has half a foot in this. It’s not too hard to see Mikage and Mamiya as something of a do-over of Zoisite and Kunzite. In the broadest strokes, mind – a cunning mastermind watching the failures of lesser minions while hiding out in a dark abyss and occasionally offering roses to his comparatively effeminate (or at least ‘prettier’) younger romantic companion in a military-esque uniform who’s mostly just a sounding board but occasionally pops up with that scary smile to stab the fuck out of some people with flowers – but what is Utena if not a study in archetypes?
Souji Mikage, expert in the pronoun game
And before you accuse me of reaching in a mad, symbolism induced haze, the relationship between those two characters is one of the most overt additions Ikuhara contributed to the original Sailor Moon (and I love it. Fealty be damned, I loathe Crystal’s putrid, hokey matched set garbage). And while Ikuhara’s got a good track record with his romances between women, it’s always stuck out to me how much Zoisite got nudged toward the okama stereotype when he became Kunzite’s lover (if the pretty cherry blossoms, obsession with aesthetics, vanity, and Most Femme Appearance didn’t do it for you, the fake-Sailor episode’s the nail in the coffin). Even one of anime’s most thoughtful, subversive directors walked neatly into an aspect of the system, and we seem to see his ruminations on the suffocating effects of that system in our two ‘villains.’ Villains who’re more like anti-heroes, whose relationship is knocked off the course of its original potential because Mikage’s trying so hard to fit them into that system, and who….are still met by a crushing tragic end even before the ‘modern’ story started (though it’s a big old swoop of brilliance that the title translates to ‘terms of a duelist’ – not just the terms of engagement in a fight but the words by which one defines themselves and is defined by others). But two out of three isn’t bad.
Speaking of that system, let’s end with the weird invisible banquet scene. This remains one of the series’ most unnerving loose threads, implying that even Akio himself is a puppet to the larger game being played (he is the ‘acting’ chairman, after all). What might be our Board of Directors controls everything and yet cannot be seen, a metaphor that is no less powerful for how transparent it is. When Mikage states he won’t duel with them, he seems bitterly aware of the futility of the situation (having started the episode by declaring he sees no way to win) and that the very core of his approach is a flawed one. Like all the rest of the episode, this is its own bit of foreshadowing: attacking the system is a fool’s errand, as The System is not a single target to be attacked. Rather, one can only revolutionize their own perception and break out into a new world, one that exists without that system…until it is left alone, rotting amidst its own delusions. Call me an optimist.