In which Misturucrantz and GuildenChu revisit some well-known scenes.
Episode Specifics: We take a turn down one of the oddest clip show episodes in memory, as Tsuwabuki hits his head protecting Nanami from a rampaging horse and winds up in the infirmary – leaving his meticulous schedule (and…other things) book in the curious hands of Nanami, Utena, and Anthy. The past, we may find, is not exactly as we recall it.
We’re getting a new ending next episode, so it seems as good a time as any to say a few words about this one. It’s a pretty well established theory at this point that the opening and ending songs are connected to Anthy’s point of view, giving an echo of retrospection to the series as a whole and serving as a coded outpouring of emotion from a character who spends nearly all of the narrative being restricted (it’s also very handy for tying the series to the film that followed). While the opening is the same from beginning to end, melancholy with a defiant undertone, we very notably see a shift in the two closing themes.
The lyrics themselves are almost straightforward (given knowledge of Anthy’s situation), expressing both a desire to escape from the lies she is forced to live and create, her frustration with both Akio and Utena at their refusal to hear what exactly she’s saying, and a conviction to smash apart the life she’s been trapped into living (particularly nice is the ‘angel’ allusion, with Anthy’s forced label of ‘witch’). But it’s the imagery that interests me most. There’s not a shred of truth in a single one of those images. To wit: Utena’s ‘prince’ was a child like her, and not her main motivation in becoming a prince; her princess outfit is worn only in the moment when Akio is trying to strip her of her agency and identity (a ‘lie’ of who she is), while Anthy is dressed as the illusionary body of the Rose Bride; Anthy’s “prince” is not a grown Dios but the fallen Akio, now quite removed from the princely brother she so wanted to save, and even the way the two couples split from each other implies reflection or further illusion.
Lies, all of it. Particularly chosen ones which would seem to conform to what a first time audience would expect as the fairytale ending Utena claims to be longing for in the earliest point of the series. And yet the juxtaposition of words and images is no accident, not just playing on the general ‘I want’ style of song that’s fairly common in anime but showing us exactly what it is we need to smash. For the revolution of the world, as it were.
Puns: no one is safe
Creator Commentary: This is just between you and me, but when I was fourteen, I confessed to the girl I’d loved for a long time, and she turned me down.
I couldn’t give up. I secretly followed her when she left the school.
But, as I did so, a UFO telepathically transmitted this message to me: “Stop acting like a stalker.”
“St-stalker”? What’s that? Is it some hip slang from the future?
“Live your life heroically. Live it with style. If you live heroically and with style…”
If I live heroically and with style, what?
“When you grow up, you will direct an anime about girls revolutionizing various things.”
Personally, I’m rather charmed by Tsuwabuki’s self-insert fic
Character Spotlight: Notable right off the bat is the fact that this episode doesn’t recount the events of the Black Rose – it didn’t happen, after all. But at the same time, it very much did: Nanami expressing even small gratitude is an enormous step, and Tsuwabuki now wants to be “a man worthy of Nanami” rather than her big brother, indicating at least a small nudge in becoming comfortable with his burgeoning sexuality. But why go back to Nanami in the first place?
On immediate observation it’s because she’s the show’s comic relief, and there’s a real need for some levity after the agony of Mikage’s duel. But this is no mere first glance examination! Looking deeper, Nanami comes over time to serve almost as the pure distillation of the tragedy faced by the duelists who won’t be revolutionizing the world this go round. This episode takes the time to spotlight her actions from the first arc, warts and all, is because it’s through Nanami that we’ll be able to see the starkest effects the dueling system can have. And, too, that even an apparent paper doll of a villain can be humanized to the point of most lamentable tragedy.
NO, STOP! If the two Greek Choruses meet, you’ll cause a singularity!
Have You Heard: Bits and pieces of previous messages are garbled together and then packed away in our friendly UFO, which seems to be leaving us behind at last. The theme of aliens was introduced at the end of the first arc, and shows up as the bookends for Ikuhara’s Black Rose commentary as well. Given its connection to both Shadow Girls and director, it seems that aliens are the only ones who can stand wholly outside of the system without being affected by it one some level – everyone else must face their own struggle to be free from the network of roles and expectations entered into from birth. This ties into both the shadow plays’ seeming role as the ‘objective’ giver of lessons from episode to episode and Utena’s ability to see the plays as she grows more and more aware of the machinations of a more sinister system surrounding her.
Anthy Watch: Surprisingly little to say this episode (putting aside that discussion of the ED), though the emphasis on Chu Chu as an active participant in this episode (reading him as an extension of Anthy’s ‘true’ self or her witch’s familiar) once more suggests that Anthy has had a greater understanding of things from the get go than we were ever crediting her with.
Meanwhile, offscreen, the Trio is flipping a coin
Themes: We’re continuing in the fine tradition of the filler episodes being a lot more interesting and thoughtful than I remember them being. The structure of this episode is both effective in its budget saving and truly, truly clever as a sneaky nod to postmodernism and its enormous presence in the world of fairytales particularly.
To explain the reference at the top of the post, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a (brilliant, amazing) play written by Tom Stoppard in 1966. It follows those two side characters from Hamlet – friends of the Dane hired by his uncle to suss out why he’s acting all morose over his dead dad who get the noose offstage between acts three and four – as they stand around in that ‘offstage’ and wonder how they’ve got where they are, why they’re there, and why they don’t seem to have any control over their actions the minute the “real” plot comes onstage (the whole thing dovetails incredibly well with Utena‘s themes of the chosen vs the unchosen, and the relative value of each). There’s much existentialism and roundabout wondering over philosophy and free will, and this is the stemming point for pretty much every modern ‘let’s revisit that scene you saw from a different observational point’ plot you’ve likely come across (related to but distinct from the Rashomon effect, which is more different POVs largely coloring what you thought was ‘objective’ truth) – hence why we’re bringing it up now.
Ding ding ding, we have a winner!
Mitsuru’s notes begin as the ‘objective’ chronicler of Nanami’s actions in the early days of the series, showing us our middle school student in all her petty revelry. But it progresses from there to commentary on the action (the note that Nanami is ‘pitiful,’ and gets her fair share of karma back) to outright fantastical twisting of the narrative. So, what can be said to be ‘true’ here? It’s not Mitsuru, our third person observer (he occupies the same role that the ‘camera’ would normally have, calling into question our automatic assumption that because we are being shown something on screen that thing is really happening). But at the same time, he’s able to grasp hold of the truth of Nanami’s character in a way that the ‘real’ characters (Utena and Anthy, reading the journal that gives the fictions that tell us the events of the fictional show while at the same time being positioned as silhouettes of ‘actors’ on the stage before Mitsuru…hold on, too meta. Need to sit down) cannot.
Which truth do we value, then? The one that we see with our eyes, fully capable of lying to us as the memories of our characters so often do? Or “the lie that tells the truth,” the fictionalization/abstraction of events that are able to portray more intangible ideals even if the images are ‘lies.’ This concern and the resulting tension is essentially at the core of the series: stories are lies, so how do we value them? Which do we hold up, and which do we discard? What perspective do we take in examining them?
It was a real girl Utena wanted to help, but it was stories of princes that gave her a roadmap for her personal growth and development, which allowed her to come to Ohtori. But it isn’t just that stories are a child’s toy, meant to be put away by adults for the sake of the real world. Akio makes great use of stories and roles to keep people in line, and to grant himself power. Anthy confesses her personal weaknesses and doubts through a ‘story’ about the poisoned tea. Dios himself is less person than story. Narratives and ideals are inextricable from each other, and they inform who we are, who we become, and how we influence others at every stage of our lives. The trick, one everyone learns if they desire to graduate, is to reject the stories that hold us back and instill new ones in their place. A world where there are neither witches nor princesses but limitless roads to be charted and shared between human beings.
And that’s the end of the Black Rose Set. Excuse me while I curl up and sleep for a few days.