Did you forget that Akio is terrible? Akio is terrible.
Episode Specifics: Take that status quo and burn it. Utena and Anthy move into the Incredibly Phallic Watchtower currently presided over by Akio, the stairs to the dueling arena have been replaced with a gondola, car rides of debatably metaphorical seduction have moved in to fill the hole left by the therapyvator, and all the female characters seem to be wearing lipstick now. At least we can always count on Saionji’s raging inferiority complex.
I say that, but in spite of the wave of changes we’ve also managed to come right back around to the start: Utena moves into a new place, finds herself in over her head with something (someone) she doesn’t fully understand the dangers of, and duels Saionji in order to protect a dear friend (with a very nearly identical shadow play to boot). Structurally, it’s deliberately made to echo the first episode; by the same token, it’s meant to show us the strings that we hadn’t seen before, and to rob almost all sense of triumph in favor of an eerie uncanniness. This show loves its patterns, and more than that loves knocking the feet out from under those patterns, the better to show us how the system fails to function. It’s quite the recurring theme this arc.
Insert “growing like a weed” joke here
In a unique twist of fate, this week’s dueling music is actually our new ending theme, tied to Utena and Anthy’s developing bond and their creation of a new sword. The lyrics are simple enough, but their thematic reverberation is huge – while the previous duels have all pushed against an existing system while continuing to use it, in creating a sword Utena and Anthy have taken the first step to rewriting the system entirely. Their newborn philosophy, tied heavily to birth imagery and the idealization of the heavens, grows both from the deepening intimacy of their bond and the newfound equality brought by their traveling to the dueling arena together (meanwhile this song, explicitly tied to their bond and the goals they’re striving for as a dueling team is given even more explicit romantic and intimate imagery in the credits and there are still people who deny romantic connotations between these characters and I JUST – moving on).
Meanwhile, we have student council scenes again! Baseball is a curious sport: when a team is pitching they essentially control the field, and their ability to win comes from strategizing devised around teamwork; when batting, though, it forces the team to put pressure on the individual over the unit. Our council members are still divided and conquered at this stage because they’re forced up one by one, drip fed information on a delay that often comes to the group only after yet another defeat. They can only react to what comes at them, and despite their stirring doubts they’ve (for now) sunk back into reacting to the letters as they come.
Oh, and speaking of Akio’s tower, it’s reminiscent of Foucault’s theory of the panopticon: imagine a circular prison where all the cells can see into the inner courtyard, and at the center of that courtyard is a giant tower; because the prisoners can never be sure if someone is watching them from that tower, they begin to police themselves and one another out of fear of that uncertain authority. Thus it is with the reinforcement of societal norms, overseen and enforced without Akio having to so much as leave his tower before now.
Want to know what else you’re not old enough to do?
Creator Commentary: Out of nowhere, Saionji comes back all powered up. Why did he power up? Because he rode in the acting Chairman’s car, of course. Okay, so why does riding in his car let someone power up?
The staff had this conversation during work on the episode.
“A” was a salaryman at a certain small to mid-sized company. He was clever at his job, so the company considered him an asset, but he was unable to stay motivated about his work. This isn’t the work I want to do…
Steeling his resolve, he went to the CEO and spoke his mind, saying, “I’d like to quit.”
“Now, now, slow down there. Why don’t you have dinner with me tonight?”
And so, A was taken to a certain sushi restaurant. The restaurant had no sign in front, and was set back slightly from the road. It was the type of restaurant that didn’t serve patrons without an introduction…*
This was the first time A had been to a sushi restaurant that wasn’t the conveyer-belt type. He’d always thought of a “sushi restaurant” as a place with menus, or where the ingredients available were listed on a board behind the chefs. But in this restaurant, the choices weren’t written down anywhere.
Despite this, A’s chef placed one piece of sushi after another in front of him (without him having to place any orders like chu-toro or kanpachi), always at just the right time. And that wasn’t all. Each piece melted in his mouth like no conveyor-belt sushi he’d ever tasted.
Th-this is what an exclusive restaurant is like!
At this point, the CEO, who had been sitting silently beside him and having a drink with his supper, began to speak. (The CEO wasn’t eating any sushi; he was drinking and grazing on some sashimi).
CEO: Isn’t this place good?
A: Huh? (timidly) …Yes, sir.
CEO: With me at your side, you can come to places like this every week. And what’s more…
A: Every week!
CEO: Shall we move on to the next place?
The two of them vanished into the busy streets glittering with neon…
The next day:
A appears at work with the bright, shining face of a whole new man.
A: I’m not the same man I was yesterday.
A: I’ve seen everything. I know how this world is set up now. And that’s why I’m here!
And from that day forward, A’s motivation skyrocketed. He’d completely forgotten about quitting the company.
Apparently something like that happened…
Huh? Why does he ride on the hood of the car, you ask? Well, if you want to know that, you’d better come along…
*There are plenty of high-class restaurants in certain parts of Japan who only serve their set clientele, and won’t serve other people unless a member of that clientele vouches for them.
Geeking out over the rewriting of the traditional white/black imagery here
Both in terms of who’s “good” and the stiff binaries they both exist in
Character Spotlight: You know whose episode this really, really isn’t? Saionji’s, despite him being the first (second, hold that) victim of the Questionable Consent Car and the first duel of this “new stage.” And yet he’s still being excluded on almost every level: he stands apart from the student council meeting and once more claims to “want out” (it would seem his previous notions of recovery were roughly disabused), that desire is promptly ignored in favor of gaslighting him back into the duels, the dueling song has exactly zero to do with him, and he’s the only duelist whose sword isn’t drawn from this “marriage of equals” dueling style. Actually, I question whether he’s in control at all.
Before that car ride with Akio, the Saionji we meet is at least recognizably comparable to the one who befriended Wakaba. He’s still attached to that whole stoic pride thing, and no doubt he’s still a bundle of masculine anxiety and inferiority complexes, but he’s not the right bastard from the duel this episode is mirroring: he’s able to sense on some level that the system isn’t good for him, he doesn’t talk about Anthy and tries to avoid the subject even when Touga directly brings it up (in fact, we have no indication that Saionji’s tried to approach Anthy in any capacity since he returned to campus, as though he truly did consider her feelings and was trying to improve himself rather than chase her down), and he directly confronts Touga about the latter’s passive-aggressive approach to their relationship. Baby steps all, but incredibly important ones.
And then the car ride happens, and the Saionji after is the physically abusive, overtly misogynistic villain that was always the easy target of Utena’s righteous retribution. But look at his eyes. There might be some pretty choice QUALITY shots in this episode, but the characters have always had very detailed and expressive eyes. To color Saionji’s, post “revelation,” in the anime shorthand for brainwashing isn’t a fact that should be ignored. This episode trades in the various ways Akio creates his pawns, and despite all that smooth talk and charm force is well within his toolbox (though I’d say it was more finessed than kicking and screaming force – just offer the person what they think they want, and then reinforce and amplify whatever negative traits you need from them).
And what does Saionji want? His relationships with Anthy and Touga, the two most important in his life, are extremely muddled at this point, but more than anything else he seems to desire unshakable bonds – “true friendship,” as he would term it. To him Anthy is the Rose Bride, and her love for him is conditionally based on his talents as the winning duelist. And he’s bound to have observed that every relationship Touga has is conditional, and his eternal uncertainty at what he signifies in Touga’s life (muddled, again, by their history) maddens him with its lack of clarity. Saionji has, after all, been very childish up to this point (and I think it’s no coincidence his relationship with Touga comes to a head the way it does). His relationship with Anthy is characterized by the exchange diary, a thing pointedly described as something for grade school students – even in the TV series there’s the implication that Anthy will become anything to her betrothed, and yet his clearest desire is to force an emotional connection.
Touga used “80s Music Video Look.” It’s super effective!
The same with Touga – Saionji seems to believe that reaching some magical win state will make the two of them equal again, and equality has both the connotation of physical prowess and emotional straightforwardness. Saionji simply cannot play Touga’s emotional games, and it seems to both frustrate and unnerve him. And there is the fact that tide of conversation turns when the element of physical seduction comes into play – Saionji’s holding his own until Touga’s shirt comes open, and the rattling effect it has is visible (I don’t mean in some cheap ‘oh no he’s hot’ sort of way, but more in the sense that it’s just not something he’s prepared to deal with – that moment also corresponds with the image of the bandage falling from his hand, a literal and metaphorical revealing of old wounds Touga has caused).
And speaking of Touga…we’re going to hold off talking about him until the Nanami episode, actually. For now, simply hold onto this idea: if you are too young to drive, you are too young to be rolling around in bed with a grown up, no matter how much of a handle you think you have on the situation.
Can you stock footage a paper cutout?
Have You Heard: Both an echo of the initial episode, a foreshadowing of the ‘team’ duels that will follow, and the fact that the trials are hardly over even if Anthy and Utena have come to understand each other just a touch more honestly.
Anthy Watch: In which we need to look at Akio’s behavior just as much as Anthy’s, because a lot of what she does this episode is in response to her brother. Through his eyes we’re able to see that at this point her enjoyment of Utena and Wakaba’s company is earnest, and that she truly considers them to be friends. This is not okay, of course, because an abusive relationship thrives on cutting all other meaningful bonds from the victim’s life.
Even Utena is embarrassed by your obvious metaphor
And so Akio has a romantic conversation with Utena – which becomes romantic, conveniently, just before Anthy enters the room – to prove that he can take the girl from his sister whenever he wants to. That whatever their burgeoning friendship means, he will win over it merely by virtue of being “the Prince.” The system favors him and spurns her for daring to want more than what she receives from him (as a side note: while Ikuhara’s antidote is aimed at Saionji, it applies to Utena as well: she’s being brought into the heightened luxury of Akio’s home, and great care is taken to point out how ‘special’ she’s become, while simultaneously setting up Saionji as a comfortable diversion from the actual villain cozying up to her – rekindling her passion as a duelist while quashing any doubts).
And Anthy is still in the grip of that mindset, whatever small progress she’s been able to make. She seems on the verge of confiding in Utena, touched by the earnestness of her vow, but holds back (behold the visual symbolism as they face one another and take hands with eyes open, connected but with beds not entirely in synch, as there are still secrets between them): undoubtedly frightened of the consequences, and perhaps even a bit resentful of Utena for being so drawn in by her brother’s charm (everyone normal is, after all). And she has reason to fear. Passive hesitation on her part is met with an immediate drop of kindness and Akio resorting to force, revealing the tenuousness of her position and how quickly Akio changes his masks (this arc plays with bound vs unbound hair for these two characters, the latter signifying emotional openness/intimacy for Anthy and predatory behavior for Akio).
If she hides her eyes she can say she’s not wounded
Themes: A brief moment on that Lucifer thing. Yes, it is one of the most screamingly obvious bits of foreshadowing in the entire series. But it works a few layers deeper, too, in regards to our siblings. The conversation is a game of allusions, basically. Every piece of the conversation has a flip side. Akio equates himself with Lucifer, called the Morning Star: the brightest angel in heaven felled by pride in the traditional texts. But Lucifer’s been a tragic/romantic figure too, from Paradise Lost on up – a being felled so that there might be evil to sustain a binary system, with full knowledge on his part that he was acting within a larger plan and willingly making that sacrifice: Akio, the earthly man craving the power of God; and Anthy, the demonized woman who sacrificed herself for her brother and holds her position even as she bitterly loathes it. Akio also calls the Morning Star Venus, the brightest star in the sky – the goddess of love and beauty, but also the mother of the founder of Rome by way of her son Aeneas.
And finally, that speech about it being the hidden star. He seems to mean it in reference to himself, given that he cannot shine as long as Dios is the one with the power and he has no real ability to directly influence the dueling games. It’s part of the core of what drives and enrages his character, after all. But the camera is on Anthy, and it’s not hard to see the way in which she is obscured: she has the power, but Akio controls her; she is the pivotal figure from Utena’s past, but Utena remembers a prince instead. It’s only when Utena is able to see Akio as a liar – when she’s no longer blinded by him, as one is by the sun – that she can fully see Anthy.