Favorite character status achieved.
Episode Specifics: Nanami realizes that Touga may not be her blood relative. The entire basis of her world, accordingly, falls to pieces. Welp, that about covers it. See you next week, folks!
No but really, the whole two-parter issue strikes again. It’s been a while without a duel, hasn’t it? And our student council equivalent is a meeting in the lunch room with Utena, showing how our Duelists have come down from their literal ivory tower and are interfacing with their former rival as a potential ally rather than a threat.
Bonus nod for the relative gender-ambiguity of that Ideal Figure
There’s also two major visual motifs going on in this episode: weather and statues. Or, put another way, change and platonic ideals. The first is a pretty obvious “winds of change” (which is even kind enough to make its entrance as Nanami contemplates the photographs symbolizing her old relationship with Touga), signifying Nanami’s central issue of trying to hold onto a bond being destabilized by time and her own maturation. The other goes a little deeper, and ties into what we naturally have to wait until next week to discuss for dramatic tension reasons.
For now, keep the image of those Greco-Roman busts in your mind’s eye, the kind of artwork that would’ve been made to present an idealization of the human form. From the Greeks we also get the concept of the platonic ideal, which is (very roughly) as follows: everything we see in our day to day lives is a shadow of some purer concept. That cookie you’re holding is a pale copy of the universally held idea of what a “cookie” is, something that would be perfect version of that thing. In relation to Nanami, she’s striving for the platonic ideal of love – not the complications of two individuals struggling to support one another and grow together (she’s not ready for that yet), but the pure conception of unwavering devotion and all-consuming attention that she thinks she’s previously had with Touga. That image of him in the shower? They hold on that shot for seventeen seconds. That is an eternity in a 22 minute show. And we spend that eternity staring not as “Touga” (though we’re ascribing that identity from prior knowledge) but at the silhouette of a “perfect” male form, the thing Nanami is trying to reach but cannot grasp – in large part because it is illusory (notice the way she struggles under the weight of those statues when she picks them up, almost crushed by the weight of the burden she’s taken onto herself.
Are you telling me AKIO OHTORI INVENTED RULE 34
Creator Commentary: There was once a girl who said, “When I grow up, I’m going to marry Daddy.”
I wonder who she actually ended up marrying.
Blood relationships are the only relationships we have where people want us exactly as we are. To a child, the daddy who affirms everything about her is her prince and the “world” itself. So the words, “when I grow up, I’m going to marry Daddy” mean the same thing as “I’m going to make the whole world mine.”
In the process of becoming an adult, there comes a moment for each of us when we’re rejected by the “world.” The person we were so in love with dumps us. The school we wanted to go to so badly doesn’t let us in. The career we were trying for doesn’t pan out.
Everyone has a moment like that.
And that’s okay.
There’s no such thing as something which mustn’t be lost. Everyone has the freedom to love someone or something.
We are free. We mustn’t forget that.
This is also known as the “first time seeing Rule 34” face
Character Spotlight: I’ve spent a lot of time highlighting the parallels between Anthy and Nanami during this series, as well as the idea that Anthy is aware of and maybe trying to actively circumvent said parallels – partly because I think it’s neat, but also because it plays hugely into what goes on in this episode and the next. And because, of all the duelists, Nanami often brushes the closest (after Utena, who gets a fair share of nudges due to her Chosen One status) to an understanding of what’s “really” going on in spite of her attempts to embrace various hierarchical positions (Touga’s Sister, the Acting Council Leader, the Popular Idol).
But she keeps almost catching onto deeper truths, and then finding herself without the tools to deal with them maturely: noticing Utena’s crush, feeling uneasy around Akio and Anthy, seeming to see herself in the girls calling Touga’s phone line (as much as she tries to push that fear away). And our major key to it is the roses. In all of Nanami’s moments with Touga this episode, we’re never presented with a white rose (idealization, the Prince, the desired thing that every Duelist has). Instead, we get red roses – passion, yes, but more often (and certainly in these contexts) an exercise of power over another person. Always when Touga’s gone out of his way to “tease” his little sister and keep her both uncomfortable with herself and devoted to him (and wow is it good he ultimately fails at this – crossing that line would pretty well damn any hopes for sympathy Touga might have). On some level, she seems to sense that she too is falling for his games, which plays into her acting so defensive and angry toward Touga’s lovers. She’s afraid that she’s already like them but hasn’t been able to admit it.
Even more importantly, Nanami is the only character who’s been linked with a purple rose, and specifically during her conversation with Akio. As you may recall from waaaaaaay back in the episode 13 recap, purple tends to be tied to corruption or decay. In those moments, Nanami gets a glimpse at the real Akio under all that smooth charm, and it puts her ill at ease without knowing entirely why (and her socialized instincts are to trust the adult who also seems like a Prince, shutting out those good instincts). But the fact that she was able to sense it at all, when every other character has found themselves taken in by the Chairman persona, is of note.
As for Touga…next week.
And it’s deliberately a soundstage. Because let’s throw in all the
“actors being positioned” imagery
Have You Heard: Return of the monkey catchers! In the vein of “Nanami could have been near to a breakthrough/might be the next best graduation candidate,” we have the return of the monkey-catching machine from Mikage’s shadow play. That aside, it’s obvious in retrospect how the cuckoo ties to Nanami – a child raised by parents that aren’t biologically related. But then we have the cuckoo enraged at being mocked, swearing they’ll become a swan. Which is…not the right story. But what story is there for cuckoos to draw from, to comfort themselves with when the world is painful and makes them feel like they’ll never fit in? There isn’t one, of course. But because she’s not ready to write her own story, the cuckoo tries all the harder to pretend that the existing stories fit her after all.
I’m focusing on how gorgeously drawn her hair is so that the contextual
horror doesn’t overwhelm my still-functioning brain cells
Anthy Watch: This is the part where I remind you that this show, all the way to the end, aired in a primetime evening slot. Anthy’s actions in this episode can be looked at as two parts of a whole, both involving surreptitious setup and desired reaction. In the first, Anthy places that banana peel so that Nanami can be rescued by Akio, setting her up to fall into the desired trap and go on playing her part as a Duelist. She’s smiling as she does it, because more and more that blank smile is becoming our nod to when Anthy has clicked back into survival mode (and also, because tormenting Nanami still seems like a bit of a hobby for her).
The second is when Nanami comes into the observatory, and we hold on Anthy’s face for an almost comparable amount of time to that “ideal man” shot. Her expression is notably, painfully blank, like a doll with its strings cut. The episode ends almost as soon as Nanami runs out in horror, but not before Anthy moves – because her mission has been accomplished. Having seen that display, exactly as it was laid out, Nanami has been pushed firmly away from the most damaging depths her relationship with Touga might’ve sunk to (and as I mentioned with those red roses above, it could very much have ended up that way if Nanami didn’t pull back or Touga didn’t have something to pull him back from that at-all-costs pursuit of power).
Soap opera music goes here
Themes: This is the point where the series pretty well kicks any pretense at lightheartedness off the deep end. Having trained the viewer to expect a reprieve from inner adolescent angst in the form of Nanami’s comparatively lighthearted slapstick episodes, this episode proceeds to crush those hopes – but not before presenting a warped version of what you thought you want to. Nanami’s high octane emotions are still here, after all, particularly leading up to the blood type conversation. This is just the first time they’ve been grounded in an issue that crosses over firmly into the world of adults (relationships to family members), thus making it “real” over the day-to-day popularity and puberty worries she’s suffered through previously.
And while it’s true Nanami has certainly been petty and cruel, and caused real pain to other human beings, it’s always struck me as unfair to dismiss her problems up to now as stupid (a first time viewer will almost always think of the Nanami episodes as throwaway). I mean, they are stupid in the sense that they’re small in the big picture of an individual’s life, the kind of thing that the older viewer (and the viewer who has never experienced that situation) knows will pass with time. From that position, it only makes sense to feel exasperated and wonder why the kid in question can’t just ignore it, or dismiss the story as meaningless. Nanami’s sympathy points come crashing down at a glance in this episode particularly because they’ll have long-lasting implications into her adult life.
But even so.
That dismissal does an incredible disservice to the reality of those feelings at the time a young person is experiencing them. We forget how much more slowly time seems to move then. How we’re still feeling out empathy for others. The waves of hormones and still-developing frontal cortexes. Speaking of Nanami specifically (and putting aside the dress incident, which is Nanami in the moments before inciting the vengeful incoming character development), there is a painful truth hidden at the core of each one of her harmful actions: she pushes that kitten in the river because she’s a very small child without a concept of death (the horror in her eyes when she sees that kitten go over the falls indicates she’s putting two and two together), acting only on the short term certainty that action A will get her goal B; she treats Tsuwabuki and her posse the way she does because she’s never had to navigate anything like boundaries or mutual respect in her relationships – Touga both dotes on and manipulates her (so she’s spoiled and drawing from an emotionally unhealthy relationship in her formative years), and to her fellow classmates she likely comes across either as an unattainable object or a means of getting closer to Touga; every relationship in her life is concerned with appearances and double meaning with very little straightforward content, so it’s no wonder she’s both terrified and boggled by the egg incident; and the entire structure of false hierarchies that makes up her life is pulled out at the root by questioning her relationship to Touga.
And that’s what adolescence, at its heart, is. Realizing that the things you assumed to be true aren’t trustworthy at all, and that it’s time to decide for yourself what you want to keep from that past and what you want to leave behind – what are the parts that make you you, in other words. Nanami isn’t ready for it, which is why she doesn’t graduate. But the fact that she ultimately “fails” (though not entirely, and with hope for the future) doesn’t make her story less important in the scheme of the plot than Utena’s.
As much as the world needs (really, really, really needs) stories that show young people how to grow past the prejudices and angsts of youth and into becoming a compassionate grown person, there likewise stands a need for stories that acknowledge (not endorse, but validate) the powerful emotions that come from being that age. It might be transitory, but then all things are, and the effect of living within that moment is palpable. The way it leads one to interact with others is evident – look at Nanami and Keiko or Tsuwabuki, just to start. The balance of validation v endorsement is a tough one, of course (raise your hand if you’re sick of high school is the pinnacle of LIFE movies), but the effort is still more than worth it (in this case, it’s making Nanami sympathetic while also having characters around her more than willing to call her on her cruelty). It’s the moment of saying “your feelings are real, it’s fine that you’re feeling them…and here is how you get through to the other side.” The chick dies if it stays in the egg. But it also dies if it isn’t given time to grow and develop within that safe space as well.