And now, an episode about screwing your sibling (over).
Episode Specifics: Nanami tries to salvage her shattered sense of self-image, ultimately winding up in the dueling arena but no more at peace for it. Touga reveals Nanami really is his blood sister but that he probably won’t tell her that, because he is a wad of dick cheese (were one more inclined to view his actions through a positive lens you could argue he’s trying to help her transition away from her dependence on him, but “push your baby sister into an emotional breakdown” doesn’t fall under “helpful” in my thesaurus).
This episode marks the end of our last round of council duels (so marked because our next episode is the last, most important, and most infamous of the clip episodes), and that upsetting of the status quo says a lot about what’s become of Touga and his place in the system (which we’ll get to during his final duel). For Nanami, the fact that she now has a tangible goal of her own, even one born out of grief and elements of denial, makes her the duelist who has come the farthest.
It’s been a while since we’ve had dueling music I had to do research on – in a way, it feels a bit like coming home. The bulk of the lyrics deal with that Platonic ideal I mentioned last week: that everything we interact with is a stand-in for some realer, truer concept of a thing. In this case, Nanami’s relationship to Touga is her desire for the “pure” love that family represents: someone who knows and accepts all of your faults, and is bound to you forever. Moreover, that phrasing about “copies of the self” really gets to the heart of it. The Platonic ideal of the family member is another us, someone who’s been there for all of our experiences, and can bolster our sense of the world because of it.
Now, about the reference-y bit. The “child of Nazca.” You might be familiar with “Nazca lines,” those intricate carvings in Peru that, when seen from the air, make enormous shapes of animals and other figures. Their exact age is unknown (though scholars guesstimate around 400-650 AD), and their purpose is even more unknown – though there’s certainly not a lack of theories. This ranges from it being a sacred ritual to an appeal for water to a cultural part of agriculture. The point, in our context, is that from a ground level (running about in the labyrinth, as Akio says) there’s no meaning to them. Zoom out and you have shapes…but you still have to describe meaning to them, because the original purpose has long been lost. So it is with the dueling system, and Nanami’s failing is that she hasn’t truly found a sense of meaning or purpose to drive her forward.
And, of course, it’s not infrequently theorized that Nazca Lines were meant as beacons for UFOs…
Creator Commentary: As a child, I tried to run away from home several times. Usually it was for trivial reasons, like my parents throwing away a manga I loved or a plastic model. I wanted a place to belong. And I believed that place was “somewhere else.”
Everyone needs to hear someone say, “Nobody else will do. It has to be you,” sometime in their lives, even if it only happens once. Just once is enough. As long as you can feel sure those words were sincere, you can live through anything, no matter how painful.
She’s seeking those words, too.
Parents are murdered upon entering school grounds, after all…
Character Spotlight: While we’ve seen the “unchosen” duelists, this is the first time we’ve run across the idea of having a “chosen” status revoked. I’ve talked a lot about Nanami as our “runner up” duelist, the one who’s come closest to “getting it” even if Touga is the last of the original duelists. Her comic relief episodes, as time goes on, speak to the broadest range of general adolescent tropes and the anxieties therein. And finally, underneath all that teasing about brother-complexes and her early bullying, Nanami’s anguish is the most relatable one of all. It’s at the core of every other duelist’s desire, it’s the mentality behind the show’s attempt to explore “relationships between people,”and it lies somewhere in the past or present of every viewer. It is an enormous, ungraspable pain that many of us carry with us all our lives: to be someone’s most desired person, be it romantically, creatively, or platonically. Utena is the role model, but Nanami is us.
Likewise, while she’s destined to fail because of the nature of the dueling system (remember, there can only be one), Nanami’s realization that she has to break free of her dependence on Touga is a step forward even from Jury, who realized she wanted no part of the duels but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) free herself from her obsession with Shiori. For Nanami, this becomes warped into a desire to “surpass” him and everyone else, which fits well with the “all or nothing” way that she’s been shown to approach everything in her life (I’m a bit in love with the image of Nanami and Miki sitting in the music room – though there are instruments all around and music stands, it occurs to neither to pick up an instrument and play/compose a future outside their current situation).
But no one person can truly stand on their own, and Nanami doesn’t truly seem to want to. Her conversation with Utena during the duel reveals, rather, that she fears being hated for her mistakes and cruelties now that the relationship isn’t shielded by blood – now that it “counts,” if you will. She’s realized her weaknesses as a person but doesn’t seem to know how to change and reach out to people, and so the idea of “surpassing” (and thus being untouchable by that anger and rejection) becomes her new goal. Notice that while she wields only one sword now, one she wields with a raw and agonizing desperation. The short sword used in her previous duels, tied to her double life/masking behavior and her duplicitous, self-serving acts has vanished entirely.
And they all lived together in a crooked little house
Have You Heard: If someone is locked firmly enough into something they want to believe, they can ignore evidence up to and beyond when it comes up and slaps them in the face. Now, to an extent this applies to Nanami – she denies that she’s anything like Anthy but that’s fear talking, and she’s not mature or empathetic enough to acknowledge or even wonder about how they might indeed be similar (hint: they’re a lot similar). But it applies far more to what we’re going to see from Utena in the following episodes. For someone who’s so often a source of clearheaded insight into the lives of her fellow duelists, Utena seems to display an increasingly willful blindness both to the bending of her own internal moral compass and the discrepancies of what’s going on right in front of her nose. She doesn’t want to believe Akio is a bad person, or that something is troubling (or troubling about) Anthy, so she jumps on any offered excuse to keep from seeing or dealing with the problem. That…that’s not going to go well pretty soon here.
Yuno Gassai, eat your heart out
(Anthy can help you with that)
Anthy Watch: How about that yandere pose, huh (I am now deeply, deeply curious and equally uncertain as to how far back the yandere trope goes beyond its popularization with Higurashi et al. and if this is where people were stealing that hidden scary object/cute face shot from)? Fittingly for an episode that wants to contrast approaches to the “family lover” fantasy, this is the first time we see Anthy actively, 100% willingly (the Mamiya stuff had that ambiguous undercurrent) corroborating with Akio on his plans. Part of what has made it so difficult to break free is that she truly does love him, and started out willing to do anything for him. And that genuine love lies at the core of the miasma of awfulness that their relationship has become.
They’re poisoning Kanae, by the way. Poison apples are brewed by witches, after all (pulling back to that Biblical motif, they also represent the gift of knowledge as well as sin). And for bonus foreshadowing points, we have the forks representing Anthy’s burden of the Swords of Hatred (in a neat double metaphor, feeding Kanae the poison apple removes none of the forks, spreading anguish but not relieving the original burden in any way).
It is really impressive the way they unshatter their spines after these sessions
Themes: So. Incest tropes, am I right? That is common enough that it has its own subgenre. And works to deconstruct that subgenre (that’s this one, case you weren’t sure). Ikuhara even gives a place to start, putting the words right in the mouth of this episode’s Awful Person: siblings not related by blood are just so romantic, ya dig?
Now, when you put it that bluntly it’s easy to point and say what no, but that is more or less the ethos behind every sibling complex and hot step-parent story out there (I would also argue that a great many executions of the “childhood friend is hot now” storyline fall into this mindset too – perhaps that is why I don’t like them by and large). On an unconscious level, a family member is someone who more or less has to love you (not true, especially if it’s a toxic relationship, but we’re working with a fantasy here). There’s none of the fear or anxiety of falling in love with someone and wondering if they’ll like who you “really” are – family already knows all your ugly bits and embraces them anyway. Isn’t that what everyone wants as a fantasy partner? (I’m going to skirt the sexual fantasy element, because a) that’s explicitly outside Nanami’s wants and b) as someone who has and loves their older siblings, ick).
Now, in works of fiction (particularly anime), the fantasy element pretty much always works its way in as the “kind of but not really” element. It’s (almost) always adopted siblings, step parents, and so on (unles of course you are Angel Sanctuary or Koi Kaze). Most people who seek these kinds of stories out don’t really want to bone their family members, after all. They want that fantasy closeness. But Utena is nothing if not a series about examining why we tell ourselves certain stories, and this one gets explored through now one but two pairs of siblings, essentially playing the long con up to now to prove two separate points.
On Nanami’s end of things, we address the “whew, not actually blood related, let’s get down!” thing. Everyone all over this episode (except Utena, who’s realized that your family is the supportive people you surround yourself with) makes a great deal of hubbub about how Nanami and Touga’s relationship means nothing without blood. As though the nurtured element (were they unrelated) of being raised as siblings their entire lives would not affect, on a psychological and sociological level, how they continue to view that person. Suddenly finding out you’re not DNA-sharers doesn’t undo years and years of learned behavior. That’s why Nanami is horrified when Touga kisses her. “Family” is not a series of blood ties. And the fantasy that you can be born into something that will tie you to another person forever is not only wrong but plain old nightmarish.
And then we have Anthy and Akio, which have taken this fantasy and run it through to its logical conclusion: two people who sought each other’s comforting bond rather than seeking to forge new ones out in the world, who are now trapped in a poisonous circle of abuse and have so removed themselves from the rest of the world that there is no impetus for growth, change, or new thought available to them. It is the emotional version of the human centipede. It’s also why the most harmless version of this fantasy is allotted to small children – they don’t understand the full implications of what they’re saying (Ikuhara made a comment on this too last week), and they are small enough that the idea of that relationship protects them from a world that could take advantage of them rather than hinders them from moving forward. It’s why it’s both difficult and critical for Nanami to begin moving on from the way her life was previously defined, even if at this moment things seem like they’re hopeless.