We might as well call this arc “The Last Temptation of Utena.”
Alternately: if you don’t ship Anthy and Utena after this one, you have got to be really trying.
Episode Specifics: Utena gets invited to a play by the local drama club, dragging Anthy and Akio along with her. There they hear the “Tale of the Rose,” about an evil witch who selfishly stole the prince from all the princesses of the world and shrouded that world in darkness. We, in turn, see Anthy become the Rose Bride – skewered eternally on the hateful swords of the mob who had nearly driven Dios to death asking for his aid. That night, Utena dreams of the day her prince drew her out of her coffin, unable to remember that it was a vow to save Anthy that’s been driving Utena’s pursuit of princehood all these years.
Gather round and watch the fabulously toxic web that Akio is weaving around our protagonist this week. It’s quite the dance, and it’s all locked up in that concept of The Prince. On the one hand, Utena has to stay loyal to the Prince (her ideals) in order to prove her nobility, so that she can win the dueling game. BUT. Akio also has to stay in a position where he can steal her sword and seize the power for himself: hence the externalizing of the princely ideal into the figure of the Prince (rather than acknowledging them as ideals Utena holds in her own heart, giving her ownership over them); the Prince then becomes something Akio can take away by claiming to be him, while also making it far easier to shame Utena by tying the whole thing to sexuality (betraying the Prince by losing her virginity, an object of worth from a woman to a man in a patriarchal system). And hey, if you’re still on the fence about last week, take a look at those lines where Akio takes pains to draw a distinction between himself and the relative childishness of something being good “for students.”
It’s as brilliant as it is sickening. In a way you almost have to applaud Akio’s careful manipulation to make it seem as though he’s allowing Utena to rise to the zenith and revolutionize the world, all while keeping every note of true power and control tucked in his own hand. The castle is an illusion, but the coffin is real, if you will.
In no way a perfect visual summation of Utena’s outlook this arc
Creator Commentary: Has the prince become a mechanism to allow princesses to exist?
Or is the existence of his princess the only thing holding up the sleeping prince’s noble heart?
The “Rose Bride” is born.
I’ve prepared three points of view.
The prince as a victim: Akio is what the ruined prince has come to in the end, the “End of the World.” The prince’s tragedy.
The Rose Bride is born: she saves the prince, and in exchange for keeping him all to herself, she becomes “the witch,” and that is the tragedy.
Ream after ream of faxes come in to the prince’s mountain hideaway. I wonder if these sorts of expressions feel a little dated. Would it be text message after text message now? Or flame after flame on the internet? Oh, but I guess you can just block texts from people if you don’t want them. No, no, a prince mustn’t do something like that. It must be rough being a prince in any age.
Character Spotlight: In the midst of all the bombshells being dropped this episode, there’s one quiet momentous occasion that can be easy to miss. This is the episode where we witness the death of Dios (and hey, with all these biblical archetype allusions I suppose it’s only fitting we have some passing Nietzsche to balance it out).
You may have noticed that Dios changes size during his conversation with Utena, but the moments when that happens are worth taking especially close note of. He’s an adult when he lures (a strong word, perhaps, but let’s stick with it) Utena from her coffin and leads her to where Anthy is trapped. He’s an adolescent as he explains Anthy’s plight (the same age that we see him as during the flashback – we never see him as a child, though it’s up for debate whether the duties of “princehood” require him to have always been the budding adolescent or if that was what he evolved into by taking on those duties, as he eventually became an adult with his fall from grace). And he is an adult again from the moment he acknowledges that he can no longer be Anthy’s prince (or perhaps regretting that he stopped doing so a long time ago).
From the moment Dios’ transformation is complete, when his last notes of compassion have died in kissing away Utena’s tears, his dialogue takes on a strangely cold turn: not outright condemning of Utena’s vow, but disbelieving that she’ll make it. Beyond that, certain that she’ll “become a woman” – and by inference not be able to save anyone. Those aren’t the words of a prince. Those are the words of a cynical adult, convinced he now knows the way the world “really” works. We are granted, in those few lines, the image of Akio without artifice – the face of his toxic cynicism before he has amassed his empire of hierarchical power, before he can cover the punishing implications of his words in seduction and sweet-sounding lies. Holding on by a thread for Anthy’s sake, Dios clings on just long enough to pass on his noble intentions. And then there’s only Akio.
Needs more Production Value
Have You Heard: The shadow girls are pulling double duty this week! First there’s the play proper, which is basically the rug pull of the century. The show has spent its entire run building up these shadow plays as the reliable backbone of the episode. They’re certainly absurd, but there’s still what one might call the “moral of the story” in each one, or at least something applicable. So it packs a hell of a wallop to see a story presented that already makes us so uneasy, and that we’re going to find out very quickly is wholly wrong in its ascription of blame. Anthy isn’t just the witch, she’s Eve – so tightly bound to a series of negative assumptions (the good/bad woman) upon which the whole damaging system has been built that even otherwise trustworthy, “wise” sources don’t bat an eye at calling her wicked. So deep are those prejudices that you’d have to dismantle the whole thing and start again to even hope to even the scales. The only option, it seems, is to revolutionize not the world but oneself.
And after that heavy a curveball, it only makes sense that a comic relief scene would follow it up – with an intriguing separation between the “real” (or what is now accepted as the real) players and poor B-Ko, whose hard work during the Black Rose arc will never go acknowledged. Talented but weird, indeed.
THE COLOR COMPOSITION. THE GORGEOUS COLOR COMPOSITION
Anthy Watch: There are two ways to read what’s going on in this episode, each more soul-crushing than the next. On the one hand, Anthy’s memories of the fated vow are as hazy as Utena’s, as the girl was in a fugue of lonely agony for too long to properly take in the stranger who came before her – thus making the “who are you” Anthy’s mirrored moment of half-remembrance, a demand of why this apparent stranger is waking up emotions Anthy has buried deep in order to survive. On the other, Anthy fully remembers Utena’s vow, and has spent the entire series watching the girl who promised to save her (another lie, another human who can’t be trusted) seem so close to remembering while swearing up and down she meant those words for a prince (an interpretation that seems particularly cogent in light of the recent, fantastic Yuri Kuma Arashi) – and thus the “who are you” is a challenge, wondering if Utena can remember who she truly is and was and prove herself worth the terrifying hope that Anthy has found herself gaining. (To be unprofessional – I love Anthy very nearly as much as I love Nanami and Mikage, and this episode breaks me every fucking time).
Our time with young Anthy is quite brief, but it speaks volumes: while her brother wears the full princely regalia she’s clad in rags, lesser in class (an important note! Anthy did not start this toxic system, but merely became the focus of blame for all its ills) and yet practically popping out of the frame in comparison to the subdued, sickly colors Dios is painted in. And Anthy seems painfully aware of this. She is watching her brother die, driven to the breaking point from this way of life that’s already made her the lesser hanger-on who likely has no time with him to begin with (he’s so busy saving princesses after all). And knowing all that, she makes a choice. She tells the villagers she’s hidden Dios – she lies. Because Anthy is fundamentally different from Utena, who would have earnestly plead Dios’ case to the mob (only to suffer the same fate). Anthy is clever and mistrustful, a pragmatist (which will make her a survivor later). She knows if she pleads to their better nature the mob will only brush her aside as nothing and go after Dios. And so she makes herself a target out of devotion, that figurative red cape distracting the bull. Dios is a fallen angel, but it’s Anthy who finds herself crucified.
Hey, the Mean Girls parallels are back
Meanwhile, back in the present, Anthy is beginning to take small steps to break away from Akio even as she questions whether she can. While Akio unquestionably holds the power and swings the majority of the abuse in this relationship, Anthy seems to take her small victories of cruelty where she can. That opening scene, shot through narrow squints of insight, shows Akio seeming to try to truly make a connection on an earnest level by talking about the thing he loves (the stars). That he does so with Anthy marks her, for whatever else, as the one person he truly thinks of as precious (in his twisted way). Her revenge is denying him that, ensuring that while she is perfectly compliant in her bodily actions, emotionally he will be left as barren as she has the power to do so. For her agony and the pain he inflicts on her, she creates for him a hellscape of isolation (hence her smooth moves in placing herself between him and Anthy – though I think there’s more jealousy in that action than even she would admit. It’s both kind of awesome and horrifying the way they backhandedly fight over Utena this episode). The contrast between the two scenes is an agony, seeing their true bond twisted into something worse than if they’d lost contact altogether.
I’M VERY INVESTED IN THIS FICTIONAL RELATIONSHIP, ALRIGHT
Themes: So. The warping of narratives in order to further a systemic agenda! Fun and light all around, this week. The example case is the two disparate versions of “The Tale of the Rose,” the popular version having absolved the populace of their blame for driving Dios to the point of death on an untenable expectation, vilifying a group that’s easily subjugated and thus controlled (women who are bad become witches, and you don’t want that do you), and holding up a nostalgic idealization of a time that never truly existed (or rather, did exist but on the backs of unacknowledged suffering – is this a good time to point out that Anthy and Dios are very noticeably an ethnic minority in comparison to the rest of the cast, despite the alarming amount of fanart I’ve seen depicting Anthy with pale skin?). It’s like the Fox News of bedtime stories.
All that you’ve gathered, I wager. But Ikuhara baked in a second stolen narrative at the end: Utena’s vow, a moment of devotion giving from one young woman to another, where the decision to become a prince is not a wacky misconception but an impassioned cry for justice; becoming a romantic heterosexual platitude giving way to one girl’s misunderstanding of her assigned role. It’s the same theft, but smaller and more insidious – perpetrated by the self because of cultural pressures affecting memory (you may have noticed that the suggestibility and unstable nature of Utena’s memories is becoming a major theme).
Nobody sat Utena down and forcibly told her to change her story. There was no clearcut moment, as there is with the play, where we can say THIS is the incorrect thing, this is how and why you changed it. But there are a thousand little things: Akio telling Utena she’s bound to forget this moment and that she will become a woman (one who cannot save), dismissing the validity of her choices and her story from the word go; the narration itself almost laughing at her princely decisions, the condemnation from her teachers that she’s not acting like a “real” girl. Utena starts out very much hedging her bets, in pursuit of that “totally normal boy” and can only remember a prince who changed her life. Years of little pressures wear a person down, wear a story down, and unless one is constantly fighting to hold onto that story it will eventually be subsumed into what the powers-that-be find palatable.
The loss of the queerness of Utena’s vow seems quite relevant given manga artist Chiho Saito’s early reluctance to depict Anthy and Utena as a couple-to-be, and really the state of modern fiction in general. Adaptations are notorious about quietly doing away with character details that don’t fit the mold: whether it’s making them more conventionally attractive, making them lighter skinned, erasing a diverse ethnic background, or quietly doing away with any indication of anything less than heterosexuality, the latter being utterly rampant from updating classic literature all the way up to new adaptations of modern fiction (let us take Kunzite and Zoisite for example in the new Sailor Moon Crystal – and if you’re about to tell me they were purely straight in the manga, I have some bad news for you). These tiny changes will always, always be decried as nitpicking, as unimportant changes being harped on by an overly demanding and entitled minority. But the goalposts shift. And shift. And unless someone fights to keep those small moments the story eventually changes and loses those voices entirely. Changes, say, from a girl who wanted nothing more than to save another girl from her suffering to a girl waiting loyally for a prince to return to her.