Just in case you forgot, episode 1’s cartoon jerkface is the one who figures out the show’s thesis.
Episode Specifics: On the eve of the final duel, Akio instructs Touga to pick a gift and deliver it Utena, saying it was from the chairman. To Touga’s shock, Utena accepts it shyly – and Akio spends the rest of the episode showing up the playboy prince (and seeming to prove Utena to be an “ordinary” princess after all). Trying to work out his feelings Touga goes to Saionji, and the two discuss the web of manipulations and miracles that brought them here.
I feel like spontaneously becoming the Pale Man might have something
to do with you being unlucky in love there, champ
The title of this episode might be the most weighted in terms of imagery and symbolic ties. Obviously forefront is that image of the flowering cactus: Touga realizing that he’s developed real feelings for Utena (the blossom on top being the “head” bursting into clarity and also a point of vulnerability popping out from all those prickly, self-sufficient needles). Phrasing it as a “blooming” love knits it to the recurring poppy motif throughout the episode (most prominently the rebirth/change aspect, I’d say). And the wintertime refers to the timeline of the series, of the development of Touga’s plans and worldview to now, and his age (he is the oldest of the adolescent characters, despite being perhaps the least prepared to graduate). And of course, a blossom is almost certainly doomed to die in winter. Especially if the object of your affections has already fallen for someone who’s been by their side since the beginning.
Creator Commentary: Touga’s character changes personalities between the beginning (episodes 1-13) and the end (episodes 25-39). What changed him?
When he was young, he met a girl. She said things like “Everyone is alone” and “There’s no such thing as eternity.” A deep despair: he couldn’t save the girl. But the next day, there she was in the sunlight, with “something different in her eyes.”
Something had saved her.
He wanted to know the true nature of the “miraculous power” that had done it.
When he met her again, he tried to “rule” her heart. His thinking was that only “the joy of being ruled” could save people. He believed that was where the “power of miracles” dwelled.
The girl rejected the “joy of being ruled.” She was a revolutionary girl. And starting that day, the “power of miracles” that he sought transformed into something else. That something was…
Rest assured he really, really would have liked to have sexual relations with that woman
Character Spotlight: And now, two weeks of talking about Touga. Brace yourselves. First, a bit about his place as a part of the system, which I have taken to calling (not even anachronistically, I realized) “the Game of Thrones approach.” Essentially, he believes that he recognizes the system and the way it favors certain parties over others (making girls into princesses), and has set about the process of “saving” them by working his way to becoming the new head of that system. He’s seen behind the curtain, so obviously he’ll be far more benevolent than what goes on now. He’ll only use his powers for good.
And then Utena comes along. And the important thing to know is that she does shake his view of the world – or at least he thinks she does. But it isn’t his resignation to the system that’s moved. Instead, it’s his opinion of women within the bounds of that system. There are Normal Women, and then there is Utena: The One Great Woman. She is rare and exceptional, having risen above the inherent setbacks of her gender and come to stand on equal ground with male duelists. Touga’s view might be the trickiest to pin down because it thinks it’s feminism. His is the worldview that gives us the Strong Female Character, the one woman allowed in the work of fiction who’s untouchably strong and kind of a bitch (but could probably be reached by that one really understanding guy, you know?) and always seems to have both her ass and chest visible in the blockbuster poster. The woman who is made to stand as an impossible “ideal” (Utena herself is not any of this, but there’s no doubt it’s how Touga sees her, given how he goes on about how she’s, all together now, “not like other girls”), and becomes a paradox of supposedly raising women up while casting shame on non-Strong women for being inadequate compared to that role (despite the fact that the construction of the Strong Female Character relies on existing as an antithesis, and thus necessarily making all the “normal” traits of femininity into negative ones).
When Touga sees Utena falling under Akio’s spell (as he’s done himself throughout the arc), his conclusion is not “perhaps other women also have this strength and individuality, and the system is pushing them all down into compliance.” It is “Utena has become a woman, which makes her weak, and therefore I must now rescue her so that she might be safe in the right part of the system.” But more on that next week.
And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the sex scene. Alright, it retains a level of vagueness to it, but then much of the show’s sexuality does in the name of that primetime slot (and, y’know, artistic vision and whatnot). But given our training over the course of this show to associate certain bits of recurring imagery with symbolic actions, I ask you: what do we make of Saionji and Touga getting shirtless and having a very intimate conversation (complete with Touga mimicking the chest stroking he observed from Akio earlier)?
Further, what do we make of it immediately following the cracking of that camera lens, which the episode has set up as a visual symbol of observation/the eye of the system (hence Touga taking pictures of Akio and then mimicking his poses)? Touga and Saionji’s relationship, as well as their individual struggles as characters, are very much defined by the eyes of others. The fact that observation is removed from them (now that they are both “losers,” – Saionji the formerly expelled and Touga the failure playboy) gives us a chance to look at them with our own fresh eyes – and it’s sort of heartbreaking how close these two come to meeting each other as equals only to be stopped by the fact that Touga’s still caught in trying to salvage his vision of the system.
Saionji is the poster child of “why do I have all these feelings now”
The camera lens is cracked but it isn’t obliterated. Touga professes to hate Akio but he still mirrors him. And while Saionji is now savvy enough to see the coffins he lacks the confidence to break free from them – and given the pained look in his eye as he asks why Touga follows Akio, it would seem his oldest friend is a good part of the reason for that. The whole scene carries a heavy air of regrets and uncertainty, their journey up to the highest tower narrated only by the young Utena’s hopeless speech. They’ve reached their lowest points and are trying to climb out of that very first coffin, that they might begin to realize the larger one is there.
But perhaps it needn’t be as hopeless as all that. Let’s check in with them again next week, shall we?
Can’t even blink. Stupid fish
Have You Heard: It’s an old adage, the “playboy ensnared by the reluctant heart” – that the one who could be said to “win” is the one who puts up a resistance. But it’s not as easy as that. The fisher might be impressed but if he’s bringing that mermaid in with a rod and reel it’s still using the tools with which he destroyed all those other fish. A sudden change of emotions doesn’t undo years of reflexes in terms of dealing with the world and romantic interests. Likewise, “love” is unpredictable. Mermaids have been made into a romantic notion, but it’s also true that the old fairytales are tragic when they are not vicious. There’s a lot of unknowns lurking out there in the sea.
Just. Just gonna leave this here
Anthy Watch: Anthy is in a fragile place these days. She and Utena are finally able to look each other in the eye in broad daylight, a rare moment that the lighting in the scene takes great care to emphasize. This time it’s Utena who speaks Anthy’s words of almost-realization, only to be cut off by Akio. And if there was any doubt before, it’s clear now that Utena is a new tool in the siblings’ ages-old battle to rend each other’s hearts from their chests. And it’s getting to Anthy. Now that she has someone she’s invested care in, who she’s thought (horror of horrors) about trusting, it’s getting harder for her to hide behind her mask. She manages it until Utena has gone, but for the first time she lets her true feelings bubble to the surface in front of us. Not just us, but the world, where anyone could be watching. That’s a new vulnerability for her, and with it seems to be no small feeling of betrayal.
The last scene, like so many others in this episode particularly, does spectacular things with communicating relationships through blocking. Anthy is trying to warn Utena that she’ll catch cold (that mooning over Akio is going to do her damage), and seems to do so out of her own loneliness (given the way the camera lingers on her alone in bed before she gets up to check on Utena). But at the same time, for whatever reason – anger at Utena for abandoning her earlier, fear of rejection, old wounds – she can’t bring herself to just reach out and touch. There is a wall between them now, of secrets and misunderstanding, and now that Anthy is finally ready to reach out she begins to feel as though Utena is slipping away from her, leaving her in this new wasteland of regrets and uncertainties without even someone to hold her hand.
At first I was all “no way, are you sure that isn’t poisonous?”
And then I was all “ohhhh. Metaphor.”
Just in case you wanted keen insight into the thrilling watching process
Themes: Do you know how many symbolic uses there are for poppies, readers? A lot. The answer is a lot – enough that it gets to have the lion’s section rather than popping up in the usual top section (and the character section went long, so we’ll wrap up with something at least somewhat succinct). As Akio himself intimates in pointing out the graves, poppies serve both as markers of remembrance and death – that’s why you’ll quite commonly find them associated with veterans in the West (“In Flanders Field” had a lot to do with that). There are several variants of this: in Greek mythology poppies were offerings for the dead, and while their bright red color is often taken as an ill omen they have also been used to foreshadow a rebirth after death (a foreshadowing of Utena’s fate on this eve of what is truly the penultimate duel).
The other major image of the poppy has to do with its seeds, which are used in the creation of morphine; consequently, the plant carries with it implications of bliss and unnatural sleep. That moment of Akio eating the poppy is yet more loaded imagery. It’s a seductive image, of course, but it also evokes (those Greeks again) the Lotus Eaters of Homer’s Odyssey: individuals who ate the aforementioned plant and spent their whole lives trapped within their own dreams. It’s not only an apt allusion for the stunts Akio’s been pulling on the student body but for the man himself, as it becomes increasingly clear that he’s spun his own web of strangling lies in the process of pursuing this revolutionary power.