Utena loves Anthy, news at 11.
Episode Specifics: Utena finally receives a letter from End of the World, and frets over whether or not to go to the castle beyond the Rose Gate and meet “her prince.” In the meanwhile she comes to an understanding with Anthy, buries the hatchet with the council members, and expends quite a bit of soul-searching just below what the dialogue feels like revealing to us.
In what has practically become a weekly segment, let’s check in with Saionji and Touga. The bike is at least an improvement on the motorcycle from their last chat (pure beast of Akio mimicry that it was), but things still aren’t quite kosher between them – the bike, symbol of their childhood relationship, is still rather a small one that they’ve outgrown. It’s not as though they should discard bikes at their age, but they need a new one that fits where they are in their lives, a bigger one, rather than sort of jamming themselves into the familiarity of the one they had before. Additionally, Touga is the sole source of forward momentum and Saionji’s even more passively along for the ride (almost an active drag since there’s no engine to help them at this point) – and while Touga is looking forward, Saionji is looking back, the end result keeping them in a stable kind of stasis.
All of which is somewhat nullified by “that scene which people take to be sexy out of context, but is in fact one of the most skin crawlingly disturbing moments in the entire series.” Part of that is due to the utter pointlessness of it as far as Akio’s game is concerned. Utena has already been chosen, meaning that Touga really has no place as Akio’s protégé, and Akio correspondingly doesn’t really “need” for Touga to do anything (since they only appear after Utena’s made up her mind to go to the castle).
So this is just fucking around with an already beaten, confused teenager because he can, exploiting his uncertainty and hey, why not his tenuous relationship with his differently but equally confused friend while we’re at it. It’s a power play purely for its own sake, in the same vein as Akio’s car ride with Anthy or admitting to Utena after he’s already seduced her that he hates the stars (his supposed passion about which, if you’ll recall, being one of the things that impressed her early on). While Akio is certainly tragic in certain respects this episode mercilessly hammers home that he is a monster above even that. As Ikuhara’s commentary states, rings symbolize “a proof of contract” – in giving our cast dueling rings Akio’s in effect stated ownership over them, and feels pretty free to do as he likes in the service of his own whims.
To balance out the scouring session you will doubtlessly need after that, this episode also houses one of the series’ single most heartwarming moments in the form of the badminton scene. All of our duelists have been freed from the system by virtue of becoming “unchosen,” and as a result they seem the happiest they’ve ever been. The dueling sabers are replaced with rackets, transforming their familiar fencing into something friendly. Their issues aren’t gone – Jury acknowledges that she can’t let go of her feelings for Shiori and Miki’s teasing subtly reflects the fact that he’s still looking for a person to fulfill a place in his life, if not the “shining thing” (and of course Shiori and Kozue are both prominently shown observing the scene, not intruding but very much present). But without being constantly eroded by the dueling system, they’re all far better adjusted.
Nanami’s come the farthest of all, loudly able to admit that she’s rejected the system and admitting, as part of her bonding moment with Utena, that she’s feeling concern even if she’s still poor at expressing it (that Nanami “buttons” the scene in an explicit moment of noting how alike she and Utena have become points again to the idea of her being the next-closest revolutionary over even her brother).
Creator Commentary: Evidently, some theorize that engagement rings can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome, in the days before Christ. At the time, of course, marriage wasn’t a product of love; it was a political affair in a society dominated by men. The concept of romantic love appeared on the historical stage later. Therefore, rings weren’t “proof of love” items; they only signified “proof of contract.”
During the Renaissance, military man Cesare Borgia was ablaze with the desire to conquer Italy. One theory has it that the Borgia family assassinated its political enemies with a poison called cantarella to expand their territory of influence.
I’ve known the word “cantarella” for some time, but I didn’t start to think of it as romantic until I read Ms. Saito’s manga The Flower Crown Madonna. You see, Cesare has a beautiful younger sister named Lucrezia. In this story, Lucrezia entered politically expedient marriages with men from various lands, and her husbands died of mysterious illnesses. She poisoned them with cantarella. Lucrezia loved Cesare as a woman loves a man. For her brother’s dream of world conquest, she married men she didn’t care for, and then she killed them. Lucrezia gave both body and soul out of love for her brother. What a romantic story! That’s what I thought on first reading. I also thought, “I want to take a shot at grappling with her emotions.” I think I had Lucrezia in the back of my mind as I shaped Anthy’s personality.
Character Spotlight: Everything is down to Utena this week, so no surprises as to our subject. The visuals do some gorgeous work this week highlighting the unspoken aspects of her journey – the close up on her ring has a blackened, tarnished look to it at the beginning of the episode but glistens in the sunlight when she willingly dons it for Anthy (lit by the sunset of course, as an emblem of things coming to an end).
Her basketball scene just prior to the Council conversation and the car ride with Akio is also a revisiting of the same scenes in “The Barefoot Girl,” showing just how far Utena has come in spite of (and perhaps as a partial cause of) her uncertainty. A sprained ankle (leading her to have to rely on Akio) becomes a fully focused victory on the basketball court, while the new “date” scene has Utena using Akio as a means of avoiding Anthy – the guilt having shifted from “am I betraying my duty to my prince by choosing Akio” to “can I face that it was wrong of me to blame Anthy (and that I care for her more than Akio).” Akio’s comment that she “looks girlish” is both coding her uncertainty/weakness as a “female” trait while also leaving the door open to frame that weakness as a compliment of sorts, making her potentially easier to transform into a princess. The blocking of the scene is also reversed, with Utena beginning the conversation pressed down by Akio but ending it by drawing herself up by her own will, engaging him as an equal rather than reacting passively.
And then, there’s that one damnable line of dialogue. If you’ve had any experience with Utena fandom before wandering around these parts, you know the one. “Well, it’s different from the love you feel. I purely…Not to say your feelings aren’t pure, but…” which would have naturally been followed by a then-fairly timely “not that there’s anything wrong with that!” Yes, this is the line that acts as the crutch of the “but they’re just very good friends!” argument. Which the most context-blind hunk of bullshit I have ever heard in my many years trotting the internet. While I’m generally quite in favor of the “many things to many people” nature of Utena interpretations, I simply can’t and won’t budge on this one. Part of the importance of the “escaping from our coffins” narrative, particularly at the time in which the show was released, is the fact that the heart of the show is a love story between our two heroines, grown organically and slowly into an ironclad devotion that stamps firmly on the fanservice contrivances of the majority of GL (and BL) anime. But hey, don’t let my refusal to allow the silencing of queer narratives that are anything less than triple certified sway you! I can prove it with context too!
As I said, this episode is about Utena coming to terms with her feelings in all sorts of ways. This is the first time she’s seeing the “real” Anthy (almost) – both the first time the light of day has entered their room (the one place in the tower where it can do so) whilst Anthy is likewise “unguarded” with her hair down and both of them with their eyes open. Seeing that, Utena runs away. She removes her ring, her promise to protect Anthy, and she spends the day avoiding her constant companion in the wake of that extremely vulnerable moment. She allows Anthy to take her hand when they’re alone the night before, under the stars where no one can see, and grasps back (an important moment for Anthy, but also one of the few times Utena hasn’t been an active seeker of physical connection).
But their bond is being tested to its breaking point out in the larger world, the world where the expectation of systems start coming down. Utena’s dialogue is likewise a mass of contradictions, masking her inner torment and often outright contradicting her eventual actions. Each scene contains a lie and a truth, often intertwined with one another, and almost always having to do with Anthy. The most notable example of this is the cantarella conversation – both girls showing that they are willing to accept the potential to be hurt because of their trust in each other, and both “lying” while also truthfully referencing the harm they’ve done one another in the past. When she tells Akio about the ring “not suiting her” anymore she’s speaking truthfully, but not for the reason he likely thinks (that he’s successfully making her into a princess). Instead, it’s because of her anger at Anthy and the feeling that she’s failed her. This is also a fine time to echo early Utena’s “perfectly normal girl” speech, here rendered as a single line with far less impassioned fury. When she says she’s a girl it’s not out of an attempt to have Akio validate her as fitting into the societal norms of girlhood, though her remarks to Anthy later seem to imply she understands that this was partly his intent in saying so. She no longer desires to be normal, and that’s tied up, in context, with her concerns about Anthy (since she no longer wants a perfectly normal boy either).
And there is, of course, the conversation with Jury. Much of the badminton scene shows off how far Utena’s come in terms of understanding others, with her empathy and sense of subtlety having improved greatly from the well-meaning but dangerously oblivious girl of the early episodes. Now, Utena seems to say with conviction that her feelings for Anthy are “pure” (and the implication people run with is that pure=platonic, while it could easily also mean that she doesn’t want acknowledgement from Anthy in the same way that Jury craves it from Shiori), but let’s look at the framing. While the majority of the scene is done in silhouettes, the discussion of Utena’s feelings changes to neck-up shots of Utena and Jury on either side of the pillar. As Utena’s expression becomes troubled (in spite of her seemingly sure dialogue), Jury wears a knowing smile. The “barrier” between them can be read as a number of things – that Utena hasn’t yet admitted her feelings while Jury has, that while Jury knows her limits Utena is still struggling with her weaknesses and who she is if not “a prince,” and so on – but the doubling imagery is quite clear.
Coming back to the truth-and-lie formula, Utena is decidedly lying when she says that her feelings are pure. On the most basic level, she’s been avoiding Anthy because of what she perceives as a betrayal (that Anthy “stole” Akio, that she revealed something ugly about someone Utena admired, that she didn’t confide this fact in a way that Utena could feel princely toward), and were her feelings pure it wouldn’t matter to her what Anthy did (in the way that a vassal is purely loyal to their lord, regardless of said lord’s actions). Utena’s stated something that old her would have said, and she’s now savvy enough to realize it as soon as it’s said. And if her feelings toward Anthy aren’t “pure,” then what are they? What does she want? She repeats “Himemiya and I” over and over, stuck on the image and sound of it (the two of them together) but unable to piece together what she should do or how to get there. Having her talk to Jury is not to show that they are different (platonic vs. romantic) but to show that they are the same, and that the reason Utena is “chosen” is that she’s able to make the conscious choice to take a different path (to confront the ugliness that’s currently between her and Anthy and move forward together).
As for tying up the parallels between the two episodes: “The Barefoot Girl” ends with Utena’s candle blowing out and her being successfully seduced by Akio (being overwhelmed, if you like, by her unexpected feelings for him), capping off an episode of increasingly limited agency; this episode ends, after parallel versions of many of the prior episode’s scenes and likewise Utena suffering confusion and denial over her feelings (remember how often she denied that her feelings for Akio were romantic in nature?), she makes the active choice to return and repair her relationship with Anthy, because she’s determined that Anthy is who she wants to fight for rather than a prince she barely remembers. Not giving into or being overwhelmed by romantic feelings, but embracing them and choosing to take action.
Have You Heard: While it can be easy to swear off dreams of being the Chosen One when you’ve not been approached, to settle for love and understanding, the true test of those bonds is when the thing you think you’ve always wanted comes knocking. It’s not even for a guarantee of being chosen, just the chance – for that glorified moment we throw away far more important relationships (and become willing to degrade oneself in the process, given the touch of casting couch implication going on at the end). This is the crossroads Utena currently stands at – asked to choose between Akio and Anthy in that moment, she chose to become like all the others (for the sake of the “prince”) and vilify Anthy in spite of all that they’d shared and built together.
Anthy Watch: We’re not going to talk about Anthy’s suicide attempt in depth until next episode, given that that’s where the meat of the context comes through. For now, consider that Anthy is suffering something of a flip coin scenario to Utena in this episode. She’s finally been able to bridge the gap, attempting of her own accord to reach out and comfort Utena, both to give comfort and implicitly to ask for it in the wake of revealing the hellish situation she’s been in. And Utena runs away from her, angry and hurt in ways that are perhaps understandable for someone so young but that nonetheless reinforce Anthy’s deepest fears – that she is not worth saving, that no one can see the real her and still love her besides Akio (the car scene is doubtlessly a common occurrence – Akio hurts her, then tells her that it’s the world’s fault and not his), and that by attempting to go toward Utena she’s pushed away the one source of twisted comfort she had in her agony.
Confronted with even this instinctive rejection, Anthy’s courage vanishes (for those of you who’ve seen Mad Max Fury Road – and if you haven’t, go see it – think of the scene where Cheedo tries to run back to the Citadel). The cantarella conversation is less a bridging of gaps and more an apology, a kind of last will (veiled, as Anthy has now confirmed she must be in all respects) and plea for forgiveness before falling into her despair (while of course Anthy cannot be killed, it’s likely she intended to vanish from Ohtori and exist solely within her coffin).
“It just feels so much easier to talk to you now that I don’t
give a damn about what you do”
Themes: You have no idea how gleeful I am for a chance to talk about the Borgias, my favorite Weird Historical Family (and like Ikuhara my interest was initially sparked by a manga – the gloriously crazy-bonkers Cantarella). As the commentary stated, there is quite a bit of Lucrezia (or at least the popular conception of her – the rumors of a sexual relationship between her and her brother were rather rampant but never confirmed) in the development of Anthy – especially the idea of poison (which has multiple meanings for Anthy outside of the literal poison used on Kanae) as the only tool given to one who exists in a system that doesn’t value them outside of their role as bargaining chips.
However! There are a few interesting parallels between Akio and Cesare as well. First of all, while Ikuhara mentions that Cesare “conquered Italy” his relevance goes quite a bit deeper: he’s a huge part of the reason the modern country of Italy exists as it does, as his conquering march united what had previously been many small clusters of nations more-or-less-ish unified by fealty to the Catholic church (Cesare was the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, by the by, so he had basically all the money the church could burn for his military campaigns; also Da Vinci designed weaponry for him, and have I mentioned how seriously interesting the Borgias are?).
At any rate, Akio – raised to be a force of ultimate good (Dios) only to discard that position and set about taking the world for himself, in the process helping to solidify the damaging set of standards currently upholding the “coffin” system (Cesare was originally groomed as a cardinal, only to reject the position – which was unheard of at the time – to pursue a military career). A conqueror with an invisible hand of power, limitless funding, and a very canny sense of how to manipulate others for his own ends. That’s the man who became Akio…who decayed into Akio.
And as a neat addendum on that last point, it’s said that Cesare suffered from venereal disease and took to wearing masks late in his life due to the ensuing disfigurement – a rather pointed physical version of Akio’s internal corruption and smooth outer façade, wouldn’t you say?
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