Go ahead and just addend the phrase “you loathsome, scheming, fungal remnant of a rotting flesh sack” to every mention of Akio from here on in. It’s a pretty safe call.
Episode Specifics: Utena ascends to the dueling arena one more time only to discover it was Akio’s observatory all along, immediately adding some nightmarish subtext to about 70% of the scenes that have happened before now. Akio uses every trick in his book to try and break Utena down and take possession of her sword. But Utena standing her ground only ends in Anthy literally stabbing her in the back.
Really, please take a minute to think back on every scene that’s happened in the dueling arena up to now. Utena and Touga’s quiet moment of understanding? Akio was running the light show. Saionji’s very first breakdown? Akio no doubt relished cooking up something terrifying to punish him for breaking the rules (and even put Anthy in a facsimile of her real coffined self, because he’s a smug bastard like that). The breakdown of every Duelist, Black Rose and Student Council, all played out for his amusement. Less Nero fiddling as actively just setting the undesirable neighborhoods on fire.
“Unending sameness” and “infinite variation” basically sums up the conflict of the dueling music this week. Inside the body – the self, the individual as they live in society, the society that’s shaped from the stories of its ancestors – we have ancient towers, constellations mapping stories from ancient myths, statues of stones depicting dead holy men, and mechanical predictions of the movements of the stars (an “orrery” is a very early model of the solar system used to predict its movements). Outside of the body are visions of growth, time, change, and human art and culture (the heart and soul of humanity). The conflict between those two, presided over by the constant image of Death, is the struggle that keeps people from “growing up” (in the context of Ohtori) and defining themselves as individuals rather than by the rigid laws and old stories that have been instilled in them.
Man, I can only transform plants into dead plants
One of my single favorite visual touches is the vase of roses on the Student Council’s balcony. Each adds their own color as the elevator rises and they recite that old oath, ending with Touga adding a white rose – Utena’s color, the prince’s color, the pure light of ideals that drew them all together in the first place and the person who helped them realize something about themselves. As soon as he does, the vase of many colors becomes one singular (pink and white) rose plant, unified by that central idea and bond. Before they were grouped together out of necessity, jockeying within a set of rules to crush the others. Having been freed from being chosen, it’s very nearly as though they’re something like companions.
Creator Commentary: There’s one thing I remained strongly conscious of since when we were producing the opening sequence, and that was the final duel. When the prince awakened, the “dueling arena tower” would crumble. Right before the series began its broadcast run, we were producing a TV promotional spot, and so I was thinking up the narration for it.
“I’m going to be a prince!”
I had a premonition. I knew that line must have meaning.
Did I mention this fucker is one of my alltime favorite antagonists?
Character Spotlight: While this seems to be a culminating episode for Utena, that’s actually something of a feint (really it’s the next episode), and it’s the people around her who end up being the most intriguing. With that in mind, we’d better have a quick check-in with Akio. I’m going to leave off his spin skills for a few sections down, but the underlying way he drops his veneer of humanity is some chilling stuff.
Likewise, the practiced way her runs through first introducing the illusion as fact, then pulling the rug out from under their feet and chipping away at the walls of self-image that he himself worked to build up speaks of more than one past experience – in the end, Akio doesn’t want things to change. e wants to build himself a challenger while also instilling in them a fatal flaw. That way, he’s able to tell both Anthy and himself that they’re working to end the dueling system while also ensuring things will always reset back to zero.
The fact that he weeps seems to indicate that he doesn’t truly believe his own lies, but at the same time cannot live without cloaking himself in justification and the allure of being depended upon and desired. The series leaves the smallest of doors open even to Akio for reformation, should he be able to face that reality about himself and give up the role of being Prince or Tempter (but given how his name fluctuates to reflect his role, this seems all but impossible for him as he exists).
Well, evidently it was good enough for Rebuild
Have You Heard: Ha! You thought there wasn’t one, but in fact there is! It’s hidden in the next episode preview (you have been keeping an eye on those, haven’t you?). Fittingly it’s the most abstracted of all the shadow plays, containing only the image of the crashing spaceship (Utena’s ideals coming crashing up against the “zenith” of the world of Ohtori, the final resting place of that ominous image) and some chopped up lines of dialogue. The girls have also chosen this moment to go meta.
The power of miracles will turn out to have been real all along! The trouble will be only that the reigning prince was a fake! And the protagonist will believe in herself, having become the restored version of what a “prince” should be (this is basically Tolkein’s “restoring the good ruling class” M.O., and back and back through feudally structured systems). We only have to purify the system so that we can restore it, don’t we?
Aaaaaaaaaaahhhagawd my heart
Anthy Watch: Ages and ages ago, back in episode 12, I praised Tomoko Kawakami’s performance as a heartbroken Utena. It’s long past time that I do the same for Anthy. Yuriko Fuchizaki’s voice work during this episode’s rooftop scene is a revelation, not just heart-shatteringly emotional on its own behalf but a sobering point of comparison for Ms. Fuchizaki’s entire take on the role. What could’ve been taken as Anthy’s emotional moments up to now suddenly seem laughably presumptuous on our part – what we took to be the true depth of her pain was within her restricted performance of the Rose Bride, and in under two minutes we’re left just as wrong-footed as Utena was for all our good intentions.
It makes it all the more agonizing to watch her hide again, the emotions hidden under that doll-like façade. All of that, done entirely with 80% very controlled vocal work. Truly wondrous (frankly, while I can pat the dub on the head for its awkward 90s charm in a lot of respects, it’s the loss of Anthy’s vocal nuances that I find unforgivable).
When Anthy tries to throw herself from the roof of the tower – the roof of the known world, as she’s come to accept it – she naturally knows that she cannot “die.” As she mentions herself, she thought she wouldn’t feel it because of the constant agony of the swords (“it” having a dual meaning, both in the immediate of the fall and the general process of manipulating Utena). It seems instead she intended to go back to existing solely within her coffin and no longer taking part in the games or interacting with the world at all – implying as well that this is the only way she trusted herself to finally stop helping her brother.
Those moments of survival afterward are her at absolute rock bottom: in her mind suicide was the only option she could choose, and even that meager element of choice was taken from her; at the same time, the person who saved her is Utena, and in that moment Anthy hates herself for what she’s done and feels herself unworthy of Utena’s forgiveness and love. With nothing left to lose, she finally feels free to open her heart. And even though this is the closest they’ve ever been, the honest version of the cantarella conversation from earlier, they’re still not quite there: they’re not yet able to hold each other as they weep but can only collapse together, individually miserable as they touch rather than actively seeking the other for comfort.
And all of that leads us to the inevitable question: why does Anthy stab Utena? Part of it seems to be the double-edged sword (not sorry) of that openness. Anthy has decided to support Utena, to go to the tower with her. And we see her in a couple modes in that tower – all of which, once they set foot on the platform, are under Akio’s control. He makes her body vanish with a snap of his hands, takes care to point out her crumpled “true” form to Utena (which has been reduced to wearing the clothes of her child self, though she’s long outgrown them and they’re in terrible disrepair, both infantilizing her and displaying her body outside her control), fondles her on the couch (which Anthy responds to because the physical body reacts to stimulation independently of the mind – but I’m downright positive that’s not what Akio’s instilled in her, nor is it what he says to Utena) and then puts her back in the Rose Bride outfit she started in. This is all before the world starts crumbling, mind.
He even put the moe-shine on her, that bastard
So Akio does the most thorough reminder to Anthy that he can that he owns her, reinforcing her fears that she’ll lose everything that defines her if she tries to leave (“she likes being a witch”). And then Utena, in the heat of the moment, seals her own fate. When Akio’s false world begins crumbling under the fierceness of Utena’s ideals, he pushes even harder to try and invalidate her. Driven to an emotional high by the fight, she says that immortal “I am a prince!” line. Which would be very powerful…had she not apologized the night before, on top of the dueling arena, for assuming she could be Anthy’s prince. For Utena this moment is the using of old phrases to get out an immature, impassioned thought – I am not what you are saying, and because all I can think of right now is the opposite of that I’ll slip back into it.
But Anthy is seeing the destruction of her entire world and the potential death of the man who’s set himself up as her sole source of emotional support in addition to the torment. And in addition to all of that, Utena is already appearing to slip back into her old ways of declaring herself to be a prince. What’s to say that it’s a moment of passion and not a sign that she’ll go back to the way she was? That she won’t become another Akio? That Anthy hasn’t backed the wrong horse out of love again (I think I accidentally just wrote some darkfic there, folks)? No, far better to stay with the devil you know. Feeling cornered and hopeless, she drives the blade in and falls back into Akio’s clutches.
Themes: A brief word on Akio pulling the sword from Utena’s chest. All of his dialogue this episode is evidence of a master manipulator at work: he says things that are technically facts (that Akio and Utena slept together, for instance) but portrays them in such a way that absolves him of his role in things as an adult and instead places all of the onus onto Utena (the child, who had infinitely less power, context, and control in the situation but was lead to believe she was in control of her own decisions). Blaming her for “seducing” him, for example, goes without mention of the fact that he carried an equal responsibility in turning down her advances (if they had been advances, which they were not because he seduced her).
The “worthy of me” speech is especially fascinating because it…it kind of happens a lot. In anime and in western action fare. A female character is allowed fighting prowess enough to catch a warrior’s attention and prove herself to be worthy of his affections (but still in need of being rescued). Alternately, a woman is far more skilled in order to give an inexperienced young protagonist someone to surpass who will then be awed by his skills and fall in love with him (and also will probably also need to be saved at some point). Female strength is often tied up in impressing a potential love interest, and almost always comes with a means of making sure that woman is just-enough-less than the man, so that he can retain his status as the “real” hero of the story.
In this case, Akio is putting parameters of control around Utena’s journey of self-discovery and improvement by contextualizing it in terms of earning his approval and love, thus claiming ownership over her growth and putting a halt to it at the same time. There’s no need for her to do anything more. There’s no need for her to do anything but what he says, because obviously that will make her happy! Obviously that’s what she’s wanted this whole time!
And that way, of course, she’ll no longer be a threat to him.
Did you know you can support this blog on Patreon?
First episode saionji: “think of it as a trick of the light.” The foreshadowing!
Also, on a more serious note, I like that Anthy is at this point misanthropic and resigned enough to stab Utena even after that big scene! It really is a great show off of her character and I just love it so much
THE ANTHY PAIN THOUGH.
I’m so. I’m so fond of Saionji. He does some dreadful things but dude knows what’s up. If only he had the willpower to strike out on his own and stand on his own two feet (and I love what a duo he makes with Touga, who stole all the motivation but doesn’t know jack).
I know! I love the huge difference between saionji and ponytail!saionji and that one of them says important things and the other one is just a big loser. I also sometimes use the reading that saionji is like a closet homosexual and that makes me sympathetic If he’s forced into aping gender borms
The 90s pretty much ran the “toxic masculinity as a cover for secret gay” into the ground for me, but I think there’s a pretty legit argument there for Saionji (certainly I subscribe pretty strongly to the idea that he’s suppressing romantic feelings for Touga as part of his inferiority complex – part of Touga “beating” him is taking up headspace he should be using on girls).
Yes yes true! That and his big masculine samurai thing reminds me of Mishima or the Mirror of Male Love and applying that to Saionji is good for a laugh or two
Home stretch! I just want to add that Akio fails to pull off the long flowing locks and marching band uniform in the most thematically appropriate way possible.
MARCHING BAND UNIFORM I’M DYING
Firstly: I enjoy reading your work, particularly the essays on representation and Geek Culture
Secondly: Not to jump the gun, but seeing as this is the second-to-last episode of Utena, I was wondering if you were planning on doing any essays or “The Consulting Analyst” on Yuri Kuma Arashi or Penguindrum.
The next series (and interim series) won’t be an Ikuhara show – I need a break from that man, as much as I love him. YKA is in the cards down the line, though! (Keep an ear on, I’ll be having a vote for what people want as the interim show)