We’ve come to the end, and the beginning once more. Let’s go together.
Episode Specifics: Fatally wounded by Anthy’s sword, Utena can only watch as Akio first uses and then shatters her own sword trying (and failing) to open the Door of Revolution – all the while using Anthy as a shield from the Swords of Hatred. Driven to help Anthy even with her last breath, Utena drags herself to the Door and pulls at it with the last of her strength, anguished at her failure to help the person most important to her. Her tears reveal the Door to be Anthy’s coffin, and the two girls reach for one another…only to be parted as Akio’s tower comes crumbling down. Though Utena has vanished from Ohtori Anthy vows to be reunited with her, and finally takes her first steps out of her coffin.
This is an episode requiring at least two viewings: one for the pure emotional drive of swelling music and passionate declarations, the longing of almost-and-yet; the other is to sit back and look at how beautifully put together these final minutes are. It’s more than evident the staff learned its lessons from Evangelion well (I can only imagine the horror stories the crossover crew had to share), and every scrap of stock footage and lingering pans feels paid off in the attention to detail here. It’s not the sumptuous feast of animation we’ll get in Adolescence, but oh how the composition of the shots screams with meaning and heart.
The last song of the series, barring the closing credits, is “Missing Link.” And as befits a moment when Utena realizes that the stakes are so much larger than herself, the lyrics both include and expand well beyond our players here. To begin it’s a methodical, unrelenting dirge, a song of the Rose Bride herself. The role of the Bride is to take the anguish and hatred meant for the prince, to be the woman who broke the system so that the prince can shine all the brighter as an example of why the system is wonderful (so long as you stay helplessly within his protection). The link is “missing” because though it holds the current power structure together it’s never spoken of, as though the systematic demonizing of women who refuse to stay within the mold of “princess” were the natural order of things and not perpetuated by the men in power. It conjures the link between prototypical and modern human as well, further subjugating and dehumanizing the figure of the Bride.
The Bride fades away, a faceless receiver of pain undeserving of empathy even as she continues to feel the joy and agony of a human being. No matter how deeply she retreats she can’t escape those core parts of her being, nor can she wholly block out the pain. At the same time those lyrics about vanishing prefigure Utena’s fate, as both of them become more idea than individual – still binding things together though they cannot be seen. And that’s the sad hope of it, the potential that such a missing link could still form connections with others (both as themselves and as ideas), but would never be recognized for who they were.
Our Student Council, even in its last meeting, shows us the unlikely bond that they’ve forged together as “unchosen.” While last episode gave us the image of the pink roses, with each Duelist contributing something of themselves to make a unified whole – both as supporters of Utena and as aspects of her – now they’re standing in the dark over shish kabobs. It’s a food rather than a flower, something you take in to grow and survive as a human. And while the composite parts are now clearly visible rather than unified, they all compliment one another as they’re cooked side by side in the experience of the fire. Each piece can be taken alone, but they’re stronger together despite initially seeming torn apart and diminished.
The final minutes show that every one of our unchosen is stronger than they were before, just that small bit healthier and more adjusted for having gone through the duels: Miki and Kozue are spending time together, with her at the piano and him unruffled by her teasing; Tsuwabuki has found a job to help with, something he can do for his own development and not just for someone else; Saionji has found drive and Touga can converse with him openly and earnestly, while Nanami is content enough in herself not to begrudge her brother paying attention to someone else (even if it’s just Saionji); Shiori is the most open that we’ve seen her, eager to spend time with Jury (who, for her part, is capable of concentrating on her fencing even while Shiori is in the room) and wearing a locket of her own; and Wakaba is finally the heroine of her own nascent story, with the Onion Prince at her side and her very own sidekick. They’re not yet ready to graduate, but they’ve begun to come into who they’ll be. It’s delicate, masterful closure.
Creator Commentary: There are two meanings to the Japanese word utena. One is “the calyx of a flower.” That’s also the meaning of the title, of course. The thing that supports the beautiful petals; the one with the noble heart. And the other meaning of utena is “tall tower or pedestal.” We translated this into a visual: the tower at the center of Ohtori Academy, the one with the Chairman’s room on the top floor. And the dueling arena located deep in the woods is the same.
In the early stages of production, when the story wasn’t firmly established yet, this was one of the aspects I most wanted to visualize and produce for the screen.
A world where demons roam. In its center, a tower called the “Tower of Revolution.” Whosoever can remain victorious in his battles against the demons can reach the pinnacle of the Tower of Revolution, and at the same time receive the power to revolutionize the world; the power that changes the rules of the world.
However, when he reaches the pinnacle, he learns the world’s governing laws.
He faces the ultimate choice: will he stay nobly, beautifully powerless? Or will he accept ugliness into himself and gain absolute power?
He desired both.
Or rather, perhaps he couldn’t choose either.
His mind in anguish, he divided himself in two. His “noble heart,” and the “adult with absolute power.”
With one last wish that the day would come when someone would awaken him, the “noble heart” that had lost its body, in other words the prince, fell into a deep sleep.
Early on in the series’s conception, I kicked around the idea of placing something like the above at the heart of the story. Later, after several changes, it became the tale as you know it, but without a doubt, he did reach the pinnacle of the Tower of Revolution.
It was a place where “eternity” dwelled.
And “eternity” turned out to mean perpetual sleep.
The prince (Akio) who became an adult while in perpetual sleep lost something. What he lost was “the power to create an enjoyable future.”
Revolution means gaining “the power to imagine the future.”
The prince chose to sleep on, and the princess chose to wake up. At the top of that tall tower, the princess bid farewell to the prince. No – she wasn’t the princess any longer. She quit being “a person (thing) ruled by someone.” The victory bells rang, but there was no “tower (rule)” beyond them now. She’d learned where freedom lay. She crossed the threshold of that “Door of Revolution” which had always been closed to her before, and began walking. The “girl’s revolution” lay in the girl’s future.
“Wait for me…Utena.”
The world (the stage) is free and wide.
Character Spotlight: There is still time, as ever, for one last round of Akio is the Worst. This is one of the only times we’ve seen him play the cycle of abuse in full, like a final card pulled out of his repertoire just as Anthy is at her most hesitant in trusting him. He’s blamed her, patronized her, assaulted her – and only now, only this once, do we see him cry for her. The tragedy of it isn’t just in that the appearance of empathy is his last resort, but that it is impossible to tell if his tears are real or feigned. In truth, it doesn’t matter anymore. Any true feelings of love he might hold for her are far outweighed by the pain he’s brought on her, that he continues to perpetuate the second she gives him Utena’s sword. Good intentions, even if one argues their existence, mean precious little when it involves treating loved ones as beloved objects rather than people.
In the climactic moments, as Utena hears the voice of Dios, he becomes even more warped and unprincely, his patronizing words becoming declarations of power as he observes from afar. By the time he is offering her empty comfort, it is difficult to see where Dios ends and Akio begins, and both are revealed to be hollow and dangerous ciphers blocking Utena from her true goal. Though the false memory of being reunited with “the prince” brought Utena to Ohtori, it’s the realization that that image is rotten beyond repair that moves her in the end, an unexpected invitation to Akio’s own undoing.
The final moments we see of Akio paint a pretty clear line to his portrayal in Adolescence, for all the bewilderment the latter portrayal receives. Strip away the power and the trappings of adulthood and we’re left with a petty tyrant, one whose scope of influence requires ensnaring and demeaning his victims to keep them in his thrall. Once Utena and Anthy have woken up, he has no power over them (a fairy tale ending to be sure, given the life threatening danger abuse victims can face in trying to escape their situations, but a beautiful one for our allegory). Without the ability to fool others, we can clearly see his own strangling coffin, and there is a poignant sense of pathetic tragedy in seeing the series’ last great villain sitting alone, disheveled and delusional.
Even Akio might one day break out from his coffin, but it’s not Anthy’s responsibility to lead him there, or to be beholden to the bond they once shared. He’ll have to find his own true revolution.
Have You Heard: Though we’re no longer restricted to the bounds of the shadow plays, there’s plenty of whispering going around this episode. Talk of the future, talk of falling back on old dreams or making new ones. And though Utena is gone, she is also special: she isn’t completely forgotten in the way Mikage was, and though the details of her story are becoming distorted they still clearly echo through the halls. We see the beginnings of Utena as legend, not a person but the girl who wore boy’s clothes and was daring and dangerous. Her actions left a mark on our Duelists for the better, and they ripple out even through the faceless students we’ve not spent any time with.
Though Utena, in the end, could only revolutionize herself her actions had meaning. In giving the beginnings of difference, of one example no matter how the story grows or exaggerates, she can be said to have brought revolution to Ohtori. “The Tale of the Rose” was “just a story” too, after all. The world’s a stage, and others stage the plays in their own image long after the original author has gone on new journeys.
Anthy Watch: There is nothing so brave as taking the first step away from everything you’ve known to follow convictions of your own making. We see Anthy shedding bits of her old self throughout the entire episode: leaving behind the Bride dress that was Utena’s first (and next to last) connection with her, leaving bits of her flesh under the savage onslaught of the swords, leaving the glasses that hid her thoughts and the hair ties that bound her to the proper, docile image of the Rose Bride and “Akio’s sister”; and leaving her uniform last, choosing the white purity that was her right all along and the revolutionary, passionate pink that ties her to Utena and symbolizes her newfound power over her own destiny.
The image of Anthy in her coffin is the climax of the whole damn series, the first time our heroines have truly surpassed the burden of their roles and expositions to see each other as individuals. Anthy’s nudity cements both her state as a pure self within those confines and as vulnerable. And like Akio, this is one of only two times we see her cry. But while Akio shed tears for himself and then false tears for Anthy, Anthy cried first for Utena and only now for herself. That shot lingers not just to provide tension as to whether our would-be lovers will reach for one another, but to allow Anthy to truly feel for herself. She has desired to escape, sacrificed for others and hated them, but it’s only now that she can believe herself worthy of love. She can weep now for her own pain, mourn for her past and leave it to rest in that coffin. As trite as it might sound, she has to have that moment of finding her own worth before she can reach for Utena.
It’s that worth, aided by Utena’s support and their mutual love, which takes her out of that coffin. It’s her belief in herself that lets her tell Akio that he’s wrong, and that helps her out into the world. Whatever comes next, Anthy has begun at last to heal.
Themes: The predominant image, repeated over and over again throughout this episode, is of places in between. We watch light pour into Anthy’s coffin as an almost frightful canyon of light, a void as endless as the darkness outside before Utena’s reassuring face appears. The painted image of the rose in the background as Akio walks away from Anthy shifts and seems to rot, the petals separated by more and more blackness each time as the toxic, tenuous bond between the two siblings comes to its breaking point. Wakaba looks up to Akio’s tower to see it standing between sunset and night, in a literal twilight as Utena struggles to find her inner strength. And finally, as Anthy and Utena’s hands oh-so-briefly meet, it’s along one beam of light between two expanses of darkness, the meeting point of love and individuals in the dark uncertainty of that world of coffins.
While there is a dark and bittersweet way to read this finale – that Anthy was freed at the expense of Utena’s life (or even that Utena took Anthy’s place as the subject of hatred), and that Utena vanished as her exploits fade into obscurity, informing us that while rising from our coffins is imperative it is thankless in equal measure. But I can’t tackle it like that. There is too much joy, even in that sadness, for me to cast it aside.
Utena is gone but not forgotten, the progenitor of something greater than herself even as she made an incalculable impact on the one she loved. Anthy is free to find herself and to find Utena again, whether in the next phase of her personal revolution (if you take Adolescence as a sequel) or in the world of adults. The hell that they went through has burned away their purposeful and accidental cruelties, truly creating a marriage of equals in the way that human beings dream about – the happy ending to the hardship of all fairytales. And even in failure our other Duelists might try again, in as many cycles as they need and whatever pain they need survive, to become that same kind of true and honest person. Not trying to become a figment or an archetype but merely to see and accept people for their true selves. We all can break our coffins, if we’re not afraid to face our inner demons. It’s unapologetically hopeful, for all the difficulty it promises in getting there.
I did promise we’d talk about that last song – you may have noticed, if you’ve gone on watching the opening before each episode, that the accompanying cinematic reveals quite a bit about how the series ends. And the lyrics of the music? The more you know, the more they seem to be Anthy’s wishes rather than (as one might initially assume) Utena’s revolutionary cry. At the same time, the lament of lost love and the desire for change maps perfectly onto Anthy’s sacrifice for Dios as well, creating the echo of a cycle in which the Rose Bride has been trapped, a plea for the world to change even as she believes herself powerless to do it.
That’s why it’s fitting, nay indispensable, to have the series end the way it does. The music returns (Anthy’s voice, if you like), but the lyrics are done away with in favor of simple vocalizing. The cycle is broken at last, and those old words have no place on this new journey. Nor are there new words, not yet, because the future is free and open outside the walls of Ohtori. It’s simply a joyous noise, the sounds of freedom for its own sake and the reassurance of being alive.
That’s it, readers. You’ve followed me now, including this post, for 77,157 words. That’s the length of the first Harry Potter book, spread out over a year of our lives. Whether you’ve been here since the first or are just finding it now, thank you from the bottom of my heart. This series means more to me than I can eloquently say, though I imagine those thousands of words are a start, and to have shared it with all of you touches me to my core. I couldn’t help crying as I watched the final minutes of this series, overcome with loss and accomplishment and joy that I’ve met and spoken to (literally and metaphorically) so many people around the world. Though there will be other adventures, this one will always be special.
Don’t forget to come back next week for a bite-sized look at Adolescence (again, one could quite easily write a whole dissertation on the thing if they didn’t set some limits), be sure to read Dee Hogan’s companion posts to this series if you’ve not done so already, and don’t count out the odd essay here and there on subjects I inevitably skipped over.
I miss you already, dear readers. I hope we meet again.