My third attempt at watching and understanding Revolutionary Girl Utena (round 1: K.O.; round 2: T.K.O.; round 3: ???) has completed. I’m struck, upon completing Utena for the third time (more or less around the stroke of midnight, oddly), by how strong the feeling was to go out and do something at the end of the series was. Granted, it being midnight, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do with that sudden urge at that moment, so instead I sat around and moped about how completely useless my 24 years of life have been (not very, but under pressure from Utena, even a self-actualized individual would wonder the same).
The trickiest part about Utena, for me, has been the allegorical story of the Rose Bride. Its potential meaning, even on my third trip through the series–a far more enlightening run than the first two–still eludes me in the vaguely undefinable way that only Utena can be. The idea behind the allegorical meta-story seems to be about Anthy sacrificing herself for her idealized prince–the loving, caring man who exists only in fairy tales–only to lock herself in an illusory world of her own creation while her brother Akio, the fabled prince, practices his own twisted love on her. It’s not a pleasant thought to consider–but, expanding the allegory to the entire series, would imply that Anthy has devoted her love to the mythical, idealized prince, a childish devotion which grants her nothing but pain as her non-existent ideal ravages her inside and out.
Even in the final duel, Utena cannot stand up to the ideal of Akio (Anthy literally backstabs her) and yet, even though Utena isn’t the paragon of perfection–far from it–she brings Anthy out of the coffin she’d been hiding in–much like Utena was, until her prince, a younger, wiser Akio, came, showed her Anthy, and gave her a purpose in life, even if that purpose was to chase a nonexistent ideal. Utena’s imperfections are necessary–vital–for Anthy’s awakening, for even the prince for whom she locked herself up for was imperfect. But the imperfect Akio does not love or even respect her, but the imperfect Utena does–the imperfect Utena who would shed a tear and bear her pain willingly, exactly as Anthy had borne the pain for her (im)perfect, (un)princely brother for years.
The message is clear: questing after perfection, after miracles, after eternity, after the power to revolutionize the world–these are all impossible things, things that no single person can ever hope to achieve in their lifetimes. And yet, paradoxically, their imperfect analogues are all easily attainable by simply abandoning the quest for perfection. Such a change comes from within–but such a change does not come in solitude, and nor does it come easy.
Demonstrating the difficulties of accepting the imperfection of relationships and of life is none other than our intrepid Student Council members, still shrouded in the egg they always talk about smashing, grappling with the method to attain proper adulthood. Akio, of course, presents them with the highly tempting option of a car, its engine pulsing with desire to speed down a dimly lit road towards the End of the World. Yes, the car is more or less sexual desire, a place where even Akio is trapped, endlessly, as much a victim of his own planetarium as the students of Ohtori Academy.
While the way of the car is certainly a path to adulthood–and a very easy and tempting one at that–as everyone from Saionji to Akio himself finds out, sexuality isn’t a recipe for adulthood. Like the other rites of passage from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, the rite itself is not the source but the result of maturity. And so Akio leads everyone down this path, showing them the illusion of reality that they’re living, and demonstrating the power of sexuality in shattering that illusion. Yet they all fail; their car swerves and crashes, less because Utena defeats them and more because they defeat themselves in their own premature lust for maturity.
Interestingly, Utena herself falls victim to Akio’s manly guile and engages in offscreen acts of a licentious nature. Although it’s true that she’s at her “worst” and most un-Utena during the last few episodes, the story would suffer more were she not to fall from grace in such a manner. Whereas Anthy cannot break free of Akio’s lust, Utena can and does, in a sense proving to Anthy (and the viewer) that, while ideals are tempting, pleasurable, yet ultimately destructive and defiling, they are not something that cannot be overcome.
But with all rites of passage, while their undertaking does not magically and instantaneously confer maturity, it does provide a foundation for maturity to occur. The “rite of passage” is so titled not because the rite confers passage, but because the events surrounding the rite shape the individual in passing. Indeed, the failure of their final stab at maturity wrecks and ruins the Student Council members who undertook it–but, at the same time, effects a change in them, one that gently pushes them down the road. Anthy is not the only one affected by Utena, but certainly the most dramatically so. Those who encountered her change, even in small, imperceptible ways.
It’s a bleak message, to be sure–the crushing of hopes, dreams, childhood fantasies, and fairy tales in the face of cold, hard, brutal reality (a fact made more clear in the movie, which I still cannot seem to like, although that might be that it’s 39 episodes of weirdness in one and a half hours–but which I’m still going to watch, a third time, soon)–but Akio himself stands for perfection, and perfection is a concept that could be applied to anything–including maturity itself. Perhaps, rather than “dreams” and “ideals” being the shell that prevents one’s potential from being realized, it’s the concept of “perfection.” Nothing is perfect–least of all that which seems perfect–and abandoning a quest to be “perfect”, to be “mature”, to be “eternal” has the potential to bring about exactly what you desired in the most oblique way possible.
And–as Utena found out, the rather hard way–in the end, you cannot change others; you can only change yourself and how you react to others. And yet changing her reactions brought about change in others, simply by sticking by what she believed.
And, now, a parting paraphrase taken out of context for humorous effect from Kunihiko Ikuhara himself, to put it all in perspective:
Oh, it means nothing. I did it because I felt like it.
Sage words, I think. Very sage. Maybe even cilantro.