That is, if it were remotely possible to make sense of Utena. The limit of understanding approaches sense the more times I watch it, but never quite gets there.
Hyperbolic descriptions of the insanity of Utena aside, revisiting the Black Rose arc of Utena in the past week or so has reminded me why I love it so: it effectively integrates the Utena brands of sanity and insanity into a highly enjoyable set of episodes. And no matter how blatantly symbolic the elevator interviews are, they are deliciously so, and I still get chills from Mikage’s standard lines in those scenes. And I think that the also blatantly symbolic duels are at their best in this arc, together with the J.A. Seazer compositions that accompany them. For some reason–perhaps the desperation-fueled hatred the Black Rose Duelists generally exhibit during the duels–they feel slightly more tense than the duels from the other arcs.
As a character-driven viewer (I feel I might want to separate character-driven writing from character driven reading to further nuance my own self-description of what I like), I’ve always preferred the more concrete structure of the TV series to the obtusely meta-symbolic nature of the movie. I watch and more or less understand the movie in the context of my understanding of the series, and the movie is effective in that way–but I also find it chore to slog through, whereas the TV series is amazingly compulsive viewing. The compelling viewing draws from the characterization: I’ve always felt that although Utena revolved around a set of mostly unsympathetic characters, they were empathetically unsympathetic–the viewer is brought to know, feel, and understand the inner workings of the characters, but not necessarily like them as people.
Utena being the sort of series that it is, every time I’ve revisited the series I’ve drawn new conclusions out of the events. I’ve read around a bit the Utena discuss-o-verse (not to any significant depth) and the conclusion tends to be that Utena is a (what else?) coming-of-age story. Gnosticism gets tossed around a lot in the context, too, arguably because Gnostic concepts and 90s anime seem to be highly inseperable (I blame the economic crisis of Japan in the 90s–it’s the “illusory world” thing), and they do seem to have weight. But the meat of Utena, for me, as in most seriess, is the nature of the characters and their interactions.
If the first arc of Utena is thematically centered around grasping for the past and lost happiness, the second is about the desire to keep hold of the present. More importantly, perhaps, is the depth to which the desire to maintain the status quo resides in the various students twisted into Black Rose Duelists. Kozue doesn’t want Miki to pursue Anthy despite her refusal to acknowledge his existence, and tormenting him when she does; Tsuwabuki doesn’t want to pursue a girl who is quite obviously interested in him because of his devotion to Nanami; Wakaba refuses to give up the fiction of Saionji’s trust and like of her for someone who does love her from her childhood; Shiori can’t abandon her complicated relationship with Jury.
More interesting, perhaps, is the depth of hate at the bottom of their elevator heart–beyond every refusal to change lies the stubborn selfishness that things should stay the same, forever, and those who attempt to change them are despised. It’s almost the diametric opposite of Aria (which I wrote about two days ago) where change gently comes and is gently accepted; in Utena, change comes violently and is violently rejected. Even Wakaba–the seemingly happiest and most carefree of characters–has depths of desperation that her exterior serves to hide. Utena, in this arc, showcases what happens when one refuses to change: hatred, general malaise, and self-inflicted anguish (the latter of which I am all too familiar with, sadly). My favorite moment demonstrating this was the Jomon sculptures holding the chocolate bars for Tsuwabuki’s duel. Jomon sculptures date back to Japanese prehistory, so you already have a primitive feeling grasping onto love, but when one of his swords splits one in half, there’s a smaller sculpture inside, now holding the sword amidst the fractured remains of the larger sculpture. Love is primitive but strong; hate, apparently, is just as primitive but far more dimunitive.
Life being what it is, no one can ever perfectly extricate themselves from what is the core of their being–their leaf in a display case–no matter how much they try, but even in the anguish and despair of the Black Rose arc, there’s a glimmer of hope. The characters never seem to change after their failed duels, but there is frequently a subtle difference, and–more importantly–whatever caused them anguish has been purged of their system, leaving them with a catharsis and, perhaps, the first step towards their ascent into maturity. We never find out if they accomplish this, but it seems to be integral to the arc’s theme that confronting one’s own self in anguish is painful and somewhat disturbing–but it usually leads to a deeper understanding of oneself.
Of course, the one person unaffected by this arc–Utena–hasn’t actually been through this yet. If memory serves correct, that is for the next arc. My mind is pre-melting in anticipation, I believe.
[meta-post: I figured out how to do captions! This has, for some reaosn, elated me beyond reasonable expectations!<insert joke about how I am slow on the uptake>!]