Revolutionary Girl Utena: Upon This Black Rose, I Swear I Will Make Sense Of You!

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>!]

7 Responses to “Revolutionary Girl Utena: Upon This Black Rose, I Swear I Will Make Sense Of You!”


  1. 1 The Animanachronism 7 January 2009 at 4:23 pm

    I just finished this arc for the first time, so first of all thanks for avoiding all but the most general of spoilers for the rest of the story – much appreciated!

    In the absence of lots of blank paper, a big library and (most importantly) the time and effort required for an Unlimited Rewatch Works, I think your method of homing in on ‘the characters and their interactions’ is a very sound one. This post is definitely a good framework for me to look back on the arc with.

    One of my favourite things about this arc was how Utena herself was mostly oblivious to all the Black Rose machinations in each episode. I have a nasty feeling that the story is going to take that obliviousness somewhere in the next arc, judging by your penultimate paragraph.

    • 2 OGT 8 January 2009 at 12:17 am

      @Animanachronism: Yeah, I kind of had you in mind when I wrote this, a bit; I’d known you had just finished Round 1 with Black Rose when I was finishing Round 3, so I had to try to restrain myself from talking more than vaguely about later developments. I think, though, that it is kind of hard to treat arcs of Utena separately from the whole theme of the series; there’s sub-themes to each arc, but they all tie into the bigger one, which makes sense now and I’m just kind of exposing these third-run thoughts, more to get them out of me than to get them into other people.

      I can’t quite remember how oblivious Utena was in the third arc; kind of, perhaps? It all leads down to the final duel, though, which I watched at 2am on my first time through and that was a bit of a mistake. The second time through, my mistake was watching the whole second and third arcs in one sitting. My head. My poor, poor head.

      @21stcenturydigitalboy: Given how long Utena’s been around, I doubt anything up in my post there is truly a new finding, but I’m pretty aware of that and don’t really mind. I’ll probably read that once I finish rewatching the series, whenever that might be (my brain needs time to recharge).

      @issa-sa: I think it’s somewhat feasible to watch Utena for sheer entertainment reasons–there’s quite a few filler episodes involving Nanami that are the comedic highlights of the series, involving surfing elephants, fashionable cowbells, and egg-laying.

      Still, I don’t quite think that watching without an analytical mind is a bad thing; I first watched Utena years ago (actually, I started it when Marimite started airing, because someone compared the Yamayurikai to the Student Council in Utena, except less weird) and I more or less just watched it. I can’t really remember much from my first watching, except that the ending totally caused my head to explode and I had trouble sleeping that night. I most certainly wasn’t watching it analytically, I have no idea how I watched the whole thing at that time. Most of my love for the series came the second viewing, which was around when I “tricked” someone else into watching it and started it up again independently because I’d told myself I’d rewatch the series after a year from when I watched it the first time. I, too, was not always, uh, me now.

      You can’t really hurt anything by giving it another go, though. You’ll either love or hate it–there doesn’t really seem to be much leeway for “eh, it’s okay.”

  2. 3 21stcenturydigitalboy 7 January 2009 at 9:47 pm

    Very nice post, always nice to see people still writing about Utena. I am really poor at getting meaning out of symbolism, but I LOVE to read other people doing it. If you’d like to read someone making sense of Utena, I suggest one of my favorite blog posts ever:

    http://bignanime.wordpress.com/2008/04/14/who-what-where-which/

  3. 4 issa-sa 8 January 2009 at 12:03 am

    I remember watching this arc at a point (or rather a plateau) of my life where I just lived and watched a show just to skim the surface and extract the entertainment aspects of a show in a generally carefree manner – analysis being a weak point of mine (or maybe it was just a preconceived notion that Utena belonged somewhere beyond comprehension anyhow).

    Reading this post, the time seems so distant now. It’s probably about time I fought a duel myself really.

  4. 5 OGT 8 January 2009 at 10:30 pm

    @LBrevis: I think I noticed that when people around me commented that they didn’t like any of the characters in Utena, and I had one person actually drop the series halfway through the episode after Utena loses to Touga because he was sick of her angsting and taking away the only character he still liked in the series.

    Amusingly, if memory serves me right (and I’ll find out later), I remember still being very fond of Utena even after the Apocalypse duel. She’s still one of my favorite anime characters ever, and no matter how strange my preferences in that regard tend to sway, she’s pretty consistently been in the upper echelon. I blame pink hair, swords, and epaulets. Oh man, the epaulets…

  5. 6 LBrevis 9 January 2009 at 6:19 pm

    [this was pulled out by accident, sorry!]

    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.

    That’s an observation I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else specifically point out before although it’s very much true. The biggest exception to this of course is Utena herself who is brave, pure, noble, kind and utterly likable… until this is twisted brilliantly around and she falters in the last arc (and conversely some of the other characters become a bit more sympathetic like Nanami, if memory serves). I guess I don’t really have a point here except that it’s interesting that I could probably name on one hand the character’s that I really like a lot and yet this doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of watching them at all. If that makes any sense.

    [goes before previous post]

    @OGT

    Oh, I’m the same. Utena is one of my favorite characters from any series and I never once stopped liking her during the show. I just meant that the whole thing with Mr. “My Car is So Sexy Like Me” (er trying not to spoil anyone here) showcased her weaknesses and faults that had not been present before.


  1. 1 Lies, Murderous Intent, Remembering Love Gone Wrong, WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS Black Rose Society Arc of Revolutionary Girl Utena « We Remember Love Trackback on 21 January 2010 at 7:02 pm

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