Archive for the 'revolutionary girl utena' Category

Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Four-Wheel-Drive of the Apocalypse

I can never drive a car without thinking about its throbbing, pulsing engine again.

I can never drive a car without thinking about its throbbing, pulsing engine again.

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.

Utena has innuendo? Well I NEVER.

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.

It looms ominously, as all things that loom must.

It looms ominously, as all things that loom must.

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.

I hope you know a good tailor, and you have a large supply of buttons.

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.

The Disco Ball at the End of the World (who says that adulthood aint fun?)

The Disco Ball at the End of the World demonstrates exactly why you shouldn't stay in that coffin all the time. Who says that adulthood ain't fun?

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.

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>!]

Revolutionary Girl Utena: “For the revolution of the world!”…or, at least, Utena

Behold! Confused Utena! I don’t really know what I can say about the nigh-legendary series Revolutionary Girl Utena, but I’m going to try!

This is my third time through the series as a whole. I first watched it back in 2004 (or, at least, I think it was 2004…) and it was quite the ride the first time through. Then I watched it a second time in 2006, and that was quite a ride, but this time because I watched the entire thing over the span of approximately three days, the latter two-thirds in one day (I swear I didn’t mean to watch the whole thing that day, it just…happened) And here, it is 2008, and I’m rewatching Utena for the third time, and it’s every bit as enjoyable as it was the first time.

The first arc, it seems to me, serves more as setup than as actual plot generation. The arc focuses on Utena rather a lot, as opposed to the focus on Anthy which the later series adopts. The arc serves to mature Utena in the eyes of the viewer, from a girl who is merely trying to imitate the prince of her youth by dressing in a mannish fashion (and thank god for this) to a girl who could arguably be called a prince in her own right. If she were male, but gender never matters in anime.

At the beginning of the series/arc, Utena simply wants to seek out her prince and find him and live happily ever after with him. Instead, she finds herself drawn into the duels of the Ohtori Student Council (who has the best theme music ever: Densetsu – Kami no Na wa Abrazas [Legend – The Name of God is Abraxas]. Yes, for those avid Herman Hesse readers out there who also watch anime religiously enough to follow this blog, the whole spiel in the elevator to the Student Council room is a reference to Derian) . She wins the first of these duels against the vicious Saionji, and thus comes into possession of the Rose Bride, Himemiya Anthy.

As the arc progresses, she finds herself increasingly supporting Anthy’s change for the better, and the two of them become good friends. As Utena fights the other Student Council members for possession of Anthy, she grows ever more sure of what she sees as her mission, which is to free Anthy from the clutches of the dueling game and turn her back into a normal human being.

And then Touga steps in with a malicious plot of his own. Planting in Utena’s mind that he’s the prince she’s long sought after, he tricks Utena into losing a battle against him, giving him possession of Anthy and leaving Utena in a state of shock. The loss of Anthy is more devestating to Utena than she lets herself realize. It is then that she is forced to choose between her desire to help and nurture Anthy, and her desire to be loyal to her prince, who she sees as Touga.

Because otherwise the series would be 13 episodes, she chooses Anthy. And here it is interesting to note that, by choosing Anthy over her false prince Touga, she rejects the grip that the prince, Dios, has held over her since that fateful day in a coffin. She is no longer driven by a desire to emulate the prince in attire, rather, she has become a much more whole emulation of the princely desire. She stands up for what she believes in, even against insurmountable odds and a frightening new power of the Sword of Dios.

In the world of Anthy, however, the effect of this arc is small, but significant for the larger picture. In the second duel with Touga, Anthy realizes that Utena is her only true friend, the only one who likes her for who she is, not the Rose Bride that she represents. By so doing, she cancels the protection and power offered to the Sword of Dios in Touga’s possession. It’s a small spark that will later trigger the much larger concluding scene to the TV series: stepping out of Ohtori Academy by herself.

The series functions primarily as an allegory, which means that the events of the series aren’t to be taken literally Considering the sheer wtf-factor involved in the imagery and setting of the series, and general bizarreness, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Utena is one of my all-time favorite series for a reason, and the depth of characterization stands at or above thelevel of the  directorial wonkiness Ikuhara pulls off. The two function almost at a synergy, the way they should be in any story. Clever direction cannot not stand on its own merits, at least for me, and, while story can stand on its own merits in the absence of good direction, it does require at least competent, average direction to properly work. When the two are combined, however, magic is made. Or, in this case, revolutions. And swirly rose blossoms.


I cannot understand those that take anime seriously, but I can love them, and I do. Out of my love I warn them to keep clear of this blog.

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June 2023