you’ve heard of revolutionary girl utena, now get ready for
Wandering Girl Anthy
I have this vision of Nanami striding into a tailor’s, slapping down an 8x10 of Touga, and declaring that she wants that. In yellow. And tighter. With thigh high boots. What do you mean, it’s not ready yet?
Utena: Listen, if you ever have a problem, come to me first. I want us to be friends like that. And someday, together...
Anthy: Someday together...?
[Both: Someday, Together, We'll Shine.]
hey ladies is it gay to swordfight for a girl’s honor? to pull a blade out of her chest to use in battle? for her to pull a sword out your own chest to use in battle? is it gay if you fall asleep every night holding hands and gazing deeply into her eyes? if she tenderly strokes your face and hips to give you a magical outfit change? if you dedicate your whole life to saving her, only to forget about your vow after you grow up, but remember at the most dramatically opportune time? to gain the power of miracles to end her suffering? ladies is it gay to tell a girl the only time you’ve ever been truly happy is the time you’ve been with her
final rgu ed: ♫ nanana na nanana na nana na na na ♫
me, crying and nodding: yea…
I really love it when at the end you realize that the anachronism in utena (somewhat modern setting but they fight with swords) is totally fucking intentional and is the first clue that the origin of the dueling system is ancient and archaic and way past its prime.
One of the interesting things about Utena that I’m just now starting to realize is how it manages to show the fractal patheticness of mainstream masculinity while still showing how shiny patriarchy has made it appear at first glance
because, okay, you start with akio. and akio is essentially a teenage boy’s idea of what an adult man is. this… guy with all the authority and all the power and he gets all the girls and he drives his hot rod at four hundred miles an hour.
akio is pathetic if you’re detached from the story, and the movie makes that easier to see. but within the story, he’s terrifying because there is no limit on his ability to exert force. he’s in a position of authority, he’s got magic bullshit (because Anthy and that whole history), he’s an expert seducer. he’s set up a situation where he can’t realistically lose. and on the other side of that coin, he may be a teenage idea of what an adult looks like, but to a school full of teenagers, that means he’s the perfect man.
so you have this abusive, unstoppable force, someone who used to believe in “strength and nobility”, decided that wasn’t workable in the real world, and compromised to “strength without nobility“. but the world around him is set up to not notice this, and in fact to make him out to be a great guy.
so now you move to touga, who has no idea what a normal adult man is supposed to be. akio takes him under the wing, and touga latches onto this fake idea of the ideal adult and tries to emulate it without realizing that the whole system is just designed to put akio at its center. he becomes this kind of… bargain bin akio, who manages to screw up utena for one episode, to hold onto that monstrous force for one episode, before being repudiated. and who then spends a whole arc in isolation because he doesn’t understand what he got wrong.
and then you have saionji. now, saionji has always sort of been the luigi to touga’s mario, his player two. saionji has always looked to touga for validation, and so when touga becomes bargain bin akio, saionji becomes, like, a bootleg akio that you bought in a back alley. a copy of a copy, at which point the veneer is entirely gone and you see patriarchal masculinity for the insecure, ogrish, delusional wreck it is. his scorn, his theatrics, his big talk about power which then turns into big talk about “no it was real“ when he loses.
saionji is the most overtly ogrish and the most overtly pathetic.
touga, he starts out suave, we figure out he’s ogrish a little later, but it takes until the car arc to see that he’s pathetic too.
and akio, he’s suave for a while, we figure out he’s ogrish a lot later, and his patheticness is only really apparent (though it’s been there all the while) at the very end of things.
but they’re all cut from the same bolt of cloth, just by a steadier or shakier hand. this is masculinity under patriarchy: ogrish and pathetic, but - due to how patriarchy has shaped the surrounding context - appearing to be normal and even admirable until you strip the veneer away.
There are so many interesting parallels between episode 11 and the last arc of the series… Touga manipulates Utena into losing her faith in her own strength by presenting himself as a prince whom she can rely on, just like Akio… Anthy tries to open up to Utena in what seems to be a genuine manner (”I wish I had more friends”), but her first gleam of understanding that Utena might not only care about her, but be strong enough to resist the system is dashed when she is defeated, and Anthy returns to her role as the bride without a word.
But by the ending of the series, Utena has gained the strength to do what she believes is right without letting the betrayal of her beloved ideal of the prince (in Touga or Akio) weaken her. And Anthy realises that she doesn’t need anybody to fight for her, and can walk away on her own.
I LOVE the idea of the Shadow Girls being in-the-know commentators, perhaps who have also engaged in Akio’s game and lost somewhere along the way. They know what’s going on in the story, and while at first they only appear to be informing the audience, it becomes apparent in the Black Rose Saga that Utena can see, hear, and interact with them.
I think they’re trying to save her. What’s interesting, though, is that they choose to do so by telling the old, fairy tale-version of the story, in which Anthy is the bitter witch and Akio the virtuous prince who falls victim to her magic. Since it’s revealed to the audience and Utena that this isn’t exactly the case, there’s clearly something that the Shadow Girls don't know, even after whatever they went through that got them to this point. This is supported by their conversation after the final duel, as Anthy walks the halls of Ohtori for the last time - they don’t know what’s happened to Utena. Does this mean that they never reached the Duel Called Revolution? Or perhaps they did, and their unending existence in the shadows is the result of their willingness to join Akio in the imaginary castle and Akio’s eventual failure to achieve revolution by using them.1 Either way, they have limited abilities and opportunities to influence our Revolutionary Girl, but do what they can to convince her to abandon the duels while she still can.
I think it’s really interesting to think of their attempts to save Utena in contrast with and relation to Anthy’s. As her relationship with Utena grows deeper, Anthy comes to experience deep and painful regret for the pain she will (although perhaps it’s better to say Akio will) inflict upon her new beloved. After the sword of Dios disappears, Anthy begins to drop hints at the danger that lies ahead, at the fact that she is not all she appears to be, at her brother’s sinister motives and means. Anthy always knows what she is doing, and whether she’s suggesting that she has poisoned Utena’s cookies or waking her up so that she will learn the horrible truth about Akio’s abuse, she starts trying to scare Utena away, to anger her enough that she will abandon Anthy. She even tries to end her own life if it means there’s a chance that Utena’s would be spared. Up until the moment they enter the dueling arena for the very last time (and arguably throughout the final duel, from her stabbing Utena in the back to her hesitation before taking Utena’s hand in the coffin), Anthy is trying to save Utena.
The shadow girls, with their limited perspective and options, can only show Utena a metaphorical and inaccurate fairy tale play, whereas Anthy attempts to put Utena face-to-face with the harshness of reality in order to persuade her to leave. While they never interact, I have to wonder if the Shadow Girls are directly connected to Anthy as well as, or perhaps even more than, Akio. Whether they are fallen former duelists, or Ohtori students who have continually failed to leave the shadows, or something else altogether, the Shadow Girls are aware of and can utilize the magic that exists at Ohtori solely through Anthy. Perhaps they’re allies, or perhaps both parties have taken interest in Utena because of those qualities that set her apart from Duel 1. Perhaps the Shadow Girls were duelists who were relatively kind to Anthy, so she spared them from death by sealing their souls; perhaps they were duelists or students who were particularly cruel to her, so she has punished them with a life locked in the dark corners of Ohtori.
Crucially, though, something haschanged in their final lines - we see their shadows in classrooms instead of just their usual performance venues, and they’re talking about their futures following graduation. Utena and Anthy’s revolution extends to more of Ohtori than the audience might first think - indeed, the immediate change takes place in Anthy, but the effects extend beyond the duelists to free the Shadow Girls from Akio’s oppressive hold and their roles as part of the fairy tale. Whether they had a good or bad relationship with her in a past life, or whether they are real or simply figments of Anthy’s magic, the Shadow Girls are set on a path to being free as a result of what transpires between Utena and Anthy. Their presence (as E-ko and F-ko) in the film suggests that they’re eager to return the favor, as they stay with Utena and Anthy via radio until they’re able to reach the outside world. Perhaps they’re eternally limited to the shadows, or perhaps they’re simply a little further behind on their own path to the outside world. Either way, the girls in the darkness play a crucial role in constructing and demonstrating one of the most important feminist themes in the Utena universe - that relationships and alliances between women are central to how we can change our worlds and, in turn, the world of those around us.
The Rose Bride Rebuilt: Adolescence as Utena’s Prison
Note: This is an interpretation (not headcanon, just analysis) of the Utena movie and how it relates to the anime. Over time I’ve seen a lot of people annoyed by or just flat out confused by the film, but I’m quite fond of the movie and what it could represent. This post will have spoilers for the entire television run as well as the film, as well as a discussion of the incest and sexual assault themes in the franchise.
Essentially, Adolescence of Utena is a sequel. It can be viewed as the world Utena falls into after she frees Anthy at the end of the anime, sacrificing herself so Anthy can pass the threshold of Ootori. As Anthy notes to Akio, Utena isn’t gone - she’s somewhere else, and the film provides the narrative for that somewhere else.
The new Ootori school introduced in the beginning is fractured into a series of sets, the architecture literally moving around and into place like a play or the sudden jolts of a dream. Utena herself has a new form from the start, comfortable in a boys’ uniform rather than defining her clothes as an emulation of her prince. She flirts openly with Wakaba from the start, as opposed to the passive Utena from the anime who has a legion of adoring female fans but seems quietly embarrassed by it more than anything else. This is the Utena who’s gotten past wanting a ‘normal boy’, even if she can’t remember where she’s been.
How the rest of the cast is characterized emphasizes that this is a world built off Utena’s thoughts and memories. Wakaba is playful and friendly, Juri is idealized into a full-fledged prince, and Miki is quiet, kind, and doesn’t participate in the duels at all. Saionji is barely a flash in the pan, remembered only for threatening Anthy - Utena barely noticed him in the original series otherwise - and the repressed memories of Touga being the one to stand over her coffin as a child slam headlong into her fractured recollection of the series, turning him into a fallen, ghostly prince that haunts her. Touga in the film represents what Utena knows she’s supposed to want, but it’s all a lie. She’s never been that girl, although her psyche is still reeling from everything Akio did to her and demanded she endure.
It’s Akio’s presence - well, absence - is one of the key factors to Adolescence being a sequel. He’s dead from the very start, relegated to old videotapes that showcase his horrific abuse of Anthy and the false veneer of kindness attached to his relationship with his fiance, ending with a suicide since he’s lost his 'key’. The key is to his car, the symbol of his power that slices through the end arcs of the television series, is inaccessible, because Utena already destroyed the bonds between him, Anthy, and his supernatural ability.
The movie isn’t about Akio all over again, although he appears at the end. It’s about Utena’s fear and trauma and everything she’s repressed. Her life in the duels is fused into this mental prison, with symbols like the elevator tower blending into the scenery like they mean nothing at all, but remain ever-prese
nt. She struggles the entire time with remembering, drawing out bits and pieces of the truth as the story from the anime - almost - plays out all over again. After seeing spectres of Touga, she chases him down desperately, but after Utena finally catches him, there’s a quiet moment of realization. Standing with his ghost, she says, “I didn’t come here hoping to find you.”
The sound of the water droplet from the anime echoes when she recovers the Rose Crest, handed to her as an artifact to remind her of the past, rather than the gift that inspired her to become a prince in the first place. The duels are honestly of secondary importance in the film, since Utena is past the point of Akio’s machinations, but her fight with Saionji is what returns her to Anthy.
Anthy herself has clearly progressed. She’s almost constantly upbeat and forthright, mocking Saionji from the very beginning. This is a girl who knows she’s no longer the Rose Bride, that’s she’s already past that deep hell, but there has to be something to jumpstart Utena into remembering what they were again. Anthy is a visitor in this purgatory, the heroine who has come to draw the girl she loves back out of the darkness.
There’s still a flicker of fear when she sees the ring on Utena’s finger, but who could blame her? It wasn’t a single duel before, but grueling fights over and over, and it took so long for Utena to realize the truth. The question arises quietly, “What did you come to this school to do?”
The crucial difference between the Saionji duel in the series and the film is that the pretense caused by Wakaba’s letter is gone. Utena is immediately fighting for Anthy rather than trying to avenge the honor of her best friend. The rather dense view Utena took of the Rose Bride initially is replaced by the forthright, “Is there a girl who’s happy to be traded through duels?”
Utena remembers, and yet she doesn’t. Roses blossom everywhere, wild and free to grow, reminding her that Anthy is no longer relegated to the caged garden where she first saw her. Whenever her hair grows back from its short cut in the duels, she’s herself again for a few moments, but the revelation fades as soon as her transformation does.
When Anthy comes to her bedroom, they immediately fall together, close and intimate, but by the time Anthy pulls her zipper down, she retreats, suddenly afraid. The reason why, the words she says, are proof that she is grasping at the truth. She wants to know if Anthy 'does this’ with every victor of the duels, and Anthy’s answer terrifies her. Utena recoils because even if she desires Anthy, thinking that she could force Anthy to ignore the rules of the Rose Bride was her tragic, agonizing failure in the anime. In the movie, part of her instinctively knows it would be unfair, even abusive, to sleep with Anthy why she’s still the Bride. They have to get out of the place where the Rose Bride exists, where there are no rings or swords or contracts.
Shiori plays an interesting element through the rest of the film, tying the new Touga-as-prince narrative into Juri’s forced framing as the prince. She’s the bridge between the arcs, both of which prove that being the prince is a miserable thing to be. The prince isn’t superior to the Rose Bride, it’s following a dated chivalry that supposes they can force miracles, regardless of consent. Juri is hung on the cross of Shiori’s ideals, manipulated into believing that she could be enough, just as Utena believed her will was enough to supersede the bonds of the Rose Bride. It wasn’t until both identities were cast aside - prince and princess - that Utena was able to free Anthy, by giving up her life selflessly instead of telling Anthy to free herself by ignoring Akio and an entire lifetime of abuse.
The painful truth, of course, is that breaking away from an abusive situation once doesn’t mean you’re free. For all the progress Utena and her friends seemed to make by the end of the anime, they still slide backwards in the film. While Miki seems to have freed himself from the duels (due to Touga and Akio being absent to goad him), he and Kozue remain codependent. Juri shows herself openly with Shiori, but she still can’t demand the respect and fair treatment she deserves, terrified of the prospect of rejection. Touga’s flashbacks to his abuse prove that he continued the cycle of manipulation and pain with others, rather than trying to avoid being the same monster his adopted father was.
Utena and Anthy still have their fears, even as Anthy destroys her own roses to show Utena the stars. They dance, they get closer, and Utena’s memories continue to unravel themselves until she recalls all that Akio’s done. But instead of recoiling like she did in the series, reacting with uncalled for jealousy and upset, she kisses Anthy and takes to the duel against Juri with aplomb, split second visions of Akio’s castle and her and Anthy gripping hands flashing through the fight. Utena isn’t playing the prince anymore, she’s with Anthy for real.
After Utena wins, after she starts to really remember, she runs through a simulacrum of the Nemuro Memorial Hall, chasing signs until she finds herself in the elevator that marked the Black Rose arc in the series. Where it served as a symbol of regression in the anime, it does the same in the movie, forcing Utena to recall the deaths that plagued her childhood and the knowledge that Touga is just a spectre, a dream.
Returning to Anthy with the truth, Utena finds the Rose Crest yanked from her finger as she starts to transform into a car. Without the ring, she’s not a duelist, and Anthy is no longer the Rose Bride bound to her. They’re both free.
While the literal 'Utena becomes a car’ scene seems to be a source of much confusion, it’s an extended metaphor of Utena becoming the vehicle for Anthy’s liberation. Only by being transformed herself and understanding can they break away from Ootori and everything that it stands for. It’s a hard, brutal road, filled with all the lies Akio offered for Anthy to force her under his thumb, and the painful machinations he unleashed on Utena to mold her into his perfect prince.
Shiori attempts to escape as well, but she’s still trapped in her plan for revenge and punishment, and fails as a result. Juri, Saionji, and Miki are on their way with Wakaba - friendship can be a vehicle of liberation too, not just romantic love - and promise Utena that they’ll find their own way out someday. They all have their own demons even without the Rose Bride, but they’re smiling as they take their own road.
Once Anthy and Utena are free of the castle - of illusion - they emerge together, and Ootori is shown to be a sham, a set kept only together by fears and memories. They kiss, on their way to a place with no roads, where they can finally make their own destinies instead of having their lives decided for them.
First of all let’s discuss the overall setting/narration/framing of Utena, because that colours any analysis you could pull from its depths. Utena presents its narrative within a fairy tale. While apparently mundane on the surface with no supernatural creatures or alien influence to be seen (the setting and general style takes after Rose of Versailles, but that’s another story for another time), giant fans appear out of nowhere, cars upon vertical walls, and the entire climax centres about a swarming column of floating, murderous swords. The contrast therein can be taken in one of three ways. Firstly, that such is the world of Utena and Anthy. Secondly, that the “strange occurrences” exist merely in the characters’ minds or as framing devices to stand in for what’s “really” going on.
Thirdly, that it doesn’t matter either way—and is a combination of both and neither at the same time. Throughout Utena comes this idea of metafiction and of stories within stories; the anime tests the boundaries of narratives, the edges of stories, and where our perception of reality can influence reality. The famous shadow girls (“Kashira? Kashira? Gozonji kashira?”) put on short skits that offer humorous insights on the theme of the episode. At first, they appear to perform solely for the audience as a sort of intermission, but as the anime draws and the line between “reality” and “fairy tale” becomes more and more blurred, characters from the “real world” start to interact with the shadow girls. In the film (which I view as a necessary extension of the anime to finish up some of the “missing themes”) the shadows girls disappear to leave behind name tags reading the protagonists’ names, further complicating their presence. Are they just here for the audience? Are they parts of Utena’s or Anthy’s subconscious? But then how do other characters who aren’t Utena/Anthy interact with them? Are they actual girls performing shadow plays, or do they only exist in the “shadow world”? Just as Utena and Anthy merely exist on a screen to us yet reflect the world around us, the shadows merely exist on a screen to them yet reflect the world around them.
In order to cope with the tragedy that befalls her at a young age, Utena conceives the world around her as a fairy tale. Likewise, then, in order to cope with the tragedies that befall society, society conceives the world as a fairy tale. If everyone in society agrees upon a certain idea, then that idea, no matter how ridiculous, becomes real, manifests. That’s the overarching theme of the Mikage arc: Despite Mamiya having died in a fire, society considers him alive (a case of ‘if everyone suffers the same delusion, then it might as well exist’), and so he continues to influence reality until society realises that he is dead. And then: poof. Gone. Good-bye. Mikage, the one who used Mamiya’s existence for himself, had lived, apparently immortal, for years due to living in his memories rather than accepting reality.
The same goes for the power of men, incidentally (or not incidentally, since Utena could be likened to “Feminism: The Anime”): It exists and functions as long as society believes that it exists. If society were to tomorrow realise that men are not superior to nonmen and thus should not hold power over them, the current influence men and masculinity wield would have the bottom pulled out from under it. But until that epiphany occurs (as it has been, steadily, little by little, throughout the world), the status of society will not progress by itself. Trapped by its own memories, society stagnates.
The point of it all? While it’s difficult to consider “intent” with regards to an anime whose director is notorious for trolling and refusing to answer the fanbase, but as far as I can see, getting bogged down in the logistics of metafiction leads to headaches and arguments of semantics.
Which is why I opt for the third option: The fairy tale stuff might not be “real”, but it might as well be.
So: Utena. In a rigid system of princes and princesses, Utena decides that she will become a prince. The opening narration asks the audience: “But was that really a good idea?” Initially, one might interpret this as a jab at the idea that girls can become princes in the first place. By the end of the anime, one realises that it’s not a good idea because the entire prince-princess system is broken (and not a good idea).
When Utena arrives at Ohtori, the entire academy itself—like society—has stagnated, wrapped up in its cloak of memories. Let’s take a break from Utena for a moment and take a look at the feature presentation and her absolute garbage excuse for a sibling.
In fairy tale mode, trying to be a prince for every girl, Dio eventually fell sick. It’s akin to the idea of the “backfiring of the patriarchy”: men can’t cry; men can’t ask for help; men must become strong by the contemporary definition of masculinity; and so forth. Anthy tried to protect him from the people, but in defending him she disrupted the usual pace of the prince-princess cycle. Society branded her a witch and forced her to take on the “burden” and “punishment” thereof. The murderous floating swords? The anger, rage, and blame of society, as well as the pain, trauma, and etc. caused by institutional oppression.
In fairy tales and historically, women who exerted strength or knowledge were labelled witches (e.g. in the West, of the Satanic sort [the Christian heresy and therefore part of the Christian religious tradition] rather than what one would consider paganism/earthly witchraft/etc.) and put to death.
Of course, rather than destroying Anthy’s power, the patriarchal society yokes it for the use of men and masculinity such that Anthy can never use it herself.
As she grew “of age”, Dio, now Akio (Dio himself never “existed” but, as with Mikage, was a false power born of society’s acceptance of and belief in said power rather than any basis in reality; when the power fell through, society ceased to believe, but Utena and the others of Ohtori Academy, who desperately immerse themselves in the prince-princess system, cause him and his power to “exist”), transformed her into the Rose Bride, and into the ultimate princess.
It’s even in her name: 姫宮; Hime-miya. Princess (姫). In contrast to the other Rose Bride character, Ma-miya (yes, I know that I’m comparing surname to given name here, but those are also the names by which those characters are most commonly referred). By the by, the whole bit of dialogue where Mamiya insists on being the Rose Groom while Mikage ignores him and considers Rose Bride a better fit refers to the tendency of society to label men who are bad at “being men” (e.g. men who do not fit the contemporary definition of masculinity) as nonmen as well as the idea that femininity necessarily equates to the position of less power. And “miya” (宮) means shrine/palace/temple. A princess trapped in a palace (the illusory castle), in a temple (of Dio, the god).
Now, on being the Rose Bride: The Rose Bride holds the key to revolution. In order to unlock the power of revolution, one must capture the power of the Rose Bride.
Whether one does so by conquering the Rose Bride as is or by murdering the Rose Bride to instil a new, perhaps more easily controlled Rose Bride, matters significantly less. The Rose Bride herself, as I mentioned, may only wield her power if aiding her prince, and she cannot speak against her prince. Indeed, as others point out to Utena, the Rose Bride must go so far as to conform her words to her prince’s wishes, silencing her opinions and beliefs until it’s impossible for those around her—including her prince—to understand what she “really means” or what she “really wants”. Much to her prince’s dislike and contempt. For the Rose Bride, it’s the perfect case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. If she speaks her opinion and it doesn’t happen to align with the prince’s, the prince will be angry or will levy punishment upon her. If she doesn’t speak her opinion and the prince doesn’t understand her uncontrolled reactions, the prince will … be angry or will levy punishment upon her.
Thus the perfect Rose Bride is one who quashes her beliefs entirely and who practises her expressions to comply with the prince’s reactions (which means she has to read her prince’s mind and such). In other words: the Rose Bride does not exist as a person but as a subhuman reflection of her prince’s desires.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Yep! Just like the subjugation of women, cast in a fairy tale light.
The system sits rigidly. Princes act like so and the princesses act like so, and the few characters who can break through the societal expectations of their assigned binary gender (such as Utena) merely perpetuate the system by attempting to save the “damsel in distress” from another prince. They keep her as the princess; they keep her as the “damsel in distress”; and they use her power for her own benefit.
Utena says early on that she has no interest in the Rose Bride debacle, yet for as much as she cries out against the system, she does not take action to intervene in their use of Anthy other than continuously winning her back. She claims that she wants Anthy as a friend and not as someone to be won. Yet her only stake is retrieving Anthy in the event that she falls into the “wrong hands”.
Even the entire part where she temporarily loses Anthy? It’s not a function of Anthy but that of Utena failing in her role of a prince and feeling feminine that prompts her following depression. It’s all about her quest for masculinity. Anthy’s happiness comes secondary, although Utena would never admit it and doesn’t realise it.
Of course, I’m simplifying the interactions. Anthy and Utena do trust one another, and it’s not entirely a one-way street (nor is it for relationships between men and women in the prince-princess system). Rather it’s a generalisation of the trend overall, specifically where it fails for one or both parties.
Consider the very first episode, where we’re presented with a Saionji who is physically abusive towards Anthy, prompting Utena to heroically save her and become her prince. It’s akin to that age old story idea where the plucky young protagonist sees the Evil Villain Antagonist abusing the designated love interest, which comprises the plot of many a film. The idea is that the plucky young protagonist will “treat her right” and therefore she should be grateful. But there’s nothing stopping him from treating her as abusively as the villain. The love interest always loves the protagonist who saved her as though the very act of saving her indicates him a suitable partner. Because the love interest must conform to her prince’s opinions and beliefs, and so if he wants her, then of course she wants him. Oh, the story might try to play around a bit. Perhaps he has to impress her first by saving the world, or by assisting her on some more mundane task, or whatever.
The archetype of the ‘tsundere’ plays into this as well: She’s mean to him because that way there’s a greater “emotional payoff” when she finally begins to act sweetly to him (but the audience knows that she will act sweetly given time, so they tolerate the early meanness). Same goes for the “cold competent professional woman and bumbling male protagonist”: he’ll rise up by the end and she’ll have heart-shaped pupils for his accomplishments. It’s all the same.
The only thing that we have is the assumed pact with the protagonist. And if the designated love interest were to later decide that she doesn’t love or doesn’t want to have anything to do with the protagonist, well, then, it’s too late! We’ve gotten our happily ever after. The love interest is now another “crazy ex girlfriend” and the protagonist goes on his merry way.
So it goes with Utena: She saves the princess and we’re expected to admire her and applaud her for her brave actions. Besides, she’s a girl trying to become a prince, a “staple” in the modern “feminist fairy tale”. Yet herein lies precisely the theme of Utena: While Utena does not act abusively towards Anthy (at least not physically), Utena still treats her cruelly at times, and, more importantly, still plays into being a prince. Later on, when she discovers that she might have completely misinterpreted Anthy’s actions/beliefs/opinions because Anthy merely does and believes whatever Utena wishes her to, she stares at Anthy aghast at this fracture of trust between them. Yet it’s the sole manner in which Anthy could have survived.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
You know, the liberation of women and the destruction of the patriarchy does not involve women “ascending” to the power level of men, because the entire point of the current system that someone has to be subjugated so that the subjugator can add the subjugated’s power to their power and thereby attain more power than others. The entire system must go. Which happens in the end—but we’ll come to that.
The prince reaps the Rose Bride’s power for the prince’s own use without sparing a thought towards the Rose Bride. Even Saionji, who claims to love her, at least at first, or Miki, who genuinely loves the projected image of her as the Rose Bride, play into the system of the prince and princess. Hell, Utena herself, as seen earlier, simply becomes another pawn in the prince-princess cycle.
All for the sake of revolution, all for the sake of achieving the illusory castle with immortality within, none of them realising until the finale that revolution—that the End of the World—does not come from entrapping power, but from freeing power and dismantling the system altogether.
The reason that immortality lives in the castle is that by living in one’s memories one doesn’t have to advance, but that immortality’s nothing but a farce (the illusory castle) because all of that stuff isn’t actually real. What lies within? Dio. Akio’s belief of his power, or what Akio perceives his power should be. The concept of masculinity as an all-powerful force. In other words: complete malarkey.
Okay, remember all of those themes about changing history, how characters alter her memories in order to satisfy themselves or in order to adapt what has occurred to the patriarchal society requires? Society brands Dio as a god and Anthy as a witch and that is all society remembers. No matter that Anthy was a child attempting to protect her brother or that Dio’s actions towards the princesses were less than entirely benevolent. They hurt her, punish her, leave her to suffer despite the fact that she was being selfless in caring for her brother, because her actions would undo the status quo carefully held in place.
This, by the way, is part of where the entire “putting Anthy into the position of the princess is fine” comes from: As the witch, she ought to undergo punishment. Origin stories often add in reasons for modern changes in power. From a Western perspective, it’s akin to the shitty concept of Original Sin whereby women are blamed for the downfall of men and therefore the deity punishes women far more than men. And if you’ve ever looked into cases of rape or sexual abuse, you’re bound to hear something akin to: “It’s her fault for dressing so alluringly; it’s her fault for walking like that or for looking like that; I couldn’t help it.” Or those stories were the seductive woman almost ruins the hero, or prompts him to divulge some secret information, or what have you. In all of these cases it’s the woman’s fault and the man is nothing but a victim.
Even though Anthy’s only crime is innocently acting against the patriarchy, she’s the one punished for it all.
Also: recall what I was saying about how the metafiction and fairy tale elements can often muddle up the audience? Utena presents Anthy as a witch who has existed for years and who truly exists impaled with swords (by the way, swords, the classic phallic symbol? More on that later), although she also truly exists in the coffin later, etc.etc. All of these depictions are simultaneously real and false. What they represent—what they mean—is vivid reality: Anthy stands not only for the real human being of Himemiya Anthy but also for the plight of subjugated women throughout history (note also that she’s dark-skinned and so forth, as the subjugation particularly affects and has affected women that do not represent the acceptable racial standards of the society in question; it isn’t my place to discuss that, but I have seen other Utena analysts bring that up, and I felt the need to mention it). Don’t confuse yourself. They’re the same yet different.
Anthy’s a girl. A regular girl. But Anthy’s character also stands in for the entire concept of subjugated womanhood as society views it. Makes sense?
Unable to speak, then, Anthy plays the role of the perfect feminine princess, of the perfect bride. When her brother sexually abuses/rapes her she says naught (when he rapes Utena, likewise, she says naught, and Utena herself appears confused, blocking out what has happened and trying desperately to reframe it so that she doesn’t have to blame Akio, so strong is the concept of the perfect prince and of the women’s sin). In the film the Rose Bride explicitly has sex with whoever has won her in the duels and cannot imagine a different future, regardless of whatever she herself wants, because part of the subjugation of women is their commodity in sex. If you “own” a woman, then she has to have sex with you when you want her to, and she is never to exhibit sexual desire outside of that, fullstop (just think of all the times you’ve heard guys say something to the tune of, “Ugh, women always fake headaches to get themselves out of having sex”; if someone has to “fake” a headache because a simple “no” won’t do, then you have yourself an abuse of power situation).
Rather than speaking out in her pain, Anthy smiles kindly. Her glasses flash to cover her eyes. She bows her head. She acquiesces. She is yours, and she knows that she cannot do a thing about it.
Utena asks if she can go with Akio and leave Anthy behind. “As you wish,” Anthy replies, beaming as Utena and Akio drive away, hands clasped innocently before her, snuffing out candles one by one. Utena starts to sense where Anthy keeps her feelings locked away and tries to drive them into the open during their nightly discussion on the lily-pad beds. Yet Anthy remains infuriatingly silent, complacent, hinting at her emotions without ever saying anything more concrete than mist between the fingers. One night Utena finds Anthy having left the beds. And that is when all of this comes together.
Anthy decides to attempt leaping from a roof and Utena catches her. In that moment Utena understands Anthy’s pain. Anthy would sooner kill herself than continue to live in her situation; the hurt and pain that Anthy never shows even to the “good prince” (Utena) rips out of her in full force when she is alone, her hair spilling over her shoulders.
Typically, Anthy wears her hair tightly up, concealing the true breadth of her feelings and containing them within an easily managed bun. When her true self comes through the hair comes tumbling down, tumbling down, tumbling down. That’s why the film version of Anthy wears her hair long: She’s much more open, and the film is essentially Anthy’s arc in Utena. The end of the series likewise portrays her with her hair long, now that she’s been freed from the coffin (we’ll get to that). And so, in the scene where she would commit suicide, her hair billows out as there she unveils the reality of her self.
It’s a turning point in Utena and Anthy’s relationship as they see one another’s true selves; however, at his point, Utena cannot fully empathise with Anthy’s agony, although she’s coming closer and closer. And it’s a chilling reminder that death is preferable to subjugation.
In the final episodes, in the very climax, the story takes on the most fantastic elements yet. The End of the World approaches and Utena understands the true extent of the system. Akio himself had validated Utena’s desire to not wear the “female uniform” to that woman teacher (because fuck other women, right? Better to be a man) but now reveals his true face: He only tolerates her masculinity until the moment that he expects her to be feminine and she refuses. In the end, women can play pretend at masculinity all they wish. Yet in the end, only men can truly wield masculinity—according to Akio.
Utena has lost Anthy. And in that moment where Utena struggles to win back Anthy yet again, Anthy meekly follows the wishes of her prince and stabs Utena. She has no choice. No matter how she hates it she must comply, must obey, must must must.
And then we arrive at the pièce de résistance of Revolutionary Girl Utena. The End of the World. And the swords, oh, the swords, like Damocles’, hanging overhead to watch the proceedings and punish those who do not fall in line with the patriarchy. Insidiously, those who do not resist will never feel the bite of that steel and so will never comprehend the pain of those that do.
Right, so, those swords. Swords are phallic symbols, and the phallus is associated with men and masculinity (just like society is misogynistic, society is also transphobic and cissexist, and those are the symbols and associations put into place by society). The brunt of masculinity impales Anthy and transforms her into the witch. Masculinity hurts. The duels are fights for masculinity, are fights between masculinity. When the duellists take the power from within themselves it manifests as a sword. When Anthy calls forth the power of Dio it manifests as a sword. When Utena requires a boost of power—when Utena strikes down her enemies—she calls upon Dio as well, and he inhabits her to use her as a pawn in the great game, Dio himself the original symbol of he who amasses as many princesses as possible to a point of exhaustion and illness. The currency of the game is masculinity and all players must submit to and convert their strength into masculinity to enter at all.
Yet in the end, the swords do not bring about revolution. You cannot destroy the patriarchy by feeding into the patriarchy yourself. You cannot dismantle the patriarchy with masculinity. You know what you do? You reach out with your hand; you take the pain for those who suffer than you do; and you pave the way for their freedom, even if they’re ungrateful to the last.
Akio directs Anthy to open the door with her power, now his. Utena intervenes. Racing to Anthy’s side, Utena pries open the coffin with bloodied hands. At the final moment, Utena cannot save Anthy; the swords impale Utena, and the coffin falls.
In Utena’s childhood, she herself lay in a coffin following the death of her parents. Although the memory has disintegrated and faded over time, with various characters remembering differently, Utena was saved by a prince who convinced her to come from her coffin but who did so by promising her a princess’s happily ever after … or so she remembers at first. Utena instead joined the world as a prince. Either way she became part of the prince-princess cycle, became part of the problem rather than the solution, became saved by submitting to the system. In reality, she left the coffin because she saw Anthy suffering. However, society intervened and changed her memory (just look at the themes talked about above) until she reawakened with her true purpose: not to be a prince, but to help other girls. Society corrupted this wish and made her believe that she could only help girls by becoming a prince. And yet, that’s false.
Utena cannot save Anthy from her coffin, cannot rescue the damsel in distress, cannot be the prince to Anthy’s princess.
But Utena can take on the pain of the swords. But Utena can open the coffin. But Utena can assist Anthy in making her escape.
The film, Adolescence of Utena (I prefer the title Adolescence Apocalypse), essentially comprises Anthy’s side of the story, so to speak. There, after Anthy and Utena decide to escape, Utena transforms into a vehicle and Anthy drives her. While that seems to confuse viewers (or at least has become a massive meme), let’s break that down.
In Revolutionary Girl Utena, cars represent independence and free-will, as well as adulthood. Akio’s car is where he convinces others to join his cause, to seize the power of the End of the World for themselves as those who transition into becoming adults with power and influence. And the false Rose Brides exist in vehicles themselves, while free-will battles against free-will in an arena filled with cars standing upright. Cars and car rides come filled with ugly sexual matters: The car running over characters reading “STOP” accompanies Utena’s rape (the courtship scene happens in a car as well). Touga invites others into the vehicle with a bare chest and Akio drives the car itself with a terribly sex-infused vibe. Akio’s vehicle sees the seduction of Touga, Saionji (those scenes with flashing cameras and languid beds imply heavily that Akio is abusing them just as he abuses Anthy), Miki (with Kozue as an incestual element), etc. into its depths. They’re passages into adulthood - into cracking the world’s shell - and often are accompanied by ugly, ugly sex.
The last few duels take everything of Utena. Everything crashes down. At last Anthy takes the keys to Utena and drives away on the road from the patriarchy. Not without obstacles. Shiori: she tries to emulate Utena and Anthy by transforming into a car herself but misses the importance of having a driver, because feminism that isn’t intersectional isn’t feminism at all—because it is the underprivileged that have to lead the charge—and because you cannot become an adult alone: You need the help of those around you. The hordes of cars: the microaggressions, the multitude of tiny things of the patriarchy and misogyny, every one of them small and weak but when in such numbers lethal and deadly.
When Anthy overcomes these early obstacles, every movement away from what society wants her to be leads to her final confrontation with the illusory castle.
Ultimately the car-Utena suffers great damage as Anthy leads her; Utena protects Anthy so that society cannot silence her voice [glances at allies]. Akio appears once more before Anthy to tell her to stay, and here, just as in the anime, Anthy tells him to fuck off. In politer terms, of course. But her coffin is open now. She drives the car now. No one can tell her to return to the egg now that she has cracked the shell.
She’s free now.
The anime ends with Akio noting that Utena evidently disappeared, but Anthy disagrees, explaining that Utena has been around this entire time. The reason Akio considers her gone? She has left the system entirely, has transcended the societal gender/social binary and moved on. She’s also opened the path for Anthy to leave herself.
Utena cannot drive Anthy away herself; Utena can become a car to shield Anthy as Anthy takes the wheel and drives. Utena cannot pull Anthy from the coffin; Utena can open the coffin and protect her from the swords as Anthy takes the final step herself and leaves. Anthy’s car. Anthy’s independence. Anthy’s freedom.
And would you take a look at that. Anthy stands up to Akio, tells him goodbye, and leaves with her hair flowing down.
By the by, there’s another subtle symbolic thing here. Chu-Chu, Anthy’s cute little monkey-mouse-thing, looks quite a bit like Akio, complete with Akio’s signature earring, tie, and hair colour. Yet at the end Chu-Chu leaves those behind. In exiting the patriarchy, for men, they have to leave behind those things that mark them with power; they have to give it up.
And it’s important that Revolutionary Girl Utena ends with Anthy. Anthy’s the one for whom the revolution's come— for whom the bells toll at the end of every duel (and no, I’m not referring to the Hemingway novel, but to the Donne meditation).
(In case you can’t tell, I view the film and the anime as extensions of one another. They tell the same story although the fairy tale details change.)
In the outside world Utena and Anthy join up again. As Utena says, they have entered a world without roads, a world only composed of themselves, a world that they cannot imagine as picturing a world outside of the patriarchy, picturing a society that does not feed into the cycle of princes and princesses, might appear impossible. But it exists. And they’ll pave their own roads with time. They’ll be okay.
Besides, they have one another. And yes, they love each other. Not platonically, but romantically. They’re gay. Utena’s bi and Anthy is some manner of queer. There can exist no argument about this. And notice that Anthy initiates the kiss. She isn’t responding to Utena’s desires; she’s showing her own. But Utena wants to kiss her too. Because there’s no power dynamic in this relationship; they’re equals and they know it and they love each other.
And although this represents another car, here the nudity is not of ugly sex, but of the two of them taking control over their own bodies and their own desires. They have progressed into adulthood on their own terms. Adolescence apocalypse indeed.
Anthy’s free now. And she’s never going back.
If it cannot break out of its shell, the chick will die without ever being born. We are the chick; the world is our egg. If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without ever truly being born: Smash the world’s shell, for the revolution of the world!
So, that’s Himemiya Anthy. The short answer? She’s a girl. The long answer? Take my revolution.
My favorite plot twist in Revolutionary Girl Utena was Nanami.
Fuck. Like. You’ve been learning steadily over the course of this series that the cast is comprised of misogynistic, pedantic pricks involved in a 10-way love triangle where someone is bound to pick up an STD somewhere along the line, my guess being Akio, there’s like 12 kinds of incest going on and everyone is bisexual and playing mind games with each other in this grapple for power over one unfortunate woman.
And keep in mind, Nanami abused said woman at the beginning worse than everyone else- at least publicly. Nanami is built up at first to be this queen bee bully bitch who lives for male attention, particularly from her brother, and since everyone else is going at it regardless of familial relation, you would assume that Nanami, the very opposite of what’s set up as our ‘heroic and chivalrous’ young heroine, would jump her brother at the very first sign of requited affection. And then towards the end the plot just hits like a brick and Nanami both witnesses the abuse of Anthy by her brother and is propositioned by her own and she just snaps. That’s disgusting, you’re my brother, my love for you is platonic.
And it’s kinda been glaring at you in the face the entire time, Nanami is innocent, she’s more of a child than anyone in this cast, even her cruelty is childlike. She wanted attention, but not sexually. She didn’t want her brother to fuck her, she wanted him to stop chasing after other girls and pay attention to her because they’re lonely and filthy rich and she sees him as the only genuine thing in her life that won’t leave her and he TRIES TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF HER. Like. When Nanami is so squicked by all the flippant incest she’s not just shaming her brother, but everyone who mistook a young girl’s frustration with her brother (mingled with probably naive attempts to emulate behavior of the kind of girls he associates with) as incestuous. Everyone (in the story and watching) was so quick to jump to that conclusion because everyone else was doing it, and Nanami is the wake up call towards the end- this isn’t normal. Even if she’s a brat, she won’t put up with this behavior. And how her character just becomes progressively independent and self-serving after this realization, that even her brother whom she trusts more than anyone would be willing to use her. And she tempers towards the end, more calm, more ‘adult’ but clearly still her bratty self, and you realize that she was the most normal character outside of Wakaba maybe. I love Nanami’s arc.
Utena didn’t want become a prince to find the prince who gave her the rose crest. She became a prince because when she was at her absolute lowest point she saw a girl who was in agony and was told that there was no prince who could or would save her. She became a prince to save this girl whose name she learned only years later, because she couldn’t leave someone who was suffering in front of her alone.
Akio didn’t become disillusioned with his past as a hero and savior, in fact, it’s the exact opposite; he can’t fathom a self outside of it, and he goes so far, so fucking far, to recreate that fantasy he once lived. His entire identity is so dependent on this ideal he can’t let go of it, discarding it means self-destruction to him.
This ideal, too, can’t be achieved without others; if there are no people to save, then there is no savior. His dilemma is that he is wholly self-centered while being unable to realize the self he wants without others, so the only relationships of any kind he can sustain are ones marred by deception and manipulation, where he is a protective, intelligent, reasonable man, basically projecting an image of himself that corresponds to what he once was, not who he actually is, and arguably, not what he wants to be.
He wants to continue living the fantasy without carrying any of its burdens, mainly, the perfection of the Prince archetype, so he tosses this burden on others. He’s an adult who can’t grow the fuck up. He wants to play, but he doesn’t want to handle any of the consequences.
I see your “Akio possesses the trappings of adulthood but lacks real emotional maturity” and I raise you “Maturity is an ill-defined concept, equating adulthood with maturity and then writing off adults who aren’t good people as ‘not really mature’ is approaching a No True Scotsman, adulthood is just as constructed and power-centric an identity as toxic masculinity, and Akio is an adult simply because and for no other reason than his age grants him power.”