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.]
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.
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.”