Reminder: Next week, we will be starting liveblogs of Kill la Kill on Saturdays at 2 p.m. EST. Not doing them this week because I’m busy. Also, Netflix fortuitously just added Kill la Kill, subbed and in its entirety, to their streaming service.
Normally, when we talk about something being true–in the everyday sense, or the sense used in the sciences–we mean that it possesses two properties: it is consistent with a larger body of truth, and it corresponds to some standard.
Consistency is the requirement that, to be true, a set of statements must not contradict one another.
Correspondence is the requirement that, to be true, a statement must be testable against some standard. In the sciences, that standard is careful experimental testing or close observation of natural phenomena; in everyday life, it is consensus reality and our own personal experiences.
However, some fields use different models of truth. Mathematics, for example, follows a consistency model only–a statement is true as long as it does not contradict some fundamental axiom. Alternative mathematical systems can be created by choosing different sets of axioms; some of these do correspond to some standard–for example, Euclid’s Postulates describe the behavior of geometric figures on a flat surface, and fiddling with the Fifth Postulate can create systems corresponding to different types of curved surfaces–but it is not actually a requirement to do so.
The humanities, on the other hand, and particularly in the analysis of the arts, follow a correspondence model. This is necessary, as the works being analyzed themselves are under no requirement to be consistent. Thus, the only real rule is that analysis must correspond to the work being analyzed; while most analytical essays try to be consistent within themselves, and sometimes attempt consistency with particular paratexts or broad theoretical schema, this is no more a requirement than correspondence is in math. (One even, occasionally, encounters critics who insist on only ever applying one theoretical model to all texts. How sad and tiny their literary worlds must be!)
These concepts are implicit in everything I do for this site, though I came close to making the non-necessity of consistency explicit in my first essay on Rebellion. The reason I am making a point of being explicit about them now is because Utena positively revels in inconsistency. One of its main themes is the unreliability of memory and story, so often events recalled by different characters or at different times will alter substantially. At the same time, it has enormous semiotic density–the highest of any TV show or film I’ve ever seen–so there are a wealth of interpretations, many of them contradictory, for each version of each memory/story, and all of them are true.
That’s the key point I want to make: unlike math or the sciences, in the humanities two statements can contradict each other and still both be true, as long as they have justification in the text.
Actual dump of Utena thoughts (eps 1-5) after the cut. Unmarked spoilers abound!
Revolutionary Girl Utena is the single most semiotically dense thing I have ever watched (although the Madoka movie is a close second). Everything in this show means something, and most things mean multiple things, many of them contradictory.
Case in point: color symbolism. I believe the colors in this show all have specific meanings, as does the positioning of those colors—for example, the rose frames in the corners of the screen indicate subjectivity, and the color of the roses indicates how the subject is looking at the scene. Lighter colors indicate “purer” or “higher” forms, while darker colors indicate “distorted” or “lower” forms (so black is distortion itself). In this episode, prominent colors include white (purity and the prince, notable as the color of the prince’s hair and clothes, and the color of the roses at the edges of the screen when Utena first sees Anthy), red (Utena and Touga’s hair, (I’m counting pink as a very light red) and Anthy’s dress in the dueling arena), and green (Saionji’s hair). The meaning of most of the colors and positions is spoilery; I will say that the color of the rose characters wear when dueling indicates their desires, hence Utena’s white rose reflects her desire to become the prince.
Names have meaning too! Utena means “calyx,” the part of a flower that protects the petals. Read as a single word, Tenjou means “ceiling”; however, if split into component parts it can be read as “ten,” which means “heaven,” and “jou,” which means “above.” Utena Tenjou is thus something like “the paragon of calyxes.” Anthy, more commonly spelled Anthea, is a Western, not Japanese name. It is derived from Antheia, the ancient Greek goddess of flowers. Himemiya is written as two kanji, “hime,” which means “princess,” and “miya,” which means “shrine or palace.” Anthy Himemiya is thus something like “the flower princess in the shrine/palace.”
Any association between Anthy and a shrine is interesting, because the combination of dark skin color and bindi is normally associated with characters from or connected with India in anime. The reason this is notable is because of the two dominant religions in Japan, one is homegrown (Shinto) and the other originated in India (Buddhism). (Note: Most Japanese people practice both Shinto and Buddhism more or less equally. Also, yes, I am aware that bindis are a Hindu thing; I’m not sure that animators are, though.) We can thus presume that the shrine with which Anthy is associated is a Buddhist shrine.
This seems like a suitable juncture at which to point out that, while the architecture (i.e., the design of individual buildings) of Ohtori Academy is modeled on Versailles, the layout (i.e., the positions of those buildings and the big mound o’ trees as seen in the brief aerial shot in this episode) is modeled on the Osorezan Bodai-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple in Japan. Specifically, a temple designed to evoke traditional depictions of Buddhist “Hell,” which is actually more like a purgatory.
Given recent media consumption, I am hard-pressed to make it through the subverted-fairy-tale opening without mentioning either Princess Tutu or the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Note that it’s not the only strange twist on a fairy tale in this episode—there’s that upside-down castle, too. Saionji claims it’s a “trick of the light,” and illusion. Thirty-seven episodes later, Akio will turn off the projector, and commence with the disillusionment of Utena… only to follow it up a few minutes later with some actual magical stuff. I meant it when I said this series likes to contradict itself!
There are few things greater in life than Utena determinedly climbing a spiral staircase while accompanied by a Satanic children’s choir. For the record, the “darkness of Sodom” is cruelty to strangers and lack of charity, the notion that it has anything to do with homosexuality is an urban legend of medieval origin.
The song for the fight with Saionji is fascinating. It’s mostly about Utena, who has been cast into a role she doesn’t understand and is trying to barrel through on the strength of her passion and righteousness. Of course it is also a song of praise to Akio/Dios.
Utena’s discomfort in the final scene is palpable. She thought she was striking a blow against an evil abusive man and saving an innocent woman, but now she learns that she has instead become part of an evil abusive system, Anthy was an apparently willing participant, and Utena is now the “owner” of the woman the system treats as property. Oops. Perhaps rushing in to play the savior in a situation you don’t fully understand isn’t necessarily a great move.
“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.”
—Demian, Herman Hesse, 1919
One of the reasons I love Revolutionary Girl Utena is that it introduced me to one of my favorite books, which is also one of the main inspirations of the anime, Herman Hesse’s 1919 novel Demian.
Demian is a bildungsroman about Emil, a young man torn between being “good” as defined by his parents and the culture around him, and being true to himself. On the cusp of puberty, he meets Demian, a charismatic boy with whom Emil develops an intense fascination and friendship (the homoerotic subtext is quite prevalent). In time, Demian introduces Emil to the cult of Abraxas, a Gnostic deity who is the creator of both God and Devil and thus combines good and evil into a single supreme being. Recurring throughout the book is the idea, as expressed in the quote above, that goodness is determined by societal norms that require people to deny their true natures. In order to be both good and true to oneself, it is necessary to first have a world revolution to sweep away those norms, destroying the old order to make way for a new world in which people can be truly and fully themselves.
Throughout Utena, Anthy is caught between the demands of being the good “Princess” and her nature as the “Witch”. Inspired by the titular character, she helps create a revolution that empowers her to set out on her own, finally true to herself. (Yes, I am arguing that Anthy is the real main character, and this is the story of her growing up. The story of Utena growing up will have to wait for the movie.)
An exchange diary is a thing young couples, particularly teens, sometimes do (did?) in Japan. It’s pretty much just a diary they pass back and forth, taking turns recording their entries. It’s a surprisingly intimate and romantic thing for Saionji, who previously has been just an abusive asshole, to do. Of course he still is an abusive asshole, that’s why his hair is DARK green.
Because that’s what green, the next color on our list, signifies: relationships (romance, family, friends) and loyalty. And hair color represents the character’s path or destiny, which in the case of the duelists means it represents their path to attaining the Power of Dios. Saionji’s dark hair indicates that he is very, very far from getting there—his path is relationships, and he’s HORRIBLE at them. Utena’s very light hair is an indicator that she’s much closer—in fact, she’s so close that Dios emerges from the castle to possess her during the duel.
This is one of my favorite duel songs in the series. If the Discworld’s God of Evolution had hymns, this would be one.
Anthy is totally manipulating Utena here. Note how she sends Chu-Chu to fetch Utena just in time to see Saionji hit her. She needs to get Utena into the dueling arena, after all–a duelist who won’t fight is useless to Akio.
However, I do believe she is genuinely surprised, touched, and happy when Utena doesn’t throw the duel. She isn’t used to being treated like a person by her “fiancé” and she is finding that she likes it.
Utena’s discomfort at being called “Miss Utena” by Anthy is probably at least in part that it’s what Anthy used to call Saionji–“Miss Utena” is a translation of “Utena-sama” and last episode, “Saionji-sama” was translated as “Master Saionji.”
This episode. I love this episode SO MUCH. It’s weird, because the first time I saw the series I kind of hated it? But now it really speaks to me. I think because I have some of the same issues as Anthy with crowds? And for some of the same reasons…
Touga is such a creeper in this episode.
Nanami is so evil in this episode! It really sets her up to be a significant villain. (Which of course she isn’t remotely. Poor girl.)
Okay, I know those are dessicants that Chu-Chu pulls out, but they REALLY look like condoms. That is a creepy thing to be giving the dance queen nominee!
Both dresses are kind of awful tbh?
I like that we see a bunch of male-female couples with their arms linked, and then Utena and Anthy enter in the same pose, only more colorful. One of the great things about this show is that what would be subtext in another show is straight-up text here.
I don’t think the character’s “normal” outfits mean anything, but I think very often when they wear something special it does. Specifically, it shows what role they’re taking on—so the green dress symbolizes that Anthy is in the role of “friend,” foreshadowing that Nanami’s treatment of her as a friend is just that, a role. I’m holding on to the full meanings of yellow and purple a while longer, because they’re spoilery, but Nanami’s dress holds a similar meaning. Among the meanings of purple is wickedness, and one of yellow’s is childishness. Nanami is being evil in a very high school way, in other words.
Everything about Utena’s rescue of Anthy, from the music to the poses to the framing, is the dashing prince saving the princess in distress.
There’s some great work being done here in terms of contrasting Nanami, who wants to possess her brother and deny him any relationships with others, and Utena, who currently has possession of Anthy but wants her to be free and make friends. Nanami really is playing the role of the rich, mean, popular girl… but notably she only seems to have three friends, and everyone else just kind of shows up at her parties. While Utena is genuinely popular, but really generally a nice person.
This episode also puts a bit of a twist on Utena’s victim-blaming, which has probably been her most consistent flaw so far. Namely, that there isn’t a trace of it when she’s confronted with an immediate threat to Anthy; she jumps in and helps. Unlike most victim-blaming, hers seems to be simply internalized attitudes she can potentially grow out of, as opposed to an ingrained reflex excuse to not do anything.
Ultimately, not a lot really happens in this episode, but we get the introduction of Nanami and her possessiveness of her brother, and massive Utena-Anthy ship bait. It’s nice.
(Addendum: Several people on Mark Watches questioned whether it made sense for Utena to think Touga might be her prince, given that he looks NOTHING like the prince in the opening. I don’t think it’s an issue, because it’s clearly a very emotionally charged memory for Utena. When people are in a highly emotional state, they tend to remember the details related to the emotion very well, but unrelated details very poorly—for example, people who have been threatened with a weapon can usually describe the weapon in great detail but often have difficulty remembering what the attacker was wearing. So it’s not that surprising that Utena remembers some elements very specifically (his words, the smell of roses) but others not at all (what he looked like). And, of course, there’s no particular reason to assume the opening is true…
Now we get the episode focused on one of my favorite instrumental bits from Utena’s soundtrack, The Sunlit Garden!
(Have I mentioned how much I love the way the duelists are animated in the OP? Because I love that sequence.)
I love a good in medias res opening.
So Miki’s a Sensitive Artist ™, and Anthy’s his crush/muse. Yeah, I’m definitely WAY less sympathetic to him than last time I watched this part of the show, which is several years ago. Now I just find his whole “worship from afar,” “dedicate my art to her” act to be creepy and gross. I think I’m dropping him out of my top five.
I like that Utena is (a) good at math, but (b) only if she works at it. She got complacent and lazy, which is most definitely something she’s shown hints of before.
And now Nanami has a new excuse to send her minions after Anthy. Which backfires into causing the two of them to meet… or was Nanami deliberately setting up for that to happen to enable what she does later? I’m really unsure.
Okay, WTH is a “middle school freshman”? Is that someone in their first year of middle school, meaning Miki’s a year behind Utena and Wakaba? I have never heard of middle schools having freshmen, though, so for all I know it’s a way of saying that this is one of those weird middle schools that goes up to ninth grade, and he’s a high school freshmen=ninth grade=equal third year of middle school=a year ahead of Utena and Wakaba. Not that it matters, since people don’t age at Ohtori…
Really, Wakaba? A couple of people about the same age are hanging around, talking and laughing, and you can’t figure out what in the world they could be doing together? Especially given that both are affiliated with the student council?
I do really like the relationship between Juri and Miki, it has a sort of big-sister little-brother vibe right from their first scene together in the library. And it’s pretty much the only healthy sibling-like relationship in the show, so…
It’s really, really important that Miki ends up helping a bunch of people with their math rather than just Anthy. It helps clarify that he’s a nice guy, not a Nice Guy ™. In the same sense, his lack of interest in dueling Utena or possessing Anthy makes it clear that he doesn’t want to control or manipulate the woman he’s interested in, the way Saionji and Touga do.
Ah, the “shining thing.” It is, of course, inspiration, and part of the complex of concepts associated with the color blue in this show. Blue is the color of the mind in all its various aspects: intellect, inspiration, expression, and most prominently memory. Miki’s blue hair represents that he is destined to walk the path of the mind, that intellectual and artistic pursuits are his key to self-actualization.
The Shadow Girl play this episode is about the myth of love from afar. The boy has a crush on the girl as long as he doesn’t know what she’s really like; once he finds out, he loses interest. (By the by, my last serious relationship was with a woman who, among many other things, liked pro wrestling and garlic ramen.) You cannot possibly love a person you do not know; all you can love is an image of them, which is your own creation. “Love from afar” is thus a form of narcissism.
It’s also about calling attention to the fact that we viewers don’t know Anthy as well as we think we do.
I like Nanami’s annoyance at Miki’s complete rejection of the idea that she might be his girlfriend. Does she have a bit of a thing for him? It’s possible, though I’m sure she’d deny it. Mostly though I think it’s just that her ego demands that all boys have a thing for her.
The whole “Nanami tries to sneak animals into the dorm room, gets one-upped by Anthy” is glorious nonsense. Very, very funny stuff. It’s also massive foreshadowing. Did you catch what Anthy was drawing while giggling to herself? AN ELEPHANT. And she’s *animating* it, i.e. bringing it to life. Anthy’s revenge on Nanami for last episode’s dance party has barely begun. But honestly, Nanami, what did you expect after trying your mean girl act on an actual, bona fide, fairy-tale witch?
Also, the “build up” music before Nanami opens the pencil box/desk drawer/closet for real (as opposed to her fantasy sequences) is exactly the same as the loading screen music from the game Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Weird.
I like that Nanami actually considered the possibility her first two plans would fail. And that she brought gloves to handle the octopus, and tongs for the snake. She worked hard on these ridiculous plans!
I like that Anthy can’t cook. It helps reduce the level of uncomfortableness in the dark-skinned character being super-domestic. (Which wouldn’t be an issue in Japan, I think; her skin color and bindi would cause her to be read as Indian, which in anime means she gets stereotyped as “exotic” and mystical. Not any less racist, mind you, it just means that her cleaning and service would not be read as part of the stereotype, where to American viewers they very much are.) Plus it is a traditional property of witches that their presence causes food to go bad and milk to sour. As well as, oh yeah, power over wild animals. As much as this episode is about setting up for the next one and the Miki duel, it’s even more about establishing Anthy as the witch. But in a way that is completely non-obvious if you’re not looking for it.
Okay, so Miki refers to Anthy as Nanami’s upper-classman. So… Nanami and Miki are in the same grade, but Miki is taking some college courses as well? Then Utena, Wakaba, and Anthy are in the next grade up? And Saionji, Touga, and Juri are all in high school, presumably seniors? Do I have that right?
And by coincidence, the song Anthy chooses to play just happens to be the one that Miki is obsessed with. Except that everything else that Anthy has done in the episode so far makes it clear that this is not remotely a coincidence. This is how she manipulates him into dueling, because she needs Utena to beat all the other duelists. There needs to be a clear and dominant champion for the Black Rose duelists to fight, after all. It won’t work if she’s never been tested against Miki.
(Comments when I posted this to Mark Watches eventually produced a really fascinating discussion of seat placement in shows with classroom scenes. Basically, it’s very common for the main character to sit next to the window in the second row from the back, with a major supporting character behind them. This arrangement has a number of advantages both in terms of making scenes easier/cheaper to animate and in terms of story convenience, since the character can see things happening outside.)
I have a new, silly theory: martial prowess in the Revolutionary Girl Utena universe is directly proportional to how gay you are:
Ruka: Homophobe; loses his only duel, dies the next episode.
Nanami: Not at all gay; gigantic butt-monkey.
Saionji: Pretty shippable with Touga, but that barely counts, Touga ends up with everyone eventually; slightly less of a butt-monkey than Nanami.
Miki: Maybe a little gay; loses consistently to Utena.
Touga: Bi; can beat Utena if he cheats.
Utena: Pretty darn gay, except for her prince/Akio, but again, that barely counts because Akio; only ever loses to cheating cheaters who cheat, but only ever beat Juri through accidents/flukes/miracles/Anthy’s witchery.
Juri: Totally gay, only duelist Utena never beats in a fair fight.
That aside, this is the second Miki episode. And basically it’s the story of a boy who really tries to be a decent person, and rebel against the patriarchal system that treats Anthy like property to be passed around. But then another man, Touga, reinforces Miki’s nascent sexism, and he chooses to objectify Anthy down to her piano playing and try to possess it. In the process he forgets that Anthy is a woman with preferences of her own, so while he’s busy projecting all over her his desire to possess her and “protect” her piano playing, she’d actually rather that Utena wins the duel. Boo, Miki! Like Mark says in the video, you were so close!
(Another commenter on Mark Watches put this point well: basically, what they said was that this is a great example of the social reinforcement of misogyny. Miki starts out feeling entitled to “take back” his “shining thing,” objectifying Anthy, but as he interacts with her he starts treating her as a person. However, then Touga comes in and convinces Miki that he needs to “take what’s his,” and he starts objectifying and projecting all over poor Anthy. The fact that Anthy’s trying to manipulate him into dueling at the same time doesn’t help! All that said, none of this excuses Miki’s actions, only explains them.)
Throughout all this, he’s driven by the memory of his piano playing with his sister, which helps obscure his ability to see what’s happening in the present. His eyes are fixed on that memory, distracting him from his path; instead of developing his skills and expressing new feelings, he’s fixated on the one song he played in the past. That’s what Juri’s trying to tell him in their fencing match—his obsessive perfectionism is holding him back. It’s the point of the pirate sketch, too—the Shadow Girl pirate has been trapped in a cycle of acquiring things for so long that he’s stopped caring about the things he acquires, and just goes through the motion, rather than figure out what he truly wants and seek that. And, again, it’s the spira mirabilis of the duel song (one of my favorites, by the way), the perfect mathematical spiral that keeps returning to where it started instead of striking out into the world.
Miki is trapped chasing after a memory, and if you’ll remember, I mentioned last time that blue is the color of memory. His blue eyes are fixed on a blue memory, and that’s no coincidence; the characters’ eye colors show what it is that they’re fixated on, which is to say the primary obstacle to pursuing their path. With that, we now have the three main color-symbolism elements of the characters, though we don’t know what all the colors mean—in fact, Miki is so far the only character for whom we have a full explanation: his blue hair shows his path, which is intellectual achievement and artistic expression. His blue eyes show his fixation, which is his memory of the sunlit garden. And his blue rose shows his desire, which is divided between recovering that memory and achieving greater levels of expression and skill.
I say “divided” because, as the end of the episode shows, recovering that garden and the experience of playing with his sister won’t help him. His memory is false, as memories always are, because all memories are stories and all stories serve their tellers. (MAJOR SERIES THEME ALERT!) He is as deluded about his sister’s piano playing as he is about what Anthy wants, projecting himself onto both of them.
There’s really only one other character whose eye color is interesting at this point: Anthy. We just don’t know enough about the other blue- or green-eyed characters to explain their colors, but Anthy’s green eyes are plainly a reference to the fact that her loyalty to her fiancee and the dueling/Rose Bride system in general are putting her in a submissive, servile role, leaving no freedom to explore whatever her path may be (we don’t yet know what purple means, so we can’t pinpoint it). And as we’ll see later in the show, the other meaning of green—relationships—is a huge obstacle for her, too, specifically her relationship with her brother.
Only other comment I have is that Miki’s sister tends to be subjected to a lot of slut-shaming by the fandom, and it annoys me. I actually rather like her; it’s rare to see a girl so young who so thoroughly owns her sexuality and openly refuses to apologize. Touga’s still a total creeper, though. Isn’t he 17 or something like that? He really should NOT be messing around with a 13-year-old girl, that’s seriously gross.