Who, What, Where, Which?

By Nomad(Note the missing question) Otto
Warning: This post is long and contains lots of spoilers
Once upon a time, there was a princess whose parents died, leaving her all alone in the world. However, she did not despair, as she was visited by a prince, who comforted her in her hour of need. Them, he told her, “if you keep your nobility of spirit, we will meet again” and left, leaving her what must have been an engagement ring. However, the princess was so taken by the prince that she decided that she would go and live her life like the prince. Now, was that such a good idea?
Utena is not really a show about answers. Never, or, at least, very rarely, does anyone come out and say anything exactly. The best explaination we’re given comes in the form a deliberately obtuse, and bizzare shadow puppet show. The whole of the show is sufficed with mystery and symbolism (or, at least, what I believe to be symbolism). At least, that’s what I think now.
When I first watched Utena, back in the ancient days of high school, I got through a few episodes before stopping, declaring it, “bizzare, pointless shit designed for fanboy wank.” After all, it’s a show about a girl in highschool with ambigious sexuality who duels with a bunch of pretty men in a predictable manner: Utena falls behind, then, due to a deus ex machina, in this case, actually the intervention of some God surrogote, she wins. Oh, I forgot to mention the fact that there’s about three layers of weird psudo-religious garbage that everyone’s spouting- “Break the world’s shell, ” “Power of revolution,” “An eternal thing,” sort of stuff. Basically, another Eva-type story in which the action is supposed to be some kind of psychological revelation, but really is just a confused mess of stuff.
This isn’t to say that Eva is necessarily like that (look, the great Eva debate belongs in a post of its own, not mixed in with this) but, in the wake of Eva, there was a wave of shows that tried to be “deep,” which carries with it a huge bag of problems. There’s three ways to be “deep,” first, and best, you can dig your foundations deep, and then build your story on the deep foundations, so that the depth makes the structure stand strong and have a lot of space. Option two is a take a house that’s already built and then dig a big hole in it. This weakens the story (house) and lame, but, not as lame as option 3, which is to dig a big hole, and then put a small house inside it. This not only is a bad thing for the house, as it’s now vulnerable to all kinds of nastiness that a house without a hole would have, but it also looks really stupid.
Utena digs for itself a pretty big hole, and, surprisingly enough, it manages to do a pretty good job of building a house in it. One reading is that it’s a story about the tension between the past and the future. Looking to the past, things are cyclic, fixed, and, weirdly enough, eternal, as nothing changes in the past, and, if you let the past determine the future, nothing ever will change. The future, on the other hand, is linear, mutable, but, at the same time, equally eternal, as it’s only in the future that the stories we hear as children are realized, in which the prince and the princess live happily forever after; forever implies infinite duration into the future. It’s only at the interface between the past and the future that things become transitory, but, that’s where we live.
God, locked away in his castle in the sky, the “end of the world” is the future, always within sight but never within reach of mere mortals, for example, the student council, who are the present. They see the world around them as lacking something vital, for each student, something different. Micki wants a shining thing, something pure and beautiful in a world marred by imperfection. Juri wants the power of miracles, the ability to change the world, if only in a little way. Touga wants something eternal, an everlasting spark of the divine. Sainoji is.. a little off, but I feel that he hungers for power and love, the twin desires of most of humanity, and, out of the council members, is the only one satisfied in the beginning of the story, due to his possession of Anthy.
Anthy is the idealized past, while Akito is the realized past. Akito currently binds God, and prevents his freeing by using Anthy to control the student council. Anthy is a cipher, upon which the desires of the student council are played out. They battle each other for control of her, because they believe that she either is or holds the key to what they want. In this way, they stand uncomprehending in the sight of the castle, focusing only on a tool that they believe holds the way to the future (a world revolution) and freedom (breaking the world’s shell).
Anthy and Akito are the central figures in this little drama, and the story revolves around our gradual understanding of their natures. Anthy, while under control of her brother, is dead, only an image to be re-written by the victor. However, she also offers not only a weapon in the hands of her owner, but the only way to touch the future, in the hands of someone with a noble spirit, the prince. However, she cannot “see” the prince in the present due to the continued presence of the prince in the past, Akito, even though he has ceased to be noble and now only exists so that he might continue to exist, and, further, that he might control the destiny of the world (“world revolution”). He controls the school as well, the prison for the present, an endlessly repeating cycle of sameness.
The story of Utena is one of cycles. Each arc is fundamentally cyclic, and, within the arcs, the episodes are fairly cyclic. Thus, at first glance, it seems that no progress towards the future is being made, however, the fact that the cycles do not repeat themselves exactly (each fight features different music, for example) and, in the end, they are broken by a person with a noble spirit, someone who continues walking forwards though a maze of unending circuits.
Enter Utena, the forward looking present. She breaks the cycles that the past imposes upon the present and allows for the future to be determined, not by the past, but by the present. She acts as she wants: in terms of gender roles, she is female without being feminine, but this isn’t to say that she is masculine, in terms of desires, she wishes not to possess Anthy, but to free her, and to treat her as an equal, rather than as an object.
The three arcs of the story each represent an attempt by Akito or his agents to find some way of stopping Utena from freeing God and Anthy. In the first arc, Utena opposes the present, the student council, and battles each of them in term, showing that she overcomes the desires of the present. In so doing, she wins control of Anthy, but, as revealed by the arc, her control of Anthy exists only on the surface level, in terms of a master/slave relationship. She cannot order Anthy to be free any more than Sainoji can order her to love him, meaning, she’ll carry out the motions, but she exists only as an object to be possessed. Utena falters in the face of Touga, but, finally triumphs, however, the seeds of her defeat are sown here, as it’s obvious that Utena’s desire to free Anthy has begun to bind her to Anthy, just as the others are bound to Anthy.
With the present vanquished, the next arc begins, and Utena faces people who are controlled by the past. As the various students attend the Mikage seminar, they regress to the past (see the image of the butterfly regressing as the students go down in the elevator). They are manipulated to this end by Mikage, a figure from the past, who is manipulated by the still more distant past: Akito, via Anthy. After confronting those who are dominated by their pasts and defeating them, Utena confronts what she believes to be the controller of the future, Mikage. Mikage attempts to regress Utena, as he did the others, but he cannot, due to Utena’s nobility. He is the defeated, and, afterwards, destroyed by Akito (destroyed is perhaps the wrong word, better would be that he is dispelled, as the truth of his own existence, a lie, is revealed to him.)
Finally, Utena must face Akito. However, the weeds sown in the first arc, watered by the betrayals in the second arc, have blossomed into the confusing tangle, obscuring the reality of the situation. Utena takes up residence with Akito and Anthy, and, once more, battles with the student council and others. This time, the fights resolve the longstanding conflicts that have allowed Akito to manipulate the duelists, while Utena’s growth is stalled, she cannot see beyond Akito’s prince-mask, something Akito is aware of, a crack in the noblity that kept Utena safe from his manipulations before. FInally Akito reveals himself, and attempts to use the weapon that Utena draws forth from Anthy, the weapon that the present can draw forth from the idealized past, narrative, to bring about his world revolution.
If you think about it, we all draw inspiration from our pasts and the pasts of those close to us (the swords that are drawn in the black rose arc and in the final arc from the bodies of those close to the duelists), but, the only thing that offers the possiblity of world shattering change is a global narrative from an idealized past. In the case of us Yanks, for example, we idealize the founding fathers of our country, and, out of this idealized past, we create a story about liberty and justice (even though the founding fathers believed in liberty for the property owning white males, rather than for all people), and though this narrative, we construct the future, as their example gives us common ground for debate and (theoretically) a common goal to strive for. However, we can stop believing in that story and start believing, in, say, a story about historical nessessity and class struggle, and we’ll see the world (and produce a future) with entirely different properties. The past determines the material conditions of the present, but the present offers ways to look at the past, and, if the past is able to completely control the narrative, the past would be able to completely determine the future.
So, the real past manipulates the present into making a perfect narrative, and, then, using the idealized past, destroys the ability of the present to act i.e. Akito has Anthy stab Utena in the back. Then, Akito attempts to use the blade to open the way to world revolution, but, the blade isn’t strong enough, and breaks. At this point, Akito gives up, and prepares for another cycle, another person to draw forth a sword that might, this time, be strong enough to open the door. However, Utena, though horribly wounded, isn’t dead, and decides to Anthy from her bondage (hur hur), even though it means that she’ll be killed by the “swords of hatred” that bind Anthy. These swords are the narratives of those who were crushed to make way for the idealized past that is being used to manipulate the present.
Utena frees Anthy and dies, but, by freeing Anthy, she’s broken the cycle. The idealized past is free, while, at the same time, Utena, by dying, has freed herself from the prison of the school. The present has triumphed over the past. What happens to God is not mentioned, and, Anthy, now free, leaves the school, in search of Utena, a touch which doesn’t make much sense from the idea of past vs. future, but, then again, there are a number of other ways to interpret Utena, including a feminist approach, as a religious allegory, and just straight as a damn good show. I may get around to those approaches later, but, in the meantime, if you’re still hungry for some meaty analysis, take a look here (not at all related as far as thing being studied, but excellent nonetheless) : http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/?tag=butchering-pathologic
In the Event of TL;DR: Pictures

4 Responses to “Who, What, Where, Which?”


  1. 1 21stcenturydigitalboy April 15, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Excellent, that’s on eof the best analysis (in general) that I’ve read in a while (not that I’ve been going around looking for them lol) Very interesting perspective on Utena. Since I saw it I’ve been thinking of the show as one that had a lot of symbolism, but none of which had a very thorough sense to me, which you’ve pulled together nicely.

  2. 2 issa-sa April 17, 2008 at 8:00 am

    Ah, Utena has been a favourite of mine since I started watching it… Unfortunately it’s also a favourite anime that I can’t say I truly understood – there were times when the shadow puppets made everything quite clear and others totally obscure (but they’re awesome every time they appear :P). Thanks a lot for this post, it’s helped me make a lot more sense of what I did like about the series which till now I could only attribute to gut instinct

  3. 3 TheBigN April 18, 2008 at 6:48 am

    I’d say that when Anthy’s free, she’s now the future, as there are endless possibilities for her to try and find Utena once she steps out of the school. She now has something to strive for, and Utena is that focal point. Though where Utena first in is confusing as well now. Oh well.

    I never thought about Utena like that, and it was a show that I was struggling to try and tie together. This might be one of the few pieces I’ve read that has been able to do that.😛


  1. 1 Blogroll Fanboying « Euphoric Field Trackback on January 4, 2009 at 2:01 am

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