The Big Utena Post

May 5, 2006 at 7:10 am (Analysis, Anime)

Due to a complex chain of events that may have started with Seth’s Beer + Utena Marathon Days idea a few years back, over the course of the past year, CWRU AnSoc (of which I’ve been kind of an adjunct appointed officer by virtue of living with the actual officers) aired the entirety of Shoujo Kakumei Utena, on a schedule of 2-3 episodes a week. This was my second complete run through the show (I watched about half of it on the afforementioned Marathons, before schoolwork overtook schedules again). This second watching has moved a series I liked into the top tier of my favorite anime, and I stop and ask myself why this might be. Why do I like this show?

I kill with my car?

The show uses a ridiculous amount of repeated footage, has a frequently repeated song (absolute destiny apocalypse) that I don’t particularly like, has some of anime’s most blandly choreographed swordfights, is long, and is incredibly pretentious. It looks like some kind of terrible film student art piece come to life on a nickel-and-dime budget.

Yet I think it is totally sweet.

I like lists.

–Why I thought Utena was Totally Sweet–

1. It’s weird. Well, on the second watch, the basic plot made a lot more sense to me, but I remember the first time I watched it thinking it was, like, Eva-level bizarre. In some ways it is. The characters exist on an abstract and highly symbolic landscape. Weird is points though, because I like having my brain messed with. Weird means there was something I found novel or interesting, or complex. Complex means more thinking, and more thinking means more diaryjournalblogging that makes me feel all smart, and that’s how I get to sleep each night.

Akio’s telescope is so…bulbous

2. WTF factor. This is sorta like the weirdness, but was harder for me to ID on the second watch. Things like the sudden change of character in the show, particularly between the first two arcs are fun surprises. It seems so simplistic at first, but rapidly grows complex. I think I particularly relished the AnSoc viewing audience reaction, the first time Akio come-hither’s Anthy, she takes off her glasses, and his windows all simultaneously slam shut, ending the episode. It had a literal “bang” there with the windows that resonated with the shock to the new viewers. Delicious


3. Themes of challenging gender and sexual norms. I tend to like stories with these themes. Though the situation is, I understand, getting better, Japan has historically and up until at least the early nineties had a very restrictive set of cultural roles that were acceptable for women. Career options for the majority of women were very limited and tended to serve primarily as a path to marriage (“office lady” is a good example of this kind of job). Behavioral norms are very gender-biased. Almost every culture has gender-specific behavioral norms, but they’ve been stronger and more rigid in Japan than in, say, the United States in the last thirty years or so. Just as an example, consider that Japanese girl’s school uniforms (or so anime has me believe at least) all have skirts rather than pants. The very first gender-role rejection noted about Utena is that she wears a boy’s uniform instead of a dress. Interestingly, the Student Council female uniforms both use pants and not dresses. And Anthy is just naked a lot of the time (okay, not really). Anyway, partly out of my hatred of Puritan culture, I have a lot of sympathy for these kinds of themes. I wanted to point out the situation in Japan though to make it clear that Utena’s behavioral deviations from the norm are more significant than they might seem at first to an American viewer. Utena’s world, in particular, is an exaggeratedly gender-biased one. It’s not the post-apocalyptic-sf world of Evangelion, where women can be sexual and powerful. It’s a school where the men are all bishounen, and the girls where skirts and talk about which hawt bishis they want to confess to. The symbolism also plays very strongly to genders. Phallic symbols are rampant (swords, cars, … carr…carrot?), and roses are a feminine gender symbol. Akio, who is the uber-male of the universe, lives in this immensely immensely phallic tower that looks over everything else. Anthy, the complementary uber-female, is trapped down in a birdcage-like flower garden made of glass; not a prison difficult to break physically, but very strong thematically.


4. It feels epic. It’s easy to be pretentious about the significance of your work, but it’s hard to actually convey a sense of significance. A feeling of epicness isn’t exactly the same thing, but if a conflict feels “epic” then I tend to be more excited about it than I might otherwise be. After reading a lot of power-trippy fantasy fiction (see: Dragonlance Legends), reading a lot of superhero comics, watching a lot of very silly sf anime (see: DBZ), and so forth, “saving the world” isn’t enough to make a conflict feel epic to me. I’m sort of cynical about this. Yet Utena manages to achieve a sense of epicness for me. I think a lot of this is because the protagonist is largely unaware of the significance of her actions. Utena is just doing what she thinks is right, for the most part, not trying to revolutionize the world, just trying to protect her friends (hmmm, protect the thing I care about the most…).

5. Heavy symbolism is often just pointlessly pretentious. Repeated footage is often just a cost-cutting measure. Utena, however, uses both of these as techniques to develop its world. I particularly like the way they use repeated scenes, because I’m interested in any text that toys with form to accomplish a goal. I mentioned the gender symbolism already, but the repeated motifs and scenes deserve some discussion. The heavy symbolism and repeated motifs work together to create the very particular setting in which the story is played out, and to reinforce its themes. Repeating the same scenes over and over with slight variations gives us the feeling that the students aren’t really people, just actors in some kind of play. Thus the whole concept of “villain of the week” is utilized for something other than cheap story ideas. There have to be all of these duelists not because the story needs new and more challenging opponents in the physical sense, but because the story’s universe requires that somebody fill the role of dueling opponent. Clearly the point isn’t crazy-action-choreography in the duels, because, within an arc at least, they all have extremely similar choreography, and Utena always wins in basically the same way (she channels Dios or whatever). As long as she stays within the bounds of her role, and the framing of the duel, she can’t lose (she loses to Touga once, because he sorta tricks her into breaking the role), because her role is to win each match. We get a lot of other repeated scenes, with slightly different content. The student council meetings are all fairly similar in structure, and led into with the elevator scene. In the Black Rose arc, we get a different elevator scene (which I thought did a really good job of feeling dark, devastated, and creepy) each duel episode. The character in the elevator changes, but they’re playing the same role. Some of the stuff that happens doesn’t seem to matter directly, but is repeated to again enforce the duplicity of the setting. Miki’s stopwatch is a good example. If I can’t quickly think of a symbolic interpretation, I tend to assume there isn’t one. I don’t think Miki’s stop watch “means” anything, but the fact that he stops it all the time is part of the role he is playing. In the last episode, he’s training somebody else to take over the role for him, noting the quality of Tsuabuki’s watch-stopping technique.

Going back to the student council elevator, in the early eps the students recite an oath, and they do it again in the last (or second to last; I forget) episode that establishes a key theme. The oath (“break the world’s shell…” etc) is actually extracted from the Herman Hesse novel Damien, which is, apparently, heaviliy Gnostic in character (I haven’t read it). The theme is more generally transcendental though. The characters want to break free from this role-play universe they’re living in. The two strongest roles being male and female. I mentioned Akio and Utena’s positions as uber-male and uber-female already. Utena is cheating though. She’s not doing the female thing. So she manages to overcome the force of the constructed universe in the last episode, and not just lose the fight like all of her implied predecessors. I like how the conclusion of the show is Anthy stepping outside of the academy, abandoning this landscape of forced roles. I felt like that step had a lot of dramatic power. And really, that’s one thing that symbols can do: the symbolic action lets you do something significant in a story, without being so overt that you come off melodramatically. Compare the Utena movie, with it’s crazy car-driving scene, which is a lot more power-trippy kinda thing. It’s basically the same action, but portrayed in a much less subtle way.

From the horse’s mouth

The Shadow Theatre is actually weird, because while they’re certainly a repeated motif, their role seems to shift between echoing a sort of ‘whispers of the school’ to providing really important story information to just being incredibly random. The fact that they are shadows fits in well with the duplicity of the academy that I keep harping on though. They aren’t really people, they’re just roles. Their faces are irrelevent.

So yeah, all the repeated motifs contributes to the constructed feel of the universe, and also tends to make the characters minds seem separated from the story they’re participating in to some degree. They ignore really absurd things going on in the background of scenes, like thousands of balloons rising. This leads to a lot of humor, but also reinforces the symbolic nature of the setting. The symbolic nature of the setting, with all its phalluses and flowers, and roles to play, helped make it feel epic for me.


6. It’s hilarious. Particularly in the last arc, Utena is very aware of how incredibly pretentious its story is, and even of its own somewhat arbitrary construction. Characters will often point out oddities in the construction, like when Ruka steps in to fill the repeated dialogue role that Touga had been doing in the Akio Ohtori Arc, but then stops and says “Touga, I’ve been waiting for you. Now say your part!”. Or when whoever it was asked Miki why he was always clicking his stopwatch. There was also a ton of sexual humor that was allowed by the show’s odd construction. Before Touga’s last duel (ep 36), instead of Etc Female Character + male duelist together on the road in Akio’s car, with female “bride” erotically drawing a sword from the male in the duel, we get Touga slash Saionji on a motorcycle with sidecar, and Saionji is all like “I don’t like showing my emotions. *blush*” So good. Or the camera that defrocks its subjects. The character disconnect from the setting also lets them do weird things while talking. This happened a lot in the student council meetings, like the one where Touga was throwing darts at Miki, or the random vibrating lazy-boys. Anyhoo, I particularly like how the show uses its construction to generate unique and bizarre humor, playing its serious tone against various absurdities for irony.


SIDENOTE: I think the viewing set-up I had for this show on the second watch was ideal. Interesting from a compositional perspective or not, the repetition can get monotonous, but watching only 2-3 eps a week kept it from bugging me. I did not feel the need to fast forward through the ADA song like I did the first time through. Also, the show definitely benefited from a large screen and big speakers. It raised the drama and epicness of the show by another factor, for me. Also, it would occasionally generate screams of cognative dissonance from the audience, which are like my bread and butter.

Alright, that probably bored everyone who was not me, so you win a humorous Utena AMV.



  1. i have been requested to write fifteen 150 word reviews about each of these blogs at 見ないで! 恥ずかしい… said,

    […] sethjohnson and me go way back, as in to college. He eventually started his anime blog because he thought that I’m full of shit (well, he’s basically always thought that, anyway) and wanted to make fun of me by writing posts where he does things like point out all of the things in Utena that look like wangs. We also took Comp Lit 215: Japanese Popular Culture together at Case. He took it because it looked like an easy way for him to finish his humanities sequence, while I took it in hopes that I would learn “what the hell the deal is with the tentacles”. His blogroll is divided up into fetishes, but my site is listed under “megane” rather than “osananajimi”. He also writes Ziggurat of Doom, but that site gets as many visitors in a month as his aniblog gets in a day. LOL! […]

  2. Jane said,

    Hey,liking your blog a lot
    I take it you’re a gnostic then?

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    […] Utena and phallic imagery […]

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    […] Seth Johnson’s post on Utena and phallic imagery […]

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