Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Utena Dump: Episodes 36-39

And so at last we come to the end of me dumping thoughts about Utena. I'm a bit sad. For things I literally just dashed together as comments on someone else's blog, I feel like there was some good stuff here. Also any time spent thinking about Utena is time well spent.

Next week is another Sailor Moon liveblog. Week after that, a new feature that'll run on alternate Wednesdays through, if I've done my math right, most of the rest of the year. (I probably haven't; calendar math is hard.)

Episode 36:

There is a fairly slim chance that the "doorway of night" is a Tolkien reference. Specifically, the Door of Night is the gate between Arda, the universe of material existence that includes Middle-Earth, and the void. It was created at the end of the First Age to seal Morgoth, the first and most powerful Dark Lord [ed: and blatantly modeled on the popular Christian conception of Lucifer, so there's your connection to Akio], into the void. So if it's opening...

More likely, however, it's just a cool- and ominous-sounding phrase that evokes darkness and the day's end.

Actual thoughts on this episode mostly involve Touga and Saionji's friendship, and what I think is going on in the sidecar scene. Like a lot of conversations in this show, it's heavy on fugue, which is sort of halfway between code and subtext. It's like a code that is perfectly understandable to the people using it and opaque to everyone else, not because they've agreed on some symbolic schema beforehand, but because the people using it know each other well enough to understand what the other person means.

So for starters, this is CLEARLY Touga doing his "Akio Jr" schtick, and Saionji wanting none of it. From there we get Saoinni saying he doesn't like Touga's manipulation of him. Touga's response is care and concern for Saionji, his way of saying "I actually don't like hurting you and I'm sorry I'm a dick."

And from that point on, Saionji is snarkmaster, no longer chasing after the incatchably pedestal-occupying Touga ribbing and advising his friend. And Touga accepts this with good grace. They're equals...

...which means they have the closest bond of any pair Anthy and Utena have ever faced, and are therefore the most dangerous foe. The false Rose Brides have previously always been associated with the cars, and here for the first time both cars and duelist attack Utena. Touga and Saionji are working together, and therefore almost as dangerous as Utena and Anthy.

Which brings us to the ending. As others have pointed out, Anthy knew Utena was not really in bed and likely to wake up. It's very probable she planned, or at least hoped, for Utena to see her. One final effort to drive her off?

Episode 37:

So. Very. Much. is happening in this episode.

[Last episode] I talked about fugue. Today is the best example in the series, the poison scene. But sometimes fugue and implication aren't enough, which is why we get one of the most important moments in the show... But more on both scenes below.

Mostly, this episode is a reflection of Episode 12, “For Friendship, Perhaps.” In that episode, Utena’s confidence was shaken by her defeat at Touga’s hands, and she temporarily abandoned her quest to become a prince and became more “girly.”

Here, Utena is not trouble by a [personal] loss, but rather by a feeling that she has lost her nobility and worthiness. She feels betrayed by Anthy and Akio, confused, dirtied by the echo between what she’s done with Akio and what she saw Anthy doing, and she feels she can no longer be the Prince. On her date with Akio she wears a red sweater like the one Anthy made in the cowbell episode; as always, costume changes suggest a character is filling a new role, and in that episode the sweater represented Anthy weaving the bizarre situation. Here Utena is playing the part of Anthy’s victim, wrapped in her spells and manipulations, seeking rescue by the Prince from the Witch.

But Akio isn’t interested in the stars. He isn’t interested in romance or playing the role anymore; there is no salvation for Utena with him, only another trap. Utena even begins to recognize this--Akio's comments about how girlish she looks are couched as complements, but really they’re statements of contempt. Sure, she can become his Princess in the castle, but in so doing she is just another Rose Bride, forced to play nice or else be labeled as Witch, blamed for everything that goes wrong in everyone’s lives, and stabbed by the swords of humanity’s misogynistic hatred.

Nonetheless, even Akio knows the choice belongs to Utena. She can still choose to reject the roles created for her by others, if she can withstand humanity’s judgment. But does she even want to? She sought to become a Prince, joined the duels to save Anthy. Now--just as in Episode 12--she questions whether Anthy is even worth saving. Both times it was because Anthy “cheated” with the person Utena was starting to think might be her Prince. But this time Anthy is still around for Utena to vent her frustrations, and she shreds the letter inviting her to the final duel. Akio is on the verge of victory; he feared the relationship between Utena and Anthy, and it is on the verge of falling apart.

But then comes the glorious, glorious badminton game, where Utena sees that her friends--and Juri, Miki, even Nanami are now clearly her friends, though Nanami remains one of those people who expresses their concern by yelling at its object—support her. Maybe she has to choose between surrendering to Princesshood or becoming a Witch in the eyes of the world, between the trauma of breaking the world’s shell and dying without ever truly having lived as herself--but she doesn’t have to do it alone. There are people who support her. Who know who she is and see that she isn’t the Princess and value her anyway.

It is here that Utena realizes what a terrible friend she’s being to Anthy. The Shadow Play is all about the trap Anthy is in, where the only way for B-ko to find her place in the world is to play the “whore” part of the Madonna/whore complex; the casting couch is a horrible thing, but our social structures force B-ko to use it (and the media-scandal route to fame, which is a sort of media equivalent) if she is to get the role she sees as the only path to her dreams. However, just because this is the way our society is constructed does not excuse C-ko’s judge character from moral culpability for his choice to benefit from it, any more than Akio’s claims that “the World” is the source of Anthy’s pain excuses him from his choice to aggravate it.

Utena soon realizes she’s done something similar to Anthy, judging her for her “choice” to sleep with Akio when there is every reason to believe she’s being coerced. And all it took was some friends showing they support Utena for Utena to realize she has the strength to break out of society’s Princess/Witch trap; maybe she can do the same for Anthy, and the fugue/poison scene is her attempt to do just that, to find out what Anthy would do if she weren’t trapped and support her in that goal. Unfortunately, in light of episode 38 it’s clear that Utena and Anthy were reading that scene differently; what I posted above is deliberately the read of a person who (like Utena) doesn’t know what’s to come (paraphrased):

Anthy: Are you familiar with cantarella? Also, do you like the cookies? I made them myself. (I’m dangerous, poisonous. I’ve hurt you and will continue to hurt you.)
Utena: I poisoned your tea. (I hurt you too.)
Anthy: It’s delicious. (I know, and I still value your friendship.)
Utena: So are the cookies. (Likewise.)

But Anthy knows what’s coming, so to her the conversation is very different:

Anthy: Are you familiar with cantarella? Also, do you like the cookies? I made them myself. (I am going to betray you and hurt you very badly. It might even kill you.)
Utena: I poisoned your tea. (I hurt you too.)
Anthy: It’s delicious. (You aren’t a threat to me.)
Utena: So are the cookies. (I’m too na├»ve to recognize how dangerous you are.)

(Cantarella is a great choice of poison, too, given its association with the Borgias. Lucrezia Borgia is the most famous of the family, supposedly for killing a whole bunch of people. Historians agree that she almost certainly didn’t, and everything written about her is basically centuries of people piling lurid, made-up detail on lurid, made-up detail, until what actually happened is utterly obscured in favor of a depiction of a most likely ordinary woman as a terrifying monster. Sound familiar?)
Utena’s ensuing promise, revealing she forgives Anthy utterly--that Anthy’s last and most desperate attempt to drive Utena away before she is destroyed by the powerful energy field of fucked-upped-ness that surrounds Akio and Anthy has failed--forces Anthy to an even more desperate move, a suicide attempt. I’ve seen some fans questioning whether Anthy can even die--aren't she and Akio heavily implied to be eternal?--but that’s mistaking this for what Gayatri Spivak dismisses as “gossip about imaginary people,” the form of reading/watching in which fiction is treated as a window into a consistent and coherent other world, as opposed to a deliberately constructed artifice in which all elements are entirely invented and entirely under the control of the author(s). Anthy wants to die so she tries to die; it doesn’t actually matter whether at some other point in the story she survived being impaled with hundreds of swords. Or, to put it another way, in real life there are “layers” of reality, sets of experiences which vary in how real they are, with material reality the most real, followed by the consensus reality of social constructs and perception, and then the unreal, such as fiction and dreams. Most fiction mimics this structure, but there is no actual requirement that it must, since of course all layers in a work of fiction are part of the unreal layer in real life. Utena is an example of a series that doesn’t bother; the events we see unfolding around the characters when they are awake and active are no more or less real-within-the-show than a Shadow Girl play or a dream sequence.

Or if you prefer, maybe the Rose Bride is eternal but exists on the layer of story, while Anthy is mortal on the material layer--in other worlds, she’s only immortal and eternal when she’s playing the role of the Rose Bride.

Regardless, this suicide attempt, on which more when I talk about episode 38, serves to patch things up for Utena and Anthy. Utena now realizes her real role; she is not the Princess or the Witch, and maybe not even the Prince. She’s the Fool, one of the great literary archetypes—she belongs in a class of characters that includes such luminaries as Twoflower, Sam Gamgee, and (he grudgingly admits, still hating the characters) Isaac and Miri. [Note for non-Watchers: I picked these three particular characters because all three works, The Colour of Magic, The Lord of the Rings, and Baccano!, had been covered by Mark Watches at the time I originally made these comments, and thus could be presumed familiar for the audience.]  She’s the one who has no idea what’s going on and therefore can cut through the biases and assumptions of others. The one who, in her obliviousness of what is and isn’t possible, can accomplish the impossible. The one who, precisely because the normal sources of wisdom are denied to her, possesses intuitive knowledge unavailable to the wise. The one who possesses the power of an adult and the naivete of a child, and therefore can bring about new beginnings.

She is the One Who Brings the World Revolution.

And, Anthy at her side, she is heading for the arena.

The Duel Named Revolution has begun.

Episode 38:

So, one thing people occasionally ask is whether and how much Akio was manipulating Touga. The answer is Yes and Lots. But I think, given the amount of panic he shows when he first says it, that Akio is honest about wanting someone to beat Utena in the Car Saga duels. He clearly wants to take the heart sword of the One Who Brings the Revolution of the World, but he's also clearly worried about Utena and Anthy's closeness--Anthy is also necessary to his endgame. So plan A was to work with Touga to get someone to beat Utena and become the OWBRW. But Akio is a master manipulator; he knows better than to assume Plan A will work. So Plan B is to get close enough to Utena to drive a wedge between her and Anthy and make her surrender the sword herself, becoming a pseudo-Rose Bride. Plan C is to take the sword by force in a duel. And Plan D? Anthy backstab.

So he reveals himself as the Prince, and nearly persuades Utena to become his princess. But as he feared, she is too close to Anthy, unwilling to leave her behind and ascend to eternal bliss with Akio. The key moment is Utena's flashback to the aftermath of last episode's suicide, the overt version of what was merely implied in the cantarella scene: Anthy has been manipulating and using Utena both in an attempt to alleviate her own pain and at her brother's behest. But Utena doesn't blame her; Utena at last realizes her own greatest flaw, her "cruel innocence" and savior complex.

As I mentioned before, a key theme of this series is that the concept of the savior, the "prince" in the show's own parlance, is inherently flawed. Saving others is about providing the help you want to give to the problems you perceive them as having--it is entirely about yourself. Helping others, by contrast, is about reaching out to them and letting them decide what you can do for them. It renders you vulnerable, but is the truly altruistic option. For the first time, Utena realizes that in trying to save Anthy she has been treating her as an object, talking over her, perpetuating a system that victimizes her, failing utterly to try to learn Anthy's point of view.

Utena recognizes this at FOURTEEN. Some people spend their entire lives without understanding the difference. This is a pretty huge achievement on Utena's part.
So Akio falls back another technique, a classic tactic of the abuser: gaslighting. That is, he attempts to convince Utena of things she knows aren't true, so that she will lose confidence in her own perceptions and attitudes and rely more on his. His opening move is to reveal that the castle in the sky is (as Saionji said it was in the first episode!) an illusion created by his planetarium, the dueling arena itself simply his bedroom. Everything that Utena experienced there, he claims, was his creation. (This is nonsense, of course. Even if the imagery was his, the dueling arena has never been about the images; it's about the emotional realities of the clashing characters, and that is their own creation, even if Akio has been exploiting it.)

He tries to undermine her moral sense, too, pretending that a 14-year-old girl being seduced into an adulterous relationship by an older, more experienced man is just as bad as an adult who rapes and abuses his underage sister. Unfortunately, Utena doesn't have the words in the heat of the moment to articulate why it's different--again, this is classic gaslighting. Finally he tries to convince her that her goal is false; Anthy does not want to be rescued and there is no such thing as a prince.

But Utena stands firm, and forces the duel.

I adore this scene with the Student Council that follows, the first time all five of them have ever been in the same scene together. The egg speech has always been another core theme of the series. As I explained before, it is a Hesse reference, and describes the necessity of either breaking the world's shell, the social structures that both maintain society and oppress individuals, or living out your whole life and dying without achieving your fullest potential. It is the arc of most characters in the show: In the beginning is the fairy tale of childhood, where you are safe and protected and powerless like the princess. Then comes adolescence, where you begin to assert the power that all human beings naturally possess, albeit in varying measure--physical power, social power, moral judgment, sexuality--and become aware that the world is not a safe and comforting place, but corrupt and full of darkness and dangers, as well as confining, arbitrary social norms that deny you full self-expression "for your own good." That is as far as Akio can reach--but the other characters, most notably Utena but the entire student council as well--is on the verge of reaching beyond that, to adulthood, where you recognize that much of what holds you back is your own shortcomings and start working to overcome them; that much of the rest of what holds you back is arbitrary judgment by people you don't actually have to listen to, so you stop listening to them; and that what remains can be defied and fought.

The Duel Named Revolution is fought against the world, yes, and all the judgmental and manipulative bastards who want to prevent you from being who you are, too, but it's equally fought against oneself. (That's a clue to whose duel this really is, by the way. Utena's internal conflict here is nothing compared to Anthy's.)

But mostly I love this scene because the five of them have finally come around to supporting Utena wholeheartedly. She represents them all against Akio--and they all have some pretty darn legitimate grievance against him!

Their five colors plus the Prince come together as one: Utena's pink.

At last the duel proper begins, as Akio talks about his unstated "ideals" which are so lofty that Utena cannot comprehend them, and which justify his actions. The planetarium immediately belies his words, displaying Black Rose Saga-style desks with nothing on them. The Black Rose duelists all had a signature object that signified what it was they were seeking after; Akio has nothing. He believes in nothing, and his ideals are as much an illusion as everything else.

And Utena reveals that Akio has failed; she will not abandon her own ideals. Here the prince has ceased to be Dios, the savior, the empty myth that becomes Akio; now the prince is the ideal self, the Utena-who-is-a-better-Utena. Dios shatters, the castle crumbles; Utena has taken the concept of the prince away from Akio and made it her own.

Anthy wakes, and sees that Akio no longer has the power to face Utena. With no other options left, Akio throws Anthy at her. And for just a moment, it is almost enough... Anthy hesitates.

But in the end she does what her brother wants. The world revolution is too new, too frightening; better the eternal familiar agony than the danger of hoping and being disappointed.

Anthy stabs Utena, her dress spreading out around them like a pool of blood.

The Duel Named Revolution...

...continues.
Episode 39:

Akio’s greatest weapon is the internalized misogyny of others, as Anthy demonstrates when she explains her reason for stabbing Utena: girls can’t be princes.

Akio’s second-greatest weapon is blaming others for his own treachery, as he does when he tells Utena he warned her.

Juri’s story is interesting; it is again a story of the prince, and showing yet another flaw in the ideal: you might fail and be forgotten. Fooooooooooooooooreshadoooooooooowiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.

But there is another source of foreshadowing here: Anthy hesitates to give Akio the sword. She cares about Utena, regrets stabbing her—and Akio deftly makes it all about him. Subtly he blames Anthy even while forgiving her (arrogating to himself the right to forgive her!): She knows he blames her for him no longer being the prince, so when he says this might be different if he were still the prince, it’s a subtle way of blaming her while appearing to blame himself. Their oddly ritualistic exchange about knowing and loving is similarly abusive; Akio is saying that someone who truly knows Anthy and still loves her is rare. It’s the classic “no one could ever love you but me” trick; like gaslighting, its goal is to undermine the other person’s confidence and increase their dependence on their abuser. (The Raven pulled precisely the same trick on Rue in Princess Tutu.)

Anthy’s dress stands empty. The Rose Bride was as much an illusion as the arena. The true Anthy is, has always been, impaled on a million swords of human hatred, imprisoned in the realm of the rose gate. This is the true function of the Rose Bride: to be Eve. To be the woman blamed, to take the swords of humanity’s hatred in the place of the prince, the savior, the true villain who wants humanity to suffer so he can play at rescuing them.
The Rose Gate is, of course, the same as the gate to enter the arena way back in the first episode. It’s as yonic as ever, and Akio approaches it by attacking it with a phallic symbol. He is wielding the sword of Utena’s heart destructively, and it puts her in agony.

Meanwhile, the “true” prince appears, and he’s not all that different from Akio, looking down on Utena, seeing her as weak and childish and in need of protection. Akio isn’t the corruption of Dios; they are Abraxas, one being with two faces. The “good” and “evil” faces are both masks over a single underlying reality, a being that sees itself as superior. Akio, Ruka, Touga, Wakaba’s Onion Prince; all are the same twisted approach to life expressed in different ways.

And Utena is having none of it. She stands. Even as her heart(-sword) breaks, she stands. She shoves the prince, the ruler of the world, out of the way, and as she does we see a brief glimpse of Wakaba. Wakaba, Utena’s friend for whom she started this all. Wakaba, loyal, loving Wakaba who faced and overcame her desire to be special in the Black Rose Saga; Wakaba, who doesn’t need to save others, just to be with them. At the same time, Akio speaks of his quest to win the power to revolutionize the world, because power is all he knows and all he understands. He wants to stand alone, to wield the power alone, and looks down on those who depend on others.

Which is his mistake. He insists on being the one with the power, on refusing to become vulnerable. Utena doesn’t. She admits that she loves Anthy, that she needs Anthy, that she cannot ever be truly happy without Anthy. Utena’s tear falls and becomes the drop of water that opens the gate. (Yes, once again and as always, the key to making the flower open is getting it wet.) But less crudely, the swords stop, as they must. They represented that the world hates Anthy, that it refuses to accept a woman who chooses not to be a princess. But the world doesn’t hate Anthy; misogynistic assholes like Akio do. Utena loves her.

Utena opens the coffin, her coffin, which is Anthy’s coffin. The eternally pierced Anthy was an illusion too; the real Anthy is the cowering, frightened girl, hiding in a terrible dark place because she fears the world outside is even worse. But Utena holds out a hand and lets Anthy decide whether to take it; no longer saving, but helping, letting Anthy make the choice. And as the heartbreaking strains of the series overture swell, Anthy does it. She takes Utena’s hand, willingly tries to take her hand. The arena, Akio’s corrupt system for controlling and manipulating others, Anthy most of all, falls apart as Anthy rejects it, choosing real love over the abuse she has known.

And then she falls.

Because the danger of helping instead of saving is that it means surrendering control. The other person might fall, leaving you with hand outstretched. Even worse, the world loves a savior, but often hates a helper. By helping someone the world has targeted you become a target yourself. Utena is not a princess, not a prince; in the eyes of the world, she must therefore be a witch.

Yet the series is not over. The shadow play girls step in to discuss the future--yet, oddly, there is no shadow, the familiar buildings emerging instead into light. Utena has been forgotten, and yet, much as with Mikage’s erasure before, some of the changes she helped create remain. Miki is teaching Tsuwabuki to use the stopwatch; Miki is moving on and needs someone to take his place. Saionji has abandoned dueling and wants to move ahead with his studies; he and Touga interact as friends and equals once more. Nanami has a tea dispenser similar to the one Wakaba had when she was living with Saionji; it’s ambiguous, but I think it’s an implication that Nanami and Saionji are dating--and their interactions and growth in the last arc suggest to me that they might possibly be good for each other. Or spectacularly terrible; either way, it implies both of them have moved on from their respective obsessions. Juri is still captain of the fencing team, but Shiori is now on the team with her; their relationship, too, has moved into new territory. Even the barbershop trio have transferred their interest from Nanami to her former minions, who appear to now be an independent gang of their own. Most interestingly, Wakaba seems to be shifting into an Utena-like role... (Who is that pouncing on her, anyway? A-ko? Keiko? [Another Mark Watches commenter suggested it is the girl from the first episode who told Wakaba her "boyfriend" Utena had gone on without her. This appears to be correct, and is intriguing.])

The only one who hasn’t moved on is Akio. He has moved backwards, intending to start the cycle of duels over again from the start with a new batch of duelists. He can’t move on, because he can’t let go of his power and control. As much as he uses his power to manipulate others, in the end he is enslaved to it more than anyone else, a pathetic figure gnawing away at the bottom of a pit that he’s persuaded everyone is a giant phallic tower. But he may have no choice but to change now, because the unthinkable has happened: Anthy rejects him and walks away.

And then we come to the closing credits, as my favorite track in the entire show, the triumphant "Rose and Release," plays. (And for the second time in the episode, the first being "Overture," I cry. Even on what must be my 20th viewing by now.) Anthy walks out of her prison, as she always had the power to do and yet never could before. She is free; she can grow up.

Of course she is doing it to find and save her love. Clad in Utena's pink, she takes on Utena's role as quester, protector, bringer of revolution, fool.

And what is it she walks out into? What are the images behind the credits? A gate. Trees, suggesting a forest. A long road winding into the distance. The common element is that all of these are liminal spaces, places you cross on the journey, not destinations in themselves. And indeed, we see Anthy walking ceaselessly and without hesitation through them. She does not stop until she is past all of them.

And listen to that song again. "Rose and Release" is very obviously the opening credits music, but with the lyrics replaced by vocalizing. They are ostentatious by their absence, so let us consider them.
Heroically, with bravery
I'll go on with my life,
just a long, long time.
But if the two of us should get split up
by whatever means,
let go of me,
Take my revolution.


"If we are separated, one of us will have to change the world."

In the sunny garden, we held each other's hands,
drew close together and soothed each other with the words,
"Neither of us will ever fall in love again."
Everytime
Into this photograph of us
smiling cheek to cheek,
I took a bit of loneliness,
and crammed it inside.


This is clearly Anthy talking about the keepsake photo she took with Utena, which appears again at the end.

Revolution!
Even in my dreams, even through my tears,
even though I'm being hurt,
reality is approaching now, frantically.
What I want now is to find out
just where I belong,
and my self-worth, up through today.


Again, very clearly something Anthy would say, and not Utena. This and the preceding section establish this is Anthy's song.

Heroically, I'll throw away
my clothes 'til I'm nude,
like the roses dancing all around me, whirling free.
But if the two of us should get split up
by whatever means,
I swear to you, I will change the world.


"Wait for me Utena! Even if it means destroying my brother's system, I will find you!"
Song and imagery taken together make it clear: Yes. Anthy finds Utena. They are together in the end, hand in hand. Someday, together, they shine. (Note that the title of the episode replaces the normal "to be continued" card. This is the end of the show, and the end of the show is Anthy and Utena, shining, hand in hand.)

Utena failed to save Anthy and failed to be the Prince. That's because, as I've said before, the ideal of the savior is fundamentally self-contradictory and flawed. But, perhaps without realizing it, Utena helped Anthy, gave her the tools she needed to finally walk out of Ohtori Academy and the cycle of abuse she'd been trapped in for what seems like centuries. Utena is the vehicle by which Anthy escapes Ohtori, but it's Anthy in the driver's seat.

Which brings me to one final image and question: every duel in the series ends with the clanging of bells as the winner is revealed. But when the swords destroy the arena, there are no bells.

Not, that is, until the end of the episode, when Anthy tells of Akio and walks out. Then they ring riotously as Anthy sets off. In other words, the duel didn't end with Utena's defeat, it ended with Anthy's liberation.

The Duel Named Revolution is over.

Anthy won.

3 comments:

  1. If this is the last dump, there's no dump for the movie. Is Mark not going to watch it?

    P.S. you are the only person I know of who does not love Isaac and Miri and also the only person I know of who dislikes Mako Mankanshoku. I'm pretty sure there's a connection.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mark watched the movie. My comment consisted of, basically, "Yay, lesbian subtext is now text, but other than that this movie isn't very good."

      I felt like after what I wrote on the final episode, that would be too much of an anticlimax, so I'm just not posting it.

      Delete
    2. Oh, and on Isaac and Miri and Mako: because they're the same fucking obnoxious character?

      Delete

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