Thoughts on the Student Council Arc of Revolutionary Girl Utena (01-13)

Well, obviously this post will contain spoilers for the first 13 episodes of Revolutionary Girl Utena.  At the same time, it won’t contain any spoilers for anything happening beyond that because I neither have seen past this point nor have read anything relating to it.  Do keep that in mind if you comment🙂

end

I guess if I were to do a one-page essay on this arc, I’d title it something like:

The Student Council is a Shameful Sham.

It sounds shocking, and I think I could make a good case for this interpretation.  There’s two levels to the sham.

The first level comes into view around episodes 9 and 10, when Saionji is tricked by Kiryuh and ends up being kicked out of the council.  Aside from the fact that Saionji did technically break the rules, Kiryuh’s ability to forge letters from the End of the World throws into question the whole structure of the Student Council.  Tohga is rigging this.  His granting of a ring to his sister Nanami is just as suggestive of his power.

The second level comes into play at the very beginning, and it shows us that the council president is being outfoxed in turn. The second duel between Saionji and Utena [thank goodness for the ep 13 review!] seems to be decided by the miysterious prince’s actual possession of the new duelist.  This possession also happens later on.

course

If the structure of the council is in doubt, and even the outcome of each duel subject to outside (Dios ex Machina?) forces, then what’s the point???  It really does look like a sham.

Tohga, I’ll grant, is a great character.  He exudes coolness, as Fuzakenna! puts it so well in the post A Fake-Ass Bitch and a Real Playa.  But he does betray at times a substantial, maybe even fatal, vulnerability.  His philosophy, revealed in episode 11, comes to something like this:

When you have feelings for someone, they will end in you being betrayed.  The stronger your feelings are, the greater the betrayal will be.

I detect weakness in these lines.  I agree with them to some extent, mind you!, but they show his weakness.  He’s basically telling us he’s repressing his feelings, as no doubt he does have them, and in this way he is weaker than the ideal Tohga who’d be able to cope and deal with betrayal.  anyone remember Kuze from ef – a tale of melodies?

This does not at all mean that he isn’t a player.  Gah, if you’re doing practically everyone in your school you are a player, period.  But there’s weakness there too…

presence

As for the symbolism, I feel it’s safe to say [for this 13-ep arc, at least] that it is both profuse and superficial.  The symbols are everywhere, but they tend to be one-step or two-step associations.

For example, at the end of the 12th episode each of Utena’s 7 duels so far gets associated with an abstract noun.  It’s quite easy to make out the connections in each case: Utena’s choice to play the Student Council’s game in her second duel, Nanami’s adoration for her brother in the fifth duel, and so on.

Utena Tenjoh’s name can be translated as castle in the sky.

The shadow plays, which I absolutely love [primarily due to the quirky voices], might sometimes be hard to crack but in every case they simply reflect the duel about to happen.  Once you figure out the relationship, it’s one step from the story to the duel.  This is what I mean by superficial (=on the surface), and not anything  negative.  So far the symbolism seems more aesthetic than anything [I guess you could make the case for Evangelion working the same way…]

Looking forward to the next arc, I’ll be curious to see how Utena’s masculine/feminine issues continue to develop.  It really seemed like in the last few episodes she has begun to exhibit some classically feminine characteristics, paradoxically, through her efforts to be a prince for Anthy…

The best fight sequence of the lot, and they’re all good, was the duel with Juri Arisugawa.  I love how the fight ends with the miracle that Juri wished to deny by her very fighting.  The shadow play, where one of the girls is glad she’s sick and can’t go to the zoo, only to confess at the end that she really wanted to go, mirror’s Juri’s real wish and makes me believe she might ultimately be happy [or at least hopeful] with the result of the duel.

nanami

The best outfit’s gotta be Nanami’s power yellow suit.  The way I see it Nanami is the pessimist of the show: you can see in her eyes how even though she’s got loads of energy she just knows it’s all for nothing.  If there’s anything fake-ass about her, is how she covers up her fundamental feeling of hopelessness with a whole lot of feistiness.

I don’t really have much to say on the new content in episode 13.  The “prince” and the other dude talking was all very interesting in a “OK, so let’s see how this develops” kind of way.  The timing of Anthy’s return to the dorm, and her unwillingness to tell Utena where she’s been, can make one speculate the conversation between the two mystery people was taking place inside of her [as we didn’t see her with them and the place was dark].  Who knows?

On with the Black Rose!

beginning

~ by Haloed Bane on October 26, 2009.

27 Responses to “Thoughts on the Student Council Arc of Revolutionary Girl Utena (01-13)”

  1. Hehehe. Yeah, Touga’s weakness is a big deal. You’ll see him more or less get dragged further and further for a good while, but I won’t say too much. And I, too, love Nanami’s yellow suit.

    The Black Rose saga is easily the worst part of the show… there are some great episodes, but a lot of it is pretty meh. Fairly surprising stuff all-around, though. Not to say that this show ever stops really being what it is, and the Black Rose saga has had it’s worth well-argued by others.

    Nice post, I think it’s kind of fun to watch you squirm as you try to put together a puzzle where most of the pieces haven’t shown their faces, hehehehehe.

    • I like to squirm…just as long as I know that I will get it in the end! I think I’ll end up watching the last ep on Christmas Day.

  2. O_O

    An update! It’s the first sign of the apocalypse! AAAAAAH! AAAAAAH! AAAAAAH!

    Okay, no, but seriously, it’s nice to see this hasn’t fallen through. Are you breaking with Otou-san on this now?

    As for the substance of the post:😦

    I’m having immense trouble finding something meaningful to say about this without spoiling. More than I did with the mahou shoujo post.

    Well, let’s start with what’s safe and stop when we start getting into tricky areas.

    The sham of the student council. Well, what do we know about the student council/rose crest duels?

    What: A series of duels to determine possession of “the power to revolutionise the world”/”the power of miracles”/”that which is eternal”/”that which shines”. These are all names for the same thing, “the power of Dios”. They all correspond to a specific duelist, as well: Touga/Juri/Saionji/Miki respectively. Dios, note, is the Spanish word for God. They are duelling for the power of God.
    Who: The duelists; the student council, Utena. The Rose Bride; Himemiya Anthy. The End of The World; the mysterious ringmaster. The Prince in the High Castle; Dios.
    Where: Ohtori Academy. Behind a gate of water and white marble, atop a surreal spiral staircase stretching out to touch a castle in the heavens. The castle where Dios abides.
    When: After school :p
    How: Unknown, but if the power of God is the prize then might not the power of God be the means?
    Why: Unknown.

    So, the only remaing questions (whence, whither and which having no obvious application here not covered elsewhere) are how and why. Of these two, why is the more interesting (and, let’s face it, the more likely to be answered).

    The End of the World, the Prince, the Rose Bride. These three apparently have the power to bestow the power of God. Why? Why have they gathered a bunch of teenagers together to fight for the power of God? (I think it says something to the quality of Utena that we can honestly ask that question and expect a reasonable answer).

    Actually, if you’ll let me digress for a second, I have to wonder what Utena would have been like if it had been made in a traditionally Abrahamic country. “The power of God” cannot possibly be as potent an image in Japan as it would be in Europe or West Asia or America.

    Back to the topic: Why? Why do these three wish these duels into being? Why would they want to give anyone, let alone these candidates (Nanami? With the power of God?). Well, as we talked about him before, let’s start with a Nietzsche quote :p

    “Companions the creator seeks and not corpses, nor herds or believers either. Fellow creators the creator seeks, those who inscribe new values on new tablets.
    Companions the creator seeks, and fellow harvesters: for all that is with him stands ripe for the harvest. But the hundred sickles are lacking: so he plucks ears of corn and is sorely vexed.
    Companions the creator seeks, and such as know how to whet their sickles. Destroyers they will be called and despisers of good and evil. But harvesters are they and celebrants.”

    So, does it apply here? For all that I’ve gone to the trouble of transcribing it, I think we’d be better off going deeper. Are the duels a sham? If by sham we mean that the results are pre-ordained and the efforts of the duelists are futile… I think not. If by sham we mean that their goal differs to the one which is stated, I think we’re on to something. Consider Touga, for one. He’s manipulating the duels. More to the point, he’s doing it with the knowledge and consent of the End of the World (am I ever going to be glad when we get to the point I can start using his proper name -___-). The telephone conversation at the end of 9 makes it clear that while Touga’s machinations are not part of the End of the World’s designs, they aren’t contrary to his goals either.

    So. If the duels can be perverted without harm to their intent, they are not a fair trial to discover one worthy of wielding the power of Dios. The End of the World would appear to be something of a less than savoury character as well; he’s more concerned about the wound on Touga’s back than he is about the president’s cheating and betrayal of his best friend and Saionji’s manufactured expulsion.

    As to Utena’s possession by the Prince-from-heaven, well. Some pertinent facts: it only happens when she is engaged to Anthy. In the two duels where she isn’t, she wins on her merit alone. Recall, again, that whoever is engaged to the Rose Bride gains the power to revolutionise the world. The power of Dios. I posit that this possession by Dios is a manifestation of that power. So really, this isn’t someone fixing the fights in Utena’s favour so much as it is an advantage of whoever is the reigning champion. It’s not an overwhelming advantage either: it failed against Touga and Juri, and Nanami just didn’t give a fuck.

    So, a more interesting question is why nobody else can draw on this power. Well, Dios is the Prince. Or rather, The Prince. It all his appearances, he has yet to utter a single word. He hasn’t moved, save through Utena. He’s not so much a person as he is an archetype with a given name. The power of Dios is thus also the power of The Prince. And Utena, above all else, above everybody else, strives to be The Prince. Every other character wears a rose that matches the colour of their hair. Utena’s is white (save in 12, where it is indeed pink). White is the colour of Dios’ hair. The colour of The Prince.

    On to symbolism. I noted, back on the mahou shoujo post, that the shadow girls’ function seems to be a Shinbo-esque “telling you what’s going on while it’s happening” sort of thing. The show as a whole is oddly (for something so wreathed in symbols) happy to explain itself. I think it might indicate that the production team felt the worth of metaphor was in its ability to evoke emotional responses and ground otherwise abstract concepts rather than its ability to obfuscate.

    I don’t think it really counts as spoiling if I say that when watching the show again after completing it one is struck by how… literal the first arc is. it can be quite jarring. By which I mean, expect it to get denser.

    About Utena’s name: it can also mean Calyx. The protective layer around an unblossomed flower.

    Juri’s duel is one of my favourites, yes. That bit at the end, where they chant “empty” as she stands above Utena… damn I love choral rock.

    I don’t think I’ve spoilt anything. But it’s getting all tangled up in my mind and I can’t tell what belongs where anymore. So, apologies in advance.

    • I think it’s time for someone to get a blog and start doing response posts! Incidentally, you can join Suspended Animation Dreams and do them there if you want. Will have a real response later.

      • I second that. autonomous merits/needs blog.

        • Well, I won’t say the idea hasn’t occurred to me. It occurs pretty damn hard when you write a response longer than the original postO_o

          But while I occasionally have to urge to write on stuff at length, it’s just that- occasional. I’m not sure I could find the volume to make a blog worthwhile.

          …eh, arses to it. I’m going to go sit down with a hugeass tv and a pad of paper and see if I can’t hash out something coherent on Utena.

          • like I said, if you don’t want the commitment to a full blog, but want a place for random ass posts, join my blog

            suspendedanimationdreams.wordpress.com

            we accept anyone with a penchant for wordyness lol.

    • Epic comment. I won’t ask questions coz the answers are bound to be spoilers. Indeed, according to my dictionary Utena means 1) calyx, 2) tower and 3) pedestal. Very nicely chosen name. And I’m a native Spanish speaker so I’m all over the Dios thing!!

      The quote from Nietzsche puts this in a different light. Are the Dios “crew” a gang of supermen looking to induct a new, crucial member?? [don’t answer that!!, it’s a rethorical question].

      As for otou-san, he’s swamped with work so…

  3. Goddammit, write on stuff I’ve seen so that I can actually comment for once! >_<

  4. I like what you said about Nanami and pessimism. There is a resignation about her and yet she goes against it — it’s either a kind of insanity or a Sisyphean revolt.

    I hesitate to read it as the latter because of the said pessimism that reads the end as defeat. Her fakery is superficial, in that it’s directed towards others… it’s not an inauthenticity that blinds or deludes the self. As you said, she knows that it’s all for nothing.

    • But if you choose not to see it as the latter, then you leave her with nothing but the former, i.e. insanity. I don’t know that she’d like that😀

      • There’s nothing in her life to like, so what’s this to her? Of course, she likes Kiryu; but that’s the dead end everybody knows.

        • dead end…of the world. Tee-hee.

          • listen to you guys get witty and cryptic about a show you haven’t even finished! Utena really inspires something in people, I suppose~~

            I can’t wait for you both to finish so I can show you a classic NomadOtto post on the series and blow the possibilities up to new proportionss~~~

  5. I heard about this show via a manga accused of plagiarism…and all the recent blogging made me get off my ass and start watching it. Well, that and the remasters.

    Well, I guess ahead are just some random notes:

    The symbolic significance of Utena being possessed i.e. becoming the prince when she defends Anthy has already been noted.😛 I’m a bit disappointed, but that was the most obvious one. Next on the level of ‘superficial symbolism’ would be the dual suggestions of the word ‘engage’, not just in the ‘marriage’ sense as it is used in the show but also the implication of ‘engaging’ a duel. Also, reflecting the (spoilerific? I’m going by the movie name) possible theme of ‘adolescence’ in the show, or further sexual imagery, there is the combination of Utena’s transformation sequence when entering the duels with Himemiya’s corresponding hand gestures (hands clasped at the chest for the tassel, then spread at the crotch for the skirt). Last on the symbolism front, I think there is some significance to Utena’s ‘I’ll run to another coffin’ comment in Saionji’s flashback where he asks her what she’ll do if somebody finds her.

    One question I have about the introductory or premise-establishing sequence is that it seems to imply that Utena being inspired to emulate the prince goes against the prince’s intentions. However, by telling Utena to ‘retain’ strength and nobility, it seems to me that the originator of Utena’s rejection for a traditional ‘princess’ role was the prince himself.

    On Miki. The greatest unresolved flaw I saw in him was actually, as one line in his battle song seemed to suggest to me, ‘idealized reality’. He was (still is?) projecting his own desires onto Himemiya, without even being the one possessing her. Actually, this same mistake seemed to have been attributed to Utena as well in episode 11. Which now brings me to Anthy.

    Actually, I am somewhat intrigued by her true personality. Episode 11 inspired me to understand it this way, but I wonder if it might be too dark when it will be revealed down the road. Basically, (I think?) Anthy’s complete submissiveness is malicious. Based on her behaviour when both Saionji and Utena lost her, Anthy enjoys shattering her possessors’ illusions of a genuine personal connection. Her mirroring of her possessor’s desires extends beyond submission into manipulation, actively trying to cultivate the illusion of genuinely wanting what her possessors want for her so that she can shatter it when they lose her. Anthy is basically trying to cultivate a sense of self-righteous entitlement in her owners and then punish them for it. The motive would be a petty revenge or cruelty brought on by the powerlessness of her position as Rose Bride.

    Back to Utena, and episode 12. Despite the ostensible victory of having just regained her ‘true self’, Utena’s “just forget it” response to Anthy’s repitition of her Rose Bride spiel comes off curiously like running away.

    Finally, on Tohga’s ‘feelings will betray you in equal proportion to their strength’ maxim. And his ‘those who believe in friendship are fools’ and ‘Even if a plotter plots, it is the victim’s fault for walking into it’ too. I kinda feel like the obvious correction should be ‘feelings will betray you to the degree by which they exceed reality’ instead. So while his ‘it’s the victim’s fault’ is reasonable, his ‘believers in friendship are fools’ is not. I guess he’ll inevitably get his comeuppance though.

    lol. Here ends the (hopefully insightful?) rambling.

    • “it seems to me that the originator of Utena’s rejection for a traditional ‘princess’ role was the prince himself.”

      Agreed.

      “Despite the ostensible victory of having just regained her ‘true self’, Utena’s “just forget it” response to Anthy’s repitition of her Rose Bride spiel comes off curiously like running away.”

      Agreed..wholeheartedly. But this kinda transformation followed by back-to-usualness sometimes happens in real life too.

      On Anthy, it would seem you’re accusing her of ressentiment. Wow! I never thought of that possibility. Must dwell on it further…

      Re Tohga, you may possibly calculate on friendship, but how can you calculate on love?? I think that’s what he’s getting at in the end. Love is a mysterious quantity, uncontrollable, so we shall throw it away.

      Very insightful rambling indeed!!

  6. […] The Student Council being a ’shameful sham’ is consistent with the idea of dueling themes; that Utena is rife with entertaining contradictions. In any case, this post is a good read (animekritik 2009/10/26) […]

  7. Wait, wasn’t there a blink and you’ll miss it glimpse of a girl’s silhouette at the very end of the scene? It was so sublte…

    Btw, just noticed that when Utena pulls out the sword from Anthy’s chest, Anthy’s face is for a second reflecting in the blade. Reminded me of Soul Eater.

    • [Oops, messed up the tags, sorry. Wanted to quote the last paragraph of the post]

      • Oh, i hadn’t noticed that! Yes, Anthy’s relationship with Dios does remind one of Soul Eater weapons, or, chronologically speaking, I guess the resemblance goes the other way around.

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