World Student Council

So I just finished watching the Student Council Arc of Utena, for the second time.  If you make a comment, no spoilers for anything apart from these 13 episodes please!!

Episode 13 is a great recap, if only because there’s so much we miss on the first watching that repeating things is almost a necessity.  And the amazing thing is that when we see it all blow after blow the second time, we realize how contrived, how manipulated, this whole exercise has been.

It’s there from the very beginning: listen to the narrator speaking of the princess and her prince.  She says the prince wipes off her tears.  But look at him, he’s actually putting his mouth on her eyes.  He’s not wiping those tears, he’s drinking them!  I think what this means is really obvious, maybe because I’m fresh off of watching an old episode of Family Guy where Stewie drinks Meg’s tears in delight.

The shadow play girls show it very clearly in reeling the spaceship with the fishing rod, and then the image of the radio parroting the “egg shell world” speech from Herman Hesse’s Demian (which audio I actually ripped and set as my ringtone for a while) really tops it off.  Touga records himself saying this stuff, which as far as we can tell is just a mantra (viewed positively) or mumbo jumbo (viewed negatively).  And then he listens to it!  When one orders oneself one is both master and slave.  But if one is a master then that means one possesses a slave.  And if the slave is himself, then he is not a master, but simply a slave.

I stand by my assessment of Nanami one year ago, except that I think calling her a “pessimist” as I did then is nowhere near as precise as calling her a nihilist.  I guess when you make Touga into your ideal you’d better stay away from him because otherwise the scales will fall from your eyes terribly quickly.  Nanami as a sister has seen beyond the ideal countless times.  I look at her eyes and I just see the word NIHIL in deep purple.  Nihilistically speaking, Nanami is at one end and the hopelessly innocent Saionji is at the other.  Everyone else is somewhere in the middle.

Puppets, puppets and more puppets.

The recap says Utena’s seventh duel was for herself.  The powers that be would have us believe that, and it’s amazing that they agree completely with Utena herself down below.  In her conversation with Wakaba she decided to fight precisely for that, for the self.  But we’ve seen so much, even in just 13 episodes, too much.  Can we really believe this?!  Utena fights her duel, changes fashion style again, recovers herself!!  Does she?  Isn’t she just listening to her own voice parroting orders she was given long ago!

Isn’t the dashing Utena just another Touga sitting by the radio??

We come to the Sword of Dios.  With this recap we can confirm that Utena seemed to grasp the essence of this item on their first meeting.  She is dueling with Saionji and her own weapon gets broken.  So she says:

“Could it be that this trick sword is real?”

This sentence strikes us as inadequate at first.  If it’s a trick sword, then it’s not real, Utena!  Better to say something along the lines of:

“Could it be that this sword is real (and not a trick sword)?”

Still, Utena’s question is correct simply because it can be asked and — lo and behold — the right answer is “Yes”.  Never have I seen a sword with more tricks than this one.  It cuts anything when it wants to, and it stops cutting whenever it pleases.  It’s got its own set of magical properties that can be activated by whoever IT pleases, and mind you, if it please the sword that you know nothing of these properties then you never will (e.g. Saionji in the second duel declaring innocently to Utena, so innocently as always, that the sword has no powers of its own and that it’s the wielder that counts).  And yet this trick sword is real.

The pre-fight song is crammed full of names for the absolute, starting with a triple one: “Absolute – Fate – Apocalypse”.  Every little child’s ideal: “my birth is absolute”.  Every grown person’s utopia:

a shining place in the darkness

where day and night are reversed (interpretation: travel back in time is possible)

gold-plated Shangri-la

time-plated paradise lost (interpretation: while paradise is atemporal, so even time travel should not recover it, yet this paradise lost is time-plated and thus accessible)

And right after this:

the darkness of Sodom

the darkness of light

the darkness beyond

limitless darkness

While coming straight on the heels of this paradise utopia we might think that the darkness refers precisely to it, and thus expose it as a dystopia in reality, it could simply be an expanded description of the darkness in the first line (a shining place in the darkness).  Either way we have a hell of a time with “the darkness of light”.  The darkness might reign supreme after all if the light of the shining place harbors a darkness within it.  “Limitless darkness” is not very reassuring either.  Everything hinges on the answer to these questions, and so far we know very little.

Each fighter fights for his ideal, some are purer than others.  Miki is in love with a tone (not even a melody!).  The tone is in fact his own, even though he refuses to see it.  The song for this third duel is at one level very cynical.  Everything is theater, everything an illusion, heroic actions, heroic dreams, and the heroes themselves.  The irony here is that Miki is a little hero himself or at least a very decent fellow.

The “spira mirabilis” of the song, a beautiful pattern that recurs naturally while having so many wondrous mathematical and geometrical properties that one would be tempted to ascribe its existence to conscious artistry, describes Miki very well.  He is a sad spira mirabilis that studies geometry very hard, completely unaware of just what he is and how silly a spira mirabilis purposefully bashing its beautiful brain against a geometry textbook looks.  The question here is whether there is an opposition in the song between the fake glory of the theater and the beautiful modesty of the spira mirabilis, or whether  the point of the matter is that the spira mirabilis IS the theater (and if so, does this make us happy or does it make us sad).

This is a huge question, not just for the show but in general.  Geometry is capable of many interpretations precisely because, as we said, it can be seen as supremely natural or supremely artistic and contrived.  Acknowledging the geometric nature of the universe is not enough to inoculate us against the other view: far from it, the fact is liable to be used as proof of the existence of a god who is at heart an ideal artisan, the ideal man.  Spinoza explained the universe geometrically.  It’s tough to tell what this really means; it’s the same problem of his “Deus sive Natura” (God or Nature).  Is Spinoza an atheist and mathematics natural?  Or is he the most pious of men and nature a great artifice?

Lily Cole has a tattoo on her foot (some claim it’s not real, some say she draws the freaking thing on her foot everyday, and of course this debate over the reality of a tattoo [if she drew it in everyday, then isn’t it the same as a tattoo???] is delicious in itself).

The tattoo says “ut apes geometriam” (Latin).  It’s part of a quote from The Hunchback of Notre Dame:

“Moi, je possède la philosophie d’instinct, de nature, ut apes geometriam.”

“As for myself I follow the philosophy of instinct, of nature, like bees do geometry.” (my trans.)

Bees are always getting praised by people.  Aristotle and Heidegger both spoke highly of them.  However, it becomes tough once again to determine what it all really means: I’ve always detected a hint of (anthropic) superiority in these words.  For example, the hawk has a great eye, keener than a human being’s.  But nobody wants to be a hawk.  Human capacity exceeds a hawk’s in most other areas, and especially where it counts (which is to say, where it counts for humans, which is what counts, though then this requires another caveat and so on ).  After all, a man knows how far a hawk can see.  That a man appreciates this, that he can figure out and abstract this “hawkeyedness” from the hawk, redounds in his own favor.  Society would have it that all animal achievements are for the greater glory of man.

So to say that philosophy is for humans what geometry is for bees (think: hexagonal honeycomb cells) is not necessarily to say that the ideal man (i.e. the philosopher) should become like a bee, become natural.  Maybe the bees should aim to be more like us.

Then again, God may tell us that we should be more like the ants, the lizards and lions (Proverbs 30:24-31) , but these animals could argue that this god fellow is really our own ideal, and that they’d rather not be stuck between our sad, little selfish selves and the doubtful divine doppelgänger we adore, thank you very much.

The character speaking those words in Hugo’s novel makes a series of comparisons between animals and people (moths and us, Pythagoreans and fish) and though he means to be funny, a final judgment eludes us.  So when the song in the third duel concludes by saying “Geometry is the stage (of the theater)” everything is still up in the air and the sentence could mean a union, a duality, a difference, a sameness, a superiority (either of geometry or of theater) or none of the above…

The duel with Juri gives us a great case of Dios’ whimsy.  So far we’ve expected Utena to quash the enemy as soon as Dios descends on/enters/becomes her, and yet here Juri manages to disarm her, only to be vanquished by the miracle.  Is this miracle from Dios or is it just chance?  Or maybe fate?  I absolutely love this fight.  Utena’s eyes and gestures as the fight begins, how Juri taunts Utena by calling her “prince” not realizing that immediately upon doing so the real prince Dios descends from the skies (and we get Dios’ perspective from above as he swoops!), the way Juri’s friends can be seen for a split second as the Sword of Dios runs through her rose…wow!!!

Nanami’s sword is something else, isn’t it!

Nietzsche’s most famous book must be Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  The title character in the book is a sage who discovers all of the illusion of the world and becomes a nihilist.  Then he overcomes that nihilism and becomes (or at least, sets out to become) the superman.  For Nietzsche nihilism was a fundamental step in man’s progress.  Now, the fact of the matter is he didn’t invent this name of Zarathustra.  Zarathustra (or Zoroaster) was an ancient Persian religious figure with an enormous influence on world religion.  Nietzsche was interested in going beyond good and evil, and since Zarathustra was something like the pioneer of the concept of a war between good and evil, he decided that there was no better man for the job of overcoming his own misguided teaching and seeing the new light through nihilism and beyond good and evil.

I say all of this because clearly Nanami’s sword is a scimitar of Persian origin.  A Japanese site, on I don’t know what authority, identifies it as a shamshir.  I’m no expert, but it does look remarkably like the pictures I’ve seen in books.  And Nanami’s name starts with an N just as Nietzsche’s does and just as Nihilism does.  Stop arguing, I’ve proved my case 😀

In any case, I own a big book called Weapon: A Visual History of Arms and Armor, and I can assure you that the most fashionable set of swords (I don’t say beautiful, because I’m sure people’s aesthetic judgment will vary considerably) is to be found in the Ottoman section, which features shamshir among other scimitars.  So visually speaking her sword fits Nanami well, although saying this I worry people might just view this angle exclusively — remember, there’s more to fashionable people than fashion.  Ask Cole.

While we’re on the topic of swords, I want to point out one more thing that I noticed (because I cared to notice) this second time around.  Juri has her duel with Utena in episode 7.  Later on Utena loses her duel with Touga (episode 11) and then goes for the rematch in episode 12.  The sword she uses here was given to her by Juri.  Now, logic would indicate that when Juri fought Utena she must have used her very best sword.  If Juri truly and wholeheartedly wanted Utena to beat Touga in the rematch, then Juri should hand her the very same sword.  Here is the transfer:

Yes, it is the same sword with the wide crossguard (up close it looks a bit different but they’re evidently meant to be the same).  I figure this is much more about antagonizing Touga than about helping Utena out 😉

~ by Haloed Bane on March 29, 2011.

4 Responses to “World Student Council”

  1. Incredible.

    I am in awe of this post not so much for its own sake, bot for my own:

    It proves me right… in that I was certain that despite how closely I read this arc, that I would miss gigantic things. And this post shows me that I most certainly did:

    Touga and the radio recording
    The real trick sword blues
    Nanami and Saionji
    Juri letting Utena use her sword against Touga

    … and I spilled an inland lake of virtual ink on this arc I surely did!

    This whole bit about artifice and nature is wonderful, and all fitting with the contrivance of this show that seems so extreme that it feels natural — for lack of better words (because “sure-handed” isn’t doing the job for me). You are a hawkeyed close reader tracing the geometry of bees in the reading of this show.

  2. Thanks!!

    Right now the Juri-Utena fight sequence is probably my favorite scene in all of anime!! I mean, Juri taunts Utena and all of the sudden – SNAP! – we get thrown into a view from above them and then an immediate close up like something is swooping down, and we don’t see anything then, but sure enough when Utena strikes we see Dios flashing. OMG how well done it all is!!

    I tried to find a website dealing with the Swords in Utena, but couldn’t find anything in Japanese, English or Spanish. I wish I knew more about the subject because evidently there is much to be said on this topic…

    On to the Black Rose!

  3. All characters keep parroting one another – Miki and Juri basically quote Utena at the Student Council before their respective duels, though Juri sounds rather ironical (but so was Utena in their conversation earlier). The most obvious parrot is Anthy – but that’s part of her duties.

    Totally agree on Juri’s motives of lending her sword to Utena. I enjoyed that little scene a lot.

    On Nanami’s sword, I think it’s enough to say it is twisted and complemented with a deceitful dagger. As you oppose Nanami and Saionji so well, I leave it to you to compare this fashion kit to Saionji’s straightforward katana 🙂

    • The swords are so interesting! The problem here is that both Saionji and Touga use Japanese swords. So you have these two men using katana, with the rest using foreign blades (though Utena used a kendo sword initially, but she wasn’t taking things seriously so it may not count). That’s one split.

      Saionji and Arisugawa have blueblood historical surnames, everyone else has fanciful, creative surnames. That’s another split.

      Everyone has different hair color. Another split..and so on.

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