The Black Rose in the Abyss (Utena Ep. 14)

Let’s begin with the end.  Utena apologizes to Anthy for injuring her brother’s fiancée.  Anthy tells her not to worry because it’s not her fault.  I am sure absolutely everyone will recognize and accept this ethical problem and Anthy’s solution immediately, but for the sake of clarity I’ll spell it out: Utena is not responsible because it was Kanae who attacked her, Utena’s intention was not to hurt Kanae but to defend Anthy and herself.


Backtrack to the duel song, which begins as Utena unsheathes the sword from Anthy.  This song has got some insane syntax in the Japanese, there are a lot of images jumbled up and the end result is that there are tons of ways to translate it.  But the first half of it revolves around a single subject, and this is what’s important.  The subject is 「奈落の底意」 or “naraku no sokoi”.  “Naraku = hell”, “sokoi = underlying motive/intention” so “hellish intentions” or “evil underlying motives” could be acceptable translations.  But I should add that “naraku” has gradually been used to mean things other than an actual Hell for evildoers: it can be used to describe a deep pit, an abyss, or the farthest reaches/ends of something.

So the song goes on about how these “naraku no sokoi” are to be found in both good and evil, in both angels and demons, everywhere, no matter how pure you are or how impure you become.  I think it’s safe to assume that, because of this duality, “naraku” ought to be translated as a “bottomless pit” or an “abyss” and not as Hell.  “Naraku no sokoi” are not necessarily good or evil, and are found on both sides of morality.  They are our deepest, most secret motives, impulses and inclinations.

Just before this song kicks in, Kanae claims that the Black Rose has given her the power or courage to be herself, not to be a phony.  Utena (and I magine Anthy too, but who knows what she’s thinking!!) thinks just the opposite: the real Kanae is absent and this evil woman is a phony.  Incidentally, the head of the Black Rose society himself views himself as a manipulator and so would seem to support Utena’s standpoint.  But who can really tell what Kanae’s “naraku no sokoi” are?

Even if we can determine Kanae’s deepest impulses, many people would judge her very differently whether she acted on them or not.  That is, even if Kanae truly and desperately wants Anthy to die, whether she kills her or not makes a huge difference.  Now, certain people like Wang Yangming would argue that you always act on your “naraku no sokoi”.  If you believe in something, and you don’t act on it, then this is just evidence that your “naraku no sokoi” are something else altogether and you’re simply fooling yourself.

But I think Yangming’s thinking isn’t very popular these days.  The most straightforward way to break this down is that either A) the Black Rose ring brings your “naraku no sokoi” to the surface and gives you the courage to act on them, or B) it perverts your “naraku no sokoi” in a new direction.  Whatever the answer, it reminds me of getting intoxicated.

more thinking

The Japanese (the ones I’ve met at least) have a curious attitude toward alcohol consumption and its effects on people.  On the one hand, they agree with the dictum in vino veritas, believing that what you say and do when you’re drunk is based on your true intentions, your “naraku no sokoi”.  HOWEVER, they also believe that whatever a person does when they’re drunk should be forgiven and passed over.

This fascinates me.  The way I see it, if you forgive me when I do something bad under the influence of alcohol, it must be because you don’t think that’s the real me.  And conversely, if you think that the real person comes out when drunk, then any misdeed while intoxicated should be immediately punished.  But these Japanese think differently.

I guess they are accepting that Repression is a big fact of life and that controlling and concealing your “naraku no sokoi” is a the proper thing to do.  I wonder if the treatment of the Black Rose duelists in Utena couldn’t be better explained along these lines…


Mikage mentions that the spot where they have descended to leads to the End of the World.  One of the definitions of “naraku” I have found is 「果ての果て」 or “the end of the end”, this word I translate as “end” here is the same as that in End of the World.  The people engaged in the Mikage Seminar are in every way descending into the abyss, not necessarily a hell of punishment so much as the location of their deepest inclinations [though of course, being forced to face those depths might be considered a form of punishment itself].  Also worthy of note is that the basement under a Japanese theater stage is called “naraku”, which links this duel song with Miki’s “theater vs. spira mirabilis” song in episode 5.

~ by Haloed Bane on April 1, 2011.

10 Responses to “The Black Rose in the Abyss (Utena Ep. 14)”

  1. Excellent.

    I appreciate you bringing to the discussion things beyond a translated work’s reading can do.

    I enjoyed your guess re Japanese accepting how Repression is a big part of life. I suppose many cultures with “middle class moralities” — to use something of GB Shaw for lack of better terms, have members who accept this as well.

    But to drag this out into an existential quagmire, what is the authentic self anyway? When is anecdotal evidence definitive? Is it even possible to define people?

    Is it fair to make statements such as “Nanami IS x,” an essential statement, or at least a dispositional one? While all that’s really there is “Nanami did a series of acts: a, b, c, d, e, t, c.”

    • No, it’s not possible to define people. I don’t even know that you can pin down an act (isn’t even the very substance of an act dependent on perspective?).

      All of this discourse presupposes a kind of stability that we in the 21st century already know is pretty much a chimera. But if you start writing blog posts with this in mind they’ll balloon to thousands of words in no time (or worse, you might find you can’t write anything at all).

      Something this talk about “underlying motives” seems to take for granted is that one cannot hold two opposing motives at the same time, but I tend to disbelieve even this!!

      As for authenticity, I guess you could say Japanese society doesn’t put a premium on it, instead, it rewards people who behave inauthentically in conformance with the norms. Maybe it’s a desire for unity. There are so many authenticities, and society wants to have but one standard.

      • All interesting stuff, I think it might be useful to set up some kind of blog page wherein you state the assumptions you make when writing.

        I think I’m going to do this. Some baseline things I can refer to so as to avoid repeating myself in comments, and posts.

        And yet, there remains so many fans of media who appreciate characters for perceived definitive traits; moe, gar, whatever.

        • It’d be very interesting and good. I’ve often thought of writing some sort of Disclaimer/Manifesto, at least stating what I don’t believe or agree with, so readers may not misunderstand things. But the repetition thing is not that bad, maybe after repeating yourself enough you’ll decide to change something.

          • I guess it’s not so much about defining people as about self-defining and self-perception. On the one hand, we are inclined to associate our true(=inner) self with what we believe is good about us, and that’s what we show to others, while evil is tended to be perceived as external influence. In my culture the intoxicated are excused because they are believed to be possessed by the evil (another possible explanation is that it’s unpleasant to hear accusations and self-accusations from a drunk person, so psychologically it is more comfortable to let it go and keep a shiny view of life :D) – I think that’s about how Utena views the matter, actually. (And, yes, you can always say sorry, I was so drunk, I don’t remember anything!!)

            You make a nice try to avoid good/evil dichotomy when introducing the abyss, but… the elevator always goes DOWN the shaft and deeper = lower. That gyroscope never lies. (This spatial ethics – or ethical geography? – is fascinating!) The negative part of a personality is something one is ashamed or scared of, so it is repressed. On the other hand, as it is below the surface, the hidden part seems to be “deeper” and closer to your core. But is it really?

            My guess is that what the Black Rose evokes to power in people is not the real abyss. These feelings are negative, shameful, repressed – but they are pretty well known to their happy owners (and others, if they care to take a closer look). I love your intoxication metaphor, but when I get drunk on Friday night and tell my boss’s personal assistant how I hate that pig, do I reveal a horrible secret to anybody? Come on, I’ve always known it, the PA knows it (at least I told her last Friday) and the boss himself knows it, the three of us are smart professionals, after all 😀

            When giving free rein to their dark side, the duelists give up the rest. Daylight personalities seem phony without their darker sides, while the darker sides are obsessed monomaniacs.

            The abyss lies deeper, and remains unknown – and that’s what makes it so scary. And if it is so, then I agree that it can be on both sides of morality. Or maybe there is no morality to it. Paraphrasing Wang Yangming I’d say you will only know what you are and what you truly believe in when you get a chance/are forced to act, when there is a real choice to be made. What strikes me is that the Black Rose duelists don’t make any choice, really.

            • The really bad situation is when you truly cannot remember what happened while you were intoxicated, and everyone else does, so in some sense everyone seems to know your true self better than yourself D:

              Good = Up, Bad = Down. This is definitely an ethical geography with a pedigree (i.e. in the locations of Heaven and Hell). However, in English we also say “let’s get down to it” to mean “let’s go to the heart of the matter, to the truth of things”. So this “DOWN” is very ambivalently charged. Again, it strikes me like in some sense the lesson society and language give us is “the truth lies in the abyss, but the abyss is evil, therefore you must rise above it”.

              This concept of “being forced to act, a real choice in front of you” reminds me of another English expression, very popular these days: “It’s going down” to mean “The moment of truth is about to come” with the implication that the time to take sides is right now. For example, in movies you could hear: “It’s going down tonight, are you in or out?”

              Here once again “down” seems to refer to the truth, the real thing, but once again there’s a real danger or evil in there 🙂

              On morality, I’m guessing the show will ultimately make a very clear (conventional) distinction between Good and Evil, but we’ll see…

  2. There’s a distinction to be made between ‘repressed truly felt’ ideas and ‘repressed desires that benefit nobody.’ As we find out in Utena…


    Utena herself by the end of the series and as reinforced in the series, becomes a living example of the virtue of the freeing of the ‘repressed truly felt’ feelings – in her case to leave the false pretenses of the school ‘universe’ altogether. She becomes at peace with the person she actually is, as do the side characters who give up on irrational attachments, or on their fantasies of whatever sort.

    The black rose brigade were an example of the ‘repressed desires that benefit nobody’, which are in reality lapses of conscience. Since one can not engage these negative states when conscious, they come about when something like the black rose causes a lapse in judgement.

    You mentioned alcohol use, and it can have the same effects as the black roses – to cause you to lose track of your senses. Morally speaking, however, there is no excuse for this unless you were forced or tricked into becoming inebriated. Its simply a fallacy to claim that either your true self emerges when inebriated, or that your actions can be forgiven – in reality, you chose to and acted irresponsibly and need to take responsibility.

    • Thanks for the comment, but not having finished this series I’m not even going to read it 😀 I’ll get to it once I finish the series.

      • Ah, I thought this was a re-watch at first glance, but yea, I suffice to say, I think the story makes itself clear that the black rose traits are negative by the end of the show. The climax really is right at the end.

        • Ok, actually, I watched the first 20 episodes or so over a year ago, then had to stop. So it’s partially a rewatch but after 20 I’m in completely new territory. I’ll look forward to it.

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