Utena - the three candles

First attraction. <- PreviousNext -> The First Seduction.

In episode 30, Akio corrupts Utena’s ideals as a preliminary to overcoming her. More precisely, he tempts Utena into corrupting her own ideals. Akio sees that (as he intended) Utena has started to question her own feelings, and decides that the time is right to break down Utena’s idealistic resistance to entering a sexual relationship. He repeatedly tempts her in small ways, and before long does a Cinderella scene with her shoe, then pushes her down into his car for a kiss. Along the way we see three candles, which go out one after another as Utena’s resistance fails. At the end of the episode, the last candle goes out and Utena—though at that moment she does not admit it to herself—has fallen for Akio, pushing other goals aside. She has been corrupted and chooses to violate her ideals.

Honesty is an aspect of Utena’s idealism. After the end of the episode, Utena’s native honesty is severely damaged: She tries to hide her corruption from Anthy. That ironically makes it more apparent. It feels biblical, with Akio truly acting as Lucifer, the devil.

In Utena’s allegory, this episode represents sex appeal. Akio’s sex appeal overwhelms Utena’s resistance to corruption, and cuts into her independence.

The candles are easy to understand in general terms. They represent Utena’s resistance. They have more obscure detailed meanings. Evil meanings.

my reaction
the candles
in The Rose of Versailles
moral reasoning
moral injury
Wakaba and the teachers
the rest of the episode
Utena’s character

see also

Halos, including the halo around the last burning candle.
Basketball games for connections past and future.
Akio dominates for a repeated image with subtle meanings.

my reaction

In the joke Who should watch Utena? I claimed that I can grok the abuse without feeling too abused. It’s true, but it’s a close call. I’m not normally prone to anxiety attacks, but working on the Apocalypse Saga causes me to wake up anxious in the middle of the night. I can tolerate it, because I wake up with fresh insights. The night before I posted this I woke up, realized the key to deciphering the three candles, and worked out the full symbolism before dawn, almost everything in the candle section below (I have added a little more since). Knowledge is worth some emotional turmoil.

I say this because I don’t think it shows in my writing. My tone tends to the clinical. Understanding before feelings.

the candles

Akio’s cake with the three candles

Akio bakes a cake with fancy decoration to impress Utena. On the cake are three burning candles, making it resemble a birthday cake. There’s no birthday in sight, no one mentions or looks at the candles, they later appear mysteriously in a candleholder that was nearby, and they are shown with a dark background at various times. The candles do not burn down, though one was lit all day. The candles blow out with no visible cause (though we can tell the emotional cause). In Utena, unnoticed and unexplained surreal stuff is a sign of pure metaphor directed at the audience; the characters ignore it because it is not real to them. This time, the candles are real to Anthy, who holds them at one point. Anthy, I think it means, is sensitive to Utena’s feelings and watching closely.

single candle from episode 10 twelve candles on Touga’s childhood birthday cake, episode 10

The candles are implied to be birthday candles. We’ve seen that before—in episode 10 there was a flashback to a birthday party of Touga as a child, with twelve burning candles on the cake. At one point, a single burning candle is picked out, in between a shot of Nanami and one of Nanami and Touga together. Nothing happens to that candle. Apparently Touga did not make a wish.

If they are birthday candles, then blowing them all out means making a wish. Who is blowing them out? Not Akio. The candles often flicker, and one is blown out, when Utena is thinking by herself, which Akio cannot see or know about. It has to do with Utena’s emotional state. Utena is blowing them out herself.

It’s so, so evil. Akio does not want to overcome Utena’s resistance, he wants Utena to overcome her own resistance, to want to abandon her own ideals, to seek corruption like a birthday wish. In the car on the way home from the hospital after her foot was hurt, Utena brings up Akio’s fiancee Kanae... and Akio agrees that Kanae is a good person. Akio does not want to reassure Utena, he wants to corrupt her, to break down her ideals—and she must do the work herself, she must break down her own ideals. His job is not complete until Utena wishes to betray Kanae, and has arrived at the wish herself; not complete until she wishes to betray her prince. Akio wants Utena to take evil as good, and he succeeds. In the rest of the corruption arc as well, as Akio steers Utena into decisions, he tries to make her believe that she is the one making the decisions, that she must take responsibility for every evil action. And by her own moral views (and I think those of most people), she must; she knowingly harms another to satisfy her own desires.

Compare Anthy, who selfishly but unknowingly causes harm by helping turn Dios into Akio, and in my interpretation is punished by karmic retribution. See Anthy’s corruption. Utena may face karmic retribution after her escape from the Academy, but if so it is much milder. The parallel with episode 12 suggests that after Utena’s escape, friendless and severely injured and believing that she failed Anthy, she will be badly depressed. That sounds like her retribution.

Lying to herself. Repeatedly during the episode, Utena says and thinks that Akio is engaged and denies that she is attracted anyone but her prince. At first it’s not a lie; Utena does not understand her own emotions. She asks “why?” and concludes that something is wrong with her. When injured and walking with Anthy, she is about to tell Anthy her feelings, keeping her promise that they should work together. But Akio drives up and interrupts. Her feelings messed up, she eats little at dinner, as Anthy and Akio separately remark, and instead of telling her feelings to Anthy she discusses love in general terms, letting slip her last opportunity for honesty. At the end of the episode, looking out the window and with the same movements and expressions as at the start of the episode, she repeats to herself that she is attracted to no one but her prince—and at that point she knows better, she is lying to herself, and she breaks the last thin barrier between herself and Akio’s temptation. She blows out the third candle wishing to be corrupt, and from then on she is corrupt. No longer honest, she seeks to hide her corruption from others as she did from herself. See Utena’s self-excuses for her later attempts to minimize her wrongdoing in her own mind. She can no longer explain to Anthy.

The candles give light. She brought the darkness of corruption on herself with a lie to herself, and it spreads.

At the same time that Utena is giving in to Akio and falling into corruption, Wakaba is giving up on Akio. She says she can’t compete with Kanae. Akio exploited Wakaba to help in his plot, using her to arouse jealousy in Utena to corrode her idealism. Now he is done with Wakaba and she is released.
Utena blows out the last candle

Why three candles? Does each one have a specific meaning? The candles represent the story structure of Akio’s corruption arc. The fairy tale hero traditionally must overcome three challenges before a final showdown. Here, Akio must successfully tempt Utena three times before she is corrupted; until then, the candles give light. The corruption arc as a whole has three key events, key steps in Akio’s corruption plan. I named them the First Seduction, the Second Seduction, and the Routine Date. The middle candle, a little higher than the others, is the Routine Date which Utena blows out last, the final step before Akio believes Utena is adequately corrupted. Having blown out all the candles, Utena’s wish will be granted, she will undergo the three challenges.

They aren’t three challenges that Utena must pass. Akio must succeed in all three challenges to finish his plan; Utena only has to thwart one to escape. In this metaphor, Akio is the prince and the hero who must succeed repeatedly, and Utena—the boyish side of Utena—is the foe to vanquish. The three candles take the side of evil and call it good, just as Akio calls his evil good and wants Utena to take evil as good. He truly is Lucifer. The symbolism is so, so evil.

The candles are also phallic symbols. Having been granted her wish, Utena is pierced three times by Akio’s penis, pierced by evil as if by a sword. She is the foe—her boyish side is the foe—which the prince as hero must overcome three times with his sword before he can reach the final showdown in the dueling arena. There he turns her into a princess to vanquish her, eliminating her boyish side and leaving the girlish side that he dominates.

If a candle represents burning lust, then Utena wishes to put out Akio’s burning lust three times.

Compare the single candle from episode 10. In that story, there was one key event, the kitten and its drowning.
Another interpretation of the single candle is that Touga does not make a wish concerning Nanami; Utena desires Akio but Touga has no such desire for Nanami. It’s such a vague symbol that it’s hard to make out the main idea.

Utena’s life. In an episode of the Rose of Versailles, a candle stands for the king’s life. Arguably, the single candle of episode 10 stands for the kitten’s life. If so, then the three candles that Utena blows out stand for her own life. She is setting herself up to die. Beyond the above, the three candles stand for the division of her cheek hair into three in some images, a sign that she will die.

I thought it was too obvious to mention, but I changed my mind: Why didn’t Akio tell Utena that he is her prince? He is, after all. It would have been a faster way to get her into bed. But it would not corrupt her, it would honestly satisfy one of her desires. To gain control over her and get his way in the end, she must be corrupted and turned to evil; she must accept his evil as good. She must choose to join his side.

in The Rose of Versailles

Three candles in Rose of Versailles, surrounded by a ring of light.

In The Rose of Versailles, in episode 15 honest and religious Marie Antoinette is corrupted into taking up illegal gambling. Immediately before the gambling scene, we see these three candles, surrounded by a halo and seeming to stand against a twilight sky. I think they stand for the Christian holy trinity (other candles get a halo of light, but these candles are picked out as special by the dutch angle, non-real background, and more detailed animation). I guess the center candle with its larger flame is the holy spirit. They contrast with Marie Antoinette’s sin in gambling for entertainment with the people’s tax money. Maybe these three candles are telling us that Marie Antoinette’s inner spirit remains pure and uncorrupted; she gives up gambling (as well as the lie of being pregnant) during the same episode.

This was surely one of the inspirations for Utena’s three candles, the last of which has a halo. The meaning is not the same, but the parallelism is easy to see. Marie Antoinette is corrupted by Madame de Polignac, who is parallel with Akio: She is equated with the devil, as Akio is, and corrupts by temptation, as Akio does.

moral reasoning

A mature and well-balanced person understands that feelings and actions can be separated. Love is involuntary; it is OK fall in love with a person who is engaged to be married. It is not OK to act on that love; that is when you cross the moral boundary. Utena is 14 and doesn’t do that. She is impulsive, and she does not mentally separate having a desire from being willing to act on the desire. It’s a failing of immaturity, and it is also a moral failing that Akio exploits. At least that’s how I see it.

During the episode, Utena has conversations with Wakaba and Anthy about love. The first time the candles flicker is while the group including Wakaba is eating the cake. Utena reminds Wakaba that Akio has a fiancee, and Wakaba answers “that doesn’t matter when love is involved.” Wakaba uses the vague word suki, which can also mean liking. “It doesn’t matter when attraction is involved” is a technically accurate translation (though it’s not something Wakaba would say). Wakaba is explicitly talking about feelings, not actions, and her innocent car ride with Akio later backs that up. (Innocent from Wakaba’s point of view. For Akio it was another way to manipulate Utena.) Meanwhile, Utena’s candles flicker as she blows a weak breath over them, tempted to blow them out. The candles represent a wish that Utena increasingly wants to be granted—the candles imply actions because granting the wish implies actions. Utena’s trouble comes from her conflating feelings with actions.

moral injury

Utena’s corruption is a moral injury (Wikipedia). Utena deliberately chose to violate moral principles that she had held strongly, and she feels deeply ashamed of it. Her shame shows in Utena’s self-excuses, in which she corruptly tries to hide her corruption from herself. Her moral injury causes moral confusion that makes it easier for Akio to manipulate her into further evil. She continues to struggle with moral decisions until she is more deeply corrupted in the First Seduction, after which she no longer makes moral decisions. It makes her less willing to engage with others; see Utena’s character below. She tries to tell lies and hides information from Anthy. This social isolation too makes her easier to manipulate. All these points are aspects of moral injury.

Anthy is more corrupted than Utena, but Anthy has not suffered a moral injury. Utena’s moral principles are rigid, and when she violates them they fracture: Her morality was strong but brittle. Anthy has flexible morality. She is a survivor type and does what she believes she must. Anything that she must do, she accepts for that reason. Akio requires many and terrible evil actions, and so she accepts evil and comes to see it as necessary and therefore good. Akio taught her joy in vengeance; see Anthy’s corruption. She enjoys passing along her good evil to others.
Moral flexibility is one of the many ways that Utena and Anthy are opposite. If the two get together in the outside world, we can expect that Utena’s influence will bend Anthy away from evil.

Wakaba and the teachers

Utena is not only under Akio’s pressure, she is under social pressure—and the social pressure supports Akio. Akio stands behind the system of control and ensures that it helps him.

Early in the episode, Anthy smiles falsely at Utena, hiding her feelings. Utena seems to take it as Anthy approving her feelings about Akio, and the candles flicker. Then Wakaba tells Utena “If you’re so uptight—” and the camera cuts to a teacher saying “you’ll never fall in love.” In repeatedly telling Wakaba that Akio has a fiancee, Utena is sticking to the strict rules of her ideals. Wakaba does not buy into strict rules. She favors playing around and having fun, and not taking anything too seriously. Utena has serious feelings and cannot play around with them. She interprets Wakaba more seriously than Wakaba means it; she hears a call to yield to temptation.

Nozomi translates it as “if you don’t loosen up”. That’s good too.

The teachers are trying, again, to get Utena to wear the girls’ uniform. The “you’ll never fall in love” claim is ridiculous, and it’s more ridiculous if you’re in the audience and know that Utena wants to marry her prince, and definitively fell for Anthy in episode 28, and has now fallen for Akio. (Despite doubts, she doesn’t fall out of love with any of them until the final showdown.)

Utena heard Wakaba telling her to ignore rules that Utena considers meaningful. Then she heard the teachers tell her to follow rules that Utena considers meaningless. Utena’s environment is saying that rules don’t matter.

In the next episode, Akio invokes the Academy’s “rule 34” against staying overnight outside your room, using it to bring Nanami into his tower. Wikipedia says that the internet’s Rule 34 wasn’t invented until later, so apparently it’s not a reference. Anyway, the point is that Akio chooses to enforce rules or not at his convenience, in true authoritarian style.

As Akio and Utena leave, the teachers do not remark on Akio’s inappropriate arm around Utena’s shoulders. The powerful get away with their transgressions, and even show them off to demonstrate their power. The female teacher (who wears red shoes) gushes praise for Akio. The male teacher seems to be nervous around Akio, even afraid. He lorded his authority over Utena, and now fears Akio’s authority over him.

In rescuing Utena from the teachers, Akio tells them not to tie the students up in rules, implying again that rules don’t matter—even though he made the rules himself, and gave them the job of enforcement. He admits to Utena that he lied to the teachers to free her from them: He shows off the convenience of dishonesty and calls Utena silly for not realizing it. Every detail, whether under Akio’s direct control or not, is aimed against Utena’s idealism. He flaunts flouting.

Apparently most people Akio deals with are already corrupt, and he controls them easily. Utena is a hard case. She puts up tough resistance in this episode and in the First Seduction, and Akio needs a lot of effort to break her down. After that, Utena’s resistance decreases, though never to zero.

the rest of the episode

Before the car ride with Wakaba, Akio is sensually caressing the car with his fingers, as he often does: He is expecting a drive with Utena alone so that he can heighten his sexual temptation. Instead Wakaba proposes a drive, and once he accepts (no doubt realizing the effect on Utena), he removes his fingers; the plan changed. Akio’s drive with Utena is delayed until after she injures her foot. It’s suggested that Akio engineered the injury.

Anthy helps Utena walk after her injury, holding one hand on Utena’s boob.

When Wakaba is in the car driving off, she calls back to Utena in triumph “buh-bye!” When Utena repeats it to herself, she’s expressing jealousy, as Wakaba realizes when they talk about it later (calling back to Wakaba jokingly accusing Utena of jealousy in episode 1). After Utena is injured, Anthy helps Utena walk while holding one hand on Utena’s boob, showing physical attraction. Akio arrives to drive Utena to the hospital, which he frames as a date like Wakaba’s, and afterward Anthy repeats “buh-bye” to herself, her glasses shining. Anthy’s attraction to Utena and her jealousy are parallel to Utena’s attraction to Akio and her jealousy of Wakaba.

In my interpretation, Anthy blames her jealousy on Utena. See when Anthy’s glasses shine for evidence. In holding a hand on Utena’s breast, Anthy is treating her as female; usually she touches Utena’s chest in the center, as if Utena were her male prince. Anthy is supporting Akio’s pressure to make Utena girlish. She does not remove her hand when Akio drives up; Akio knows what she is doing. Anthy is also smiling in enjoyment, I think due to her attraction. It’s a case where she can follow Akio’s line and at the same time enjoy feeling up Utena. Anthy lives in a painful and constricted world, and I think she is always looking for ways to enjoy herself despite it. And I think she dissociates her contradictory feelings out of self-protection.

Anthy is not merely acknowledging or indicating Utena’s girlishness. When we first see Anthy helping Utena hobble along, Utena’s voice is boyish. It turns more girlish when she starts to tell (or maybe ask) Anthy about her feelings, which must cause her to think of Akio and her prince. Possibly Anthy helped make her more girlish.

In the picture, the shadow line puts Utena and Anthy in the dark. The darkness on Utena’s hair makes it purple; see colors - Utena’s hair. They are walking toward the light because Utena is about to explain to Anthy her confused feelings about Akio and her prince (that’s my reading). But Akio drives up at the precise time to interrupt, as he tends to do.

The Cinderella scene, after Akio and Utena arrive back at the tower from the hospital, gets a slice of detailed animation because it’s important. Akio portrays himself as her prince and her as Cinderella, a princess to be. It is intercut with shots of the tower from below, a huge phallic symbol showing Akio sexually towering over Utena, or if you like Akio’s mighty sword poised over her. The inexperienced young girl does not stand a chance. Utena insists she can walk—she can stand on her own. Akio wants to carry her and enforces it by pilfering her shoe, depriving her of independence. See the foot catalog for more examples of the metaphor. Control of transportation is important later in the seduction scenes.

Stereotypes of attractive men. In the Cinderella scene, after Akio takes her shoe, Utena says he is a playboy who knows how to make girls feel special, and that he seems a little naughty. It’s very naughty; she hedges. Akio answers that they are both rule breakers—rules don’t matter to them. She contrasts him with her prince, good boy versus bad boy, and yet gives in to his pressure after brief and slight resistance. Good boy and bad boy both attract her. She lets herself fall back into the car and be kissed, subordinating herself to his wishes.

Male power is attractive. The woman is to be protected or endangered—either way, it doesn’t matter—as long as the man has the power. Whatever the woman’s taste or the man’s behavior, the system of control, or that is to say the culture, provides her a convenient packaged view that says it’s OK, you should give in to it. The Cinderella scene conflates prince and playboy, and Utena does not care. She is equally deluded by the illusion of Dios the heroic prince and the reality of Akio the cheating playboy.

It is part of the parallel between Touga and Akio. In the Student Council arc, Utena recognizes that playboy Touga cannot be her prince, but soon forgets it and supposes he might be her prince after all—and readies herself to be kissed. Touga succeeds in taking Utena’s sword, but fails in exploiting her sexually, and his failure flows directly into his defeat. Akio starts out exploiting Utena sexually, and only later takes her sword. He succeeds at both.

That night as they hold hands, Utena discusses with Anthy things Wakaba had told her about love—though she doesn’t repeat them quite as Wakaba said them. There is no wrong love—here Utena uses the word koi for love, a specific word for the falling-in-love kind of love, where Wakaba had vaguely said suki. You can’t help it when you like someone, but there are (this is Utena’s own conclusion) some people you shouldn’t fall in love with—she falls back on suki. Wakaba was playing around, Utena is serious.

Anthy knows the whole situation and may understand Utena’s feelings better than Utena does. Her answer is honest and open, and yet seemingly against Utena’s and her own interests: Yes, there is a part of love you can’t control. Anthy is remembering Utena’s declaration that they should talk about everything. Compare the pattern of mistrust that Wakaba warned about at the opening of the episode. With all the lies Akio requires her to tell, Anthy’s honesty seems futile.

Finally, Utena asks Anthy if there’s someone she loves, and Anthy answers that yes, she has her own prince. Why did Utena ask that? And who does Anthy mean (as the camera focuses on their joined hands)? Neither follows up on it. They both lost an opportunity. (By the way, in the preview from the previous episode Anthy answered the question with yes—and that time the camera turned to Akio.)

Utena’s character

I admire Utena for her idealism and honesty. They’re traits that I believe in and try to live up to myself. It hurt to see her idealism damaged and her honesty stricken. I’m sensitive to it, and I feel the abrupt shift in Utena’s character at this point.

Utena is not honest for honesty’s sake. She tries to live up to her ideals. A prince is by definition capable of working through any handicap, so when Utena is hurt she lies that she is OK. A prince’s love is eternal and a prince does not cheat on lovers, so when Utena understands that she wants to change her love, and wants to harm Kanae by cheating with Akio, she lies to herself—that’s how she becomes corrupted. Compare: Dios’s goal to save all girls was impossible even with his power of miracles. Utena’s ideals are also unrealistic and impossible. At heart, they became corrupted for the same reason, excess idealism—the very quality that is needed to revolutionize the world.

Until now, she was cheerful and emotionally open. She answered questions directly without holding back. She felt free to share her personal feelings with no fear that anyone might judge her for them or use them against her (even though Juri did in episode 7). It was a delight to see on the screen. After this episode she is corrupted. She declines to answer questions that might reveal her corrupted behavior. She fears openness, pulls back from intimacy, hides her feelings, no longer holds hands with Anthy at bedtime. The change is immediate. See Anthy and Utena scenes - playing a role, which is from the next episode.

As usual, there is a parallel with Touga. In the Student Council arc, whenever Wakaba catches her looking at Touga, Utena denies it or is reluctant to talk about it. It’s one of the signs that she is attracted to Touga beyond suspecting he is her prince—see above about honesty. (For more evidence, see breaking Utena from Anthy - at night with Touga - Utena’s attraction.)

Utena becomes more isolated and her world is more constricted; she is less free and easier to gain control over. She is a lesser person.

Utena’s honesty is not destroyed. She continues to speak openly and honestly to Akio in, for example, episode 34 (which is after the First Seduction). She does not need to hide her corruption from Akio, and she reveals information he uses to refine his plan. She tries to deceive others sometimes, but a lifetime of honesty left her awful at it.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 26 November 2021, more sections added the next day
updated 7 April 2024