Birds are people. Through his name Ohtori, Akio rules over all birds, that is, over everyone. Akio is Zeus who is, or is represented by, an eagle, which stands for his power. The egg of the world is a bird egg; a chick hatches from it. Hatching stands for revolution, which is advertised as breaking Akio’s power, though Akio plans for it to reinforce his power (revolution is an illusion). The stone bird over the entrance to the dueling forest is both Zeus’s eagle and the bird that hatches from the egg of the world. Birds flying free outside appear to be free, but the blue of the sky means that it is an illusion; they are under the system of control. I think there’s a lot more to say about birds.
The birds in episode 17 are Java sparrows (Wikipedia). Thanks to Anthy for mentioning the species in episode 26; that made it easy.
Butterflies in Japan can represent the souls of the dead. That’s definitely part of their meaning in the Black Rose: The dead butterflies on display stand for souls. Of course, everyone in the Academy is metaphorically dead and in a coffin, so that part goes without saying. Butterflies also mean transformation because of their metamorphosis. The time-reversed transformation of butterfly back to egg takes that in. I imagine it has some Jungian psychological meaning that I don’t know about (yet). It is regeneration after a return from adulthood, but the next cycle is to be just the same.
The white butterflies. I thought they were moths and could not identify them. Once I had the idea that they might be butterflies, it was easy. The pictures match Pieris rapae (Wikipedia), which has a confusing variety of common names that overlap with other species but usually include the word “cabbage”. It’s widespread and common, and it’s an agricultural pest. The butterflies appear in episode 4 with a sound effect indicating that they are bad. They appear again in episode 15. They stand for Kozue and Miki. The black spots on the white wings presumably stand for Akio’s dark contamination of their purity.
The confession elevator butterfly looks like Siproeta stelenes (Wikipedia), common name “malachite” after the green mineral. In mounting it, the forewings were stretched upward instead of allowed to lie outward—I assume that is to show the pattern better. In life its wings would be wide rather than tall. The unnatural pose emphasizes that it is dead. Wikipedia says it feeds on carrion, rotting fruit, bat dung, and flower nectar—things that are dead or associated with death and (fruit and flowers) reproduction, that is, with the cycle of life and death—mostly death. Its devolution into a chrysalis, a caterpillar, and then a leaf is a time reversal similar to Touga’s regression to childhood from car through motorcycle to bicycle and opposite to Utena becoming adult and disappearing. All these things are related to the different passage of time in Fairyland.
The butterfly on the red poppy in episode 35 is on my to-identify list. See flowers - giving a red poppy to Touga. After looking at butterfly pictures until my eyes blurred, I think that all the species with the closest resemblance are in the (giant) family Nymphalidae. Some members of genus Lexias have yellow and white spots, but not arranged the same way. I have found no close matches.
A shadow butterfly appears in the shadow play of episode 21. It stands for Keiko.
A dark butterfly in dark blue and black appears briefly in episode 22, in Tokiko’s house.
Cats. The story of the kitten that little Nanami gives to Touga and then disposes of is in episode 10. The kitten is parallel to Utena—more fully, Nanami and the kitten are parallel to Anthy and Utena. Cherry blossoms around young Touga’s birthday cake refer to the kitten’s life. Anthy gives a kitten to Touga to provoke Nanami. The shadow play of episode 10 features a kitten. The shadow play of episode 16 is about belling the cat.
Cattle. Younger Touga saves little Nanami from a bull in episode 6, impressing Mitsuru. The bull is parallel to the horse earlier in the episode, repeating its pose and surroundings; it goes along with the comparison of cow and horse. Bulls are associated with Zeus, so I think this bull represents Akio intervening in events (he is bringing about Nanami’s incestuous desires). In episode 10, Anthy feeds cow milk to a kitten. In episode 16, Nanami’s cowbell turns her into a cow, paralleling the myth of Io and Zeus. Utena removes the cowbell and saves her. In the planetarium constellations of episode 33, the constellation of Taurus the bull is identified with Utena, which equates Utena with Nanami as a cow—though Utena as a bull is male. Taurus is also equated with Akio via the myth of Europa and the bull, and by the broader association of Zeus with bulls. Bulls are also shown to be like Kozue. The cow milk is a throwaway gag, but the others must be part of a symbol complex. Touga, Nanami, and Kozue are among the characters most closely tied to Utena.
At the start of episode 16, Anthy watches a small TV while eating potato chips. (Neither is polite when Utena is trying to sleep.) The bag says “potato chips” across the top. The character and drawing below make them Cow brand chips. The TV show and the chips together are Anthy’s inspiration for the cowbell. She is already smiling in anticipation.
The cuckoo is the common cuckoo (Wikipedia). It appears in the shadow play of episode 31, and its call is heard from a cuckoo clock in episode 34 and episode 35. The equation of Akio and Anthy with Zeus and Hera indirectly refers to cuckoos.
Cuckoos are a whole family of bird species. Utena uses the word kakkou for the common cuckoo, the species English speakers expect, whose song is the sound of a cuckoo clock. The lesser cuckoo (Wikipedia) is a different species with a much nicer song, and is called hototogisu. Both species are brood parasites. The hototogisu appears often in haiku. It is associated with one-sided love, and the meaning seems to carry over into Utena. The cuckoo for Nanami in episode 31 and the cuckoo clock for Utena in episodes 34 and 35 both appear when one-sided love is prominent. This is alongside the cuckoo’s English meaning of cheating on a lover.
Dogs. Dogs appear in the episode 3 shadow play. Anthy is Akio’s dog, as indicated by the shadow play, by how he treats her, and by the episode 33 constellations. In the final showdown, Akio poses Anthy like a lapdog and pets her head.
The earthworm of episode 36 is discussed at where were you last night? Like the octopus, the worm represents Akio and captures Chu-Chu.
Elephants are humorous male symbols in Japanese culture. In Anthy’s flipbook animation in episode 4, an elephant squirts out an apple. In the body swap episode 8 (mentioned in the same link), elephants chasing Nanami and her gang depict predatory male pursuit of women (see their trunks raise up as they close in). In the comic recap episode 24, the nerd trio share Anthy’s body-swapping curry with three elephants. We don’t see anything happen, a sneaky callback joke that the three boys are indistinguishable from the three elephants (in episode 6 they pursued Nanami aggressively). In episode 27, as Anthy and Utena hold hands in bed, Anthy talks about elephants leaving the herd before they die. These elephants stand for Utena and predict that she will become isolated and die.
Fish stand for women. Fish and women are to be caught and devoured. Eating a fish stands for sex. Fish appear in the shadow plays of episodes 13, 19, 28, and 35. If I identified it correctly, there is sushi on the dining table in the First Seduction of episode 33, and fish come up in Utena’s babble. The Sailor Moon villain Fish Eye from SuperS seems to have influenced Utena, and the shadow play of episode 35 repeats the koi pun (in Japanese it means both carp and love) in SuperS. (I assume it’s a standard pun. It’s pretty obvious.)
The frog that harasses Chu-Chu seems to be a Japanese tree frog (Wikipedia). I didn’t find any other Japanese frog that’s close in appearance. Its green color is Saionji’s color, and the frog is associated with Saionji: It persistently forces itself on Chu-Chu the same way Saionji forces himself on Anthy. A frog also appears in episode 31, catching a bug to punctuate a joke being made. We hear its croak at later jokes in the episode.
The Japanese word for frog is kaeru, a homonym for the verb “to return”—this is widely reported in English—but also for the verb “to change” (modify or transform)—this is rarely noted in English. So in Utena the frog can be a dual symbol of regeneration without change, and of revolution.
The frog may also be a reference to the frog prince.
Horses. Mitsuru sets a horse loose in the school in episode 6 and rescues Nanami from it, “treating” her minor injury. The horse is parallel to the bull in the same episode. In the recap episode 24, Mitsuru is the one injured by a horse. Touga rides a black horse and Akio rides a white horse in setting up the Second Seduction. Nanami as a cow and Akio’s white horse (which stands for him) are shown to be parallel. A horse is a vehicle and it is compared to other vehicles, such as Touga’s bicycle and Akio’s car. In the final episode, Dios rides a merry-go-round with fake horses.
Mice. Chu-Chu is compared to a mouse in episode 2 (the mouse Utena imagines in the ruined dorm room) and episode 15 (by Miki with the sound chuu-chuu, which Chu-Chu does actually make). Mice appear in the shadow play of episode 16, which refers to the fairy tale of Belling the Cat. Analysis of that shadow play shows that Akio is also a mouse. Mice are associated with cats.
Monkeys. Chu-Chu is a monkey. In episode 2, we see a toy monkey in the closet as Utena moves into the unused dorm. In the shadow play of episode 22, Mikage as a robot is given the task of catching monkeys. The monkey-catching robot returns in episode 24 and episode 31. In episode 34, the shadow girls refer to the three wise monkeys. A monkey appears in the fairy tale The Rabbit in the Moon.
The octopus is presumably the common octopus Octopus vulgaris (Wikipedia). Not that I would know. In episode 4, the octopus represents vengeance both by and on Nanami. Also, like the earthworm, the octopus represents Akio and captures Chu-Chu as Akio captured Anthy. Wakaba’s octopus frankfurter is another avenging octopus.
The pillbug is probably supposed to be Armadillidium vulgare (Wikipedia), though it is drawn incorrectly. It has too many segments, and its legs are too many and too small (features that are common across pillbugs, so they don’t distinguish species). And yet it looks like a pillbug, not a pill millipede, and it doesn’t resemble any other terrestrial isopod that I’ve seen pictures of. In episode 9, Chu-Chu enjoys harassing the pillbug. The frog’s first act against Chu-Chu is to eat the pillbug. The frog is Saionji, Chu-Chu is Anthy, and the pillbug represents victims that Anthy harasses in turn (it doesn’t seem to be Nanami specifically). It is a miniature of Anthy’s world, and shows how cruelty is passed along.
Rabbits. An apple is cut into rabbits in episode 5, and Anthy plays at making the rabbits dance in episode 7. The rabbit dance seems to be related to the red shoes. A rabbit is the hero of the fairy tale The Rabbit in the Moon, which is referred to in the cowbell episode (Nanami pounds mochi and later becomes a steak) and by the bunny girl in the shadow play of episode 20. The bunny girl reappears in the shadow play of episode 26. Anthy and Utena are both the Rabbit in the Moon. The constellation of Lepus the rabbit shows up in the episode 33 constellations.
Snails. I don’t know all of what Utena’s snails mean, but there are two obvious points. One, snails have spiral shells, which is meaningful. Two, land snails are hermaphroditic—both male and female. Utena and Miki are gendermixed, and snails appear first in episode 4 about Miki. Nanami tries to harass Anthy with snails. She thinks it is to convince Miki that Anthy is disgusting, but I think it is to convince Anthy that hermaphrodite Miki is disgusting. Girls, not boys, are conventionally put off by creepy-crawlies. As it turns out, Anthy likes and cultivates snails (she keeps them closed in a coffin-like box) and is not disgusted.
I thought the snail species would be easy to identify, but I am failing so far. How many large land snails can there be with a depressed shell of about four whorls and two very distinctive black stripes? I found photos which prove that it is a real species and that Utena draws it fairly accurately—they are from a snail collector trying to identify the species and failing!
I have no evidence, but it would fit thematically if the species uses love darts (Wikipedia). I learned that some Japanese snails in the genus Euhadra have shells of this shape and use love darts.
The snail that Chu-Chu rides in episode 18 has a similar shell size and shape, but different patterning on its shell and body. It might be a different species, or it might be lazy art. As with the pillbug above, the frog then harasses Chu-Chu.
Snakes. In episode 2, the closet contains a toy snake. In episode 5, Nanami brings a snake to her attempted harassment of Anthy. Anthy’s mongoose eats it. In episode 8, Nanami meets caged snakes in India. In the Apocalypse Saga, Akio acts as the serpent in Eden, tempting Utena into the corruption of eating the forbidden apple.
Jay Scott <email@example.com>
first posted 4 July 2022
updated 19 September 2023