Utena - Anthy’s backstab

The suicide attempt. <- PreviousNext -> Wait for me... Utena.

At the end of episode 38, with a longer depiction at the start of the final episode 39, Anthy runs Utena through with a sword, leaving her mortally wounded. Despite all the sword fighting, it’s the first time an Utena sword serves its basic purpose of causing serious injury to a hated enemy. It’s worth understanding in detail.

During the duel of episode 12, the second duel against Touga, we are granted access to Anthy’s inner thoughts. Utena’s sword is reduced to a stub, but she does not give up. We are treated to a view of Anthy’s expressionless face as she thinks, “She could die. Why does she keep fighting?” It’s parallel to what she told Dios, “don’t fight any more, you’ll die.” Dios accepts it, at least passively by exhaustion, while Utena rejects it and continues to reject it even when barely able to move. This rules out theories that events in the dueling arena are purely illusionary or metaphorical. Anthy, despite her long experience as a pincushion, is familiar with the fact that swords can kill.

the meaning

Anthy loves Utena but stabs her in the back. The patriarchy loves women (or claims to) but, through its system of control, stabs them in the back. Anthy acts to protect the status quo, which she has been taught is the only good and correct way for things to be. The patriarchy trains women as well as men to believe in and protect the patriarchy. The patriarchy’s worldview is backward and causes people to behave in reversed ways. The patriarchy works through underhanded tricks and lies (illusions) to hide its true nature. A stab in the back by a trusted friend is the prototypical dirty trick. In Utena, tricks and lies succeed where straightforward approaches fail. The patriarchy is successful... so far.

Role reversal. The backstab is backwards too. It maintains the world’s reversal but swaps its participants: Everyone plays a role in the patriarchy, and we can swap roles. Anthy becomes an attacker rather than a victim. She inserts a sword rather than removing one. Her usual weapon is poison, a stereotypical women’s weapon (it is not violent). Here she takes up a violent male weapon against Utena, who until now has tried to play the male role in their relationship. Utena becomes a victim rather than a prince, and since Anthy as an attacker takes on her role, it implies that princes are attackers, not protectors. The attack is a literal murder and a figurative rape. See also Akio-Utena date parallels - a further parallel.

Anthy breaks from her female role, breaking Akio’s rules that she believes in, and Akio approves. It must contribute to her leaving the Academy in the end.

the bigger story

Anthy’s betrayal of Utena is necessary for two reasons, one reason inside the story and one reason from outside.

Little Anthy with Dios on the hay. His cloak is spread out around him, lined with red. Anthy looks venomous.

Inside the story. The backstab is part of a bigger pattern in the final showdown. For the two to win, Anthy must reject Utena as a prince at the time when Utena must act as a prince, meaning Anthy must betray Utena. Later, to escape the Academy, Utena must give up on being a prince, while to escape herself, Anthy must accept Utena as a prince.

Anthy must betray Utena for Anthy and Utena to be victorious. In the episode 34 version of the prince story, Anthy loves Dios. When he is in danger of losing his life after too much fighting, she saves him by preventing him from fighting on—by overriding his agency in a rescue. As a result of rescuing him, she lost him and he became Akio. In episode 12, Utena fights on at risk of her life, and Anthy is reminded of Dios. It contributes to Anthy coming to love Utena. In the runup to the final showdown, Anthy indirectly and directly implores Utena to leave the Academy and save her own life. In the final showdown, if Anthy acts on her love, she will try to save Utena’s life. Utena will not be able to thread the needle of each helping the other: Of Utena helping Anthy as a prince, and Anthy helping Utena lose her delusion of being a prince. Utena might live, but Anthy would remain trapped.

In episode 12, Utena fights on even though she is in danger of dying, and inspires Anthy. In episode 39 she fights on even though she is mortally wounded and dying, and again inspires Anthy. If Anthy acts to save Utena’s life, then Utena (like Dios) will not be able to fight on.

Anthy and Utena are two halves of a whole. In the story as told, Anthy helps Utena lose her delusion of being a prince and Utena helps Anthy lose her delusion of being trapped by Akio. Before that happens, each wants to rescue the other: Each has the goal of sacrificing her own interests and saving the other against the other’s will. They were trying to control each other. If either succeeds saving and therefore controlling the other, they will not develop teamwork and help each other. They will certainly never “shine together”. Anthy must backstab Utena or their relationship will fail! It’s not quite intuitive!

As an aside, Utena’s recovery from losing to Touga (by being tricked) prefigures her recovery from losing to Akio (by Anthy’s treachery). She twice turns a loss into a victory. Never discount the power of miracles.

The backstab reverses the roles of Anthy and Utena. In the long run, I think it must help them understand each other.

Outside the story. From a storytelling point of view, Anthy must betray Utena, or convincingly seem to, or Utena’s idealism has not been challenged to her emotional limit. Utena must be left desperately struggling to succeed, or she has not been challenged to her physical limit. They are storytelling constraints on the story. The story chooses a powerful solution to its constraints.

If Utena were not challenged to her limits, for example if she defeated Akio, she would not have been able to open the Rose Gate and Anthy would still be in her coffin. It’s shown to us in the mechanism for unlocking the gate, which reinforces the point of the story. Utena is not a long-term thinker, she is motivated by immediate impulses. Her motivation to rescue Anthy reaches its peak only when she looks up to see Anthy a crown of thorns in the air, and is renewed every time she looks up. To reach Anthy, Utena literally and figuratively has to spend blood, sweat, and tears. Utena is telling us how hard it can be to help someone in Anthy’s position. As Akio has forced Anthy to give up herself to help him, Utena willingly gives up herself to help Anthy. The selfish villain Akio met a selfless hero—selfless for just long enough to convince Anthy.

Utena has fallen to her knees. Utena is down.

the literal depiction

The sword is not shown to pierce Utena. The pictures are consistent with the sword passing next to her. I happen to be just smart enough to realize: A sword that passes next to you does not cause you to collapse to the ground in impotence and agony. Could it have been a metaphorical backstab, an emotional betrayal? I don’t buy it, for story reasons. A physical stab in the back is both a physical and an emotional betrayal, and the stronger challenge makes a stronger story.

Thanks to meeting other examples of toned-down injuries in the catalog of blood, I conclude that the depiction shows Utena’s self-image: We are seeing Utena’s point of view. After being run through with a sword, Utena is physically on the ground, bleeding and slowly dying. Her mental self-image is not harmed. She remains a prince in her mind, and nothing hinders her view; she can be stabbed, and in pain, and barely able to move, and still be a heroic prince. Her self-image is uninjured; the sword passed through her body, not her understanding.

Utena’s self-image as a prince is injured a little later, when Dios comes up and talks at her. After that, her prince uniform is depicted as battered, with cracked epaulets. The pen is mightier than the sword, and talking can create and destroy worldviews where weapons cannot. Akio knew that when playing Dios.

Anthy’s red dress behind Utena visually represents (above) blood streaming from her wound and (below) blood spreading around her on the ground. It’s a lot of symbolic blood, because it’s a big event.

physical effects

I have no special medical knowledge, but I looked up medical treatment of impalement injuries and learned a little.

Anthy’s sword is an edged blade, not only a piercing weapon. It looks like Anthy stabbed Utena on the right side not far below the ribcage. The sword would cut through back and front abdominal muscles (whatever they’re called), through many blood vessels, and through whatever of intestines, liver, and kidney were in the way. There’s an ovary and oviduct somewhere near there too, but it looks like they are lower down. Anthy pushes the sword in farther in a second movement, causing injury each moment as the sword advances. As Utena collapses, the sword moves against the ground, causing more injury. When Anthy pulls the sword out, it causes yet more injury, plus the hard object was blocking some blood flow so Utena will bleed faster internally and externally.

I learned that doctors will leave the impaling object in place if they can, to prevent that extra bleeding until the object can be removed in an operating room. The operating room is a requirement; internal bleeding must be stopped and internal injuries dealt with. My reading gave me the impression that Utena would quickly suffer circulatory shock from loss of blood. She needs medical attention or she’ll die. It’s a mortal wound.

In fact, she crawls and (after Dios kisses her ring) walks, though barely and with desperate effort. It is Other Than Recommended Behavior, and standing in particular should be physically... I’ll say difficult, that’s a safe claim. As well as blood loss, muscles that keep the torso stable have been cut through. So what she does is outside the normal range for reality. But it is well within normal for fiction: Her power of miracles is operating, and fictional Dios kissing the ring (somehow) allowed it to operate again.

the sequence of events

Here’s the sequence of events, the main evidence. We get different information at the end of episode 38 and the start of episode 39. I added a little interpretation.

After Akio’s speech to Utena about how Utena is unready for a real duel, which is not like the play duels she has fought so far, the camera immediately cuts to Anthy. Anthy looks passive and sunk in despondency; she sees no way out, only pain and loss. The immediate cut implies that Anthy is part of Akio’s plan to win. When Anthy sees the castle falling and stands up to intervene, she at first moves like an automaton, as if not by her own will, and hesitates to continue—with the same implication. Anthy always hesitates before carrying out an order she does not like. We see a stock shot of Anthy’s eyes widening and tearing slightly, which in the past has indicated her concern for Utena in a duel. Anthy does not move forward; Akio ends up retreating behind Anthy’s position, and Akio pushes her forward toward Utena. It all suggests that this is Akio’s plan, and Anthy is cooperating with less than 100% willingness. It is normal for her and occurs in many interactions with Akio where she soon gives in.

Akio looks triumphant. Anthy looks unsure. Anthy looks sad.

In episode 39 (not in 38), we see Akio’s triumphant face before the backstab; he knows what will happen. Behind Utena, with a hand on her back, Anthy looks anxious or unsure. She is looking upward to the back of Utena’s head, or maybe beyond to Akio. Then she looks sad for a moment and closes her eyes with a loving (or perhaps resigned) expression and comes closer to Utena, putting a hand around her shoulder. The hand on the shoulder turns out to be Anthy bracing herself to press the sword through. It’s a storytelling trick to shock the audience with the reversal, but it should show Anthy’s true feelings. With the sword in her back, Utena asks why, then Anthy opens her eyes with a venomous expression and pushes the sword farther through. She is looking neither to Utena nor to Akio, but away from both and straight at the camera, which indicates seriousness. Answering Utena’s question, Anthy says in a menacing tone that she reminds her of Dios, but “you can never be my prince, because you’re a girl.” Anthy thoroughly rejects Utena’s princehood. Quiet scornful laughter in the background, as if to say “you deserve it!” represents the world’s reaction, the reaction of the people who hold the Swords of Hatred.

It’s similar to the sound of the crowd surrounding Anthy when she is left alone at the dance party in episode 3. Anthy is used to being scorned and isolated; now Utena (fallen into Anthy’s victim role) is getting a taste of it.

Anthy is braced for the backstab. Anthy looks venomous.

By the way, we do not see Anthy’s sword until it is already in Utena. As she was pushed toward Utena, Anthy’s arms were at her sides and visible, so the sword did not appear until she was behind Utena. She is able to pull a sword not only from a person’s chest, but from thin air.

Though she viciously and unnecessarily pushes the sword in farther, once she removes the sword she forcefully throws it out of reach.

She either does not want to or does not see a need to finish off the helpless Utena or put her out of her suffering. Whew, close call, the story might have ended early. I believe Anthy knows that Akio plans for Utena to die. We’re never told the rules of the swords. If Utena’s sword disappears or loses its power when she dies, then she’s being deliberately left alive while the sword is needed. It seems likely, since the power of miracles belongs to Utena personally, not to the sword (see episodes 1 and 12, plus miracles unconnected with duels). If not that, then does Anthy leave Utena alive out of hope, or out of cruelty, or out of not caring either way?

The backstab occurs against a dark background that grows darker. Literally, night is falling; the final showdown started at sunset. Figuratively, the black color stands for Utena’s aloneness. The sword cuts her off from every friend and her last ally. It also stands for Akio’s corrupt darkness, the opposite of Dios’s sunlight. And it is a reminder of Mikage’s dark underground lair, the realm of death.
There is another time when Utena asks why: In the duel of episode 29 when Juri drops her rose, surrendering without being defeated, and in fact when seeming to fight better than Utena. This case is parallel. Utena sees Anthy as surrendering before the contest is over, and in fact when Utena seems to be winning.
What expression did Anthy wear when poisoning Kanae, who she despised? Was it venomous, or contemptuous, or perhaps blank for business as usual? Or pleased?

Anthy’s normally suppressed feelings come out during the backstab when her self-control fails. It’s not directly relevant to the backstab, and I discuss it at final showdown - Anthy’s confusion.

prefigured images

The backstab is a central event. In retrospect it’s possible to detect foreshadowing.

Nanami and Keiko. Besides these images, there is a parallel with episode 21, with Nanami and Keiko. When Nanami ostracizes Keiko, removing her from all her clubs and whatnot, Keiko is taken by surprise and asks “Why, Nanami-sama?” Nanami reacts to the question with fury and insult. Here, Anthy backstabs Utena, Utena is taken by surprise and asks “Why? Himemiya, why?” Anthy reacts with fury, driving the sword in deeper, and insults the fallen Utena. Nanami is keeping Keiko away from Touga; Anthy is keeping Utena away from Akio.

Saionji strikes Touga with his sword, who blocked it from Utena, who is helping Anthy.
Episode 9, Saionji’s backstab

Touga manipulates Saionji into attacking Utena from behind to give himself a chance to play prince. It is a psychological trick and leads to Touga winning the duel of episode 11, but Utena recovers and wins the following duel. Akio manipulates Anthy into stabbing Utena in the back. It is a physical attack and constitutes Akio winning the duel. But Utena recovers and her miracle plays out.

Utena is on the ground, disarmed, the point of Juri’s sword at her chest.
Episode 7, Juri over Utena
Wakaba holds Utena up by the hair and has her sword at Utena’s throat.
Episode 20, Wakaba over Utena
Anthy has run Utena through with her sword.

For defying the system of control, Utena faces sword threats—threats of male power—from women. They get worse with time. Juri threatens Utena physically in return for Utena’s emotional threat to Juri’s belief in the stability of the oppressive system. Juri only wants to intimidate her. Wakaba threatens Utena’s life for contributing to oppression by overriding Wakaba’s own defiance. Anthy carries out the threat because Utena endangers Akio, who is the patriarchy. The backstab is a central symbol of the patriarchy; see the meaning above.

Anthy is behind Utena with her hand on her back.
Episode 36, as Utena slices cars
Anthy looks unsure.

In the episode 36 duel against Touga, Utena wins after cutting cars in half with her sword. Anthy shelters behind her. In the elevator on the way up, Utena acts as a prince and promises to protect Anthy. Anthy answers “Really?” It suggests she’s thinking “You’re with Akio. Are you sure you care about me?” Utena keeps her promise. But in the backstab, Anthy is with Akio and betrays Utena.

During the duel, Touga hits on Utena with a promise to protect her. Maybe Utena was unconsciously doing the same. It also means that being a prince is wrong. The parallels here get complicated.

The lighting in the left picture is tinted purple for Anthy’s corruption by Akio into believing that Utena does not truly intend to protect her, or at least no longer loves her.

Anthy reaches around Dios’s back to his shoulder.
first ending sequence
Anthy looks venomous.

Another comparison came early on, in the ending sequence of the Student Council and Black Rose arcs. Anthy is motionlessly dancing with Dios, and in this picture not looking happy about it—presumably Dios is now Akio. She dances with Dios with pose and expression similar to when she backstabs Utena. The similarity goes down to the crooking of Anthy’s little finger (though it’s characteristic of Anthy). She loved Dios and he became Akio, which she must see as a betrayal, because it violated their promise to help each other (episode 25). She loves Utena and believes that Utena has betrayed her to be with Akio—which is true, Utena is violating her own promise of episode 25. Anthy has reasons to believe that Utena is trying to recover from her betrayal, but it takes more than that.

Anthy, looking like Utena, lies on the ground with Wakaba on her back. Utena, looking like Anthy, stands watching.
Episode 8, Anthy as Utena

When backstabbed, Utena collapses slowly and Anthy ends up on her back. In the body swap episode, Wakaba jumps on Anthy, who looks like Utena. Anthy collapses slowly and Wakaba ends up on her back. The collapses are similar: The victim’s feet (somehow) slide apart while their knees remain together. It’s meant to portray physical weakness.

Besides prefiguring the backstab, it ties in with Wakaba’s duel in episode 20, where Wakaba betrays Utena. Utena tries to help but unintentionally betrays Wakaba in turn. In the backstab, Utena tries to free Anthy from Akio, but in attacking Akio unintentionally betrays her. In the episode 20 duel, Anthy falls because Utena did not draw the sword to protect her, as a prince should. Anthy’s fall is depicted with sexualized images, just as the backstab is a sexualized attack. There’s more here that I haven’t figured out yet.

Anthy’s motivations

Did Anthy act under orders, or on her own? Akio did not expect this situation, so I conclude that he did not issue specific orders. He believed his initial plan would work, and when it did not he expected his two backup plans to work. The incipient tears in her eye imply that Anthy acted on her own, based on her own feelings. Akio carefully inculcated and maintained those feelings, which for him are better than orders.

Anthy’s venomous expression says that at the moment of the backstab, Anthy hates Utena. She says as much in the preview for episode 37, which is not part of the story but points toward it. There are many clues in the events, and we can try to discern why. Episodes 37, 38, and 39 are thick with clues, and then there’s the rest of the series. Akio told Anthy during episode 37 that Utena was to die. Here’s what I think so far.

The irony is thick here. Anthy and Utena fell in love. Akio separated them by showing each, with convincing evidence, that the other had betrayed her to be with Akio. Utena did betray Anthy, hurting her. Now Utena has reversed course and turns against Akio, threatening to defeat him to free Anthy. Anthy does not seek freedom, or consider it possible; she wants the relative security of stability. She is hurt again in the opposite way. Anthy can’t get a break, and therefore she can’t give Utena a break.

Why did Anthy act? We know from her desolate expression early on that she saw no way out; she had already committed to the backstab by then, if it was needed—whether she had thought of the idea yet or not! In episode 37, Anthy exhausted the option of convincing Utena to run away. My take is that Akio had compressed her psychological space to the point that she didn’t consider anything other than going along. From what I’ve read, psychological dependency is common and normal in victims of long-term abuse. After the stabbing she wiped Akio’s crocodile tears despite (as I read it) knowing that they were false; she bought into it and acted to preserve her familiar perceived security.

Anthy did show one sign of personal agency when she was behind Utena looking forward. She looked briefly unsure. The unsureness was replaced by the flash of sadness when she became certain. It suggests that Anthy’s latent hatred is not activated until the moment of the backstab. I’m not sure what happened there. She always hesitates before executing an order she does not like. She may have been watching Akio for a cue. My thought is that she was hesitating in the face of her task, recoiling from the immediacy of harming the one she loved, needing a second to remember that it was unavoidable so let’s get on with it. She closes her eyes against the reality of what she is doing, and perhaps enjoys a last moment of physical contact... and then gets on with it.

Anthy does not need to kill Utena. It is enough to leave her disabled and unable to retain possession of her sword. Whether or not she needs to be alive, she doesn’t need to be dead; she can always be murdered later. Anthy could have pulled the sword out when Utena asked why, and Anthy’s task would still have been successful. Why did Anthy hurt Utena more severely than necessary, by both injury and insult? I can think of more than one reason, and it’s not important to distinguish the details, but this is the one I prefer:

The insult is intended to undermine Utena’s power of miracles, and it works for a time. It is evidence that Utena is to be kept alive until Akio has opened the Rose Gate with her power. I’m not convinced it’s strong evidence.

Victim-blaming is a natural human behavior. It doesn’t have to be learned as such, but in many people it develops naturally from human psychology in the human social environment, in the same way that the ability to walk develops naturally from physical growth and movement in the human physical environment. For someone like Anthy, under constant and intense blame, victim-blaming must be like the air she breathes. Here, Anthy is in a wretched dilemma. She was compelled to cut down one she loves, she is hurting in every direction. Anthy was not thinking, only feeling; acute suffering does not leave room for thought. When Utena who had hope asked “why?” Anthy who had no hope was put beyond her tolerance. Her immediate emotional reaction was fury and victim-blaming, “don’t blame me, you know why, this is your fault, I’ll hurt you for that.” And she drove the sword deeper. Anthy’s insult was genuinely felt, echoing Dios with “because you’re a girl” as she blames Utena for being like Dios and bringing misfortune to her, and implies that Dios was better because he at least had the sense to give up hope. Her fury continues until the violently angry gesture of throwing the heavy sword away throws away her violence and anger. Her tight self-control returns, though she still seems to blame Utena. It was the brief outburst of a tightly self-controlled person in torment, a very real event.

Another interpretation, that I don’t like as much because it explains less, is that Anthy did not consider her task finished when Utena asked why. Unlike me, she thought it was necessary to drive the sword deeper. How would you feel if you were deliberately hurting one you loved and believed it necessary to hurt them more and harder, not to help them in any way but to force them aside for other goals? I think anger and spite would be natural, as an emotional defense. Cognitive dissonance is powerful.

Yet another interpretation: Anthy has legitimate reasons to despise Utena—as Anthy claims to in the preview at the end of episode 36. Utena has done bad things to her, both unintentionally and knowingly. Stabbing her could naturally bring that deserved hatred to the fore. Cognitive dissonance again.

It doesn’t have to be only one reason. There can be layers.

Joy in vengeance. Anthy normally takes joy in vengeance; see Anthy’s corruption. I think she was delighted to poison Kanae, who she despised. Now she takes vengeance out of hatred—and almost immediately regrets it. She believes the necessity, she feels the loathing, then she feels her loss. I think it is a step toward leaving the Academy: She starts to learn that revenge is evil, which is part of awakening to the truth.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 17 November 2021
updated 12 June 2024