Utena - duel symbols

A sword is a male symbol. A rose on the chest is a female symbol. That is only the beginning of it. (See sex symbols for more male and female symbols.)

the arena
pulling a sword
  in the arena
  in the Black Rose
  in the final showdown
between the legs

the arena

The dueling platform is a rose: It is on a long stalk, and the arena on top carries a rose emblem. The rose emblem on the arena represents the petals of the rose, and stands for Anthy, who the duelists fight over. The crenelations around the edge represent the rose’s calyx and stand for Utena. The arena is also associated with Utena via her name.

Dios is the Rose Prince, and the rose of the dueling arena stands for Dios as well as for Utena and Anthy. The dueling arena is not Akio’s creation, it is a part of the natural world—possibly created by Dios in a miracle (see the reference to Sailor Moon’s Galaxia). Akio had to learn how to gain access to it—that is part of what the Black Rose is about; Akio manipulated Mikage into researching the dueling arena for him.

pulling a sword

Pulling a sword from someone’s chest in the dueling arena comes with sexualized imagery. There are three variations of drawing a sword from someone’s heart: Drawing it in the arena, having it taken involuntarily in the Black Rose, and having Akio take it with consent in the final showdown.

in the arena

Anthy’s incantation, “Power of Dios that sleeps within me” and so on, is a classic magic spell. In an animistic worldview, including in Europe until the Enlightenment era, magic is accomplished by calling on a deity or spirit, or a group of them, to perform the feat. First you invoke the spirit, then you make your request. Anthy starts the spell, then the person drawing the sword completes it. Anthy: “answer to your master and reveal—” Sword receiver: “—the power to revolutionize the world!” (It’s a grammatical inversion in Japanese, rare in everyday language but not so rare in a heightened rhetorical context like a magic spell.)

The spell doesn’t seem to be required. Maybe Akio has her speak like a magician to make her more witch-like. In any case, we’re being told that Anthy is magical. It continues from her magic in carrying out Utena’s magical girl transformation.
Who does Anthy mean when she refers to the sword’s master? I think she means herself, the one working the spell. But it’s fair to suppose that she means Dios. In that case, she is invoking Dios as a reason for the power of Dios to manifest. It’s common for a spell to give the spirit reasons to obey, because spirits have agency.
Anthy holds a ball of blue-white light in her hands. The sword from her heart will soon appear there.
ball of blue light
Anthy faces away as she prepares to let her sword be drawn. Wind lifts the skirt of her princess dress.
Student Council and Black Rose
Anthy stand in front of Utena as she prepares to draw Utena’s sword. Wind lifts the skirt of her princess dress.
Apocalypse Saga

Ball of light. The first thing to appear is a ball of light. It’s depicted as very bright; the background turns dark by comparison and characters shield their eyes from it. That makes it Dios as the sun. It is different colors in different episodes. The image is from episode 1 and the ball is blue for Saionji’s illusions. In other Student Council arc episodes, it is white for the prince. That includes episode 12 when the sword is drawn from Touga: We see Utena’s point of view, and Utena takes Touga to be a prince, so he gets the prince’s color. In episode 23, the ball of light is white in its upper half and slightly blue in its lower half. In the final showdown, when Akio draws Utena’s sword, the ball looks white but is ever so faintly yellowish, predicting Utena’s upcoming jealousy. The fuzzy glow around the edge, and the indrawn rays of light, also vary in color. Anthy holds it in her hands as if it were a solid sphere, but shortly it starts to flicker, and the sword emerges through it.

Dios’s wind blows when a sword is drawn in the arena. It’s the wind of the prince’s power; see the wind catalog for the wider metaphor. When the sword is drawn from Anthy, light shines not only from the ball, but from under the skirt of her dress. The light from underneath Anthy’s dress is Dios’s pure white sunlight. It has multiple meanings. Most broadly, it is goodness as opposed to Akio’s corrupt darkness. Coming from under the dress suggests sex; see loving Dios. The sun of the Second Seduction (with its halo) is the light of love, which Dios will see as related to sex, though Akio may disagree. The sun of the three sunrises suggests insight. With the sword being drawn from the heart, and a ball of light appearing over the heart, the love and sex meanings are foremost.

When Anthy draws the sword from Utena, there is no light from under her dress, but the color matches Utena. The pink-purple color of her petticoats is the same hue as Utena’s hair, but darker.

When the sword is out, it continues drawing in a last few rays, then it flashes white for the prince. Drawing a sword from a heart seems to involve pulling in... something... from the environment, often but not always illusions. The prince in fact is an illusion—in the prince story, he is played by Akio.

Utena is about to pull out Anthy’s sword.
Student Council and Black Rose
Anthy is pulling out Utena’s sword.
Apocalypse Saga

In the stock sequences of the first two arcs, the donor of the sword (I’ll go with that language) leans back vulnerable and open, below and supported by the receiver. It could represent the smitten donor in a swoon granting her heart to the receiver. In the Apocalypse Saga it’s more symmetrical: The donor is lower, but the receiver is in a symmetrical vulnerable position; it’s a more mutual act, reflecting Utena’s promise of teamwork at the start of the arc. It strongly suggests a sex position: A progression from romance to sex. In both cases, the hilt of the sword pops out of the donor’s chest before the receiver can grasp it, so the feeling is more of giving the sword than having the sword taken. Anthy’s incantation reinforces that it is willing; it means I grant you my power (of male origin and taking male form).

Other duels: In the Apocalypse Saga duels where Utena’s opponents draw a sword, with one exception we don’t see the ball of light or the sex position pose; the characters are not real couples (not even Shiori and Ruka) and do not have metaphorical sex. The exception is the episode 36 duel, when Saionji pulls out Touga’s sword. The ball of light is pure white for the prince and it draws in red rays for Touga.

In the regular duels where the sword is drawn in the arena, the sword receiver does not touch the sword until it is mostly out of the donor’s body; see for example Shiori drawing Ruka’s sword. The sword floats out on its own, given rather than taken. It’s not the same in the Black Rose or the final showdown.

Who places this male power in each duelist’s chest? If I am right that Dios created the dueling arena with a last miracle to enable good to eventually win over evil, then Dios hands out the swords. Dios and Akio are equally patriarchal.

in the Black Rose

When a sword is drawn from a victim, which always happens away from the arena, it pops out on its own, and how it ends up in the receiver’s hands is left unseen. Wakaba’s duel is an exception; she places her hands on the sword. The sword is apparently forced out by the black rose. It is painful and involuntary and leaves the donor unconscious; the receiver (by means of the black rose) violently rapes the sword from the donor.

There is neither wind nor light when a victim’s sword is taken. The prince is not involved in Mikage’s mischief.

in the final showdown

In the final showdown, Akio lays his hand on Utena’s and Anthy’s swords and pulls them out with no discussion or ceremony. The swords do not come out on their own; they are taken. Utena and Anthy consent to it in the moment, but they are being manipulated by Akio and cannot consent freely.

Light shines and wind blows when Akio draws Utena’s sword. The prince is active—as Akio needs him to be, to gain his power. Light shines from Anthy (who is out of sight on the white sofa) when he draws Anthy’s sword. Anthy’s sword is inspired by the prince but does not embody the prince’s power, so there is no wind (that’s how I read it).


A duel is a fight to deflower, but that doesn’t catch the meaning. The duelists engage in combat with their male symbols, taking female symbols as targets to destroy. Everyone, man and woman, participates in the patriarchal action to cut women down. Everyone uses male power to oppress women. That is the primary symbolism of the duels. I grant you my power that you may oppress others.

Besides sex and power, swords stand for hatred and death—not only because of the Swords of Hatred, but because the very purpose of a sword is to combat and kill those you hate. For a man, the purpose of sex is to combat those you hate. It’s chilling.


The bells that ring at the start of a duel.
duel starting bells
The bells that ring at the end of a duel.
duel ending bells

The start and end of a duel are marked by the ringing of bells in a tower. The starting and ending bells are different. For example, the starting bells have prominent wheels. The different starting and ending bells should have different meanings.

I take the bells to be church bells, tying them to the prince story, which happened in a church. Church bells are traditionally rung on Sundays as a call to worship, on special occasions like the new year, and for weddings and funerals. The duel bells can stand for all of those, but of these, the weddings and funerals are the best fit. In episode 9, the bells ring for the funeral of Utena’s parents.

In fact, Utena conflates weddings and funerals. The male sword destroying a female flower stands for sex and death. It’s perfectly direct! Marriage symbolically ends a woman’s life because it places her under her husband’s final control. See overview of Akio and Utena - the allegory. Akio’s plots make it literal: He murders his fiancee Kanae and intends to marry Utena and then murder her. As Zeus he is married to Hera who is Anthy, and she is in for an eternity of torment rather than a life.

Utena is full of reversals. Utena makes progress through duels; she hones her power of miracles so that she can ultimately win through. In a reversal, Akio makes progress through duels; he wants to steal Utena’s power of miracles once it is strong enough. The bells may have two reversed meanings in the same way. If so, it coordinates with the opposed symbols of Utena’s disappearance at the end, which equally means rebirth and permanent death. It is part of Utena’s allegory: Traditional cultural narratives are full of lies, and we should reverse our understanding of them. Akio brought about a backward world, and Utena depicts it through reversals, which you can read as revolution.

The bells also ring when Anthy leaves the Academy at the end. They are starting bells; they don’t announce the end of Anthy’s duel with Akio, but the beginning of her journey to find Utena. Finding and/or living with Utena is compared to a duel in itself.

All that said, I still don’t know what the bells mean. Do the starting bells correspond to Dios and the ending bells to Akio? It would make sense.

between the legs

Saionji is visible between Utena’s legs.
Episode 25, Saionji
Touga is visible between Utena’s legs. Her red shorts are prominent.
Episode 36, Touga’s real target

In the Apocalypse Saga, four duels include brief shots of Utena’s opponent seen between her legs: Saionji, Miki, Ruka, Touga. They are the male duelists other than Akio—who won his duel not with the sword in his hand but through Anthy’s backstab.

Only the duel with Touga takes extra steps to sexualize Utena, because of Touga’s desire (see Anthy and Utena fetishize different body parts). But all of them make the duel a sexual action. The boys are penises ready to go, in the same way that the swords are penises. At the same time, the images place Utena above and supreme; Utena wins all these duels.


The Tale of the Rose lays out the motivations of the four primary duelists. I changed the order.

the shining thingMikiloveseeking an ideal
that which is eternalSaionjimarriageholding your ideal forever
the power of miraclesJurihopegaining your ideal despite its impossibility (real or apparent)
the power of revolutionTougapowertaking your ideal by force, or in Touga’s case, guile

Miki sees Anthy as his shining thing. Saionji seeks an eternity of marriage with Anthy. Juri wants Anthy’s supposed power of miracles so that Shiori will realize Juri’s feelings without Juri taking the risk of violating social norms, or so that she can be together with Shiori despite the violation of social norms (I suppose she wants a revolution that will change the heterosexual norm she feels oppressed by). Touga wants power over others. Nanami is not primary; she duels for jealousy. Utena’s motivation (after episode 2 at the latest) is rescue, and in the final showdown it becomes jealousy like Nanami.

The four motivations are all propaganda. The ideals are fantasies, not attainable objects; none of them gets what they seek. Akio fits a different rationale to each person according to their desires, so that they all try to do the same thing that Akio wants. Another way to look at it is that the four motivations are in reality Akio’s motivations. The witch in the play says that Dios is the shining thing, the eternal, the power of miracles, and the power of revolution. Akio aims to restore Dios’s power of miracles to himself; it is his shining thing. He will use the power to revolutionize the world and make his patriarchal system eternal. But for Akio, it is impossible by his nature to attain the power of miracles; he tries serious plots, but would do as well to sit around and hope like Juri.

Akio contains multitudes. In Akio’s mind, all other people are weaker, defective versions of himself, and share only part of his power and part of his goals. The “everybody I meet is a part of me” technique is from the novel Demian. In Demian it indicates the protagonist’s intellectual power: He meets others and learns from them, but the learning is only apparent; in reality, the knowledge was already in him and he only had to encompass it. It’s mystical claptrap. In Utena it indicates Akio’s limitations; he can only see others in terms of himself. It’s psychologically realistic.

Demian’s technique is derived from Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious (Wikipedia). I don’t know how much sense Jung’s idea makes as he expressed it, but Demian’s version... floats free of reality.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 2 November 2022
updated 13 September 2023