One of the roles of fairy tales is to teach children social roles. The ideal man is a heroic prince, the ideal woman is a princess who subordinates herself to the prince. In Utena, fairy tales are a symbol of false social narratives. Becoming an adult, as Utena does when she vanishes from the Academy, stands for giving up your belief in false social narratives and accepting the truth. To drive the point home, Utena itself is structured as a fairy tale—a fairy tale made up of smaller fairy tales—until it subverts and denies the pattern at the end of the duel in the final showdown.
I expect to find more fairy tale references. Some are terrifically hard to spot.
Primary correspondences. Each of the three main characters has a primary mythological correspondence and a primary fairy tale correspondence (and various lesser correspondences). The cross-cutting correspondences add richness to the landscape of symbols. Anthy is the Little Mermaid. Akio is Princess Kaguya. Utena is the prince of Sleeping Beauty. Sleeping Beauty is less detailed than the others in my description, but I think it’s because my description is incomplete. I haven’t figured out how Mikage fits in; I suspect he is the wicked fairy.
Fairy tales are false. Winning means outgrowing fairy tales, becoming adult, and realizing the truth. That is why Utena consistently breaks the primary fairy tale correspondences at the end of the story. The primary mythical correspondences should be broken too, but I don’t find it as clear.
|background||fairy tales in general|
|references||Belling the Cat|
|The Fox and the Grapes|
|The Golden Goose|
|Jack and the Beanstalk|
|The Little Mermaid|
|Little Red Riding Hood|
|The Rabbit in the Moon|
|The Red Shoes|
|The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter|
|Town Musicians of Bremen|
|The Ugly Duckling|
|The Frog Prince|
Fairy tales as understood in modern times are fantastic traditional stories for children, which teach moral lessons. Utena is a fantastic non-traditional story for adults. Its moral lesson is that we are like children in failing to grasp the nature of our patriarchal culture—we take it for granted. We need to “graduate” into adulthood. That’s how I read it.
Fairy tales are morally simplified. One of their common themes is prohibitions and the breaking of prohibitions: “Don’t wander off the path” and the like. In Utena, prohibitions at all levels are broken, from petty school rules, through cultural prescriptions of the system of control, up to laws against theft, assault, rape, slavery, and murder. The prohibition against breaking a vow is a big one. Akio breaks a vow by cheating on his fiancee Kanae, and Utena goes along with it. That’s morally bad, and not only by fairy-tale morality. With the same actions, Utena breaks a vow to be true to her prince. She sees it as morally bad, but we in the audience know that the vow was prompted by a lie and was questionable from the beginning. Utena vows to save Anthy, and Akio causes her to forget the vow. Utena seems to be telling us that the world is morally complicated, unlike a fairy tale, and we have to evaluate things case by case. Utena chooses bad actions at times due to being tricked. Akio manipulates her into accepting his kiss, when Utena believes that it harms Kanae. Utena violated her personal moral code: Is that bad, or is it excusable because she chose her action under pressure she could not resist? Or excusable because Utena does not harm Kanae, since Akio soon murders Kanae? Different stances are possible. If you are a moral consequentialist and judge actions by their outcome, then you may believe that it was morally good, because it was a necessary step in Utena defeating Akio.
The moral simplification of fairy tales corresponds to the moral simplification of the patriarchy’s system of control as compared to reality. In Utena, fairy tales, as well as myths and animation itself, are illusions that can hide reality from us.
Many fairy tales have a formulaic plot where the hero must succeed at three challenges before a final showdown against the foe, or a similar formula with three challenges where the final challenge contrasts with the first two and concludes the story. I think most Americans know the three little pigs, Goldilocks and the three bears, and the three billy goats gruff. Utena as a whole is structured as a fairy tale. Utena the hero must pass three challenges, one for each major arc of the series, before she can reach the final showdown in episodes 38 and 39. Akio’s corruption plot in the Apocalypse Saga is structured as a fairy tale in which Akio is the hero who must overcome Utena’s boyish side three times before he can reach the final showdown. His three challenges are their three dates, which I called the First Seduction, the Second Seduction, and the Routine Date. He defeats her boyish side each time through sex. I go into more detail in the three candles of episode 30, which is structured so that Akio must successfully tempt Utena three times before she is corrupted. In the final showdown, Akio poses Utena three challenges. In the first challenge, Utena rejects Akio’s girlish lure of eternity, living happily ever after. In the second, she rejects his intellectual attempt to convince her. In the third, Utena fights honestly in the boyish duel of power and is winning, but Akio fights dishonestly and Utena falls to Anthy’s betrayal. Utena failed a challenge and Akio proceeds to the Rose Gate. Nevertheless, Utena’s power of miracles is operating.
Many minor characters come in groups of three: Nanami’s minions, the nerd trio, even the three fangirls who greet Utena in episode 2 and the three fangirls who watch Juri and Miki in episode 5. Three is the conventional and therefore “proper” number for a fairy tale. Many objects and decorations and even lighting effects have three parts or three points.
Fairyland is generally located either underground or underwater. Ohtori Academy is at the top of a hill, but it is also a burial mound and its residents are in coffins. It is metaphorically underground.
Time passes differently in Fairyland: A short time in Fairyland corresponds to a long time in the outside world. Time in Utena does not follow a simple rule, but it also passes differently. We know that Akio has been in charge of Ohtori for a long time. Mikage has not changed for decades. We see his students plant a tree, and before they are killed in the burning building the tree is full-grown. Tokiko returns older, after a lapse of decades. The stone roses on the buildings must have been put there when they were built. We also know that Akio has been in charge of Ohtori for only a short time. He says so, in episode 14 when Utena first meets him. And he is still in the process of destroying the Ohtori family and helping himself to their property, a crime that might take years but certainly does not take decades.
Allegorically, it means that cultural change is slow.
And yet time passes normally for the characters; they notice nothing strange. Miki measures time with his stopwatch, and clocks appear in some episodes. The clocks behave normally, outside of episode 35 (see Second Seduction - the cuckoo clock).
Fairy tales are similar worldwide. The Japanese story of Urashima Tarou (Wikipedia) has fairyland (the Dragon Palace) underwater, and time passes differently there.
The shadow play of episode 16, Nanami’s cowbell, is a variation of the fable of belling the cat (Wikipedia). In the classic fable, the mice fail to bell the cat because no mouse is heroic enough to take the suicidal risk. The moral is to not waste time on unrealistic courses of action. Seeking a miracle is, it’s fair to say, an unrealistic course of action. In Utena, a hero is one who bells the cat despite the suicidal risk. Compare The Fox and the Grapes below, on giving up.
Akio stages Cinderella scenes for Utena (picture) and Mrs. Ohtori, taking their shoes. He presents himself to each as a bad boy prince and her as a princess. He seems to be setting up Nanami for the same treatment, but does not take her shoe. Nanami the wanna-be princess is not to become a princess.
Cinderella is a story of jumping up the social hierarchy by marriage. For the most closely related of the huge number of variants of the story, the basic elements are:
• Protagonist starts at the bottom, doing the most menial work, like tending the fire.
• Protagonist is given a wondrous gift. In Cinderella, the fairy godmother gives her gifts.
• Protagonist goes to a large event and stands out by using the gift, catching the eye of VIP.
• After the event, Protagonist returns to normal, seeming to disappear. The lowest are effectively invisible.
• Somebody takes steps to search for and identify Protagonist.
• Only VIP is able to identify Protagonist, and they marry.
Japan has a variant of the story, Fire Boy (Wikipedia), in which Protagonist is male. I gather that it is not as well-known there as the European Cinderella.
Akio casts himself as VIP and Utena as the protagonist Cinderella. Utena is a young student of low status, and Akio runs the school. Utena’s gift that caught Akio’s eye is the power of miracles. Only Akio is able to recognize Utena’s power. Akio wants to (pretend to) marry Utena to gain control over her, and he wants Utena to believe that becoming a princess would be good, a jump upward for her. Akio seems to work a similar plot against Mrs. Ohtori.
Cinderella’s magic gifts disappear at midnight on the night of the ball. It corresponds to specialness lasting only a short time.
The shadow play of episode 7 alludes to the Aesop fable with sour grapes: A fox can’t reach the grapes, and gives up saying they were probably sour anyway. Dios gives up (under Anthy’s prodding), and becomes Akio. Utena does not give up even when Anthy betrays her. Compare Belling the Cat above.
Aesop’s fables went native in Japan after being introduced centuries ago. They are treated as folktales and are often not distinguished from native folktales.
“The goose that laid the golden eggs” (Wikipedia) is an Aesop fable, treated in Japan as a folktale. In Akio’s car at the start of episode 26, Akio lies to Touga that Utena must be defeated soon. To Touga’s objection “isn’t Utena the golden goose?”, Akio answers that the value of the goose is in the golden eggs it lays.
I found the conversation puzzling. Late in the series we find out that Touga does not know Akio’s plan for Utena. He does not know why Utena is valuable to Akio. Touga may be using “golden goose” to mean something valuable that should not be lost, without a theory in mind for what the value is. Akio’s answer repeats part of the story and gives no information away, but Touga acts as though it were meaningful. He says that Akio is greedy. It’s true, but it seems to miss the point; the moral of the story is that greed can backfire, and Akio’s answer implies that Akio knows that. Touga’s thinking seems incoherent. Later Touga appears to see through the lie, but for now he seems to accept that defeating Utena will somehow extract her value.
On the subject of sex and adulthood, Utena is a proper goose for the propaganda.
Akio’s greed does end up backfiring. Touga, who did not understand a thing and is inferior to Akio in almost every way, told Akio a truth that Akio could not grasp.
The golden eggs may tie into the other meanings of eggs, but if so I don’t see it.
See Jack and the Beanstalk (Wikipedia). Utena is given a ring (it’s a little like a bean) that allows her to climb an impossibly tall tower—which winds around like a vine—and reach a magical place. The place is above the clouds: The climbing sequence has a transition where the background turns cloudy. Akio is a giant—look how tall he is. Utena gains cooperation from the giant’s wife, Anthy. Utena steals the giant’s treasure, Anthy. If we see Anthy and Utena as twins, then the giant originally stole Anthy from Utena’s family. The dueling tower falls in the end, which is like Jack chopping down the beanstalk.
Anthy is the Little Mermaid (Wikipedia). It’s hard to notice.
The parallel is close. The Little Mermaid falls in love with a prince and saves him from drowning at sea; Anthy falls in love with Dios and stops him from fighting on, which (she believes) saves him from dying. The Little Mermaid gains legs and follows the prince onto land; Anthy follows as Dios turns to Akio. Water means illusions; this is when Anthy becomes realistic (though she still believes Akio’s propaganda). The Little Mermaid gave up her voice to gain legs; Anthy in her Rose Bride role has no voice of her own. The Little Mermaid constantly feels pain like walking on knives, but dances like no other for the prince; Anthy constantly feels the pain of the Swords of Hatred but wears the red shoes and figuratively dances like no other for Akio, meaning she does his will. Anthy literally dances with prince Utena in episode 3, a foretaste of Anthy leaving Akio for Utena in the end. (I suspect it related to the sculpture in the pond of the Kiryuu mansion.) The Little Mermaid wants to marry the prince, but the prince believes that another saved him and wants to marry her instead; Anthy wants to stay with Akio but Akio believes that Utena will save him (restoring his lost power of miracles) and seeks to marry her.
As in other cases, Utena breaks the parallel at the end. The Little Mermaid’s prince does marry another, and the Little Mermaid’s heart breaks, as she was warned. Utena refuses to marry Akio. The Little Mermaid is given a dagger to murder the prince, which will let her return to the sea, but she refuses. Anthy does stab Utena and leave her dying. The Little Mermaid becomes an aerial spirit and is supposed to do good deeds to earn a soul. It hints that Anthy may lose the evil that was imposed on her and return to being good when outside the Academy... though it’s unclear why the parallel would suddenly resume at this point.
Little Red Riding Hood (Wikipedia) is alluded to indirectly by the title of episode 6.
Tsuki no usagi (The Rabbit of the Moon, or The Moon Rabbit, or whatever wording you like) is an Asian fairy tale, known in various versions across many countries. A rabbit, asked to offer food, throws itself on the fire to cook. Since it’s an old tale, this is taken not as a bizarre self-sacrifice but as an extreme act of generosity. The rabbit is rewarded by being carried to the moon, where in another sign that this is an old tale, the rabbit pounds mochi (Wikipedia) for eternity. Some reward! Pounding mochi is hard work!
The three-challenge plot applies. In the Japanese version of the tale, three animals are asked to provide food, a fox, a monkey, and the rabbit. The rabbit goes last and wins the challenge.
The story is touched on in the cowbell episode 16, when Nanami pounds mochi (after Juri arrives at her party and before the cowbell arrives) and later becomes a sizzling steak. Nanami’s moon rabbit story is time-reversed. Wearing the cowbell is social suicide and corresponds to the Nanami-steak that Touga cooks. Another reference comes in the shadow play of episode 20. See rabbits for other appearances of rabbits. Some or all of them may also be the rabbit in the moon, at least in some respects.
The rabbit wins through self-sacrifice. Anthy prevents Dios from sacrificing himself, and Dios loses, turning into Akio. Akio sees this as Anthy sacrificing herself for his benefit, though it was not an intentional sacrifice. Utena wins through intentional self-sacrifice. On the face of it, the rabbit in the moon should mean Utena above all, as it does in the episode 33 constellations. Anthy is tied to Sailor Moon whose name is Tsukino Usagi or “Rabbit of the Moon”, making Anthy the rabbit in the moon. Anthy and Utena are aspects of the same thing. Nanami is also the rabbit in the moon, and has strong parallels with Utena. And yet in the shadow play of episode 26, the bunny girl is equated with Akio, who has rigged the dueling game. Akio is independently tied to the moon because he is Princess Kaguya. And yet Akio’s only sacrifice is to take cautious risks to gain the power of miracles.
Possible tie-ins with the fox and the monkey: A fox appears in the episode 20 shadow play, and the job of robot Mikage is to catch monkeys. I’ll think about what that means.
This is a sneaky one. Anthy is the prisoner of a powerful magician (in the original story, a witch), comes to live in a tower, and has long beautiful hair that she sometimes lets down. Before the Apocalypse Saga when she is moved to the tower, she does not let her hair down (in episode 23 she sleeps with her hair up; in episode 25 she lets her hair down before bed as shown in the silhouettes of lying down). In the Rapunzel story, a prince finds Rapunzel in the tower, they fall in love, and he concocts a slow-moving rescue plan. The witch catches wind of it, kicks Rapunzel out of the tower and lets her go, ambushes the visiting prince, and blinds him. The blind prince wanders until he meets Rapunzel again, and her tears cure his blindness so they can live happily ever after.
Akio claims that Anthy is a witch. The Rapunzel story makes Akio the witch. It can be read as meaning that Akio deflects blame from himself and onto Anthy.
In Utena, during the Black Rose Anthy successfully conceals her closeness to Utena, but in the Apocalypse Saga, Akio catches wind of it. Akio takes numerous steps to separate Anthy and Utena. The result is that in episode 37 Utena cannot see Anthy’s feelings, which is symbolized by Utena’s eyes being out of view: The prince has been blinded. In Anthy’s suicide attempt, Anthy’s tears enable Utena to see Anthy’s feelings again. Utena’s eyes remain out of view for the suicide conversation, but soon Utena can see again.
The witch and the prince both climb Rapunzel’s hair to reach her tower room. When Anthy’s hair is down, it’s associated with Utena—or, in episodes 31 and 36, with Akio. In those two episodes, Anthy’s hair is incredibly long “so that Akio can climb it.” Very long hair is associated with princesses.
The prince wanders for years before finding Rapunzel. It corresponds to Utena promising to meet Anthy in ten years.
The shadow play of episode 30 is about the red shoes (Wikipedia). If you wear the shoes, you will dance until you die. It means that you will be under Akio’s power for the rest of your life, which may be short or long depending on Akio’s need for you. It ties in with the Little Mermaid, who dances for the prince. Utena metaphorically puts on the red shoes in the First Seduction of episode 33. Anthy as a princess and the cruel female teacher literally wear red shoes, and are under Akio’s power. Little Nanami at Touga’s birthday party wears red shoes. Akio had her adopted into the cold-hearted Kiryuu family, and she must be performing her assigned role in forming Touga’s personality. (Did he have her parents murdered too?)
Also known as Briar Rose. A princess in a castle is put into an enchanted sleep, to be awakened by the kiss of a prince. (The full story (Wikipedia) is more complicated, as usual, and comes in variants.) The castle is surrounded by an impenetrable thicket of briars—impenetrable, that is, unless you are the appointed prince coming to awaken the princess. Everyone in the castle is put to sleep until she awakes—everyone in Ohtori Academy is put in a coffin and is not awakened.
Anthy is the princess, sleeping in her coffin after she pricked her finger on a rose thorn. The thorny roses in Utena’s original version of the prince story, and the thorny roses of the Rose Gate, both represent the briars. (Most rose images in Utena de-emphasize the thorns.) The roses of the Rose Gate are pink for Utena, because she is the appointed prince. Unappointed Akio is unable to pass the Gate (hacking at the solid Rose Gate with a sword doesn’t seem to make sense, but in the metaphor he is hacking at the briars). Utena holds hands with Anthy rather than kissing her, but the result is the same, Anthy is awakened and in due time leaves the Academy. And the inverse, as well: As Anthy falls away, Utena accepts that she has only been playing prince, gives up her delusion, and disappears from the Academy.
Utena awakening Anthy is different from the original story in a key way: It is reciprocal and non-hierarchical. It keeps Utena’s episode 25 promise that the two should help each other. In the fairy tale, the prince takes action by kissing the princess, and the princess passively wakes up. In Utena, Utena and Anthy both reach for each other and touch hands, and the sparkles that arise between their hands are cued as non-hierarchical. Both leave the Academy because of it; Anthy also awakened Utena.
Anthy is the evil queen. Anthy, playing Mamiya, pricks her finger in episode 14, as the queen does at the start of Snow White. The glass basin of the black rose corresponds to the glass coffin that the dwarfs place the seemingly-dead Snow White in. Kanae is the first victim of the Black Rose, and ends up seemingly dead, but revives like Snow White. The poisoned apple in episode 32 when Akio and Anthy do away with Kanae is the one Snow White survives, but this time Kanae winds up truly dead. By fairy tale morality, Snow White is pure and innocent, so the plot against her fails. Kanae is corrupt (in her duel she wears a purple uniform for corruption), so the plot against her succeeds. The correspondences seem a little confused, so maybe not everything I see is intended.
In the fairy tale, Snow White wins through and marries the good prince. Kanae is set to marry a prince who has turned evil and betrays her. The prince and the evil queen work together. In the tale, the evil queen is killed in the end: The prince forces her to dance in red-hot iron shoes. Anthy is forced to dance in the red shoes and is in a coffin, metaphorically dead.
The wicked queen makes three attempts to kill Snow White, and fails each time. It corresponds to Akio murdering the three members of the Ohtori family, succeeding each time and placing the blame on “evil witch” Anthy.
The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Wikipedia) is about Princess Kaguya from the moon. A bamboo cutter discovers Princess Kaguya as a baby inside a glowing bamboo stalk. She grows up in a short time and becomes superhumanly beautiful, attracting numerous men, including five noble suitors. She puts them off by assigning them impossible tasks. She also attracts the Emperor of Japan, and turns him down, but offers a potion of immortality instead. The emperor declines it. Finally she is unwillingly returned to the moon.
Akio is Princess Kaguya! It is not in the least obvious! I was astonished when I figured it out on 8 November 2022, after nearly a year of analyzing Utena. And yet it is central to the show’s design.
Akio’s name says he is of celestial origin. Anthy’s name Himemiya, which is Akio’s former name, marks her as an imperial princess. Akio is associated with the moon. He was born as Dios, who is associated with the sun and with light; it corresponds to the glowing bamboo stalk. He wears a spherical hair tie; as a sphere, it is a female symbol and connects to Ganymede’s water jug, the moon, and the egg of the world. In episode 34’s version of the prince story we see Akio rapidly growing up. He has superhuman sex appeal and attracts all women on sight, even those who already have interests like Nanami and Wakaba. His five noble suitors are the five members of the Student Council, in duel order Saionji, Miki, Juri, Nanami, and Touga. Akio sets them the impossible task of performing miracles. If one succeeds, he will (pretend to) marry them to steal the power. Mr. Ohtori is the Emperor who rules the Academy. Akio does not marry into the family, but sends Anthy who provides poison rather than immortality. In a reversal, subverting and denying the ending as Utena subverts and denies other fairy tale tropes, Utena who is celestial herself does succeed at her impossible task, and Akio tries to marry her in the final showdown. After Akio’s plot fails, Akio stays and Utena (apparently unwillingly) leaves for her original home, the real world. Anthy also leaves the Academy, against Akio’s will.
Akio is a powerless princess. He can set impossible tasks in self-defence, but cannot gain from them (he can never pass the Rose Gate). Someday, after a sequence of heroes defeat him, he will be unwillingly returned to the real world.
In episode 31, Nanami talks with Utena to make sure that Utena is in love with Akio, not with Touga. The sculpture refers to the fairy tale Town Musicians of Bremen (Wikipedia). A donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster are unappreciated at home and leave to become town musicians in Bremen. Along the way they happen to find a house with three robbers, chase the robbers away, and live there instead. They never reach Bremen.
Nanami has left her home because she was unappreciated. Akio moves her into his tower home, already occupied by three people... they can be robbers. Akio is a robber, Anthy is his accomplice, and Utena has been co-opted by the pirates and robs the goals of her duel opponents (and corrupted Utena wants to rob Akio from Kanae). Nanami does not chase anyone away. She determines that Utena is not a robber she needs to worry about, and is satisfied for the moment. Nanami failed a challenge, and the robbers defeat her: Akio and Anthy set her up for a duel with Utena, and Utena wins.
There are a number of copies of this sculpture around the world. I think most are in Europe. I know of one in Japan, in the city of Kawasaki, at Motosumiyoshi Station (Wikipedia).
The story of the ugly duckling that grows up to be a swan is touched on in the shadow play of episode 31. The same episode includes an image that refers to it in a complicated way.
Possible reference. Unlikely. Bluebeard (Wikipedia) murderers his wives in series, which is pretty much Akio’s way. Akio gives Utena a key to the dueling arena and moves her into his tower, either of which can correspond to Bluebeard giving his keys to his wife. Utena sees Anthy with Akio, which can correspond to the secret that Bluebeard forbids his wife to see, while expecting her to be tempted. The correspondences are too loose to convince me. Utena apparently never learns what happens to Kanae, which argues against the parallel being real.
Possible reference. It seems likely. Utena has a frog that is associated with Saionji and harasses Chu-Chu. The frog’s first action is to eat the pillbug that Chu-Chu is harassing, that is, to show violent cruelty like Saionji rather than Anthy’s more psychological cruelty. Anthy rejects Saionji and Chu-Chu rejects the frog, so the frog never turns back into a human prince. It’s plausible because Saionji does act like a sexist Utena prince, fighting for his lady love, and the frog is no different. The frog seems to want to be Chu-Chu’s prince. If the reference is intended, then the basic meaning is that a prince should be as unappealing as a frog, and the supporting argument is “give me a break, who’d kiss a frog?” Chu-Chu is repelled by the advances of the frog.
The frog can also refer to a proverb about a frog in a well, which believes it knows everything because it knows its well. It doesn’t seem crazy to say that Saionji has that kind of tunnel vision. Utena insists that society as a whole has that kind of tunnel vision: The culture fails to see beneath its own surface, only knowing what is in its well.
Jay Scott <firstname.lastname@example.org>
first posted 19 May 2022
updated 22 September 2023