Utena - the power of miracles

Utena can accomplish miracles. So could Dios, long ago. The main storyline is Akio trying to steal Utena’s power of miracles, with help from Anthy.

Akio sees Utena’s power of miracles as a revived Power of Dios. Utena does too, at least unconsciously; she calls on Dios for help, and increases in her power are represented as transfers from Dios. The two powers seem to have different underpinnings, though. Dios selfishly demands payment and aims to save all girls, while Utena in her prince role is selfless and usually aims to save Anthy, occasionally another like Wakaba.

Utena’s power of miracles depends on her determination, yet acts independently of her intentions. In the duel of episode 7, Utena intends to win without a miracle, but is disarmed. She is as surprised as Juri at her miraculous victory. The power of miracles always helps Utena, but it does not always serve her intended goals. In episode 29 with Juri, Utena does not intend to help Juri, and certainly not in such a backhanded way, but it happens. In the final showdown, Utena wants to rescue Anthy, but fails; instead Utena and Anthy end up helping each other. It is a better outcome for Utena, though she doesn’t know it—she believes she failed.

contents

miracles are illusions
the structure of miracles
the Power of Dios
the life history of the power of miracles
Anthy and the power of miracles
the power of illusion
the allegory

miracles are illusions

The patriarchy seems invincible and immovable—in part because it presents itself so. Surely overturning it would be a miracle. But in fact Utena depicts the patriarchy as self-defeating and ultimately doomed, and Akio’s plot to steal Utena’s power of miracles is unworkable from the start. See the allegory below for more on this point.

Dios is fictional, a fairy tale character. Akio’s memory of being Dios is a false, reconstructed memory. The Power of Dios—Dios’s power of miracles—is wishful thinking that Akio has forgotten the origin of, and accepts as true. For counterevidence that Akio may remember that Dios is a fiction, see final showdown - Utena’s prince is not real.

But the patriarchy still seems immovable, and few try to move it. Those few are, in fairy tale terms, heroes like Utena. Under the structure of miracles below, I list the requirements for achieving a miracle, and they are the same as the requirements for bringing change to the real world. Utena’s final victory, and her achievements along the way starting with beating the boys’ basketball team in episode 1, appear to us to be miracles. But they are the doings of a girl with idealism, and determination, and specific goals that she is willing to sacrifice to achieve.

Miracles are an illusion of the audience, not Utena’s illusion. Utena does not see herself as capable of miracles. Some of her miracles she does not even notice. She doesn’t see a miracle in defeating Saionji in episode 1; she doesn’t think about it at all, but she’s used to winning and takes it for granted that she will win. Others she attributes to the prince—that is Utena’s illusion. In episode 2 Utena plays prince in the duel. We see her seem to merge with the prince, and she takes her victory to be the prince’s work. Spinning roses obscure key moments to symbolize that Utena does not see that her miracles are her own—and does not see that they are miracles at all.

the structure of miracles

Idealism. The power of miracles requires idealism. Idealism does not preclude selfishness: Utena admits she is selfish, yet achieves miracles because she is selfless in seeking them. Dios was selfless in seeking to save all girls—the evidence is his attempt to stand up and keep fighting (which Anthy stops) in the final version of the prince story. Nevertheless, Dios selfishly exploits the girls he saves. When his idealism is corrupted, his power morphs into Akio’s power of illusion.

Idealism means accepting the possibility of miracles, and rejecting the belief that change is impossible. Idealists act to make the world more nearly ideal. Dios sought change; Akio resists change, as symbolized by the timelessness of the Academy. Idealism is related to optimism: To accept the possibility of miracles requires optimism. Utena is naturally optimistic. Her optimism fails at times, like when she is in the coffin as a child and when she is depressed in episode 12, but those times stand out for their rarity.

Utena is naive. Her idealism stems in part from not understanding the world: She does not know what is impossible, so she does not shy away from achieving the impossible. Utena’s plot approves of acting before understanding, but it also calls for gaining understanding along the way, as Utena does especially in episode 37. I see it as a realistic trajectory, in the abstract: Many who have brought change to the world did it by starting to act before they understood that it is supposed to be impossible, and learning as they go to make it possible. Speaking for myself, I want to emphasize that realism and idealism can be compatible.

Utena’s power has made her arrogant. “I don’t need a miracle to beat you” she tells Juri in episode 7. She expects to succeed at what she does (at least in sports), and she expects to win games. She is unable at first to accept that she lost the duel of episode 11. She is surprised to lose the othello game to Akio. She is oblivious that excess winning makes her special; if she thought about it at all, she’d realize that not everyone can be like that.

Idealism is a prerequisite: It is necessary but not sufficient to achieve a miracle.

Determination. Utena’s power of miracles is activated by her determination to achieve her goal. In episode 11, Touga overcomes her determination (or “conviction”) by playing prince, and forestalls Utena’s miracle. In the final showdown, Akio tries repeatedly to overcome Utena’s determination and convince her to join him, but fails. He falls back on overcoming her physically by treachery, which does not forestall Utena’s miracle.

The French name of the episode 11 duel is “conviction”. The English is “conviction”. The Japanese is “shinnen”. They’re all close, and they mean firm belief and not determination. To accomplish a miracle, you have to believe in your success—to do the impossible, you must believe in the impossible. To reach a difficult goal, you have to believe you can. I still feel that determination is a better description of the prerequisite. To me, determination includes conviction. And strictly speaking, conviction is not all you need; you need to act on it.

Sacrifice. Mikage, Ruka, and Akio agree that sacrifice is necessary to achieve a miracle. Miracles are not free, you have to pay for them. Mikage, Ruka, and Akio try to sacrifice others, and fail. I conclude that the sacrifice must be genuine—you have to pay yourself, nobody can sacrifice for you. Dios lying wounded on the hay depicts his sacrifice. I have made guesses of what Utena may have sacrificed for her various miracles. I think the important point is that she is so determined that she is willing to sacrifice.

A role model, such as the prince. For Utena specifically, miracles are tied to her self-identity as a prince. That particular connection is not necessary, but was created by Akio to keep Utena under control: To stop her power of miracles, all he has to do is take away her self-identity as a prince and make her a princess instead; he prepared little Utena for it in the church. In the final showdown, the main thrust of Akio’s second challenge to Utena is to convince her that she cannot be a prince. When Utena loses her belief in princes at the end, she must lose her power of miracles and become ordinary. Specialness lasts a short time.

But I think some role model is necessary as an inspiration. Utena inspires Wakaba. I think each hero in the sequence of heroes is the role model for the next.

Specific goals. Dios had the universal goal of turning all girls into princesses. He failed; he turned any given girl in his presence into a princess, but not all girls. Utena has the specific goals of rescuing Anthy, saving Wakaba, winning individual sports games, and the like. I gather that the power of miracles can potentially achieve any specific goal, but cannot achieve a universal goal. Utena cannot overturn the patriarchy by herself; almost everyone believes in it, so it is a general goal. But she can be the inspirational role model for following heroes.

Practice. Utena is able to defy the patriarchy because she has been doing it ever since she decided to become a prince. See below. To get good at something, you have a practice it over and over. In the episode 7 duel, Juri disarms Utena. In the following duel, Utena is able to disarm Nanami. Akio trains Utena’s power of miracles in the Black Rose arc, and she gains power over the course of it.

Obliviousness is not a requirement. Utena does not realize that she can achieve miracles, even though she does things that anyone should know are impossible. In the duel of episode 7, when the falling sword slices Juri’s rose away, impossibly falling point-first instead of tumbling or falling hilt-first, and somehow landing with its blade through the center of the rose though it struck from the side, Utena wonders about it—but doesn’t seem to follow up with a conclusion. But Utena sees Dios as the source of miracles, and Dios is aware of his miracles and seems to perform them deliberately. Akio wants the power back because he remembers having it.

Obliviousness is a requirement for Akio to nurture Utena’s power, though. In the Black Rose, Utena’s inability to understand what Akio says is glaring. Akio is delighted with Utena’s obtuseness, and as much as says so in the Apocalypse Saga. He needs to manipulate her to steal her power, and if she becomes aware of it, he’s at terrible risk. And in fact, her obliviousness is not enough to protect him. She does become aware, and does miraculously bring a change to the world that weakens him and will eventually overthrow him; see Enlightenment era.

the Power of Dios

The Power of Dios is the power of miracles as wielded by Dios. It also depends on idealism, determination, and sacrifice—in the prince story of episode 34 we see all three. Then Anthy intervenes to prevent Dios’s sacrifice, and he loses his idealism. As Akio he retains his determination, though.

The Tale of the Rose tells us a little about how Dios uses his power, but it’s a made up story and can’t be trusted. One point is consistent: He turns all girls into princesses. In the final episode Utena becomes a princess in his presence, even as she sheds a tear over what she sees as his unprincely behavior (and/or for Anthy).

Dios wants all girls to be princesses, and so by a miracle they are—though only in his presence. The power of miracles helps him achieve his goals, even if it means overriding the goals of others. Utena does the same in the duel of episode 20 in defeating Wakaba: Utena wanted to save Wakaba and believed she was doing so, while Wakaba’s goal was thwarted. Well, every duel thwarts the loser’s goals, but Wakaba stands out as having good motives (though twisted by the black rose) and ultimately achieving her goal.

The power of miracles acts for the benefit of its holder. It can be used only for what its holder idealistically believes is good—as verified by a genuine sacrifice—but in the end the power of miracles is a selfish power tied to a subjective definition of goodness. Human society has to work that way; we can’t agree on absolutes. The people who bring change do it for their own reasons, nobody else’s.

In episode 1, Utena refuses to join the basketball team for a match. She gives a phony excuse (her obliviousness is powerful) about avoiding smelly, sweaty boys—like the ones she just finished playing against. It is an expression of the selfishness of the power of miracles. She is willing to play for her own goal of winning, not for others to win.

the life history of the power of miracles

How much did Akio create Utena’s power of miracles, and how much was already latent in her? It seems to be some of both. Akio planted her desire to become a prince, which was the seed. He gave her the ring, as a key and as a reminder of her goal. But he was skeptical that she would succeed (he said so in the prince story), and did not place her on the Student Council, where he put his prime candidate miracle workers. Apparently the seed sprouted because Utena had the potential. He doesn’t neglect her completely, though; Anthy arranges Utena’s first duel and Akio confidently announces it, by letter from End of the World, before the arrangement is complete.

Utena shows no sign of having the power of miracles as a little girl in any version of the prince story. She has a pure heart, which supports her idealism and sustains the promises she makes to the prince. Akio no doubt chose her because she had that basic ingredient, the pure heart. By episode 1, her power is developed: Defeating the boy’s basketball team by herself is a miracle; defeating Saionji with the stub of a bamboo practice sword is another. We see nothing of how her power developed.

Akio in the church gave Utena a goal—two goals, really: To become a prince, and then to save Anthy as a prince. You need to have a goal to develop determination to reach the goal and achieve miracles. But Utena is lackadaisical about becoming a prince, and has forgotten about saving Anthy. Listen to her joking tone in episode 1 when she first explains her aim to be a prince, and see her lack of action toward it. At first she seems to have determination only to win at basketball. It’s not until she has the specific goal of avenging Wakaba and lands in the dueling arena where princely power matters that she becomes serious about being a prince.

How did Utena develop the power of miracles? We don’t see the process. Semi-anonymous Nick explained it to me, and I agree: In playing a male role until now, she was constantly defying the demands of the system of control. She got a lot of practice. It allowed her to develop the determination to defy it on a larger scale. The power of miracles is the power to defy reality—which is to say, the illusionary power of miracles is the power to defy perceived reality. The system of control is the social reality; in defying it, Utena defies reality. With practice, her power increases. In the end, she has the full Power of Dios and can achieve anything—though she can only keep the power for a brief time, because specialness lasts only a short time.

Utena gains fangirls by defying the system of control. See tropes - special students are popular.

The further trajectory. The overview of Akio and Utena’s relationship summarizes the trajectory of Utena’s power of miracles through the series. In the Student Council arc, Akio is primarily testing her power. In the Black Rose and Apocalypse arc, he is primarily strengthening her power through practice. Her combat in the duels and play in basketball games show that her power grows stronger over time. In the Apocalypse Saga, he is primarily working toward stealing her power for himself.

Anthy and the power of miracles

In episode 7, Juri explains to Utena how she believes the power of miracles is gained: By being the dueling champion who is engaged to the Rose Bride. It must be what Akio told the Student Council through letters from End of the World. It’s a lie, Akio’s way to lure people into the dueling game. The dueling game will not end until the champion duelist has gained their own power of miracles.

Akio’s lure is not entirely a lie. In episode 12, she powers up the sword of Dios for Touga, who has no miraculous power. Akio attributes Anthy’s abilities to magic, and calls her a witch. If he believed she had the power of miracles, and that he could steal it, he would not need Utena or his many plots. I think it’s a safe guess that Akio has tried Anthy’s sword against the Rose Gate. But in fact:

Anthy has the power of miracles too. Her power is called “magic” but it is at heart the same kind of power as Utena’s, and she doesn’t realize it any more than Utena does. The obscuring rose that covers Mamiya stabbing the black rose into Kanae’s heart in episode 14 makes it clear. Anthy’s goals are different from Utena’s: She seeks to manipulate and control people. She does so from the start (according to her own memory), when she convinces Dios not to keep fighting. She continues when she lies to the crowd outside that she has sealed him away. Under Akio, she has long practice cultivating students. She never fails when manipulating someone into a duel.

Anthy’s miracles are many, I think more than Utena’s. Drawing swords, stabbing black roses, and many Black Rose events are routine miracles. Body-swapping curry is miraculous. Powering up the Sword of Dios is a miracle. Transferring Juri’s thrown locket to Shiori’s room is likely Anthy’s doing. Drawing her sword from thin air in the final showdown is surely a miracle.

Anthy and Utena together stand for all women. One reading is that every woman carries a potential power of miracles. The potential can be realized by a woman who has the prerequisite idealism, determination, and willingness to sacrifice for a specific goal, and puts the practice in. Anthy’s idealism has a different basis than Utena’s—she idealizes the patriarchy—but she meets all the criteria.

the power of illusion

Dios had a universal goal: He wanted to turn all girls into princesses—leaving them controlled and powerless. His method was to rescue them and activate the grateful princess trope. But as I discuss above, the power of miracles can only bring about specific goals. Dios’s goal was out of reach. He could rescue any given girl, but not all of them.

When Anthy prevented Dios from fighting on, he violated his ideals and became corrupted, turning into Akio. He maintained the goal of turning all girls into princesses, but without idealism he lost the Power of Dios and could no longer do it by rescuing them. Instead he ended up with the power of illusion, and he set about creating princesses by deceiving women.

The last miracle. Maybe Dios’s last miracle, as his idealism crumbled, was to create the dueling arena as a way to hide the power of miracles from evil and create a way for good to win in the end; see the reference to Sailor Moon - Galaxia. I think of the power of illusion as the decayed remnant of the power of miracles.

But Dios never existed. The above might (speculatively) be something Akio believes, but it’s not true. The reality is that illusions are primordial: Just as a baby is born with some instincts but no knowledge, humanity evolved with no starting knowledge of itself, or in other words, with many illusions. Utena is about one small part of the process of learning to dispel the illusions.

In solving any specific problem, the power of illusion is weaker than the power of miracles. Illusion affects perception and belief; miracles affect reality. But the power of illusion is greater in one way: It is universal. Akio uses it in part to promulgate cultural narratives that deceive and control people in masses.

Is Utena in danger of becoming corrupted like Akio because she stops being a prince? I think yes, but not for the same reason as Dios. See afterstories - Anthy and Utena - is Utena in danger of corruption?

the allegory

Dios is the personification of the power of miracles, in the same way that Akio is the personification of the patriarchy. It is by Utena’s miracles that we see a ghostly prince Dios descend from the castle in the sky, and a concrete Dios meet Utena in the final episode. The patriarchy created the fiction of Dios as part of the system of control that it uses to maintain itself. Children are to enjoy attractive stories of princes and princesses to learn their sex roles. Utena, until the final episode, believes in the prince as a reality—she believes she met him, after all—and takes on his attributes. Akio forced on her the desire to be the prince, which made it possible for her to defeat Akio. Because she believes in the patriarchy, Utena starts the process of overthrowing the patriarchy. She doesn’t intend to, but it happens. The patriarchy is self-destructive.

Akio and Anthy believe in the patriarchy and believe that Dios is real. In the final episode, Akio chats with Dios in a matter-of-fact way, “Yeah, you’re who I used to be, nothing surprising here.” He believes the fiction that he used to be capable of miracles—that’s how he remembers his youth (unreliability of memories is a theme of Utena, and something that Akio regularly exploits). Anthy comes to love Utena because she sees Dios in her. When she leaves Akio, she tells him that he is playing prince—she has seen through that much of the story. Then she leaves to find Utena, who she accepts as the real prince. Because she believes in the patriarchy, Anthy leaves the patriarchy behind. The patriarchy is self-destructive.

Why does Utena attract crowds of fangirls in the first episode? I think there are two reasons. One is that the students recognize the attractive fairy tale prince in her, and after all she does show conventional male characteristics, however much she denies it—she is the prince that girls are supposed to be attracted to. The other reason is that she defies the patriarchal rules of the Academy. The fangirls recognize, probably unconsciously, that the Academy looks down on them and exploits them (see the girls’ uniform). Rescue is part of Utena’s prince role, and her fangirls see a promise of rescue in her. Because they believe in the patriarchy, they seek to escape it. The patriarchy is self-destructive.

Utena and Anthy were born at the same time, as twins. See Anthy and Utena are twins. In the prince story they are the same age, and in the Academy they are the same age, because they were born at the same time. Anthy, the patriarchy’s sustenance, and Utena, its destruction, are complementary aspects of the same thing. Continuation and ending are two sides of a coin, because the patriarchy is self-destructive. Its end was built into its beginning.

Dios rescues girls to teach sex roles. The girls become princesses because the prince and princess belong together, also about roles. Dios is sexually attractive to all girls (he rescues them and “kisses” them) in order to make the patriarchy attractive (and attractiveness is one of Akio’s major symbols). He can achieve miracles because fairy tales are unrealistic and depict impossible events. (And fairy tales are unrealistic because the patriarchy is unrealistic.) Dios’s victories require idealism because it makes the prince perfect and therefore more attractive. His victories require determination and sacrifice because that is what makes stories interesting—without obstacles to overcome, a story is boring. He can only achieve specific goals because stories are specific; a story told all in generalities is boring. All these features make his story attractive, so that children will eagerly learn their sex roles from it.

One way to look at Utena is that it is a story about the power of stories. Nowadays people like to say “narrative,” as in “cultural narrative,” but that’s another word for story. Stories shape the world and stories can change the world.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 26 May 2022
updated 10 April 2024