Utena - other notes

where is Ohtori Academy?
the chairs have wheels
the unused dorm
stuffing the closet
the bunk bed
Utena’s wardrobe
how many plots does Akio run?
love and betrayal
siblings and incest
pupil dilation
word-character associations
couples echo Anthy and Utena
other other

where is Ohtori Academy?

I don’t think the Academy is intended to have a concrete location. But we know it is on a bay on the east coast of Japan; we see the sun rise over the ocean. And when Utena alludes to specific nearby locations, they are in Kanagawa prefecture, the next prefecture south of Tokyo, still on Tokyo Bay. Most of what we see is consistent with that. (Not everything. At one point in episode 36, stars in the sky imply that the Academy is in the southern hemisphere, and it’s clearly intentional.)

In the Black Rose, we see the registration forms of the first two duelists that Mikage recruits, Kanae and Kozue. Both fill in Kanagawa prefecture for their homes. (We only see the tops of later forms, not enough to show home addresses.) In episode 27, Yokohama Marine Tower (Wikipedia) appears in the distance behind Nanami when she is running uphill. It is a not-yet-written-up reference to Onii-sama e, which is set in Yokohama city in Kanagawa prefecture. In episode 31, another Nanami episode, we see a sculpture representing the fairy tale Town Musicians of Bremen. I know of one copy of that sculpture in Japan, in Kawasaki city in Kanagawa prefecture.

When is the story set? The Academy is timeless, or at least confused about time. I think the main story is not meant to occur at any time other than “eh, around now-ish.” But there is a clue: Wakaba is subtly hinted to have been born in the Year of the Sheep. See her sheep mugs. The Year of the Sheep that puts her closest to the right age in 1997, when Utena came out, is 1979. If she is 14, the same age as Utena, then the story is in 1993. Or if Utena appears in the future rather than the past, then Wakaba was born twelve years later in 1991, and the story year is 2005. If for some reason you want to pin it down to a single year, I think 2005 is the best guess.

The years should properly go according to the Chinese lunar calendar. In the Gregorian calendar, the Chinese New Year varies, but generally falls between late January and the middle of February. 1991 stretched from 15 February 1991 to 3 February 1992.
The Japanese school year starts in April. The birthday cutoff for placing kids in classes is April 2: Kids born from April 2 one year to April 1 the next year will start in the same year of school. If Wakaba is a Sheep, most kids in that year will be Sheep too. Utena is probably a Sheep. But oops, Utena was born centuries ago because she is Anthy’s twin! The Academy is confused about time, and logic doesn’t work.

the chairs have wheels

A downward look at Utena’s empty desk and chair in episode 12. The chair has wheels.

The picture is from episode 12, but it has been visible since episode 2: The school chairs have wheels. It’s unmistakable.

Except for the wheels, the desks and chairs have the functional but minimal design you expect in low-cost mass-produced school furniture. I can’t imagine a school that would spring for wheels on the chairs. I really can’t imagine a school that would put up with rolling around in class, and chair races, and the other fun distractions that would come up. And the chairs don’t sound like they have wheels.

The wheels seem to be gone by the Apocalypse Saga; the furniture is unstable. The chairs in episode 29 have footpads instead. In episode 34 when Wakaba sits down, we hear wooden chair legs on the floor, not wheels.

The wheels probably have a meaning, but I can’t guess it.

the unused dorm

The bookcase and piano in the dorm lounge.

In episode 2, Anthy and Utena move into a dorm that, we’re told, has been unused for ten years. And yet it has a lounge with a large bookcase and a piano that is in tune. Anthy cleaned the dorm room, but there is no deep dust in the public areas either.

Did Anthy arrange for the piano? She does need it for the plot to manipulate Miki into a duel. Or is it another manifestation of Utena’s irregular passage of time? There’s no evidence. Maybe, as ten years passed for the students who never grow up, no time at all passed inside the dorm. Imagine how it saves on maintenance!

stuffing the closet

In a gag, Utena is pushing too much junk into the closet.

Moving in, Utena overfills the closet. The interesting items are a toy monkey and a toy snake (follow the links for other monkeys and snakes). They must be Utena’s childish stuffed toys, saying that she is still a child. The monkey stands for Anthy via Chu-Chu. It is purple for Anthy’s corruption. The snake is Akio, who acts as the serpent in Eden. It is green for the control Akio exercises over Utena. They don’t seem to predict her two loves of Anthy and Akio, they seem to say that she already has them: She brought along her stuffed toys because she loves them; she has loved them since she was small. Anthy is her inseparable twin by the symbolism of Castor and Pollux. Akio is Dios, and she wants to marry the prince.

The monkey is at her hand. In relation to Anthy, the hand is a symbol of closeness and separation. The way she touches the monkey echoes the way she touches Anthy when they are physically close. The snake is at her foot—where snakes are naturally found. The blue-green slipper on Utena’s lifted left foot suggests that her feelings about Akio are illusions that she was manipulated into accepting. She is not touching the snake as much as the snake is encroaching on her. The monkey and snake are both partly yellow for the jealousy the two arouse—that aspect does seem to be a prediction.

Anthy and Utena’s room in the dorm. The bunk bed is on the right.

the bunk bed

Utena is marked as male in her clothing, her speech, her attitudes, and her actions. On the opposite side, her long hair and its pink color are girlish (though I conclude that long hair means high self-confidence). She is also gender-marked by subtle signs in the outside world, like the cookies she is associated with.

Here I want to point out the design of the bunk bed. Utena takes the top bunk without giving it a single thought, placing herself above as a stereotypical boy should. The rear of the top bunk has a raised “male” design. The inner motif is a flower (presumably a rose), and the outer outline could be likened to the splash of a water drop. The rear of the bottom bunk has an indented “female” design. The upper and lower designs are both three-pointed like many Utena objects.

The side railing of the upper bunk has absolutely straight vertical bars. The railing of the lower bunk has slightly curved “female” bars. Long and straight is male, rounded or curved is female.

Anthy (in Utena’s body) is sitting, putting away clean clothing in Utena’s wardrobe.

Utena’s wardrobe

In the body swap episode 8, we get a peek at Utena’s wardrobe. Here Anthy, looking like Utena, is sitting in a formal pose, putting away clothing that she has washed, dried, and folded. The hanging clothing includes a trench coat, a duplicate of Utena’s black uniform jacket (the lower-right pocket is slightly different), and a Santa suit, so I think it’s safe to guess that it is Utena’s.

There’s something that looks like the girls’ uniform, which we know she has because she wears it in episode 12. And there are at least two other items with pleated skirts, which do not appear in the series. Are some of them perhaps references to the manga version of Utena? Utena wears girlish clothing three times: The dress from Touga in episode 3, the red striped date dress of episode 33, and the sweater and black stockings of the Routine Date. None of them is visible. They could be in the drawers.

Utena normally wears boyish night clothing for sleep, and her boyish uniform the rest of the time. Nevertheless, she does own girlish clothing and must wear it occasionally outside of the events we see. She never likes frilly girlish clothing despite wearing Touga’s dress in episode 3.

When body-swapped, Anthy as Utena has Utena’s variable-length hair. Shortly before this picture, it was ordinary-girl length. Here, as she shows her power over Saionji through the exchange diary, it is prince length. Earlier, after Wakaba jumped on her back and she was on the ground, it was briefly princess length; then she sat up and it was ordinary-girl length. When Saionji led Utena away to the gym equipment shed, it was prince length.

how many plots does Akio run?

In the final episode, after Akio breaks Utena’s sword against the Rose Gate, he says “This sword didn’t work either.” How many other swords has he tried on the Rose Gate? Only Anthy’s, or many others as well? His sleeve garters look like a late 19th century fashion choice, and the pseudo-military uniforms of the Student Council are older. The farmhouse where Dios was corrupted seems to predate the general availability of guns, and should be older too. He has been working this problem for a long time.

Akio seems to run many plots in parallel, seeking one person he can exploit to open the Rose Gate. He put what he thought were the best prospects on the Student Council and directly introduced them to the dueling system. I take it that he did not have high hopes for Utena until she landed in the dueling system. She was a speculative minor candidate not worth close attention. In the prince story he judges that Utena will lose her interest in becoming a prince as she grows up, and his judgment is correct in many respects. How many other minor candidates has he set up? I imagine him intervening in a bevy of children’s lives and then paying little further attention, judging them unlikely prospects.

Did Utena accidentally fall into the dueling system, or was she manipulated into it? Akio says in recap episode 13 that it was a coincidence (it was guuzen, a chance event). He is talking to himself, so there’s no reason to expect that he’s lying. On the other hand, who posted Wakaba’s love letter on the bulletin board? There is no clear evidence... but violent Saionji was engaged to the Rose Bride at the time. Anthy had opportunity and motive to post the letter, and she never fails when manipulating someone into a duel. In the Student Council, Touga reports (from an End of the World letter) that a new duelist will soon appear—before Utena has seen the letter on the bulletin board. The sum of evidence suggests that Anthy deliberately recruited Utena into the dueling system, either under orders, or in hope of relief from Saionji, or (as Akio’s words suggest) simply because she saw an opportunity and there was no reason not to take it. In the duel, after Utena’s practice sword is truncated, Anthy looks disappointed.
When Utena first catches sight of Anthy in the greenhouse, in episode 1, Anthy is watering pink roses. She is already “cultivating” Utena, that is, manipulating her.

Ruka is surely a failed past candidate, now being cleared out of the way.

love and betrayal

In episode 11, Touga claims that the more you love someone, the more strongly they will betray you. He turns out to be right. In the loving relationships we see in Utena, one partner betrays or exploits the other. Sometimes both betray each other. The two exceptions are relationships we don’t see: One between Anthy and Dios before the story, and one between Anthy and Utena after the story. Both come with promises to help each other. The promise with Dios was permanently broken, and in any case Dios does not exist. The promise with Utena is broken but restored.

There are no other exceptions. Akio enslaves Anthy. Anthy and Utena betray each other; they have the greatest love and the greatest betrayal, on both sides—Utena attacks Akio and Anthy backstabs Utena. Akio betrays Utena. Kozue harasses Miki. Anthy betrays Miki in the duel of episode 5. Anthy hoaxes Nanami beyond all bounds. Tokiko feels betrayed by Mikage (he is in stasis and does not age) and betrays him in turn with Akio. Mamiya as played by Anthy controls Mikage for Akio’s benefit. Akio arranges the murder of Mrs. Ohtori. Anthy participates in the murder of Kanae, and surely of others she was sent to seduce. Shiori harasses Juri viciously. Touga exploits Nanami and Saionji. Utena defeats Touga and Wakaba in duels; Wakaba especially feels it as a betrayal.

siblings and incest

An e-mail question put me on this topic. Most sibling pairs have incestuous relationships (I haven’t detected any non-sibling incest). I list the siblings from most to least incestuous:

Akio -> Anthy. Akio controls Anthy, and they have an abusive co-dependent relationship with fully realized incest. Their mythological correlates Zeus and Hera are brother and sister and a married couple.

Nanami -> Touga. Nanami jealously tries to keep other girls away from Touga, and cannot. Touga exploits Nanami. They were raised as siblings, and may or may not be biological siblings. Akio says they are, but he often lies, and the two do not have matching hair colors. There are hints that Touga is attracted to Nanami too.

Kozue -> Miki. Kozue tries to bother Miki, to keep his attention on her—see her elevator confession in episode 15. Like Nanami with Touga, she jealously tries to prevent Miki from entering any other relationship. Miki seems to find Kozue’s harassment irritating, but treats her well when it most matters: At the end of episode 15 after Kozue has gotten into trouble, and in episode 26. I find it particularly clear in episode 26: Miki catches Kozue when she falls, then as he carries her home he complains to her. Kozue is fully aware of the dynamic. As Miki and Anthy discuss how to care for the nestlings, she leaves, saying “take your time”—with yellow roses in the background for Kozue’s jealousy. It is Kozue treating Miki well (though with sarcasm) despite her feelings, allowing teamwork in the rescue of the nestlings.

Utena <-> Anthy. Akio compares Utena and Anthy to Castor and Pollux, and says they are like siblings. Mikage looks at siblings Mamiya and Tokiko and sees Anthy and Utena. Utena and Anthy are metaphorical siblings, therefore their relationship is metaphorically incestuous. It’s theoretically possible that they are literal twins, in which case they are literally incestuous. At first Utena tries to control Anthy, but by the Apocalypse arc she has accepted that they should have an equal relationship. They remain equal as Akio forces them apart and when Anthy decides to bring them back together after Utena disappears. It is the most positive relationship of all these, though it has been and may remain difficult.

Tokiko - Mamiya. Tokiko tries to control Mamiya. They display no incest that I can see—though comparing them to Utena and Anthy is suggestive. Then again, Mamiya dies young, and we don’t see much. When Mamiya resembles Anthy, sometimes Anthy is playing Mamiya and sometimes Mikage is falsely remembering Mamiya as resembling Anthy. In either case, we’re not seeing the real Mamiya accurately.

It’s striking that, out of all the siblings, Utena and Anthy’s relationship is the only two-sided relationship and the only positive one. It is the only homosexual pairing—the other pairs are heterosexual. As my e-mail questioner pointed out, Ikuhara has a bias toward gay pairings and may show them as better.

pupil dilation

Eyes in Utena are drawn without pupils. The show depicts pupil dilation anyway: The size of a character’s iris shows the dilation of their pupil. In general, dilated pupils are for pleasant stuff and constricted pupils are for unpleasant stuff or surprise (which widens the eyes, so it can be hard to tell). There are examples from episode 1—Utena’s pupils constrict when she sees Anthy slapped, then dilate to normal when Touga intervenes. In the duel, Saionji’s pupils reflect his confidence at first, then his shock at losing.

Utena, pupils dilated, posture relaxed.
Episode 34, speaking of Anthy
Utena, pupils constricted, posture tense.
Episode 34, Akio is too close

It’s not visible in most scenes. I find it clear in the episode 34 scene with Utena and Akio on the white sofa. When Utena talks about Anthy, she is happy and relaxed and her pupils dilate. When Akio leans in too close, she pulls away tensely and her pupils constrict.

Another clear example is Anthy’s incipient tears in episodes 12, 25, and 38.

word-character associations

In episode 1, Utena is associated with the word “weird” (henteko). The teacher calls her outfit weird, and at the end of the episode Utena says it was a weird day. There are other word choices that would do, so the repetition is making a point.

In the first two episodes, Saionji is associated with the word “shameless” (harenchi). Again, he uses it himself and has it used against him, at separate times.

Touga meets Utena in episode 3, where the word is kenzen, “wholesome”, sound and healthy either literally or metaphorically. The subtitle translation “normal” tries to keep the same implication of adherence to a social role. Utena says she wants a wholesome boy, then Touga appears and declares himself wholesome. The uses are not separated, so the association is not as strong.

It would make sense to introduce other characters with associated words. I listened for repeated words around Miki and did not find any.

couples echo Anthy and Utena

Utena is an echo chamber where all the side stories echo and resonate with the main story of Akio, Anthy, and Utena, whether directly or in complicated ways. One echo is that most couples can be read as one who is female (or more female) like Anthy, and one who is gendermixed (or more gendermixed) like Utena. Sometimes it may be a bit of a stretch. I left Shiori and Juri out of the table because it felt like too much of a stretch (maybe I’m missing something). But the only couple that I can’t see it for at all is Mamiya and Mikage. Those two are particularly complicated.

AnthyAkioPatriarch and Princess Kaguya.
AnthySaionjiCleaning, cooking in a frilly apron.
AnthyUtenaPrince and ordinary girl.
Wannabe princess.NanamiTougaThe Kiryuu family name makes him a princess.
Cleaning, cooking in a frilly apron.SaionjiTougaThe Kiryuu family name makes him a princess.
ShioriRukaHe’s a stand-in for Juri, and capable like Juri.
Shioriunnamed boyHe’s a stand-in for Juri.
TokikoMikageHe is compared to Utena. And consider his pink hair.
An ordinary girl when with Akio.UtenaAkioPatriarch and Princess Kaguya.
WakabaSaionjiCleaning, cooking in a frilly apron.
WakabaUtenaPrince and ordinary girl.

Saionji and Utena appear in both the female and mixed columns. Saionji is the girl of Saionji and Touga. Utena is an ordinary girl when with Akio.

Wakaba and Tatsuya are not in the table because they are a reversal: Wakaba is gendermixed and Tatsuya is male.

I don’t list all of Akio’s relationships. There are too many. And I left out some easy cases, like Keiko and Touga. I figure that Mitsuru doesn’t really have a relationship with Nanami, or with Mari; he’s a child and doesn’t get it.

other other

Bird in a cage. Two women are equated with a bird in a cage: The Kaoru mother, who is married and leaves the family, and Anthy in her bird cage greenhouse who is metaphorically married to Akio and leaves the Academy. Marriage is a cage, though it is possible to escape it. When we are in the Student Council elevator, we see white birds fly by outside. Are they Academy students, not old enough to marry yet, white because they still seek their princes? The birds in episode 17 seem to stand for Shiori. One flies into glass and dies just when Shiori hears that Juri was never interested in the boy that Shiori tried to steal from her. In the duel, as Utena’s victory approaches, the stuffed birds on the desks come to life and fly away. The dybbuk is exorcised, the dead return to life, and Shiori is released.

The underworld. Mikage’s underground lair, reached by a descending elevator, is the underworld of the dead. Dead students are stored there. At the same time, Ohtori Academy as a whole is a burial mound and its residents are in coffins. The Academy is an underworld of the dead, where unaging dead students are stored, even though you reach it by climbing a hill and it is ruled from a tower. Mikage’s lair is a microcosm of the Academy, which is a microcosm of the world. The whole world is an underworld, and the End of the World is never far.

Winter. On the one hand, winter weather never seems to come to Utena. The characters never get cold or wear jackets. Utena appears in her short pants in every episode (though sometimes only in recaps). On the other hand, there are clear signs of winter. Tree branches are sometimes bare. In episode 22, snow is on the steps of Nemuro Memorial Hall. The constellations that come up in episode 21 (Pleiades star cluster), episode 31 (Gemini), and episode 33 (Anthy in the planetarium) are constellations of winter. Episode 35 is named “The love that blossomed in wintertime” in the Nozomi translation.

In part, it is the general Utena confusion about the passage of time. Time is often metaphorical in Utena. The main point seems to be that winter means cold, and cold means emotional coldness rather than low temperature. It means cruelty and sometimes revenge. See for example Anthy’s shaved ice.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 19 January 2022
updated 10 June 2024