Utena - obscure symbols

Obscure symbols that struck me as especially cute.


In the courtyard of Anthy and Utena’s empty dorm stands an obelisk surrounded by astrological symbols for the twelve constellations of the zodiac. See Mishima Yukio’s House for its inspiration. It stands for Akio and his stars. In episode 2 when Saionji comes to demand Anthy, the shadow of the obelisk falls on the symbol for Scorpio (♏︎). According to the Wikipedia article I just linked, in astrology Scorpio is associated with three animals: The scorpion that the constellation depicts, and also the snake and the eagle.

The scorpion is Saionji, who has arrived with his sting. The snake is Akio, who is tied to the serpent in Eden. The eagle is also Akio, through his name Ohtori. I wish I could make symbols like that.

Shadow of the obelisk falls on the symbol for Scorpio.

Shortly after, Utena comes out to confront Saionji. The shadow has moved halfway between Scorpio and Libra (♎︎), the scales of justice. You thought the light was fixed to the building, and maybe it is though I don’t see it in the frontal view of the dorm. In Utena-world that does not stop it from moving around. Compare the impossible shadows of Utena and Anthy lying down in synchrony.

Shadow of the obelisk has moved toward Libra, and falls halfway between.

The following shot is from the side and shows the obelisk as a divider between Utena and Anthy on one side and Saionji on the other. They are being weighed in the scales: Justice and light on the left versus sting and darkness on the right. The shadow line is fuzzy. Utena is not entirely in the light, and Anthy is shadowed in darkness. We learn the outcome after the duel.

It’s super-cute and virtually impossible to figure out without study, an easter egg for those who look closely. Utena does this kind of thing all over.

The obelisk between Utena and Anthy on one side and Saionji on the other.

star patterns

Pattern of seven stars as Saionji leaves.

Many starfields look meaningless. A few are real constellations. Others call out to be interpreted. From episode 2: The pattern of seven bright stars above Saionji looks like the six duelists with Anthy in the middle. The three stars over Anthy’s head can be read as Akio, Anthy and Utena, though it’s not convincing.

Pattern of stars over Touga’s head in episode 3. Touga with stars behind, one very bright.

Episode 3, the ball. The bright star immediately over Touga’s head must be Utena. Then the dimmer stars in line with it are other girls that Touga has lined up. Taking a wider view, the stars over his head outline a heart shape. The stars to the left of his head mark the corners of a pyramid. It could be Nanami and her three minions. The stars to the right of his head resemble a snail, perhaps. I suspect the stars tell us Touga’s thoughts about the ball. The star pattern changes as soon as Nanami arrives and puts her hands over Touga’s eyes. In episode 35 on the right, Utena’s star is brighter.

Pattern of eight stars above the student council.

The second interlude with the Student Council in the final showdown. Above the streak of cloud is a pattern of eight brighter stars, three in a triangle surrounded by five more in a rough house shape. (Click on the image for its full size.) It can be interpreted as the characters. Three are at the dueling arena: Akio and Anthy, and Utena’s star is dimmer because she has been run through and she’s down. Five that surround them are the student council (Nanami is sitting; she is below the bottom of the frame).

basketball games

Utena’s basketball games are a reference to Onii-sama e. See crowds - basketball for another note on the symbolism of playing basketball.

In episode 1, we’re shown Utena’s specialness in a basketball game where she charges forward in a shower of rose petals past defending boys and outjumps them to score. (The 鳳 character on the basketball jerseys says Ohtori.) The sports super-skill and rose petals are typical genre elements, and it’s only later that we may realize more: Her win is a sign of her power of miracles; defeating the entire boys’ team is a miracle. The orange color of the basketball represents miracles. It’s also a metaphor of personally defeating organized sexism. The shower of rose petals is her connection with Dios, the rose prince and the former holder of the power of miracles. Afterward, she is crowded with fangirls.

I call the symbolism obscure because it took me a long time to realize. The disguise as a genre trope worked on me.

Utena plays basketball in a shower of rose petals.

There are three basketball games (plus snippets of others in episodes 8 and 20). The second is in episode 30. Some of the same images repeat in the animation, this time without rose petals. Utena defeats the boys more soundly, not merely outjumping them but dunking the ball and grabbing the rim. Her power of miracles is stronger: Akio has been strengthening it through duels, to exploit for his own ends.

Then a vision of Akio distracts her and she falls, injuring herself. It is part of his plan to control her and exploit her power, and a metaphor of failure in the face of social control. Afterward, the boys stand around her, mildly concerned.

Utena charges past boys without rose petals.

The third game is in episode 37, after she has decided on her course of action. The animation again reuses images, and added images emphasize her determination and show that she is undistracted by other thoughts. She has overcome her weakness from the previous game, and she has resolved her confused feelings from earlier in the episode. Afterward, she is alone. She becomes more alone as the show progresses.

Unfortunately, she is determined to do the wrong thing. As we see in flashbacks as she plays, she has made her decision without full information.

Utena dunks the ball again.

Every spherical object is like the egg of the world, and has something or other to do with revolution. The basketball represents Utena’s power of miracles, in the same way that Akio’s spherical hair tie represents Akio’s power of illusion, with his illusions (as hair) flowing through the world.

In the body swap episode 8, the basketball is prominent in the gym equipment shed behind Utena, who is in Anthy’s body. Utena is confident with the ball in her hands, or with a sword, but in the face of Saionji’s advances she seems to feel powerless. Utena as Anthy is capable of miracles; she played a basketball game earlier in the episode. Here the basketball is in storage rather than in use. Utena’s power is not always active, and she can be defeated. It comes with a hint that Utena is vulnerable to sexual temptation, showing how she can be defeated. Touga and Akio both exploit the weakness. The orange ball can also represent Saionji’s one-sided love, although the scene associates it with Utena. In storage, it looks brown for ordinariness.

The basketball on the floor of the gym storage shed, behind Utena (who is in Anthy’s body).

Utena becomes more alone with time, but how does it happen? I can’t tell. One possibility is Anthy’s fear of crowds. We catch a glimpse of her watching the crowd that greets Utena in episode 3, and we learn about her fear of crowds in that episode. Maybe Anthy manipulates students to prevent them from crowding around. Somehow.

Akio dominates

Nothing is in focus. Everything is a little blurry. The same background, the three candles in front. Utena drinks tea.

In episode 25, Anthy’s roses are up front, pink on the right for Utena and purplish on the left for Akio, showing who Anthy cares about. The leftmost pink rose, nestled up with a purple rose to show Utena’s desire, has slight purple shadows as she is in danger of corruption. The light side of the flowerpot faces Utena and the dark side faces Akio. Utena and Wakaba are both gazing at Akio. Utena’s ubiquitous diagonal shadow lines place Utena and Wakaba in shadow, captured by Akio, even as they stand on the side of light with respect to the roses. A thick dark bar leads to Utena’s head and a thin one to Wakaba’s head, because Utena is seriously attracted to dark Akio and Wakaba is only playing around. Wakaba is standing up straight in directness and innocence while Utena is leaning forward, drawn in. Utena is lower, because she is falling under Akio’s control. Akio’s height visually dominates everyone—but not the roses of Anthy’s feelings. So many subtle points in one image.

There are two similar shots, with the same background including the shadows, in episode 30. It’s the episode when Utena is corrupted, and Utena’s feelings are front and center. In this first one, she is looking away because she’s feeling put out that Wakaba is getting between her and Akio. Akio deliberately activated her attraction in episode 25 (after the picture above), and is about to execute the re-approach step of an approach-withdrawal maneuver. Akio has an evil smile. Two bars of shadow that were mostly hidden behind roses in the first picture point toward the candle that Utena will blow out first. In the second similar image, only one candle burns.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 24 December 2021
updated 24 August 2023