References to beliefs and mythical events of two religions. Ancient Greek gods are under myths instead, for no strong reason; I arbitrarily separated out Buddhist myths and Christian myths from others. I live in a Christian society, so I have absorbed a lot more about Christianity than any other religion. I expect that references to other religions have flown over my head. But I will write what I discover.
Utena sees religion as contributing to the oppression of women, sometimes literally and always figuratively. The Christian church is directly shown to be patriarchal, and Buddhism is subtly implied to be an illusion that itself misleads people.
I love the opposed parallels of the Buddha dying without rebirth and Jesus being resurrected (that is, reborn). In Utena they mean the same thing. As Anthy and Utena are opposed aspects of the same thing, Utena treats the opposed examples of religious transcendence as aspects of the same thing.
A duel song gave me the clue to look into Buddhism. At first I had to research it from scratch. Since then, semi-anonymous Nick has given me a bunch of pointers to help get me up to speed on the basics. Thanks!
In Buddhism, for most people, everyday experience is an illusion. What you see and feel and believe is false, and amounts to suffering. Suffering is an illusion and illusions are suffering; the self is an illusion; permanence is an illusion; the cycle of life and reincarnation is an illusion. The idea permeates Utena: Everything on the screen is an illusion; we see what the current point-of-view character falsely sees rather than any kind of truth; locations and characters are unstable; the story repeatedly insists that it itself is a stage play, or a fairy tale, or a myth, or another kind of illusion. Shadows, including the shadow plays but also other shadows, symbolize illusions even as they point toward the truth; we see only the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave.
A small number of people may be awakened, which in English we call enlightened. The Buddha is awakened: He suffers no illusions but sees the complete truth. To not be awakened is to be as if you were dreaming, seeing only illusions. Utena of course pulls in the metaphor of dreaming.
This aspect of the Buddhist worldview is the polar opposite of essentialism (Wikipedia).
In Buddhism, life is bad because it means suffering, but it is difficult to get out of because those who die are normally reincarnated. Samsara (Wikipedia) is the cycle of life and rebirth. Only those who awaken and reach nirvana are not reincarnated. They step out of the samsara cycle and cease to exist, and that’s good.
Samsara is perpetuated by ignorance and desire. To be awakened is to have complete insight and to lose false earthly desires. It includes the realization that you have no self; the self is an illusion. Utena works out its parallel in detail.
Anthy as samsara. Anthy stands for destruction and renewal with continuity, in other words, for the eternity of samsara (though it is an illusion like everything else). She is ignorant that the patriarchy is false, and she desires Dios and Akio. She is immortal, and until Utena opens her coffin, all we see of her is her image—the illusion of Anthy. She brings up reincarnation in episode 27 when talking with Utena in bed. She connects it with parents passing on their thoughts and feelings to their children through generations: Though the person dies, their thoughts live on eternally. The person is mortal but the system of control is reincarnated in every generation, establishing the parallel. Like life, the system of control is painful and bad. It works by providing people illusions (causing ignorance) and desires.
Anthy’s usual job is to cultivate the students, that is, to ensure continuity of the system of control. See Anthy watering her roses. The Academy’s symbols of regeneration participate in the parallel, for example the Student Council entrance.
Episode 27, where Anthy establishes the parallel, is Nanami’s Egg. Nanami spectacularly shows her ignorance and her misguided desires. It’s not in the least obvious that Nanami’s Egg is a religious reference, and yet it is!
Utena as Buddha. Utena stands for destruction and renewal with change, that is, for revolution. After failing to rescue Anthy at the end of the series, she admits to herself that she was only playing prince, and is awakened. Being severely injured, she then literally or metaphorically dies and disappears from the Academy. She steps out of the ever-looping system of control. She has lost her ignorant illusions and become detached from her false earthly desires. In the allegory, it means that she sees the true nature of the patriarchy, and loses the patriarchal desires to be a prince and to marry the prince. She has lost her “self”, the illusionary belief system she sought to re-attain in episode 12. Having stepped out of the cycle, she ceases to exist when she dies, disappearing, and that’s good.
One way to take Utena’s disappearance is that Utena no longer sees the illusory Academy, but the truth. If the camera takes her point of view, then it can no longer show her in the Academy and she disappears from it. In Utena the camera shows nothing but illusion (that’s what animation is); once Utena is awakened, she can no longer be the viewpoint character.
And yet Utena who escapes samsara still stands for samsara in a larger sense. Society as a whole remains trapped in the illusions of the patriarchy. It is hinted that a future sequence of heroes will unravel the patriarchy strand by strand. But that is reincarnation again: Each hero is born of the previous one, and as the first hero Dios was an illusion, so are all of them. The heroes bring progress to the world, but we always need another hero for the next step. We can read it as Utena undercutting its own Buddhist metaphor, saying that the full truth can never be reached. There is no Buddha who is free of illusions.
As I read it, Akio considers that his world is the entire world. The real world, where you become an adult, lose your belief in fairy tales, see through the illusions, leave your coffin, hatch from the egg, become self-actualized, and escape samsara, is not the world of Buddhist mythology’s cycles. We the audience don’t have to accept that Utena literally dies and disappears, either because we take the parallel as figurative or because it is deliberately ambiguous whether she dies. We can if we like, though.
Utena is Jesus. In her role as victim and princess, Utena corresponds to Eve (see below). In her role as prince, Utena corresponds to Jesus: She is a savior, she performs miracles, she forgives others their sins (she even forgives Anthy’s backstab), and she follows a strict moral code—in the prince role, she is without sin, like Jesus. Akio turning Utena into a princess in the final showdown corresponds to the crucifixion of Jesus.
Utena depicts Utena as Jesus as morally good and not sexist (she doesn’t notice that sex roles exist), and the church as an institution as corrupted by Akio, patriarchal and morally bad. Swords are cross-shaped. Above all, the sword-shaped church tower is a cross. It ties the patriarchal church with other symbols of male sex and power.
Dios is God. The halo around the last burning candle in episode 30, and the halo around the sun in the Second Seduction, equate Dios with God the Father, to go with Utena who is Jesus the Son. I haven’t found a Holy Spirit to complete the Christian Trinity, but I expect it’s around somewhere too—threes are significant. One interpretation of the halos is that the light remains until you choose darkness; Utena can choose to save herself (and does not). But I like this interpretation: Utena blows out the last candle in episode 30 and is corrupted—and Dios approves Utena’s turn toward Akio. Utena chooses to stay with Akio in the forest until sunset, again violating the ideals she gained from Dios and becoming more deeply corrupted—and Dios approves. It is part of God’s plan that Jesus is to die on the cross and be resurrected. The power of miracles is far-sighted, and prepares Akio’s downfall as early as episode 30.
Akio is the devil. When corrupting Utena, he plays the role of the serpent in Eden. Akio cannot corrupt Utena as prince (the devil tried to tempt Jesus and failed), but he does corrupt Utena as ordinary girl and turn her into a princess.
At the beginning of the story, little Utena hides in a coffin in a church in the prince story. Akio started his plot to control Utena in a place where his power is great.
Anthy and Utena are each equated with Eve, in different ways. Anthy and Utena are aspects of the same thing: Together they stand for all women, and for a Christian, Eve is the original and prototypical woman. Though note: The myth of Eve is older than Christianity and appears in other Abrahamic religions.
Anthy is Eve because she corrupted Dios and caused him to become Akio, as Eve corrupted Adam by offering him the apple. Dios is Adam. Anthy is associated with apples by animating one in her notebook in episode 4, by the apple that is cut into six pieces in episode 5 (which corresponds to her rabbit dance in episode 7), and by the poisoned apple in episode 32. In the final version of the prince story in episode 34 she replays part of the myth of Eden, corrupting Dios and “lying with” him.
In the Apocalypse Saga corruption storyline, Utena is Eve, while Akio is the serpent and corrupts her. Akio relies on lies and temptation, the same methods as the serpent. Utena is associated with apples through the shadow play of episode 11 and the color red, which represents her virginity in the First Seduction. Eating the apple corresponds to Utena losing her virginity in the First Seduction. The apple is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: It puts Utena on the road to learning the truth and leaving the Academy, which is marked by her increasing thoughtfulness after each step of deeper corruption.
In Utena, Christianity is part of Akio’s propaganda—it is an ancient patriarchal tradition. The Bible’s patriarchal attitudes are in plain sight. Eve the prototypical woman was corrupted, therefore women are corrupt. Part of the punishment for eating the apple is that women are subordinated to men. In propaganda, it’s not the serpent’s fault, it’s weak Eve’s fault, and strong Adam gets a pass. Men must control and protect women for the sake of both men and women. That’s how I read it. The attitude shows in part through Anthy’s femme fatale character archetype, which accepts Eve as a corruptor.
The end of Utena’s story comes with beautiful opposed Buddhist and Christian parallels. Utena shares the Christian parallel with The Little Prince and Sailor Moon. The Sailor Moon article includes a picture of Anthy half-crucified: She is half of of the whole of Anthy and Utena.
In the final showdown, Akio turns Utena into a princess. In the fairy tale plot, it is the prince being murdered—defeated by the heroic Akio with “his” sword (that is, by taking Utena’s sword and making it his). In the Christian parallel, it is the crucifixion of Jesus. Akio takes Utena’s sword on a cross of shadows. The parallel is reinforced by a comparison of four-pointed shadows between the church in episode 9 and the princessification in episode 38.
After Jesus died on the cross, a Roman soldier stabbed him with a spear (Wikipedia) to ensure that he was dead. It corresponds to Anthy’s backstab in the final showdown. In depictions, Jesus is shown as pierced on the right side of his body, the side where Anthy stabbed Utena. Both stabs were intended to inflict mortal wounds.
In Utena’s symbolism, the right side is the side of truth. Part of the meaning of piercing Utena on the right side is that Anthy truly desires vengeance against her. The Christian symbolism also holds: Those at the right hand of Jesus are saved, and piercing Jesus on the right side stands for that. Even the soldier who made sure Jesus was dead is saved. Even Anthy who sinfully seeks vengeance is saved. The backstab is necessary for Utena and Anthy to win, and that ties in.
Utena disappears as the Swords of Hatred converge on her. It corresponds to Jesus being resurrected.
I thought Anthy might correspond to Mary Magdalene, but no, it doesn’t seem to work.
Jay Scott <email@example.com>
first posted 8 January 2023
updated 24 September 2023