Utena - shadow plays

The shadow plays do not show the truth, but point toward it, often indirectly. I think that’s true of shadows in Utena in general, at least fairly often. A clear case of shadows pointing to the truth comes in the duel of episode 11. The recap episode 24 has another clear example. But many cases are not as clear.

Many or most shadow plays have a narrow meaning for the episode and a wider meaning for the show as a whole, which I point out when I see it.

Roles. The shadow girl with a bow in her hair plays characters representing Utena in episodes 2, 3, 11, and 37. When the play has a male role, she commonly takes it. An exception is The Tale of the Rose in episode 34, when she plays the witch and the pigtailed girl plays the prince—a reversal of their usual role assignment.

Clashes. In many shadow plays, and in some other stories embedded in Utena, the surface message clashes with the underlying message. It goes for Utena as a whole, too: The surface message of sudden revolution clashes with the underlying message of step-by-step change (though it may amount to revolution in the long run; see the Enlightenment). The confusion of Utena’s message matches the confusion of the cultural narratives that Utena deconstructs, which clash with their underlying message of power and control. The shadow plays can be seen as parodies of cultural narratives, intended to bring out their contradictions.

Plato’s cave. The shadow plays are parallel to the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave (Wikipedia), cast by puppets in front of a fire. The shadow play background is red, like firelight, and Ohtori Academy is metaphorically underground (see the underworld). The characters are puppets manipulated by Akio and Anthy. It is a conventional interpretation of the cave allegory: The shadows on the cave wall, and the shadow plays, represent standard false cultural narratives, and leaving the cave or leaving the Academy represents enlightenment: Leaving your coffin.

Compare the idea of self-actualization: Few people leave the cave because it is difficult and unappealing, few people become self-actualized. In Utena’s view, as I take it, self-actualization is a standard false cultural narrative of enlightenment (or awakening), or a simplified story about leaving the cave. Utena as a whole is a simplified (!) story of enlightenment.

Shadows in general. Akio is associated with darkness (as opposed to Dios’s light) and the color red. Shadows are areas of darkness, and the shadow plays are on a red background. But Akio lies and hides information from others, while the shadow plays reveal information and point toward truth (however indirectly). I think this has to be understood in relation to Plato’s Cave. Shadows are illusions, but it is possible to read through the illusions and understand the truth—it is possible to leave the cave.

The shadow plays. Continuing the line of reasoning, the shadow plays are of Akio and work against Akio, so they stand for the patriarchy’s self-destructiveness; see miracles - the allegory. The shadow girls act as agents of truth, but (despite my joke) they do not have any kind of direct knowledge of the truth; they are trapped in illusions like everyone at the Academy. The shadow plays emphasize and exaggerate the beliefs of their creators (as fiction commonly does) and make it easier to read through to the underlying reality. You could say the same about Utena as a whole; the shadow plays are a microcosm of the series, in that sense. They are a metaphor for seeing truth through the illusions, and for telling the truth through fiction; they are a reversal of the camera that records only truth being used to tell lies.


the signboard

Student Council arc - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12

Black Rose - 13 - 14 - 15 - 16 - 17 - 18 - 19 - 20 - 21 - 22 - 23 - 24

Apocalypse Saga - 25 - 26 - 27 - 28 - 29 - 30 - 31 - 32 - 33 - 34 - 35 - 36 - 37 - 38 - 39

the signboard

The shadow players’ signboard.

The signboard says 劇団影絵カシラ, gekidan kagee kashira, “The Kashira Shadow Players” if you like. No short translation can catch the nuances.

The small characters at the top are 劇団 gekidan, theater company or acting group. The lower line is the name of the company.

The lower line starts with kagee, meaning silhouette art. It’s a compound word, 影 kage shadow + 絵 e picture, in the sense of an artistic image. The character 影 kage is written clearly. The character 絵 e has been tweaked to include a vertical AZ. Apparently we’re being promised an A to Z... something.

The characters with long curlicues on the right side are カシラ kashira in stylized katakana. Kashira is a word that women (not men) can add at the end of a sentence to mean that it is uncertain. It’s like “I wonder” in “I wonder if it will rain?” or “I doubt” in “I doubt it will work.” There’s room for a whole story here about gendered language and social roles. Unlike English and other Indo-European languages, the Japanese language does not distinguish gender in any grammatical way. But it does attach language to gendered social roles.

The name of the company expresses doubt about the plays they put on—specifically female doubt. Or you can read it as expressing doubt about silhouette art in general, widespread in Utena. They reinforce it by repeating the word kashira in and around the shadow plays. Skepticism is the first step in seeking the truth: Don’t just believe what you’re told, doubt it until you have thought through the evidence yourself. Utena as a whole tells us to doubt cultural narratives and think for ourselves. These are Enlightenment values.

Student Council arc

Shadow plays in this arc are put on by two shadow girls, one with pigtails (represented as hair bobbles sticking out to the sides) and one with a hair bow. They are features associated with children; see childhood. The credits call them A-ko and B-ko, which are generic names for women who you don’t want to name. I don’t see any way within the series (without looking at a screenplay or other outside information) to tell which one is which.

Episode 1

The shadow girls call Utena a “meddlesome hero” and tell us that there are rules to the duels.

Utena seeks revenge on Saionji for hurting Wakaba. It’s not useful. Defeating Saionji does not help Wakaba (who never learns of it) and does not improve Saionji’s behavior. “Meddlesome” is a fair description.

In the episode, the rules of the duels are explained enough for Utena to get by. As the story continues, Utena rejects the rule that Anthy plays the Rose Bride role, and gets in trouble because of her rejection. By the end of the series, though, Utena’s rejection of the Rose Bride role is part of what enables her to help Anthy escape it. It’s similar to the line at the end of the prince story, “Was that really such a good idea?” For Utena, the rule rejection she carries out in the prince story and the rule rejection she carries out for the duels cause her a lot of trouble. It’s less trouble to go with the flow. At the same time, rejecting parts of the system that she is being made to conform to is what makes it possible for her to help reform the system. Fixing society is hard. It was a bad idea in one sense and a good idea in another.

In the widest view, the rules of the duels stand for the rules of society. Learning them is part of growing up. According to Utena’s definition of adulthood, transcending the rules is part of growing up.

Genre reference: Greek chorus. Most of the shadow plays have an element of Greek chorus in that they stand apart and comment on the action, but the first play does not differentiate the characters and treats them as a chorus.

Episode 2

One shadow mimes a gun with her hand and “shoots” the other.

Utena intends to throw the rematch against Saionji. The shadow girls play cowboys. As usual, the hair bow girl plays Utena. One on a horse mimes a gun and “shoots” the other, “Utena”, who is on foot. “Utena” is unhurt because she lost on purpose. Left unsaid is that the loser does not decide whether she is OK; the winner controls the weapon. As Akio says in the final showdown, Utena is only playing at dueling. Next both shadows are on horseback as they tell us the moral: It’s not that easy to lose on purpose. The horses are on poles like merry-go-round horses, and a cactus moves past in the foreground to represent the horses’ movement. Both motifs occur again, and movement without going anywhere is also thematic.

The wider meaning is, once you get into the dueling game, it doesn’t let you out. Society does not let you out of its system of control.

Genre reference: Western. Genre clash: In a Western, the bad guys get their comeuppance in the end, clashing with the play’s immediate message. In the bigger story, Akio does get some comeuppance in the end.

Episode 3

Shadows of a princess and prince dance.

Two stereotypical housewives discuss the upcoming ball, concluding that it is for shameless girls to hunt boys. I take it that they represent the girls who were not invited. The dog seems to say that it’s all a bunch of yapping. In between, a princess and prince dance, foretelling Anthy dancing with Utena.

It’s a story of putting women down. In Utena, when Anthy is not blamed, women in general are blamed. When the housewives aren’t suppressing women, the prince is—the princess spins around under the prince’s hand. It’s how Utena treats Anthy for the greater part of the series, trying to force her to conform to Utena’s individualistic ideals. Later, Utena is spun around under Akio’s hand.

When the two shadows are playing housewives, the one on the right holds one dog on a leash. When they are playing princess and prince, the prince (on the right) holds two dogs on leashes. The princess is equivalent to a dog on the prince’s leash—and we have independent evidence that Anthy is Akio’s dog. Akio doesn’t quite get his leash fastened to Utena.

Genre reference: Romance. Again, the genre clashes with the immediate message. Utena is saying that the romance genre supports harmful stereotypes.

Episode 4

One shadow girl tells about the boyfriend who found out what she was really like and left her. It’s a Miki episode. The hair bow girl plays the boy (Miki) and the other plays the girl. Miki does not know what Anthy is really like. Stepping back, Utena doesn’t know what Anthy is like. Neither of those involves a breakup, though. The breakups in the series are Ruka leaving Shiori, Utena leaving Akio, and Anthy leaving Akio at the end. Ruka finds out that Shiori is not strong enough as a “bride”, and drops her. Utena does not know what Akio is like, but she does eventually find out and leave him.

Another breakup could be Dios turning into Akio, effectively Dios breaking up with Anthy. The play can be read as Anthy blaming herself for it.

There are other breakups. Shiori leaves her unnamed boy before returning to the Academy. Tokiko leaves Mikage. Utena no longer calls Dios down from the castle in the sky after episode 33. Touga and Utena parting in the duel of episode 36 is depicted as if it were a breakup.

There is a potential breakup which does not quite happen, Utena breaking up with Anthy. Akio wants to deceive Utena about what Anthy is like, so that Utena will leave Anthy. He does it in large part not by direct falsehoods, but by selectively revealing bits of the truth. Anthy really does sleep with Akio; Utena is shown the fact but not the larger pattern behind it. That is how you tell lies with a camera that records truth, another idea that comes up late in the series. One point of the play is that it is not enough to know a few facts about a person or situation. The world is not so simple. You have to know the context.

The boy who leaves is dressed in hat and overcoat and walks into the distance, like the audition Judge of the play of episode 37. The boy is making a false judgment, just as Akio makes a false judgment in the final showdown that Utena is ripe to be turned into a helpless princess. Ruka cruelly leaving Shiori and Utena saving herself by leaving Akio both seem to be true judgments.

In the bigger picture, the play is about female competition for male sexual partners. The girl is to ignore her own tastes (no garlic ramen) and conform to convention to appeal to the boy, who has the power of choice.

Episode 5

The pirate captain doesn’t have what she really wants, and so continues being a pirate—she’ll seize things until she gets what she wants. As in the previous episode, the hair bow girl plays the pirate/Miki (her pirate headgear conceals the bow). Miki doesn’t have what he wants, so he will duel for Anthy. To challenge is to try to take something for yourself. The plot of Utena is driven by Akio trying to take something for himself, and he set up the dueling system where others try to take things for themselves. The hero Utena is forced to cooperate with the corrupting system if she is to have any hope of realizing her heroic ideal. It is a contradiction, since her ideal requires her to remain uncorrupted.

The boat springs a leak, which perhaps represents the contradiction. Challenging is not the same as winning.

In the bigger picture, the play is about male competition for female sexual partners—compare the previous episode’s shadow play. The boy is to “win” the girl, who is a prize to fight over. Duelists are trying to win the Rose Bride; she is property for the winner to control. The dueling system is a metaphor for that aspect of the patriarchal system of control.

Genre reference: Pirate adventure. Genre clash: Utena is a would-be swashbuckler, an adventure hero, but she is co-opted into the pirates and cannot realize her ideals even in the end. The genre is shown as childish and unrealistic.

Episode 6

Shadow of a hill with a tent on it. Shadows of the shadow girls manipulating puppets of themselves.

The play is immediately after Nanami asks Mitsuru out, Mitsuru her flunky/would-be big brother. The shadow girls go camping and make curry over a campfire. It turns out partly undercooked and partly burned, but one of them likes it anyway. Mitsuru is undercooked because he is too young, and burned by his wish to be like Touga—by seeking premature maturity. Compare the adulthood episode. Then the shadow girls show shadows of themselves manipulating puppets of themselves, a story in a story in a story. Utena is reminding us that it is an allegory; the players show that they are playing the role of playing roles. More immediately, the damsel in distress is supposed to fall for the prince who rescues her. Nanami is playing the role of falling for the prince when in fact setting him up for exploitation, while Mitsuru is playing the role of a prince while causing the troubles that he rescues her from.

The play indirectly compares Mitsuru to Touga, who is parallel to Akio: Mitsuru is a weaker Touga who is a weaker Akio. Mitsuru is trying to exploit Nanami to reach his goal of being an older brother. The play indirectly compares Mitsuru to Utena. She is immature and seeks the maturity of being a prince (equally with the maturity of being a prince’s wife). Utena is trying to exploit the dueling system to reach her goal of being a prince, just as Mitsuru is trying to exploit Nanami. Meanwhile, Akio has set her up to play the prince role so that he can exploit her, just as Nanami is setting up Mitsuru for exploitation. Nanami is equated with Akio. The network of connections between characters is twisted on itself like a Möbius strip.

Later in the episode is a different comparison. Utena asks Mitsuru why he accepts his role as flunky—Utena loudly orders Anthy to reject the Rose Bride role, but only asks Mitsuru about his subservient role, politely kneeling to be closer to his level. With the whole story in mind, we can see that Akio is boss of Anthy while Nanami is boss of Mitsuru, so Nanami is being matched with Akio again.

Episode 7

Juri’s episode. The sour grapes play: One shadow girl has caught a cold and could not go to the zoo, so she complains that the zoo is full of boring animals. She swings on a tire swing, introducing the motif of shadow tires. We don’t know the meaning yet, but the tire is a ring and a car part. The shadow girl is using it as a childish toy. Juri wants the power of miracles and resents Utena for having it and not wanting it. Like the character with the cold, Juri childishly denies that she wants it... while swinging on a ring that symbolizes her dueling ring

It reminds me of Utena denying that she wants to revolutionize the world. I gather that she is sincere, but as it turns out her intention does not matter.

Juri gives up on Shiori, or tries to, telling herself that there are no miracles. Juri becomes frustrated and bitter. Dios gives up on saving all girls after Anthy intervenes to prevent him from losing his life. Dios becomes Akio. Utena does not give up until she loses her belief in the prince and fails to rescue Anthy—and by then she has already won. If you are to revolutionize the world, you can’t give up before you’ve done it.

A traditional Chinese guardian lion sculpture, a male lion with a ball under one paw.

When Juri tries to take Utena’s ring, a traditional Chinese guardian lion (Wikipedia) sculpture in the foreground represents Juri’s attitude: She sees Utena as harmful and is trying to drive her off. In China, the lions are associated with current and past emperors, so the lion refers to Juri as an imperial princess, as suggested by her name Arisugawa. The lion’s ball traditionally represents the world. We can read the lion as part of the system of control, guarding the stability of the patriarchy, which (like an ideal Chinese emperor) controls the world.

In Japanese, the guardian lions are called komainu or lion-dogs, as if they were guard dogs.

Juri has two motivations. As Touga suggests, she has not emotionally given up on her love of Shiori. She unconsciously wants to preserve her opportunity to create a miracle—that is why she is a duelist. Intellectually, she denies that miracles exist, and in particular she angrily denies Utena’s power of miracles. Her main motivation for anger at Utena is to protect her worldview; it is cognitive dissonance. Juri ironically seeks stability though she wants change—she believes in the stability of the system of control. It’s an example of backwards behavior induced by the patriarchy. It fits in that, thanks to her wealth and power, she benefits from stability—in acting like the lion, she takes in and becomes a symbol of protecting elite privilege. She does it even at her own cost. Her privilege comes at the cost of conforming to her social role.

Compare Nanami, who takes her upper class privilege for granted. Nanami protects her personal power, not her class power.

Capture or entrapment is a theme of the episode. Abstractly, Juri is trapped by the contradiction between her love of Shiori and her perceived need to protect the system and social norms she benefits from; she cannot reveal her lesbianism. Shiori’s picture is trapped in Juri’s locket, representing that Shiori is trapped by Juri’s frustrated cross-motivations. Concretely, Chu-Chu and Utena are captured by the cruel female teacher (and freed temporarily by Juri’s intercession). Miki is pinned in place by Touga’s thrown knives. The shadow play zoo animals are caged. Going abstract again, Anthy’s dancing rabbits say that all the duelists are trapped in Anthy’s web of manipulation. Utena is trapped in the dueling system. Everyone is trapped by the system of control and its false cultural narratives—even Akio, with the world trapped under his paw, is himself trapped by his need to enforce the system—and by his belief in the false narratives that he promulgates.

Genre reference: Aesop’s fables, with morals. See the next episode.

Episode 8

The gangster's bullet ricochets and hits her in the back.

The body swap episode. The shadow girls discuss the four-character proverb 因果応報 (inga ouhou or fated punishment), which expresses the idea of karmic retribution. If you do evil, evil will return to you (possibly in a future life). Compare Greek myth, where divine prophecies always come true and it is no use trying to avoid your fate. They illustrate it with a gangster who opens fire on her crime victim. The bullet ricochets in an elaborate way and strikes her in the back: Fate will have its way, even by unrealistic means. Nanami’s attempted spicy curry harassment of Anthy backfired and she hurt herself. I interpret Anthy’s psychological entrapment by Akio as karmic retribution; see Anthy’s corruption. Akio’s failure at the end of the series is also karmic retribution via an unrealistic miracle.

The proverb is delightfully syncretic: The idea is Buddhist and from India, the four-character proverb tradition is from China, and the proverb in this form is native to Japan as far as I can tell. Rolling it all into one ball is very Japanese.

Genre reference: Film noir, where everyone is more or less corrupt and there are no pure heroes. Utena seems to take that as a realistic worldview; hero Utena becomes corrupted. The genre reference clashes with the proverb—this play starts with its moral. And Utena does not reinforce the moral in the short run. Anthy plays the role of karma and takes revenge selectively on those who harm her, not on evil in general. She detected Nanami’s plot and launched a counterplot. Utena takes the noir attitude seriously, not the proverb.

Being shot in the back is a preview of future events. See stabbed comparison and Anthy’s backstab. We can take it to mean that Utena is responsible for Anthy stabbing her in the back—Utena’s corruption is coming back to her through the harm she did to Anthy. In the bigger picture, Akio’s harm comes back around to him. Anthy leaves him because of it, and Utena’s slow-motion revolution will eventually destroy Akio’s power.

Episode 9

As she spins plates that resemble UFOs, one shadow girl points to a UFO that the other interprets as a falling star, and asks to be allowed to believe in UFOs. After all, she gave up believing in so many other things. Apparently the spinning plates stand for the effort she makes to disbelieve in Santa Claus and fairies and so on, and she can keep only so many plates spinning at a time. After disbelieving in a prince on a white horse and true friendship (as the two lean back-to-back like true friends), she’s tapped out.

Japanese for falling star is nagareboshi, “streaming star”. It is a celestial object flowing across the sky. It seems to tie to the water of illusions and to Utena, who is celestial. Akio calls her a comet, another short-lived “star” with some visual resemblance. In the play, one actor sees a UFO, which is associated with the shadow girls themselves. The other sees an object associated with Utena. The play lets us decide between believing in the shadow girls, the show’s arbiters of truth who have no access to truth, and Utena, who does gain access to truth in the end. Which is the illusion?

Utena believes in a prince on a white horse, and Touga does not believe in true friendship. The shadow girls themselves fly around in a UFO. The suggestion is that we choose our beliefs according to our desires. Touga chooses to disbelieve in true friendship because he prefers scheming to get what he wants. Utena chooses to believe the person she met was a prince on a white horse because she liked him. Evidence does not matter.

Anthy also does not believe in true friendship. Then Utena maintains her true friendship despite being betrayed, mortally wounded, and threatened with the Swords of Hatred. Evidence does matter; it convinced Anthy. With evidence, it is possible to see through illusions. The play is a satirical comment on naivety versus cynicism, and makes fun of both.

Episode 10

The gigantic cat meows at the shadow girls, who seem to imagine it is still cat-sized.

The kitten episode. One shadow girl finds a kitten. While they argue over what to name it, the kitten grows into a gigantic cat. It must be an outdoor cat, it wouldn’t fit through the door.

It’s a metaphor for the psychological effect of the kitten on Nanami. Her memory has grown monstrous and traumatic, and it drives her feelings. It reminds me of the monster that hatches from Nanami’s egg in episode 27. More generally, the play is about key events that grow large in memory and determine our lives—such as Utena meeting her prince. It asks: Is that a smart way to live? And answers: Nope!

The cat returns in episode 16 where it is shown to be dangerous. Nanami’s egg also grows monstrous at the end of that story. At the end of the series, Nanami is shown using Wakaba’s kappa hot water dispenser. A kappa is a water monster, but this one is small and useful.

Since the kitten is equated with Utena, there is another interpretation: The shadow girls don’t know what to make of Utena; they can’t name her. They are of Akio and can’t understand what is outside his worldview. Utena grows “large” and powerful as her power of miracles develops.

Episode 11

William Tell’s son with the apple on his head, an arrow through it.

Touga convinces Utena that he’s her prince, and she loses the duel. The play is William Tell, except that this William Tell is doomed to keep shooting apples until a doctor stoppage is called, that is, until somebody is injured. The bow-haired shadow girl, who is usually Utena when Utena is included, plays Tell. For the episode, it implies that Utena, as Tell, has to keep fighting duels until she loses. We get a different meaning if we substitute in Tell=Akio and son=Utena; see Akio plans to kill Utena - shadow plays. Note the eyelash: Apple girl’s eyes are closed, a sign of sex as opposed to violence.

Utena does lose the duel, but she was not injured. Aiming the arrow lower presumably means aiming at her head—making a psychological attack, as Touga does in the duel. (That’s not the only thing it means.) Touga only sliced her rose. She returns to the arena in the next episode—and then, according to Akio in the recap episode 13, she is injured. But she wins, so the duels go on.

Genre reference: Heroic folk tale. William Tell was a rebel hero who defied tyranny. Story clash: In the reading with Tell=Utena, being forced to shoot apples over and over constitutes bowing to tyranny, not rebelling against it. William Tell was only forced into it once. Utena has submitted to the system that she disapproves of (she was co-opted into the pirates); her only actions to fight it are to tell Anthy not to submit to it. In the reading with Tell=Akio, Tell is the tyrant, pretending to be a revolutionary to strengthen his tyranny—as Akio does. The 37,919 arrow shots suggest Akio’s large number of plots. And faced with a question, Tell demands “don’t think about it,” which is Akio’s method.

In the widest reading, the play is telling us to fight against unjust systems. Be the revolutionary William Tell.

Episode 12

Utena and Wakaba in front of the shadow play background, with natural lighting. The shadow girls UFO.

In this episode, Utena takes back her “self” and returns to her normal. The scene where she decides to do so shares the shadow play background, with natural lighting to show that it is real, as compared to the background during shadow plays when it is flattened and abstracted with red lighting.

The shadow girls talk about normal stuff and how they’re tired of it. They mention normal marriage and normal family, things Utena cannot have with Anthy. Then they fly off in their UFO to return to their normal. The top of the UFO resembles the top of Akio’s tower, preparing us for visits there starting in a couple episodes—and reminding us that the shadow girls are of Akio.

The shadow girls are brought inside the story by the shared background, and at the same time moved further outside the story because they present themselves as not from the same world. Their separation from the action until now sets up a clash when they interact with Utena in the Black Rose, and again when we see them in person, not as shadows, in episode 34. They become part of the story. At the same time, the UFO reinforces that they have an outside viewpoint. They are artists of a kind, both inside the world (believing Akio’s illusions) and outside it (portraying the illusions for others in a way that makes it easier to see through them).

The play supports Utena’s individualism; the shared background makes it explicit. Everybody gets their own normal. Society may impinge on your normal, but you can return to it. Utena can’t have society’s normal marriage and normal family, but she can have her own.

Black Rose

In the Black Rose, most plays are put on with one actor, the ponytail shadow girl, who does not appear in the Student Council arc. In the credits, she is named C-ko. Recap episode 13 is a transition, and is still put on by A-ko and B-ko. C-ko does reappear at times in the Apocalypse Saga.

Episode 13

It’s a recap episode, and the shadow play is not a story but a quirky recap. The shadow girls appear beside their UFO wearing space suits, reporting from an airless planetoid. It is a reference to The Little Prince, and aligns with the images of prince Dios sitting on a sphere (which is also the egg of the world). We see three small volcanoes in the foreground: The Little Prince’s asteroid has three volcanoes, two active and one dormant. Utena has won again; the loser is a fish; the winner smells like a lily. The UFO flies away, then we see a shadow girl lifting a model UFO with a fishing rod—it was all fake, it claims. The idea that the shadow girls are from outer space is no sooner established than subverted. The shadow plays are stories that proclaim themselves fiction within a story that proclaims itself fiction.

The fish is the loser Touga. It’s a preview of fish in later shadow plays. In episode 35, the fish are girls that Touga “catches” and “devours”. Touga apparently doesn’t realize it yet, but Utena has caught his heart even as she rejects him and defeats him. The fishing rod catching the UFO seems to be the shadow girls laughing at themselves as losers. The lily is named by borrowing English, lili no hana “lily flower” rather than the native word yuri, distancing it a little from the yuri genre. The genre is intended, though; the fish parallel makes it clear. I think the lily reference for Utena prepares us for Kanae’s white lilies in the next episode. Kanae loses the duel and is later murdered, so there is a second meaning: Utena, who smells like Kanae’s lilies, may follow Kanae’s path of a relationship with Akio and then getting murdered.

In episode 14, Kanae compares Anthy to a space alien. There are no space aliens here. Kanae rejects Anthy’s strangeness, showing intolerance, but there is evidence that she loves Anthy. The shadow girls embrace their strangeness and call themselves space aliens. Utena accepts individual differences without considering whether they’re strange. See the individualism message of the previous shadow play.

At the end of the episode the shadow UFO lands again, this time with a different design.

Episode 14

Kanae’s duel. The shadow plays switch to a new format: After each play, Utena (or occasionally another character) comments on it, often suggesting an obvious course of action that fits the literal story and clashes with its metaphorical message. Utena’s comment is part of the play, not part of the regular story. This time, Utena is depicted flattened and darkened, almost a shadow herself. But still, she’s a regular character and during the shadow plays maintains her position with respect to objects in the regular story. We have the story commenting on the story within the story that comments on the story. Utena swallows its tail and doesn’t stop there.

A shadow girl suffers an unspecified feared event associated with adulthood. It turns out to be a wisdom tooth problem. “What should I do?” Utena: “Pull it?”

Kanae’s problem associated with adulthood is marriage, specifically getting along with the sister of her husband-to-be—as she suggestively puts it, getting Anthy to like her. Anthy cannot be pulled out. Later, it turns out that Kanae can be.

The episode associates marriage with adulthood: Kanae will marry after she graduates from high school. (Though she is only 18, old enough to marry but not legally adult. The age of majority in Japan was 20 when Utena was made. It changed to 18 in 2022.) Episode 18 is another adulthood episode.

Episode 15

A vendor on the train wheels her cart up the aisle.

Kozue’s duel. Wakaba and Utena are looking at the exam schedule on the wall. They’re not dark and flattened this time, but in color—one step closer to being in the regular story. A train vendor comes through, calling out her wares. The only passenger doesn’t want any and feels irritated, and Utena suggests “ignore her.” Then the passenger makes an order after all.

We can take the train passenger as Kozue. The passenger doesn’t want the vendor to go away, the passenger is the only one in the car and wants the vendor’s sole attention. Then the passenger’s actions are parallel to Kozue’s confused actions with respect to Miki. Kozue wants Miki to care about no one but her.

Episode 16

The mouse reports its perfidy to the cat.

Nanami’s cowbell. A mouse lies to its fellow mice that it has belled the cat. When it reports to the cat that the other mice are unsuspecting and can be caught easily—so let me live as we agreed—the cat eats it. Mitsuru delivers a proverb as the moral: You reap what you sow.

In the classic version of the fable, the mice fail to bell the cat because none of them is willing to do something so suicidal. In the episode, Nanami cowbells herself and believes she has reached the pinnacle of stylishness when in fact she’s committing social suicide. That’s the meaning for the episode.

In silhouette, Nanami’s cow horns look like cat ears.

The cat appeared earlier in episode 10. In that play, the characters allowed the cat to grow to monstrous size because they could not agree on what to name it—they dithered until they had a problem. That’s related to the fable of belling the cat, but worse: The mice dithered about belling the cat because they could not convince an individual to accept high risk in order to save the group—in other words, because they could not find a hero, which is normal if heroes are rare. The episode 10 play is about how problems can grow when we disagree on how to solve them. This play is about how an individual can make problems worse by selfish cheating. On the one side, it is about Akio, a selfish cheater. On the other, it is about the mortal risk Utena undertakes in acting as a true hero.

On the right, Nanami opens a door to reveal cow horns in silhouette to Keiko and Aiko. At first, the horns look like the devil’s horns. Seconds later, they resemble cat ears. Anthy is the one who tricked Nanami into belling herself, changing her from predator into livestock. It’s not heroic; the cat Nanami has no chance against the mouse Anthy.

A theme of the episode is the sin of pride. The cheating mouse was proud of its trick, and got eaten for it: Pride is literally a mortal sin. Nanami is proud of her cowbell, which is social suicide. Another proud character is Juri; Juri’s locket is parallel to Nanami’s cowbell, and so is Juri’s jewelry at the end of the episode. Juri lost her duel in episode 7 ultimately because of pride in her skill (her skill was great but her confidence in it was greater). Utena must drop her pride in heroism to escape the Academy and have a chance to survive; if she retains that pride, she will die. Akio’s pride in his power leads him to lose some of it—his overconfidence is plain in the final showdown.

We have a clash. The outcome of the play is the opposite of the outcome of the episode. The cheating Anthy as mouse gets away with humiliating Nanami; Nanami as cat is the one committing the sin of pride. If Utena survives the series and Anthy finds her, it’s likely to cause some friction between them. Utena does not like Anthy’s vengefulness, and will want her to unlearn her corrupt joy in vengeance.

Utena removing Nanami’s cowbell is like a duel. The shadow play is immediately before the cow scene, like most duel scenes. Utena uses a pitchfork as a sword (parallel to Chu-Chu using a fork as a sword), removing the cowbell is presented with imagery like a duel, and Nanami falls to the ground asleep as if her black rose had been scattered. After a Black Rose duel, the loser usually appears to be better off than before. But Nanami does not; she goes from cowbell to nosering.

Above I associated Utena with the heroic mouse in the original version of the fable. Taking a wider view, Utena is associated with cats, because she corresponds to the kitten of episode 9. Anthy independently corresponds to a mouse through Chu-Chu, who is compared to a mouse. In the episode, Utena is dangerous to Nanami because she removes the cowbell. In the bigger picture, Utena is dangerous to Akio because of her power of miracles, which Akio wants to nourish so that he can steal it. Anthy reports on Utena to Akio—Anthy is the bell that Akio attached to Utena to keep track of her. That makes Akio the heroic mouse. He takes himself to be the hero of his own story—see Akio-Utena overview - fairy tale plot.

Episode 17

Shiori’s duel. A girl is in despair because her secret is out: She wears woolen underwear. An angel tells her it’s OK. A devil makes fun of her (“three pairs!”). Utena suggests, “Take them off?” Unfortunately for Juri, her love of Shiori is not something she can take off.

This is Utena, so the woolen underwear ties to sex. Does the warm wool mean hotter sexual feelings, or do the extra layers prevent sex? Sure looks like both. Wool can be itchy and irritating to the skin, and that fits Juri and Shiori too. The meaning is vague.

Juri should not be in despair. She has what she said she wanted: Her feelings have reached Shiori. In Utena, most characters struggle to understand themselves. Well, that’s normal for teenagers.

I’m not sure whether the angel and devil are supposed to be external characters, or aspects of the one character’s personality. Either way, they are the Christian good and evil. It’s an early mention of the Christian metaphors attached to Akio and Mikage (though Eve’s apple showed up early on).

The devil character is not realistic. The angel character looks like a person, and not like any of the shadow girls. I suspect it’s somebody specific, but I can’t tell who. Is the angel supposed to resemble Dios? The halo is a ring.

Episode 18

Mitsuru’s duel, the adulthood episode. A girl “did it” for the first time today, causing concern for her parents. As it turns out, she donated blood, and got a glass of juice for it. Literal juice, not figurative juice. Donating blood is “proof of adulthood”. Utena recites the age limit: 16.

Rain and umbrellas appear in the play, repeating one of the episode’s major symbols. The umbrellas are not shared—there is no shared love. They are also a major symbol of Keiko’s episode 21, which does have a shared umbrella. See duel symbols - Black Rose decorations - episode 21.

In Utena, sex and blood are related, because sex is violence performed with a metaphorical sword. Under Japanese law when Utena was made, boys could marry from age 18 and girls from age 16 (with parental consent for minors under age 20). It was a patriarchal leftover from when the groom was expected to be older than the bride; the older and wiser one was supposed to be in charge. The law was changed in 2022 and both ages were set to 18 (and so was the age of majority). When Utena gives the age limit as 16, there is an implicit association with the age at which she would be allowed to marry, another symbol of adulthood. After marriage, she would be expected to “donate blood” regularly.
Utena “donates blood” by violence in episode 12, when (according to Akio and logic) she is wounded. She is not old enough, so (though it’s princely) it is a corrupt action; the dueling system is corrupt, and she chooses to return to it. It can be seen as foreshadowing the First Seduction, when she donates blood by choice.

Adulthood is not a certificate that you have or don’t have, it’s a complex concept that you have for specific purposes, or a fuzzy concept that you have in somebody’s opinion at a given time. That’s how human concepts work. In Utena, adulthood is associated with “graduation” from the Academy and moving on to the real world. See Mitsuru’s claim. In the play Utena seems to accept blood donation as proof of adulthood, but in the story she associates adulthood with sex and passes her misconception along to Mitsuru.

The play is about the social construction of misunderstandings. Labeling a thing as “for adults only” associates it with adulthood and promotes the belief that the thing will make you an adult. It’s not only a mistake of the young: The parents in the play make the same mistake, and their behavior will tend to pass it along. Utena’s illusions are a metaphor for this kind of misconception, as well as for other errors and deceptions.

Episode 19

The customer waves a fish skeleton.

The first of Wakaba’s two episodes. A customer enters the tire store and asks the proprietor what it is. The proprietor does not say that tires are food, but consistently speaks as though they were. At a fish store they sell fish—the customer waves a fish skeleton. At a bread store they sell bread—the proprietor mimes a gun and fires a shot with the sound pan!, which is the Japanese word for bread. (The standard Japanese sound of a gun firing is ban!) The customer buys a bag of tires and wonders how she should cook them. Utena: “Are they edible?”

The customer asked what a tire store was, and did not learn what a tire is. The theme of the episode is misunderstanding other people. The customer misunderstands the proprietor, who acts as though tires are food. Utena misunderstands Wakaba, who acts as though Tatsuya were her prince with only subtle hints that he’s not. Even Akio misunderstands Anthy. In the longer view, Utena does not understand Anthy or Akio until very late. Akio’s entire way of life is predicated on people misunderstanding him.

We’ve seen some of the motifs before. They’re thematic. Guns are about killing and death. The closest we’ve gotten so far are the 100 dead duelists, but we get closer. It’s chilling to associate killing with bread. Tires are parts of Akio’s car, associated with sex, power, and adulthood, and they are also rings. Fish are women. The proprietor assumes that the customer will cook for her husband: The fish skeleton the customer waves is herself, already devoured.

Episode 20

The second of Wakaba’s two episodes. Utena remarks on a sunshower, rain while the sun shines, with the Japanese expression “a fox’s wedding” (Wikipedia). In the play, a fox has to hurry up and marry during the sunshower. Then a bunny girl has to wait to marry until it snows on a sunny day. Utena the individualist says that it’s OK to not marry, which goes over poorly with the bunny girl.

The theme of the episode is specialness. A sunshower is a rare special event. It is comparable to the rare event of a hero like Utena appearing. Foxes are not rare, but are culturally special. As a drawback of being special, foxes face special restrictions, or that is to say, discrimination. Utena supposes that Utena and Anthy will never marry. At the time, same-sex marriage was a distant prospect at best. As of 2022, it’s still not possible in Japan.

The bunny girl carries a mochi pounding (Wikipedia) mallet (a kine). It means that she is the rabbit in the moon. The rabbit in the moon is far more special than the fox that appears in the same fairy tale.

In the play of episode 26 it’s hinted that the bunny girl stands for Akio. Akio is engaged to marry Kanae and does away with her, then promises to marry Utena and plans to do away with her. Alternately, the bunny girl is Anthy (who is as good as married to Akio) and/or Utena (who wants to marry the prince), who are each the rabbit in the moon. The snow is related to Anthy’s cold vengeance; it means viciousness. Or you could say that it will be a cold day in hell when the devil Akio marries.

Episode 21

A butterfly, fleeing. Mantis, chasing.

Keiko’s episode. Nanami sees Keiko with Touga and swears to eradicate her as waruimushi, which means an unsuitable lover (the kind your parents disapprove of)—or, if you take it literally, a “bad bug”. The subtitles try to convey both meanings with the translation “vermin”, which is pretty good. The shadow play represents Nanami as a predatory mantis chasing butterfly Keiko, a “bad bug”. (Butterflies were declared bad in episode 4 and remain bad in the confession elevator.) Keiko’s forehead curls do remind me of a butterfly’s proboscis, and her hair can be wings if we like. A dragonfly intervenes and sprays insecticide, and the butterfly says “now we’ll die too,” falling down plop. Utena: That’s air freshener.

Nanami chases Keiko literally for vengeance, as we see in the episode. Nanami wants to punish Keiko for seeking to be close to Touga. In the play, the mantis chases the butterfly without ever catching it. Nanami chases Keiko metaphorically because Keiko is ahead of her in closeness to Touga. And Nanami does not catch up.

In Japan, dragonflies are considered protective. They prey on bad bugs. For the episode, the play is a funny retelling. Utena defeats Keiko in their duel and Keiko falls down, but as in the play she is not hurt. In the wider view, Anthy considers Kanae and Utena to be unsuitable lovers of Akio, bad bugs to be killed. We can take the mantis claws to be Anthy’s sword. The insecticide is another reference tying Anthy to poison. More broadly yet, all relationships in Utena are unsuitable, and the characters are in their coffins.

Episode 22

The play represents Mikage as a robot, which says in a plaintive voice that robots do not get lonely. Outside the play, he is compared to a computer. Tokiko makes the comment this time: I’m sad to see you like this. It’s the older Tokiko who’s returning to the Academy to visit Mamiya’s grave and to break her marriage vows. Robots are unchanging; see the next episode’s play below. Mikage as a robot represents an eternity of stasis—he does the same thing over and over. I don’t see more in it yet, but robots do reappear.

The robot is to catch monkeys. The monkeys are presumably Utena’s practice opponents. For Akio, the Black Rose is about giving her dueling practice. Akio has in effect set up machinery to do his work for him.

But maybe not. Utena has other monkey references. 1. Chu-Chu is a monkey. Early in the episode, Mikage caught Chu-Chu in a mousetrap. The monkey could refer to Chu-Chu, and therefore to Anthy, and therefore to Mamiya who is played by Anthy. Mikage wants to kill Anthy and replace her with Mamiya; that would involve catching a monkey. 2. In episode 13, Utena is compared to Chu-Chu, making Utena a monkey. Is Mikage catching duelists in general? 3. In the recap episode 24 play, a girl is revealed to be a monkey, and “no one will marry her now.” Is Mikage capturing women? 4. In episode 34, the shadow girls, appearing in person, mime the three wise monkeys of see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil. In that case, catching a monkey could mean catching truth, or virtue, or something like that. I haven’t gotten it yet. The monkey-catching robot returns in the play of episode 31.

Episode 23

Mikage’s duel. The father used to be class representative, and ends up taking his young daughter’s backpack to school so he can keep it up. The play illustrates the episode’s theme, which is that eternity is bad: To live by an eternal memory is to be in stasis; it is no different from death and being in a coffin. As Tokiko told Akio last episode, the flower must die for the plant to bear fruit. Throughout the Black Rose, Mikage is living nearly in stasis; he seeks to finish the journey and reach eternity.

Tokiko argues against eternity: Only death allows new life; only change allows growth. Akio has no intention of dying and may understand it differently. His attitude to sacrifice is that others should be sacrificed. He wants to sacrifice Utena and steal her power to gain his version of eternity, where his power is complete. He may see that as the flower dying and bearing fruit.

When Wakaba meets Utena during the episode, Wakaba says she’ll always be on Utena’s side. Wakaba in effect claims she’ll live by that eternal memory. Utena fought a duel against Wakaba recently and knows it’s not true. It goes further; see Wakaba afterstory.

Eternity is changelessness. Revolution is change. It’s telling that Akio in his propaganda treats the two as equivalent.

Episode 24

The recap episode with Mitsuru’s notebook. A complicated play. Girl: It’s over! Donkey: Why? Girl: I can’t keep the secret. The king has donkey ears! Dog: A donkey? The girl throws off her clothes and reveals that she is a monkey. Chicken: Shameless! No one will marry her now! Then the monkey-catching robot catches the monkey, and they disappear into a UFO and fly off. Whew.

The reference is to a Greek myth. King Midas’s barber digs a hole and tells the secret of the king’s donkey ears only to the hole, but the secret gets out anyway. It seems to be a widespread story with a lot of variants, but Akio favors Greek myths. “No one will marry me now” is a genre trope gag (it’s used in episode 2 of Sailor Moon). The play is about Nanami’s insecurities. The girl is Nanami, and the events represent things she fears the shame of—especially being taken away as a space alien, which means being shunned for weirdness. The shadow girls flaunt their weirdness; Utena does not particularly notice her own; Nanami fears being seen as weird.

For the episode, the joke is that writing your secrets in a book is less secure than telling the secrets to a hole in the ground, which didn’t work in the myth. In the story, all characters keep secrets, and some secrets never get out. Utena tries to keep the secrets of others (the exchange diary, episode 8), but keeps no secrets of her own until after she is corrupted at the end of episode 30. Then she begins to play a role to hide her feelings. Anthy easily sees through the false role; Utena can’t keep her feelings secret. The biggest secret holders are Akio and Anthy. Anthy has no trouble keeping Akio’s secrets. In episodes 25 and 29 she comes close to confessing her situation to Utena, but (rightly or wrongly) her fear remains greater than her trust. Even in the suicide conversation, Anthy reveals only part of what she knows.

The episode has a second shadow play: When Nanami, Utena, and Anthy talk outside the curtains of Mitsuru’s sickbed, Mitsuru sees them as shadows on the curtain. It’s something like a morality play (Wikipedia), with the temptation, fall, and redemption of the hero Utena—paralleling Utena’s arc in Utena as a whole, where she is tempted by Akio, falls into corruption, and redeems herself in the last episode. In the episode, Anthy plays Akio’s role as the devil.

Apocalypse Saga

In the Apocalypse Saga, the shadow plays are announced by the UFO, which trails smoke and crashes into Akio’s tower. The shadow players A-ko and B-ko of the Student Council arc reappear after going missing in the Black Rose. C-ko from the Black Rose also performs in some plays.

Episode 25

The shadow girls stand back to back, symbolizing their teamwork. Shadows of Utena and Anthy lie down in bed.
The shadow girls repeat the up-and-down dance of episode 1. This is a new start.

This episode, Utena and Anthy become closer after Utena realizes Anthy can’t quit the Rose Bride role (episode 23) and they move into the room with the S-shaped bed. Utena says she wants them to be friends that can help each other with anything. The play starts by idealizing the teamwork of a couple, half the hardship and twice the happiness. The shadow girls stand back to back, echoing the shadows of Utena and Anthy lying down in synchrony. Then the characters get into arguments. Working together is easier said than done.

Sailor Moon episode 21 has the same theme and plot as the play: Characters working together are successful, but they argue and teamwork breaks down.

Teamwork is Utena’s ideal, and Utena’s advance over Dios. Working together to help each other is central to the message. Dios carries out one-sided rescues. Utena, despite troubles along the way, in the end comes to work together with Anthy to leave the Academy. See Sleeping Beauty, whose story Utena twists slightly to provide a metaphor that represents both the final victory and the troubles.

By the convention set in the Student Council arc, the shadow with the bow in her hair is Utena, and the other is Anthy. Utena ate the two-week-old pudding. At the end of the play, she seems to be about to throw it up. As in English, the Japanese word for food poisoning (shokuchuudoku) includes “poison” (doku). It’s another association of Anthy with poison, and foreshadows the poisoning conversation in episode 37.

The teamwork of Utena and Anthy is good in the episode’s duel against Saionji, but breaks down under Akio’s influence as the story progresses. This play is related to the play of episode 1: There is no trouble now, but the play predicts trouble later.

Episode 26

Miki’s duel. A gambler who lost once plays roulette and bets everything on black (Akio). She loses when the ball lands on red (Anthy and/or sin and sex). Her purse is lifted with a fishing rod, which suggests that all the duelists are fish and losers; compare episode 13 and episode 28, and Anthy’s claim that all girls are like the Rose Bride. The croupier, played by a bunny girl as in episode 20, makes it clear to the audience that the game is rigged.

Miki lost trust in adults, but is tricked into betting on adult Akio (characters take him as adult, at least). Miki has given up dueling, as Saionji had the episode before, but returns to it as Saionji did after his ride in Akio’s car. The bunny girl Akio has rigged the dueling game; Miki will lose and move Akio one step closer to his goal. Akio is still strengthening Utena’s power; she is to be at full strength when he steals the power for himself.

The dueling game is rigged against Utena too. See the play of episode 37.

Episode 27

A giant egg standing on end, propped up by giant chopsticks.

Nanami’s egg. “The impossible is impossible because you believe it’s impossible.” The play is about the classic trick of standing an egg on end. (There are several standard solutions.) When the giant egg wanders off on its own, they conclude that it is not an egg after all. It seems to be something monstrous that terrifies the shadow characters... and then eats them.

Nanami’s egg is not what she thinks it is; if it were it would be impossible. The play foretells that the egg hatches into a monster, which is among other things a reminder of the kitten story of episode 10. In a wider view, the play is about Utena’s message. To fix a monstrous broken cultural system—to revolutionize the world—may seem impossible. In Utena, the idealism that underpins the power of miracles includes believing in the possibility of miracles. A monstrous broken cultural system can be fixed, even if it takes a miracle. The first step is to understand what it is.

See other symbols - eggs for more on eggs. I expect that other interpretations of the play are possible. It seems like that kind of story.

Episode 28

A shadow girl has just been struck in the head with a teapot. Shadow fish are jumping.

The first Ruka episode, with Shiori. Two characters are fishing. The fish are jumping, but they catch a wooden geta sandal, then a teapot, then a large tire. It is about Shiori’s poor success in romance; the fish are there and easy to catch, but she catches only clunkers (an unnamed boy in episode 7 and Ruka here).

Shiori does not try to catch a dating partner. She thinks Juri is making fun of her, and seems to fear the same of Ruka when they first meet; he has to take the initiative. She never wears lipstick, even as a princess; she does not try to create sexual attraction in others. She has poor self-confidence and expects the worst of others.

The sandal is a shoe and refers to Cinderella’s slipper; Shiori takes Ruka to be her prince. The teapot reminds me of Anthy’s teacup of opening the heart from episode 11. The tire is a frequent shadow motif and refers to Akio’s car; see episode 19, the tire store. The sandal and the tire both relate to travel and mean that Shiori is giving up her freedom of movement and coming under somebody else’s control. See the foot catalog.

It parallels Utena’s arc. In fact, substitute Utena and Akio for Shiori and Ruka above, and the story fits even better. For Utena, the teapot means Anthy; Utena did not realize what she had.

Episode 29

Shiori stands in front of the usual shadow play background.

The second Ruka episode, with Juri. The shadow plays have been placed just before the duels. Here it is switched up: Before the duel we see only Shiori standing in front of the shadow play background. It recalls Utena and Wakaba sitting in front of the shadow play background in episode 12. This time Shiori is lit in white while the background is lit in red; in episode 12, the whole scene was lit in white. We’re being told that Shiori is standing in for the play. It’s not so: The shadow play is at the end of the episode. The shadows are nurses in conversation. They tell us Ruka’s motive and that Ruka died. Shiori was only standing in for the usual metaphorical shadow play. The play was literal and directly told us story information.

Episode 30

The three candles episode where Utena becomes corrupted. The play is about the red shoes: The fairy tale red shoes are cursed so that the wearer cannot take them off but must dance until they die. (The original version of the story (Wikipedia) is more complicated.) One character carries the red shoes but does not wear them, and berates the other who wears them and can’t stop dancing. The dancer answers back that life is too short not to dance.

Yes, if you are wearing the red shoes, life may be short. The red shoes are a metaphor for temptation by the devil, or in other words seduction by Akio. Once you are seduced, you dance with Akio until you die, meaning until he has Anthy kill you. Kanae is the one wearing the red shoes. Akio and Anthy do away with her in episode 32. My take is that after this episode Utena carries the red shoes, tempted but not yet fallen, and in the First Seduction she puts them on. Akio plans to kill Utena, and this play is part of my evidence for it.

The play implies that Utena thinks it’s OK to carry the red shoes, as long as you don’t put them on. She is making an excuse to herself to minimize her wrongdoing.

The shadow with the bow in her hair commonly plays Utena when a character represents Utena. Here she plays the dancer already wearing the red shoes, and the other only carries the red shoes. It can be read as current Utena, carrying the red shoes, berating future Utena who has put them on. Compare: Until episode 23, Utena berated Anthy for accepting the Rose Bride role, which was forced on her by the red shoes.

Anthy’s princess shoes are red shoes—Anthy has been dancing with Akio for a long time, and like other dancers will survive as long as Akio needs her. In her case it has been a long time. The red shoes align with Utena’s red shorts, the red apple of the William Tell play, the red purse and red-striped date dress of the First Seduction, and no doubt other red objects. Anthy’s rabbit dance in episode 7 refers to the red apple which was cut into rabbits in episode 5, which stand for the duelists: Anthy is making them dance to her will as if they were wearing red shoes. All these red objects are associated with corruption.

Episode 31

The cuckoo looks around as she lays her egg in a nest.

The first of two Nanami episodes. The play is complex for its length. Utena has been playing a role—being an actor—and comments on the action, as in the Black Rose. Also as in the Black Rose, the ponytail shadow girl plays multiple roles. Utena is in the tower bedroom, and the background is there. A storylet introduces cuckoo brood parasitism (Wikipedia). A cuckoo lays an egg in a duck’s nest. The next storylet is the ugly duckling: The now-hatched cuckoo is called ugly, and looks forward to growing up to be a beautiful swan. Utena comments, “I don’t think so.” The whole sequence is wrapped in front with the monkey-catching robot (“the monkey escaped”) and behind with the robot chasing the cuckoo (“catch the monkey”).

Whew. Utena as an actor playing a role—meaning that she has become corrupted—is a metaphor that continues at least through episode 37. In the language of episodes 11 and 12, it means she is no longer her “self” but presents a false character; she is acting the role of being herself. We’ve been prepared for the metaphor from the beginning, with the theater-like lighting and the theater curtain rising on the prince story, not to mention the shadow plays themselves.

For the episode, the cuckoo is Nanami, who was not raised by her biological parents. Touga is also a cuckoo, adopted at the same time as Nanami. Nanami expects from the beginning to grow up as a beautiful swan better than the ducks around her, but it’s not realistic. For the wider story, Utena is the cuckoo, an orphan who was not raised by her parents. Utena wants to grow up to be a prince, but now she has been corrupted, acting contrary to her princely ideals. Her comment on the play is her admission that she is failing to become a prince. She knows she has violated her ideals.

In episode 22 I interpreted the monkey-catching robot as Mikage corralling Utena’s duel opponents. Now the metaphor expands. If the cuckoo/monkey is Nanami, then the robot is still chasing a duel opponent for Utena; Akio is still strengthening Utena through practice. The robot comes to mean Akio’s scheming, depicted as automatic: He set the program and now it executes. It makes me think of the operation of culture, or as I say, the system of control. If the cuckoo/monkey is Utena, it refers to steering Utena into the final showdown. If the monkey is Chu-Chu and therefore Anthy, then I don’t know what it means. Or the monkey can be any person (since monkeys are humans by synecdoche), pursued and caught by cultural expectations. I don’t understand the robot and monkey metaphor.

The cuckoo calls introduce us to the sound of the cuckoo clock that we hear in episodes 34 and 35. Also see Zeus and Hera.

Episode 32

The second of two Nanami episodes, with her duel. The play is spoon bending, in the style of the famous fake psychic Yuri Geller. The psychic bends silverware, the watching audience character calls it a fake. The psychic bends the watcher by telekinesis, the watcher still disbelieves. The psychic ups the power, and we hear a cracking noise.

Akio’s illusions are false, but being false does not make their effects less real. He reliably bends people to his will. In these two episodes, he bent Nanami. The play foretells the future: In the final showdown he suffers a rare failure and is unable to bend Utena, who has learned some of the truth and sees through some of his illusions. So Akio breaks her, using her trust in Anthy—an illusion Utena does not see through. See Anthy’s backstab.

Episode 33

The episode of the First Seduction. The shadow girls do not put on a play, but a radio quiz show. They talk by phone with Akio under his name End of the World, asking quiz questions about eternity and miracles. Akio hangs up on them before answering, and does not answer the quiz question after they call back.

First quiz. Which is eternal: 1. A diamond. (“Diamonds are forever.”) 2. A beautiful memory. (“I’ll never forget.”) 3. Canned peaches. (The Peaches of Immortality from Chinese mythology, Wikipedia.)
Second quiz. Which is a miracle: 1. Edison’s inventions. (A reference to Dios, the light of the world, via the light bulb.) 2. Meeting a prince. (Dios again.) 3. Canned coelocanth. (A “living fossil”, little changed in form over the last 400,000,000 years. Parodying the peaches, it says that eternity would be a miracle.)

Akio was right to refuse the multiple-choice answers. They were all incorrect. The play is special in several ways: It has no shadows (like episode 39); the shadow girls spread Akio’s propaganda and not any kind of truth; rather than pausing the main story, they interact with a character who is in the running story; it is split into three parts that run at different times, matching the three trials of a fairy tale. I think that in this episode Akio is pulling out all the stops to seduce Utena, and his power is so great that it affects even the story’s arbiters of truth. In the following episode there is a backlash. The shadow girls, who appeared only by audio this episode, appear in person and put on an extra background play The Tale of the Rose that works against Akio’s interests.

Episode 34

The backlash against the First Seduction. The shadow girls appear three times this episode, just as they appeared three times last episode. They must really want to get back at Akio, after having been somehow pressed into spreading his propaganda and then getting snubbed anyway.

The shadow girls cover Utena’s ears and mouth.

They make their first appearance in person, trying to recruit Utena for their troupe. Cutely, the scene starts off showing the classroom as shadows in the windows before it cuts to the shadow girls in person. Utena declines, correctly saying that she can’t act (she tries, but she’s no good at it). It is a change: She liked the impersonation contest on TV in the hotel. They say that if she joins, it will open up a new world for the drama club. The new world is the world after the revolution; in the final episode, Akio calls the Rose Gate the door to a new world. It is a reference to the American Revolution. They claim their judgment will turn out correct. Most shadow plays point toward truth, but their judgment was incorrect in the previous episode. They say she’ll be a great success, foreshadowing the shadow play of episode 37. Then they cover her ears and mouth, a reference to the three wise monkeys (Wikipedia). Utena hears no evil and speaks no evil, which by Buddhist precepts is good. But she sees evil. Utena has been deluded by evil illusions and dwells on them, and that’s bad. At the same time, it represents silencing and isolating Utena, which Akio is in the process of doing. See comparisons - silencing Utena for a comparison with episode 16. They are telling Utena what will happen to her, and saying that an actor is not silenced. On the other hand, an actor acts; Utena (when not corrupted) prefers to speak truth directly.

All this says that the shadow girls are trying to help Utena to the truth, which they have privileged access to. They’re serious about their part in the backlash. Since Utena declines, they fall back on performing a special play for her.

Counterevidence: They are covering her mouth, silencing her. See comparisons - silencing Utena.
Water showers down on the foamy bathtub.

Their second appearance is in The Tale of the Rose shadow play, covered under the prince story. The tickets, by the way, say that this is the 34th performance of the play. Did it happen once per episode??? The ticket we see is numbered 003, and Utena had 3 tickets.

Their third appearance is in the regular shadow play. The shadow girls play themselves. Two in a bathtub full of bubbles raise a toast to their successful play. The ponytail girl re-enacts part of the play, then in a tire’s innertube sinks under the bubbles, then turns on the water so it sprays down on the tub. “You definitely don’t have any friends.”

Wow. It’s silly and pointed at the same time. The two in the tub play the role of playing roles, and represent falsehood; they are those under Akio’s sway. The ponytail girl plays the truth, and is Akio. The shower is the water of illusions pouring down, as turned on by Akio. Akio has no friends. (Utena is in the process of losing her friends. Anthy betrays her, and Wakaba in the final episode can’t find her.)

Episode 35

The fisherman with fish skeletons filing past overhead. A woman wearing glasses and reading a book, facing away from the fisherman.

The horse ride with Touga. The play is the fisherman who can catch any fish—the fish want to be caught, as in the 1907 poem by Stefan George. He devours them all. He brags of his prowess to a girl facing away and reading a book, who wears glasses suspiciously similar to Anthy’s and seems unimpressed. (Compare the witch of The Tale of the Rose, who also wears glasses.) Then he hooks a special magical fish, a mermaid, who he can’t reel in. He can’t catch the one fish he cares about.

Touga is mobbed by girls. He loves Utena, but Utena rejects him. Nevertheless, Utena is attracted, and he had a near miss in episode 11 when she was fooled and was about to accept him. We can substitute other characters into the story. One, Prince Dios turns every girl into a princess except his sister, according to The Tale of the Rose. Two, like Touga Akio hooks Utena but is unable to land her. She escapes at the last moment.

The reader’s glasses say that there’s another fish that Touga can’t catch, Anthy. In the end, Anthy also escapes Akio.

What is “Anthy” reading? The positions of her hands suggests that she is turning pages from left to right—she is reading something in Japanese. It’s not the German book that Anthy reads later in the episode.

Episode 36

The episode of the Second Seduction. The play is about confusing the horse for the prince, which is what Akio does in priming Utena to think of sex during his seduction: He talks about the horse and means himself. It’s a play about thinking clearly and knowing what you want. Akio’s psychological tricks in the seduction leave Utena thinking unclearly and change what she thinks she wants. The play implies that Utena ought to prefer the horse over the prince anyway.

Utena spends a night with Touga too. Her unclear thinking seems to carry over. I suppose that the girlishness and corruption that Akio forced on her in the Second Seduction helped her behave like other girls and corruptly go with Touga.

Utena has other metonymies due to unclear thought. When little Utena met Anthy, she vowed to become Anthy’s prince and save her. By the time the series starts, in Utena’s head it has turned into adherence to an unrealistic and harmful stereotype of princedom, with goals of rescuing helpless princesses and whatnot.

The shadow horse is a child’s rocking horse. Princes are childish.

Episode 37

Two shadows sitting at a shadow table, props in the foreground.

A difficult episode with a complex and yet straighforward shadow play. The play falls between Utena’s resolution and Anthy’s ride in Akio’s car. The play begins with the Kashira theater group’s signboard, because it’s a play about acting. Swallow more of that tail!

Two girls are sitting at a table, talking. In the foreground are props from The Tale of the Rose: The lightbulb (the “light of the world”), the monster puppet, the prince’s sword, the signboard, and various pieces of wood. The final showdown that this episode sets up is the denouement of the prince story, the culmination of the plot that Akio started by playing a prince. The girl on the right, with the hair bow, represents Utena. The one on the left switches between being a reporter and being Anthy. (Anthy reports on Utena and others to Akio.)

Becoming an actor. “Utena” says to “Anthy”: Let’s break up, I want to be an actor! (Utena has decided to go with Akio and play a false role. Akio successfully broke Utena from Anthy, and now Utena sees Anthy as a somewhat distant friend.)

It calls back to the shadow girls trying to recruit Utena in episode 34 and failing. She chose not to be an actor then, and has changed her mind. Akio has corrupted her sincerity.

Scandal. “Anthy” and “Utena” are wrapped in a film frame and act a stage kiss. “Anthy/Reporter” asks about “Utena” getting caught up in a Hollywood-style celebrity scandal. (Cheating on Kanae. This is the only allusion to Kanae that I’ve found in episode 37. Utena acts as though she’s forgotten about Kanae. Apparently after the Routine Date she is so deeply corrupted that it’s a non-issue for her.) “Utena” says no, just a taste of it. (Utena has answered Touga’s question with “no”: She does not want to stay with Akio indefinitely and eventually marry him. But she is enjoying the relationship and doesn’t want to stop. She is making an excuse to herself to minimize her wrongdoing. This is Saint Augustine saying “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”)

The audition. “Anthy”: I found your application form for the audition. (The application corresponds to the letter from the prince, aka The End of the World. The “audition” is the final showdown.) “Utena” doubts her ability. (Utena has not decided whether to wear the ring.) “Anthy” encourages “Utena” to go. (Foretelling events. Anthy will encourage Utena to go, and Utena will wear the ring and go.) The audition Judge arrives, saying “it’s time.” (The judge is Akio, who will choose between Utena and Anthy.) After a moment of hesitation representing her ambivalence, “Utena” jumps up eagerly and asks the Judge out on a date. (In the play, “Utena” is gaming the system, sleeping with the Judge to get the role. In the story, Utena is competing against Anthy to win Akio—even though she doesn’t intend to keep him.) Judge: Papa will get you anything. “Utena”: Papa?

The word “Papa” is doing a lot of work. It is a reference to Daddy Long Legs from episode 26 and implies that Akio and Utena will marry. It can have other interpretations. As the use-name of the father in a couple with children, it ambiguously places “Utena” in either a wife or a daughter role. The wife role: Akio wants Utena to believe they will marry and raise a family. If Utena becomes pregnant during any of her three sex dates with Akio, then symbolism says that it happens in the Routine Date. And here “Akio” as the Judge calls himself “Papa” to “Utena” in the shadow play of the same episode: The clues line up to mean that Utena just became pregnant. The answer “Papa?” means that Utena doesn’t know it and can’t immediately grasp it. I imagine that the sex became so absorbing that she forgot about the possibility of pregnancy. The daughter role: The line “Papa will get you anything” sounds more like a doting father with his daughter. It’s possible to take it literally; see Anthy and Utena are twins. It’s equally possible to take it metaphorically. In episode 26, Anthy tells Utena that Akio is like a father to her. One meaning is that Akio tells her what to do and controls her life like a father—it’s a patriarchal society, and that’s what “patriarch” means. Every princess is a daughter, and in that sense Akio is the father of all of them. In that case, “Papa?” means literally “Huh? You’re not my dad,” or metaphorically “I don’t accept you as my boss.”
None of the above interpretations clearly stands above the others. But another interpretation does: Akio is metaphorically the father of the twins Anthy and Utena. He pressed their opposed roles on them, which brought them into existence as allegorical figures. See other symbols - Anthy and Utena are twins.

Moral. Only one girl can pass the audition. (Utena tries to rig the audition in her favor, but it is already rigged against her. Anthy is pre-selected as Akio’s partner. Utena is to die.)

I mentioned only one kiss, but “Anthy” and “Utena” kiss three times in the play, and claim to be true friends. The kisses represent their real feelings, and at the same time they are stage kisses and represent that they are playing the role of being friends and lovers. They are not true friends, because Anthy has sided with Akio and Akio has convinced Utena that Anthy betrayed her (which is true, but not in the way Utena believes). Akio twisted their natural relationship into a weird abstract sculpture with thorns.

The play is brilliantly brief and dense.

Episode 38

The shadow girls’ UFO is departing for outer space.

The shadow play is in the preview for the next episode. The only shadow images are the UFO crashed into Akio’s tower, and at the end the UFO flying off into space, still trailing smoke.

“Utena”: You got me from behind! “Anthy”: But the prince is fake, I can’t become a real princess. “Utena”: Then the power of miracles will make me a real prince. Narrator: Yeah, that’s anime, right?

The next episode’s title hints at some kind of hopeful ending. Otherwise, there is no new information in the shadow play.

Anthy says that she could not become a princess because Utena is a fake prince. It purports to explain why she backstabbed Utena. The explanation is false; it amounts to accepting Anthy’s lies to Utena in answering why. Then Utena’s line means that with the power of miracles she’ll be able to make Anthy her princess after all. It’s left unspoken why that didn’t already happen. And that it would be a bad ending if it did.

The line by “Anthy” is ambiguous because the Japanese does not include a pronoun. It’s technically possible to interpret it differently. Anthy could be saying that Akio is the fake prince (true), and Utena could not become a princess because of it (false). Utena avoided becoming a helpless princess because it was more important to her to save Anthy than to be with Akio, though her temptation was mighty. Then Utena’s line means that the power of miracles will make her a prince instead. It doesn’t hang together as well as the natural interpretation.

The rest is a sarcastic comment on shallow audience expectations. The shadow girls may have access to the truth, but they’re conspiring with the director to keep up the suspense.

The previews in all other cases tell us something about the next episode. Not this time. The shadow plays in all other cases tell us something about Utena. Not this time. The play can be read as Utena making a joke at its own expense, about how it has subverted expectations time and again. By now, first-time viewers ought to know that they can’t predict the ending.

Episode 39

After Utena leaves the Academy, the final shadow play is without shadows; we hear the shadow girls but see unrelated school scenes. They play regular students. Or they are regular students. It doesn’t matter.

It starts with a reprise of the poisoning conversation of episode 37, “What will you do in the future?” One answers that she’ll be an actress, a call back to the shadow play of that episode. Another says she’ll marry up, as Cinderella does and as Akio wants Utena to believe she will do. If we like, we can read one as Anthy and the other as Utena. Or one as Utena and the other as a fate Utena narrowly avoided. It’s vague.

Wakaba. The conversation segues to someone unnamed who is obviously Wakaba. Hints imply that Wakaba will become the next special hero. See Wakaba afterstory.

Memory of Utena is fading quickly. The shadow girls remind each other who Utena was. They trade rumors of why she is gone:

- She was badly hurt and hospitalized.
- She transferred after being betrayed.
- She had trouble with the Chairman and got expelled.

There are niggles, but each rumor seems to grow from a kernel of truth.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 20 February 2022
updated 1 June 2024