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In Japanese, speech patterns explicitly reflect social roles in a way that’s culturally recognized. (In English it’s less explicit and less recognized.)
Dios presents himself as soft-spoken and gentle. He takes boku as his pronoun, humble for a prince. He speaks simply and directly. He uses the pronoun kimi for little Utena, speaking down to her because, after all, he’s a grown prince. And he keeps the same speech pattern in the final episode when Utena is no longer little. It’s not insulting, she’s a young student, but it is a status marker.
Utena is not soft-spoken or gentle and is not a grown prince, but she adopts Dios’s speech pattern. She speaks simply and directly. She calls herself boku, common for boys and weird for girls. When she first meets Anthy she uses the pronoun kimi, as Dios did with her. Between classmates it’s a somewhat boyish choice and not the most polite (though I understand it’s common among school kids nowadays). Compare Saionji, who speaks rudely and insultingly. In episode 3, Utena switches to usually calling Anthy by name as Himemiya, which is more appropriate. She still uses kimi at times, though.
Utena arrogates Dios’s status to herself. She not only takes on a male social role, she assumes for herself the male privileges that go along with it. When Utena arrives at the new dorm room they are to share, she finds Anthy cleaning. Utena apologizes for not helping, but never helps as Anthy stays on cleaning and laundry duty, as we see in several episodes, at least up to episode 25. Utena takes the top bunk of the bunk bed. She doesn’t seem to notice; she takes her higher status for granted. It’s realistic. Utena does take up the food preparation that Anthy avoids, though.
Little Utena in the prince story uses atashi as her pronoun in Saionji’s memory of episode 9 and in the final version of episode 34. It’s a common choice for girls. Changing her speech to imitate Dios implies that meeting the prince is what gave her separate boyish and girlish sides. (As Akio intended. See assigning roles.) As a little girl, she was girlish only.
Utena calls Akio Akio-san, an appropriate address for an older person you’re close to, which is how Utena feels about Akio. For others, it’s shockingly informal given that he runs the school and she’s a student. The teachers in episode 30 feel the shock. I think it’s due to Utena’s general disregard of social roles—she calls him that by the second time we see them meet, in episode 15. Others usually refer to Akio properly by his role, “Chairman”. There are two exceptions: In episode 26, in Akio’s car Kozue tells Miki she’s on a date with Akio, saying Akio-san. And Wakaba calls Akio Akio-san in episode 30 before Akio drives off with her on their date. Wakaba does it specifically to make the point that it is a date.
Anthy speaks with formal propriety to everyone; she’s textbook-correct and never informal. It’s a way to distance herself. It also affords her a firm base for passive-aggression. She can lash out safely because she has technically said everything with proper politeness, and the contrast between tone and meaning makes it sharper. She gives the duelist she is engaged to the sama honorific, over-formal and more distancing, and the same for her brother. The ones she must be most careful around are those who can issue orders to her. She openly acknowledges their power.
Anthy protectively seeks out a lower status and keeps apart to avoid notice. It’s a common reaction to oppression in the real world: If noticed you will be treated unfairly, and if you claim what people see as undue status you’ll be noticed. Therefore actively subordinate yourself and avoid notice. I see it frequently in real life, and it’s distressing. Every character who sees Utena and Anthy interact understands the social status relation that they’ve settled on.
When Anthy leaves Akio in the last episode, she addresses him as anata. It means “you”, but like all Japanese pronouns it carries overtones. It is the conventional pronoun a woman uses to address her husband. In this context, it should be translated as “dear” or something similar. Right after, she refers to Utena as ano hito. It means “that person” but in this context implies that she and Utena are emotionally close. It is a conventional way for a woman to refer to her husband when he is not there. These language bits, without anything more, say that Anthy is leaving her husband for her lover. It’s not an easy thing to do, and the scene reflects that.
Why can’t Anthy cook? Because she is kept, in the way that Touga talks about keeping her. She is Akio’s dog. In the same way that she cares for her roses and domestic animals, men care for her and feed her. She is dependent; making her own food would give her independence. In episode 11 she talks about learning to cook; Utena gave her the idea.
Jay Scott <firstname.lastname@example.org>
first posted 8 December 2021
updated 1 May 2023