Utena - the big idea

In progress. The top-level overview ought to be the last part I write, because I’m continually learning more as I work through my analysis. So it won’t be finished until everything else is. But there are aspects that I see clearly enough to write down now.

Utena is an allegory of male oppression of women. It depicts and symbolizes the patriarchy and the patriarchy’s cultural apparatus, which I call the system of control. The main storyline with Akio, Anthy and Utena shows the patriarchy attempting to extend its power, and in the process creating resistance that will eventually overthrow it. The minor characters show different aspects of patriarchal oppression and how people react to it, and their stories resonate with the main storyline in big and small ways, amplifying it.

the main storyline

See overviews of Anthy and Utena and Akio and Utena for their relationships. The two relationships are intertwined, though I analyze them separately.

characterstands for
AkioThe patriarchy.
AnthyAll women who stand within and support the patriarchy.
UtenaAll other women, and in particular those learning feminism.
DiosThe patriarchy’s cultural narratives, created to sustain it, that will lead to its downfall.

Akio is powerful and controlling, and has superhuman sex appeal that makes him nearly irresistible. Anthy is powerful and abused; she accepts being abused because she accepts the patriarchy and believes it is right. She is seen as capable of magic because she draws on the power of the patriarchy. Utena is individualistic and freedom-loving. And she is naive and confused; she instantly and determinedly rejects aspects of the patriarchy that seem bad to her (wearing the girls’ uniform, seeing Anthy as the Rose Bride) while naively accepting others that appeal to her (Dios as prince). Over time she learns better, at first gradually, then quickly. Dios is a fiction that Akio, Anthy, and for nearly all the series Utena, believe in. Dios has nearly irresistible sex appeal, like Akio, because he was designed to. Akio gains his appeal from Dios, which is to say, from the appealing lies he tells. Except that to him they are not lies; he tells them because he believes them. (He also says plenty of things he knows are false. He enjoys evil.)

Anthy and Utena together stand for all women. They are opposite in most respects, symbolizing on the small scale that they are one whole, and on the large scale that a woman can be anything.

major symbols

As you should expect in an allegory, Utena is built of symbols.

Everything on the screen is an illusion. I think the most fundamental symbol is from Buddhism: The audience is not awakened in the Buddhist sense, and therefore everything we see is an illusion—a Buddhist belief. Utena is aimed at those who have not seen through the lies of the patriarchy, which create social illusions. Utena over and over calls itself a fiction—it is a stage play, it is a fairy tale, its reality is unstable, the shadow plays which point at the truth are stories projected on the wall, the foundational prince story is an unreliable memory of a dream. Animation itself is an illusion. And yet it is possible to reason out the clues and piece together the truth, and see through the illusion. Utena likes to offer clues that our first impression of events is not what’s really happening.

Symbolic correspondences. The primary characters have primary symbolic correspondences. All characters have a variety of minor correspondences too.

characterfairy taleGreek mythBuddhismChristianityhistory
AkioPrincess KaguyaZeusthe devilmonarch of a hierarchical society
Anthythe Little MermaidHerasamsaraEveshaman of a tribal society
UtenaSleeping Beauty princeGanymedethe BuddhaJesusthe Enlightenment
Diosgeneric heroCronusGod the Fathernothing, he’s fictional

There are many details that don’t fit into the chart. For example, Utena is only Jesus in her role as prince; when she plays the role of an ordinary girl, there is nothing special about her. In another example, Dios is not only God, he is Adam who is corrupted by Eve.

I think it’s likely that the blank boxes under Buddhism could be filled in if I knew more. And I’m not 100% on all the historical correspondences. Anthy is tied to ancient symbols and practices an ancient form of animistic magic, so shaman seems like a fair description, but I feel it’s not perfect.

The power of stories. The patriarchy’s lies are stories, or you might say cultural narratives. The patriarchy is powerful and seems indestructible. Its power comes from inventing stories like the story of Dios, intended to teach patriarchal sex roles to children. Dios’s power, the power of miracles, is the power of stories. Utena is a story of using the power of stories to defeat falsehoods supported by the power of stories—to overthrow the patriarchy using its own tools.

It’s kind of self-indulgent. Ikuhara the storyteller is talking up his job.

the sequence of heroes

Utena claims in its title to be about revolution, but it is a revolution of step-by-step change. Utena initiates a revolution but does not carry it far. Each step of change, Utena’s and the later ones, is brought about by a hero who has the power of miracles. Each hero at first inspires the next, and then the next hero must move beyond their inspiration to create a new change in the world, in a cycle of inspiration followed by disillusionment. In Utena’s allegory, it means that seemingly-impossible change is brought about by people who believe that the change is possible and make it so by effort.

In the long run, the step-by-step changes will transform the world. It’s a slow-motion revolution.

Dios, the past hero. Dios’s goal is to save all girls, and (as The Tale of the Rose euphemistically puts it) kiss them: In his presence they miraculously become princesses who are under his power. He exploits them sexually. He is able to save many individual girls, but not all. He is corrupted and becomes Akio, whose goal is to deceive all girls to keep them under his power for exploitation, sexual and otherwise. Akio seeks the power of miracles (which he calls the Power of Dios) to make his patriarchy eternal.

Dios’s goal is partly selfless, partly selfish. Utena is the same in that respect. Akio is purely selfish.

Utena, the present hero. Inspired by Dios, she gains the power of miracles. On her journey, she learns of the value of teamwork, people working together to help each other, unlike Dios who unilaterally exercised power to rescue girls. She struggles with the ideal of teamwork, partly because it is a new idea and she is not deeply invested in it, and partly under Akio’s pressure. In the final episode she becomes disillusioned with Dios and, without realizing or intending it, miraculously achieves teamwork with Anthy; see Sleeping Beauty.

Wakaba, the future hero. In the final episode, it is intimated fairly plainly that Wakaba achieves her goal of becoming special, and becomes the next hero, inspired by Utena. In retrospect it’s possible to make out subtle foreshadowing starting as early as episode 1. There are hints that Wakaba’s “best friend” may be the hero after Wakaba.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 14 November 2021
updated 24 September 2023, a complete rewrite except for the sequence of heroes (which is only slightly revised)