Other references that I know about. I am most interested in finding meaningful references, so that I can discover more meaning in Utena. I don’t mind tracing influence, but it’s not as interesting. Besides, Utena’s entire staff contributed influences. Nobody could hope to trace them all.
Self-actualization. Demian and The Little Prince are both books about self-actualization: A key character realizes their potential, comes to understand whatever the book thinks is important, and becomes “self-actualized”, making them some kind of great person. It’s a romantically idealized and heinously oversimplified view of learning and accomplishment, and will keep as many hogs clean as you can find. In my interpretation, Utena refers to these books with disapproval. Self-actualization is related to Buddhist awakening, escaping samsara. See also the discussion of Plato’s Cave under shadow plays.
|Demian - in progress|
|Faust - first take|
|Joan of Arc|
|The Little Prince|
|Mishima Yukio’s House|
|Mobile Suit Gundam|
|A Vindication of the Rights of Woman - in progress|
|The Vision of Escaflowne|
|non-references, things that look somewhat related but that I conclude Utena does not refer to|
The 1985 anime movie Angel’s Egg (Wikipedia), in Japanese tenshi no tamago, directed by Oshii Mamoru (Wikipedia), who is famous for more famous works. Nikita Chestnov thought it influenced Utena, and now that I’ve seen it I agree.
I ordered a disk from Japan. That’s what I recommend if you want to see the animation as it was meant to be seen—it’s a little rough by today’s standards, but stylistically interesting and with fine hand-drawn details. There is no English on the disk, but the movie has little dialog with only one longer speech, and the internet will tell you the gist of it. I found a copy of the film at the Internet Archive. The video quality is poor, but it has (sloppily made) English subtitles for the occasional dialog. That’s all I turned up, but over time there are sure to be other sources.
Angel’s Egg reads like an extended allegory. The literal images and events are strange and sometimes impossible, but they shout out “I am significant! Understand me!” And yet their meanings seem vague, abstract, and complex, and defy understanding. I can’t interpret the movie as a whole, and I doubt I could without a serious effort. I think the late 19th century Symbolist movement would have approved; they sought to express pure ideals in concrete terms. I’m thinking in particular of Stefan George, whose underlying meanings can be so wound up in his individual way of thinking that they become indecipherable (unless maybe you study his biography deeply enough). The Symbolist influence feeds through Modernism to today, and Angel’s Egg and Utena follow related plans. I’m reminded of the 1972 Tarkovsky film Solaris, an adaptation of the Stanislaw Lem novel. I saw the film in a group. I had understood the book and was able to interpret meanings and intentions behind images (the film moves slowly to give you time to absorb and think), but others without my background were mystified—why this lingering shot of water plants waving in the current? I felt that watching Angel’s Egg was like watching Solaris for the first time without having read the book.
That said, there are clear references in Utena. The movie has only two characters, a pale little girl carrying a large egg and a dark-skinned man carrying a cross-shaped... machine or something, like Jesus on the way to his crucifixion. Neither is named. The girl often carries the egg under her clothing on her belly, as if pregnant with it. Nanami’s egg directly refers to it.
At the end of episode 34, and again after Utena opens her coffin in the final episode, Anthy asks Utena “Who are you?” The line is prominent at the beginning of Onii-sama e, and at the beginning of Angel’s Egg, which came earlier. Unless there’s an even earlier source, this is where it came from.
Angel’s Egg draws on Christian imagery; the man with the cross is straight-up compared to Jesus, and the movie refers to the Flood and Noah’s Ark, among other Christian elements. The references are unconventional, though (coelacanths for the Christian fish point to evolution, and there is a fossilized angel), and I can’t see it as a Christian movie. I don’t think it goes out of its way to reject Christianity either; the religion seems to be a source of motifs rather than a subject. Utena treats Christianity as a source too; the church is shown as patriarchal, but Utena when she corresponds to Jesus is not—which matches how Jesus is portrayed in the Bible. Utena gives Buddhism at least equal time.
Utena mentions “Daddy Long Legs” in episode 26. Nanami in a Student Council meeting says that the End of the World may be a Daddy Long Legs. A little later in the episode Kozue calls Akio Daddy Long Legs—to Nanami.
There’s a novel Daddy-Long-Legs (Project Gutenberg link) by Jean Webster from 1912. It seemed important, so I read the book. There is also a 1990 anime of the story, which makes the characters younger. Because of the age change and the fact that it’s anime, I think it’s likely that the anime is what Utena is referring to. I haven’t watched it but the 40 episodes are on YouTube. There are other spinoffs.
The book is fluffy but entertainingly written and not long. It was worth reading.
Jerusha Abbott, who renames herself Judy, is an orphan raised in a cheerless institution. At age 18, she has finished at the village high school, she knows little of the real world, and the orphanage is kicking her out. She has no prospects, until an anonymous benefactor pays her way through a women’s college. His only condition is that she has to write him letters, and the rest of the book consists of the letters. She names him Daddy-Long-Legs.
Her world opens up when she is outside the narrow orphanage. She has a great time, spends vacations in different places, learns a tremendous amount, and plans to become an author and support herself. She becomes friends with an eccentric rich man who she calls Master Jervie. At the end of the book, as she finishes college, it turns out that Master Jervie is Daddy-Long-Legs and they marry. The end.
OK. Right. There we are. Like Class S and The Rose of Versailles, it’s work that was progressive for its time, and today is very much the opposite. The book is against heartless institutions (heartless like the Ohtori Academy) and in favor of educating women (unlike many people in 1912), but marriage is the end goal. The message is “Hey girls, maybe you can support yourself if you’re as great as Judy, but it’s still better to marry. Learn well and maybe you can snag a rich guy.”
Utena predicts the same for itself: That it will be progressive in its time, and not so later. Utena is at first inspired by her prince, and in the end becomes disappointed. We are to expect that Wakaba will follow a similar course, at first inspired by Utena and later disappointed that Utena did not go far enough.
Utena is the orphan, of course. Akio wants Utena to see him as a benefactor who will take care of everything, and who she’ll marry in the end. Judy’s college education corresponds to Utena’s growing power of miracles; it is what makes her worth possessing through marriage. In episode 37 Akio proposes marriage, and in episode 38 he promises to protect her and claims they’ll live happily ever after in the castle. Referring to Akio as Daddy Long Legs amounts to passing along his lies.
The DVD booklets say that Utena refers to the novel Demian by Hermann Hesse, from 1919. I am reading the Project Gutenberg edition. The chapter titles alone are enough to make the connection clear. For example, chapter five is “Der Vogel kämpft sich aus dem Ei”, the bird fights its way out of its egg. The book starts by telling us about two worlds, the light and the dark worlds.
I’m reading Demian slowly because it’s not a fun book. I find the storytelling technique awkward, the style unpleasant, and the content weak. But I am making progress.
The protagonist is Sinclair. A point that stands out is an old, worn, hard-to-make-out bird emblem (from a coat of arms) over the front door of the Sinclair family home: It is the bird that fights its way out of its egg. Later Sinclair makes a painting of the bird as if breaking out of a globe of the world. The bird over the gate to the dueling forest is not only Zeus’s eagle, it is also the bird that breaks the shell of the world, which stands for revelation and revolution.
As I read along, it gradually became clear that every character Sinclair meets is a part of himself. His mind seems to be coextensive with the world he lives in: Either his mind is so great that it encompasses the world, or the world is so small that it’s all in his head. He meets different aspects of himself, learns their lessons, and moves on.
More when I’ve finished the book and absorbed some of its psuedoscientific Jungian background. As of 8 June, I’m 80% of the way through.
The most direct references to Demian are the elevator spiels about revolution by smashing the world’s shell. There are two versions, Touga’s and Nanami’s. Both are followed by a chorus, “To revolutionize the world!”
Touga: If it does not break its egg’s shell, the chick will die without being born. We are the chick. The world is the egg. If we do not break the egg’s shell, we will die without being born. Smash the world’s shell!
The metaphor is explicit. To revolutionize the world, a violent destructive action, is to be born.
Nanami: If it does not break its egg’s shell, the chick will die without being born. The room of freedom and the cage of freedom—without revealing the expanse of the sky, they care for the chick. Smash the world’s cage!
The egg, though you feel free in it and though it nourishes you (as Anthy does), is a cage to be broken out of.
To be born is also to leave your coffin, to graduate from the Academy, to become adult, to be enlightened—see the Enlightenment era directly below—and other metaphors.
Before the Enlightenment (Wikipedia), Europe and all other large hierarchical societies stabilized themselves through monarchy, defined hierarchical power relationships, defined professions and other social roles, and control of the people through religion. In the ideal, people were to obey their superiors, play their prescribed roles in society, follow the dictates of the locally approved religion, and accept socially-defined truths without question. Violators might be punished. Enlightenment thinkers were influenced by the rise of science. They came to believe in skepticism toward untested ideas, seeking the truth through objective evidence, and individual freedom. It was a rebellion against the existing order, or in other words a revolution.
Akio is a pre-Enlightenment monarch. He concentrates power in himself, and delegates some of it to subordinates like Anthy and the Academy teachers. He arranges for people to play defined social roles. He controls people through religion, as represented by the church, which Utena depicts as supporting Akio’s order. He promotes belief in socially-defined truths, which Utena depicts as illusions.
Dios the prince grows up to become Akio, the monarch. A prince is a potential monarch, and because of it exercises power in his own right.
Anthy represents an earlier stage of history. She is a femme fatale, a character archetype that is thousands of years old. She plays a witch, a role which is probably older (magic is surely older than civilization). She practises an animistic form of magic which is probably primordial. It seems fair to call her a shaman. Akio’s control over Anthy can be seen not only as representing patriarchal control over women, but the control of the newer hierarchical society over surviving older elements. I take it to suggest that contemporary society retains a primitive element, the patriarchy.
Utena represents the Enlightenment. She believes in individual freedom. At first she is not skeptical and does not seek the truth, but that changes in episode 37. It starts to change at the beginning of the episode, when the sun rises and she decides to drop the ring—to drop the social role and socially-defined truths that were handed down to her as a little girl. The sunrise literally brings light, and represents Utena’s enlightenment: She begins to seek the truth through reasoning and evidence, and makes the decision on that basis. In dropping the ring that represents the prince, she starts the process of dropping her role as a prince. In the end, she finds the truth, or enough of it to escape the monarch’s control, and starts a process of undermining the monarch’s power.
From this point of view, Utena truly is about revolution. Utena does not overthrow the monarch, and that matches history. The American Revolution was the first throwing off of a monarch under Enlightenment ideas, and may be the closest thing to what Utena does. The French Revolution (see The Rose of Versailles) was the first overthrow of a monarch under Enlightenment ideas, but it did not stick and monarchy came back. Possibly Wakaba’s comparison to Joan of Arc means that this is what Wakaba does. European monarchs generally came into serious danger only in the 19th century. See for example the revolutions of 1848 (Wikipedia), which were themselves only a step in overthrowing monarchy. The Enlightenment era introduced revolutionary ideas that succeeded in revolutionizing society only much later, by the work of many others. And that is how Utena depicts Utena: She begins a revolution which is carried on by a later sequence of heroes.
One way to look at it: Utena says that the Enlightenment’s revolution is incomplete. Patriarchal society is not yet overthrown, but it will be.
I added this section on 26 March 2023, the day I noticed the connection.
I was thinking about little Utena in the church as an example of making a deal with the devil, and noticed parallels between Utena and Goethe’s Faust. I will look more closely to see whether the parallels are intentional and meaningful. There is one reference to a work by Goethe, there might be more.
Faust makes a deal with the devil to give up his soul conditionally, and gains the devil’s help. In the prince story, little Utena meets a false Dios, who is played by Akio. Akio tricks Utena into making a vow to become a prince and rescue Anthy. Later, she is lured into the dueling game, another trap by Akio. Neither is a traditional deal with the devil, but there are similarities. If we set Utena=Faust, then both make deals that the devil believes will doom them, both are corrupted, and yet both come through in the end due to their inherent goodness. If Utena=Faust then Anthy=Gretchen. Both stories have sleeping drugs, and Anthy and Gretchen both administer drugs that lead to death. If we set Utena=Gretchen, then Faust’s seduction of Gretchen with the devil’s help matches the First Seduction and, if we take the parallel seriously, suggests that Utena becomes pregnant. Equating Utena with both Faust and Gretchen makes sense because Utena and Anthy are aspects of the same thing.
More after I have dug in. It’s been years since I last read Faust, and it’s long so it will take a while. I have read the Christopher Marlowe play, and found it has no correspondence. Its moral is to limit your ambition; to seek too much is sinful. Utena’s view is the opposite.
In episode 35, when Utena shows off the earrings to Chu-Chu, Anthy is reading a book. I tried and tried to make out the title, and I finally got it. I doubt anyone could have made it out on a fuzzy 1997 television screen.
The title is “Heidenröslein”, which is not a book but a poem by Goethe which can be printed on one page. The link is a Wikipedia page with two translations. The literal translation is so literal about individual words that it neglects context and misrepresents the poem’s meaning. The poetic translation is mostly more accurate to the poem’s meaning.
A boy finds a little rose (meaning a girl) in the heather and plucks it. The rose fights back with her thorns but has no choice but to give in to fate. The boy and girl are reduced to elemental stereotypes, a “wild” boy who acts and a little rose who reacts. The boy seeks beauty, and we don’t learn whether he has any other motivation. The poem is ambiguous. I think the preferred interpretation is that each hurts the other with love and then they cannot forget each other. Love and pain are equated. It’s also possible to interpret it as describing a rape, where the rose wants to be remembered for the pain she causes, so that she won’t be bothered again—but fails. It’s vague; there are a lot of readings.
Equating love and pain is especially appropriate for boy=Dios/Akio and rose=Anthy. Boy=Akio and rose=Utena describes the First Seduction and other events. Boy=Utena and rose=Anthy predicts Anthy foreseeing that she will hurt Utena in the poisoning conversation and actually doing so in Anthy’s backstab. It’s also the pairing in the source scene. Or boy=Miki and girl=Kozue, or boy=Akio and girl=Touga, or pick your own favorite pair!
In the poem, the boy and girl are reduced to stereotypes to make them universal. In the context of Utena, the stereotypes are promulgated by Akio as part of the system of control, and the poem is an example of how the stereotypes are spread. Anthy believes in them. Metaphorically, Akio gave her the book.
I don’t know why a run-of-the-mill poem like “Heidenröslein” deserves a Wikipedia page. Goethe was not a run-of-the-mill poet. If you want to study a magnificent German poem that has thematic resonance with Utena, I recommend Goethe’s “An Charlotte von Stein” which inexplicably does not have a Wikipedia page (even in the German Wikipedia). Shared themes and motifs (though Utena does not refer to it): Destiny, eternity, reincarnation, understanding and misunderstanding other people. (I found an English translation by A.S. Kline, but it badly distorts the poem’s tone and feeling.)
Utena’s story is parallel to the history of Joan of Arc. Like Utena, Joan of Arc at a young age took on a male role and participated in battles. Like Utena, she was captured by the enemy and faced execution. A show trial convicted her of heresy after she signed and then violated an agreement, which corresponds to Utena being corrupted by Akio’s manipulation of her feelings. Unlike Utena, Joan of Arc actually was executed, and unlike Utena’s memory at the Academy, she is remembered to this day as an inspirational figure.
But Utena is not compared to Joan of Arc. In episode 20, Saionji compares Wakaba to Joan of Arc. It is one of the signs that Wakaba becomes the next special hero in the sequence of heroes. The different ending suggests that Wakaba may achieve her success differently than Utena, openly forcing Akio into retreat and then becoming an inspirational martyr to Akio’s weakened but unbroken power.
In Nanami’s Egg, episode 27, there is an insert song welcoming a baby to the world. It is “Konnichiwa aka-chan”, which can be translated as “hello, baby.” I did not find mention of the song in the episode credits, but it has an entry in the Japanese Wikipedia: It was first released in 1963 and was written by Ei Rokusuke (which is a pen name). The article mentions its use in Utena, among other places. It sounds like an old classic that many Japanese would be familiar with.
The Little Prince was first published in 1943. One look at the cover is enough to show that Utena refers to it. It’s a much loved book but... Utena refers to it for a reason.
The Little Prince lives on and takes care of a small asteroid. One day a beautiful but vain and demanding rose sprouts there. He loves the rose but grows tired of her demands and goes on a voyage of self-actualization. He meets several satirical characters, then travels to Earth where he meets the narrator. He meets more characters; the humans are generally satirical, and he learns life lessons from some of the others, especially the fox. In time he learns about love, that “what is essential is invisible to the eye,” and other heart-warming but vague slogans.
When it comes time to return home to his asteroid and his rose, the Little Prince cannot take his body, because it is too heavy. He has a poisonous snake bite him so that his body dies. The narrator says he is sure that the Little Prince returned to his asteroid, because his body was gone in the morning.
The Little Prince is a fairly pure Bildungsroman. The hero makes a literal voyage of self-actualization and reaches a kind of maturity at the end. It’s a popular category. Utena is a less pure example, but it is also a Bildungsroman. Utena and Anthy’s voyage (they are two halves of a whole) is metaphorical rather than literal, but in the end they reach a kind of maturity.
The book is saturated with the thoughtless sexism of its day. The rose is a gross stereotype of the demanding woman who is loved anyway. A passage in chapter 8 has the Little Prince saying, “I ought not to have listened to her. One never ought to listen to the flowers. One should simply look at them and breathe their fragrance.” The 18th century took that attitude to women. Every human character is male (never mind that most of them are ridiculous because they are satirical). The Little Prince is entirely a prince in the Utena meaning of the word.
Dios sitting on the egg of the world, which is also his tomb, is a prince on his small planet like the Little Prince on his small planet. The Little Prince’s rose aligns with the rose emblem that spans Dios’s world, and refers to Anthy (who is a difficult woman) and to women in general. More broadly, The Little Prince and Utena are both about learning life lessons related to love and caring.
The Little Prince dying by snakebite is parallel to Jesus dying on the cross. The snake is the serpent in Eden, and cannot be trusted. In both cases, their followers found that the body had disappeared, and had faith without evidence that the dead person had returned home. It tallies with Utena disappearing at the end of the series. Akio the serpent wants Utena to die and arranged for her mortal wound, carried out by Anthy who, like the snake, is associated with poison. As the Swords of Hatred converge on her, Utena stops moving and is possibly dead. Then she is not seen again. Anthy believes that Utena is gone only from Akio’s world (the Academy), and leaves the Academy herself to find Utena in the real world. Anthy gives no evidence. In all cases, the victim is considered a moral exemplar and a kind of savior: According to Christians, Jesus saves theologically; according to the Narrator, the Little Prince saved the Narrator from dying of thirst in the desert; according to Anthy, Utena saved Anthy.
I would never have discovered it myself. I happened to run across this tweet by sekainohate61. Here’s a slightly better version of an image they posted. It matches the dorm that Anthy and Utena move into in episode 2.
It is the cover of a photography book published in 1995, good timing to influence Utena. On the left is the photographer’s name, Shinoyama Kishin. On the right is the title, Mishima Yukio’s House. Mishima Yukio is famous as a great novelist and as a crazed right-wing ultranationalist who in 1970 tried to incite revolution by violence and ended up committing ritual suicide. The book is just what it says, a book of photos of the wealthy author’s house. The photos were made long after his death, but supposedly little had changed.
Click through to the photo of the top sculpture on the right, it’s much bigger than this thumbnail. Relative to the book cover, it is just out of view to the right. It’s page 13, and the text at the bottom reads “A marble statue of Apollo stands centrally in the yard.” Apollo carries his lyre. On the mosaic pavement around the statue are emblems of the constellations of the zodiac. In the dorm, the statue is replaced by an obelisk surrounded by astrological symbols of the constellations. The zodiac around the obelisk is rotated a little compared to its original. It’s fascinating: The clever symbolism in the shadows falling on the zodiac must have been worked out after the design of the dorm was decided, not the other way around.
A similar statue of Apollo appears in episode 31. It’s been bowdlerized. The ancients would never have included that loincloth.
Of the photos I’ve found online from inside the house, none remind me of the interior of the dorm—except on one point. The house has a lot of books, and the dorm has many books for an unused building.
Utena was assigned to live in a revolutionary’s house. Utena is intended to fail to revolutionize the world and end up dead like Mishima. I kind of suspect that the Be-Papas had more reasons than that to point in his direction. One of the DVD booklets mentions Confessions of a Mask in relation to Juri and episode 7. But I have not read any of his novels, and for now I don’t intend to.
Nikita Chestnov gleaned from Empty Movement and passed along that Utena is influenced by the original Gundam series, from 1979. He mentioned Lalah Sune and the “not even my father” slap below. It’s a cultural landmark in Japan, so it’s hardly surprising. My experience with Gundam shows is that they start strongly, then after a while lose focus and become dull. But the original is a famous classic even to English-speaking anime fans and still has a firm fanbase, and it was subtle and fairly consistent throughout.
The opening theme song is earnest to an absurd degree. The first episode is largely about people under military attack doing painfully stupid things. It was my least favorite episode; all the others are better.
Gundam is about a revolution that happened in the past, whose consequences are still playing out. Utena is about a revolution that will happen in the future; Utena herself only gets it started. In Gundam, giant robots whose designs are flagrantly male hold the power and carry out violence. Both shows are complex, carefully realistic in emotion and characters, and handle serious real-world issues seriously. Of course, they are cartoons and completely unrealistic in other ways.
I could go on. Both have a theme of the loneliness of the hero. Hero Amuro is rejected by his parents; Utena’s parents are dead. But these connections don’t feel important.
The slap. In episode 9, naive hero Amuro rebels against being made to pilot the Gundam just because he has the skill. It’s a rationalization; as I read it, he is suffering from what was once called shell shock, and is now called post traumatic stress disorder, complete with the thousand-yard stare (Wikipedia). Anyway, the captain goes for psychological manipulation: He slaps Amuro twice, and calls him spoiled and not a real man. Ah, this is why anime still slaps people to bring them to reality. (Actually that might be older.) Amuro says “Not even my father ever hit me!” I live underground and didn’t realize it, but the line is approximately as well-known as the sun in the sky. Utena calls back to it in body-swap episode 8, when Utena, in Anthy’s body, slaps Keiko. We hear two slaps in close succession. Keiko echoes, “Not even my mama ever hit me!” It’s a reversal that puts Keiko the bully into the role of the bullied hero.
By the way, the captain’s psychological trick did not work. What finally brings Amuro back to reality is the anime-standard desire to save his friends. Utena’s desire to save Anthy is the same trope.
Lalah Sune is introduced in episode 33, which seems significant in itself. In episode 34 she glows for a moment when she appears, signalling that she has the show’s form of magic: She is a newtype, with telepathy and superhuman intuition. I immediately recognized the newtypes as slans (Wikipedia), though they are similar only in a few key aspects. The hero is of course also a newtype. It spreads, like a zombie plague; everyone will be a newtype eventually.
Lalah is on the enemy side, a protégée of the hero’s rival Char. It’s made clear that she is in love with Char, but Char says that she is like a little sister to him. Nevertheless, Char kisses her in episode 40. Lalah physically resembles Anthy (dark skin, green eyes, bindi) and matches Anthy in love and (in this case pseudo-) incest. She matches Utena too: The higher-ups complain fruitlessly that she does not wear a standard uniform, and in episode 36 Char says that Lalah is an orphan. Anthy and Utena are aspects of the same thing, depicted as one person unwound into twins, and their equivalence with Lalah Sune is part of the depiction.
As far as I can see, it’s not a close or deep connection. Nadia is a much bigger influence on Utena.
The shadow plays refer to Plato’s allegory of the cave, briefly discussed there.
If Utena makes any important references to the comedy movie Project A-ko from 1986, they were too subtle for me. In fact, if I saw one, I wouldn’t know whether it was a direct reference, or a reference to something earlier that Project A-ko itself refers to (it does that a lot). But there are connections and apparent offhand references. Project A-ko is part of the culture medium that Utena grew in (if you don’t mind a slightly complicated pun), and I found it enlightening to compare them. I decided it was worth writing up.
The two share some character archetypes: Hero A-ko who does not notice her own specialness corresponds to Utena. Sophisticated and evil B-ko corresponds to Akio, though they are very different. The two fight over C-ko, as Utena and Akio fight over Anthy. In fact, B-ko challenges A-ko to duel for C-ko, using the same words as Utena. C-ko is a bad cook, and to the aliens, she is their princess. A-ko B-ko and C-ko are generic names and could appear anywhere, but it may be significant that Utena’s shadow girls take the same names (and are aliens).
All important characters are female, and the aliens are an all-female race. As in Utena, gender confusion is a thing. Characters who at first look male turn out to be female. Giant and powerful student Mari grunts in a deep tone and speaks in a little-girl voice.
A-ko has broken into the alien spaceship in search of C-ko. Here she fights with a sword against the alien scout D. The visual flourishes of the sword fight are similar to those in Utena, with blue flashes. But it chooses halos instead of sparks when swords clash. The two shows belong to the same anime tradition of how to depict sword fights.
A-ko’s skirt is sliced. Utena uses the same sliced-up clothing trope in episode 12, when Utena can barely avoid the powered-up Sword of Dios. It’s a trope, not a reference.
The orange-colored iced drink that A-ko has at breakfast at the beginning of the movie reminded me of the orange drinks for Anthy and Akio (after their sex session at the start of episode 34, when Akio brags about seducing Utena and Anthy extracts a small payback for it). As far as I can see, it’s not a meaningful reference—one scene is about A-ko being habitually late, the other about Anthy and Akio being mean to each other. I suspect it’s not an intentional reference at all, but a coincidence. But still, the background coloring is similar, and who knows?
It’s nothing to do with Utena, but this is the gag I enjoyed most. B-ko holds a small part—which she no doubt built herself—whose commercial-style label reads “super HG HiFi excellent atomic missile”. The safety stripes really sell it. She uses it to break a window in the alien spacecraft and reach C-ko. Alien glass must be that strong.
The buttons of Utena’s uniform jacket are large and domed, with a rim (click the image for a larger view). They’re not as large, but they match the oversized buttons often drawn by Tezuka Osamu on less realistic characters. On the right is Astro Boy with Professor Ochanomizu, who has protruding buttons. Tezuka was influenced by Disney cartoons from around the middle of the 20th century. Compare the buttons on classic Mickey Mouse—a form Tezuka would have seen. This one is signed by Milt Kahl, one of the original great Disney animators.
The buttons are from children’s cartoons and suggest childishness and unrealistic fantasy, appropriate for Utena. Compare the original version of the prince story, which is presented as a children’s cartoon. The fastening of Utena’s red purse in the First Seduction looks the same. Utena seeks adulthood, and definitively does not have it.
Fasteners. Utena’s buttons are round and domed, making them symbolically female (they’re similar in shape to her epaulet domes). Compare Juri’s uniform, which has a hook-and-loop closure, both male and female. I don’t have any other evidence, so the conclusion is not solid, but the comparison makes me think that the fasteners represent their upbringings. In the manga, Utena is raised by an aunt after her parents die, so her buttons are female. Utena was raised free from direct male control, and it shows in her freedom-loving individualistic personality. Juri presumably has both parents, and her uniform fastens with male and female parts. Juri’s family is the controlling influence which makes her feel that it is impossible to admit her homosexuality.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is famous as an early feminist thinker (radical for her day) and social activist. (She’s not to be confused with her daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein and deserves her own fame.) I am convinced that her 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Project Gutenberg) is an influence on Utena, either directly or indirectly.
It’s visible in the chapter titles that the book calls for “a revolution in female manners.” Wollstonecraft went to France during the French Revolution, and saw firsthand its promise and its terror. I’m sure she used the word “revolution” advisedly. Utena presumably took its idea of revolution directly from The Rose of Versailles, but there is a reason that The Rose of Versailles is set at the time of the French Revolution.
Of the book itself, so far I have only read the introduction—five pages, though it feels longer because of the wordy 18th century prose. Here’s a quote:
Women are, in fact, so much degraded by mistaken notions of female excellence... that this artificial weakness produces a propensity to tyrannize, and gives birth to cunning, the natural opponent of strength, which leads them to play off those contemptible infantile airs that undermine esteem even whilst they excite desire.
Don’t let the 18th century writing style obscure the meaning. This is as close a description of Anthy as you will ever see, until after her character was invented. She is constrained to be weak; she is cunning; she tyrannizes; she excites desire by exploiting her stereotypical feminine characteristics; Wakaba thinks poorly of her. Anthy’s character was cast in a mold that Wollstonecraft was familiar with. Now a quote about upper-class women, in the vocabulary of the day “ladies”:
Perhaps the seeds of false refinement, immorality, and vanity have ever been shed by the great [high in social status]. Weak, artificial beings raised above the common wants and affections of their race [womankind], in a premature unnatural manner, undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society! As a class of mankind they have the strongest claim to pity! The education of the rich tends to render them vain and helpless.
I glossed a couple words whose meanings have changed. This is a description of Nanami.
The anime version of The Vision of Escaflowne ran in 1996, good timing for it to influence Utena. Protagonist Hitomi is sent to another world, where she can see Earth and its moon in the sky. Other worlds are a theme of Utena; see Demian above. The series has reaching hands that at various times do or cannot join. It has sun halos, which might have influenced Utena’s halos. It has an evil plot to revolutionize the world (not in those words). They are vague associations that many works share with Utena because they’re tropes.
The bad guys have a machine to change destiny, and use it to switch Hitomi’s love interest (which she had already switched twice on her own). Until then, she was a flawlessly accurate fortune teller. Afterward, she lies about a fortune she reads. It’s parallel to Akio seducing Utena and corrupting her into dishonesty. (Though unlike Utena, Hitomi recovers quickly.) I see the plot parallel as a possible influence, not a meaningful reference. It’s a minor influence at most.
I found one meaningful reference to Escaflowne in an image. See sun rays. There may be more. The flooded castle gate on the left looks like it influenced Utena’s dueling forest gate. The dialog on the right, and the attitude behind it, also smell like influence.
This section is full of stuff that I conclude Utena does not refer to, and yet it’s one of the parts of my analysis that I am most pleased with, because it shows the centrality of Utena’s story. Utena is in part about convention and the breaking of convention, and it is made up of conventional elements arranged in an unconventional way. A social narrative is a convention that people follow; see the analysis at the top of shadow plays, about clashes and Plato’s cave. So is a social role, such as a sex role. Character archetypes and formulaic plots and stock symbols are conventions.
Utena has shallow connections with many other works because it shares conventional elements with them. The extensiveness of the shallow connections is a sign of Utena’s skillfully constructed ties to a central zone of storyspace.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Wikipedia) is a 1926 silhouette animation film by the pioneering great Lotte Reiniger (Wikipedia). It’s out of copyright and can be watched at archive.org in a fan version with English subtitles for the German-language title cards. After thinking about the image of the shadow girls manipulating puppets I started to suspect that Utena refers to it. Really, the shadow plays ought to refer to the famous shadow puppet film that tells a fairy tale-like story and features a prince! But apparently not, or if so it’s too subtle for me. There are rather a lot of shared motifs, but they are conventional elements and no more. I found no definite visual references, though Wakaba’s fantasy castle is slightly similar to the magically-created palace. Well, and the magic palace flies through the air at one point, making it like Utena’s castle in the sky. In The Tale of the Rose, the prince rides his horse through the air to the castle in the sky, matching Prince Achmed’s flying horse; it is the closest thing to a convincing reference.
By the way, “Reiniger” is German for “cleanser”. I expect it is a coincidence, but that is the purpose of the skepticism that the shadow plays promote: It is to cleanse the mind of misconceptions.
“The Dueling Machine” is a 1963 science fiction story by Ben Bova and Myron R. Lewis, available through Project Gutenberg. People are manipulated into using a “dueling machine” to fight imaginary duels in what we would today call virtual realities. The idea is so close that I had to check it out, but there is no visible connection.
Geomantic figures. I was looking into occult stuff for possible connections, and ran into something I’d never heard of, geomantic figures (Wikipedia). I find no evidence that Utena is aware of it, but I do see close ties. The figure “Cauda Draconis” (image to the right) connects with Utena in several ways. The shape reminds me of how Utena’s uniform jacket flares out at the bottom. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia where I bold the connections and link some of them to evidence.
Latin for “the Tail of the Dragon” and the figure of the south node of the Moon. It is considered very bad in most situations, such that in older traditions if this was the first figure drawn the geomancy reading was stopped. It is only good in circumstances for ending or completing things, such as breaking up a relationship. It brings good with evil, and evil with good. It is associated with the malefic planets Saturn and Mars and the astrological sign Virgo. Its inner and outer element are both fire. Its planetary intelligences are Agiel and Graphiel and its spirits are Zazel and Bartzabel; it is associated with the deities Mavors, Saeturnus, and Athena, and the angels Cassiel, Samael and Malchidael. It is associated with the left arm.
Utena is associated with the south node of the moon by her twin relationship with Anthy and the association of siblings with the moon. The south node is the descending node: Utena is being brought down, Anthy is being brought up. Fire makes appearances in Utena, but I don’t see fire as tied to Utena personally.
The ties are incredibly close for something Utena does not seem to refer to!
Hanafuda playing cards. A few of the hanafuda cards (Wikipedia) depict motifs of Utena. The deck has 12 suits for the months of the year, each named after a plant. The December plant is Paulownia; see the Kiryuu family name. The December hikari (light) card is the Fenghuang bird; see Ohtori. Other cards related Utena are Crane and Sun (which can stand for Dios/Akio’s immortality), Full Moon, Cuckoo, and Lightning (which actually means storms).
One hanafuda card depicts the story of the calligrapher Ono no Michikaze (Wikipedia) learning determination from a frog in the rain (the Wikipedia link summarizes the story). On the card, he carries an umbrella. Anthy is linked to frogs by the frog that harasses Chu-Chu, and the frog shows its determination in the rain in episode 18. She is linked with umbrellas by the episode 21 duel with Keiko. It doesn’t quite hang together as a reference.
The connections with hanafuda don’t seem close. Compare the card game Old Maid, which brings in real meaning.
Magic rings. The dueling rings are magic rings (Wikipedia) that confer special powers. Rings are a common magic item, and history is full of fictional and mythical magic rings. I have made a couple tries, but so far I haven’t found any specific magic ring that the dueling rings refer to.
Morgan le Fay. Anthy bears similarities to Morgan le Fay. Morgan le Fay is not a consistent character, but comes in many different versions depending on the story. She is always skilled at magic, like the supposed witch Anthy. She is sometimes good, sometimes evil, and sometimes switches sides. Anthy starts out good, switches to evil when corrupted by Akio, and returns to good when she leaves the Academy. Sometimes Morgan le Fay works by seduction and manipulation, as Anthy does under orders. She is jealous of unfaithful lovers, as Anthy is. In Arthurian legend, she is closely associated with Merlin, who can stand for Dios. She is sometimes an ally of Arthur, who can stand for Utena, and sometimes an opponent. Anthy sometimes works with Utena and sometimes against her.
If I find a story with specific matching details, I’ll upgrade Morgan le Fay to a real reference. In the meantime, I’m inclined to think that Anthy and Morgan le Fay are alike only because they are different instantiations of the same ancient femme fatale character archetype. That’s the real reference.
The myth of Eurydice. One morning I woke up from a dream that the myth of Eurydice was related. I can trace connections: Eurydice was killed by the bite of a viper; snakes are tied to Akio, who put Anthy in a coffin. Orpheus tried to rescue Eurydice from Hades and failed; Utena tried to rescue Anthy from her coffin and failed (though she gave Anthy the hope to leave on her own). But really, if anyone were to play the role of Orpheus in this story it would have to be Miki, and he doesn’t. The slight similarity is a coincidence; the myth is a point that happens to be near Utena in one dimension of storyspace without sharing much else.
Nakazawa Koto, 1839-1927. I looked through biographical sketches of a lot of Japanese female warriors. In episode 20, Saionji compares Wakaba to Joan of Arc, who is a French female warrior and hero, so there is reason to look. Nakazawa Koto is the closest match I found to Utena: She was tall, dressed as a man, was famous for her sword skill, participated in combat, and never married. Without any more specific matching details, I can’t declare a connection with Utena. There may be indirect influence via fiction. Truth has been known to occasionally influence fiction....
She’s an unlikely reference for Utena because she defended the shogunate from imperial forces: She was the opposite of a revolutionary.
Ooshio Heihachirou, 1793-1837, was a failed revolutionary whose value system (though strange and old-fashioned) strikes me as resembling Utena’s. He felt inspired by a heroic ancestor (compare Dios). Like Utena, he lived up to a strict standard of moral goodness. He held a philosophy that knowledge of good is intuitive, which is how Utena acts (without holding any philosophy about it). Like Utena, he was hot-tempered and individualistic. He was skilled in martial arts; compare Utena’s sports and swordplay. He worked effectively against crime and corruption (which made him popular, as Utena is for different reasons) and believed in directness and sincerity and in having no fear of death (and in a good amount of mystical whatever). He was opposite Utena in that he was a scholar who thought things out carefully. After failed rice harvests brought famine and unrest, he led a rebellion against corrupt government officials and merchants that hoarded their wealth, ordering attempts like stealing rice from the storehouses of the rich. It didn’t work out, and (like Xiang Yu) he ended up committing suicide. To dig in, see a 1986 thesis about him. I find no concrete sign that Utena refers to him.
“The Power of the Powerless” is a 1978 essay by Vaclav Havel that analyzes the Soviet-controlled Eastern European dictatorships of the time (and doesn’t stop there). See the essay itself (archive.org) and Wikipedia on the essay. His view of ideological control in his society is strikingly similar to Utena’s view of how the system of control (the sexist culture) influences attitudes and controls behavior. Both rely on enforcing complex, interlocking, multi-layered structures of lies (symbolized in Utena as illusions). Havel says of “the system” that “It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.” Here is the most famous quote:
Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.
Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.
The quote’s fame is justified. Also like Utena, “The Power of the Powerless” suggests how to break out of the regime of lies.
Possibly the powerful/powerless duality of Utena characters could be a reference.
Shakespeare. In episode 34, at The Tale of the Rose, Akio says that “All of life is like a play.” It’s thematic. I take it to be a commonplace, not a reference to the Shakespeare quote “All the world’s a stage.” Shakespeare has other references to life being like a play, and so do many others.
“The Song of Wandering Aengus” (Poetry Foundation) is a poem by W.B. Yeats (Wikipedia). It has symbols and story which match parts of Utena. Aengus goes into a hazel wood, an Enchanted Forest. Hazel is associated with love and with divination. He makes a hazel wand—it is a traditional way to make a magic wand, an instrument of power in male shape that aligns with Utena’s swords. He catches a fish and prepares to eat it, but the fish turns into a girl; in Utena, fish stand for women and devouring a fish stands for sex. The apple blossom in her hair refers to Eve’s apple and matches Utena’s apples. The magical girl drives Aengus mad with desire so that he seeks after her for the rest of his life. The poem ends with a false vision of eternity that could be dropped into Utena without a ripple.
In Irish mythology, Aengus is the name of a god of youth and love. I don’t read the poem as being about the god: Aengus the god is always called young, never “old with wandering”. It’s about a mortal who suggestively shares the god’s name.
It lines up well with the story of Touga and Utena: Touga catches magical Utena and thinks to devour her, but she runs off and Touga is compelled to pursue her. You might also connect it with Anthy seeking Utena outside the Academy. But I think it’s a coincidence. Aengus is about mischievous magic with no care for human concerns leading a single hapless mortal astray. The girl called Aengus’s name solely to lure him. Utena is about malicious magic misleading masses of people due to human concerns, and Utena’s interest in Touga is real, though overshadowed by other interests. The symbols they share are stock symbols that grow everywhere like dandelions.
Tanabata. Tanabata is a star festival about separated lovers meeting, so I thought Utena might refer to it. But I can’t find a reference. There are weak connections: The associated myth includes cows, and the star Altair is in the constellation Aquila, which represents Zeus’s eagle (see Ganymede). The episode 33 constellations include a representation of Anthy crossing the Milky Way. But the different aspects don’t line up with Utena, and the constellations in the myth are distant in the sky from most of the constellations we see in Utena (the exception is that Aquila is not far from Aquarius, where the eagle carries Ganymede).
Wars of the Roses. The House of York chose a white rose as its symbol, like Dios. The rival House of Lancaster later chose a red rose, like Akio. When the wars were resolved, the new and more powerful Tudor dynasty, formed by a marriage between the opposing sides, devised a red-and-white rose symbol combining the two. Akio’s goal is to increase his power by in essence combining himself with Dios, retaining his greedy, controlling, power-seeking attitude and regaining Dios’s power of miracles. Prince Dios (as resurrected in the form of Utena) and princess Akio (see The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter) are to be a married couple. In the aspect of rose symbols, Utena shares a close parallel with the Wars of the Roses.
But nothing else seems to line up. The Wars of the Roses were over control of the monarchy and lasted for decades. Dios’s corruption into Akio seems to have been speedy (though we’re not shown much), and the same physical person ended up in power, only ruling in a different style. The Wars of the Roses were battles between ambitious parties. Dios’s corruption was due to loss of conviction, which is almost the opposite. Both sides of the Wars of the Roses were vicious. Akio is vicious, but Dios is not.
Jay Scott <firstname.lastname@example.org>
first posted 20 January 2022
updated 24 September 2023