Utena - breaking the Kaoru family

Unimportant because I haven’t looked closely enough to firm up conclusions.

The Kaoru parents stand in the door of Kozue and Miki’s room.
Episode 26, Kaoru parents
The Kaoru family mother wears purple for corruption. Both parents wear purple indoor slippers, which should symbolize that their freedom is somehow corrupt. Moments after, we see the mother’s shadow leaving—it represents the moment that the family breaks. It calls into question some of the conclusions that I drew earlier, still written below.

Apparently, to get his way, Akio twisted or broke every relationship in the Kaoru family of Kozue and Miki in an effort that must have taken long planning. The basics seemed easy to understand once I saw enough of what I was looking at, but I know there’s more to figure out. So I wrote it down for eventual followup. First, the course of events:

In episode 5, in a flashback to earlier years, we see a bird cage with a bird in the Kaoru family home. When Miki is sick, birds fly past outside the window, a standard contrast of caged/free.

At various times, we see Miki and Kozue’s bedsteads in their room. Each is decorated with a flying bird.

In episode 26, many related events occur. Kozue rescues two nestling birds that have lost their mother (the mother bird died in episode 17, flying into glass). The tree with the nest is set to be cut down; later we see the stump. A letter from the Kozue and Miki’s mother arrives. Miki reads it but Kozue rejects it, wanting nothing to do with “that person”. We see the same bird cage again, empty this time. Kozue refers to herself (twice) as a wild animal. Miki talks on the phone to their father; the father is planning to remarry—and his bride is Anthy, who is standing beside him. Yowza bugowza! Anthy keeps busy! At night, Kozue meets with Akio and they leave together, Akio’s arm around her.

When I first watched it, the scene of Anthy with the Kaoru father was so far from my expectations that I did not parse it at all. I didn’t even recognize Anthy. I wonder about the reaction to the initial TV run in 1997!

Now to interpret. The episode 5 bird in the bird cage in the Kaoru family home seems to represent Kozue in the story of that episode, trapped by her brother’s wishes and not allowed her own agency (compare Akio and Anthy). By episode 26 she has escaped and gone wild. Alternately, looking back from episode 26 with hindsight and seeing the parallelism with the two rescued nestlings, the caged bird could stand for the Kaoru family mother, now gone, in which case it means she was unhappily trapped in the marriage but somehow left it, ending up divorced. Knowing Utena, I expect both meanings were intended.

Possibly the bird in the cage, taken literally rather than as a symbol, escaped into the wild and is the same bird that flew into the window. I like that theory, it adds the Utena twist by reconnecting all the meanings in a new way.

The stump of the tree stands for the cut down family. The word miki means tree trunk, and kozue means treetop. It’s implied that Akio and Anthy are responsible. We can imagine that perhaps Akio sent Anthy to have an affair with the father, and then arranged for the secret to get out (I see lots of room for other theories). Miki is innocent and does not know this, or perhaps knows some of it but does not detect bad intent. Or maybe he’s more tolerant, I haven’t figured it out. I suppose Kozue knows more, and it has led her to lose trust in everyone involved, rupturing her family ties.

Since originally writing this, I ran across mention of a theory that Anthy is not actually there with the father; it is Miki’s imagination of the situation. It makes sense. Who else would Miki project? Anthy is covered by a thin curtain that obscures her a little, a visual hint. Unlike in the Black Rose arc, there is no mention of Anthy being away or tired. And the matter never comes up again; Utena is good at following up on events, and here there is no followup. All evidence is consistent with the theory.

The two rescued birds are Kozue and Miki, who have lost their mother to divorce. The two are symbolically rescuing themselves, Kozue performing the rescue and then dropping out, leaving Miki with the followup. I guess that rescuing yourself is worth the risk of falling from a building. Anthy helps with bird care knowledge, suggesting that perhaps she was unhappy with the task of breaking up the family. Or perhaps it is Anthy’s love of animals. It prefigures Anthy rescuing herself from Akio at the end of the series.

Her family ties busted, Kozue thinks she is released to be a wild animal, a bird flying free. In fact she is being manipulated by Akio with Anthy’s help. She’s not at all wild or free. Back in episode 5, this puts new light on the wild birds flying outside Miki’s window.

As birds, the Kaoru family is symbolically entirely under the rule of Ohtori: The bird connection highlights that Akio has taken power over every member of the family. I haven’t deciphered the what-fors. As far as I can see, the Herculean labor to twist and break relationships is just to manipulate Kozue and Miki into doing Akio’s will in the dueling arena..

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 14 November 2021
updated 11 August 2022