Coffins first appear in episode 9, which I think of as the first brain-twisting episode. We see Touga and Saionji meeting little Utena hiding in a coffin next to the coffins of her dead parents, and refusing to leave because nothing is eternal. Why bother cleaning the house, it will only get dirty again. Then, in the dueling arena, we see Anthy playing dead in a coffin made up to resemble little Utena’s, in a pose matching hers. In reality, it represents Anthy’s coffin, which Utena opens in the final episode; see comparisons - Anthy’s coffin.
Later, we hear metaphorical talk of people in coffins. They are trapped in narrow worldviews, unable to grow or see beyond, symbolically dead and in practice dead to reality. And we see Anthy’s “true” coffin, where she is not only trapped in a worldview but trapped in a difficult relationship with Akio. When the system of control has you caged, you’re in a coffin.
Of course, there is something eternal: Death. To be trapped in the system of control is to be metaphorically dead, forever, because the system of control believes that it is eternal.
It seems easy to understand, which made me suspect I was missing something. How can anything in Utena be easy? Sure enough, later I realized that leaving your coffin is parallel to Jesus disappearing from his tomb, and corresponds to Utena disappearing at the end of the series. As the kofun below implies, the Academy itself is a coffin.
The DVD booklets tell us that Ohtori Academy’s layout resembles a keyhole-shaped kofun, the giant burial mounds of an extinct northeast Asian culture. Coffins and kofuns are both things the dead are buried in, so metaphorically they are the same: The Academy as a whole is in its coffin. Anthy says as much herself, in the final episode as she says goodbye to Akio before she leaves. The symbol suggests that the patriarchy has been in power since prehistoric times.
Look back at the coffin image above. The red circle on the lid is a rose emblem, and it makes the coffin visually more keyhole-shaped: Round above and squared off below. It points up the connection. The coffins at the funeral, by the way, are rounded at the head. They are even more keyhole-like.
I noticed a couple other things that are keyhole-shaped and also refer to kofuns.
The entrance to the student council platform is an arched door with a rose emblem window above it, together a keyhole shape. The student council as a unit is in its coffin—despite meeting in the open air. And the coffin is no help; trains can still pass through.
Anthy’s bird cage greenhouse is laid out with a straight entranceway and a round central area centered on the chess queen pillar. Anthy seems to be securely imprisoned, wrapped up in layers of containment: Buried in a kofun, in a bird cage, in a coffin. It’s possible to piece it together from different views in the series (I originally did), but this picture is clearer. I found the image in the Gallery at Empty Movement, specifically at this page. Credit to Giovanna.
The greenhouse shares the keyhole shape of the Academy as a whole because the greenhouse is the Academy in miniature. The pillar in the center corresponds to Akio’s tower. The pillar is a phallic insertion into a female area of growth and nurturing—a symbol of sex and male control. It is also a key inserted into the keyhole; Anthy is metaphorically locked in her greenhouse, a bird in the bird cage. The frequent image of Anthy watering her roses stands for Anthy nurturing the growth of the students with the water of illusions and tears—by extension, that is what the Academy is doing, nurturing the students according to the precepts of the system of control. The Academy is a coffin, and Akio’s tower—the symbol and source of his power—is the key locking the students in the coffin; they are both birds in the cage and corpses in the coffin.
It symbolizes a self-perpetuating system, and therefore eternity. The roses grow the same every year. The students are to grow up the same every generation and send their children into the coffins where they will remain dead to the truth for eternity. It goes with the scene in episode 27 where Anthy talks with Utena about parents passing their thoughts and ideas on to their children.
In episode 27, Touga tells Nanami that men and women are made to fit together. It’s the same idea: That a man fits a woman like a key in a lock, physically and metaphorically. In his view, men are made to control women, or to operate women like a key operates a lock. His later relationship with Saionji turns it ironic.
Jay Scott <email@example.com>
first posted 21 November 2021
updated 10 September 2023