Utena - colors

I sorted the colors into rainbow order, red through purple. White and black are at the end.

Color symbolism in Utena is complex and very thorough. If any use of color in any animation frame cannot be interpreted—I haven’t noticed it. Even slight, easy-to-overlook shading can be significant. In fact, I have found “white” objects that seem to be meaningfully shaded even though the off-white tinge is imperceptible to my eye, and can only be detected by measuring the pixels.

Gold and silver. Metallic colors have specific meanings. In Greek myth, Apollo the sun god is associated with golden light, and Artemis the moon goddess with silver light. We make the same associations today. Gold means Dios who is the sun and Apollo, and silver means Akio who is the moon. (Akio is not Artemis, who is a goddess of chastity.) Chu-Chu wears a gold ring in the ear for Anthy’s love of Dios, and Akio wears a silver ring in his ear. See jewelry catalog - Akio earrings.

redAnthy, Touga
pinkMikage, Utena
brownKeiko, Wakaba
yellowMitsuru, Nanami
greenKanae, Saionji
blueKozue, Miki
purpleMari, Shiori, Tokiko

Many characters are assigned colors. It’s usually but not always their hair color. Tokiko’s purple hair changes to brown when she leaves the Academy, but it’s clear from her return that her color remains purple. Anthy, Kozue, Shiori, and Utena wear princess dresses; the princess dress is always the character’s color.

Different shades of the same color matter. Kozue’s blue hair is shaded toward purple. Violent and controlling Saionji’s hair is dark green; high-class Kanae’s hair is light green. Wakaba’s brown hair is reddish; Keiko’s brown hair is greenish.

       Red is the color of Eve’s apple, and its central meaning is sin. The apple stands for sex and knowledge, and those are the primary sins. (Christianity seems to conflate sex and knowledge in a strange way.) Red is also the red of blood, and is associated with violence—which in Utena is closely tied to sex; swords are sexual. The highly corrupt are sinful and knowledgeable and wear red, like Akio’s red shirt and Anthy’s red princess dress. The red shoes are Akio’s nearly irresistible sex appeal. Touga’s color is red for his womanizing and his knowledge. The fire of destruction in burning Saionji’s exchange diary and cremating the Black Rose duelists is red (with orange), which may mean that it is a form of violence. Mikage is Hades in his underworld, and Akio plays the Devil with Utena in the Apocalypse Saga, so fire can be the flames of Christian hell. Red roses conventionally mean love and passion, and therefore sex. Previews and title cards get red spinning roses, and the shadow plays are on a red background, because they have the power of knowledge. They also connect with the red fire of Plato’s cave.

Utena wears red shorts for her sexual desire and her vulnerability to sexual temptation. Red is Anthy’s color, so it includes her desire for Anthy. In the First Seduction she wears a white dress with red stripes, with some red because she is just getting into her life of sin. She carries a red purse for her virginity—or for the sex that will happen. In the Routine Date she wears a purple sweater for her corruption, and it is shaded toward red (I’d say it’s magenta). Utena’s princess dress in the final showdown is pink—her color is the combination of white for the prince and red for sin.

Red mixes with blue illusions to create purple corruption. An example is blue-darkened borders over red carpet in Nanami’s cowbell party.

       Pink is Utena’s color. The dueling rings are pink. Akio’s fancy pink drink in the final episode refers to Utena. Pink is sometimes a mixture of red and white, as in Utena’s princess dress that mixes red sin with white purity. Bright pink like Utena’s hair does not mean that (at least not entirely; the red does tie her to Eve via Eve’s apple). In part, it is Protagonist Hair that marks her as a main character. By anime convention of the time as I understand it, it points to her childish naivety and idealism. Pink can mean homosexuality; see Utena’s hair immediately below. That’s a common meaning in costume elements. Mikage’s paler pink hair seems to refer to his relationship with Mamiya. Pink roses mean something else again. Wakaba presumably chose pink for her letter to Saionji to show her feelings.

       Utena’s hair is not pale red, it is hot pink, meaning it has an admixture of blue. The color is a symbol of gay pride, and that can only be an intentional part of its meaning. The blue stands for the illusions Utena is subject to, but there is more to it. If you make hot pink darker (or if you put it on a pure white background, as on this page), it does not turn red, it turns purple. (Try it in an image program if you don’t believe me. I found examples where objects in a scene have the same hue as Utena’s hair but are darker and look purple; the petticoats of Anthy’s princess dress are one—though they are white sometimes.) Utena’s hair is light purple. It is not the same color as Dios’s and Akio’s because it is redder and more saturated, but it is nearby in color space. As twins, Utena and Anthy have related hair colors. Utena’s hair marks her dual nature, light and warm in color for the influence of Dios that makes her boyish and princely, and purple for the influence of Akio that makes her girlish and corrupt. Utena’s black and white shoes have a similar meaning.

       Brown is Wakaba’s color. It represents ordinariness.

Akio and Anthy are extraordinary, but nevertheless have brown skin. Oh, but every girl is like the Rose Bride—Anthy is ordinary after all. And everybody participates in the patriarchy’s system of control (even Utena until she leaves the Academy)—Akio is ordinary too.

       Orange is Juri’s color and refers to things associated with Juri: Miracles actual or potential or desired, and one-sided love in reality or perception. The meanings are related, and in most cases (maybe all) they occur together. It takes or is expected to take a miracle to resolve one-sided love. Juri’s love of Shiori is for practical purposes one-sided, because Juri can’t speak of it and Shiori can’t grasp her own feelings. Juri seeks the miracle of Shiori’s acceptance, or perhaps the bigger miracle of a society where Juri can come out of the closet without risking her position of power. The miracle of Juri’s discarded locket appearing in Shiori’s room in episode 17 is represented by an orange flower. In the Keiko-Touga umbrella story of episode 21, Keiko’s umbrella is orange for her one-sided love of Touga, and she wears yellow. Kanae wears orange because she loves Anthy. Orange is associated with Utena mainly through the basketball, when she miraculously defeats the boys’ basketball team. The basketball represents her power of miracles, which she derived due to one-sided love of Dios. Orange and red are the colors of sunset and fire, and therefore of endings. Orange sunset comes before Akio’s corrupt night. The Routine Date and the final showdown start at sunset and continue into night; both are associated with Utena’s miracles and Utena’s one-sided love—actual one-sided love of Akio and apparent one-sided love of Anthy. In episodes 32, 36, and 37, green bed sheets turn orange at sunrise, associated with both miracles and one-sided love.

The tying of miracles with one-sided love accompanies many other cases of twinning in Utena: Anthy and Utena, Kozue and Miki, Akio and Touga, ....

       Yellow is Nanami’s color and refers to qualities associated with Nanami: Primarily jealousy and envy, but also associated qualities like immaturity. Yellow means jealousy by Japanese cultural association; that’s what a yellow rose means. Nanami is jealous of all the girls who chase Touga (at least she believes she is). Mikage confirms the association of yellow with jealousy when he calls Nanami a jealous queen. Mitsuru’s color is yellow; he envies Touga for his big brother role. Keiko wears yellow and has a yellow panel in her umbrella when she offers Touga her umbrella; she is jealous of Nanami’s closeness to Touga. These three characters are also immature; immaturity causes envy (children in Utena want to be adults), and jealousy is toxic and causes immature behavior. Nanami has childish ignorance and fear; Mitsuru is a child; Keiko behaves childishly in becoming Nanami’s minion, and then in rebelling against her minion role. Nanami is immature in harrassing Anthy; bothering the one you like is common at a young age. Nanami is explicitly shown to be childish in Nanami’s Egg, episode 27: She dreams she is a little girl, she digs in the sandbox and finds an egg, and she hides the egg from Touga behind her back. When she wakes up, she finds an egg and behaves essentially the same.

In the first version of the prince story, little Utena wears yellow and vows to become a prince against a yellow background. It is envy of the coolness of the prince, due to childishness.

       Green is Saionji’s color, and it ought to refer to qualities associated with Saionji. Semi-anonymous Nick suggested to me that green means control, and after looking at a bunch of examples I agree. It can be control of others or control by others: Akio’s eyes are green because he sees control of others; Anthy’s eyes are green because she sees control by others (though she controls others too). Saionji’s hair is dark green; he tries to control others by force. He feels outdone by Touga, so I take it to be his attempt to maintain agency; men are supposed to be in control. Kanae’s hair is light green because she is controlled with a light touch by her father and by Akio, and because she tries to control Anthy. Plants are green because Anthy guides and manipulates them; see Anthy watering her roses.

       Blue-green means illusions and control, that is, illusions that are forced on you by manipulation. Nick also suggested the green/blue-green continuum. Blue-green is the color of the tassels of Anthy’s epaulets. The tassels represent water, which represents illusion. Princess Utena’s tassels are a lighter shade than Anthy’s (see first ending sequence for pictures). The paler blue-green of the student uniforms suggests youth and growth, like a young leaf (which is what Wakaba’s name means), but implies that the students are force-fed illusions as part of their education—that’s what it means when Anthy waters her roses, which claims that people need illusions to live. Utena escapes some of the illusions (male/female roles) by not wearing the color, but is subject to others (sex as a gate to adulthood). The lamps in the library are blue-green: The dark library spreads illusions by announcing them as knowledge. The pillows on the S-shaped bed are blue-green; dreams are illusions (see dreams - Buddhist awakening). The gem in the guard of the Sword of Dios is blue-green; Utena was tricked into believing in the prince.

       Blue is associated with water and means illusions, as established in episode 17 with Ganymede. Water is also tears. The sky is blue and the ocean is blue, so the Academy and the world are embedded in illusions. Birds in the sky suggest freedom, but the blue sky says that the freedom is illusory; you are still under the system of control. Light blue and dark blue are different; see Ruka’s two-tone hair as he undertakes evil acts in an attempt to do one good thing. Miki’s blue hair and Utena’s blue eyes suggest naivety, the acceptance of illusions due to not knowing better. Ruka’s dark blue likely means that he suffers a deeper illusion.

       Purple means corruption. If you like you can say “evil” instead. Anthy’s hair and Saionji’s eyes are purple (Saionji sees in a corrupted way). Akio wears a purple tie and is associated with a purple rose. Nanami wears purple when taking particularly corrupt actions, and has purple fringes on her epaulets, representing her control over her corrupt minions. Kozue’s hair is shaded toward purple compared to Miki’s. Utena wears purple in the Routine Date when she is at her most deeply corrupted. When we see purple clouds in views of stars, it implies corruption in the scene. The gem in the guard of Anthy’s sword is purple.

       White means purity... occasionally. It can mean purity in Utena’s red-striped date dress in the First Seduction. Mostly white is the prince’s color, and is not pure. Dios is a fictional patriarchal good guy, and fictional good guys are associated with white. Dios is associated with the sun, and white can be the white sun of truth. In some cases white seems to stand for Dios’s sexism. Akio wears white in his prince uniform—he was the prince, and he seeks to regain the Power of Dios. The student council members wear white because they seek the Power of Dios. Since Akio is associated with black darkness, his appropriation of Dios’s white (though it honestly indicates his goal) is a kind of lie. Utena usually gets a white rose on her chest because she wants to be a prince, or because she acts as a prince, or because of her connection with Dios (but she often gets pink spinning roses because her color is pink). When Keiko in episode 21 sees Touga in the rain, she gets a white rose because he is her prince. Mrs. Ohtori in episode 30 gets a white rose because Akio is her prince.

       Black is Akio’s color: Akio is black night, the opposite of Dios who is white day. The stars, the moon, and Venus shine at night; all are associated with Akio. Night is a time of dreams and corruption, means by which Akio seeks and gains control. Akio is a non-fictional patriarchal bad guy, but he believes in fiction, and bad guys are associated with black. Black is the color of the castle in the sky. Black is the color of shadows and silhouettes, which remain illusions even as they point to the truth. Clothing color usually (possibly always) tells what people seek, not what they are. Utena’s uniform jacket is black (with blue highlights) because she wants Akio, or because in her role as prince she is patriarchal like Akio. There are more possible reasons; keep reading.

Akio stands for the patriarchy, so black means patriarchy. Black means aloneness and emptiness, because Akio is alone and empty (he trusts no one but Anthy, who he controls). The darkness of the library means ignorance—emptiness of knowledge. The castle is empty, a promise that brings nothing. Utena is lonely; she had a lonely childhood and at the start of the series has only one friend, Wakaba. Touga repeatedly remarks on her loneliness. In the dorm with only Anthy around, she wishes for more people. Black darkness around Anthy in episode 33 as she phones Akio in the car shows Anthy’s aloneness (which she normally enjoys, but not that time). All these things are Akio’s doing.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 12 December 2021
updated 17 April 2024