Utena - dreams

the big picture

Dreams are illusions. Dreams are not real. As illusions, they fall within Akio’s purview.

Buddhist awakening. If you are not awakened (in English we commonly say enlightened), then you are metaphorically dreaming: Your daily experiences are illusions, which are false and constitute suffering. If you awaken, you see the truth. See Buddhism - illusions.

Starting in episode 37, Utena goes through a multi-step process of awakening, where she progressively becomes aware of more of the truth. (There were earlier steps. In episode 11 she learned that she did not understand Anthy. In episode 23 she realized that Anthy cannot quit the Rose Bride role. Her visions in episode 35 and episode 36 are steps too.) She drops the ring; she sits up in Akio’s car (sitting up in her coffin and looking around); she learns from Anthy in the suicide scene; she is disillusioned to meet Dios; finally she is fully awakened when she fails to rescue Anthy. She is severely injured and disappears from the Academy. From what I have learned so far, I think the irregular progress of Utena’s awakening (with a retreat in the final showdown when she becomes a prince again) more or less matches Buddhist expectations of the process of awakening.

When Utena opens Anthy’s coffin in the final episode, Anthy opens her eyes. (It was previewed in Touga’s episode 9 plot, when Anthy pretended to be unconscious.) It is the start of Anthy’s awakening. After a time, she frees herself from the illusion that Akio controls her and leaves the Academy. Even then, she is not fully awakened, because she suffers the illusion that Utena is a prince. Maybe Utena will help her fully awaken.

Dreams can be aspirations. In Japanese as in English, a dream can be either a vision you see in your sleep, or an aspiration. Akio is the darkness of the world, meaning (among other things) night. A big part of Akio’s system of control is directing people’s aspirations—controlling their waking dreams. Sleeping dreams seem to be outside Akio’s purview. In episode 18, Akio is surprised when Utena asks “is it strange to dream about the prince?” Utena’s dream vision in episode 36 is subtly cued as a miracle.

Dreams are memories. A number of dreams are presented as memories, starting with the prince story: It is Utena’s memory from when she was small. Or you could say that memories are dreams; they are illusions. I note other examples below under the little pictures.

Dreams are forgotten. For most people, when you wake up from a dream, you soon forget it. Because dreams are memories and dreams are forgotten, sleep is associated with forgetting. Akio prefers to rewrite the past into conventional, socially acceptable forms. Photography is related; it can both help and hinder the rewriting process. I think it’s connected with specialness lasts only a short time. Specialness is like a dream, and before long you wake up.

Death is like sleep. The residents of the Academy are in coffins, symbolically dead. Akio ensures that they believe illusions—false cultural narratives. Since death is like sleep, these illusions are dreams. At the end of the show, Utena’s disappearance stands for her leaving her coffin: She wakes up and forgets the dreams.

The Black Rose is a dream. Utena falls asleep at the start of the Black Rose arc (episode 14), and wakes up at its end (episode 23). Like a dream, the whole arc is forgotten. Though their effects remain, the events never happened. Dreams can be effective and change the world, even dreams that are forgotten. Utena’s dream of being a prince changes the world, even though she drops it in the end.

Utena and Chu-Chu are asleep at the table with the lights on. Utena is halfway through stemming the green beans.
Episode 14, with green beans
Utena and Anthy are holding hands late at night, Anthy still asleep.
Episode 23, with Anthy

Utena has a habit of sleeping at the table. She does it at the start and end of the Black Rose (leaving aside the recaps). Left, Anthy “visits” Akio while Utena removes the stems of green beans. Utena notices nothing strange. It’a a picture of Utena failing to understand Anthy. Then Utena sleeps. Right, Utena was asleep and wakes up to find Anthy has arrived and fallen asleep herself while holding Utena’s hand. Utena realizes Anthy cannot quit the Rose Bride role: It’s a picture of realization.

Light and dark don’t affect Utena’s realization; being awake does. It prefigures Utena’s sunrise enlightenment in episode 37. All three events are about Anthy being with Akio. In order, they have Utena falling asleep, Utena waking up, Utena staying awake.

It parallels bigger events: At first, Anthy understands the truth (and is under Akio’s control, represented by her weekly sex date) and Utena believes in a fantasy prince; Anthy is awake and Utena is dreaming. Anthy stays awake through the Black Rose, and becomes sleepy near the end. Then Anthy comes to love Utena and believe in her as a prince; Anthy is now dreaming too—she falls asleep at the end of the Black Rose. Finally Utena loses her belief in the prince and leaves the Academy; Utena wakes up while Anthy remains asleep. (Though I think the details of Anthy’s sleep through the Apocalypse Saga are more complicated than that.) Anthy’s belief in the prince is necessary for her to leave the Academy and seek Utena; see wait for me... Utena.

Utena as a whole is not a dream. Utena wakes up at the start of episode 3, after dreaming of the prince, and looks at her ring: She is waking up to her role as a prince, which was solidified in episode 2 when she acted as a prince, protecting Anthy in the duel. At the end of the show in episode 39, she gives up her role as a prince and disappears from the Academy. She barely moves (she looks toward the approaching Swords), unable after her severe injury. The prince’s day is over.

The prince is a fantasy, but a waking fantasy that allows miracles and a revolution that changes the world.

Utena as prince goes to sleep at the end of the show. Utena as buddha wakes up at the end; see Buddhist awakening above. Compare the opposed Christian and Buddhist parallels.

the little pictures

I note cases when dreams and memories are conflated. Remembering part of the prince story symbolizes discovering part of the truth: Seeing through the illusion of the dream to the facts of history.

Episode 3. Dreaming the prince story. A memory. The episode opens with the children’s cartoon prince story. Then Utena wakes up, looks at her ring, and wonders about her prince. The implication is that Utena just dreamed the prince story. She forgets the dream, at least to a large extent; when she talks about her prince, she remembers less than we saw in the children’s cartoon.

The first version of the prince story is a dream and an illusion, and every repetition can be taken as a dream.

Episode 9. Saionji’s memory of meeting little Utena in the church. A memory. It is not plainly marked as a dream—Saionji does not wake up from it—but it is presented in the same way as dreams: In subdued colors, with most characters faceless. It may be purely a memory and not a dream at all, but it is a memory like a dream.

Episode 10. Touga’s birthday party. A memory. After the scene of the birthday party, Nanami wakes up in bed; she dreamed it. Little Nanami and young Touga have faces, but in common with other dreams, nobody else does.

Episode 16. The Dona Dona sequence in episode 16, where Nanami is carted off to be slaughtered as a cow, is presented as a dream that Nanami wakes up from. Characters in the dream are faceless, like the characters in the first version of the prince story. The dream suggests that Nanami at some level understands that Touga exploits her.

Episode 18. Dreaming of the prince. A memory. When visiting Akio in episode 18, Utena starts out by asking “is it strange to dream about the prince?” It’s a sleeping dream. See the analysis there. Akio is surprised; I think he has no special insight into sleeping dreams.

Episode 19. Tatsuya. Utena tells Tatsuya she’s not dating anyone, but explains the prince and her ring. He answers that it must be nice to have a dream like that. (Wakaba in the background looks interested as he speaks, then disappointed.)

Episode 23. Nothing is eternal. A memory. In episode 23, Utena dreams part of the episode 9 version of the prince story, ending with “nothing is eternal.” She wakes up and finds sleeping Anthy holding her hand, and realizes that Anthy can’t quit the Rose Bride role. Does the dream make realization possible because it is a true memory?

Episode 24. Mitsuru’s notebook. A gag. Nanami’s reaction when Mitsuru’s sheet falls away has her breaking a window and falling—then she wakes up and finds it was a dream.

Episode 25 and later. The pillows on the S-shaped bed are blue-green and presumably stand for dreams. The blue represents that dreams are illusions, and the green represents Akio’s control over them (aspirations, not sleeping dreams), and/or the control of the dreams over the dreamer.

Episode 27. Nanami’s Egg. At the start of the episode, Nanami dreams of finding an egg in the sandbox when she was small, then wakes up. I don’t think it’s a memory, but it’s treated as if it were. She finds the egg next to her in bed.

At the end of the episode, after the egg hatches into a monster, Nanami wakes up again: It was a dream, and she finds the broken eggshell in her bed. Waking up a second time suggests that the bulk of the episode up to that point was a dream, which also explains Utena’s uncharacteristic conversation with Anthy in the greenhouse (their characteristic conversation in bed was not a dream). On the other hand, it does not explain why Chu-Chu was out for so long; if all Chu-Chu needed to do was place the broken egg, it would have been a quick task. It’s left unclear how much of Nanami’s Egg is a dream, and how much is a hoax by Anthy. But when Chu-Chu does arrive home, Anthy looks satisfied.

Episode 34. Dreaming up the prince. A memory. In episode 34, Akio drugs Utena and induces a dream of the prince story. What is his motive?

I haven’t figured it out. One theory is that, when Akio is right there and has induced the dream so he knows what it is about, he has some insight into the contents of the dream. But that’s speculative, and we know he doesn’t have insight into all dreams. Another theory is that Akio may believe that erasing Utena’s memory of the dream will erase the original memory of events too. It’s not true in the real world, and again there is no evidence. A more promising way to erase a memory is to overwrite it with a contradictory version of events.

Episode 35. Dreaming of the church. A memory. Images echo parts of the episode 23 dream of the prince story. Utena seems about to have another realization, as she did in episode 23, but Akio interrupts and prevents it. See suppressing Utena‘s memory - almost remembering.

Episode 36. Like a dream. During the Second Seduction, as Utena stands with the horse, Akio sits under a tree and gets Utena talking to verify her feelings. She says it is as if she were in a dream, and that she had a lot of fun in the horse ride. Utena at that moment sees reality as a dream and cannot recognize illusions. That’s when Akio chooses to execute the conclusive step of his seduction plot.

Episode 36. Seeing Anthy with Akio. At the end of the episode, Utena is asleep, and is awakened by a brief dream vision of little Anthy pierced by the Swords of Hatred. She seeks Anthy, and sees Anthy naked with Akio.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 16 April 2023
updated 4 April 2024