In progress. The duel songs are difficult and obscure. I expect this write-up to creep along slowly. The first two entries absorbed tons of time; I had to research almost everything. Some of the following ones have been easier.
The lyrics consistently draw on Utena’s structure of metaphors. They make heavy use of parataxis, with strings of grammatically unconnected noun phrases. It’s like a slide show of varied objects where you’re left on your own to figure out how they go together. The effect is fragmentary but also dense and suggestive... and murky. The range of possible interpretations tends to be wide—no doubt intentionally so. I’ll try.
- Absolute Destiny Apocalypse (Zettai Unmei Mokushiroku)
Student Council arc
- episode 1 - When Where Who Which
- episode 2 - The Paleozoic Inside the Body (Nikutai no Naka no Koseidai)
- episode 5 - Spira Mirabilis Theater (Spira Mirabilis Gekijou)
- episode 7 - Angel Creation, Namely Light (Tenshi Souzou Sunawachi Hikari)
“Absolute” isn’t used like that in English, but I can’t suggest a better translation. No other word comes as close to catching the range of meaning of the original zettai. The other choices are “definite” or “certain” which catch much of it, but don’t have the right feeling.
The song is catchy. It has to be, to withstand so much repetition.
Empty Movement has collected several English translations, so English speakers can try to triangulate the original meanings. “Apocalypse” should be read as both “end of the world” and “revelation”. See cool stuff - apocalypse.
I break the lyrics down into a sequence of themes. The song plays while Utena is alone on the screen, so it may well be written from her point of view.
Theme 1: Records of life. The records are of birth, baptism, death. Records are of events that have already happened; they are absolute. The frame is Christian: The apocalypse is the Christian Apocalypse, and baptism is a Christian ritual. Marriage is not mentioned. Utena does not marry Akio despite his attempt, and can’t marry Anthy. (Same-sex marriage was not allowed anywhere in the world in 1997.)
Baptism by dipping in water is meaningful: A baby is to be introduced early to the water of illusions.
Theme 2: My birth. Only events that have happened, or are inevitable, can be “absolute”. If I am alive, my birth is definite, which you can call absolute. Baptism is not mentioned, suggesting that Utena was not baptized. There is one sign that she might be Christian: Her parents are given a Christian burial in a churchyard. If so, she doesn’t seem particularly devout. The church may have been Akio’s choice, and have no connection with Utena’s family. The church is patriarchal and therefore under Akio’s control, so it would make sense.
Theme 3: Paradise and paradise lost. The line about a dark desert is written in a non-standard hard-to-interpret way, but I think the midwife and wet nurse translations are correct-ish. I would put “a midwife and wet nurse in a desert of darkness” because the wording suggests a figurative meaning for the desert, and hints that the two jobs are held by the same person.
The context remains Christian. In line 2 of this stanza, the key word is tougenkyou, earthly paradise. In line 4, it is shitsurakuen, which refers to John Milton’s book-length poem Paradise Lost, using a different word for paradise. Paradise Lost is about kicking Adam and Eve out of Eden. Therefore the paradise of line 2 is Eden.
The stanza tells the same story as Milton in fewer words. The first line is about being born, or for Adam and Eve being created. The second line is life in Eden. Eden is “gold-plated”, not solid gold, which to me suggests that it is a false paradise, made to look better than it is—after all, it was brought about in a dark (corrupt) desert. The third line is about time, the opposing round of day and night. Dios is the white light of day, Akio is the darkness of night. I don’t find the word gyakumawari in the dictionary, but it means reverse turning and seems to suggest time running backward. The fourth line is life after Eden, after Eve and Adam are corrupted by eating the apple. I speculate that the lost paradise is plated with time because its inner nature is lost to memory—like the gold plating, the time plating hides reality.
Theme 4: Darkness. I would like to translate the darkness stanza a little more poetically than any of Empty Movement’s collected versions. They all sound slightly off to my ear.
The darkness of Sodom
The darkness of light
The darkness beyond
Darkness without end
The darkness is everywhere. I take it that Sodom (another word from Christianity) stands for corruption, which started the darkness. Traditionally Sodom stands for homosexuality, which the system of control considers a form of corruption. The darkness of light means the corruption of Dios, who is the light of the world. But the darkness extends beyond and has no end: The corruption started in one place, and now the whole world is corrupt. Akio runs everything.
Theme 5: Scrambled syllables. Mokushi by itself means apocalypse. These lines scramble the three syllables into all six possible permutations. You might say that the apocalypse is mixed up, or at least the information about it is.
When Utena’s “self” is born, she is despondent because her parents have died. That can be the desert she is born into. Dios is her midwife, and the Academy is (or else fairy tales are) her wet nurse. A world with a prince is a relative paradise. She eventually learns that she lives in a dark world. This reading is kind of artificial, and I’m not satisfied with it. But there should be a reading of the lyrics where they describe Utena’s experiences or her journey.
Elsewhere, Anthy is equated with Eve, and Eve’s apple is a prominent symbol. Anthy as Eve corrupts Dios as Adam, who becomes Akio, and both are expelled from Eden. It’s a consistent metaphor through Utena, and definitely an intended reading. This reading describes the world Utena lives in.
In the last duel, there will be an apocalypse. The apocalypse/revelation is certain (“absolute”) because if Akio wins he will bring his revolution and destroy the old world, bringing permanent darkness, and if Utena wins she will have a revelation and bring some light. Time running backward suggests that Akio can be defeated: Unlike the corruption of man, the corruption of Akio is not permanent and can be reversed. Then again, time running backward also suggests unnatural actions by Akio, the inversion of time as compared to the inversion of space that means illusion.
Not quite everything fits my interpretations. There is more I haven’t figured out.
Saionji’s duel “Friendship”. The title and first words are in English. The Empty Movement collection of translations comes with notes that help to an extent. The last (rightmost) English translation, attributed to Robert Paige and the Utena Translation Project, is the most poetic; it’s my favorite of these. All the translations are somewhat interpretive, because the original is vague and hard to understand.
This one I analyze by key words, a smaller grain size than themes.
Questions. It’s the first duel. Utena challenged Saionji without knowing about the dueling system, and yet here we are at a fantastic dueling arena. They can be the viewer’s questions, “What in the Museum of Modern Art is going on here?” They can be Utena’s questions, though it’s not obvious she has any. And they can be questions about what happens next.
Cage of memories. Symbolic cages in Utena imprison women. The cage of memories should mean inability to get beyond your past. Utena is caged by her memory of meeting the prince, Miki is caged by his memory of the sunlit garden, etc.
Blood. On the face of it, it’s the blood of injury. Other possibilities are menstrual blood and the blood of inheritance.
Cradle. A reference to birth, and it is associated with a paradise.
Thousand years. The thousand year bit is a reference to Christian millennialism (Wikipedia), which I had heard of but knew nothing about. Satan is imprisoned for a thousand years, bringing about a paradise on Earth.
Actor. Playing a role is a common Utena metaphor.
Eternity. In Utena, a lure to manipulate people. I don’t think that’s its whole meaning.
Desert. The desert appeared in Absolute Destiny Apocalypse above, where it was a birthplace. It’s still a birthplace here, associated with a cradle. Combining the items, the supposed Eden or paradise is in fact a desert, perhaps a desert of no progress.
Winter. Cold in Utena means emotional coldness. The desert above was dark (corrupt). The desert here is cold (cruel). No doubt both are desolate.
Sphinx. The sphinx’s riddles go with the questions of the title. “I” am the sphinx, so apparently “I” ask the questions.
Phinx. It’s no more than an echo of “sphinx”, as far as I can tell. In the Japanese lyrics, the stanza ends “sphinx phinx”.
Holiness. The holy actor contrasts with the following hell.
Hell or naraka (pronounced naraku in Japanese). The word translated as “abyss” or “hell” is specifically a Buddhist hell (Wikipedia), one of a realm of hells where souls work off their karma through suffering. It can mean abyss by extension; the hell is imagined as being far below.
Burning. It seems to be the fire of creation, not the fire of destruction as elsewhere in Utena. The word translated variously as “awaken”, “fade”, and “cool down” is written ambiguously and can mean any of those.
Birth. The birth is made explicit. This looks like Buddhist reincarnation, where on death the soul is reborn instantly, and again after each life. See samsara for the main Utena reference.
The questions are not necessarily Utena’s questions, but I think they point to Utena’s ignorance. Neither she, nor we the viewers, know much of what is going on at this point.
The “I” is watashi, which is usually (not always) a female choice of first person pronoun. It’s not the word Utena uses for herself (she says boku, a male choice; see Utena and Anthy speech patterns), and she does not talk the way the lyrics are written, but I have to take the speaker as representing Utena in an abstract way. By contrast with the next episode’s duel song, I think that the speaker is little Utena, not the current Utena (though little Utena uses a different pronoun yet, “atashi”). Utena is hurt and trapped (flow of blood, etc.) by the death of her parents and the events in the church. She plays a role in Utena’s metaphorical sense, and we can say that she plays the role of the Sphinx in Utena: Her purpose in the series is to pose questions about human society that we must answer if we are to make progress. She is holy in the sense that she is opposed to the devil Akio, but Akio is in control; Utena is dead and in a coffin, lonely and cruelly treated in a desert, and cast into hell.
Most of the words are not closely coordinated with events on the screen, but the final stanza is: It matches up with Utena’s charge, where she defeats Saionji with the stub of a bamboo practice sword. The lines about burning can be read as forging a sword. A new blade will glow red after tempering, then “sing” as it is quenched. The blade cools down and fades, and then is “awake” or born as a live sword. Utena’s sword is created at this moment, although it is not drawn from her heart until episode 25. It suggests that Utena’s sword is distinct from the Sword of Dios, even though they look identical. The stanza is a metaphor of the forging of a new prince; Utena is now awake as a prince. In this duel, Utena does not wear the prince uniform with epaulets; afterward, she has become a prince and always wears it during a duel.
The cycle of reincarnation (samsara) has more than one interpretation. Most directly, Utena is stuck in it, and does not escape until the final episode. The Christian arrival song and Buddhist episode 1 duel song are the first hints of Utena’s opposed parallel religious metaphors in the final episode; they open the circle that the final episode closes. The cycle can also be the sequence of heroes, each hero inspired by the one before and then going beyond.
The lyrics are even more obscure than the arrival song. I surely haven’t found everything.
Saionji’s second duel, “Choice”. The Empty Movement collection of translations is not as good this time. I don’t like any of the translations. For example, the first word is rendered as “celestial” or “astrologic”. In the context of all the technical scientific terms, the right word choice is “astronomic”.
I analyze by stanza. I have basic knowledge of paleontology, so this is an easy one for me.
Stanza 1, origin of life. Conditions and time spans associated with the origin of life on Earth.
Stanza 2, geological periods. The Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, and Devonian are the first four periods of the Paleozoic, in order. Collenia (Wikipedia) is a bacterium that formed stromatolites (Wikipedia) before the Paleozoic. The Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous are the periods of the Mesozoic, which followed the Paleozoic. We have the greater part of the Paleozoic flanked by times before and after.
Stanza 3, fossil organisms. All these except the last are plants that evolved in the Paleozoic. Some are extinct, some still around. The last, ammonites (Wikipedia), are buoyant shellfish, more closely related to squids and octopuses than to any other shellfish. Ammonites look like they’re related to the nautilus and floated in a similar way, but the relationship is distant. Ammonites proper did not exist until the Jurassic, long after the Paleozoic, though they belong to the wider group of ammonoids that is Paleozoic. They were successful for a long time and went extinct alongside the dinosaurs.
Stanza 4, fantasy organisms. Searose, etc. These are made-up names for ocean organisms. The rose, lily, apple and bud are common in Utena, and the angel, mirror, and door are around too. The umikagerou or sea-kagerou is ambiguous. It can be the mayfly, an insect which famously lives only a day. The implication of brief existence is there in Japanese too. It can mean heat shimmer, when light refracts near the surface due to temperature differences, like on a hot road, creating a wavering image. (Translating it as “haze” without anything more is misleading.) Heat shimmer can create mirages, which is to say, illusions. I expect that both meanings are intended. The stanza ends with Carboniferous and Permian, the final periods of the Paleozoic and the ones not mentioned in stanza 2.
Stanza 5, you and me. The sea-you and sea-me are also fantasy organisms. All have roots in the Paleozoic, so that the Paleozoic tells their story.
Stanza 6, marine mammals. “Like a whale, like a dolphin, like a seal”—it’s not a complete claim, but continues into the final stanza. All marine mammals evolved after ammonites were extinct.
Stanza 7, the bottom of the ocean. “The bottom of the sea, where I can be myself.” The stanza is a string of unconnected noun phrases, but in English it helps to add some connective tissue. The word for “I” is boku, which is Utena’s choice for herself.
It starts with the origin of life and continues to the Paleozoic. The basic body plans of all animals evolved by the Cambrian period, the first period of the Paleozoic. Many additions and refinements have evolved since, but always by building on the basics. In a real sense, the Paleozoic is in your body.
The stromatolites come up just after Saionji exclaims “Got you!” They correspond to Saionji, who is more primitive than a Paleozoic organism. The Paleozoic plants correspond to Academy students, who have plant names. The are cultivated like roses in Anthy’s greenhouse. Utena has a plant name too, but at the end of the song it’s made clear that Utena is the later-evolving ammonite. Ammonites were varied, often beautiful, and sometimes spectacularly strange—a good metaphor for Utena and her individualism. Ammonite shells are often in the shape of a spira mirabilis, a symbol in Miki’s episode 5 duel song.
The fantasy organisms tie the ocean to Utena’s other symbols, including the characters—the ocean is all-encompassing. The ocean is made of water, which stands for illusions in the form of false cultural narratives. The ocean is primordial and life started there: We start out full of illusions, and may perhaps evolve to learn better as Utena finally does. The ocean seems to stand for our cultural environment, and the organized complex organisms that came to inhabit it point to the organized complexity of our culture.
The marine mammals evolved the latest of all, and breathe air: They returned to the ocean from land. They should be the ones who have evolved to know better—but they still live in a culture, and interact with those who have always lived with illusions.
The male pronoun in the last stanza makes Utena the speaker. In the previous episode, Utena was the speaker but used a female pronoun. I think the contrast is significant: Only after the first duel does she actively work toward her goal of being a prince. Before, she was little Utena or pre-prince Utena and spoke as a girl; now she is prince Utena and speaks as a boy. She dives like a marine mammal, but she is not a marine mammal, she is an earlier ammonite (extinct by the time marine mammals evolved). She dives to the bottom of the ocean to be her “self” in the sense of episode 12: A prince. It’s only possible for one who lives with illusions.
Far easier to understand than the episode 1 duel song, at least for me. But I still didn’t quite get everything.
Miki’s duel, “Intellect”. The Empty Movement collection of translations is not bad for this one.
I analyze by symbol.
Theater. Utena presents itself like a stage play, and playing a role is an important symbol.
Special person. The special person with a special spirit can only be Miki or Anthy. Miki is a special person, who Akio judged possibly capable of gaining the power of miracles. Anthy is special because Miki sees her as special. Utena does not fit because of the association with the “collective phenomenon”; Utena’s specialness is an individual phenomenon. Based on the fantasy-reality and the purity drama, I conclude that it means Miki specifically.
Collective phenomenon. Cultural phenomena are collective.
Fantasy-reality. Miki’s view, and the view of the system of control which has brought Miki into its fold to impel him into the duel.
Operating table? Shipwreck? I don’t know.
Purity drama. Rather than a pure drama (in the sense of a play), I read it as a drama of purity. Miki is innocent and “pure” and suffers from naive illusions, as symbolized by his blue hair. The other reading is not wrong.
Spira mirabilis is a logarithmic spiral (Wikipedia). Like samsara, it symbolizes regeneration without change, that is, eternity, because it is self-similar with respect to scale: If you expand or contract it, you get an identical logarithmic spiral that can be moved to overlie the original exactly. Ammonite shells are often (not always) logarithmic spirals. See spirals for more.
Whirlpool. Another spiral. The spiral on the dueling forest gate represents a whirlpool. See turning left for a picture and mention of spiral movement. The whirlpool stanza is about the self-similarity property of the logarithmic spiral. It says that generations pass, each larger than the last, but each bent in the same shape. Miki is caught in the whirlpool, as he is caught in the spiraling generations.
Spirit of illusion. Illusions in Utena are false beliefs, commonly caused by Akio’s lies, especially his false cultural narratives. Miki is only one victim.
Alchemy. I speculate that it refers to false traditions and miracles, so that it aligns with Dios and his miracles in the next item below.
Sacred scarab is Scarabaeus sacer (Wikipedia), a species of dung beetles. Huh. That was out of nowhere. Wikipedia says “To the Ancient Egyptians, S. sacer was a symbol of Khepri, the early morning manifestation of the sun god Ra.” Maybe the sacred scarab means Dios, who is the sun and sometimes brings miracles with the dawn.
Immortality. Death and rebirth. Akio is immortal, because he represents the stasis of the immortal system of control as generations pass. Immortality, spirals, and death and rebirth belong to the same symbol complex.
I don’t see much left to interpret. The symbols call out Miki’s naivety and imagination and vaguely describe the social system he lives under and the stasis it causes.
Juri’s duel, “Love”. The Empty Movement collection of translations.
The words are tough to interpret and took me a crazy amount of time. And it hurt my brain to research Freudian malarkey.
The word sunawachi is strangely awkward to translate poetically. It means about the same, and has the same number of syllables as, “that is to say” or “in other words”, but English syllables are heavier and it feels off. “That is” is ambiguous in some contexts. I settled on “namely”, though it doesn’t feel quite right either. Maybe “i.e.” is clearest, but it’s an alien Latin abbreviation. I’m tempted to translate it as “equals” which is not literal but sounds good. Well, all translations ever are wrong, and it’s nothing to complain too much about.
The lyrics have a hierarchical structure. I analyze by segments, lines whose meanings group them together. I also mark the stanzas according to the written lyrics, to make it easier to stay on track in the forest of text. I made a more literal translation for analysis, and a more polished translation after the analysis.
|all creation’s light||banshou “all creation” means all natural phenomena|
|child of dawn angel Lucifer||literal|
Stanza 1. This tells us that the title “angel creation” or “angelic creation” means the creation of an angel, not a creation by an angel. It says the angel is light in various forms.
I’m not sure about “mosaic light.” The transliteration mozaiko is not standard in Japanese; it is normally mozaiku. There may be a pun or reference I’m not getting. I learned that in early Christian art, including mosaics, Lucifer may be represented with a halo because he is an angel. Maybe if I knew art history I could say more. Another idea is that the many small tiles of a mosaic are parallel to the varied natural phenomena of “all creation”.
Lucifer (Wikipedia) is from Latin and means “light bringer”. To the Romans, Lucifer represented Venus as the morning star. Later, Christians decided that Lucifer was a name of the devil, once an angel in heaven, now fallen to evil. Akio calls on this history when explaining his name to Utena in episode 25, naming himself after Venus and calling himself Lucifer to say that he was Dios and fell to become evil Akio.
Child of dawn Lucifer means Dios.
|apocalypse light||“apocalyptic light” is fine|
|Michael’s light||archangel and chief of angels|
|child of darkness androgyne||literal|
Archangel Michael (Wikipedia) is associated with the apocalypse—and with battle against the forces of hell. He’s in charge of the heavenly host, which is to say, the army of angels. Japanese andorogyunus is a transliteration of “androgynous”, but it is not an adjective like the English word. It is a noun. So to be literal I translated it as “androgyne”, a person who is androgynous. The translation as “androgynous” is natural and is not wrong—it’s normal to use the noun as a modifier—but I decided that it’s a little more interpretive.
The darkness-born androgyne is Akio, who is both patriarch and princess. Dios is the light of the world, Akio is the darkness of the world, and they are the same person.
The two segments contrast the light of creation—dawn and variety—with the light of destruction—apocalypse and combat. I associate variety with individual freedom; to me dawn means Dios and the variety of creation means Utena. She is primordial too.
|fire’s light||“firelight” suggests the wrong things|
|the hierarchy of heaven||presumably the hierarchy of God and angels|
Apparently Lucifer/Dios is also Prometheus and brings fire. He is the sun, bringing light from the sky. He is an angel in heaven, but rebels against the hierarchy, wanting to be on top. The desire to control women is as much part of Dios’s character as Akio’s.
I take the lines as positive and associated with Dios. Fire is a tool, and heaven’s light is day. The hierarchy of heaven ensures order. But there is a turn toward the negative: Fire can be the fire of destruction or the fire of hell, and the hierarchy of heaven is what Lucifer rebels against. The variety of creation includes evil, and an angel can fall and become a devil.
|fantasy contrivance||an ambiguous line|
|capricious birth||presumably “a capricious birth”|
More kinds of light that Lucifer brings. Akio brings illusions, claims of eternity, and fantasy. He dangles eternity as a lure, and his system of control is meant to be eternal.
Line 3 that I mark as ambiguous I tried to translate ambiguously. Karakuri means a device, either a physical mechanism or a trick or ploy to achieve something. English “contrivance” has the same two meanings. The planetarium projector is a device to display fantasies—it produces illusory light, including the illusion of eternity in the shape of the castle in the sky. Akio uses fantasies as a trick to enforce his power.
Line 4 is ambiguous too. I think the most natural interpretation is that it refers to a specific capricious birth, Dios turning into Akio. It can mean the birth of capriciousness: Akio’s authoritarian ruling style is capricious.
I take these two segments as contrasting the good light of Dios with the illusory, fantasy light of Akio. Lucifer brought them both; we can read them as part of the variety of creation. (This interpretation of the variety of creation excludes Utena, though.)
|Nyx (dark night)||goddess of darkness|
|Erebus (dimness)||god of darkness|
|Uranus (starry sky)||god of the sky|
|Thanatos (death)||god of death|
Stanza 2. The written Japanese lyrics gloss the Greek gods, so I translated the glosses (why not?). They’re not sung. (They seem to be taken from the karaoke version, where I guess they were added to clue in Japanese, who won’t recognize them.) The one I translated as “dimness” suggests strangeness and otherworldliness. The glosses don’t correspond exactly to the gods, except for Thanatos. Uranus is the sky in general, but is associated with the starry sky in at least some ancient Greek writing. Of course Akio is also associated with the starry sky.
All are associated with Akio, the darkness of the world, who is celestial and puts people in metaphorical and sometimes literal coffins. We started with a contrast and unification of Dios and Akio, then a similar contrast that emphasized Dios’s potential to turn into Akio, and now we are all Akio all the time.
|shining body, gynous sphere||keeping the lineation of the original|
|born in every miracle, gynous|
Stanza 3. Gyunusu and “gynous” are not standard words in either language. Both are the tail of “androgynous” and must mean a female. Like andorogyunus, it is a noun, but this time I felt I had to translate it as an adjective. The DVD subtitles and most of the Empty Movement translations give “Gyes”, but I don’t know where that came from (translating by ear without hearing the “nu” syllable?). The blu-ray subtitles correct the error.
Gyes, usually Gyges, was one of the Hecatoncheires (Wikipedia) or Hundred-Handers who fought with Zeus against the Titans. That’s not totally irrelevant to Utena but is out of place here. His body was certainly not a sphere.
The gynous spheres are celestial bodies that give light: The sun, the moon, Venus. The moon and Venus are female in Greek myth, and all are female in Utena’s system of sex symbols because they are round. Dios is the sun. Akio is the moon and Venus. Akio is also Princess Kaguya, the shining princess from the moon, another association with light. Akio’s planetarium projector has two spheres that shine; maybe one of them is the moon and the other is Venus.
|the pleasure principle|
|the nirvana principle|
The pleasure principle (Wikipedia) is the simple idea that we seek pleasure. Freud took it as a starting point in working out his crackpot theory of mind. The nirvana principle (psychology dictionary) is the Freudian idea that “all instincts and life principles aim to remove all tension and seek the only stable organic state, death.” Can you doubt that Freud was a crackpot? I can’t. It’s named after the Buddhist ideal of dying without reincarnation; see samsara.
In the Bible, death came into the world because Eve and Adam ate of the apple—because Anthy and Utena (see Eve) fell for Akio’s temptations. The three items here are attributed to light, that is, to Lucifer, aka Dios and Akio.
Stanza 4. I divided the stanza into three segments because of internal parallelism. It is the next closest thing to impenetrable, which is probably why the collected translations are so varied. My attempt is different too. It’s Juri’s duel, but this is the first place I see possible references to Juri.
I have information that my translation and interpretation here is off. Stand by for corrections once I have hit the books again, this time harder. I was serious when I said it is the next closest thing to impenetrable....
|lifeless,||hard to understand|
|the phenomenon of motile life||nekton (Wikipedia) and perhaps land animals|
The first line is already tricky. Izu is an archaic word for “where”, so the tone is old-fashioned and literary. Imagine it’s Shakespeare, if you like. This sentence no verb, so the size of the grammatical unit is unclear, but the style of the duel songs says it is short. The literal meaning is “if [something unspecified] is alive, then where [is it]?” The natural implication is “nowhere”, because the grammatical construction implies that the answer is bad in some way. I haven’t studied classical Japanese, and I had to piece it together. I read up and learned that this style of implication is not rare in classical Japanese.
The relation of classical literary Japanese to modern Japanese society is different from the relation of Shakespearean English to the English-speaking world, but it’s the closest parallel.
What does it mean? How can life be lifeless? Hold on; I think it has to be interpreted in light of the next segment.
|in the cerebral universe,||presumably the universe of the mind|
|the form of drifting life||plankton, carried by the current|
“Drifting” or “floating” life has to remind me of ukiyo (Wikipedia), the hedonistic “floating world” lifestyle that developed in Edo-period cities—whose very name is a pun about ignoring troubles. It suggests lack of serious purpose—as we say here and now, going with the flow.
Empty Movement transliterates the verb for drifting as “samayotteiru”, which is not what is written. It is hard to hear because Utena is lunging and Juri is speaking. It would mean “wandering”. It’s close in both sound and meaning, but I judge that the written “tadayotteiru” is probably correct.
I take it that “in the cerebral universe” means in the mind. Imaginary life is not alive; that is why it is lifeless. The segments contrast active movement with passive drifting. It reminds me of Juri: She passively waits for the miracle of Shiori understanding her feelings. Other characters actively seek their goals. Utena was passive until she fell into the dueling system, but then actively worked to become a prince.
|apparition of the light of hope||hard to understand|
|the promise of eternity!||vague|
|namely the imperfect returning to the origin||presumably its origin|
I had to look up 仮現 kagen. The dictionary says it means “incarnation”, the temporary appearance of a god or buddha in bodily form. But it doesn’t seem to be quite right. I looked around at related terms: Kagensetsu is Docetism (Wikipedia)—never heard of it—the belief that Jesus’s appearance on Earth was not a flesh-and-blood incarnation but somehow non-real. Kagen undou is “apparent movement” like the perceived movement of animation when it’s actually one still frame after another. The word kagen seems to be related to illusion, more like “apparition” than “incarnation”. The other word on that line, the first one, means literally “lamp” or figuratively “hope”. I expect both meanings are intended; it ties to light again.
The second-to-last line, with eternity, is hard to translate because it is vague. The verb can mean to promise, to expect, to hope. The closest match I can find in English is “promise” used with an abstraction. For example, “the promise of freedom” is ambiguous between a literal promise (“I’ll let you go”) and a hope or expectation (“freedom will be great”).
There is Juri’s passive hope again. She does not seek eternity, though.
|both sexes, both poles||north and south poles, or positive and negative poles|
|two of me|
|up and down, left and right|
|two of me|
|front and back, heaven and earth||or “before and after”, or “in front and behind”|
|two of me|
|two of me|
Stanza 5. “I” (whoever that is) am both extremes of various ranges or dichotomies. Lucifer can be “I” as Dios and Akio. So can Anthy and Utena, as one person unwound into twins. It could be anyone, though: Characters in Utena are commonly paired, and characters commonly have hidden motivations which they may or may not realize themselves, splitting them into apparent and actual persons.
|I am hollow hollow hollow...||written Japanese lyrics are wrong|
Stanza 6. The Japanese lyrics in writing, most places I’ve found them, read naka wa kuudou, naka wa kuudou, naka wa kuudou..., “hollow inside” repeated. The sole exception is the karaoke version, where they read naka wa kuudou kuudou kuudou. It’s the right meaning, but the actual words sung in the series are naka wa utsuro utsuro utsuro, “inside is a hollow”. The karaoke version can be taken as correct if you know that J.A. Seazer likes to write words in nonstandard ways to draw in extra associations, but if you don’t call out that what’s pronounced doesn’t match what’s written, expect confusion. No matter the choice of words, there is an implicit pronoun: “I am hollow inside, hollow....”
Above, “I” am at two extremes. Here, “I” have nothing in the middle: “I” am centrifugal.
The song is about Dios and Akio, who are angel and devil, patriarch and princess, etc. There are two of him. Dios as prince is a fantasy contrivance, and Akio had a capricious birth (see Anthy’s corruption). Akio attempting to regain the power of miracles is the imperfect one trying to return to its origin. “I” refers to Akio. Akio is hollow, unable to make progress (as Anthy says in the final episode, he is trapped in a coffin).
Every part can be read as about Dios and/or Akio. The references to Juri are incidental. They come about because Akio sees Juri as a defective version of himself. He looks at everyone that way; see duel symbols - Akio contains multitudes.
Smoothness and natural interpretation over literalness. Well, interpretations that feel natural to me. I’m known for a deficient sense of strangeness. A disadvantage is that alternative interpretations can be obscured.
Jay Scott <firstname.lastname@example.org>
first posted 4 February 2023
updated 6 September 2023