Utena - duel symbols

A sword is a male symbol. A rose on the chest is a female symbol. That is only the beginning of it. (See sex symbols for more male and female symbols.)

the arena
pulling a sword
  in the arena
  in the Black Rose
  in the final showdown
duels
target roses
bells
Black Rose
Black Rose decorations
between the legs
motivations

the arena

The dueling platform is a rose: It is on a long stalk, and the arena on top carries a rose emblem. The rose emblem on the arena represents the petals of the rose, and stands for Anthy, who the duelists fight over. The crenelations around the edge represent the rose’s calyx and stand for Utena. The arena is also associated with Utena via her name.

Dios is the Rose Prince, and the rose of the dueling arena stands for Dios as well as for Utena and Anthy. The dueling arena is not Akio’s creation, it is a part of the natural world—possibly created by Dios in a miracle (see the reference to Sailor Moon’s Galaxia). Akio had to learn how to gain access to it—that is part of what the Black Rose is about; Akio manipulated Mikage into researching the dueling arena for him.

The crenelations around the edge of the platform are from Silver Millenium, Queen Serenity’s palace on the moon in Sailor Moon. The arena is so much a place of illusions that it is on the moon, where Akio is from. See The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. In the final showdown the arena is equated with Akio’s room—he left Earth and returned there, and, according to the story, has forgotten everyone he used to know on Earth and no longer cares about them. It places the arena in the Capital of the Moon.

pulling a sword

Pulling a sword from someone’s chest in the dueling arena comes with sexualized imagery. There are three variations of drawing a sword from someone’s heart: Drawing it in the arena, having it taken involuntarily in the Black Rose, and having Akio take it with consent in the final showdown.

in the arena

Anthy’s incantation, “Power of Dios that sleeps within me” and so on, is a classic magic spell. In an animistic worldview, including in Europe until the Enlightenment era, magic is accomplished by calling on a deity or spirit, or a group of them, to perform the feat. First you invoke the spirit, then you make your request. Anthy starts the spell, then the person drawing the sword completes it. Anthy: “answer to your master and reveal—” Sword receiver: “—the power to revolutionize the world!” (It’s a grammatical inversion in Japanese, rare in everyday language but not so rare in a heightened rhetorical context like a magic spell.)

The spell doesn’t seem to be required. Maybe Akio has her speak like a magician to make her more witch-like. In any case, we’re being told that Anthy is magical. It continues from her magic in carrying out Utena’s magical girl transformation.
Who does Anthy mean when she refers to the sword’s master? I think she means herself, the one working the spell. But it’s fair to suppose that she means Dios. In that case, she is invoking Dios as a reason for the power of Dios to manifest. It’s common for a spell to give the spirit reasons to obey, because spirits have agency.
Anthy holds a ball of blue-white light in her hands. The sword from her heart will soon appear there.
ball of blue light
Anthy faces away as she prepares to let her sword be drawn. Wind lifts the skirt of her princess dress.
Student Council and Black Rose
Anthy stand in front of Utena as she prepares to draw Utena’s sword. Wind lifts the skirt of her princess dress.
Apocalypse Saga

Ball of light. The first thing to appear is a ball of light. It’s depicted as very bright; the background turns dark by comparison and characters shield their eyes from it. That makes it Dios as the sun. It is different colors in different episodes. The image is from episode 1 and the ball is blue for Saionji’s illusions. In other Student Council arc episodes, it is white for the prince. That includes episode 12 when the sword is drawn from Touga: We see Utena’s point of view, and Utena takes Touga to be a prince, so he gets the prince’s color. In episode 23, the ball of light is white in its upper half and slightly blue in its lower half. In the final showdown, when Akio draws Utena’s sword, the ball looks white but is ever so faintly yellowish, predicting Utena’s upcoming jealousy. The fuzzy glow around the edge, and the indrawn rays of light, vary in color. Anthy holds it in her hands as if it were a solid sphere, but shortly it starts to flicker, and the sword emerges through it.

Dios’s wind blows when a sword is drawn in the arena. It’s the wind of the prince’s power; see the wind catalog for the wider metaphor. When the sword is drawn from Anthy, light shines not only from the ball, but from under the skirt of her dress. The light from underneath Anthy’s dress is Dios’s pure white sunlight. It has multiple meanings. Most broadly, it is goodness as opposed to Akio’s corrupt darkness. Coming from under the dress suggests sex; see loving Dios. The sun of the Second Seduction (with its halo) is the light of love, which Dios will see as related to sex, though Akio may disagree. The sun of the three sunrises suggests insight. With the sword being drawn from the heart, and a ball of light appearing over the heart, the love and sex meanings are foremost.

When Anthy draws the sword from Utena, there is no light from under her dress, but the color matches Utena. The pink-purple color of her petticoats is the same hue as Utena’s hair, but darker.

When the sword is out, it continues drawing in a last few rays, then it flashes white for the prince. Drawing a sword from a heart seems to involve pulling in... something... from the environment, often but not always illusions. The prince in fact is an illusion—in the prince story, he is played by Akio.

Utena is about to pull out Anthy’s sword.
Student Council and Black Rose
Anthy is pulling out Utena’s sword.
Apocalypse Saga

In the stock sequences of the first two arcs, the donor of the sword (I’ll go with that language) leans back vulnerable and open, below and supported by the receiver. It could represent the smitten donor in a swoon granting her heart to the receiver. In the Apocalypse Saga it’s more symmetrical: The donor is lower, but the receiver is in a symmetrical vulnerable position; it’s a more mutual act, reflecting Utena’s promise of teamwork at the start of the arc. It strongly suggests a sex position: A progression from exerting control through sex to mutual sex. In both cases, the hilt of the sword pops out of the donor’s chest before the receiver can grasp it, so the feeling is more of giving the sword than having the sword taken. Anthy’s incantation reinforces that it is willing; it means I grant you my power (of male origin and taking male form).

Other duels: In the Apocalypse Saga duels where Utena’s opponents draw a sword, with one exception we don’t see the ball of light or the sex position pose; the characters are not real couples (not even Shiori and Ruka) and do not have metaphorical sex. The exception is the episode 36 duel, when Saionji pulls out Touga’s sword. The ball of light is pure white for the prince and it draws in red rays for Touga.

In the regular duels where the sword is drawn in the arena, the sword receiver does not touch the sword until it is mostly out of the donor’s body; see for example Shiori drawing Ruka’s sword. The sword floats out on its own, given rather than taken. It’s not the same in the Black Rose or the final showdown.

Who places this male power in each duelist’s chest? If I am right that Dios created the dueling arena with a last miracle to enable good to eventually win over evil, then Dios hands out the swords. Dios and Akio are equally patriarchal.

in the Black Rose

When a sword is drawn from a victim, which always happens away from the arena, it pops out on its own, and how it ends up in the receiver’s hands is left unseen. Wakaba’s duel is an exception; she places her hands on the sword. The sword is apparently forced out by the black rose. It is painful and involuntary and leaves the donor unconscious; the receiver (by means of the black rose) violently rapes the sword from the donor.

There is neither wind nor light when a victim’s sword is taken. The prince is not involved in Mikage’s mischief.

in the final showdown

In the final showdown, Akio lays his hand on Utena’s and Anthy’s swords and pulls them out with no discussion or ceremony. The swords do not come out on their own; they are taken. Utena and Anthy consent to it in the moment, but they are being manipulated by Akio and cannot consent freely.

Light shines and wind blows when Akio draws Utena’s sword. The prince is active—as Akio needs him to be, to gain his power. Light shines from Anthy (who is out of sight on the white sofa) when he draws Anthy’s sword. Anthy’s sword is inspired by the prince but does not embody the prince’s power, so there is no wind (that’s how I read it).

duels

A duel is a fight to deflower, but that doesn’t catch the meaning. The duelists engage in combat with their male symbols, taking female symbols as targets to destroy. Everyone, man and woman, participates in the patriarchal action to cut women down. Everyone uses male power to oppress women. That is the primary symbolism of the duels. I grant you my power that you may oppress others.

Besides sex and power, swords stand for hatred and death—not only because of the Swords of Hatred, but because the very purpose of a sword is to combat and kill those you hate. For a man, the purpose of sex is to combat those you hate. It’s chilling.

target roses

A rose is a female symbol, so a target rose on the chest is a woman. In fact, it is a specific woman—Anthy, who is the Rose Bride and Eve and a symbol of all women under the patriarchy. Many of the duelists love Anthy, and all either want her supposed power or, in the Black Rose, want to kill her. You take the Rose Bride by attacking and destroying a symbol of her. She is the ultimate scapegoat, attacked in order to be controlled. Anthy is to be killed and left in a coffin. And she is in a coffin until she leaves the Academy at the end of the series.

A target rose is the duelist’s heart. It is placed over the notional location of the heart in the body, and in the Black Rose it is directly named a “new heart”. A duel is a fight to take or protect the Rose Bride for your heart and cut her from another’s. Love turns into a violent struggle for control.

bells

The bells that ring at the start of a duel.
duel starting bells
The bells that ring at the end of a duel.
duel ending bells

The start and end of a duel are marked by the ringing of bells in a tower. The starting and ending bells are different. For example, the starting bells have prominent wheels. The different starting and ending bells should have different meanings. For the general meanings of bells, see sex symbols - bells.

The wheels are rings and relate the starting bells to vehicles for transportation.

I take the bells to be church bells, tying them to the prince story, which happened in a church. Church bells are traditionally rung on Sundays as a call to worship, on special occasions like the new year, and for weddings and funerals. The duel bells can stand for all of those, but of these, the weddings and funerals are the best fit. In episode 9, the bells ring for the funeral of Utena’s parents.

In fact, Utena conflates weddings and funerals. The male sword destroying a female flower stands for sex and death. It’s perfectly direct! Marriage symbolically ends a woman’s life because it places her under her husband’s final control. See overview of Akio and Utena - the allegory. Akio’s plots make it literal: He murders his fiancee Kanae and intends to marry Utena and then murder her. As Zeus he is married to Hera who is Anthy, and she is in for an eternity of torment rather than a life.

The duel starting bells are wedding bells. The combatant who successfully plays the male combat role becomes the husband. The loser becomes the wife, cut by the male sword, and metaphorically dies, losing her freedom as funeral bells ring. The dueling system selects the duelist with the greatest patriarchal power, which Akio wants for himself.

Touga versus Saionji. Every time we see the outcome of a practice duel between Touga and Saionji, Touga has won. Saionji is the wife of the couple, and is associated with cleaning and cooking. Touga is manipulative and Saionji is violent. In Utena, manipulation succeeds where violence fails: Manipulation has greater patriarchal power.

It tells us the basic meaning of a sword drawn from the heart: It is the duelist’s patriarchal weapon, their means of employing patriarchal power. To me, Juri’s patriarchal power stands out. She is oppressed and feels it, but she is shown as highly skilled, and Utena cannot defeat her with direct swordplay. Juri is a mighty defender of the patriarchy. Utena as prince has the greatest patriarchal power. The further she proceeds through the dueling system, the more she does Akio’s work. In the end her power becomes greater than Akio’s, and she gains insight through it and chooses to discard it. One way to look at it is that part of Akio’s power comes from knowing what he is doing; he ate of Eve’s apple and has knowledge of good and evil. Then he educates her in the Black Rose, tempts her with the apple in the First Seduction, and so on. When her power exceeds his, her knowledge necessarily does too, and being good at heart she rejects the power. This Christian view is consistent with the view of Buddhist awakening, at least as far as Utena’s knowledge goes.

Anthy leaving. The bells ring when Anthy leaves the Academy at the end. One way to look at it is that Anthy loves the patriarchy, and like Akio chooses the one with the greatest patriarchal power, not knowing that Utena has given it up. The opposite way is that she has started to hate the patriarchy, a road that Utena walked to the end of, and now follows Utena down the road. I imagine it’s both at once, in the same way that Utena is both at once. The bells are starting bells, with wheels; they are wedding bells for two women. If the couple has teamwork as promised, then there will be no funeral bells.

Contest bells. We hear other contest bells twice.

1. The fight against the kangaroo in episode 6 is a boxing match. A boxing bell rings when the kangaroo appears, rings more quietly when Touga KOs the kangaroo, and then loudly again for the end of the match. We see Chu-Chu ringing the bell with cheerful disregard for the rules of boxing (which I had to look up). The bells compare the boxing kangaroo match to a duel—which Touga will win. Touga and Anthy of course rigged the kangaroo release. The kangaroo is a psychological attack on Utena: A duel selects the contestant with the greater patriarchal power, and Touga shows off that his is greater than Utena’s (she lost to the kangaroo). Both points loosely parallel how Touga tricks Utena in the episode 11 duel.

2. The impersonation contest that Utena watches on TV in the hotel in the First Seduction is a parody of the dueling system. The first we hear of the contest is a bell ringing eight times, sounding like the boxing bell, as a round ends. The champion won the round—in the recap, Utena just beat Saionji.

Black Rose

When Mamiya stabs Kanae with a black rose in episode 14, he says “This is your new heart” using the word shinzou, the organ (not kokoro the metaphorical heart). In context, it suggests fearlessness. He says it’s her new life. The black rose somehow injects the essence of one of Mikage’s dead duelist boys, giving the victim fearlessness while letting them retain their basic motivations. Kanae says she becomes her true self, and that seems to hold for all of them; their social masks drop. When they lose their duel the black rose is destroyed, the victim falls into the sleep of forgetfulness and returns to normal (and may even be improved), and the body of the failed duelist boy is cremated. It’s the underworld, so the fire of cremation can be the flames of hell. All Utena’s Black Rose opponents are stabbed with the black rose, Mikage included. Stabbing is, of course, a symbolic sexual event. Like the swords, it equates sex and violence (or at least power).

The duel is a lesson in school. In Black Rose duels, the arena is arrayed with classroom desks. When it is time for Utena to win, the desks slam together into blocks. It corresponds to pushing the desks out of the way for cleaning the classroom: The class is over. Akio is training Utena’s power of miracles until it is strong enough to be worth stealing. The duels are miracle school.

Utena starts most duels at the rear of the classroom; the desks face away from her. In her regular classroom too, her desk is in the rearmost row. Her opponent starts near the front, in the position of the teacher. (Exception: Wakaba’s duel in episode 20. The depiction is physically inconsistent. Both start in the student position.) Utena fights toward the teacher position. The final duel in episode 23 is reversed: Mikage starts behind the desks and Utena is the teacher. It’s not a training duel for Utena, it’s Akio putting Mikage in his place through Utena.

Dybbuk. Possession by a black rose is a close match with possession by a dybbuk (Wikipedia) from Jewish mythology. A dybbuk is the evil soul of a dead person, and leaves the body once it has done what it set out to do—just what happens in a Black Rose duel. According to Wikipedia, they are traditionally “male spirits who possessed women on the eve of their weddings, typically in a sexual fashion by entering the women through their vaginas,” which fits the symbolism: The dead duelists are boys; the duel is metaphorically a wedding in which the loser is the wife as described above; she becomes the wife by the metaphorical sex of being defeated by a sword. A black rose enters through the heart rather than the vagina, and that is the only difference. And symbolically, it is not a difference after all: The winning sword strike is metaphorical sex, so the heart and the vagina are equated. “Win her heart and you can have sex with her” and “Rape her and she’ll love you” are equated.

The dead souls of the dybbuks are of course the dead duelist boys. It implies that the duelist boys are all evil. Of course, the ones stabbed with the black rose are also evil, or at least are caught at an evil moment. Mikage rejects Tatsuya for the black rose because he is good at heart. I think Kanae is only mildly evil, but is frustrated because she can’t make Anthy like her. Wakaba is not evil at heart, but is pushed into anger by Saionji leaving and Utena’s specialness overriding hers.

I expect that the source is the 1937 Yiddish-language film The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds (Wikipedia). The reference to two worlds goes with Utena’s symbolism of the light and darkness of the world, which is from Demian where there is a light and a dark world.

The boy of the film is in the ritual bath. It looks steamy and, in this view with condensed water dripping from above, very much like a modern shower.
The Dybbuk 39:35

The film is available in a restored version with English subtitles at archive.org. So I watched it. The surviving prints were apparently in poor condition, but the restoration looks pretty good, all things considered. The film is slow-moving by today’s standards, but I liked it. Two men whose wives are pregnant vow that if their children are a boy and a girl, they will marry each other. They’re told not to decide for the future generation, but they vow anyway. The theme is making other people’s decisions for them, as Akio constantly does. The children are a boy and a girl, but one woman dies in childbirth, and the other couple’s husband drowns. In Utena’s terms it is karmic retribution, but it corresponds to the self-destructive nature of Akio’s reign. 18 years later the kids meet and fall in love, but the surviving husband has become wealthy and uncharitable... though we repeatedly hear the saying “charity will save you from death.” (The Jewish enclaves of the place and time were oppressed and largely poor, and had extensive systems of charity.) He arranges a wealthy husband for his daughter. It’s another case of deciding for others, but the characters interpret the upcoming disaster as due to breaking the vow. Trouble due to breaking promises is another Utena theme: Utena forgets her promise to save Anthy in the prince story, and breaks her episode 25 promise of teamwork to Anthy. The boy attempts evil kabbalistic magic to become rich so he can marry her, and dies of it. The dybbuk events follow in course. The girl dies at the very end, and a candle is blown out, another symbol shared with Utena. See candles.

The two husbands made a bad promise. The surviving husband became corrupt and broke the promise. They put the boy in an insoluble dilemma, which impelled him to become corrupt. It’s striking that the girl died innocent. She did nothing wrong at all. That’s not like Utena, where everyone is corrupted to a degree, but it does fit with Utena’s feminist message.

The surviving wife is far away and out of the picture, and women have little power anyway. The marriage arrangements were made through the other family’s father. It’s a patriarchal society in Utena’s mold.

The image is the unfortunate loverboy in the ritual bath (mikveh, Wikipedia). He is in despair because his love seems impossible (and he’s right). He is said to be calling on Satan, presumably in between dunking himself for ritual cleansing in an effort to wash away his own evil. The air is steamy. It looks like it influenced Utena’s shower and rain scenes with Juri and Utena—the poses and the reasons behind them are similar. See tears - Juri’s showers and below.

Black Rose decorations

The desks in Black Rose duels are decorated with symbolic objects.

Kanae in the dueling arena, with white lilies on the desks, episode 14.
Episode 14, vases

Episode 14, Kanae. The black vases hold memorial flowers and predict Kanae’s death. The flowers are white lilies, because Kanae is a lesbian.

Episode 15, Kozue. Milkshakes (I don’t know what’s actually in them) that stand for Kozue’s relationship with her brother. Anthy drinks them—she is exploiting their relationship. Anthy somehow manipulated events (no doubt around the flashback where little Miki falls ill) to sour Kozue. The goal was to keep Miki under control, or to spur him on—or both, which was the goal with Utena.

Episode 17, Juri. Stuffed birds (Java sparrows), which seemingly represent frozen feelings. At the end of the duel, they come to life and fly away. I don’t think I’ve plumbed the meaning of the birds.

A sword has split the outer doll of a nested pair of dolls decorating a desk in the duel of episode 18. The outer one carries a partly-eaten chocolate bar. The inner one caught the sword between its hands.
Episode 18, nested dolls

Episode 18, Mitsuru. Nested dolls. The outer one is the adult that Mitsuru wants to be, or shows off trying to be. It carries a partly eaten chocolate bar—a sweet male symbol and dark like Akio—eaten by Mari, that stands for her partial knowledge of sex. She is only a year older than Mitsuru, and she is not able to recognize the chocolate as a sex symbol, but she does see it in Mitsuru’s banana, which Mitsuru cannot. The inner doll is the child inside. The child is not harmed by the violent male symbol of the sword.

I have to read it as a clash. Mitsuru sees himself as untouched by sex, in the sense that he doesn’t get it at all. But the adult doll has the child inside, which means that the adult grows from the child. The system of control holds him in a firm grip, and the sword does harm him. It lodges in his head—the psychological attack succeeds.

Episode 20, Wakaba. The wooden leaf that Saionji carved to give to Wakaba. Mikage extorted it from Saionji and gave it to Anthy, but I think Wakaba sees it as a symbol of what Utena has taken from her.

Keiko in her duelist uniform, seen from a distance for an overview.
Episode 21, umbrellas
In the duel with Keiko, Anthy in her red princess dress holds a red parasol.
Episode 21, Anthy’s umbrella

Episode 21, Keiko. Umbrellas, a symbol of Keiko’s love of Touga. A shared umbrella is a standard symbol of love, and Keiko shared her umbrella with Touga this episode. The umbrellas are orange for one-sided love (this time it’s actual one-side love, not merely perceived, because philandering Touga does not love her), with one yellow sector for Keiko’s jealousy of Nanami.

Anthy carries an umbrella or parasol that is red with trim of pink ruffles. The pink matches Utena’s hair, so it should stand for her love of Utena. Do the ruffles predict Utena being made girlish through red sex, which only happens later? In any case, all the umbrellas fly away at the end. The love flies out of sight, including Anthy’s after episode 33.

At the end of episode 14, Anthy goes to visit Akio for their weekly sex session. It’s raining, and she carries a red umbrella. One interpretation is that the umbrella in episode 21 is the same one, red for sex with Akio, but decorated with additional desire for Utena. Another idea: Compare the umbrella with Utena’s epaulets, which I tentatively interpret as Anthy’s breasts. The umbrella can be Utena’s breast, which we later see that Anthy desires. Keiko’s umbrella is angular and does not give the same impression.

Episode 23, Mikage. Photos of Tokiko and Mamiya. At the end, the photos fall on their faces. They represent Mikage’s desires and his false memories.

between the legs

Saionji is visible between Utena’s legs.
Episode 25, Saionji
Touga is visible between Utena’s legs. Her red shorts are prominent.
Episode 36, Touga’s real target

In the Apocalypse Saga, four duels include brief shots of Utena’s opponent seen between her legs: Saionji, Miki, Ruka, Touga. They are the male duelists other than Akio—who won his duel not with the sword in his hand but through Anthy’s backstab. These shapes must be parallel to arches; see sex symbols - columns and arches.

Only the duel with Touga takes extra steps to sexualize Utena, because of Touga’s desire (see Anthy and Utena fetishize different body parts). But all of them make the duel a sexual action. The boys are penises ready to go, in the same way that the swords are penises. At the same time, the images place Utena above and supreme; Utena wins all these duels.

The legs-as-arches symbol is coordinated with the running symbol in the same duels. I haven’t worked through that part of it yet.

motivations

The Tale of the Rose lays out the motivations of the four primary duelists. I changed the order.

the shining thingMikiloveseeking an ideal
that which is eternalSaionjimarriageholding your ideal forever
the power of miraclesJurihopegaining your ideal despite its impossibility (real or apparent)
the power of revolutionTougapowertaking your ideal by force, or in Touga’s case, guile

Miki sees Anthy as his shining thing. Saionji seeks an eternity of marriage with Anthy. Juri wants Anthy’s supposed power of miracles so that Shiori will realize Juri’s feelings without Juri taking the risk of violating social norms, or so that she can be together with Shiori despite the violation of social norms (I suppose she wants a revolution that will change the heterosexual norm she feels oppressed by). Touga wants power over others. Nanami is not primary; she duels for jealousy. Utena’s motivation (after episode 2 at the latest) is rescue, and in the final showdown it becomes jealousy like Nanami.

The four motivations are all propaganda. The ideals are fantasies, not attainable objects; none of them gets what they seek. Akio fits a different rationale to each person according to their desires, so that they all try to do the same thing that Akio wants. Another way to look at it is that the four motivations are in reality Akio’s motivations. The witch in the play says that Dios is the shining thing, the eternal, the power of miracles, and the power of revolution. Akio aims to restore Dios’s power of miracles to himself; it is his shining thing. He will use the power to revolutionize the world and make his patriarchal system eternal. But for Akio, it is impossible by his nature to attain the power of miracles; he tries serious plots, but would do as well to sit around and hope like Juri.

Akio contains multitudes. In Akio’s mind, all other people are weaker, defective versions of himself, and share only part of his power and part of his goals. The “everybody I meet is a part of me” technique is from the novel Demian. In Demian it indicates the protagonist’s intellectual power: He meets others and learns from them, but the learning is only apparent; in reality, the knowledge was already in him and he only had to encompass it. It’s mystical claptrap. In Utena it indicates Akio’s limitations; he can only see others in terms of himself. It’s psychologically realistic.

Demian’s technique is derived from Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious (Wikipedia). I don’t know how much sense Jung’s idea makes as he expressed it, but Demian’s version... floats free of reality.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 2 November 2022
updated 24 May 2024