The rose colors associated with characters commonly have two meanings, one for the overall color symbolism and one for the Japanese cultural meaning, which doesn’t go away just because Utena layers another meaning on top. Some characters are associated with other flowers, which also come with cultural meanings.
Here are the ones I know about.
Kanae. She is associated with white lilies. Lilies can mean lesbianism (yuri). Culturally, white lilies mean purity or chastity. Could it be that Akio, who has sex with everyone regardless of gender and age, has not had sex with Kanae? It doesn’t mean that she has a pure heart; the purple uniform with magenta epaulets means that she is corrupted, whether by nature or by her relationship with Akio. Kanae is certainly smooth enough with social lies.
The black vases on the desks predict Kanae’s death. See the episode 14 duel for more.
Kanae is a lesbian; she is in the yuri genre. See the shadow play of episode 13 and the comparison of vases, as well as her epaulets and the guard of her sword. I found an additional bit of visual evidence: Kanae pressing the bell for attention (we only hear Kozue ring the bell; we see Tatsuya ring it in episode 19). Also, earlier in the episode, where is Kanae looking when talking with Anthy? Whether we interpret it as leering or as deferential, it’s not the gaze of the big sister Kanae says she wants to be called.
It’s leering. Her smile is like Anthy’s when Anthy has her hand on Utena’s breast.
Kanae says that her father chose Akio for her, and never claims to love Akio. Kanae tries to appear close to Akio (and has some trouble), but she tries to be close to Anthy (and completely fails). In the confession elevator she says she can’t stand to be around Anthy. The white light of truth was shining in the elevator, so it should be true. But then why does she try so hard to like Anthy? Why does she directly say that she tried to make Anthy like her? Why does she go so far as dueling over Anthy? I think Kanae loves Anthy, and is in denial of her feelings (not the only example in Utena). Kanae wears orange for one-sided love.
Kanae does not literally say that she can’t stand to be around Anthy. She calls Anthy a god of pestilence, a metaphor that means Anthy is to be avoided like the plague. Kanae speaks as though Anthy by her nature made Kanae’s father fall ill. It’s a subtlety that the translation can’t capture, and it suggests that Kanae is being unrealistic about Anthy. Nevertheless, we in the audience know that Anthy likely did make Kanae’s father fall ill, by poisoning him.
In the duel, Kanae at first says she will kill Anthy. But when telling Utena to draw the her sword, she says she will “take” Anthy. It’s a good translation that captures the ambiguity of the Japanese. It allows the sword and the bed as possibilities.
Insightful Anthy surely understands Kanae’s feelings. She treats Kanae coldly. There’s a brief discussion of Anthy’s feelings about Kanae at the top of doing away with Kanae.
Mitsuru. Mitsuru’s color is yellow, but the cactus he intends to drop on Nanami in episode 6 (so he can save her at the last moment) has a pink flower. I think it’s not actually his cactus, it’s Touga’s, because Mitsuru wants to be Touga—and he doesn’t understand what it entails. See Touga’s entry below. The image claims by adjacency that the pink refers to Utena.
Nanami. Her yellow rose stands for jealousy. She’s constantly jealous of other women who want Touga.
Touga. His red rose stands for love. His cactus flower stands for lust, because he lusts for Utena. It coordinates with his carrot in episode 35. The cactus flower is pink when Mitsuru holds it in episode 6, yellow and orange in episode 35, and orange in episode 36. The colors can be interpreted: Pink for Utena, yellow for his jealousy of Akio, orange for one-sided love. Or maybe orange for the miracle of removing Utena from under Akio’s thumb, as Touga tries to do. The flower was pink in episode 6 because he arrogantly assumed that Utena would love him, like every other fish in the sea. The yellow parts look like the flower’s sex organs, emphasized because of Touga’s lust. Unlike Mitsuru, Touga is holding the pot tightly; he cares about it. (Mitsuru threw it at the kangaroo.)
Utena. Utena’s pink rose, her own color, I think refers to her cheerful attitude and self-confidence. Her white rose for the prince, or for Touga when she sees him as her prince, means innocent devotion to the prince.
The ball in episode 3 is decorated with flowers. Here the traitor-waiter (wearing white for the prince, who is also Akio) is picking up the bottle to spray Anthy’s dress. The orange roses are for the miracle that Utena is prompted to produce, reclothing herself and Anthy by handwaving. I’m not certain about the little blue flowers, but the best match I found is forget-me-nots. The Japanese name for forget-me-nots is wasurenagusa which is a translation of the English name, so the meaning is about the same. If that’s correct, then the flowers foretell the coming love between Anthy and Utena, brought about in part by Nanami’s harassment of Anthy that is about to happen. Alternately or additionally, the orange roses are for Nanami’s one-sided love of Anthy and the forget-me-nots go along with it, and perhaps predict that Anthy will not forget her vengeance.
Touga’s birthday cake for age 12 in episode 10 is circled by cherry blossoms. They stand for transience and refer to the kitten’s life. For more on the cake, see the cake catalog - episode 10.
The colors of memory are faded, so we can’t see it in the image, but cherry blossoms are pink for Utena. Touga at 12 looks younger than Touga meeting little Utena in the church, so he has not met her yet. The cherry blossoms predict the event. And, since Utena’s story is parallel to the kitten’s, they predict that Utena is transient too—she will have a short life. But then again, the cake is a falsehood. The flowers around the cake may be lying too.
The red poppies of episode 35 are the destination of Akio’s walk with Utena. He mentions the history of, as the subtitles say, “Lady Gubijin”. Gu Bijin is Japanese for the Chinese historical figure Yu Meiren, who died in 202 BC. (“Bijin” means beautiful woman and is a translation of Chinese “Meiren”. It’s a description, not a name—her name is lost to history.) Wikipedia calls her “Consort Yu” because she was the wife of Xiang Yu. The Chinese characters of Xiang Yu’s name are pronounced “Kou U” in Japanese, which is why Akio says that “Lady Gubijin” was married to Kouu.
“Gu” in Gu Bijin for Yu Meiren versus “U” in Kou U for Xiang Yu is messy—which is common for Japanese borrowings from Chinese. The names and their correspondence between languages reflect language change in pronunciation, and the timing of cultural exchanges, with complications on both sides of the exchange.
It’s real history, but it seems to have been romanticized over the millenia (loss and rewriting of history is a theme of Utena). Xiang Yu was a revolutionary against the Qin dynasty. The dynasty fell, but he lost in battle in the chaotic wars afterward. According to the story, Consort Yu and Xiang Yu were devoted lovers, and she accompanied him on campaign. When the final battle looked hopeless, Consort Yu committed suicide so that his love for her would not distract him. Red poppies grew on her grave. Xiang Yu carried on for a while, but it truly was hopeless, and after heroic deeds like single-handedly killing a hundred enemies, he finally committed suicide too.
The Western meaning of red poppies as remembrance of war can work here, but the Consort Yu story gives them a different meaning. Wikipedia says they mean loyalty unto death. They also mean deep love. Consort Yu’s love was so deep that she killed herself to give her husband a better chance to find a way out.
Xiang Yu is Utena, a revolutionary and hero who is slated to die. Compare Mishima Yukio. In the left picture, Akio’s eyes are out of the frame. I think it means he does not see all the implications of his story. Consort Yu is Anthy; the story foretells Anthy’s suicide attempt, which Akio does know about yet (he ordered it only after Utena ignored his marriage proposal after the Routine Date). As Anthy’s book Heidenröslein later in the episode says, the two love each other deeply and inextricably. Anthy tries to be Consort Yu and sacrifice her own interests for Utena’s—Anthy wants Utena to save herself and leave the Academy, with Anthy still trapped. Meanwhile Utena like Xiang Yu is fighting a battle she should not, and wants to rescue Anthy against her will. Solving the contradiction is the business of the final showdown, where Utena shows loyalty unto death. The story can be read as implying that Utena dies in the end. Anthy was only pretending to kill herself and did not die; Utena was heroically willing to die for Anthy, so she did die.
When Akio bites a petal from the red poppy in the right picture, he is symbolically tasting Utena’s upcoming love (which the Second Seduction stands for) and destruction. His eyes are closed. He does not see the truth of the future.
Semi-anonymous Nick gave me historical details of “Gu” and “U”. He also pointed out that poppies are the source of opium and connect to Akio drugging Utena and to Utena’s more general intoxication with Akio. I notice that Akio biting the poppy can mean that Akio is intoxicated with his plot to steal Utena’s power.
Giving a red poppy to Touga. While the Second Seduction is underway, a younger girl approaches Touga and shyly strives to confess her love. She gives him a letter and a red poppy, with the same meaning as above. The camera cuts to a long shot as Touga leans close to her, and after a moment she runs away. Then Touga symbolically tramples on her feelings (picture). I’m trying to identify the butterfly.
As Akio returns home on foot after the Second Seduction, leading the horse, he meets Touga. Both have open shirts to indicate sex. We are to gather that Touga arranged an assignation with the shy girl before she ran away—he is desperately trying to keep up with Akio, signalling “I did it too.” Utena + Akio = shy girl + Touga: Utena loves Akio, who exploits her without caring about her feelings, as Touga exploits the shy girl—and both happened at the same time. The parallelism implies that the meaning of the poppy, deep love and loyalty unto death, also applies to Utena loving Akio. Like Consort Yu, Utena is to die because of her love. It’s another bit of evidence that Akio intends Utena to die—in fact that, barring a miracle, Utena will die. And it suggests that Akio will lose in the final showdown.
Utena is both Xiang Yu and Consort Yu. Utena and Anthy are aspects of the same thing.
Akio and Touga are both evil, but they’re not on the same level. Akio is following an effective long-term plan. Touga is grasping an opportunity. Akio is exploiting Utena for reasons no one else in the show understands, except possibly Anthy. Touga has been thwarted in his genuine love of Utena, and cannot exploit her. He took a fallback position.
Jay Scott <email@example.com>
first posted 12 December 2021
updated 5 November 2023