Utena - Ganymede

In episode 17, Akio identifies Utena with the mythological Ganymede. When I got around to looking closely, I was surprised to find that the Ganymede myth is central. The way it was tossed off, I thought it was nothing important! There is independent evidence that episode 17 is Akio’s key victory of the Black Rose arc—see Student Council platforms - drooping end. I don’t know what the victory is, but the episode does gather in a lot of Utena’s central symbols.

Akio knows Utena won’t understand, so he doesn’t mind alluding to his own power and selfishness. When Utena will notice, he hides his evil. When she will not, he advertises it. To him, it’s a fun game.
Akio tells Utena she is like Ganymede, episode 17.
Akio tells Utena she is like Ganymede.

It’s this variant of the myth: Ganymede was a beautiful teenage prince who caught Zeus’s eye. Zeus swooped down as a giant eagle and snatched Ganymede away to Olympus. Ganymede became Zeus’s lover and servant, carrying water for the gods. As usual, Zeus’s wife Hera was furious at Zeus’s philandering. Eventually Ganymede rebelled and poured his water over the Earth, bringing rain to the people. Zeus was angry but relented and granted him eternal youth and placed him in the sky with his water jug as the constellation Aquarius.

Utena the prince is Ganymede. Akio is Zeus and Anthy is Hera; those parallels were established ahead of time. The events of the myth happen in the story: Akio brings Utena to his high tower (Olympus), takes her as lover and turns her into his servant, or “princess”. I have to figure that being a servant of willful Zeus leaves you no more freedom than being a princess of power-hungry Akio. Anthy is furious about it. Utena rebels and “revolutionizes the world” (see Enlightenment era for her revolution). A difference is that Utena is not remembered in the sky, but soon forgotten—except by Anthy.

The picture is fun: It denies the end of the story, where Ganymede rebels. The spherical blue lamp represents Ganymede’s water jug, pouring out blue light instead of water. It is being compared to the spherical portion of the projector with its blue light. It is also close to Akio’s spherical hair tie, which his hair pours out through. Akio claims he is the source of the water, not Ganymede, and he rains it down on the world as “nourishing” illusions. Now illusions are associated with water and with the color blue. The rain of illusions is parallel to Anthy watering her roses.

Drawing of Ganymede pouring water from his jug, 1911.
Water jug. Wikimedia.
Anthy’s epaulets. Akio’s hair sphere. An angel statue pours water from a jug.

The constellation in the sky should be Aquarius, but if so I can’t identify it. I tried a few different star charts and turned it every which way, and I can’t make the stars line up. The same background star pattern reappears, inverted and without obstructions, slightly later. It returns in other episodes, such as episode 30.

The water jug is usually depicted as round, as in the picture at right. (Ignore the long beard on teenage Ganymede. The drawing is from 1911 and the artist must have suffered from Victorian denial.) Each of the epaulets on Anthy’s princess dress represents a jug with water pouring out. The two spheres pouring out illusions match the two spheres of the projector. (I suspect they also go with the two spheres of the sun and the moon.) When Utena is turned into a princess, she gets the same dress (in pink instead of red) and the same epaulets (with a paler shade of tassel). The jugs imply service to Akio with little freedom, and mean that princesses help spread Akio’s illusions: Women are not excluded from the system of control, they are part of it. They also mean that illusions help keep princesses in their place. Being full of illusion is part of what makes them princesses—they’re so full that they leak at the shoulders and waist. Akio keeps a similar sphere as a hair tie in his ponytail, where his hair plays the part of the pouring water of illusions. When he calls on particularly strong illusions, the hair tie becomes larger (seeing Anthy with Akio is an example). The angel statue pouring water from a jug in episode 28 is another reference.

Falling for illusions tends to cause you to spread illusions: If you suffer from illusions, you tell them to others, which spreads them—you are full of illusions and they leak out. See the episode 18 library scene for an example, and the shadow play of the same episode for another. I think Akio believes many of the illusions that he spreads—he falls for them too.

When Utena opens the gate to the dueling forest, water pours out for Utena’s illusion of princehood. The curtain of water moves to hide and show things, revealing its nature as an agent of illusions. The angel statue’s pouring water resembles it. The dueling forest water refers directly to Utena—she’s Ganymede who pours water. When Saionji (or whoever does it) opens the gate in episode 9, we do not see pouring water. We also don’t see water in episode 12 when Utena has no illusions about what she is doing. Water at some points also means tears and sorrow. There could be more: Water could mean change, passage of time, purification....

The forest gate, surmounted by a large stone bird.

Zeus’s eagle ties to the name Ohtori, which literally means large bird. The large stone bird over the forest gate must be Zeus’s eagle, or Zeus as an eagle. The eagle may mean that Akio snatches you away when you pass through the gate, carrying you into his illusionary world. In any case, just as Zeus took Ganymede to Olympus, Akio took Utena to his high tower room—which is the same place as the dueling arena.

Look at the picture: What is the bird standing on? It seems to morph into the spiral whirlpool. Swashes below look like they represent its tail, but it has no visible legs. If the swashes are its tail, then the whirlpool is not the egg that it is hatching from. I think it is the parent bird, Akio, brooding his egg, the egg of the world. The spiral stands for the eternity of his control that he wants it to hatch into. But the picture shows Utena in the egg; she hatches from it. So Akio both kidnaps Utena away to his tower for himself, and prepares her ability to overthrow him—just as Zeus gives Ganymede the water jug that Ganymede uses in his rebellion.
The blue and white colors of the whirlpool, for water and foaming waves, are the same as the blue sky with white clouds, a frequent background. It’s blue for illusions and white for the prince.

Episode 17 itself makes heavy use of elements from the Ganymede story, birds and water. The name Ohtori also refers to the Fenghuang bird, which rules over all birds; Akio controlled the birds in the episode. As the illusion master, he controlled the water too. When Juri throws her locket into the pond, we hear the splash, and we see the ripples, but we don’t see the moment it hits the water. It’s a sign of illusion. The locket remains tied to water; water runs out when Shiori opens it in Mikage’s elevator (then it’s the water of tears).

Anthy also pours water. Her epaulets represent Ganymede’s water jug. She waters her roses, which stands for spreading illusions, many of which she accepts. The Student Council backdrops reflect Anthy’s water in episode 1, and Utena’s water after that.

Utena’s high density becomes obvious in the Apocalypse Saga. Earlier on, you have to do some unwrapping to find it.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 14 December 2021
updated 25 November 2023