Utena - meaningful images

Meaningful images and shots that didn’t fit in elsewhere.

Students walking to school, seen from above.
Episode 1, walking to school

Students walking to school. It’s a shot that repeats frequently through the series. In episode 1, it comes right after the title card and shows Wakaba’s view, looking down from a bridge.

Utena wastes no time in subtly bringing up its themes. The students carry briefcases. Four of five boys carry the briefcase at their sides, one has slung it casually over his shoulder. One girl carries the briefcase at her side, and four out of five carry it in front in both hands. It is defensive body language. Anthy habitually joins her hands in front in the same way, without the briefcase. The boys are open and confident, the girls show a little caution or anxiety. They have learned their social roles. Both pairs are same-sex.

When we meet Utena shortly after, she carries her briefcase over her shoulder, like the most confident of the boys.

Inside view of the top of a dome topped by a round clear skylight, with a circle of stained glass skylights as well.
Episode 1, school dome

The dome where we first meet Utena, her shoes clicking on the floor. For a school, it’s a tremendous edifice. It seems like it should be the rounded base of Akio’s tower, but the windows don’t match and that looks like a skylight at the top. Well, we know that the setting is deliberately inconsistent.

There are no visible artificial lights; the building is lit by the sun (Dios is the sun). The dark stained glass is in unexpected bluish colors for the water of tears and illusions, modifying the white light of Dios and truth. Each window is an exclamation point with a rose and a stylized egg of the world. No two are identical—they are people. Each is a petal of the flower of the dome.

The dome represents the Academy as a whole, and the system of control. The huge thick-walled building looks unshakable. I think the six windows are the six duelists, with Dios as the top skylight and Anthy above the entrance in purple. The dome is a female symbol, the same shape as Anthy’s greenhouse and with a skylight reminiscent of its top: It is a cage for women. The dueling system falsely offers hope of escape.

A pot of roses of various colors.
Episode 3, roses

Utena wakes up, considers whether her ring led her to the duels and the Rose Bride, and the Rose Bride herself opens the door. Then these roses appear. They stand for the duelists and the meanings of each duelist—in other words, for Utena’s situation, which she was just pondering.

Utena is the partially-opened white bloom at top right. She is an up-and-coming prince who has not yet come into her own. The colors are not entirely clear, but I think the opening bloom at bottom left is Miki. It looks blue. He is younger and even less mature than Utena. There is no green rose for Saionji, but the others are there.

The roses are alive and growing, despite seeming to be cut and placed into a vase. Part of Anthy’s role is to take care of them.

Utena in the foreground looks surprised. Touga in the background is walking away.
Episode 3, complex shadow line

The shadow line outlines an exit. Touga does not know yet that Utena seeks her prince, but showing off his ring drew her in. It implied a closer connection than the two have, or at least Utena thought it did. His deception leads in a straight line to his later plot to play Utena’s prince. He is surrounded by darkness. In the foreground, Utena thinks he may be her prince. It’s the reason she gives for attending the dance party—supporting Anthy, she implies, was not important enough in itself. Utena is half in shadow and half in light. It is undecided whether she will be trapped in shadow, or make her way through the exit into the light.

The rose emblem above the exit is slightly pink, Utena’s color, hinting at the final answer.

Anthy and Nanami stand under a dark arch. Behind Anthy is a soccer goal. Behind Nanami is the dueling forest.
Episode 3, Anthy as goal

A moment earlier, Anthy stood in sunlight as Nanami’s minions berated her. Keiko and Aiko made verbal attacks and had darkness behind them; Yuuko did not and stood on the light side of the shadow line. When Nanami intervenes, suddenly Anthy is in the darkness. Is Anthy in some way harming Nanami? She is, through Nanami’s love of her. As far as I can tell it’s no choice of Anthy’s, though the shadow line suggests I may be wrong. See cool stuff - through a low arch for comparisons to similar images.

Behind Anthy is a soccer goal. Anthy is Nanami’s goal; Nanami’s legs are positioned for a (wimpy) kick. Behind Nanami is the dueling forest. I think it means Nanami treats Anthy as an opponent to fight (maybe it’s deeper than that). But Utena’s ball is the one that goes farther than she expects; Nanami’s ball (pun intended) falls short.

Anthy and Chu-Chu stare at the metronome while Miki and Utena talk by the piano in the background.
Episode 5, metronome

Anthy and her repressed aspect Chu-Chu stare at the metronome, watching its pendulum swing back and forth like an over-regular tennis game. It is a symbol of Anthy’s eternity. The metronome measures time passing, and breaks it into identical small intervals. Anthy sees students come and go over decades (if not centuries) and, though she must fulfill Akio’s tasks, doesn’t take any personal interest in most of them beyond a bit of attention to her own comfort (like preferring Utena over Saionji because Utena doesn’t hit). This too will pass. She pays so little attention to the schoolwork that she still can’t do it right (episode 4). After so long it must seem all the same to her, and watching the metronome is just as interesting.

The grid of the window puts everyone in a cage.

In the center, two practice swords lean against each other. On the left, a bucket. On the right, a cleaning cloth.
Episode 9, after a practice match

Episode 9 opens with a kendou match between Saionji and Touga. We see this after Touga wins. All objects are under the shadow line. The left practice sword, slightly lower, is Saionji, and the right one is Touga. Saionji looks up to Touga. The text on the bucket says “kendou club”. In episode 35, Utena brings a bucket to Anthy which represents the illusion of the shining thing. This bucket is also full of illusions. Saionji uses it to clean the floor; they are his illusions about Touga.

The cleaning cloth goes with the bucket. What does cleaning mean? Anthy is the character most associated with cleaning, so it doesn’t mean removing corruption or the like. Saionji cleaning the floor puts him in a female role; it is another way to suggest that he is the junior partner, to be seen as the woman of his relationship with Touga.

Young Touga sits in an oversize chair at his birthday party, surrounded by a crowd of adults. A table holds a pile of presents.
Episode 10, young Touga’s birthday

The party scene is in subdued colors because it is in the past. It is on the road to turning into black-and-white history. Young Touga sits in a chair too large for him, representing the power he gained by being adopted into a wealthy family. The power has drawn adults to give him too many gifts. The cushions are purple for corruption—presumably the family’s corruption, though Touga is learning. The parents are the woman to standing left of the chair and the tall man to the right. The man in green for control must be significant, but I don’t know how.

The scene has Touga overriding his adoptive parents, learning to use his power. It is a step in forming his scheming, controlling personality. It illustrates that the parents favor Touga over Nanami: He sits on a throne at a special event for his benefit; she is admonished for bringing an inferior gift; Touga is allowed to override their judgment. It’s also a step in forming Nanami’s Touga-worship and needy power-seeking.

Anthy on the left and Utena on the right sit at the table in their dorm room—but the table is not visible. Blackness lies between them.
Episode 11, open your heart
Utena walks down a path at the Academy. She walks directly toward Akio’s tower.
Episode 11, protect Anthy

Left, Utena asks Anthy to open her heart. The image calls back to episode 2 when Anthy explained the dueling system. The two are separated by Akio’s darkness. Instead of shadows, they cast light against the darkness. The outside is pink for Utena, grading to purple for the corrupt Academy. Inside the room is brown for the ordinary girl Utena wants Anthy to become.

Right, immediately after, Utena thinks that she must protect Anthy, even from her prince. Utena herself is being a controlling prince. She walks down a wide, straight path—the path prepared by the system of control to make her into an active member of the patriarchy. Visual parallels between the two images suggest that Utena is walking the path of darkness to Akio’s tower. It means the same as the pink grading to purple; Utena is adhering to a corrupt value system.

Stairs lead up to the dueling forest gate. Water pours down gutters at each side.
Episode 25, gutters

This visually coordinates with the above two. Utena is to follow a given path to Akio, and the path is outlined by literal or figurative gutters. This image is tinted blue. Above, Anthy and Utena cast the light of ordinariness against the darkness, but they only outline Utena’s dark path. The brown is equated with the blue of illusion.

The image of Juri bowling does not show the gutters, but can only be related. Juri follows her given path skillfully—she bowls a strike. The crowd of men cheers for her; she is working for them.

Anthy stands outside the dorm room door with an overstuffed suitcase. White roses spin in the corners.
Episode 12, brown
Anthy stands outside the dorm room door with an overstuffed suitcase. The image is lit in green.
Episode 12, green

Twice in episode 12, Utena thinks back to Anthy moving out of the dorm in the previous episode. Left, early in the episode, Utena is in the dark (she does not understand) and sees Anthy leaving in brown for ordinariness, and framed in white spinning roses. We see from Utena’s point of view, but I think the colors describe Utena herself: We are being introduced, with spinning roses, to the Utena who has decided to be ordinary, but remains a prince in her heart. Her white roses and hair length agree it is so.

Right, as Wakaba tells Utena that this ordinary is not her ordinary, the light is on. It is green for control. Utena is starting to realize that Anthy was taken from her by manipulation. The wall is blue-green, showing that the manipulation has brought illusions.

Utena looks out the window of the dorm room at the moon.
Episode 15, moon

Moon. Akio tells Utena that a sibling is like the moon; it serves no purpose, but you look up at it sometimes and it eases your heart. It’s nonsense, but here is Utena believing it. She repeats his words and looks at the moon. See moon catalog - episode 15. Utena is facing left and her left foot is lifted for illusion (see foot catalog).

Anthy is with Akio and Chu-Chu is asleep. The blackness stands for Utena’s loneliness. Akio is the moon (and serves no purpose), so Utena is looking up at Akio. That might be why Akio told her that; if so, he wants her to think of him when she sees the moon. Separated lovers look up to the same moon, so it is a symbol of love and togetherness despite separation (I think this is general across East Asian cultures). But that has a double meaning: The moon stands for siblings, and Anthy and Utena are twins. She is also looking up at Anthy. Being forced apart and coming back together—togetherness despite separation—is a major theme, called out as central in the opening sequence.

After this scene, we see Anthy with Akio in his room. You can’t tell from the subtitles, but Akio repeats his language: He says “Tonight too, I will ease your heart.” In his metaphor, Anthy is looking up at him. We don’t know it yet, but this also turns out to be nonsense.

The silhouette of a girl plays at rolling a hoop.
Episode 31, hoop rolling
The silhouettes of two shadow girls, in younger years, are playing at jump rope.
Episode 31, jump rope
The shadow girls doing their up-and-down dance in the shadow play of episode 1.
Episode 1, shadow play

At the start of episode 31, Nanami answers the phone. It is a girl calling for Touga. Two pictures on the wall are called out as important in three ways: They use silhouettes, they are animated, and the camera focuses on them individually. I don’t know why.

Hoop rolling was popular with children in Europe and North America through the early 20th century. They are female rings struck with male sticks. (Striking the hoop on top is normal. Pushing is not.) The picture presumably dates to then. The girls jumping rope are unmistakably the shadow girls.

Kozue hangs from a ledge. Girls gather above her in the windows.
Episode 26, arches

Arches in the courtyard look different in different views. I like this clear upward view. The triangles at the top of each arch represent keystones. Fake keystones in Western architecture have been popular decorations for centuries.

See sex symbols - columns and arches. The curve of an arch is symbolically female. Male columns support the arch. The key part of the arch is the keystone—which is male and extends from a straight-line male ledge. The keystone is a penis inserted into the arch and claiming to be essential... even though it is fake, an illusion.

Kozue is supported by a male ledge, but only briefly. When she falls, androgynous Miki and Utena catch her. See other symbols - characters are variable for Miki’s androgyny.

Three elementary schoolers are running past, left to right, two boys followed by a girl.
Episode 39, children
A bunch of elementary schoolers are running past, right to left.
Episode 39, children

From the epilog in the final episode. Left, borrowed from episode 17, running in the direction of truth, white sunbeams, from where the sun isn’t, seem to pick out the girl’s prince. Right, with elements borrowed from episode 6, running in the direction of illusions, one boy carries a briefcase as well as an elementary school backpack. Apparently like Mitsuru, he wants to be adult. But he’s a kid running with the kids.

Akio’s control continues in full force. Utena started a revolution, but it happens in stages over a long period of time.

Akio’s goal: 自動の児童 (jidou no jidou), automatic children.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 24 November 2022
updated 22 May 2024