Utena - character notes

I expect that most of what’s on this page will move to character arc pages as I fill those in.

Akio is a creature of habit. He has scripts that he follows to achieve particular ends, and he adapts them to circumstances but takes the same steps. He follows the same Cinderella routine with Utena, Mrs. Ohtori, and Nanami, with the same foot injury ploy for Utena and Nanami. He feeds the same “we’re practically family” line to Utena and Nanami. In the First and Second Seductions he uses the exact same psychological tricks in different contexts. In corrupting Utena in episode 30 he overwhelms her resistance with a surprise smile, making no other move; in the First Seduction othello game he leans slightly toward her, perhaps smiling again; in the Second Seduction he tells her she is like a princess. They are three examples of the same psychological trick, the re-approach step of an approach-withdrawal maneuver.

Akio as a father. Akio is called a father in episodes 26 and 37, with hints elsewhere. Akio corresponds to Zeus, who fathered umpteen children. Are we meant to take it literally, and if so, who is he the father of? Or is it purely figurative, Akio is the patriarch figure who commands obedience in a patriarchal society? I think the main point is to bring out a complex mythological correspondence with Anthy, Akio, and Utena.

Parents are a theme of episode 26. Kozue rescues nestlings abandoned by their parents; Kozue and Miki have been abandoned by their parents (at least Kozue sees it that way). Miki takes on the parenting role of nurturing the nestlings. Utena envies them for having parents at all. Akio uses his “the three of us are practically family” line on Utena, becoming a metaphorical husband—or possibly father. Husband and father are related—a husband is expected to be or become a father. In bed at night, Anthy tells Utena that Akio is more like a father to her. Utena wonders to Anthy whether parents always care about their children. Nanami and then Kozue refer to Daddy Long Legs, who is named after a father and becomes a husband. There is a punning reference in the shadow play: The gambling shadow girl bets her whole purse, and the croupier announces “You went bust,” using the word tousan which has a homonym meaning father.

In the shadow play of episode 37, “Papa” is both figurative and literal. See the discussion there.

William Tell in the shadow play of episode 11 is the father of the apple girl, who represents Utena. There are probably more that I’m not thinking of right now.

Akio gets Anthy to do his dirty work. Anthy poisons Kanae. Anthy backstabs Utena. In some cases (perhaps the case of murdering Utena’s parents), Akio may be insulating himself from risk, placing the risk on Anthy. In the case of the backstab, Akio physically cannot stab Utena himself; her miraculous sword skill is too great. I expect that Akio’s main motivation in most cases is to make Anthy complicit in his crimes, to bind her to him. He can go further: In the case of murdering Kanae, Akio can make it Anthy’s fault altogether, saying “This is your doing, you are the one who detests Kanae. I’m going along with it for your sake.” It’s similar to how he leads Utena by the nose while convincing her that she is making her own decisions.

Nanami’s motivation for getting her minions to do her dirty work is different. She wants to preserve her reputation.

Anthy is dangerous. Utena is safe. Anthy and Utena, like their parallels Miki and Kozue, have a sex role reversal. Anthy is quiet and withdrawn. She cultivates roses and cares for animals with compassion. And she is a murderous femme fatale who takes joy in vengeance.

Utena is brash, but she never physically harms anybody, deliberately or otherwise. In sports her ball does tend to end up in Nanami’s face, but that’s a gag. She knocks down Mikage, but (despite his claim in the dueling arena) stops before really injuring him. When she falsely believes she has harmed Touga after Touga’s episode 9 plot, she is depressed. In the duel in the final showdown, she aims for Akio’s rose. She occasionally seeks emotional revenge: That is why she challenges Saionji to a duel in episode 1, why she writes an insult in Saionji’s exchange diary, and why she speaks rudely to Touga after winning the duel in episode 12. In all those cases, she was pushed hard and reacted impulsively. The only times she thoughtfully chooses emotionally hurtful action are under Akio’s nearly irresistible sexual temptation, due to her corruption in episode 30. She reasonably believes that she is hurting Kanae.

Touga is visible between Utena’s legs. Her red shorts are prominent.
Episode 36, Touga’s real target
Anthy has rushed to Utena, and they collide. Anthy has a hand on Utena’s chest, Utena an arm around Anthy’s waist.
Episode 25, Anthy rushes to Utena

Anthy and Utena fetishize different body parts. It is an aspect of their complementarity. Anthy usually (not always) treats Utena as male, and in the Apocalypse Saga often touches Utena’s chest in the center to signify attraction to a man (the trope is discussed under Akio and Utena - the final showdown). Utena wears a black jacket that de-emphasizes her breasts (it is part of treating her chest as a boy’s chest), and tight red shorts that highlight her crotch and butt. When the camera goes out of its way to sexualize Utena, it usually (not always) focuses on her red shorts. See the left image with Touga. Her arena transformation sequence is another example.

In the episode 25 duel, Anthy rushes to push Utena out of Saionji’s path, and they collide. Anthy moves her hand to Utena’s chest, and Utena moves her arm downward until she holds Anthy tightly around the waist. A moment later they look at each other, and if the scene weren’t a duel, you’d swear they were about to kiss. The pose resembles a sex position. In the same episode, Utena’s nightshirt is open at the bottom (image at funny pictures) as she thinks of Anthy.

Anthy with Utena acts to meet her own desires. She is straightforwardly selfish. Akio with Utena mirrors Utena’s desires. It’s clearest in the Second Seduction when he puts one arm around her and one hand on her butt: He acts to meet her expectations, so as to manipulate her feelings.

Juri’s hair has fewer curls in flashbacks. As she becomes more tightly wound over time, so does her hair. It’s a cute metaphor. Though note: In the episode 7 scene where she tries to take Utena’s ring, she also has fewer curls. Also see her hair in tears - Juri’s showers.

Juri treats Miki condescendingly in early episodes. By late episodes, she treats him respectfully. It is part of Juri’s journey.

Mamiya as played by Anthy corresponds to Persephone. As Hera and Persephone, Anthy is presented as powerful though second to a male ruler, while as a princess and victim Anthy is presented as weak. She’s both, of course.

Mamiya’s appearance is mostly like Anthy’s, but his hair is the same color as Akio’s. In episode 15, after convincing Mikage to use the swords of Student Council members against Utena, Mamiya puts on a smile like a toned-down version of Akio’s evil smiles. He shows his teeth, just a little. Is it because Mamiya is played by Anthy under Akio’s control, or because Mamiya is somehow a combination of both Anthy and Akio?

The real Mamiya we get only glimpses of. He died decades before the duels of the Black Rose. The convenience of substituting Anthy for Mamiya suggests that Akio had Mamiya killed. Mamiya is depicted as resembling Anthy already while sick, before he died, though the real Mamiya does not resemble Anthy. Mikage forgets that Mamiya has died, so the best interpretation is that the flashbacks to Mikage visiting Tokiko’s house and meeting Mamiya there are from Mikage’s unreliable memory, and he remembers Mamiya as resembling Anthy. If Akio did murder Mamiya, then it was presumably by Anthy’s slow poison; the slow illnesses in Utena are similar to each other. There is no direct evidence, but suspiciously many people near Akio just happen to die when convenient for Akio. Compare Ruka and the Ohtori father.

Mari, Mitsuru’s slightly older friend in episode 18, has purple hair and purple eyes like Shiori. Mari’s hair is darker purple. Mari is already sharp-tongued. In a few years, will she be as bad as Shiori? Saionji also has purple eyes, and his story showed us a personality disorder growing from a small seed. Is Mari still in the seedling stage?

Mikage is complicated. He stands compared and opposed to Akio: Akio in his high tower is Zeus in Olympus, the home of the gods, and is associated with power; Mikage in his deep lair is Hades in the underworld, the home of the dead, and is associated with death. Both are at the end of the world—or it would be better to say, both live near the edge of the world. Both are attached to Christian religious metaphors. Both hit on every human being in sight. He is also compared and opposed to Utena: Both have pink hair, both are tied to Anthy, both are ambidextrous in duels. Mikage wants to kill Anthy (and replace her with Anthy playing a different role), Utena wants to save Anthy. Mikage is insightful, cynical, manipulative, and fails at love (he can’t even mention it, and denies his desires quietly). He is opposed to Utena who is oblivious, honest, loves individual freedom, and has love troubles (and denies her desires loudly, for much of the series) but does anything but fail.

Mikage is associated with both ice and fire: The unmelting snow on the steps (signifying his cold heart and his wish for stasis), and the fire to cremate the failed duelist boys (and the fire of the candles that he uses to burn his building and kill them in the first place). It may not be a coincidence that ice and fire are the two most common ways the world is imagined to end. It is definitely not a coincidence that ice and fire are opposites. It is Akio who convinces Mikage to burn his building. Fire is associated with the Christian hell, a related underworld. Fire represents destruction and death, which are changes that ironically bring stasis: Using fire, Mikage hopes or believes, will bring ice.

Mikage sees Anthy as Mamiya and Utena as Tokiko. How much is that due to Akio’s illusions, and how much to Mikage’s own failings? It is a reversal: He takes Anthy as male and Utena as female, the opposite of Utena’s usual.

Miki is imaginative. He imagines Touga arguing him into dueling for Anthy (episode 5), he imagines Anthy with his father (episode 26), he imagines being in Akio’s car with Anthy (also episode 26). Miki is distractible. He loses duels in episodes 5 and 26 by being distracted by Anthy. Miki is intellectually smart but not so smart emotionally. In the duel of episode 5 he imagines he can read Anthy’s blank expression and know what she wants.

Nanami and Touga are associated with sound recordings. Each gets one tape recorder and one record player. Nanami has a record player in episode 3, playing music for the dance party she arranged to humiliate Anthy. In episode 8 she makes a tape recording of Mitsuru incriminating himself. The two sound recordings represent Nanami taking action—one a failed aggressive action, the other a successful defensive action. In episode 13, Touga sits blankly while a tape recorder plays his voice reciting the spiel about the bird fighting its way out of the egg. It explains why we hear Touga in the Student Council elevator before he enters the elevator; Touga’s voice plays instead of elevator music. Nanami overhears it and leaves without comment. In episode 15, Touga is still sitting blankly while a record player plays Dvořák’s New World Symphony (Wikipedia). Nanami overhears it and vows to take care of the Student Council in Touga’s stead.

I think the new world is the world after the revolution—the symphony is named after the American continents, so it is a reference to the American Revolution. See Enlightenment era. In the final episode, when Akio attacks the Rose Gate with Utena’s stolen sword, he calls it a door to a new world (that’s the evidence that convinced me of the interpretation). Utena is the one to open the Rose Gate to the new world, and the American Revolution was the first Enlightenment revolution to throw off a monarch, which is what Utena does. In 1997 when Utena was made, feminism had made little impression on Japan but more progress in North America.

The sound recordings make me think of parroting convention as opposed to seeking individuality. Compare Mikage, who is likened to a computer and a robot.

Nanami and Utena. When Nanami is depicted on a slope, she is generally going uphill. When Utena is on a slope, she is going downhill. Nanami has an uphill path in life.

Ruka was likely poisoned by Anthy. The characters equated with comets are (in order) Kanae, Ruka, and Utena. Kanae is murdered by poison and Utena is slated for death, so Ruka is likely the same. Those close to Akio’s power, as Ruka is, seem disproportionately likely to be targeted. We don’t know much, but his illness seems similar to the Ohtori father’s. If that’s what happened, maybe Akio felt that Ruka’s skilled evil plots might disturb his own. Touga’s plots don’t quite work out; it is enough to sideline Touga. Compare the real Mamiya and the Ohtori father.

Saionji and Juri are insightful. They find points of truth without seeming to have enough information. In the first duel, Saionji tells Utena that the castle in the sky is a mirage. In episode 35, he tells Touga that they are all in coffins that End of the World prepared for them. In episode 7, Juri hears Utena’s prince story and tells her that some man she liked tricked her. In episode 36, Juri notices that Utena has become girlish (and helps Miki see it too). Juri’s insight ironically does not work on Ruka in episode 29. To me, Saionji’s insights come across as intuitive, while Juri’s seem intellectual. It’s just my feeling; I don’t think it’s in the story. Compare Miki, who is intelligent but not insightful (though he does learn some insight from Juri).

Saionji and Ruka are able to sense people’s feelings from their swords. In episode 29 Ruka, dueling Juri, senses hidden feelings. In his duel against Utena in the same episode, he predicts her miraculous victory and charges, either to pre-empt the miracle, or (as I think) to provoke it as Touga does in episode 11. In episode 36 Saionji, about to practice with Touga, senses Touga’s failing self-confidence.

Touga and Ruka have two-tone hair. Touga is vivid red with a streak of pale red. Ruka is dark blue with a streak of pale blue. Their hair seems to mean that they’re both manipulative plotting assholes with a small streak of trying to do good due to their love—Touga loves Utena and Ruka loves Juri. Their plots to do good fail, though they seem to achieve some good regardless. Touga’s pale red hair is similar to Utena’s pink hair, while Ruka’s pale blue hair is a complementary color to Juri’s orange hair. It should mean that the two have opposite relations to their targets: Touga wants Utena for himself; Ruka wants to release Juri from her obsession and let her go free.

In the photos of little Touga in episode 31, and when we see young Touga with Saionji in episode 9, his hair does not have the pale streak. It fits with my interpretation: Touga’s love for Utena has not developed yet.

Touga participates in an obvious and yet complicated parallel with Akio, where Touga comes off as similar but lesser in every aspect. Except one! Both defeat Utena and take her sword. Touga defeats Utena by destroying her conviction, or determination, through a trick; he convinces Utena not to fight him. Without determination, Utena’s power of miracles does not operate. Akio uses the same trick successfully in the First Seduction othello game, but in the final showdown Akio is unable to convince Utena not to fight him; he can only defeat Utena physically, through Anthy’s backstab. Utena retains her determination (and renews it by looking up at Anthy in the air), and her power of miracles operates. Touga was the only one to disable Utena’s power of miracles long enough to win a victory.

Touga conventionalizes others. He not only follows conventional rules himself, he tries to arrange for others to play conventional roles. He does Akio’s social control work. He wants Anthy to be a bird in a cage. He wants Utena to be girlish: He is most attracted when she wears the frilly dress he gave her, and he gifted her with earrings that symbolize delicacy and dependence. He wants Nanami to believe she is unrelated to him, because it is more (conventionally) “romantic” (episode 32).

Utena does not get sex roles. Even though she sometimes takes on a male role and sometimes a female role, and even though the roles are obvious to others, she is oblivious. In the Routine Date when Akio tells her she is girlish, it flies over her head. There are other examples.

Wakaba and Miki are Utena’s two regular friends (discounting Akio and Anthy who are not entirely her friends). They contrast: Miki closes books (in episodes 4 and 19) to hide his feelings, in the shape of Anthy’s picture inside. Miki’s books are practical (notebook, music book): He works but does not communicate. Wakaba closes books (in episodes 2 and 19) to talk with people. Wakaba’s books are fiction: She communicates but does not work.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 19 January 2022
updated 7 November 2023