the chairs have wheels
the unused dorm
stuffing the closet
the bunk bed
episode 5 math worksheet
episode 6 signpost
episode 8 Utena’s note in the exchange diary
episode 15 finals schedule
episode 28 papers
how many plots does Akio run?
love and betrayal
siblings and incest
couples echo Anthy and Utena
The picture is from episode 12, but it has been visible since episode 2: The school chairs have wheels. It’s unmistakable.
Except for the wheels, the desks and chairs have the functional but minimal design you expect in low-cost mass-produced school furniture. I can’t imagine a school that would spring for wheels on the chairs. I really can’t imagine a school that would put up with rolling around in class, and chair races, and the other fun distractions that would come up. And the chairs don’t sound like they have wheels. In episode 34 when Wakaba sits down, we hear wooden chair legs on the floor, not wheels. Maybe it’s a different room with different chairs? We get a view of the chair legs, and the possible wheels are not visually clear in episode 34.
The wheels probably have a meaning, but I can’t guess it.
In episode 2, Anthy and Utena move into a dorm that, we’re told, has been unused for ten years. And yet it has a lounge with a large bookcase and a piano that is in tune. Anthy cleaned the dorm room, but there is no deep dust in the public areas either.
Did Anthy arrange for the piano? She does need it for the plot to manipulate Miki into a duel. Or is it another manifestation of Utena’s irregular passage of time? There’s no evidence. Maybe, as ten years passed for the students who never grow up, no time at all passed inside the dorm. Imagine how it saves on maintenance!
Moving in, Utena stuffs the closet. The interesting items are a toy monkey and a toy snake (follow the links for other monkeys and snakes). They must be Utena’s childish stuffed toys, saying that she is still a child. The monkey stands for Anthy via Chu-Chu. It is purple for Anthy’s corruption. The snake is Akio, who acts as the serpent in Eden. It is green for the control Akio exercises over Utena. They don’t seem to predict her two loves of Anthy and Akio, they seem to say that she already has them: She brought along her stuffed toys because she loves them; she has loved them since she was small. Anthy is her inseparable twin by the symbolism of Castor and Pollux. Akio is Dios, and she wants to marry the prince.
The monkey is at her hand. In relation to Anthy, the hand is a symbol of closeness and separation. The way she touches the monkey echoes the way she touches Anthy when they are physically close. The snake is at her foot—where snakes are naturally found. The blue-green slipper on Utena’s lifted left foot suggests that her feelings about Akio are illusions that she was manipulated into accepting. She is not touching the snake as much as the snake is encroaching on her. The monkey and snake are both partly yellow for the jealousy the two arouse—that aspect does seem to be a prediction.
Utena is marked as male in her clothing, her speech, her attitudes, and her actions. On the opposite side, her long hair and its pink color are girlish. She is also gender-marked by subtle signs in the outside world, like the cookies she is associated with.
Male characters have long hair too, including Akio. I think it marks them as subordinate. Dios does not have long hair. And yet Utena has longer hair when she is being a prince. I can read it as part of Utena’s rebellion. Alternately, I misunderstand long hair.
Here I want to point out the design of the bunk bed. Utena takes the top bunk without giving it a single thought, placing herself above as a stereotypical boy should. The rear of the top bunk has a raised “male” design. The inner motif is a flower (presumably a rose), and the outer outline could be likened to the splash of a water drop. The rear of the bottom bunk has an indented “female” design. The upper and lower designs are both three-pointed like many Utena objects.
The side railing of the upper bunk has absolutely straight vertical bars. The railing of the lower bunk has slightly curved “female” bars. Long and straight is male, rounded or curved is female.
In the body swap episode 8, we get a peek at Utena’s wardrobe. Here Anthy, looking like Utena, is sitting in a formal pose, putting away clothing that she has washed, dried, and folded. The hanging clothing includes a trench coat, a duplicate of Utena’s black uniform jacket (the lower-right pocket is slightly different), and a Santa suit, so I think it’s safe to guess that it is Utena’s.
There’s something that looks like the girls’ uniform, which we know she has because she wears it in episode 12. And there are at least two other items with pleated skirts, which do not appear in the series. Are some of them perhaps references to the manga version of Utena? Utena wears girlish clothing three times: The dress from Touga in episode 3, the red striped date dress of episode 33, and the sweater and black stockings of the Routine Date. None of them is visible. They could be in the drawers.
Utena normally wears boyish night clothing for sleep, and her boyish uniform the rest of the time. Nevertheless, she does own girlish clothing and must wear it occasionally outside of the events we see. She never likes frilly girlish clothing despite wearing Touga’s dress in episode 3.
When body-swapped, Anthy as Utena has Utena’s variable-length hair. Shortly before this picture, it was ordinary-girl length. Here, as she shows her power over Saionji through the exchange diary, it is prince length. Earlier, after Wakaba jumped on her back and she was on the ground, it was briefly princess length; then she sat up and it was ordinary-girl length. When Saionji led Utena away to the gym equipment shed, it was prince length.
The heading of the worksheet translates as “properties of inequalities”. In the red box it lists basics, like if a > b, then a + c > b + c. It does not explain anything, it just lists facts. The flowchart seems to me more confusing than helpful, because (as Utena mentions early in the episode) the problems are easy if you think logically. But maybe the flowchart is useful for those who feel baffled at first. The rest of the worksheet is increasingly complex problems to solve by filling in > or <, drawing on number lines, and so on.
Social inequality is a theme of Utena. The worksheet is a metaphor for recognizing power structures in increasingly complex forms. Akio does not explain anything, but offers what he considers to be facts, and you have to learn for yourself how to fit into the power structures.
The sunlit direction arrows point left to the school office (the partially visible character is 課) and right to the cafeteria. Dios is the sun and approves of these honest services. The shadowed direction arrows point left to the elementary school division and right to the middle school division. Dark Akio put them in the shade for his underhanded control over the students.
The high school division does not get an arrow.
This is what Utena, body-swapped as Anthy, wrote in Saionji’s exchange diary. The word is iroboke. The Nozomi DVD subtitles translate it as “dumb ass”, which conveys the tone but not the meaning. The bluray subtitles translate it as “perverted idiot” which better captures the meaning but loses the tone. It literally means something like “love fool” and applies to somebody who is so lost in love, or maybe so obsessed with sex, that they hardly think of anything else. The different translations are not bad. Subtitles have to be short, and I don’t know an English word or short phrase that conveys the tone and meaning.
I take it to be a preview of Utena’s feelings throughout episodes 36 and 37, after the Second Seduction. At the end of episode 37, as she walks toward the dueling forest, she calls herself a fool. She uses a different word, but we know she is being a fool for love.
I translate the end-of-term final exam schedule of episode 15. It’s fuzzy, but it can be deciphered. The numbers across the top are days of the month. Day 4 is skipped; it is presumably Sunday. The numbers down the left side are school periods. The (1) of “English (1)” is not visible but can be inferred. There is another row to the chart, but in the parts of it we can see, no exams are scheduled.
|2||art||world history||English (2)||health||German|
|3||Japanese history||economics||(out of view)||chemistry||classical Japanese|
|4||French||English (1)||(out of view)||modern Japanese||music|
Wakaba points out that math and English are on the same day.
The Ethics exam is prominent. Ethics and Health are two subjects that neither Akio, nor apparently the Academy, believes in. The top left exam is physics, which Utena routinely violates. French and German languages make appearances in Utena, and so does classical Japanese.
In episode 28, Juri, Miki, and Nanami are on the Student Council platform when Ruka arrives. Miki and Nanami are eating at a table. We see a sequence of documents, presented on blue-green plates of illusion as if they were food. Nozomi does not translate them, so I thought I’d better fill in.
“Notice of Return to School,” an official notice that Ruka is back. It appears; we don’t see it delivered.
A sealed letter from End of the World, delivered by Ruka. It’s on a second plate, and the previous document has disappeared: The documents are metaphorical, not real.
A packet of medicine, with instructions, delivered by Ruka. The header says naifukuyaku, medicine for internal use. It’s the pills Ruka has been prescribed for his illness. You eat pills, so in a way they actually are food.
The sequence associates food with official information that is in some way illusionary, either false or misleading. It is served up, and you are to consume it. Utena personally associates food with sex. In Utena, sex and lies are closely related. The culture in general associates the mouth with sex (not only via kissing), and the mouth is a primary means of transmitting information. Nanami has trouble with her meal when she hears the information about Ruka—she doesn’t like the information.
Ruka’s illness is likely due to Anthy’s poison, which we know can be taken with food. That could be one way the documents are misleading.
In the final episode, after Akio breaks Utena’s sword against the Rose Gate, he says “This sword didn’t work either.” How many other swords has he tried on the Rose Gate? Only Anthy’s, or many others as well? His sleeve garters look like a late 19th century fashion choice, and the pseudo-military uniforms of the Student Council are older. The farmhouse where Dios was corrupted seems to predate the general availability of guns, and should be older too. He has been working this problem for a long time.
Akio seems to run many plots in parallel, seeking one person he can exploit to open the Rose Gate. He put what he thought were the best prospects on the Student Council and directly introduced them to the dueling system. I take it that he did not have high hopes for Utena until she landed in the dueling system. She was a speculative minor candidate not worth close attention. In the prince story he judges that Utena will lose her interest in becoming a prince as she grows up, and his judgment is correct in many respects. How many other minor candidates has he set up? I imagine him intervening in a bevy of children’s lives and then paying little further attention, judging them unlikely prospects.
Did Utena accidentally fall into the dueling system, or was she manipulated into it? Akio says in recap episode 13 that it was a coincidence (it was guuzen, a chance event). He is talking to himself, so there’s no reason to expect that he’s lying. On the other hand, who posted Wakaba’s love letter on the bulletin board? There is no clear evidence... but violent Saionji was engaged to the Rose Bride at the time. Anthy had opportunity and motive to post the letter, and she never fails when manipulating someone into a duel. In the Student Council, Touga reports (from an End of the World letter) that a new duelist will soon appear—before Utena has seen the letter on the bulletin board. The sum of evidence suggests that Anthy deliberately recruited Utena into the dueling system, either under orders, or in hope of relief from Saionji, or (as Akio’s words suggest) simply because she saw an opportunity and there was no reason not to take it. In the duel, after Utena’s practice sword is truncated, Anthy looks disappointed.
When Utena first catches sight of Anthy in the greenhouse, in episode 1, Anthy is watering pink roses. She is already “cultivating” Utena, that is, manipulating her.
Ruka is surely a failed past candidate, now being cleared out of the way.
In episode 11, Touga claims that the more you love someone, the more strongly they will betray you. He turns out to be right. In the loving relationships we see in Utena, one partner betrays or exploits the other. Sometimes both betray each other. The two exceptions are relationships we don’t see: One between Anthy and Dios before the story, and one between Anthy and Utena after the story. Both come with promises to help each other. The promise with Dios was permanently broken; the promise with Utena is broken but restored.
There are no other exceptions. Akio enslaves Anthy. Anthy and Utena betray each other. Akio betrays Utena. Kozue harasses Miki. Anthy betrays Miki in the duel of episode 5. Anthy hoaxes Nanami beyond all bounds. Tokiko feels betrayed by Mikage (he is in stasis and does not age) and betrays him in turn with Akio. Mamiya as played by Anthy controls Mikage for Akio’s benefit. Akio arranges the murder of Mrs. Ohtori. Anthy participates in the murder of Kanae, and surely of others she was sent to seduce. Shiori harasses Juri. Touga exploits Nanami and Saionji. Utena defeats Touga and Wakaba in duels; Wakaba especially feels it as a betrayal.
An e-mail question put me on this topic. Most sibling pairs have incestuous relationships (I haven’t detected any non-sibling incest). I list the siblings from most to least incestuous:
Akio -> Anthy. Akio controls Anthy, and they have an abusive co-dependent relationship with fully realized incest. Their mythological correlates Zeus and Hera are brother and sister and a married couple.
Nanami -> Touga. Nanami jealously tries to keep other girls away from Touga, and cannot. Touga exploits Nanami. They were raised as siblings, and may or may not be biological siblings. Akio says they are, but he often lies, and the two do not have matching hair colors. There are hints that Touga is attracted to Nanami too.
Kozue -> Miki. Kozue tries to bother Miki, to keep his attention on her—see her elevator confession in episode 15. Like Nanami with Touga, she jealously tries to prevent Miki from entering any other relationship. Miki seems to find Kozue’s harassment irritating, but treats her well when it most matters: At the end of episode 15 after Kozue has gotten into trouble, and in episode 26. I find it particularly clear in episode 26: Miki catches Kozue when she falls, then as he carries her home he complains to her. Kozue is fully aware of the dynamic. As Miki and Anthy discuss how to care for the nestlings, she leaves, saying “take your time”—with yellow roses in the background for Kozue’s jealousy. It is Kozue treating Miki well (though with sarcasm) despite her feelings, allowing teamwork in the rescue of the nestlings.
Utena <-> Anthy. Akio compares Utena and Anthy to Castor and Pollux, and says they are like siblings. Mikage looks at siblings Mamiya and Tokiko and sees Anthy and Utena. Utena and Anthy are metaphorical siblings, therefore their relationship is metaphorically incestuous. It’s theoretically possible that they are literal twins, in which case they are literally incestuous. At first Utena tries to control Anthy, but by the Apocalypse arc she has accepted that they should have an equal relationship. They remain equal as Akio forces them apart and when Anthy decides to bring them back together after Utena disappears. It is the most positive relationship of all these, though it has been and may remain difficult.
Tokiko - Mamiya. Tokiko tries to control Mamiya. They display no incest that I can see—though comparing them to Utena and Anthy is suggestive. Then again, Mamiya dies young, and we don’t see much. When Mamiya resembles Anthy, sometimes Anthy is playing Mamiya and sometimes Mikage is falsely remembering Mamiya as resembling Anthy. In either case, we’re not seeing the real Mamiya accurately.
It’s striking that, out of all the siblings, Utena and Anthy’s relationship is the only two-sided relationship and the only positive one. It is the only homosexual pairing—the other pairs are heterosexual. As my e-mail questioner pointed out, Ikuhara has a bias toward gay pairings and may show them as better.
Eyes in Utena are drawn without pupils. The show depicts pupil dilation anyway: The size of a character’s iris shows the dilation of their pupil. In general, dilated pupils are for pleasant stuff and constricted pupils are for unpleasant stuff or surprise (which widens the eyes, so it can be hard to tell). There are examples from episode 1—Utena’s pupils constrict when she sees Anthy slapped, then dilate to normal when Touga intervenes. In the duel, Saionji’s pupils reflect his confidence at first, then his shock at losing.
It’s not visible in most scenes. I find it clear in the episode 34 scene with Utena and Akio on the white sofa. When Utena talks about Anthy, she is happy and relaxed and her pupils dilate. When Akio leans in too close, she pulls away tensely and her pupils constrict.
Another clear example is Anthy’s incipient tears in episode 12, 25, and 38.
In episode 1, Utena is associated with the word “weird” (henteko). The teacher calls her outfit weird, and at the end of the episode Utena says it was a weird day. There are other word choices that would do, so the repetition is making a point.
In the first two episodes, Saionji is associated with the word “shameless” (harenchi). Again, he uses it himself and has it used against him, at separate times.
Touga meets Utena in episode 3, where the word is kenzen, “wholesome”, sound and healthy either literally or metaphorically. The subtitle translation “normal” tries to keep the same implication of adherence to a social role. Utena says she wants a wholesome boy, then Touga appears and declares himself wholesome. The uses are not separated, so the association is not as strong.
It would make sense to introduce other characters with associated words. I listened for repeated words around Miki and did not find any.
Utena is an echo chamber where all the side stories echo and resonate with the main story of Akio, Anthy, and Utena, whether directly or in complicated ways. One echo is that most couples can be read as one who is female (or more female) like Anthy, and one who is gendermixed (or more gendermixed) like Utena. Sometimes it may be a bit of a stretch. I left Shiori and Juri out of the table because it felt like too much of a stretch (maybe I’m missing something). The same for Tatsuya and Wakaba. But the only couple that I can’t see it for at all is Mamiya and Mikage. Those two are particularly complicated.
|Anthy||Akio||Patriarch and Princess Kaguya.|
|Anthy||Miki||Sailor Mercury, his literal depiction.|
|Anthy||Saionji||Cleaning, cooking in a frilly apron.|
|Anthy||Utena||Both prince and ordinary girl.|
|Kozue||Miki||Sailor Mercury, his literal depiction.|
|Wannabe princess.||Nanami||Touga||The Kiryuu family name makes him a princess.|
|Cleaning, cooking in a frilly apron.||Saionji||Touga||The Kiryuu family name makes him a princess.|
|Shiori||Ruka||He’s a stand-in for Juri, and capable like Juri.|
|Shiori||unnamed boy||He’s a stand-in for Juri.|
|Tokiko||Mikage||He is compared to Utena. And consider his pink hair.|
|An ordinary girl when with Akio.||Utena||Akio||Patriarch and Princess Kaguya.|
|Wakaba||Saionji||Cleaning, cooking in a frilly apron.|
|Wakaba||Utena||Both prince and ordinary girl.|
Saionji and Utena appear in both the female and mixed columns. Saionji is the girl of Saionji and Touga. Utena is an ordinary girl when with Akio.
I don’t list all of Akio’s relationships. There are too many. And I left out some easy cases, like Keiko and Touga. I figure that Mitsuru doesn’t really have a relationship with Nanami, or with Mari; he’s a child and doesn’t get it.
Lost memories in anime conventionally point to tragedy—if nothing else, to a tragic backstory. Utena has forgotten the critical event of meeting Anthy and vowing to become a prince to save her. Utena does have a tragic backstory, and the tragedy is related to meeting Anthy, because Akio and Anthy likely murdered her parents. Utena remains sad and lonely for as long as we know her. At the same time, being tricked into making her vow helped her cope emotionally; that was part of Akio’s plot.
Is Utena’s story tragic? Akio intends for Utena to meet a tragic end, but his plot is thwarted. I think that’s the idea behind the reference to convention: Akio violates convention himself, but upholds convention for others (in order to preserve his own power), and Akio wants Utena to suffer tragedy. Utena rejects convention, and it seems to me that by her value system, her story is not tragic. She forgot her vow to rescue Anthy and never remembered it, and at the end of the story she believes she has failed to save Anthy—but Anthy ends up saved. Even as she gives up on the ideal of princes, she does not regret the risks she took, she regrets her apparent failure, which is not real. If she understood, I think she would see no tragedy even if she dies.
Is it tragic that Utena is forgotten after disappearing from the Academy? Maybe so, but enough remains for the next hero. Akio certainly tries to keep up the cycle of tragedy by causing forgetting.
The underworld. Mikage’s underground lair, reached by a descending elevator, is the underworld of the dead. Dead students are stored there. At the same time, Ohtori Academy as a whole is a burial mound and its residents are in coffins. The Academy is an underworld of the dead, where unaging dead students are stored, even though you reach it by climbing a hill and it is ruled from a tower. Mikage’s lair is a microcosm of the Academy, which is a microcosm of the world. The whole world is an underworld, and the End of the World is never far.
Utena’s black uniform jacket is opposed to the prince’s white. Black is Akio’s color; he is the darkness of the world. Utena is already a prince; her black uniform might mean that she wants Akio. Black can also be loneliness or emptiness; Utena is very lonely and she is empty in some ways. Her shoes are black and white, reflecting her girlish nature after Akio and her boyish nature after Dios. Utena’s hot pink hair, black jacket, and red shorts all say that she is susceptible to Akio’s corruption. Little Utena was pure. Akio’s intervention in the church was intended to make Utena corruptible and controllable, and besides that she has gone through puberty. Akio and growth primed her to seek corruption, and in episode 30 she does.
Winter. On the one hand, winter weather never seems to come to Utena. The characters never get cold or wear jackets. Utena appears in her short pants in every episode (though sometimes only in recaps). On the other hand, there are clear signs of winter. Tree branches are sometimes bare. In episode 22, snow is on the steps of Nemuro Memorial Hall. The constellations that come up in episode 21 (Pleiades star cluster), episode 31 (Gemini), and episode 33 (Anthy in the planetarium) are constellations of winter. Episode 35 is named “The love that blossomed in wintertime” in the Nozomi translation.
In part, it is the general Utena confusion about the passage of time. Time is often metaphorical in Utena. The main point seems to be that winter means cold, and cold means emotional coldness rather than low temperature. It means cruelty and sometimes revenge. See for example Anthy’s shaved ice.
Jay Scott <firstname.lastname@example.org>
first posted 19 January 2022
updated 11 November 2023