Utena - obscure symbols

Obscure symbols that struck me as especially cute.

star patterns
basketball games
skirt shadows
Akio dominates


In the courtyard of Anthy and Utena’s empty dorm stands an obelisk surrounded by astrological symbols for the twelve constellations of the zodiac. See Mishima Yukio’s House for its inspiration. It stands for Akio and his stars. In episode 2 when Saionji comes to demand Anthy, the shadow of the obelisk falls on the symbol for Scorpio (♏︎, Wikipedia). According to the Wikipedia article I just linked, in astrology Scorpio is associated with three animals: The scorpion that the constellation depicts, and also the snake and the eagle.

The scorpion is Saionji, who has arrived with his sting. The snake is Akio, who is tied to the serpent in Eden. The eagle is also Akio, through his name Ohtori. I wish I could make symbols like that.

Shadow of the obelisk falls on the symbol for Scorpio.

Shortly after, Utena comes out to confront Saionji. The shadow has moved halfway between Scorpio and Libra (♎︎, Wikipedia), the scales of justice. You thought the light was fixed to the building, and maybe it is though I don’t see it in the frontal view of the dorm. In Utena-world that does not stop it from moving around. Compare the impossible shadows of Utena and Anthy lying down in synchrony and see unstable locations.

Shadow of the obelisk has moved toward Libra, and falls halfway between.

The following shot is from the side and shows the obelisk dividing Utena and Anthy on one side from Saionji on the other. They are being weighed in the scales: Justice and light on the left versus sting and darkness on the right. The shadow line is fuzzy. Utena is not entirely in the light, and Anthy is shadowed in darkness. We learn the outcome after the duel.

It’s super-cute and virtually impossible to figure out without study, an easter egg for those who look closely. Utena does this kind of thing all over.

The obelisk between Utena and Anthy on one side and Saionji on the other.

star patterns

Pattern of seven stars as Saionji leaves.

Many starfields look meaningless. A few are real constellations. Others call out to be interpreted. From episode 2: The pattern of seven bright stars above Saionji looks like the six duelists with Anthy in the middle. The three stars over Anthy’s head can be read as Akio, Anthy and Utena, though it’s not convincing.

Pattern of stars over Touga’s head in episode 3. Touga with stars behind, one very bright.

Episode 3, the ball. The bright star immediately over Touga’s head must be Utena. Then the dimmer stars in line with it are other girls that Touga has lined up. Taking a wider view, the stars over his head outline a heart shape. The stars to the left of his head mark the corners of a pyramid. It could be Nanami and her three minions. The stars to the right of his head resemble a snail, perhaps. I suspect the stars tell us Touga’s thoughts about the ball. The star pattern changes as soon as Nanami arrives and puts her hands over Touga’s eyes. In episode 35 on the right, Utena’s star is brighter.

Pattern of eight stars above the student council.

The second interlude with the Student Council in the final showdown. Above the streak of cloud is a pattern of eight brighter stars, three in a triangle surrounded by five more in a rough house shape. (Click on the image for its full size.) It can be interpreted as the characters. Three are at the dueling arena: Akio and Anthy, and Utena’s star is dimmer because she has been run through and she’s down. Five that surround them are the student council (Nanami is sitting; she is below the bottom of the frame).

basketball games

Utena’s basketball games are a reference to Onii-sama e. See crowds - basketball for another note on the symbolism of playing basketball.

In episode 1, we’re shown Utena’s specialness in a basketball game where she charges forward in a shower of rose petals past defending boys and outjumps them to score. (The 鳳 character on the basketball jerseys says Ohtori.) The sports super-skill and rose petals are typical genre elements, and it’s only later that we may realize more: Her win is a sign of her power of miracles; defeating the entire boys’ team is a miracle. The orange color of the basketball represents miracles (and her one-sided love of the prince). It’s also a metaphor of personally defeating organized sexism. The shower of rose petals is her connection with Dios, the rose prince and the former holder of the power of miracles. Afterward, she is crowded with fangirls.

I call the symbolism obscure because it took me a long time to realize. The disguise as a genre trope worked on me.

Utena plays basketball in a shower of rose petals.

There are three basketball games (plus snippets of others in episodes 8 and 20). The second is in episode 30. Some of the same images repeat in the animation, this time without rose petals. Utena defeats the boys more soundly, not merely outjumping them but dunking the ball and grabbing the rim. Her power of miracles is stronger: Akio has been strengthening it through duels, to exploit for his own ends.

Then a vision of Akio distracts her and she falls, injuring herself. It is part of his plan to control her and exploit her power, and a metaphor of failure in the face of social control. Afterward, the boys stand around her, mildly concerned.

Utena charges past boys without rose petals.

The third game is in episode 37, after she has decided on her course of action. The animation again reuses images, and added images emphasize her determination and show that she is undistracted by other thoughts. She has overcome her weakness from the previous game, and she has resolved her confused feelings from earlier in the episode. Afterward, she is alone. She becomes more alone as the show progresses.

Unfortunately, she is determined to do the wrong thing. As we see in flashbacks as she plays, she has made her decision without full information.

Utena dunks the ball again.

Every spherical object is like the egg of the world, and has something or other to do with revolution. The basketball represents Utena’s power of miracles, in the same way that Akio’s spherical hair tie represents Akio’s power of illusion, with his illusions (as hair) flowing through the world.

In the body swap episode 8, the basketball is prominent in the gym equipment shed behind Utena, who is in Anthy’s body. Utena is confident with the ball in her hands, or with a sword, but in the face of Saionji’s advances she seems to feel powerless. Utena as Anthy is capable of miracles; she played a basketball game earlier in the episode. Here the basketball is in storage rather than in use. Utena’s power is not always active, and she can be defeated. It comes with a demonstration that Utena is vulnerable to sexual temptation, showing how she can be defeated. Touga and Akio both exploit the weakness. The orange ball can also represent Saionji’s one-sided love, although the scene associates it with Utena. In storage, it looks brown for ordinariness.

The basketball on the floor of the gym storage shed, behind Utena (who is in Anthy’s body).

Utena becomes more alone with time. How does it happen? In the Apocalypse Saga, we see Akio isolating Utena from the Student Council members, one at a time, and from Anthy and Wakaba. That’s part of it. But she is more alone in the Black Rose already, and I don’t know how it happens. Akio made friends with her, which might reduce her time with others, but it doesn’t account for her fangirls drifting away.

skirt shadows

The skirt of the girls’ uniform usually casts a light shadow. There are five times when a dark triangular shadow appears under a girl’s skirt (if I found them all). It stands for a dark sexual action she is taking.

These five are the only conspicuous skirt shadows I found. There are examples of tiny, inconspicuous skirt shadows. One is in the opening sequence, with Anthy and Utena standing in the greenhouse. They are so small that they were likely invisible on a 1997 television screen. In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether they participate in the symbolism. When the show aired, they could not.
The camera is low to the ground as Utena slaps away Touga’s hand. We see a black triangle under Anthy’s skirt.
Episode 3, black triangle
Shiori holds her hands over Juri’s eyes as she kisses over her head.
Episode 7, skirt shadow

On the right, a shadow under Shiori’s skirt for her dark sexual action (shadow 1). She believes she is betraying Juri, and she is in fact hurting Juri, so she’s not exactly wrong. The shadow appears again in episode 17 (shadow 2) after she takes Juri’s sword. On the left, an ambiguous black triangle under Anthy’s skirt, which was lifted by the wind caused by Utena slapping Touga’s hand away. It is the wind of Utena as prince.

It could be Anthy’s panties. She is watching, doing nothing dark at the moment. The lack of other panty shots, and the similarity to Shiori’s shadow, lead me to conclude that it is a shadow (shadow 3). Either way, it must stand for Anthy’s sexual tie to Akio. The pillar immediately behind her symbolizes that she is dominated by Akio. She is surprised to see Utena instantly and vigorously reject Touga, who is parallel to Akio. The whites of Anthy’s eyes turn slightly purple for her corrupted vision.

The left and right images are closely parallel. On the left in each image, a corrupt manipulative woman with secrets. On the right, an interested man who falsely switches his attachment from the woman in the middle to the woman on the left (unnamed boy now and Touga in episode 11). When the switch happens, the woman in the middle becomes unhappy because of love for the woman on the left. Anthy’s dark sexual action is to cheat on all her supposed fiances with Akio.

Shiori holds her hands over Juri’s eyes as she kisses over her head.
Episode 12, approaching Wakaba

Utena has a small black shadow under the skirt of her girls’ uniform in episode 12 (shadow 4), when she approaches Wakaba to apologize. The image is stitched together from a vertical panning shot, and comes from the Gallery at Empty Movement, in particular from right here. Credit to Giovanna.

What dark sexual action is Utena taking, or about to take? I can think of more than one interpretation, but I conclude it refers to kissing Wakaba on the forehead. Wakaba playfully treats Utena as her “boyfriend”, but her reaction to the kiss is a sign that her feelings are more serious than she admits. Right after the kiss, Utena heads off to win Anthy back from Touga. With the kiss, Utena misleads Wakaba in the same way that Anthy misleads Utena, Shiori misleads her boy, and Kozue misleads her boy. The kiss is parallel to Dios kissing away little Utena’s tears in the prince story; see Wakaba afterstory. It will lead Wakaba into severe danger. But if Wakaba wins through, it will ultimately be a good thing.

Besides that, it foreshadows Utena’s corruption in the Apocalypse Saga. Literally.
A dark triangular shadow under Kozue’s skirt as she dalles with her unnamed boy.
Episode 15, Kozue with her boy

The remaining skirt shadow belongs to Kozue in episode 15, when she is with her boy (shadow 5). Kozue going with a boy to hurt Miki is parallel to Shiori going with a boy to hurt Juri. The direct implication is that the system of control leads women to deliberately hurt those they love. Anthy hurts Utena, Shiori hurts Juri, and Kozue hurts Miki. Utena’s case is different, though: The others choose to cause hurt because the system of control denies the validity of their true loves. Utena decides validity for herself, but nevertheless hurts Wakaba due to the system. We see it in episode 20, where Utena hurts Wakaba out of caring—by rescuing her against her will. The system tricked Utena into believing in rescue as an exercise of power over another.

Akio dominates

Nothing is in focus. Everything is a little blurry. The same background, the three candles in front. Utena drinks tea.

In episode 25, Anthy’s roses are up front, pink on the right for Utena and purplish on the left for Akio, showing who Anthy cares about. The leftmost pink rose, nestled up with a purple rose to show Utena’s desire, has slight purple shadows as she is in danger of corruption. The light side of the flowerpot faces Utena and the dark side faces Akio. Utena and Wakaba are both gazing at Akio. Utena’s ubiquitous diagonal shadow lines place Utena and Wakaba in shadow, captured by Akio, even as they stand on the side of light with respect to the roses. A thick dark bar leads to Utena’s head and a thin one to Wakaba’s head, because Utena is seriously attracted to dark Akio and Wakaba is only playing around. Wakaba is standing up straight in directness and innocence while Utena is leaning forward, drawn in. Utena is lower, because she is falling under Akio’s control. Akio’s height visually dominates everyone—but not the roses of Anthy’s feelings. So many subtle points in one image.

There are two similar shots, with the same background including the shadows, in episode 30. It’s the episode when Utena is corrupted, and Utena’s feelings are front and center. In this first one, she is looking away because she’s feeling put out that Wakaba is getting between her and Akio. Akio deliberately activated her attraction in episode 25 (after the picture above), and is about to execute the re-approach step of an approach-withdrawal maneuver. Akio has an evil smile. Two bars of shadow that were mostly hidden behind roses in the first picture point toward the candle that Utena will blow out first. In the second similar image, only one candle burns.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 24 December 2021
updated 27 May 2024