“Ohtori” (鳳; also romanized as “ootori”) is not a common word outside of family names and place names, and dictionaries I checked seemed confused and inconsistent about its exact meaning. I turned to Japanese Wikipedia to find out how it is used other than in names. The word seems to be ambiguous. At its most literal it means simply “big bird”, and is sometimes used for eagles and other large birds. From the myth of Ganymede we learn that Ohtori can refer to Zeus’s eagle, or Zeus as an eagle. (In Utena, Akio is Zeus.) The large stone bird over the gate to the dueling forest is Zeus’s eagle. (It is also the bird that breaks the shell of the world. The combination means that Akio is to be the one who revolutionizes the world.)
Otherwise ohtori seems to be a Japanese term for one of two different mythical Chinese birds. I think the primary one, and the one intended in Utena, is the Fènghuáng bird (Wikipedia). (I wrote out the Mandarin Chinese tones so clumsy English speakers can try to pronounce it right.) It’s called the Chinese phoenix due to an association with fire, which explains why some dictionaries gloss it as “phoenix”, but that’s silly because it’s not like a Western phoenix and has a different historical origin. Nevertheless, the symbolic rebirths of Utena and Anthy after the final showdown (they both leave Ohtori Academy) could make the two into Western phoenixes.
In Chinese mythology, as I understand it after some reading, there is one Fenghuang bird. It is beautiful and immortal and rules over all other birds. The symbolism is direct: The system of control of Ohtori Academy sees itself as beautiful and immortal and as ruling over everyone. Akio rules over and stands for the system. He has nearly irresistible sex appeal, which is a kind of beauty, and is immortal. According to Wikipedia, the Fenghuang bird originated in the sun, which corresponds to Akio originating from Dios; see sun catalog - Dios is the light of the world.
There is also indirect symbolism. The Ohtori rules over all birds, meaning all people. Every bird in the show is indirectly a reference to the Academy, and also to Akio since his name is Ohtori Akio. When student council members are riding the elevator up to their meeting location, they are enclosed in the bars of the elevator cage, symbolically imprisoned. At one point, birds fly past outside in the open air. “Ah, standard symbols of confinement versus freedom,” I thought on first viewing. But naming the Academy after the ruler over all birds implies that the birds too are under the Academy and included in the system of control. They appear to be free adults hatched from the egg, but are not (see the two meanings of adulthood). The free-flying birds are symbols of both freedom and oppression at the same time, which is a comment on the all-encompassing nature of the system of control. Though you may feel free, you are part of the system and complicit in its workings. I did mention that Utena takes opposite symbols seriously?
Compare Akio’s rescue of Utena from pestering teachers in episode 30. He tells the teachers not to bind students too tightly with rules, but to encourage independence. The real control in the system does not come from explicit rules but from the rules implicit in the beliefs and attitudes that the Academy instills (translated: that your cultural surroundings instill). That is how the free-flying birds come under control.
In episode 17, a bird flies into glass and dies, tying the symbolism of birds to the symbolism of glass as a barrier. In episode 26, Kaoru Kozue rescues the same bird’s orphaned nestlings, tying birds to the orphaned Utena (among other things; the Kaoru family is closely tied to birds). Kozue calls herself a wild animal, and thus a wild bird. Anthy cares for animals and explains how to care for the nestlings. Meanwhile, Anthy’s greenhouse rose garden is in the shape of a bird cage, making Anthy symbolically a caged bird as opposed to Kozue’s wild-but-not-really bird.
How large a bird does it take to lay the world egg, the one whose shell we must break to revolutionize the world? That’s a joke, but birds are tied to eggs.
That is one hell of a lot of value to get out of a single name. And I won’t pretend to have unpacked or even noticed all of it. The connections go on and on.
From the booklet accompanying the Apocalypse Saga DVDs, I learned that the city outside Ohtori Academy is named Hou’ou city. Hou’ou unambiguously means the Fenghuang bird; the academy and the city essentially have the same name. It implies that the Academy’s system of control is not limited to the Academy; it covers the city too. In episode 38, Akio says that his room at the top of the tower is the “summit” or high point of Ohtori Academy, and of the world. He suggests that the system of control extends across the entire world (he does lie a lot, but in real world terms it’s true). Anthy’s ability to free herself from Akio by leaving the academy means that Akio’s personal control does not extend everywhere, but she is not free of the system as a whole: It is possible to escape an abusive situation, even a firmly anchored one, but not possible to escape the broader system that created and allowed the abusive situation. Anthy left the Academy to seek her prince, meaning that (unlike Utena) she remains trapped by the ideal of princes.
The city is not named in the anime itself. I consider the name “Hou’ou” to be outside the proper scope of my analysis. But so what, I can step outside if I like.
Jay Scott <firstname.lastname@example.org>
first posted 14 November 2021
updated 27 April 2023