Utena - Onii-sama e

In progress. I’ve only analyzed through episode 2 so far.

Onii-sama e is known in English as Dear Brother. (There is an ellipsis in its name, Onii-sama e..., but I will leave it out.) It’s a 1991-1992 anime directed by Dezaki Osamu, based on a manga drawn by Ikeda Riyoko. Ikeda also drew The Rose of Versailles, and Dezaki directed most of it. The title is the heading of a letter (the Japanese expresses it more clearly).

According to this discussion on Anime News Network, “it’s arguably the single most important influence” on Utena. The show is not at all famous in English, and I wouldn’t have found it on my own. The internet had to tell me.

I agree, it may well be the biggest influence. I have watched it through once, and I’ll write it up as I watch it a second time. It’s a slow-burn show, and I had to see the end before I could understand the beginning. My first impression is that Utena borrows a smaller number of larger pieces from The Rose of Versailles and a larger number of smaller pieces from Onii-sama e. We’ll see if that holds up as I look more closely. I’ll rewatch it over time and write it up as I go.

characters

Nanako’s face.
Nanako
Utena’s face.
Utena

The protagonist Nanako is not much like Utena. The story of Onii-sama e does not have a hero. Nanako is an everygirl type with everyday hair, and Utena is a hero type with striking hair. Nevertheless, they have two physical features in common: Blue eyes and cheek hair. Their eyes may be blue for the same reason, to indicate immaturity and naivety. Nanako’s cheek hair is modest; Utena’s threatens to wrap around her face. According to TVTropes, Utena’s cheek hair counts as Hot-Blooded Sideburns to go with her power and impulsiveness, not to mention the vehement way she makes objections. That makes it part of her male marking. Nanako’s little cheek tabs can be male marking too; see her love of Rei as shown already in the first episode. Rei is also marked male; the relationship between women is coded as a male homosexual relationship. (Maybe because the audience is supposed to be straight girls?)

Both characters go through a painful journey to adulthood. It’s a common type of story, so it’s not much of a similarity. There are story-line similarities that I’ll get into later.

Fukiko’s face.
Fukiko

Juri physically resembles Fukiko, who has curled hair of a similar color. Both adhere rigidly to what they believe is proper. Fukiko was raised in the upper class, and has a proud-to-arrogant attitude, like Juri and Nanami. I can see it in her expression here, maybe with some hostility. Fukiko is like Nanami in her jealousy and cruelty and her will to power over others, though closer to Juri in her competence.

Fukiko’s nickname is Miya, which in her case I take to mean princess. She rules the Sorority.

Fukiko is important; she draws Nanako into the exclusive Sorority. And it seems like she inspired or influenced character traits in Utena, and perhaps is a second indication that Juri is a princess (after her name Arisugawa).

Tomoko counts off points on her fingers.
Tomoko

Tomoko is Nanako’s long-time friend. As written, Tomoko’s name means “wise girl”, but it can also be understood as meaning simply “friend”. Those two points seem to say everything important about her! She is the most ordinary person in the cast, and corresponds to Wakaba. She is even more ordinary than Wakaba.

Many characters have both a name and a nickname that indicates their specialness. I find the excess names hard to keep straight, so I’m writing down some of them.

namenickname
Asaka ReiSaint-Just of the Flowersthe three special students
Orihara KaoruKaoru no Kimi
Ichinomiya FukikoMiya

the opener

The opener and ender are unchanged for all 39 episodes. The fine enka song of the opener establishes a metaphor of a gold container of joy and a silver container of sorrow, which the visuals turn into obscure symbols. On the left is the last image of the opener. Utena’s reference to the opener looks meaningful.

A clock, a gold box, a woman in a green dress with a green parasol at the gold box, a silver carriage, a doll.
confusing tableau
In the duel with Keiko, Anthy in her red princess dress holds a red parasol.
Episode 21, Anthy’s parasol
An hourglass is reflected in the table surface.
Episode 22, hourglass

The clock, the gold box and green woman, and the silver carriage and doll stand on an abstract reflective surface. Earlier, the surface was equated with water: They are standing on water.

Surely the green parasol held by the woman in the green dress corresponds to Anthy’s red parasol as she wears her red princess dress, in the Black Rose duel with Keiko. A little earlier, the green parasol flew away. A little later, Anthy’s parasol flies away along with the collection of Keiko’s umbrellas. The pillar behind Anthy (part of the gate to the dueling arena) corresponds to the vertical clock hands and the standing clock behind the green parasol. The orange umbrella in front of Anthy corresponds to the gold box in front of the green woman, a container of joy.

The doll in red and the woman in green seem to represent the same person. That’s confusing, but then, everybody gets joy and sorrow. The doll’s red hat also corresponds to Anthy’s red parasol. The doll is associated with the silver carriage, departing on a journey of sorrow. That sounds like Anthy, starting out with Dios and a box of joy and later departing on a journey of sorrow. The journey is the metaphorical journey of maturing and becoming adult.

The gold and silver containers are boxes of treasures. The opener establishes a theme of the show: Happiness and sadness are not only unavoidable but valuable; they bring the richness of life; you need both to grow up and become adult. There is a string of pearls in the silver box (click the picture for a bigger version). Earlier, they were visually equated with tears: Sorrow is valuable and beautiful. They are blue for the water of tears. In Utena, gold is for Dios who is the sun, and silver is for Akio who is the moon. Utena needs them both for her revolution.

The clock shows two minutes past noon—or midnight. The lighting suggests noon at the top and left versus night at the right and bottom, with the warm light of joy and the cool light of sorrow. The clock’s reflection can only remind me of the reflected hourglass and Utena’s time reversals.

shared symbols

Water pours into a basin from the sculpture of a lion’s head.
lion fountain
Water pours out after Utena opens the gate to the dueling forest.
Episode 1, water pours

This fountain with water pouring from a lion’s mouth shows up frequently. It is a symbol of malice: When we see it, somebody intends harm.

Utena’s pouring water here has a stern bird of prey behind it to match the lion. The water primarily means illusions and tears, but malice is included in its meanings. The illusions are malicious, and the tears are due to malicious harm. In the first episode, Utena exclaims about the coldness of the water drop splashing on her ring. It represents emotional coldness.

A colonnade from Onii-sama e.
colonnade
Colonnade, fully lit, with arches opening to the left.
Episode 1, colonnade

I’m not sure this is a shared symbol, but it’s certainly a shared image. Well, colonnades are common images. Utena’s colonnaded walkways are not necessarily inspired by this one. It does seem likely, though, and left-to-right reversal is common when Utena borrows an image. See for example princess and prince and Galaxia.

the title

Nanako faces Henmi, a window between them showing bare snowy trees outside.
episode 2

Nanako writes letters about events and her feelings to her former cram school teacher, Henmi Takehiko, who she refers to as her brother. She was in a class that he taught for four weeks and doesn’t know anything more about him. In the picture, at the end of the four weeks, she asks him to become her brother. Then he asks her name! But after he learns it, he gives her his address to write to. It’s a strange thing for Nanako to do, but she follows her feelings. That’s where the title Onii-sama e comes from, “Dear brother,” the heading of each letter. Others assume that he is her boyfriend, or at least a one-sided love interest, but Nanako truly does treat him like an older brother that she wants to remain close to.

In the end, it turns out that he actually is her biological brother. He knew it as soon as he heard her name. And there are other surprise siblings. As in Utena, there is an “are we siblings?” motif, and “real” siblings are seen as important.

episode 1

As with The Rose of Versailles, Utena helpfully shows its influence from Onii-sama e up front in the first episode.

Tall Rei lifts Nanako and whirls her around. The background is empty white.
Rei whirls Nanako around

The first event is that Nanako as a little girl of five—who hasn’t been introduced yet, so we don’t know who she is—meets an older boy and asks over and over “Who are you?” It’s raining. She carries a play bucket and scoop (which remind me of little Nanami playing in the sand in episode 27) and a yellow umbrella (which reminds me of episode 21). A voice tells us that the event should naturally be forgotten by now. It is a significant meeting, but remains unexplained until near the end of the series. Utena refers to it at the end of episode 34 and again in the final episode as Utena opens Anthy’s coffin; each time, Anthy asks, “Who are you?” Anthy is referring to a significant meeting which neither of them quite remembers. As far as I know, the earliest use of the line is in the movie Angel’s Egg, which Utena refers to independently. There is also a connection with the siblings that Akio says Anthy and Utena are: The boy turns out to be Nanako’s brother.

Time skip. The scene transition lets us know that the little girl is our protagonist, Nanako, who is preparing for her first day at fancy girls’ high school Seiran Academy. (“Seiran” is written 青蘭, which means blue orchid. Written differently, it has other meanings.) There is a bit of byplay about wearing the uniform and looking up rules in the student handbook, which Utena riffs on. Utena reverses it: Nanako and her friend Tomoko are the only ones to wear the optional uniform. The Academy has a prominent tower, like Utena. The setting is Yokohama city; there are frequent views of the city and the ocean, as in Utena.

Kaoru plays basketball, passing other girls in a stream of flower petals.
Kaoru plays basketball

The episode is about Nanako meeting the three students who are recognized as special and draw crowds of fans. All are marked as special in part by their height and mature looks. I think the most natural interpretation is that Utena’s three special people are Touga, Saionji, and Juri, who are all tall and with mature looks, and have fans (Juri has fencing fangirls in episode 17 and bowling fanboys in episode 27). On the way to school, Nanako meets Rei, nicknamed Saint-Just of the Flowers, after Saint-Just of the French Revolution, who ends up dying. The visuals and sound say that they fall in love at first meeting. Nanako gets the fast heartbeat (compare Utena episodes 28 and 30) and other signs. Rei rescues her from a crushing crowd on the bus to school, holds her close, then picks her up and spins her around as the rest of the world goes blank. Utena disapproves of rescue leading to love. Then Rei walks off as if nothing had happened. Yuri elements are central, as in Utena. Next is Kaoru, nicknamed Kaoru no kimi after a character from The Tale of Genji who hesitates in matters of love and suffers for it. Utena hesitates in matters of love and suffers for it, first due to ignorance, then due to being deceived. Kaoru has sports skills and plays basketball in a swirl of petals, like Utena, and her clothing is similar to Utena’s black uniform jacket. Third is Fukiko, aka Miya, described above, leader of the Sorority, to which only the (ahem) best students belong.

The petals here are cherry blossoms. School starts at the right time of year for it. Utena’s petals are roses for her connection with Dios.

Rei and Fukiko both play piano excellently, like Miki. In this episode, Rei plays while holding a red rose in her teeth, and throws the rose to whoever may catch it, like a bride throwing the bouquet. Nanako catches it. It might be a little over the top.

It rains after school. The basketball picture above shows the gathering clouds. Nanako notes that it rains on all the important days of her life. It’s a thunderstorm, like the thunderstorm over the church in Utena’s prince story. At the end of the episode, Nanako thinks that it’s fine that way. We know that it’s the rain of tears. Nanako already understands at some level that sorrow is part of growing up.

previews

All episodes except the last end with a preview. Every preview ends with the same words: “The tears won’t stop!” But the show is not a tragedy, and not all the episodes have or deserve tears.

episode 2

The episode is named The Glass Slippers (well, in Japanese it’s “the glass shoes”, but close enough). Utena also refers to Cinderella.

Fukiko, aka Miya, comes to the class and announces the class’s candidate Sorority members. She unexpectedly names Nanako, surprising everyone, Nanako most of all. Fukiko passes over mean girl Misaki, who had been confident of getting in.

Tomoko tells Nanako that Nanako has become Cinderella, raised from social rags to riches. Apparently, to be chosen Cinderella means to be chosen as special and superior. Later in the show, the Sorority turns out to be not such a good thing after all. Utena is parallel: Utena already is special and superior, but she doesn’t know it. When she is chosen as Cinderella in episode 30, she feels special because she was chosen by desirable Akio and treated as a princess. But in reality a princess is powerless and not special.

At the end of the episode, Nanako wonders when her midnight will come, when the coach turns back to a pumpkin and she returns to her ordinary self. As in Utena, being special is advertised as lasting only a short time.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 1 September 2022
updated 28 April 2024