Utena - opening sequence

Next -> The first ending sequence.

The opening is a series of short clips set to the opening theme song. The pace is quicker than either ending sequence—appropriately for an opener. The sequence should in some way reflect the whole series. One rule of anime openers is that they should introduce all the main cast, though it is OK to leave out villains. Sure enough, this one shows Anthy and Utena and the Student Council, the most important characters other than Akio. It offers glimpses of duels and of the final showdown.

The major theme of the opener is togetherness and separation. Every segment that I break out below (well, except for the title shot) includes representations of togetherness or separation, and usually both.

The theme song ties into Utena’s themes (funny that) and makes specific references. At the same time, it is a conventional love song. It is an expression of the system of control and reinforces the illusions that Utena and Anthy live under.

Empty Movement offers multiple translations of the lyrics, including the lyrics used in the show and a longer version (that I think wanders off the path). The song’s Japanese title is “輪舞 - revolution”. 輪舞 (rinbu) means round dance. The official translation is “Rondo - revolution”. Wikipedia explains “The rondo is a musical form that contains a principal theme... which alternates with one or more contrasting themes.” In other words, the principal theme returns repeatedly. Both titles are puns on the English “revolution”. The reference seems to be not to Utena’s revolution, but to Utena and Anthy returning to be together after they are separated—see analysis below. The last word of the lyrics is kaeru, to change, in “I will change the world.” It has a homonym meaning to return—subtly reinforcing the pun. The story of Utena is presented as one iteration of a cycle, corresponding to Buddhist samsara. Utena is only one of a sequence of heroes that together bring inevitable revolution. In Buddhism, nothing lasts forever and change is inevitable.

The opening sequence is from Utena’s point of view. “Take my revolution” are the words; they only fit Utena.

Utena and Anthy appear unclothed, in silhouette, on a rotating rose. Utena and Anthy’s heads appear. They are unclothed.
Utena and Anthy fade into color, and their clothing appears. Utena and Anthy’s heads appear. They are clothed.

Anthy and Utena are unclothed at first, seen in silhouette superimposed over spinning roses. Their clothing appears as they fade into color. Their eyes are closed throughout this initial segment.

It starts with the key characters. Going from silhouette to color is a form of theatrical bringing up the lights. It also suggests that the two are in some way prototypical: In fact, Anthy and Utena together stand for all women. Going from unclothed to clothed can mean the same thing, and touches on the show’s sexual themes, and along with the heads-together images suggests romance between the two. Utena wears her prince uniform with the epaulets, marking her as male. The theme song’s first line also suggests manliness and elegant princely behavior.

I read the initial large rose as a womb. Anthy and Utena are twins in the womb (see Castor and Pollux), and are born naked. The first heads-together image is not romantic. Their eyes are closed because they are born knowing nothing. Later they are separated, each gets her own rose, and they put on clothing. The second heads-together image is romantic, though they don’t quite meet, and their eyes are closed because they do not understand each other. The roses stand for the Academy, which is both a coffin and a womb (Anthy’s coffin is compared to a womb visually and symbolically and through the metaphor of the egg).

Anthy and Utena are shown next to each other but not together, if you know what I mean. They do not take action. If they are aiming to kiss in the second heads-together image, then they are miscoordinated. They spin under some outside control; it reminds me of Chu-Chu falling onto the spinning record in episode 3. Spinning can mean confusion. They are inverted relative to each other, as on the S-shaped bed, meaning that they have illusions about each other and/or that they are complementary people opposite in most traits.

In the single rose, Utena and Anthy rotate clockwise and the rose rotates counterclockwise. They stand for all women, and turn in the direction of truth, while the background rose stands for the social view of all women and turns in the direction of illusions. In the twin roses, Utena rotates clockwise and Anthy counterclockwise, and their roses go in the reverse directions.
Utena and Anthy stand back to back on a rose background, Anthy upside down.

They stand back-to-back.
Their hands part on a black background.

In the back-to-back image, the background has returned to a single rose. The theme song “even if we are separated” line is here. They have in some way recognized their togetherness, but they still suffer illusions about each other.

Above, they were born together, then separated, then brought together again (at the Academy). Here they hold hands, then are separated. The separating hands image repeats in episode 23 just before Utena says “you can’t stop being the Rose Bride”; the only difference is that in episode 23 it has fainter sparkles. At the start of the Apocalypse Saga, they hold hands in bed. Then Akio emotionally separates the two and they stop holding hands. At the end of the show, they repeat joining and separating hands.

Utena starts the show lonely and grows increasingly alone as time passes. At the end, in leaving the Academy and exiting the system of control, she leaves behind everyone she knows. It can be taken as the alienation of the lone hero who goes her own way. It’s like the cowboy riding into the sunset at the end of a western. Then Anthy leaves to find Utena, implying a return to togetherness. Oops, the cowboy was not the end?

The title fades in.

I gather that the most essential themes have been touched on—not that the viewer can understand them until late in the series—and now the show can be named.

We see the city with Akio’s tower in the foreground, Utena superimposed walking away.
Anthy and Utena separately walk to school, Anthy among girls, Utena among boys. Each turns to look backward.

Akio’s tower is the closest the opener comes to introducing Akio. Anthy is under Akio’s control, but is not associated with the tower here.

Utena is again marked male. Anthy and Utena have caught each other’s interest; they are walking in opposite directions, and each turns back to look at the other. It is noticing the attractive other. It’s curious, because both are walking to school and they should be going the same direction. Metaphorically, the two complementary people are also opposite in their paths; Utena believes in personal freedom and seeks change (revolution), while Anthy believes in Akio’s controlling paternalistic worldview and seeks stability (eternity). More broadly, the boys and girls are going opposite directions: Boys are to learn power, girls are to learn submission. For other brief notes, see crowds - opening.

Utena’s male marking and the implied attraction between the two is subversive, but only along one axis. It accepts most of the cultural expectations around boys and girls, reversing one point. It’s not revolutionary; Utena is not about rapid revolution but about step-by-step change (which does eventually amount to a revolution). To help Anthy escape the trap she is in, Utena must adhere to convention enough to attract conventional Anthy’s interest, and must break convention enough to help her escape.

The theme song mentions the sunny garden, meaning the garden of Miki’s memory and also Anthy’s greenhouse.

Anthy and Utena stand in the greenhouse, the central pillar prominent on the left.

Introducing a key location. For the first time in the opener, Anthy and Utena are standing together, not inverted or reversed relative to each other. Their relationship has progressed. After noticing each other, they meet and spend time together. But they are in the greenhouse, a cage and a symbol of the Academy.

Anthy’s hand, reaching upward, places a white rose in Utena’s hand.

Anthy and Utena lie on autumn leaves under bare tree branches, Anthy inverted.
Anthy hands Utena a rose, which Utena accepts languidly.
Utena sits up, and her prince uniform fades in. Anthy’s princess dress fades in on Anthy.

Their relationship has progressed again. In a cute detail, when the two look at each other, Utena’s eyes narrow contentedly while Anthy’s controlled expression does not change. In the rose shot, the camera is upside down so that Anthy reaches the rose upward to Utena. The rose is white because Anthy sees Utena as her prince. The rose is both an expression of love and a challenge to a duel (both togetherness and separation). Thorns are visible, tying the rose to Sleeping Beauty.

The change of clothing is the transition to the duel segment.

The dueling tower and arena appear with the castle in the sky.
The duelists appear and show off: Utena, Saionji, Juri, Miki, Nanami, Touga in that order.

The sequence is fast. It runs about ten seconds. I don’t know why the duelists are in that order. Each duelist displays a key trait: Utena lunges, Saionji chops violently, Juri flies to represent her great skill, Miki swings into action (which looks cool but seems out of character), Nanami rushes furiously, scheming Touga poses with his back to the camera. We can take it as a summary of all the duels in the show.

Maybe Miki’s turning movement portrays his change of mind as he is manipulated into taking action. He turns counterclockwise.
A close view: Utena holds her sword vertically in front of her face, looking fierce. Blue horses seem to fight amidst the falling debris.

Utena brandishes her sword as the arena crumbles, and Anthy recedes amidst the falling debris.
Two blue-shaded horses seem to fight hoof-to-hoof standing on their back legs. The left horse carries Utena, the right horse Anthy.
Dios awakens as the arena crumbles.

We jump ahead to the final showdown. The opener does not give away future events, but points in their direction. Anthy does fall away as the arena collapses in episode 39. Dios does wake up (though it happens before the arena falls). Utena brandishing her sword corresponds to her saying “I will become a prince!” and causing the castle to fall in episode 38. Strangely, the fingernail length symbolism is not carried through; her nails are long. Utena and Anthy both have long nails when together, so maybe it refers to that.

The horses are blue for naive illusion and appear again in the next segment. The blue sky is prominent; the sky too is blue for illusion.

• Anthy and Utena as mounted knights fly together around the castle in the sky.
• Anthy and Utena as blue-shaded figures are pulled apart, so that their hands part.
• Utena rotates over one of two spinning roses.

The mounted Anthy and Utena now seem to be working together, no longer fighting against each other. Anthy’s horse is black for Akio, and Utena’s is white for Dios. But they are trapped in a fairy tale world with an illusionary castle in the sky. It can represent the transition from episode 23, when Utena realizes that Anthy cannot quit the Rose Bride role, to episode 25 when Utena wants to work together.

We jump to the final episode again, where Anthy falls away. Anthy is missing from her spinning rose. In the story, it is Utena who disappears from the Academy, but in any case she is separated from Anthy.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 19 February 2023
updated 9 July 2023