Some symbols, like turning left, are so subtle that the creators can’t expect many to notice them. The aim is probably to create unconscious expectations and associations. Akio uses the same technique against Utena.
Anthy and Utena stand for all women. Part of the symbolism is that they are complementary in most traits: Literally and figuratively, one is dark and one is light. Another part is that they are called twins—see Castor and Pollux. The two are parallel to the other twins, Miki and Kozue. They are one person unwound into two, the inverse of the Hopi idea of twins twisted into one.
Suppose we take it literally, and accept that the birth and separation of twins in the opening sequence is real. In that case, the natural explanation is that Dios fathered Anthy, so that Akio is her father, as Anthy hints inconclusively in episode 26. The mother is of course Utena’s mother, who we can assume Dios rescued and “kissed”. In Utena’s version of the Castor and Pollux myth, twins Castor and Pollux had the same mother and different fathers, so Utena’s dead parents should be her real parents. It explains why Akio’s attention fell on Utena. In the episode 34 version of the prince story, Utena and Anthy look to be the same age—and they look the same age at the Academy. This causes time to be confused, but time is like that in Utena. They have forgotten each other equally.
Under this theory, in the episode 37 shadow play, when the Akio shadow calls itself “Papa” to the Utena shadow, it might be because Akio believes that he is Utena’s father. He has no reason to expect that twins might have different fathers. It undercuts my argument that Utena is pregnant at the end of the show.
Hair colors. Kozue and Miki are twins and have related hair colors. Anthy and Utena too: Anthy’s hair is dark purple, and Utena’s pink hair can be read as light purple, though shaded toward red. See colors - Utena’s hair.
There is no concrete evidence. The hypothesis that Dios rescued Utena’s mother seems to be out of the blue, and there are questions about how Anthy and Utena were separated (presumably as babies). But the data all fits, and it works out too neatly to be an accident. We can say either that the twin metaphor is thoroughly worked out, or that the two are literal twins. I can only guess whether the ambiguity is intentional.
If you accept that they are literal twins, then Anthy and Utena’s attraction to each other is incestuous—which is normal in Utena. I guess their attraction would be due partly to assortative mating effects (Wikipedia), which come into play because the two were separated as babies.
This image of Anthy watering her roses comes up first in episode 5, and repeats a number of times through episode 35. It’s important.
I take it to be an image of the Academy’s process of education. The roses are students, and Anthy is cultivating them with the water of illusions and tears. In Anthy’s mythological role as Hera, she is a goddess of marriage and family. She is teaching social roles and social narratives (illusions, which is to say, lies) and granting knowledge through experience (tears). In her mythological role as Persephone, when above ground she is responsible for vegetation and growth. The roses in the greenhouse are in an artificial, controlled environment, like the students in the Academy. Persephone is associated with the cycle of seasons and the cycle of life and death. Every generation is to be like the previous one, with nothing new under the sun—see the insert song in episode 27 about lovers and timelessness, which plays at bedtime as Anthy tells Utena about parents passing on their thoughts and feelings to their children. Akio’s victims can be taken as cut roses. Cut roses display their beauty and die fruitlessly (see Utena as a cut rose in the recap episode 13).
Anthy likes growing roses. She enjoys her job of manipulating others into upholding Akio’s power. She believes Akio’s propaganda, and may see her work as upholding the proper order of the world, a positive that helps counterbalance the suffering in her life. See her rabbit dance in episode 7, where she privately celebrates her success in manipulating others into duels.
In episode 11, Touga visits the greenhouse as part of his plot against Utena. He tells Anthy that this kind of rose is difficult to grow. In other words, Utena is difficult to cultivate, but Anthy can do it. The roses in the background are various colors including Utena’s pink, but none are red for Touga. Anthy is guiding Touga’s plot, and Touga’s roses are easy to grow. He wants to be Akio, and virtually cultivates himself.
Large roses in the background seem to mean that Anthy has cultivated the characters.
Anthy’s glasses are defensive; they are a barrier to distance her from reality. They are not about seeing clearly, they are about not wanting to see. When she especially does not like what she is seeing, she closes her eyes—she does it frequently (not always for that reason, though). Anthy takes off her glasses sometimes: When she is visiting her brother, and when she leaves the Academy in the last episode. And when she’s close with Utena, in bed at night and at her suicide attempt. Those are the times when she faces reality directly. When Akio is with Utena, her glasses shine with jealousy—she is at once watching closely and not wanting to see what she sees.
In the preview at the end of episode 7—the preview of the body swap story—Anthy says she sees better without glasses.
In episode 34, Anthy at the “Tale of the Rose” shadow play closes her eyes as she lies that she is looking forward to it. She’s shown with closed eyes throughout.
In the opening animation, we’re treated to a shot of Akio’s tower in the left half of the frame moving toward the center, as the camera moves left. It turns out to be a consistent symbol: When the tower is moving to the right due to a camera move to the left, it means Akio’s power or closeness is increasing. The tower never passes the center. When the tower is moving to the left, his power is decreasing. The Cinderella scene in episode 30 makes it easy to follow. The tower follows a particularly complicated path around the left side of the frame after Akio and Utena return from the Routine Date and park under the tower, episode 37. In the Ruka episodes, it tells us Ruka’s power over Shiori or Juri.
The tower is on the left side of the screen because it is associated with illusions. See turning left below.
The symbolism does not apply to establishing shots of the tower, which tell us location and time of day. The tower does not move left or right in those shots.
The Kiryuu family mansion has a cupola which resembles the top of Akio’s tower. It represents Touga’s emulation of Akio—he is like a smaller copy.
Surprisingly, the upper part of the UFO of the shadow girls in episodes 12 and 13 also resembles the top of Akio’s tower. When we see it up close, the windows are the same shape and there’s a rounded dome on top. The resemblance only comes up in those episodes, and only when the UFO is landing at the end of episode 12 and the start of episode 13. I think it is to prepare us for upcoming visits to the tower.
The Kiryuu mansion resembles the Jarjayes mansion (of the family of the protagonist Oscar) in The Rose of Versailles. See pictures on the right. The layouts of the building and grounds are similar and the house has a similar cupola on top (though in the mansion picture we can only see its pointy roof). That must be the inspiration.
The Kiryuu grounds come with a square pond rather than a round pond. Both are fronted with a formal garden. The buildings are both E shaped, with a projecting wing on each side, and the visible windows match up with each other.
Left means illusions. Left hands and left feet are associated with illusions and fantasies. Turning left, and counterclockwise movement, are associated with moving toward illusions. Counterclockwise turning suggests moving backward in time, the clock running in reverse: To go that way is to move toward childhood fantasies.
Relative to the rest of the Academy, the dueling arena is a center of illusions and fantasies. The gate to the dueling forest is decorated with a left-turning spiral. Inside, the spiral way up to the dueling arena turns left. When we see the dueling forest on one side of the screen, it is on the left side.
Relative to the outside world, the Academy is a center of illusions. In most of the car driving scenes, when we see street lamps curving into the distance, they are curving to the right. When you move away from the Academy, the car moves in a right-turning spiral. Akio is bringing his riders/victims out of the Academy to give them a taste of (what he calls) adulthood. If you continue toward adulthood, you eventually graduate from the Academy.
There are two cases where the lamps curve to the left, and the car is returning to the Academy. Returning is worse than leaving. One case is episode 33 with Akio’s First Seduction of Utena. She was deluded and seduced by illusions, and now she is being returned home to where the illusions originated. The other is in episode 35 with Touga in the car. It signals that Akio has started to push Touga to the side. Before long, Touga begins to regress toward childhood, reduced from car to motorcycle to bicycle.
More examples: When walking to the “Tale of the Rose” shadow play in episode 34, the turns shown are left turns. In the final episode, Dios rides a merry-go-round which turns counterclockwise. He mounts the merry-go-round as he leaves Utena collapsed on the floor, and it seems poised to carry him out of sight, back to the fantasy of his past. Light coming from left of frame indicates illusion in the final photo at the end of the series (and at other times).
A left foot injury is caused by illusions. In the duel of episode 28, after Ruka loses and Shiori’s car crashes, Shiori is hurt on the left side of her face and holds her hand over her left eye. The dueling ring goes on the left hand not only because it is an engagement ring, but because the left hand is the hand of illusions. In duels, fighting left- or right-handed is surely meaningful, though I haven’t deciphered it.
The symbolism is ancient. I learned this accidentally while researching the myth of Eve. The Bible sometimes uses left and right with related meanings. The Quran also seems to favor the right hand, based on a quick check. I found a related metaphor in ancient Sanskrit religious terminology (Wikipedia).
Ecclesiastes 10:2 A wise man’s heart is at his right hand; but a fool’s is at his left.
Matthew 25:31-33 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit on the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: as a shepherd divideth his sheep [faithful and gathering into a herd obedient to the shepherd] from his goats [disobedient and each going its own way]: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left.
Freedom of movement symbolizes freedom of action.
Utena is introduced walking into the school, and we often see her walking from place to place. Anthy walks within a place (she can react to her immediate environment), but we rarely see her walking between places, and then usually when with Utena. Utena walks to the dueling arena; Anthy is already there, or stands in the gondola. Utena is free and Anthy is not. When Anthy walks with Utena, and when Nanami pulls her onto the dance floor in episode 3, she is following another’s path. At the end of the series, Anthy has become free and walks away from the Academy.
Nanami is associated with running. It symbolizes how she rushes to wrong conclusions, but it still fits with the bigger transportation metaphor. As a powerful girl from a wealthy family, she has freedom that others do not—she runs—but she is also insulated from realities that others must face—she runs when she should not, doing things like slipping on Chu-Chu’s banana peels, and colliding with Juri in episode 27. Others generally run for reasons that make more sense but are nevertheless illusion-bound, like Utena running after Wakaba in episode 1, and Shiori running to meet Ruka.
To have a foot lifted from the ground, including by high heel shoes, symbolizes reduced freedom. See the foot catalog for more details. To be flat on your back, unable to move around, is to be powerless. Utena is flat on her back in her Cinderella scene, the sex scene, when trying and failing to remember Anthy in the prince story, and (interestingly) when lying in the S-shaped bed.
Anthy’s teleportation is mediated by the planetarium projector, and in the final showdown it seems to be under Akio’s control. It’s not an ability. It claims that Anthy is a witch, but it means that we only see her image, not her self. Her nature is illusory. When Utena opens her coffin, Utena says “Finally we meet!”
The vehicles are bicycle, motorcycle, horse, and car. Touga and Saionji ride a bicycle and a motorcycle. The bicycle is associated with childhood, a motorcycle license can be had from age 16. Touga and Akio can ride a horse, which gives them more freedom of movement and marks them as special—most people do not have riding skills. It also associates them with the prince. Akio is the most special and has the only car, which is associated with adulthood, power, and sex. To ride a vehicle which another person controls is to subject yourself to their control. That includes Saionji riding behind Touga on the bicycle and in the sidecar of the motorcycle, and all passengers of Akio’s car.
Akio controls transportation by car in the First Seduction and the Routine Date and by horse in the Second Seduction. Utena has no freedom of action in their dates.
Both the car as symbol and the swords as symbol equate male sex with power. Men are to have the power, and power is sexual.
Inversion signifies illusion. The upside-down fantasy castle in the sky looms over everything, but can only be seen from the dueling arena, a place of illusions. In episode 20, Utena takes the inverted view that Akio is a friend. In episode 31, rather than seeing Akio as a hazard to avoid, she is jealous of Nanami. In the right-hand pictures, Utena actively chooses to invert herself and see things upside-down.
In the S-shaped bed, Utena and Anthy see each other inverted. Akio provided the bed, and wants them to misunderstand each other. The purple patch where they hold hands represents the corruption of their communication; they talk at bedtime but do not understand each other.
When Nanami sees Anthy inverted in episode 31, the inversion is due to Nanami’s point of view and the illusion is hers. It seems different when we see Anthy and Akio inverted in a panning shot in episode 25. I think it means that their relationship is illusion-bound for both of them.
Reflections on horizontal surfaces are inverted and can share in the meaning. The horizontal surfaces are usually water or wet surfaces, and the water in itself represents illusions. See the reflection catalog for examples.
Utena has frequent three-pointed shapes. The three-pointed shapes are generally placed behind the characters, or at the rear: The chair backs have three points, Saionji’s back pockets have three points, the shadows behind Utena and Anthy have three points, and so on. I know two ways to read them.One: They refer to the formulaic three challenge plot of many fairy tales. Fairy tales are what you leave behind to become adult. They correspond to the fairy tale prince Dios.
Some of the three-pointed figures can be stylized castle towers, another fairy tale motif.
Two: They refer to the three-point eye symbol of ancient Atlantis in Nadia. The image with three spikes of shadow refers to this specifically. Ancient Atlantis was powerful, but is destroyed and gone—left behind—and corresponds to Dios. The three points contrast with the four points of evil Neo Atlantis, which corresponds to Akio. For more on the four points, see comparisons - four points.
Each footboard of the bunk bed in the empty dorm room that Anthy and Utena share has a different three-pointed figure. Candles and lamps are often in holders of three, as on the Student Council platform of episode 10. There are many more examples.
Nanami’s sword and dagger are decorated with a three-point motif. Unlike most, it is not placed behind the characters. It looks like a stylized plant with three leaves. It seems to tie Nanami to plant-cultivating Anthy.
Apples show up a bunch of times. Apples are round and therefore symbolically female, like eggs. In episode 9, little Nanami’s apples are Eve’s apple in the Garden of Eden, and stand for temptation and sex. She is tempted by apples on the tree, but is too small to reach them—she is too young for sex. She asks Touga for help, a hint that her brother complex may include a wish for incestuous sex. The serpent does not appear in the picture, but its invisible presence stands for Akio, who names himself Lucifer and works with temptation and sex.
The earliest apple appears in Anthy’s flipbook animation in episode 4. An elephant giving itself a shower squirts out an apple that bounces off its head. In Japanese culture, the elephant is a humorous symbol for male genitals because of the resemblance of trunk and ears. (People who don’t know it won’t fully appreciate the body swap episode 8. Notice when trunks are up versus down.) Anthy drew a male symbol of sex squirting out a female symbol of sex, and thought it was hilarious. She’s supposed to be in her eighth year of school, so it seems in character for the age she pretends to be.... The apple bouncing from the elephant’s head can stand for Anthy’s wish to harass Akio, an aspect of her joy in vengeance. Possibly it is a hint that Akio may be Anthy’s father.
The student council apple on a chair, which gets cut apart into rabbits, is in episode 5. I think the six rabbits stand for the six duelists, all created by cutting up Eve’s apple—by manipulating their sexual desires. The characters are all aspects of the same thing; they are slices of a single object. They’re facing inward toward each other, with nothing in the center. (Then Anthy plays at making the rabbits dance in episode 7—she’s manipulating all the duelists.) The shadow play with William Tell’s apple is in episode 11. The apple is sex, the arrow is a phallic symbol, and the shooter is the apple girl’s father: Akio is the shooter and Utena is the apple girl. At the end of the play, the shooter aims the arrow lower, to kill. Episode 32 has Anthy feeding Kanae a poisoned apple. That’s at least three different apples: Eve, Tell, and Snow White. They’re all conflated in a dizzying way that is too much for my mortal brain to unravel. But all the apples can be interpreted as meaning sex. The poisoned apple means that sex with Akio is poisonous.
Balloons are round, which makes them female symbols. A balloon is shaped like an egg, with a wide end and a narrow end. They are empty, or you could say hollow; they are eggs that do not hatch, or women believed to be empty. Balloons in Utena float. Balloons may be captive, held on strings. Usually they are toys—I haven’t noticed any weather balloons or other practical balloons. There are several balloons in pictures hung on the wall, such as in the disused dorm. They are decorative balloons. Balloons seem to stand for the patriarchy’s view of women.
Chu-Chu sometimes acts as a balloon. I assume it is because Chu-Chu is tied to Anthy, or is an aspect of Anthy.
Besides the basic meaning, I expect that every appearance of balloons in the story has a specific meaning at that point in the story.
Eggs hang in a web of meanings. Eggs are female, not only biologically but in Utena’s symbolism that round and curved objects are female. The prince sitting on the egg of the world is a reference to The Little Prince, who has to take drastic measures to leave the Earth. It also recalls a bird sitting on its egg; it stands for nurturing—Dios’s purpose, and the Academy’s purpose, is to teach sex roles to children. Ohtori Academy is supposed to nurture its students, but doesn’t really. In the Student Council’s ritual chant, we must break the shell of the egg—revolutionize the world—or we will die and remain in our coffins. The egg of the world is borrowed from Demian. Akio claims that the egg of the world is the grave of the prince—the prince failed to break the shell. Inside the egg is Ohtori Academy, the world of illusions where students develop; outside is the real world they must hatch into as adults if they are to live. It’s direct: To be in the egg is to be in your coffin; maturing means leaving your coffin. During the Student Council ritual, we see birds flying by outside. They hatched from eggs and stand for freedom in the outside world, and yet the name of the academy is Ohtori Academy—ohtori literally means big bird, and it has a specific meaning which implies that Akio rules over all birds, so the flying birds also stand for being trapped in your egg. You may believe you have hatched into the world when you have not. The egg is one of a range of symbols of Utena’s final victory.
An egg is immature—more immature than a baby, because birth corresponds to the egg hatching. To say that the world is an egg is to say that the world is not even born yet. Part of Utena’s message, as I read it, is that human cultures are immature, still in the egg, and we need to learn lessons to grow up. We are like Nanami with her egg, making guesses about how to behave and often getting it wildly wrong. Compare the conclusion I drew from Utena’s references to fairy tales: “We are like children in failing to grasp the nature of our sexist culture.... We need to ‘graduate’ into adulthood.”
Eggs are part of human reproduction as much as bird reproduction. Episode 27 “Nanami’s Egg” is largely about the sexual misconceptions of uneducated or oppressed young women. It’s a surprise that she wanted Touga to kiss her in episode 10—wasn’t she worried it could make her pregnant?
Eggs are food. In Nanami’s Egg, the innocent nerd trio stir their eggs and eat them raw, while the violent Saionji cooks his eggs over a fierce fire. The eggs seem to represent their sexual desires. In the First Seduction, when Utena babbles about eggs as an ingredient, she’s worrying about pregnancy—getting her own egg fertilized by Akio. Eating eggs is the opposite of fertilizing them, but in Utena’s symbol wonderland, eating eggs is a metaphor for fertilizing them, potentially or actually. It ties eggs in with the fish metaphor of catching women and devouring them (see the shadow plays of episodes 28 and 35).
See shadow plays - episode 27 for the shadow play of Nanami’s egg. See the sequence in the down catalog starting with imaginary ridicule for more conclusions about Nanami’s egg.
Summary: Eggs are about growth and transformation (breaking the shell of the world), and by the same token about ignorance and immaturity (the need for growth); about sex and reproduction; and about food (which can also be a symbol of sex). The meanings are all related.
Utena’s egg of the world may be taken from Demian, but (I was surprised to discover) it is an ancient and widespread symbol of creation. See Wikipedia on the world egg. I was fascinated by the picture of a snake twining around an egg.
Quantum mechanics is the best explanation: In the stock elevator sequence in the Apocalypse Saga, Anthy and the elevator pass through a half-silvered mirror and split into two quantum-entangled aspects, naked Anthy who reappears a little later with Utena, and Anthy’s school uniform worn by a growing rose bush. The bush blooms, then becomes a rose border around the sunset sky-silhouetted Utena and Anthy, then bursts into flying petals in daylight. Nothing strange about that. Wouldn’t you do the same?
Anthy’s rose grows vigorously—at first still dressed up to play the student role—and blooms pink for her increasing love of Utena. Utena loves her too, but doesn’t get a fancy display of it because she is Oblivious Girl and doesn’t understand her own feelings until late in the series.
Anthy cultivates others to be conforming participants in Akio’s patriarchy. The rose bush wearing a uniform emphasizes that Anthy herself is cultivated and conforms.
It’s ambiguous whether the orange sunset sky stands for miracles, or for ending and destruction in the red fire of sunset. I think sunsets tend to be both. Another interpretation is that the orange stands for apparent one-sided love, then the scene turns to daylight as Utena realizes she loves Anthy too. The flying petals look like an emphatic flourish and can be read that way, but they are also the roses being scattered as if in a duel. As pink roses they should represent Utena’s defeat and death, and the death of the prince. In episode 38 the animation changes from flying petals to steadfast handholding, foretelling the end and conveniently skipping over Anthy’s backstab.
One reading. The four images here can be read as growth, reaching maturity, living through old age, and death: The cycle of life and death. It points to Persephone. Anthy takes care of plants, both in her role as Persephone and as a symbol of cultivating others—that is, of manipulating and controlling them as Akio’s agent. The image of Anthy watering roses repeats through the series. Here Anthy herself is blooming. Metaphorically, Utena is cultivating her—influencing her through love, the same technique Akio uses. The images again are growth (happening now), reaching maturity (becoming adult and leaving the Academy), living through old age (with Utena), and death. Once Anthy leaves the Academy, she will no longer be immortal, but will live a normal life. Utena wants us to believe that Utena will survive and Anthy will find her.
Another reading. I think it’s most natural to read the images as the story of Anthy and Utena at the Academy. Anthy starts out playing the role of a student. She falls in love with Utena and outgrows the role. In this reading, the orange sunset is easy to interpret: It is the orange of one-sided love. After Akio’s manipulations, they still love each other but each believes the other has turned away. (Anthy’s belief that Utena has turned to Akio is well-founded, while Utena’s belief that Anthy has betrayed her is false. It’s one of the ways that Anthy and Utena are opposite. It reverses in the final showdown: Anthy betrays Utena and Utena is loyal to Anthy.) The scattered roses represent Utena’s defeat and death in the final showdown. The final showdown itself has a different ending to this sequence.
Utena is full of diagonal lines, dark on one side and light on the other. Often the line is the edge of a shadow. On the left, little Utena is in the leftmost coffin, on the dark side of the shadow line. After young Touga opens the coffin, Utena in the same place is in the light. Sometimes, as on the right, the line is not consistently explained by the setting. Juri is on the dark side, lying to Ruka that Shiori is only an old friend. She seems to have teleported underneath one of the diagonal beams in the setting for just long enough to tell the lie. (Juri is facing away from Ruka, an anime convention when lying, and her eyes are out of sight because she does not want to see her own misdeed. Her hand on her locket tells her true feelings.)
The shadow line is the line between two worlds, the world of darkness and the world of light. Dios is the light of the world and Akio is the darkness of the world: In general the light side is honest and good while the dark side is deceitful and harmful. Characters are often placed on one side or the other of the diagonal to describe their immediate actions or motivations, and sometimes to show their character or the forces acting on them. In the coffin image, the coffin is on the dark side to represent Akio’s manipulation, but little Utena herself is doing nothing wrong. The picture with Juri places her in front because the picture is from her point of view. She is largely a good character; she’s unhappy to lie but can’t bring herself to be honest. Ruka is largely a dark character, but his words at the moment are reasonable, nothing Juri can object to, and he is on the light side. For a complicated case with a gradated dark side, see the episode 25 image where Akio dominates.
A light coming on or going out can indicate movement beween the dark and light worlds. When Utena blows out the three candles in episode 30 and turns off the light in the First Seduction, she is choosing to move from light to dark. It is a moral decision.
Playing a role, like an actor, means playing a social role. Commonly it is a patriarchal role assigned by Akio, such as a sex role. If you fall under Akio’s control—playing Akio’s roles—you no longer act as yourself. That is how Utena temporarily loses her “self” in episode 11. Utena sometimes comments on the shadow plays, playing a role in them. In the picture, the shadow girls have noticed Utena playing Akio’s role as a girl, and they’re trying to recruit her to play their roles too. Utena declines.
When Utena met her prince, Akio forced on her a boyish side and a girlish side. She became her self, and as herself she was not playing a role—at least not as she saw it. After she is corrupted in episode 30, she is girlish for a time, playing Akio’s role as a girl. She also plays the role of an uncorrupted person for Anthy. Because she violated her ideals, she is no longer her self, and can only play a role. Ironically, she must abandon her “self” to win in the end and escape the Academy.
Anthy is almost fully under Akio’s control, and is almost always playing Akio’s role. Her moments of honesty with Utena stand out. Utena is being pushed toward Anthy’s position of always playing a role. Akio does not find it necessary to push her all the way there, but he pushes in that direction. The episode after the First Seduction is when the shadow girls try to recruit Utena. After the Routine Date in episode 37, the shadow play represents Utena as an actress who wants to go to Hollywood—she wants to move up to a higher level of playing roles.
In episode 11, Touga plays Utena’s prince to win his duel against her. Episode 13 makes it clear that Touga was doing Akio’s work, whether he knew it or not—playing the role Akio assigned. Later in the series, Touga and Saionji increasingly pose for the camera, playing roles.
In the wider metaphor, we play roles for ourselves (uncorrupted Utena), for others (corrupted Utena), and roles we are assigned (Akio assigns roles to Anthy and to Utena, among others). Some roles are cultural, and the world is a stage (see the stage scenery of the Swiss landscape in episode 16) where we play our roles.
Playing a role makes you unhappy. Akio wants people to play their assigned roles. Akio does not care whether you are happy, as long as you remain under his control so that he can make things work out as he wishes. When you play a role, you are required to make the decisions that are correct for the role, not the decisions that are correct for you. When everybody is making bad decisions, things are bound to get twisted up. Even Anthy, who accepts her feminine role in itself and wants to play it, is unhappy to be under control and tries to make decisions that are right for her, as much as she can.
Utena’s native attitude of acceptance of individuality is the opposite of Akio’s attitude of control. A free individual does not play another’s role.
We’re shown a dark area, then the lights are brought up. We’re shown characters in silhouette, then the lights are brought up and the characters come to life. The lights go down here and come up there. It’s a theater technique, bringing up the lights to start a new scene and to focus attention. Utena constantly reminds us that it is a fiction, and that it is a fiction about fictions, represented as Akio’s illusions (themselves a reference to Buddhism) and Akio’s propaganda. Utena is a stage play about the stage play of the system of control. See playing a role immediately above: The world is a stage where we play our cultural and personal roles.
The device is nearly ubiquitous in Utena. It occurs in the opening sequence and in the first ending sequence. It occurs frequently in every episode, from the first to the last. Sometimes it is emphasized, as in the introduction to the prince story of episode 34. Sometimes it is a few frames to subtly introduce a new scene. It does not occur in the ending sequence of the Apocalypse Saga, and that is significant too. The characters are lit and in color during the brief story of Utena sweeping Anthy off her feet and kissing her, and silhouettes before and after. We’re being shown a concrete story, and we are to take it as an abstract story and apply its lessons in the real world. It proclaims itself allegory.
Compare the shadow plays, which are are in silhouette (we do see the actors in person in episode 34). They are the play in the play of Utena in the play of the world: They are Utena in miniature, which presents itself as the world in miniature.
Even the black outlines drawn around objects can be meaningful. A heavier outline means something like a higher degree of delusion. The characters are caged, and a heavy outline is a stronger cage.
In the Black Rose, the red victim figures on the floor have a black outline. Shiori suffers the most illusions (as shown in her elevator confession), and when she is defeated in her duel she gets a heavier black outline.
Utena sometimes has a heavy outline around the irises of her eyes, and sometimes a light outline. It often changes quickly. Metaphorically, we can say that the heavy outline blocks or cages her vision so that she does not see clearly. She is relying on her preconceptions, or failing to absorb the lessons of the situation. When Utena is taking in new information, the outline is thin; when she is failing to, it is thick. Utena gets the heavy outline when she is deluded, depressed, tired, or otherwise confused in her thinking. When she gets a light outline, she is noticing something, learning something, or otherwise thinking clearly. Heavy and light aren’t a binary choice, there is a whole range of thickness. The first episode already has many examples.
The heavy outline does not mean control by another. In episode 36 when Utena examines the earrings at night, she gets a heavy outline: She thinks for herself and discovers a corner of the truth, but she is tired, does not follow up, and falls asleep and forgets. The light outline does not mean surprise. When Utena is surprised, the outline may be either heavy (losing the othello game) or light (“is Touga my prince?”). The example with Touga shows that the light outline does not mean seeing the truth; it only means taking in new information.
I expect the symbolism holds for all characters. For example, when dancing with Utena in episode 3, Anthy has light iris outlines; she is finding something out. I only checked Utena closely, though. She appears more often, and has light colored eyes that make it easier to tell.
I chose the episode 34 version of the prince story as one example. From left to right: 1. Heavy. Little Utena is impressed by the prince. 2. Light. She looks at little Anthy suffering and asks about her. She is learning with an open mind. 3. Light. She has been thrown apart from Anthy by a mysterious force. 4. Heavy. She asks the prince to help Anthy. The outline turns heavy when she concludes that she cannot help Anthy herself, shortly before she turns around to ask.
A few more examples. In episode 21, Anthy has just told Utena that if it’s for someone you love, you lie to yourself for as long as it takes. The light outline seems to mean that Utena understood properly.
Extra-heavy iris outlines are common in Nanami’s Egg, episode 27, which is heavy with illusions. Some, and possibly most, of the episode is a dream.
Character height is primarily associated with age: The youngest Mitsuru is the shortest character and the oldest Akio is the tallest. The high school students are mostly taller than the middle school students, and the second-year middle schoolers (8th year of schooling—Utena, Anthy, Wakaba) are mostly taller than the first year middle schoolers (Nanami, Miki, Kozue). By implication, it is associated with maturity: The older you are, the closer you are to adult. And therefore it is associated with knowledge, power, and sexuality, the supposed attributes of adults.
Utena is taller than other girls her age because she is more powerful despite her ignorance. Anthy is shorter because she is immature and because she is under Akio’s control and has little independent power, even though she is insightful and capable. Juri and Shiori are the same age, but Juri is taller than Utena and Shiori is shorter, because Juri is powerful and knowledgeable and Shiori is the opposite. Miki is short and has great knowledge, but he does not seek power on his own initiative, only when he is manipulated into it (and then he fails). Nanami is short and has power over her minions and Mitsuru, but she is ignorant and immature. Mitsuru is the youngest and has none of the adult attributes; Akio is the oldest and has all of them.
The simpler interpretation that height correlates with use of male power works for characters other than Nanami. I don’t see how it works for Nanami.
Utena is not only tall, she is strong. She pulls Anthy up in her suicide attempt. In duels, many are able to force Utena back by skill (like Juri) and Saionji does it by trickery (see Saionji’s kick), but none by brute force when pressing sword to sword. Height and strength are parts of Utena’s male marking.
Hand size is similar but not the same. See the catalog of hands for ready-made comparisons. Powerful Akio, Touga, and Ruka have particularly large hands. Utena, Anthy, and Nanami have hands all about the same size.
Characters are drawn differently at different times. Reality is an illusion, and what we see is generally what the point-of-view character of the moment sees, which depends on what role they see themselves as playing. Check the top of unstable locations for a little more analysis. There are plenty of examples besides the ones here. For example, in episode 6 after Touga defeats the attacking kangaroo, Nanami’s hair turns nearly white because Touga acted as a prince (as part of his plot to deceive Utena).
I cover the frequent cases of variable hair length and fingernail length below.
Miki is gendermixed like Utena, and it is emphasized. In episode 9’s Student Council meeting, he appears in silhouette with breasts. In Kozue’s rescue of nestlings, Miki’s hips are narrow and male when he catches Kozue after her fall. Miki’s role is rescue. When he carries her home, his hips are wide and female—wider than Kozue’s or Utena’s. Miki’s role is nurture. Compare Anthy carrying the nestlings while Utena carries the briefcases, the dueling forest directly behind her.
On the left, Akio wants Utena to feel close and comfortable enough to initiate sex. He plays the role of a willing lover (and Utena accepts it), and his height difference with her is reduced. On the right, he wants to overawe her with eternity and with his power that will protect her. He plays the role of a dominant husband (and Utena accepts it), and his height advantage is exaggerated in comparison. At most part of the difference can be explained by the difference in their poses. She is not standing at full height in either picture, but leaning toward or away from him.
Hair length tells us about the role the character is playing at the moment. For example, by “being a prince” I mean “playing the role of a prince”. Princes and princesses are fantasy and do not exist.
For Anthy’s variable-length hair, see Rapunzel.
Utena’s hair comes in at least three lengths. Her hair length varies starting in episode 1. When we first meet her, she is shown off as special and her hair reaches to the small of her back. It stays long as she talks back to the teacher and plays basketball. Immediately after the basketball game, she walks down a colonnade and sees Anthy in the greenhouse. Her hair reaches halfway down her back.
When Utena is being an ordinary girl, her hair reaches halfway down her back. When she is being a prince, her hair reaches to the small of her back.
When Utena is being a princess, or sees herself as a princess, her hair reaches to her butt. After looking toward the castle in the sky in episode 9, her hair is at first ordinary girl length. When Touga grabs her, it is princess length; when she frees herself, it shortens to prince length. In a reversal, in episode 12 when Utena is trying to be an ordinary girl, most of the time her hair is prince length—she misunderstands herself. It returns to ordinary girl length when she kisses Wakaba on the forehead. In the Second Seduction, after Akio tells her she is like a princess (see the brief discussion there), her hair shifts abruptly from ordinary-girl length to princess length. In the Final Showdown after Akio draws her sword, she is a princess in a crown and princess dress and her hair is princess length.
Anthy and Utena are not the only ones. For example, Touga’s hair is longer when he tries to be a prince to Utena. He plays the role, but Utena is not always convinced.
Long hair signals “I have leisure and/or servants for hair care.” It marks social status. As part of the system of control, it induces women to become more princess-like.
Both male and female characters have variable-length fingernails. Long fingernails are female, short nails are male. More generally, I think one exercising power has short nails, and the target of the use of power has long nails: It says whether the character is playing the role of a male or female at the moment. A prince has short nails. A princess definitely has long fingernails. Anthy usually has long nails, but they are short in Nanami’s imagination when Anthy is cutting the rose in episode 6. Nanami herself has long nails when cackling over her plot in episode 4, and short nails a moment later when she imagines Anthy humiliated.
On the left, Utena is being a prince. She believes she is saving Wakaba. On the right, Utena’s sword has been drawn for the first time from her heart, rather than Anthy’s, and during the duel for the first time she called down ghostly Dios from the castle to kiss her on the lips. Now, having won, she fondles the hilt of the sexual sword: She wants to marry the prince. A moment later she turns to Anthy with a smile: She unconsciously associates the same feelings with Anthy.
Fingernail length sometimes varies between shots of the same scene. For example, in episode 25, Utena’s nails are long as the Sword of Dios disappears from her hands. Seconds later, as she dodges Saionji’s sword with empty hands, her nails are short. The reason is the same as above; when dodging, she is being a prince, overcoming all odds as a prince does.
See the hand catalog for many more examples. Most can be interpreted this way. In particular, I want to point out that when Utena and Anthy hold hands, both have long fingernails: The relationship is explicitly marked as lesbian, rejecting the system of control while accepting its symbols (and thus using it against itself). On the one hand, this kind of partial rejection is typical of Utena. I take it to be, in the abstract, a realistic representation of step-by-step social progress. The world cannot be revolutionized all at once. On the other hand, it is a reversal: In virtually all other ways, Utena takes on a male role with respect to Anthy. Neither is exercising power over the other, for their actual or potential teamwork.
Utena captivates Touga from the start. Young Touga runs his hand through little Utena’s hair as she lies in the coffin in the church. His fingernails are long; he’s fascinated but not hitting on the little girl. The Kiryuu family name makes Touga a princess. In their last duel, he grabs her hand, pulls her close, and promises to protect her. He is playing prince and his fingernails are short—while Utena’s are long.
Long fingernails signal “I do not work with my hands,” which in Utena’s hand symbolism means “I do not manipulate others.” Women are to be provided for by their fathers or husbands. Anthy does not cook because she is provided for, or kept. Anthy does manipulate others—though ultimately under Akio’s orders.
Female characters sometimes wear lipstick, and the lipstick comes and goes on its own. The images are Miki carrying Kozue home after she fell from the ledge. The scene has lipstick appearing on Kozue briefly when Miki calls up to her from below, then vanishing again. It reappears after she falls when she sees that the chicks are safe (she and Miki are safe).
The purpose of makeup is to present an illusion—in this case, the illusion of being sexually attractive. In Utena, lipstick appears on a woman when she wants to attract somebody. I think there’s an association with adulthood (at least, when I was that age, girls might wear strawberry-flavored lip gloss, but never classic lipstick).
Kozue frequently wears lipstick. She wants to attract boys to get Miki’s attention. She wears it as a princess in Miki’s episode 26 duel; she is presumably trying to attract Anthy. But Shiori as a princess does not in Ruka’s episode 28 duel. In fact, I think Shiori never wears lipstick. Ruka surprises her in seducing her; creating attraction is not one of Shiori’s goals (she doesn’t have the self-confidence).
Utena wears lipstick when calling the prince down from the castle in Apocalypse Saga duels (when he kisses her on the mouth). In the episode 25 duel, when Saionji says “I saw it!” (he saw it in Akio’s car), Utena wears lipstick for a moment as she answers “Saw what?” Then it disappears. Akio awakened her sexual interest earlier in the episode, and now she wants to know. She wears it throughout the First Seduction in the hotel room, when she wants to attract Akio—including in the car ride home. She does not in the three candles episode 30, or the Second Seduction, or after the Routine Date (she presumably does during the Routine Date, but we don’t see that). When she becomes a princess in the final episode, the lipstick is back. Anthy does not wear lipstick with Akio; they are already de facto married and she does not need to attract him. Utena and Anthy wear lipstick for each other in Apocalypse Saga stock duel sequences. When transforming Utena, Anthy wears pink lipstick for Utena. When pulling Utena’s sword, she wears bronze lipstick, which I think is for Dios who is the sun. They both wear lipstick in the Apocalypse Saga ending credits kiss scene, which is Anthy’s fantasy.
There are many more examples. Even Juri wears lipstick in the episode 16 cowbell party when showing off, and again in the episode 25 Student Council meeting when thinking to herself, “Who is End of the World anyway?”
Marriage corrupts women, and to be a married woman is to be corrupt. Every married woman in Utena is corrupt. The reason is that the male-dominated institution of marriage corruptly controls women—marriage is a cage. Under the system of control, a man has final control over his wife. See Akio-Utena overview - the allegory for more on marriage in Utena’s allegory.
Anthy is deeply corrupt and is depicted, literally and symbolically, as if she were married to Akio.
Mrs. Kaoru. In episode 26 we briefly see the Kaoru parents before they split up. Kozue believes that “that woman” betrayed the family. Mrs. Kaoru wears a purple dress for corruption.
Mrs. Ohtori does not care about her husband, and needlessly tries to extort Akio into bed with a threat related to marrying Kanae, who it turns out she does not care about either. She cheats on them both.
Tokiko marries after leaving the Academy. When she returns, ostensibly to visit Mamiya’s grave, she pays a visit to Akio to cheat on her husband. It’s a sign that the system of control operates outside the Academy as well as inside. To be sure, she has purple hair and was already corrupt.
Utena becomes more and more corrupt as Akio moves her toward marriage. The final step of Akio marrying Utena would destroy her idealism, remove her access to the power of miracles, and leave her permanently corrupt.
Jay Scott <firstname.lastname@example.org>
first posted 10 December 2021
updated 1 December 2023