Utena - photo catalog

Photos and photography are a motif. Utena draws a whole range of meanings out of them.

Utena was made before computer-assisted production. It was made by putting drawings on transparent cels that were physically photographed on film. The production process itself is an example of using a camera that records truth to tell a fictional story—which is in turn about the truth. I imagine that the creators found the metaphor easy to access.

The opening theme song mentions a photo with a little loneliness in its smiles. It fits the photo of Utena and Anthy at the end of the series. Matching the theme of the opener, it is a photo of togetherness and yet implies separation.

A photo of Anthy in the greenhouse watering roses. The photo is in Miki’s music notebook.
Episode 4, Miki’s photo of Anthy
A photo of Anthy in the greenhouse watering roses. The photo is in Miki’s regular notebook.
Episode 19, slightly different

In episode 4, Nanami discovers that Miki keeps a photo of Anthy watering her roses in his music notebook. I can’t guess why she is standing in such a curious pose. It looks unbalanced. The photo reappears briefly in episode 19, a bit altered; see unstable locations.

We see the photo just as Miki says “The Sunlit Garden.” Anthy’s greenhouse and the sunlit garden of his memory are equated. The memory is a cage that traps him, like Anthy’s bird cage greenhouse. The unwritten lines of music can be cage bars; they remind us that Miki has not gotten past that one song of his childhood.

For Miki, it’s a photo of his incipient shining thing. It has emotional value. I expect he finds it sexy.

Juri’s class photo. Everyone is lined up neatly.
Episode 7, class photo 1
Juri’s class photo. Shiori is not lined up as she should be, but has moved to talk to the unnamed boy.
Episode 7, class photo 2
The final class photo. Shiori’s head has been cut out for Juri’s locket.
Episode 7, class photo 3

We see Juri’s class photo three times. It is different each time. Left, Juri’s arms are at her sides and Shiori is in place. Middle, slightly later, Shiori has moved. She is talking to the unnamed boy. Right, at the end of the episode, Juri’s hands are joined and Shiori has been cut out. The building behind has changed. We know from Juri’s locket that the extracted Shiori is still facing to the right.

The matting is yellow with a tinge of green.

Juri in her class photo. Her eyes are closed.
Episode 7, Juri in her class photo

Juri’s eyes are closed because she does not want to see Shiori with the unnamed boy. Her hands are joined defensively, which is Anthy’s habitual posture and common among other girls at the Academy. It is not usual for proud Juri.

Juri has framed and kept the class photo despite the hole she cut in it. To me the unframed photo and the double matting suggest that Juri had it done as a custom job; it wasn’t a package offered by the photographer. That’s just a guess, though.

The girls and boys are segregated.

The photo is in part a historical record. History means black and white. Even photos taken in color are reprinted in black and white when the photo is supposed to be historical.

Anthy—but actually Utena—is on top of a horizontal bar.
Episode 8, Utena as Anthy

In the body swap episode 8, Nanami’s minions take photos of the reversed Anthy and Utena, as evidence for Nanami and to sell. This picture is one of a stack they took.

The photos have emotional or esthetic value for their buyers, commercial value for Nanami’s minions, and evidentiary value for Nanami. A camera records truth.

Utena is lifting herself over and moving beyond a symbolically male bar. Anthy can’t do that (until the end of the series). At the same time, Utena is exposing herself to the bar. It foretells her trouble with Akio and eventual victory.

Younger Saionji and Touga in kendou gear. Vertical stripes of shadow cross the frame.
Episode 9, Saionji and Touga

We see this view of Saionji’s desk briefly as Saionji reads the letter which he believes is from End of the World—but was actually forged by Touga. The scene summarizes their relationship: Friends and sparring partners for years, but Touga exploits Saionji and Saionji envies Touga. Their unfastened clothing predicts their future relationship. The dark stripes are the shadows of the horizontal blinds. They are the bars of a cage trapping the two together. One of the stripes falls between them, separating them in the cage.

It’s a photo with complicated emotional resonances, both for Saionji and for us in the audience.

Kanae holds a photo where she is wrapped around Akio’s arm while Anthy stands on Akio’s other side.
Episode 14, Anthy Akio Kanae
Mitsuru holds a photo of Nanami and Mitsuru, with Mitsuru’s blond head barely reaching over the bottom edge.
Episode 18, Nanami and Mitsuru

Kanae and Mitsuru are compared by their confession elevator photos. The two left hands are the same drawing, only a little differently framed and colored. Kanae complains that she can’t make Anthy like her. Mitsuru looks at a photo of himself with Nanami—a photo that emphasizes his childishness. He says that he wants to become an adult and ruin the world. Both crumple the photos in frustration.

Kanae loves Anthy. Mitsuru wants to be Touga, so that Nanami will care about him—but Nanami loves Anthy more than Touga. Neither confesses it in the elevator, because they don’t understand themselves. Anthy, acting unintentionally as Akio’s agent, blocks both of them.

In the foreground, an oval photo of Akio and Anthy. In the background, Utena sits on the white sofa.
Episode 15, Akio and Anthy

When Utena visits Akio for the second time, she asks about siblings and he says they are like the moon. Then we see this family photo. It’s a picture of siblings. The feel of their relationship comes through: Akio has narrowed eyes, a disapproving and/or suspicious expression, and a “brotherly” hand of ownership on Anthy’s shoulder. Anthy wears her protective neutral face. There is green in the background for Akio’s control over Anthy. Akio above Anthy expresses their power relationship.

The oval frame on a straight-line background is compared to the projector’s female sphere (which surrounds Utena, deluding her) and to the vertical male pillars. A local shadow line passes through Utena’s head, while the background shadow line on the pillars passes through Akio. Utena is at risk of going wrong, while Akio is bad and Anthy is declared good.

A framed photo of Nanami and Touga, held in Namami’s hands.
Episode 19, Nanami and Touga

Nanami has grabbed Touga’s arm and holds on enthusiastically. Touga looks indifferent and detached; he has nothing to do with all this. And yet in the scene, Nanami looks at the photo as enthusiastically as she posed for it. The background is blue for illusion, and the photo background and frame are blue-green.

Utena stretches and Tokiko walks by Mikage’s photo wall.
Episode 23, distant shot 1
Utena and Mikage stand in front of Mikage’s photo wall.
Episode 23, distant shot 2
Close view of part of the photo wall, showing Black Rose duelists.
Episode 23, near shot

Mikage keeps a wall of photos of Black Rose duelists in the arena, and other key events like little Utena in the graveyard at her parents’ burial and the duelist boys gathered before Mikage murders them. Except that, when seen from a distance, the photos change into images I have not identified.

Mikage seeks an eternity of stasis. For him, the photos eternalize moments at which he triumphed, and other important moments. Except when seen from a distance, when they are unstable. It seems to mean that the photos are not truly eternal.

A black-and-white photo of Tokiko with Mamiya as played by Anthy, shown at an angle.
Episode 23, Tokiko and Mamiya
A black-and-white photo of Tokiko with the real Mamiya, shown at an angle.
Episode 23, Tokiko and real Mamiya

In the episode 23 duel with Mikage, photos of Tokiko and Mamiya are on the desks. Mikage seems to lose track of reality, calling Utena Tokiko. When Mamiya starts speaking to him from the past, the photos change from Mamiya as played by Anthy to the real Mamiya. See unstable locations for other examples.

Mikage has been living for a long time with a false memory. Now he sees through the illusion and remembers the real Mamiya. That plus a little explanation from Akio on the phone, and Mikage is awakened to the truth and disappears from the Academy. His escape is parallel to Utena’s, except that Akio gets full use out of Mikage and not out of Utena.

Why do both Mamiyas wear the uniform? It seems to be a bit of leftover illusion.

Photos are scattered over a purple blanket on a bed, a red photo album next to them.
Episode 31, siblings
Photos are scattered over a pink blanket on a bed, Nanami sitting among them.
Episode 31, not siblings

Twice in episode 31, Nanami looks at childhood photos of her and Touga. She wonders whether siblings always grow apart. When she returns to the album, she finds no photos of Touga as a baby and concludes that they are not real siblings. For her, as in episode 8, the photos are evidence.

The blanket on her bed is pink in the light and purple in the dark. It is a change of hue, not only lightness. It goes with Utena and Anthy, who are aspects of the same thing. Utena is in the light for Dios and has pink hair, Anthy is in the dark for Akio and has purple hair.

A movie camera records Utena playing a role for Anthy.
Episode 31, playing a role

Corrupted Utena takes up acting, playing the role of an uncorrupted person for Anthy. See Anthy and Utena scenes - playing a role. Anthy is not fooled for a second.

The movie camera records truth, but movie cameras are associated with fictional movies. Here the camera records the truth of Utena trying to present an illusion to Anthy—it’s a fictional movie and a documentary at the same time. The camera shows such a small part of the truth that it is easy to use it to tell lies. It’s a metaphor that becomes prominent at this point. Akio reinforces his lies with a great many misleading partial truths.

Utena looks down on photos spread over a desk.
Episode 34, Wakaba’s photos

Utena looks over photos that Wakaba collected for people to order copies of. The pictures of Wakaba show her triumphant. The pictures of Nanami show her as a cow. As Utena remarks, there are no pictures of Anthy. Wakaba, though she gives an excuse, does not like Anthy. Possibly by this point she senses that Anthy could take Utena away from her.

The photos are mementos, to look back over in the future and remember how things were. They give Utena the idea to take a commemorative photo with Anthy and Akio—see the next entry.

Anthy’s eyes are closed for the photo as she stands beside Utena and Akio.
Episode 34, first pose
Utena poses for a photo with Anthy and Akio.
Episode 34, second pose

Posing for Utena’s desired commemorative photo. Anthy uses Chu-Chu to block the first attempt to take the photo (left), and rearranges the pose to put herself between Utena and Akio. She blocks the second attempt too, claiming she closed her eyes. The third attempt is presumably the final photo at the end of the series.

Utena’s hair seems to be prince length. I think that means the image is from Anthy’s point of view.

See Anthy and Utena scenes - photograph for more.

Touga with camera, taking pictures of Akio.
Episode 35, photographer Touga

Touga photographs Akio in episode 35. Akio poses with his car, and then on a stack of cars. Apparently one car of adult power is not always enough. At the first camera flash, Akio is suddenly in his white prince uniform. At each camera flash, including the first, he suddenly goes from lounging around to dramatically posed, with his shirt open to suggest sex. The scene is lit in blue-green for illusion.

Akio is luring Touga. His immediate purpose is to convince Touga to give Utena a gift, saying it is from Akio. Akio lowers himself, which he does only when asking a favor. It is one step in a longer plot to sideline Touga altogether.

The photos are like advertising shots, pictures of illusions.

Saionji and Touga sit at a table, surrounded by cameras on tripods.
Episode 35, media cameras
Another view of the same scene. A reporter in the foreground takes notes.
Episode 35, reporter

Touga and Saionji hold a conversation that is treated like a major press event. Not shown, masses of microphones. Left, invisible reporters have set up cameras all around and are taking pictures. Right, one reporter is visible and takes notes. The armband says “newspaper”.

Touga tells a lie, saying he is unsure about his feelings for Utena. Saionji calls the duels a farce, and says that they are all still trapped in coffins. Who are the reporters reporting to? Or do the two only imagine that the world is listening in? I haven’t deciphered the scene.

The photos are news to be disseminated.

Touga and Saionji pose on a car.
Episode 37, photographer Akio

This time Akio photographs Touga and Saionji, who pose on and around the stack of cars, with the same uniform-switching and sudden dramatic poses. Touga and Saionji have been brought together.

At the end, Touga holds up a small camera and takes a picture of Akio.

These are all film cameras. It was still a few years before digital cameras became good enough for everyday use.

The show’s final photo of Utena and Anthy, in black and white, cropped to half-exclude Akio, framed in pink.
Episode 39, the final photo
A close up on the final photo, showing Utena and Anthy holding hands.
Episode 39, clasped hands

The photograph at the very end is in black-and-white, marking it as a historical document, and framed in pink for Utena. The photo was taken in episode 34, though we didn’t see this pose at the time. Anthy arranged the hand-holding pose and chose the frame. She must have brought the photo with her when she left the Academy. There is no evidence that Anthy has found Utena. In fact, “someday we’ll shine together” and the bare table suggest that she is still looking. In an established house, surfaces are usually more cluttered. The light on the table is from the left, the direction of illusions, and Anthy is on the dark side.

The clasped hands in the photo are on the dark side of the shadow line. In episode 34, they were already pretending to be closer than they felt. See hand catalog - final photo.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 21 December 2022
updated 31 July 2023