Utena - the prince story

The first version of the prince story is repeated in these episodes:

1, 3, 8, 13, 16, 31, 33

The version in episode 33 has a background of amusement park lights rather than the usual animation. Episodes 3, 8, 16 and 31 are Nanami episodes—she is singled out as related to the prince story, because she is parallel to Utena. Episode 35 has a version with updated information. Episode 19 with Wakaba has a related story with Wakaba’s prince, adding elements of the Black Rose descending elevator. Snippets of the animation play in episode 38 when Akio talks about being prince and princess, and at other times when Utena thinks about the prince.

In The Gospel of John, “the prince of this world” means the devil. I imagine I could find some connections there.


the first versionepisode 1
waking up from a dreamepisode 3
talking with Juriepisode 7
Saionji’s memoryepisode 9
Utena in rose petalsepisode 9
be strongepisode 23
The Tale of the Roseepisode 34
the final versionepisode 34
the showdown versionepisode 39


Every version of the story that we see, and every piece of information about it, is marked up front as unreliable. And, in fact, no two versions of the story agree in all details.

• The initial version of the prince story is presented as a fairy tale and a children’s cartoon, with heavy outlines in the art and few details in the story, and in episode 3 is presented as a dream. Only two bits are in a more realistic style: The prince kissing away Utena’s tears and the prince giving Utena the ring. Those two points are more reliable than the rest.

• Utena mentions early on that a prince gave her the ring, and says she barely remembers it.

• In episode 9, we see Saionji’s memories of finding Utena in the coffin with Touga. He says that he doesn’t remember it well. Touga appears to remember more, but... we can’t trust him.

• In episode 34, the shadow girls stage a play “The Tale of the Rose” that reveals more. They mention that the story has different versions.

• Later in episode 34, reminded by the Tale of the Rose and prompted by Akio reminding her in several ways, Utena remembers more of what happened. Her memory starts with the lights going down here, then brought up there—a theater technique to change the scene. The dream continues with further use of theater techniques. Not only is it a dream, it’s a dream of a play. The dream begins with a detail that we know is false: Utena lies on a bed of roses but not in a coffin. Some of dream events are not witnessed by Utena but told by the prince, who is already Akio. To top if off, Utena remembers under the effect of a drug that messes with her mind. We’re told much more than we knew before, but it is marked unreliable from every direction.

You get the idea. In the allegory, it means that memories fade and stories can overwrite history—which is true.

the first version

Utena as princess in the first version of the prince story. The prince on his horse on the broken bridge.

The first prince story, shown at the start of episode 1 and often repeated, presents what Utena at first remembers about meeting her prince. Her parents are dead, one thing she can’t forget. She was a princess, and she admired the prince so much that she came to want to be a prince too. The prince rode a white horse and smelled of roses. The prince kissed away her tears and gave her a ring that might be an engagement ring. That’s about it, she doesn’t remember much.

Utena wears a fancy dress that she imagines is suitable for a princess, in yellow for childishness (or perhaps for envy of the prince) with light blue-green for youthful illusion. The scene itself is lit by blue-green light. The prince is supposed to be Dios, who makes all girls in the world into princesses, so she can only be a princess. As a princess, she is under Akio’s power. It’s the first hint that Akio may have killed her parents (I think that’s what the green in the blue-green tinted view of the graves means), and certainly set up the entire story after they died. Early on we have no way to discern the hint, but more evidence comes in later.

Little Utena is depicted as a compliant princess, similar to Anthy. She holds her hands together in front, Anthy’s habitual posture. Her hair seems to be rolled up, like Anthy’s. The hair’s straight forehead line and long sidelocks resemble a hime cut (TV Tropes; literally “princess cut”), though it’s not identical. She has been pressed down by the death of her parents, and the prince is shown helping her up.
Thorny yellowish rose vines in the background as the prince approaches little Utena. The roses in the background bloom orange as the prince stoops to help little Utena up.

The broken bridge means that Dios cannot appear in front of Utena; he is gone, only Akio can meet Utena. Dios can continue no further—as a symbol of the dead past, it also means that the past is unreachable, and indirectly alludes to Akio’s manipulation of history. The bare winter trees with black seeming to creep up their trunks are for Utena’s desolation, and also for Akio’s treachery. They are the enchanted forest of a fairy tale in a sinister phase.

The broken bridge also prefigures the final showdown. The bridge from the dueling arena to the Rose Gate breaks when the dueling arena collapses. Utena disappears from the broken end of the bridge and becomes adult. Dios is a fairy tale figure and cannot become adult. In both cases, the break in the bridge can be taken as the break between life and death; see the opposed parallels of Utena’s disappearance.

Thorny bare rose vines in the background are one of few times when the series emphasizes rose thorns over rose flowers—though thorns are always in the background, as cactuses remind us starting from episode 2. The thorny roses are a reference to Sleeping Beauty. The roses bloom orange as the prince brings his rose scent to Utena and her mood changes. The orange color claims that the meeting is a miracle, and perhaps promises future miracles. In reality, Utena already has the power of miracles, and Akio has recognized it; notice that the thorns on the prince’s side are more, while the blooms on Utena’s side are more and more vivid. He’s a long-term planner.

Utena gives the colors specific symbolic meanings, but the prince story is at the very start of the series, before viewers have had a chance to absorb the meanings. The darker cool colors of the image of graves suggest sadness, and the bright warm colors of the roses suggest the prince saving little Utena from her sadness. Little Utena wears a bright yellow dress which fits with her future cheerful personality (which is a facade; she is sad and lonely). Even the colors have more than one layer of meaning.

It is Akio’s largest-scale approach-withdrawal maneuver. He attracted her as a little girl and planted a lasting desire to meet again, then disappeared for years. He uses it differently than in other cases, though. When he reverses his withdrawal and reappears, he doesn’t proclaim himself her prince to attract her, but uses the prince as a foil to bring out his evil and corrupt Utena. He presents himself as a good character, reinforces Utena’s goodness to build her power of miracles, then appears as an evil character and corrupts her into choosing evil to gain control over her power. He likes elaborate plans (always, not only here).

waking up from a dream

In episode 3, Utena awakes after dreaming the prince story.

In episode 3, Utena wakes up from a dream of the prince story. She looks at the ring. Her memory has grown fuzzy, and the ring is the only evidence that she met the prince. She wonders whether the ring led her to all this, the dueling arena and the Rose Bride.

We’ve already seen enough to know that the ring did that, yes. It’s the key to open the gate to the dueling forest. We know that some force is bending Utena’s path, though we don’t know what it is or why it acts.

The prince story was already associated with childishness by its animation style. Now it is associated with dreams, which are a kind of illusion. In episode 34, we find out how far Akio goes to ensure that the prince story remains a dream that can’t be remembered clearly.

Utena leaving the Academy at the end of the show amounts to awaking from a dream into the real world. The ring she looks at drew her into the dream and helps her out of it—bringing along Anthy from the dream world. A dream is a fiction, but (in Japanese as in English) it is also an inspiration and therefore a requirement for achieving great feats

talking with Juri

In episode 7, Juri tells Utena the purpose of the duels (from the point of view of the Student Council): To gain the miraculous power to revolutionize the world. Utena has the power of miracles, in partially developed form, but doesn’t believe in it. She believes in princes, but treats the power to revolutionize the world as a myth with no value.

Juri found this idea of revolution in a letter from End of the World. Utena is right in this sense: Akio’s claimed power to revolutionize the world is a myth with no value—except to Akio, who uses it as propaganda to prevent any true revolution. At the same time, it’s ironic for Utena to believe in the fantasy of princes, and deny the possibility of a miraculous revolution when she herself has the power of miracles. Miraculous change is possible, and Utena demonstrates it herself, so in that sense she is wrong. Allegorically, it means that those who bring change to the world don’t do it for vague reasons like revolution, but for specific personal reasons like Utena’s specific reason of rescuing Anthy.

Later in the episode, Utena tells Juri what she remembers of the prince. We learn nothing new from Utena, but Juri calls it correctly: Some man she liked tricked Utena into her nobility, and into the ring.

Saionji’s memory

Utena’s coffin from above, with Touga, Saionji, and Utena.

In episode 9, Saionji remembers what he saw of the prince story: He follows Touga into the church and sees the three coffins, each ornamented with a rose on top and ring emblems around the sides. Touga opens one coffin and finds little Utena inside. Lighting flashes overhead. Utena rests on a bed of pink roses. Touga smiles to see her, then plays with her hair (yeesh). Utena says she is sick of living and will never leave the coffin, because nothing is eternal. Saionji and Touga both react to the word “eternal”. Saionji doesn’t want to let her do this, and Touga says, then show her something eternal.

The next day, Saionji and Touga see Utena outside the coffin, attending the funeral. She wears a white rose. As Touga gazes happily at little Utena from a distance, Saionji feels sure that Touga showed her something eternal.

Everyone present wears white. Saionji and Touga wear white shoes, and little Utena is dressed in white and black—until our last view of her in the coffin. The prince is symbolically present from the beginning, although played by Akio. Meanwhile, the floor is blue, saying that everything stands on illusion.

Saionji is older than Utena, and remembers more. Unlike Utena’s, his memory seems accurate; nothing significant is contradicted later. He did say that he didn’t remember clearly, though. And he never saw the prince. I think Akio is honest in his claim that Utena’s forgetting is natural. Time and her social world did their work.

Little Utena in her coffin, wearing all white.

Touga’s interest in Utena started early, even though he didn’t immediately connect present Utena with the coffin girl.

The roses decorating the coffins say that Akio provided the coffins, including the extra for Utena. He predicted or controlled her actions, as so often. If she was a princess, it follows that she was under his control. The lightning also says that Akio was in charge: Lightning is Zeus’s weapon, and Akio is tied to Zeus.

In our last view of Utena before she leaves the coffin, her clothes have turned entirely white—the prince’s color—though she should not have met the prince yet. Akio has been at work. It may be the same clothing she wears in Akio’s version in episode 38, though it’s hard to make out details. It happens in a lightning flash just after Touga says “Then show her something eternal.” On the one hand, Utena’s clothing turning white in a flash of lightning predicts Akio manipulating Utena into becoming a prince. On the other, it associates the prince with eternity. The prince is a part of the system of control that maintains the patriarchy, and at the same time is a risk to the patriarchy. I take it as pointing to the sequence of heroes that follow Utena.

Utena in rose petals

Utena surrounded by pink and rose petals.

Shortly after Saionji’s memory, still in episode 9, Utena, surrounded by pink, stands in a column of light and a flurry of rose petals, looking above the dueling forest at where the floating castle holds eternity (or would if it were in sight). She remembers that the ring will lead her to meet her prince again, and says that the prince was the princess’s—her own—first love.

The image is a reference to this image of Galaxia from the final episode of Sailor Moon.

The prince story emphasizes one of Utena’s reactions to meeting the prince: She wanted to be a prince and save princesses. This snippet emphasizes her other reaction: She wanted to be a princess and marry the prince. The ring is an engagement ring. She does not see any contradiction between being a prince and being a princess, and she takes on what others see as both male and female roles, so that she has a boyish side and a girlish side. Akio intended exactly that.

Right after this, Touga shows up and starts trying to fool Utena into believing he is her prince. He had already made moves in that direction, and now he understands her and does it as part of a plot.

be strong

Utena remembering herself at her parents’ funeral.

In episode 23, at Mikage’s wall of photos, Utena sees a photo of herself at her parents’ funeral, wearing a white rose for the prince. She remembers one new detail: She promised to put up with anything and not cry until she meets her prince again.

Akio presumably elicited the promise in order to support her drive to become a prince—and to prepare her to give up on it. It’s a Black Rose memory, so it ceases to exist when the Black Rose is over. The detail does not come up again. By the time she remembered it, Utena had already violated the promise: She wept in episode 11 after losing to Touga, and cries for Anthy in the suicide conversation. It contrasts with her promise to save Anthy, which forgot about but in practice kept.

Utena’s reflection in the glass of the photo puts little Utena in current Utena’s head. It’s a direct symbol for memory.

The Tale of the Rose

Shadow play: The prince is trapped in a cage as the witch stands outside.

In episode 34, the shadow girls put on a play “The Tale of the Rose”. Before it starts, Akio offers his view: All life is like a play. He leaves off the rest, “which I direct.” When the Rose Prince is introduced, the camera shows Utena, light shifting on her face.

This version of the prince story adds a new character, the witch (the camera points to Anthy). The world is full of light. The Rose Prince slays monsters to save princesses, then demands a kiss. His protection makes all women of the world into princesses, except the prince’s sister, who becomes a witch and traps the prince (this time the camera points to Akio) in a castle in the sky. The light of the world is sealed away, and the world falls into darkness. A girl who cannot become a princess must become a witch. It ends with “Be careful.”

Forgive me for translating it at first as “Rose Story”. It’s accurate but not as punchy.

In a brief sequence, the witch says that the light of the world is the eternal (showing Saionji), the shining thing (Miki), the power of miracles (Juri), the power to revolutionize the world (Touga). See duel symbols - motivations for discussion. The witch is leaving out part of the truth, and a little later admits, “you are the light of the world!” Dios is the light of the world and is associated with the sun. See the sun catalog. Dios is also as the witch said: The eternal, the shining thing, the power of miracles, and Akio’s hoped-for power of revolution. (Dios never achieved his goals, but the power of miracles does at least bring the potential of a revolution.)

The play is put on for exactly the audience it had, Anthy Utena and Akio. Utena was given three tickets, and the ticket we see is numbered 003. It is part of the backlash against the First Seduction. The camera ties Utena to the Rose Prince because she has the potential to bring the Rose Prince’s light back into the world. When the camera turns to Anthy and to Akio, spotlights shine on them in the audience, associating the characters with the people. “Be careful” is a warning to Utena, which she ignores like other warnings (well, she actively rejects Touga’s warning after the duel in episode 36).

The play is a mix of truth (the characters are attached to the right people), fiction (the castle in the sky is given a false role), and Akio’s propaganda (Anthy is a witch who seeks out noble souls to sacrifice—she does murder people, but largely under Akio’s orders). It’s true that Anthy was not yet a princess, because she had power over Dios and princesses are powerless. Anthy and Akio both understand the meaning of the story, and neither likes it. When Utena asks Akio about it later, he dismisses it as a typical student production and changes the topic. Utena does not visibly react to the play and seems to have learned little, but we see later that it does remind her of her own prince story.

Dios and Akio barely differ. Dios saved women in return for sex, while Akio uses sex to destroy women; that’s the entire difference. Each wants to fill up the world with princesses who act as he wills. They are two aspects of sexism, the imprisoning “chivalrous” side represented by Dios and Touga, and the destroying side represented by Akio. Imprisoning the prince in turn is vengeance, as represented by Anthy’s vengeful side, and it is not a solution. Utena who does not recognize different roles for men and women provides the solution.

the final version

Little Utena lies on a bed of roses while Dios looks on.

Later in episode 34, at 8pm of the same day, Akio sits alone with Utena on the white couch and probes her feelings and deliberately causes Utena to remember what happened so that he can in turn cause her to forget it. He asks about her ring, and in combination with “The Tale of the Rose” it prompts her to remember a more complete version of the prince story, including Anthy—which she then forgets, believing it was a dream.

As the planetarium projector looms huge over them, the lights go down on the couch and come up in the church in the background, as if the projector is projecting the story. Little Utena is lying on a bed of roses—she does not remember the coffin. Purple light of corruption from a stained glass window shines on her. Dios walks up, exchanges a couple sentences, and walks away. Utena says “you’re pretty” and gets up to follow him. He shows her Anthy in torment, and tells the story of how Anthy decided to sacrifice herself and become a “witch” tormented by the Swords of Hatred. Utena is horrified and swears to become a prince and save her.

In the children’s cartoon first version of the story, Dios is depicted facing right while Utena faces left, deluded. In this version, Dios faces left and little Utena does not really face either left or right. When Dios moves away and Utena follows, they go to the right to see Anthy, revealing an important truth.

Her remembered Dios is in fact Akio, but Utena does not know that. Everything he says is self-serving. Utena does not remember the coffin because we do not notice the metaphorical coffins we are in. The purple light represents the corruption of the church, which the devil Akio has power over, and reveals Akio’s corruption. (The light seems to turn purple as it passes through him. White sunbeams for the prince seem to end as they reach him.)

At the end of the story, Utena wakes up in bed from a supposed dream, which she immediately forgets. She never moved from the couch where the memory started to the bed where the dream ended. See suppressing Utena’s memory - drug for the explanation. Akio fears Utena remembering her dreams because he banished the prince story to her dreams, and he wants her to forget Anthy from then, so that Utena loses her motivation to oppose Akio. A connection between the prince story and dreams was made at the start of episode 3.

There’s a parallel with episode 23. Utena talks with Mikage, trying to think of any friend who needs help. Then she wakes up from a dream of the church. She had fallen asleep at the table in the dorm room, and Anthy is asleep holding her hand. That’s when Utena (at long last) realizes that Anthy can’t quit being the Rose Bride. For Utena, to remember a part of the prince story is to take a step toward enlightenment.

Utena did not get out of the coffin because she was shown something eternal. She got out because she wanted to be with the pretty prince. Apparently Akio’s power of illusion can be used to appeal even to little girls—that’s the real start of his seduction plot, and the origin of Utena’s wish to marry her prince. Then he does show her something eternal: Immortal Anthy’s torment. Utena only leaves the literal coffin; she does not leave her figurative coffin until she disappears in the final episode—her belief in princes is a coffin for her. (Also, the Academy is a coffin for everyone in it.)

Akio executes a small-scale approach-withdrawal maneuver: In the approach, he talks with little Utena. When she says “you’re pretty”, he simply walks away, and she follows him.

In the first version of the prince story, the prince told Utena to keep her “strength and nobility”. In this version, only her “nobility”. In episode 30, after rescuing Utena from the annoying teachers, Akio mentions strength and nobility together. It’s a hint that the first prince story might have been correct about that. By episode 30, Akio wants to suppress Utena’s boyish prince side and promote her girlish princess side. He seems to be influencing Utena’s memory in that direction.

Vows. In episode 9’s version, little Utena vowed to never come out of her coffin, or else to find another coffin. She has kept the vow until now: She left the physical coffin, and (as we learn in this episode) entered the metaphorical coffin of believing in the ideal of princes, a closed worldview. She did it by making a second vow, the vow to become a prince to save Anthy. The irony is layered. Both are unrealistic, childish promises, prompted by evil Akio. They are honest and pure vows—little Utena has a pure heart—but their unrealism ensures they will be broken. Utena forgets both vows (she remembers wanting to become a prince but forgets the underlying goal of saving Anthy). Akio corrupts her pure heart and tries to maneuver her into breaking the vow to be a prince, and especially to never remember about saving Anthy. To win through, Utena must keep both vows (one of which she never remembers) until nearly the end, and then give them both up.

Little Utena’s pure heart must be why Akio chose her for this plot. He didn’t know whether Utena would become able to break the seal on the Power of Dios, but he must have concluded she would have a chance. How many other plots has Akio tried? I suspect one for each member of the Student Council, and probably others in the past.

Utena decides. Throughout the Apocalypse Saga, as Akio steers Utena into the decisions he wants her to make, he ensures that she sees them as her own decisions. He does the same here: Akio wants Utena to decide to be a prince. Little Utena wants to help Anthy, and he says that he cannot save Anthy, only a prince Anthy believes in can. He set the conditions so that, if Utena has the pure heart she needs to become a prince, then she will decide so herself. It is part of Akio’s denial of responsibility. Everything that happens to Utena is her own doing; she made all the decisions.

Children. Dios and Anthy are depicted as children. Dios might be 14 or so and Anthy is younger. Dios is as much deluded in being a prince as Utena is: Being a prince is a childish fantasy. When Dios gives up being a prince and becomes Akio, he loses the delusion and becomes adult. As the scene continues, Dios grows taller relative to little Utena. He is growing up and becoming Akio. Akio accepts reality, which is Utena’s definition of adulthood. There is more to it, though. Akio is still childish in some respects. He remains in the coffin of the Academy, which adults leave behind. He does not accept all of reality, but holds on to fundamental misconceptions which cause him to lose in the end.

Assigning roles. Akio deliberately created Utena’s desire to marry her prince. It’s a typical Akio thing to do. Did he also deliberately create her desire to be a prince? That is not a typical Akio thing to do, but the evidence says that it was also part of the plan. Why else would Akio exact a promise to stay strong? Why else would he call for strength as well as nobility? Assigning her the role of prince allowed Akio to gain control over her, lure her into the dueling system, and carry out his plot to first strengthen and then steal her power. He had to give her power—not a typical Akio thing to do—in order to steal her power, which is an Akio thing to do. He was careful to give her power in a way that left her controllable: He gave her a boyish side to choose to seek power and a girlish side to choose to be subservient to power. He deliberately tied Utena’s power of miracles to her desire to be a prince, so that he could forestall her miracles by being her prince and marrying her.

the showdown version

Akio and Utena projected into the church, looking at the three coffins.

During the final showdown, in episode 38 as Akio tries to convince Utena to give up her sword, he fires up the planetarium projector and shows views of little Utena in the coffin in the church. The details do not quite line up with Saionji’s memory (Utena and her bed of roses are in a different part of the coffin, the coffin lining is a different color, the coffins have a slightly different shape). Akio claims he saved her and gave her the strength to go on—and that he was a prince to her then, and is the same person today. And that Anthy was the same, the Rose Bride and a witch.

Akio does not say that he was the one to put her in a position to need saving, or that he saved her for purposes of his own by tricking her into following his plan, or that the whole scheme is to her detriment. But what he does say is true, as far as we can tell—except for Anthy being a witch; “witch” is a propaganda term. I think he believes it himself. Whether he does or not, he hopes that calling Anthy bad names will detach Utena from her.

The varying details are a reminder that every version of the story is unreliable.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 1 December 2021
updated 12 November 2023