Utena - The Rose of Versailles

I heard that Utena was influenced by the classic The Rose of Versailles, so I set out to rewatch it. I watched it once before, so long ago that I barely remember. It’s foundational, and the protagonist Oscar is a girl raised as a boy, and it has “rose” in the title, so surely Utena makes callbacks, I thought. If I watch enough, I’m sure to catch some.

Ha ha ha! In the first episode, there are so many parallels that I can’t list them all! The military-like uniforms are designed with the same esthetic, the cabochon jewels are similar, the arches are similar... it even has a sword duel. Utena’s use of French (“la fillette révolutionnaire” and the duel names) is, I realize now, telling us to take the connection seriously. How much is direct influence, and how much is genre conventions that were left floating in the air? I sure don’t know! I watched The Rose of Versailles once through with an eye to finding references. (I finished on 1 February 2022.) Here are the ones I noticed as important. I saw more than I wrote down; the sun during the French Revolution was a striking symbol that I don’t mention here. I’m sure that if I watched it again I’d see more, likely many more.

contents

Princess Knight
major themes
opener
episode 1
more related to the Second Seduction
episode 2
Madame du Barry
candles
freedom of princesses
wind
Rosalie
Touga’s sling
the black rose
rose colors
the concertina player
water drops
fatal illness
the undyed paper rose

Princess Knight

The Rose of Versailles did not invent the trope of the gendermixed character. I’m no expert on the history, but I think the honor (such as it is) goes to the manga Princess Knight (Wikipedia; in Japanese ribon no kishi, Ribbon Knight) by Tezuka Osamu in the 1950s. It got an anime series in 1967. I watched about 1.5 episodes and found it very thin children’s entertainment; I doubt I could make it through all 52 episodes. I did notice one reference in The Rose of Versailles: In episode 37, the portrait painter refers to protagonist Oscar’s eyes as “sapphire” eyes—Sapphire is the name of Princess Knight’s protagonist.

major themes

revolution

The Rose of Versailles is about revolution, and Revolutionary Girl Utena claims in its title to be about revolution. The Rose of Versailles is about the French Revolution, brought on by the greed of the elite rulers and derailed by the fervor of the revolutionary leaders. It is about a corrupt society consuming itself. Utena is about a corrupt society sustaining itself and achieving a state close to stability. In Utena, “revolution” is a propaganda term used to prevent the gathering of revolutionary forces. Akio and the system of control have the masses in hand, and true revolution is not possible any time soon. In the final showdown, Akio says he will use Utena’s sword to revolutionize the world. He means that he’ll take the Power of Dios for himself. Putting more power into the hands of an autocratic ruler is the opposite of a revolution.

In episode 36, as Utena walks home after the Second Seduction, Juri remarks that the whole school is changing as revolution brews; the world will soon be revolutionized. Juri has a bad feeling about it—the revolution she detects is Akio’s false revolution where he takes more power. The victory of Utena and Anthy does not bring a revolution, but is a step toward a better world. See afterstories.

The Rose of Versailles is about being caught up in revolution, an uncontrollable social event that overwhelms the agency of individuals, or a storm that you may ride out but cannot control. Utena claims to be about creating revolution. Utena’s step-by-step change with a sequence of heroes can be read as an uncontrollable slow-motion revolution. Akio controls society so tightly that only a miracle can displace him—only a miracle can overcome sexism—and yet miracles occur and Akio’s control loosens.

In both, the ultimate issues are moral. The French Revolution is depicted as caused by immoral greed. Akio’s greedy immoral rule of the world is why the world of Utena stands in need of a revolution.

doomed love

The Rose of Versailles is also about doomed love. Oscar loves Fersen with no hope, since Fersen loves Marie Antoinette with no hope (she’s the queen of France and already married to the king). In episode 28 Oscar tells Fersen that there are two kinds of love, joyous and agonized. Fersen answers that there is one kind, agonized. Oscar is eventually able to give up on Fersen and love André, and that love is also doomed. In Utena, the love we see is not always agonized, but it is never joyous (at least not on both sides). Utena’s love of Akio is doomed because he intends to murder her. The love between Utena and Anthy appears doomed until Anthy leaves the Academy. Other relationships are not so much doomed as gone haywire.

After Oscar leaves the Royal Guards and joins the French Guard, her love of Fersen fades and the new love of André grows without her noticing until it comes out suddenly in episode 32. In episode 39, she says that failing to realize your love is a deeper sin than betraying your love. In Utena, characters don’t have to stop an old love before they start a new one, which allows more ways for relationships to twist out of shape. For Utena, her love of Anthy and her love of Akio both grow without her noticing until later. Utena commits that sin, while corrupt Anthy ironically commits the lesser sin of betraying her love.

sex roles

And, of course, The Rose of Versailles is about sex roles. Oscar and Utena are, in different ways, both male and female. Oscar, who might be open-minded, sees distinct sex roles: When her love is hopeless, she decides to live as a man, facing danger with no thought of love—fighting is for men, loving is for women. She ought to know better than that from direct experience! In episode 38, she considers herself married to André, and declares that she will follow his course—it is because she believes in him, but nobody will overlook that it is a traditional role, and she explicitly asks his view and subordinates herself to it; the husband is master. On the other side, Utena does not as much as notice the de facto sex roles that play out around her, even as she herself takes on a male role with respect to Anthy and Akio works to force her into a female role. Utena’s naivety on other points makes her easy to manipulate, but her naivety about sex roles is associated with Akio’s failure in a key point of his plot (see the routine date - girlish).

opener

A white rose. Oscar trapped in thorny rose vines.

The opener includes both rose flowers and thorns, but more thorns. The white rose turns red with blood as protagonist Oscar is trapped by the thorns of the French Revolution. It reminds me of Anthy trapped by the Swords of Hatred. I want to point out the language that Utena echoes: The adverb form kedakaku translated here as “with dignity”, is the same word that, differently inflected, Utena translates as “nobility”. And chiru, to scatter or to fall like a petal, is the same verb Utena uses for scattering a rose on the chest in a duel. Utena’s scattered roses often are visually beautiful.

The story of the opener is that flowers (women) can stand around and be pretty, or can bloom passionately and “scatter”: You can be a flower of the field, or have the destiny of a rose and be special for a short time. It is very much how Akio treats women, and the idea of specialness comes up explicitly in episode 20. Utena is worse, though. As Anthy says in episode 37, every girl is like the Rose Bride: Every woman has the destiny of a rose.

The Rose of Versailles was progressive for its time, but not by today’s standards. Compare Class S as represented by the S-shaped bed. Utena is holding both up as examples of what we need to move beyond. The message seems to be that progress is possible, but difficult and slow: Utena can help one woman with extreme effort and sacrifice.

episode 1

The first episode includes a thunderstorm that does double duty, manifesting Oscar’s mood and foreshadowing the later French Revolution. Compare the thunderstorm over the church in Utena episode 9; see the wind catalog for my explanation.

Oscar and André at the pond in the woods. Utena and Akio at the pond in the woods during the Second Seduction.

Oscar and André ride into the woods on a white horse and a black horse, and stop at a sparkling pond, where themes of choice and influence come up. The Second Seduction is without question referring to this scene. André has been ordered to convince Oscar to join the Royal Guard. André refuses the order—but Oscar thinks it’s a reverse psychology trick and they fight. In the Second Seduction, Akio does use psychology tricks, Utena falls for them, and they do the opposite of fight. The dawn comes and Oscar decides; the Second Seduction’s light show comes and Utena has had it decided for her. As Oscar rides away, André calls out that if she wants to return to being a woman, it’s her last chance. It’s already noticeable that André loves Oscar, and if you miss it the ender will let you know. The Second Seduction is about Utena’s love of Akio, a step in his plot to control her. Akio uses love and sex to suppress Utena’s boyish side, which Utena needs for her final victory.

The Rose of Versailles is a tragedy, and even in the first episode it is bittersweet. Utena systematically reverses aspects of the scene and makes it more bitter. Referring to a tragedy and making it worse... is not a promising sign for Utena.

more related to the Second Seduction

In episode 13, Oscar falls from a horse after André says she is overtiring the horses. She is knocked out but not seriously hurt, and André remarks to the audience how much he loves her. The Second Seduction has its own fall from a horse. Utena is the one to complain before falling that Touga is riding dangerously. If we take Utena=Oscar, then André’s declaration of love corresponds to Akio saying that Utena is like a princess, which Utena takes as a declaration of love though it is really a declaration that Utena is his tool to use. Utena ends up (literally) flat on her back like Oscar, (figuratively) knocked out by Akio’s plot.

In episode 33, Oscar gives a horse ride to the 7 year old Dauphin (the crown prince), who is mortally ill. When they stop by a pond, the Dauphin kisses her and proclaims his love. This time Akio=Oscar and Utena=Dauphin. It is part of my evidence that Akio plans to kill Utena. When the Dauphin dies at the end of the episode, it is symbolized by Oscar’s white horse running riderless into a black distance arrayed with sparkles like stars. Akio’s stars may or may not refer back to those sparkles (it would make sense), but Utena does have a white horse disappearing in the distance: In the prince story when Dios is riding away. Oscar’s white horse departed riderless because Oscar did not want the Dauphin to die; Oscar was not directing the horse into the distance. Akio does want Utena to die once he has extracted her power for himself, so he rides the horse away.

episode 2

Oscar is physically capable, idealistic and principled, and rejects stereotypically feminine things as unsuitable for her. Those are aspects of Utena’s character. Episode 2 introduces Marie Antoinette, who is depicted as shallow and flighty, never thinking things through. Those are also aspects of Utena’s character, which she grows out of with difficulty. At this point, Oscar and Marie Antoinette are both 14, Utena’s age.

Later, honest Marie Antoinette is corrupted and exploited by Madame de Polignac, agreeing to falsify a pregnancy and to illegal gambling. It’s parallel to Akio corrupting honest Utena. Madame de Polignac’s false regret and false tears reminded me of Akio’s in episode 39.

Madame du Barry

As Oscar says in episode 4, Madame du Barry controls the king by seduction. Compare Akio, the king who controls others by seduction.

Does her use of poison parallel Anthy’s? Not closely, as far as I can tell. Though I notice that both poisoning plots were instigated by a man, and carried out by a woman. Power and direct culpability are divided up unfairly.

candles

Invisible candles stand in front of two opposed parties.

I was struck by these invisible candles in episode 5. Did they influence Utena’s surreal presentation of metaphors? The camera delights in giving us views looking down through a chandelier.

A fan decorated  with fake candle flames.

Candles are a major symbol in The Rose of Versailles. Candles in a chandelier are almost the first image after the opener of episode 1. I don’t understand them, which means they are exactly parallel to the candles in Utena that I don’t understand. One point seems to be to emphasize the darkness inside the palace of Versailles in a era before electric light, equating darkness and corruption. That may be one of the reasons for the candles in the Kiryuu family home. Indicating corruption is definitely one of the purposes of the candles in episode 30, but it’s one point among several.

Seeing fans made to resemble candles with flames, I’m convinced that candles are associated with corruption. These are candles that do not give light but are fashionable accessories to hide behind. In episode 25, Oscar dresses as a woman—which somehow renders her unrecognizable—and attends a ball. Compare Utena episode 3. She carries a fan with similar candle-like decorations, which might indicate her falseness in acting as a woman.

I’m thinking that the candles in the Kiryuu family mansion are there to make the house into the Palace of Versailles, a place of wealth and corruption where plots reign and love and friendship are for show. But I feel that’s only part of it.

In episode 9, a candle represents the king’s life. It may be parallel to the isolated candle of Utena’s episode 10, which we can take as standing for the kitten’s life. If Utena’s three candles also stand for life, then blowing out all three puts her on track to die.

In episode 15 when Marie Antoinette is corrupted into gambling, the scene begins with a shot of three candles. It’s parallel to the three candles in episode 30 when Utena is corrupted. See the section three candles in the Rose of Versailles. There is also a reference back to episode 1, where a symbolic storm blows out three candles at once.

freedom of princesses

In episode 7, Marie Antoinette complains of her lack of freedom as a royal princess. Her husband’s hobby is making locks, a symbol of it. To drive the point in, he gives her a gigantic heart-shaped lock.

The idea that princes are free and powerful while princesses are unfree and powerless is nothing that Utena had to invent. It was already there in the conventional images.

wind

In The Rose of Versailles, wind is the wind of revolution, a sign of the coming storm. For wind in Utena, see wind catalog.

Rosalie

Low-class woman Rosalie seeks revenge on the noblewoman who killed her mother in a carriage accident and left the scene. It reminds me of Anthy’s cold vengeance. Oscar, by this time angry with nobles herself, agrees to help her—though in episode 19 she says she was lying. In episode 16, Rosalie becomes attracted to Oscar and dances with Oscar’s empty military uniform. She doesn’t understand her own feelings. Later in the episode, we find that Oscar is highly popular among the ladies at court. The Rose of Versailles is said to have established the modern genre, so it may be that it established these genre conventions that Utena makes use of. In any case, I feel pretty sure that Rosalie influenced Anthy’s character.

Touga’s sling

In episode 17, Oscar is hit from behind by a thrown sword. It’s not a serious injury, and she shows up in the next episode with one arm in a sling. Compare Touga, hit from behind by a sword in episode 9; it’s not a serious injury; he shows up in the next episode with one arm in a sling. That’s where the seemingly inexplicable sling came from: It’s a joking reference.

the black rose

Episode 21 of The Rose of Versailles is named “The black rose blooms at night”. “Black rose”... that sounds a little familiar. It is the start of an arc of the exploits of villain Countess Jeanne de la Motte—who is closely based on a real historical criminal who was no less daring and extravagant. In the fictional version, Rosalie is her sister; she has given up on vengeance and is honest. When they meet, Jeanne says “I’m me. You’re you” meaning that the two are independent and should go their own ways. There’s an undertone of “don’t give me away.”

Mikage echoes the words when Tokiko leaves in Utena episode 23, saying “you are you” and “I am me.” He’s pretending he doesn’t care. And admitting that he’s a bad guy. And reminding us that his crimes are a metaphor for evil done in real life, as Jeanne’s crimes are a fictionalization of historical crimes. By the way, Oscar also echoes the words later herself, in episode 29, referring to André; I think the echo means that Oscar is mistaken.

After Jeanne is arrested, her lies during her trial remind me of some of Akio’s. Her lies had the effect of manipulating an entire society, like Akio’s propaganda. In the final showdown, Akio shows cunning and resilience in his lies; that is how Jeanne’s lies are described in the title of episode 23.

The ring that binds Jeanne and Rosalie may be part of the inspiration for Utena’s rose rings. At one point, the ring is equated with the crescent moon, which reminds me of the hidden ring drawing in the rose emblem. There might be a connection with Keiko’s crescent moon, the only crescent moon in Utena.

rose colors

In episode 28, André speaking to Oscar makes a vague metaphor: He says that a rose is a rose whether it is white or red. He means that he loves Oscar the same whether she decides to live as a man or as a woman. Oscar doesn’t have enough information to interpret it that way, and asks whether it means that she remains a woman no matter how she chooses to live her life—that is, no matter what sex role she chooses to inhabit. To her, that’s a bad meaning; she wants the choice. In the wider symbolism of the show, it means she is doomed no matter what she chooses. She has the destiny of a rose. Her tragedy is inevitable.

In Utena, roses are normal and don’t convey specialness that has a short lifetime. And colors matter; the show is thorough with its color symbolism, though it can be indirect and tricky. But André’s metaphor still resonates. Being a rose matters more than having a given color.

the concertina player

The concertina player is the agent of truth in The Rose of Versailles. Everything he sings or says is part of the show’s truth. I connect him with Tiresias, a man who was changed into a woman for seven years by Hera, though maybe it’s a stretch. He corresponds to Utena’s shadow girls. The shadow girls usually convey not truth, but metaphors pointing toward truth. Not always, though. In episode 1, they say that the duels have rules without offering any hints. In episode 33, they join in Akio’s propaganda, which is neither literally nor metaphorically true. In episode 38, they give away no information about the final episode.

The instrument looks like a concertina, though the musician plays different notes without doing more than working the bellows. In any case, it seems to be a 19th century musical instrument lifted out of its time.

water drops

In episode 35, the narrative briefly pauses the storm of the French Revolution to focus on the tragedy of the Jarjayes family. Oscar has refused orders to forcibly clear the recalcitrant delegates of the National Assembly from their building, and is now a traitor to the crown. As the king and advisors meet to discuss her punishment, through a window we see a slight break in the clouds. Oscar’s father preempts official punishment, promising to punish her himself, using the word shobun that also means disposal—getting rid of. It’s made clear that he means to kill her.

Outside, two drops of water drip from a leaf, one after another, into a basin, spreading ripples. Our focus narrowed from the the revolution’s rain of grief to the grief of Oscar and her father, one tear for each. Each grief spreads ripples, affecting others.

Dueling forest gates. It put the water drop mechanisms of the gate to the dueling forest and the Rose Gate into a new light for me. We’ve been shown that the Rose Gate is opened by a tear (Utena’s tear for Anthy). The parallel says that all the water is tears, the single drops and the basins full; the dueling forest gate is also opened by a tear that it provides itself (the tear of another). Time runs backward when the gates emit their drops. The ripples gather into a splash that backs out into a flying drop of water. (It’s not depicted exactly that way, but I think the idea is clear.) You pass through the gate by reversing a hurt; the purpose of the dueling arena is to undo hurt. The dueling arena, as hinted vaguely in the Black Rose, is part of the order of the world and not something that Akio created, though he does use it for his own purposes. We see the Swords of Hatred destroy the dueling arena and the planetarium projector, but when we visit Akio’s room again the projector stands there looking as usual. The projector is Akio’s power of illusion, which is not destroyed. The arena is a place of illusions, and only Utena’s illusions are destroyed; everyone else keeps theirs. Akio certainly intends more dueling; when Anthy shows up to say goodbye, he is revising the rules.

In the first episode, when Utena opens the gate to the dueling forest for the first time, when the water drop splashes on her ring she exclaims “It’s cold!” It establishes the tangible reality of the gate, emphasized by the firm click of its unlatching and the heavy stone movement of its opening. The water is cold for the same reason that Anthy’s shaved ice is cold: It represents grief and pain and the emotional coldness that cause them.

When Utena opens the forest gate, masses of water pour forth. The water is the water of illusions and also the water of grief and pain. I was right, there is more than one meaning for it!

fatal illness

Oscar looking up.
Oscar 1
Utena looking up.
Utena 2
Oscar looking toward the camera.
Oscar 2
Utena looking toward the camera (Akio).
Utena 1
Oscar coughing into her pillow.
Oscar 3
Utena cannot remember... whatever it was she forgot.
Episode 35, Utena can’t remember

Finally, finally progress in understanding this recalcitrant scene from the First Seduction! What is the purpose of the segment after Utena turns off the light and before the sex scene begins? I got stuck on it for two months! Now I know part of it: It refers to these images from episode 37 of The Rose of Versailles.

It’s the first thing after the opener. Oscar is in bed. She looks upward, then turns to the side and looks directly at the camera. Then she coughs into her pillow. She has been coughing up blood. Oscar has tuberculosis (Wikipedia), which was known at the time in English as consumption, because it gradually consumed its victims. After this scene she calls the doctor in to examine her. He finally tells her that she has at most six months to live. The curtain across her bed is the curtain preparing to close on the play of her life.

I swapped the order of the pictures of Utena. She first looks toward the camera—toward Akio—and then looks upward. Even time-reversed, it’s clearly an intentional reference. See the hair at Utena’s cheek divided into three, like Oscar’s and unlike most views of Utena. Besides, time reversal is normal in Utena. Oscar and André have sex later in the episode, another event tying the episodes together.

The parallel implies that Utena has a metaphorical fatal illness. Or, bearing in mind the time reversal, she’s about to catch one. It is the same illness indicated by the reference to The Rose of Versailles episode 33, the Akio disease: See Akio plans to kill Utena. The number three is associated with fairy tales, so a secondary meaning of the hair divided into three is that Utena is led to her death by her deluded belief in the prince.

Unlike Oscar, Utena never realizes that she is in line to die. Even after Anthy runs her through and she is in fact dying (though she is saved, at least for a time, by her power of miracles), Utena does not seem to admit her own mortality but only tries to help Anthy.

Other shots divide Utena’s cheek hair into three: The kiss in the Second Seduction. Episode 35 after Utena shows off the earrings, sees Anthy pierced by the Swords of Hatred, and almost remembers her promise. To live, Utena must remember. A number of shots in episode 37, especially Utena’s resolution - Utena’s death flag. There are more. There are also a few cases in the Student Council arc; see Utena’s depressed expression for one.

the undyed paper rose

In the final episode 40, Marie Antoinette before her trial and execution makes a paper rose and gives it to Rosalie, telling her to dye it in Oscar’s favorite color. In the end, Rosalie leaves it undyed and white. I see it as tying in with Utena’s white rose. In Utena’s final episode, Utena remains a prince, associated with a white rose, as long as we see her (even while she is a princess). She disappears believing that she has failed in playing prince. On the one hand, she has to give up the fantasy ideal of princes to graduate from Ohtori Academy. On the other, she had to remain a prince long enough to help Anthy–and she did. I can take the whole series as being about the tension between ideals.

To me the paper rose resembles the cloth rose that Utena miraculously creates when transforming a tablecloth into a dress in the dance party episode 3.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 30 December 2021
updated 8 April 2024