Utena - sacrifice

Sacrifice is a major theme in Utena. You must sacrifice to achieve a miracle. The show thematically approves of sacrifice, but it must be genuine. Metaphorically, it means that helping people takes work, you can’t half-ass it, you have to invest yourself into it. The fairy tale of the rabbit in the moon is about winning through self-sacrifice, as Utena does.

Touga pretends to sacrifice himself, jumping in front of Saionji’s sword in episode 9 in a situation that he artificially created. Mikage (for eternity) and Ruka (for a miracle) both insist that it’s necessary to sacrifice other people (see sacrificing others below); Akio does not talk about it, but behaves the same. There are more examples. Only Utena genuinely sacrifices herself to save Anthy, and achieves a miracle—the miracle of Anthy saving herself.

In the origin myth, sexist Dios tries to sacrifice himself to save all the women of the world. The sacrifice is genuine as far as it goes, but Anthy stops Dios and he accepts being stopped. The goal was too ambitious. When Anthy tries to protect him from the armed crowd, she winds up the target of the Swords of Hatred. It is not a genuine sacrifice, because she does not make it knowingly; she is surprised to become hated. Her wide-eyed head-back reaction as she is stabbed matches Utena’s when Anthy backstabs her. Utena knowingly sacrifices herself to save one woman, and succeeds narrowly though she believes she fails.

In episode 12 Touga coldly requires Anthy to “sacrifice herself” to power up the sword of Dios (though her actual sacrifice seems to be no more than to accept pain and minor bleeding). I take it to be the sacrifice behind a small miracle. Anthy does it reluctantly. In later episodes, she willingly sacrifices blood to power up the sword for Utena. Anthy’s genuine sacrifices for Utena support Utena’s miraculous duel victories. I’m sure they are necessary for Utena’s great sacrifice and the final victory. Swapping sacrifices is a form of teamwork.

Akio is greedy and categorically refuses to sacrifice anything that contributes to his power. For all he has done with his power, he is stuck in place: As Anthy points out at the end, he’s the one in a coffin.

the power of miracles

Utena achieves miracles on a regular basis. Her sacrifice in the final showdown is obvious. Miracles are illusions, so sacrifices may be illusions too, at least sometimes. Certainly a felt need to sacrifice others is an illusion. But I’d say that, at a minimum, great miracles require great effort, and whatever shape that effort takes, it can be called a sacrifice.

I’ve tentatively identified Utena’s other sacrifices. For her miraculous wins in duels, Utena’s sacrifice is that she risks her life. It seems clear in episodes 1 and 12. It’s fitting if, for her greatest miracle, she does lose her life. If you risk and never lose, did you really risk anything? Though with miracles, you never know. In the dance party of episode 3, I guess she sacrifices her opportunity with Touga, to find out whether he is her prince, and suffers for that sacrifice before the end of the Student Council arc. I don’t know what her sacrifice is for her miraculous sports feats. There’s no reason to assume that each miracle requires exactly one sacrifice. I guess that none is needed.

Another theory is that her big sacrifice in the final showdown pays for all her past miracles. Utena did not sacrifice for each miracle, but once for the power of miracles. I don’t quite buy it, because she got a lot of lesser miracles seemingly for free—but then again, time reversal happens in Utena. In that case, Dios’s big sacrifice was thwarted, and that’s how he is remembered to have lost the power of miracles.

In episode 29, a miracle cures Juri’s obsession with Shiori. (See sparkling transfers - Juri’s locket for more.) Juri loses her locket, which stands for the obsession. It’s not voluntary (by the nature of obsession it can’t be), but maybe it counts as Juri’s sacrifice.

sacrificing others

Sacrificing others has two meanings, the direct one—these guys are villains—and the thematic meaning—men sacrifice women, or require women to make sacrifices, to meet male goals. Anthy stands for all women who accept the patriarchy, and look at all she sacrifices: Her freedom, her comfort, her happiness, her ambitions, her skills (every ability that does not serve Akio, she ignores).... Women are to cope by sacrificing. Juri sacrifices her love of Shiori due to an illusion, and so on and on. Even Utena can be seen as sacrificing herself to meet the prince’s goal of rescue; though she started out wanting to save Anthy of her own will, by the time of the main story she makes the prince’s goal her own, the same way that Anthy makes Akio’s goals her own.

In episode 12, Touga orders Anthy to sacrifice herself to power up the Sword of Dios (Nozomi translates it as “abandon your body”; it is the counterpart of Utena abandoning her “self”). Anthy’s sacrifice in the final showdown is extreme. When Akio hears the approach of the Swords of Hatred, he calls out “Anthy!” and she knows what to do. She plays the role of a witch and attracts the Swords to pierce her, while Akio tells himself it was her own choice. She leaves her clothes behind because this is Anthy at her most elemental, stripped of illusions. Her core function as the “protected” Rose Bride is to protect Akio by sacrificing herself. In episode 1, the Student Council tried to protect Anthy from Saionji, because her advertised conventional role is to be protected by men. They failed, because that is not her true role.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 5 December 2021
updated 12 March 2024