Utena - the sex symbols

It should go without saying that the show is saturated with sexual symbols. I doubt I could list them all if I tried. In Utena, it’s rare for a cigar to be just a cigar.

Long and straight things are male. A couple major phallic symbols: The swords; also towers, such as Akio’s tower and the dueling tower. Candles are phallic and also related to light and to fire. See the candle catalog for my struggles to understand them.

Round and curved things are female. A few major female symbols: Roses, apples (they are Eve’s apple), eggs including the egg of the world, and also spaces with prominent entrances. Think of the entrance to Anthy’s greenhouse, and the entrance to the dueling forest with its great stone rose. (The forest gate has a bird for Ohtori Akio when closed; when open a rose for Anthy. It seems to imply that Akio controls access, or that Akio owns the outside while Anthy owns the inside.) Akio’s tower, his symbol, is decorated with roses, Anthy’s symbol.

The student council entrance, seen from inside.
The colonnaded walkway near the greenhouse, a frequent setting. Utena and Wakaba walk under the arch of the Academy’s entrance, holding up their hands to make an arch of their own.
Anthy’s bird cage greenhouse is seen through an arch of the same shape.

Student Council entrance. The towering vertical entrance to the Student Council’s platform is a symbol of death and at the same time a tall male symbol (just look at it, and don’t miss the curlicues above the apex of the arch) and a female symbol with an entrance, a rose, and a visual resemblance (look at it again, this time differently!). Together they imply regeneration. Regeneration without change means eternity and is tied to Anthy; regeneration with change is related to revolution and is tied to Utena. Enough themes for one image? The platform outside is at the same time a projecting male symbol, and as the area beyond the entrance it is a vagina; the student council is a sex act in public view—on a theater stage flanked by curtains. This is why creators do not explain the details to their sponsors. By the way, the platform points toward the dueling forest, which (in this complex of symbols) we may choose to equate with a womb... think about that, and compare it to the image of Anthy’s coffin late in the series, as contrasted with the shell of the world. The symbols truly don’t stop.

Columns and arches are ubiquitous in Utena’s architecture. Columns are male; arches are female. The closed colonnade, and the interior school corridors, are also vaginas. Some columns stand alone, and some support arches. The symbols of the Academy show the Academy’s values: Men stand alone, or men support women and they fit together into orderly, harmonious structures. I notice that Akio’s tower stands alone. In the episode 2 picture on the right with Utena and Wakaba, the characters act as columns, and as they swing their arms they briefly make their own arch as they pass under the archway at the entrance to the Academy, flanked by columns including “single” free-standing columns, with the huge columnar tower behind them. The rose emblem above them includes a representation of an engagement ring. In this frame, it looks like part of a wedding ceremony; in the following shot they look like a couple; shortly after Wakaba rides on Utena, consummating the marriage. (Wakaba riding can also stand for Wakaba following Utena’s example.) The message of the column-and-arch architecture clashes with the behavior of the characters. See the discussion of clashes under shadow plays.

Anthy’s greenhouse. On the left, an arch encloses Anthy’s greenhouse, which is the same shape. The two are equated by their shapes. The greenhouse is a bird cage, a prison for Anthy and for the students of the Academy. The arch, already a female symbol, also represents imprisonment, being trapped in the system of control. Women are metaphorically imprisoned. In contrast, lone male columns stand free. On the right, Utena stands taller than a background arch, but inside the foreground arch. I can read it two ways. One, she is trapped in the larger system like other women, but she has surpassed some smaller parts of it: She is individualistic and does not understand sex roles—or you could say she is a prince and not entirely a woman. Two, the near arch can stand for the present, when Utena is trapped by illusions. The far arch can stand for the end of the show, when she overcomes the delusion of being a prince and escapes the Academy.

The ring at the top of the greenhouse “to hang it from” is another female symbol. Anthy symbolically depends on Utena, or in other words, Utena in playing a patriarchal prince role contributes to keeping Anthy caged.

Nanami in class looks out the window, while boys in front of and behind her do not.

For more on Anthy’s greenhouse, which is also a symbol of regeneration like the student council entrance, see coffins and kofuns - the greenhouse and the Academy.

Arches and windows are equated. A window is also a female symbol. The grid of a window is the bars of a cage, a repeated symbol. In the picture, Nanami looks out the window in class while four boys also next the window do not. Usually, only female characters look out of windows. (Androgynous Miki counts as female in this metaphor. In episode 6 Miki looks out a window with Utena, and in episode 36 he looks out a window with Juri. In episode 6, Saionji is shown facing a window, but I think not looking out of it. In an exception, in episode 29, boys are drawn to the window to see Shiori pleading with Ruka.) Wakaba looking out the window is one of the clues that she will be Utena’s successor. Episode 21 has a small exception. To look out a window is to be trapped by the system of control’s conventional female point of view.

Duels. See duel symbols for sexual symbols related to duels and swords.

Touga with carrot in pocket Touga with carrot as unicorn

The real reason for this article is not to lay out that stuff, though. It’s to bring up my favorite phallic symbol from the series, Touga’s carrot from episode 35 when Touga gives Utena the earrings.

It starts out with “is that a carrot in your pocket, or are you glad to see me?” (Answer: Both.) The carrot is close to his heart... literally and figuratively. Before long, Touga pulls out his carrot and plays with it. The guy has it bad. He puts the carrot on his head to openly declare himself a dickhead, showing us what he is thinking with. With a brain like that, it’s no surprise if he believes he is a unicorn (he does not know that Utena is no longer a virgin). In Utena world, it’s all normal and nobody gives it a glance. For me, the surreal humor in the series is way funnier than the slapstick.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 23 November 2021
updated 10 September 2023