Utena - tropes

Utena delights in subverting tropes. It is part of the show’s message: Utena tells us to look with new eyes at the culture around us, and see through the illusions of the patriarchy’s system of control. Setting up a trope sets up an expectation, like the expectations of the system of control. The show constantly works to subvert our expectations and make us look at what’s happening with new eyes. That’s part of why it is so hard to understand!

I list some of the tropes that Utena subverts. I doubt I could list them all, even if I worked on nothing else.

Utena gains fangirls by defying the system of control. It means that girls don’t like the system of control. I think Utena’s defiance appeals to them and suggests that there may be a way out, or at least a way to push back. It is a sign that Akio’s edifice, once it is weakened, will eventually crumble and fall. But more simply, breaking rules is a sign of having power; violations by the weak are punished while violations by the strong are accepted, so breaking rules can make you seem powerful. Donald Trump does it on purpose. And Utena is powerful; winning duels means that she has great patriarchal power (see the duel starting bells are wedding bells). Utena may gain fangirls by being seen as a powerful girl, a standout in the tribe of girls. I think the other Student Council members gain fans mostly by being seen as powerful and sexy.

The powerful Student Council runs the school. Actually it’s ineffective and powerless. Akio runs the school.

The villain has a megalomaniacal plot that the hero must thwart. Akio’s plan to open the Rose Gate is a megalomaniacal plot for world domination, but it does not need to be thwarted. It’s unworkable from the start. The victory of Utena and Anthy is to escape from the villain. Akio then continues with another iteration of the same plot.

Vehement speech. In bad anime, characters speak vehemently when they object to something, to try to lend intensity that the writing and animation cannot support. In Utena, characters usually speak with skilled subtle acting. But Utena speaks vehemently, in the style of a bad anime, when she objects to something that she does not want to be true—for example, in episode 3 with Wakaba when she denies interest in Touga. It’s a sign of her ignorance and obliviousness.

Forgotten memories cover a traumatic past. Utena has forgotten memories, and she has a traumatic past. But the lost memories are details of events (critical details, to be sure) and do not cover the trauma. Utena remembers her dead parents fine, and is conscious of her difficult childhood.

Interlaced fingers. Holding hands and interlacing your fingers conventionally implies closeness. You might want to call it a convention rather than a trope. In Utena, it stands for distance or separation, exactly the opposite. See hands - the interlaced hand grip.

Loving the childhood friend. The prospective relationship of Anthy and Utena is barely different from the standard trope of the protagonist getting together with their childhood friend, who was somehow forgotten (as Utena and Anthy forget having met each other) or mislaid along the way. You might consider this instance of the trope unsubverted; I could argue it either way. But there are others. Shiori and Juri love each other, and neither has forgotten or mislaid the other, but Shiori does not understand it and believes she hates Juri. Saionji and Touga get together, but only after Akio (as part of his plot to isolate Utena) breaks the heterosexual conditioning that he himself laid on them. Tatsuya loves Wakaba but seems to make no progress during the series.

The grateful princess marries the prince. Utena has multiple instances of this trope, and none of them plays out straight (pun intended). The most important instances are Utena not marrying Akio who she believes rescued her as a child, and Anthy unable to marry Utena who is not a prince after all. See rescues - the grateful princess trope. Anthy saving Dios’s life so that he turns into Akio is a reversal of the trope, and they live unhappily ever after (Anthy is miserable and Akio is dissatisfied with the limits of his power).

Overeating is funny. As if! Chu-Chu’s overeating is disguised as this stupid and harmful trope, but it is in reality an eating disorder due to Anthy’s chronic stress.

Cakes with strawberries. They are cute and sweet and are supposed to point to innocent love. In Utena, cakes with strawberries point to falsehoods and love that is not at all innocent. See cake catalog.

Girls are bad at math. It’s a stereotype, more a cause of tropes than a trope in itself. Utena needs to take a make-up test in math. But she’s not depicted as bad at math. Wakaba says that Utena is usually good at math, and Utena blames it on the duels. Anthy needs to take the test too, and she doesn’t fit the stereotype either: She does not give a damn about any schoolwork.

Boys are good at math. Again, a stereotype. Male Miki teaches Utena what she needs to know for the make-up test, and Utena fulfills the peer teaching trope by praising him as a good teacher. But Miki is not truly male. Miki and Utena are both gendermixed, male at some times and female at others. More importantly, the scene is ultimately about Anthy manipulating Miki into a duel. I can read it as Anthy exploiting Utena’s expectations, as fed by the stereotype, in order for Miki to violate them when he challenges for the duel. It is an attempt to make Utena more cynical and easier to corrupt. Compare Akio’s attempt to lure Utena into telling a lie in episode 14.

The woman who can’t cook a decent meal. The episode 8 body swap story is a parody of the “she can’t cook” trope, where a female character violates a conventional gender norm in an exaggerated way by cooking inedible or disgusting meals. Nobody told Japan that a joke stops being funny when you repeat it too often... or that this joke is not funny in the first place. But Ikuhara knew.

Lovers meet in the gym shed. Episode 8. It’s a conventional isolated location for meetings of lovers. Utena again parodies the trope, having Saionji choose the location and open his shirt, only to pull out the exchange diary.

The hero always wins. A story hero must face obstacles, or it’s not much of a story. In fairy tales, and in many anime series, the hero wins every challenge despite the obstacles. Utena loses the duels of episode 11 and the final showdown. In the Apocalypse Saga, Akio sees himself as the hero, and he wins almost every challenge he faces with Utena—so Utena usually loses to Akio. See overview of Akio and Utena - fairy tale plot.

Sliced-up clothing. In episode 12, as Utena fights against the Sword of Dios, her clothing gets sliced up. Destroyed clothing is usually a fanservice trope, and it’s correct to see it that way here. Utena has become an ordinary girl, and she suffers the maltreatment that ordinary girls suffer; being threatened with force and objectified for fanservice are parts of it. But in the end, it means that Utena’s self-image as a girl, which she felt pressed into after losing the duel of episode 11, is what is destroyed. And Utena is happy about it.

No one will marry me now. The shadow play of episode 17 includes the “no one will marry me now” for trivial reasons joke, an old standard. It’s in episode 2 of Sailor Moon, and I imagine it’s older. Well, Juri and Shiori can’t marry anyway, for serious legal reasons, even if Shiori overcomes her confused feelings after Utena leaves. (The epilog opens the possibility.) The shadow play also includes the trope of a debate between an angel and a devil.

Indirect kiss. In episode 18, Mitsuru is about to take a bite from Mari’s abandoned, partly-eaten chocolate bar. He realizes it would be an indirect kiss and stops. The suggestion is that only a little kid would worry about it. It’s that silly an idea.

It was all a dream. Episode 24 has Nanami wake up and realize that silly events were all a dream. It is a gag, and it is a self-aware comment on the surreality of Utena, and it is a foretaste of Nanami’s Egg a few episodes later, when it is unclear how much of the episode is a dream and how much is merely dreamlike. Nanami falling out the window, which is shown to be a dream, corresponds to Anthy falling away from Utena in the final episode. Anthy falling away is part of what brought her together with Utena—it was Anthy dreaming that she fell away when in fact she fell toward.

Shower before sex. In a love hotel, by fiction convention, the woman takes a shower beforehand while the man waits. In the First Seduction, Utena seems to follow the convention and takes a shower. But she hasn’t realized yet that sex is in the offing. It was only the usual bath before food and bed, at the usual Japanese time for it, switched to a shower because that’s what the hotel provides. Her neatly folded date dress shows that she was calm. Once she realizes the possibility of sex, she gets nervous and starts to ramble.

Kabedon. It is caging someone with your arms against a wall or the like, to express dominance. In Utena it fails to express dominance; the one who is caged takes power, a symbol of defeating the system of control. See comparisons - kabedon and the images immediately below it.

Shining glasses. Anthy’s glasses shine sometimes. It is a trope reversal: Instead of hiding Anthy’s feelings from others, the glasses hide others’ feelings from her. Anthy is usually insightful, but not when her glasses are shining.

Akio supports Utena, who can barely stand.
Episode 39, Akio catches Utena

Accidental groping. When the badly injured Utena falls on the path to the Rose Gate, Akio catches her by the chest. It fulfills most of the conditions of the accidental groping trope: Akio had no real choice about where his arm went when catching her, his arm lingers in place as he lifts Utena, and Utena rejects him, pushing him away by the face. But it plays out differently. Akio’s arm lingers for the mechanical reason of lifting Utena. Neither seems to see it as particularly sexual. Utena rejects him not as a groper but as Anthy’s abuser.

The villain’s lair collapses when the villain is defeated. The dueling arena crumbles and falls. Again, the collapse is mixed. For one thing, the fall of the arena is what separates Anthy and Utena and causes Utena to believe she has failed. It is a part of her miracle and necessary for her victory: She has to give up on being a prince to escape the Academy. But that’s not how a hero is supposed to feel after a victory. For another thing, the collapse is only a collapse of Utena’s illusions, so that she sees the truth. Afterward, Akio changes the rules of the dueling system, but its essence surely remains the same. The villain’s lair collapses, but the villain retains it and continues his course of evil.

Teamwork. In episode 25, Utena promises teamwork with Anthy. Utena’s ideal of individuality plus working together is an anime standard. Much of the Apocalypse Saga is about Akio ensuring that Anthy and Utena do not work together. He succeeds: By the time of Anthy’s suicide attempt, the two are working at cross-purposes. In the final showdown, they cooperate in a way... a reversed way where each seemingly does the wrong thing in a way that leads to the right result.

One true love. The couples Anthy-Utena and Juri-Shiori, and arguably others, fulfill many of the conditions of “one true love.” But in Utena, there is no unbreakable true love. Characters fail to notice their love, have multiple loves at once, and switch from one to another. Anthy switches from Dios to Utena. Utena nearly agrees to marry Akio. Juri sticks with Shiori, but claims to herself to hate her (episode 17) and sometimes wears lipstick, which means she is trying to attract another.

Happily ever after. The story does not end with the main couple living happily ever after. It’s ambiguous whether Utena is alive, and if she is and Anthy finds her, they have a lot of work to do to live happily together.

unsubverted tropes

Utena does not undermine every expectation that it sets up. Sometimes it surprises us by not subverting a trope instead.

The protagonist sits in the protagonist seat in class. An anime protagonist typically sits in the last row of desks on the window side, on the left side of the classroom. It provides access to the window and reduces visual clutter. That’s where Utena sits, and she often looks out the window.

Villains blame others, heroes blame themselves. Utena follows this one closely, and for good reason. The bad characters blame others, including Anthy who blames Utena for getting together with Akio. Utena blames herself, Miki blames himself for the exploding curry, and Juri blames herself for being unable to let go of Shiori. The characters are playing fictional roles, such as Utena playing prince, therefore they follow fiction tropes.

seeming tropes

Calling to each other. In some duels in the Black Rose and later, Utena dodges by leaping high in the air, and is caught by Anthy. They call to each other “Utena-sama” and “Himemiya!” It smells like a trope being made fun of, but I don’t recognize it.

Soap bubbles. I swear that the bathtime soap bubbles in Nanami’s Egg, episode 27, are a film trope. But I have failed to locate any examples.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 23 July 2023
updated 15 May 2024