Utena - unstable locations

Some places don’t stay the same from episode to episode, not only the Student Council backdrops and platforms but many others. In Utena, the goal is usually expressiveness over consistency. In the prince story, varying details tell us that every version of the story is unreliable. Seemingly fixed reality is also variable—consistency is treated as a mistake to avoid. Everything is an illusion (the Buddhist idea that is central to Utena), or reality is socially constructed (the postmodern idea). Changing reality tells us that the story is fiction; the show’s reality is fiction, as our real-life reality is fiction. The details don’t matter: It’s an allegory, we’re supposed to generalize. Characters are unstable too. Even photographs are unstable (episode 19, episode 23)

To summarize: Varying details when important are meaningful, and at all times are part of Utena’s background message about our illusion of reality.

Here are examples that particularly caught my eye and didn’t belong elsewhere.

Utena stands in the arena, sword held ready.
Episode 2, Utena stands

From the duel of episode 2. The still picture can’t show it, but the crenelations in the background are moving from left to right in the animation. Utena is standing in place and the camera is too. Our angle on Utena does not change, and the clouds in the background are fixed. If the camera were moving, the clouds and crenelations would both shift. When Saionji charges toward Utena, the crenelations are moving right to left. Utena is standing, Saionji is running in a straight line toward her, the camera is in between them—and the dueling arena is rotating around them, or at least the crenelations around its edge are. It rotates clockwise when we see Utena and counterclockwise when we see Saionji.

See turning left. Saionji is affected by an illusion here; he believes he lost the first duel because he made a mistake. Utena is not deluded, at least not about that. Utena is called right or good, and Saionji wrong or bad.

Akio’s tower in the background bears a rose emblem.
Episode 2, tower with rose
Akio’s tower in the background has no rose emblem.
Episode 8, tower without rose

Akio’s tower changes form not only on the rear side where the Student Council platform is, but on the front side too. In episode 2 it carries a rose emblem that we don’t see again. In episode 8, the ring of multi-story windows below the long shaft has changed in design. The perspectives cannot be reconciled: If you look at the full shot in episode 8, there is no camera position where the height of the gate, the height of the pillars beyond it, and the height of the tower all match up. When the tower reappears at the end of episode 8, it is an unimportant background element and the ring of tall windows is gone.

The tower is a source of illusions. I think we’re being offered early hints of it.

The dorm lobby when Utena first arrives, with a vaguely visible Dutch windmill painting.
Episode 2, daytime dorm lobby
The dorm lobby in episode 4, with a different and unrecognizable painting.
Episode 4, nighttime dorm lobby

In these two views of the dorm lobby, the layout is basically the same but the Mondrian-style floor and the wall painting to the right are different. On the left, a Dutch windmill painting. There’s also a balloon picture on the left wall. In the right image, an unrecognizable but different painting with a different frame. Also the baseboard has changed to a light color and the sliding windows are shorter for their width. The episode 4 image repeats in episode 16 with different color balance.

I speculate that the floor is not tiled on a grid so that it is not a cage to imprison Anthy and Utena. They can escape. And maybe the free-form floor supports Utena’s individualism.

Episode 2, dorm lobby looking up
Episode 3, dorm lobby looking down

An unexplained geometric object (a partially stellated rhombicuboctahedron) hangs in the dorm. See mysteries - geometric object. I don’t understand what it means, and I don’t know why it changed colors between episodes. The camera position seems to be specially chosen to place it next to Utena and Anthy as they receive the delivery of party dresses. That’s a clue, but not a big enough clue for me to solve the mystery.

The details of the floor have changed again.

Reflection of the dueling forest as Utena looks out the window.
Episode 11, dorm window
View of the dorm with the Academy entrance in the background, showing their relation.
dorm in relation to Academy

In episode 11, as Utena considers whether to throw away her dueling ring to avoid having to duel her supposed prince Touga, she looks out a rear window of the dorm toward the dueling forest. The forest is reflected in the window as we look in on Utena.

The dueling forest is a fairy tale enchanted forest, and here we have an example of its magic. The dorm is located downhill from the Academy, below the front entrance. The forest is on a level with the Academy and behind the buildings, at the opposite end from the entrance. The window might be facing sort of the right direction to look toward the forest, though to me it looks to be at right angles... but even so, there is a hill in the way. The whole layout of the Academy and the buildings around it is unstable.

Looking in to the tower room from outside its windows. Shadows tilt to the left.
Black Rose, tower at night
Looking in to the tower room from outside its windows. Shadows tilt to the right.
Black Rose, tower in daytime

Stock establishing shots of the tower tell us about the time. At night, the shadows run to the left for illusion in Akio’s corrupt darkness, and the red floor is partly purple for corruption. During the day, they run to the right.

Day and night, Dios and Akio, are mirror images of each other. These two pictures are slightly differently colored, and shifted a little relative to each other, but basically—they are the same image flipped. The tower becomes a mirror image of itself. Mirror images are a theme of the Black Rose: There is a mirror in the confession elevator, Utena’s opponents are mirror images of those whose swords they take, and so on.

A Swiss landscape with cows and stereotypical barns.
Episode 16, Swiss landscape

In episode 16, as Nanami becomes more cowlike, the scene switches without explanation from night on the Academy grounds to daytime in the surrounding area. The place has been turned into stereotypical Swiss countryside, with cows and barns and alps in the distance.

The trees caught my eye: They are flat cutouts. The buildings and the landscape itself may be too. The scene is explicitly depicted as an unrealistic, stylized, low-budget stage setting, where everyone will play a role. Utena yet again calls attention to its own fictionality, and by extension calls the cultural world a fiction. Nanami turns into a cow, but it’s only a play. Bits in the scene compare it to shadow plays and to duels, other events that happen on a stage. It says that the whole world is a stage where we play our roles.

Jay Scott <jay@satirist.org>
first posted 4 June 2022
updated 4 May 2023