Not Quite A Revolution of Love and Friendship: The Beating Heart Underneath the Playfulness of Revolutionary Girl Utena

utena anthy and utena on the beach 03

[THIS WHOLE POST IS A SPOILER]

When does love get real? I’ll tell you when. Love gets real in the face of betrayal. Nothing tests love, whether in the context of romance, friendship, or both at once, than acts of betrayal. The acts themselves need not be singular events, but could be long and drawn out ruses, frauds, or inauthenticities.

I actually won’t get into the playfulness that distinguishes the show. I intended my previous blog posts on Utena, as well as those I’ve linked to in the past demonstrate this playfulness (in terms of nuance, visual and directorial style, symbolism and structure, etc.) in this instance. The final arc of this show that I’ve come to love unleashed a dizzying series of betrayals, acts, and lies. From this chicanery of falsehood Revolutionary Girl Utena confronts me with truths about love.

utena 39 akio broken sword of dios

I agree with this take:

The show through its remaining episodes ultimately deconstructs the notion of the prince, period. Utena’s prince, Dios, turns out to be a former ideal, while Akio, Anthy’s prince, is revealed to be the corruption of that ideal. Touga is shown to be a fraudulent prince. And Anthy coldly tells Utena she could never have been her prince after literally stabbing her in the back.

adaywithoutme

The inauthenticities in the show do not only exist in a literal plane, but throughout the show on a thematic level. The main quest of Utena is to meet her Prince again, but not as a princess but as a Prince herself. This is already problematic since a girl cannot be a prince (in the context of the narrative), but as adaywithoutme says, the very idea of the Prince as an ideal is torn apart.

Here is a summary of the mythological dynamics (wikipedia):

Dios is an actual prince who saves the girls in the world on a daily basis. The work eventually weakens him to the point of death, but the world still demands his services. Anthy ends up facing an angry mob alone in order to protect him, and is stabbed by a million swords. The swords quickly take a life of their own, eternally thirsting for a prince’s blood. To combat the pain, Anthy splits herself in two, and seals the part of her containing the swords beyond the Rose Gate, becoming the Rose Bride. This incident shatters Dios’ faith in the world, and he is also split in two. One part of him becomes an altruistic but powerless ghost, while the other part becomes selfish and manipulative Akio. No longer a prince, Akio loses most of his power, so he establishes the Dueling Game to regain it. Anthy accepts her role as the Rose Bride, despite the suffering it inflicts on her, because she does not want to live in a world which had tortured her and her brother.

utena 39 anthy one million swords

Utena enters the Ohtori academy in a quest to become a prince worthy to meet her prince (Dios). While it was through her intercession on behalf of Wakaba that gets her in the Dueling Game, it’s her newfound regard for Anthy that keeps her in it. In Anthy Utena finds a friend, and a princess that lets her act like a prince.

The theme of her participation in the Dueling Game is to free Anthy, to protect Anthy, to protect Anthy’s freedom. This is all well and good, but Utena never took time to learn about the Dueling Game. She never bothered to ask the Rose Bride who was with her every day. This is important! Utena’s disinterest in the purpose of the game, and the objectives of the participants is huge. It tells us how naive she is, and perhaps how easily she can be taken advantage of.

And here comes perhaps the first of the inauthenticities: Anthy, in the spirit of the friendship offered, did not return it in kind. Instead she played the role of the Rose Bride throughout her relationship with Utena. She could have volunteered critical information, but she was busy playing the Rose Bride.

utena 39 anthy piercing embrace

But there’s more! She wasn’t merely playing the role so as to be truthful to the function of the Dueling Game and the objectives of Akio. Anthy has lost faith in Akio, and does not see him capable of becoming Dios ever again. In Utena she finds someone who could be a Prince the same way Dios was. She indulged herself with Utena, and tested her.

True enough, Anthy’s inauthenticity is met with betrayal. Utena on her own accord slept with Akio, knowing he was spoken for. When Utena found out about the incest, she didn’t relinquish him for Anthy’s sake. She relinquished her identity as a prince instead. This is a double betrayal.

utena 31 akio kiss rose frames

At first I wasn’t sure how Akio could have acknowledged Utena as someone who has retained her nobility, but how the whole thing ended validates this. But first, during the final duel with Akio, Utena was surprisingly holding up well and perhaps even getting the upper hand (as symbolized by the illusion of the castle crumbling)… until Anthy literally stabbed her in the back.

I’m not sure why Anthy did this. Akio threw her at Utena, which halted Utena’s charge. Utena characteristically stood in front of Anthy as if to defend her. It seems that Anthy merely followed Akio’s wishes in a moment of weakness. But Utena asks her why, and she responds with

You remind me so much of Dios when I loved him, but you can never be my prince because you’re a girl.

Anthy, you just figured this out now? And you immediately regret it too. Then we get this: Akio declares her love for Anthy, sympathizing with her regret, acknowledging his responsibility for Anthy’s stabbing Utena in the back. Anthy returns this, and it’s quite horrifying and beautiful.

utena 38 anthy stabs utena in the back

Anthy: Knowing everything of the world, you chose this path.

Akio: And knowing everything of you, I love you.

Can I dismiss this as mere leniency between wrongdoers? I don’t think so. In the two statements we find acknowledgment, acceptance, and love, without contingency or condition. How can liars trust each other? How can betrayers trust each other? And without trust, how can there be love?

But see, trust is a condition that upholds relationship. It isn’t love per se. It is a condition for love. In the siblings we find forgiveness and acceptance, and the acceptance is inclusive of the risk of being a in a relationship with a liar and a murderer. It is horrifying because we are being shown this by ‘the bad guys’ who supposedly have no moral authority over us, especially to talk about love.

If things had ended here it would be interesting, but we are spared further anguish of this kind because Utena gets to show us the biggest love in the show. Run through by a sword through her guts, she sees Akio failing to open the Rose Gate, and Anthy pierced by the one million swords.

This is love too, right? To choose the role of the Rose Bride is to accept all the sword thrusts meant for the Prince. Anthy acknowledges how Utena showed her true friendship, even for a short while. But Anthy isn’t forsaking Utena because she intends to abandon her. Anthy has a mission of her own, albeit I am uncertain if at this point she is still hoping that Akio may find the Prince Dios within himsefl.

The Sword of Dios breaks against the Rose Gate. I am amazed at how calm Akio is, he easily accepts the failure of the attempt, perhaps certain that other chances will come his way. This is when Utena drags herself past him, just willing herself onto the Gate.

She has no Sword of Dios, no sword at all, and no hope. She tries to open the gate with her bare hands. In probably the most welcome bit of recycled animation ever, her tears fall and trigger the opening sequence of the first series of duels wherein the water of the Rose Fountain is the latch where the Rose Signet Ring serves as a key.

Utena opens the Rose Gate, supposedly granting herself the power that which shines, is eternal, and the ability to perform miracles. Dios told her that she can do anything with it, and you know what? She does, but not in the way we may expect her to.

utena 39 left hands of friendship

Utena doesn’t save the day. She doesn’t stop the corrupted Prince in the form of Akio, who plans to resume a new round of the Dueling Game. She rescues Anthy, but this isn’t what saves her. Instead the swords all fall unto Utena as the Rose Gate crumbles along with the illusory dueling grounds Akio created. What she does is by opening the Rose Gate is to show it as the miracle itself – that is to love in the face of betrayal.

Within the Rose Gate is a coffin, a fitting symbol for a dead past. To live in the past is a kind of death. This life, this world represents the universe wherein Akio operates, where he gets to be The End of the World. The million swords make their way to Utena.

But in the end, Anthy saves herself. She forsakes the role of the Rose Bride, and sets forth to find her one true friend, wherever she is.

utena 39 anthy search for a friend

Among the many possible distinctions Revolutionary Girl Utena possesses, I make this one:

Stories about love often tell how love is won, claimed, and earned. Revolutionary Girl Utena shows how love is an act of giving, and often enough, forgiving.

Further Reading

By no means do I think I’ve analyzed this show in a comprehensive way. I think it’s incredibly rich and would yield so much further discussion. I merely intended to participate in the appreciation of this incredible animated series.

An interesting Feminist reading of Revolutionary Girl Utena (adaywithoutme 02/25/2010)

Contextualizing how revolutionary is Utena exactly (animekritik 09/24/2009)

I mentioned playfulness in the title right? This is what I mean:

Variation in the design of repetition in Utena (otou-san 11/10/2009)

Structural repetition in Utena (John Martone 08/10/2009)

Animated repetition in Utena (adaywithoutme 07/11/2009)

The complete coverage of Revolutionary Girl Utena here on We Remember Love [->]

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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20 Responses to Not Quite A Revolution of Love and Friendship: The Beating Heart Underneath the Playfulness of Revolutionary Girl Utena

  1. 2DT says:

    I didn’t read most of this, since it’s spoiler-y as you say, but…

    “When does love get real? I’ll tell you when. Love gets real in the face of betrayal. Nothing tests love, whether in the context of romance, friendship, or both at once, than acts of betrayal. The acts themselves need not be singular events, but could be long and drawn out ruses, frauds, or inauthenticities.”

    This is surprisingly heavy. I’m going to chew on it a while, and I may bounce off of this in a couple of weeks in one of my own entries. Thanks, GL.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Alright, you need to fix the fact that this is spoiler-y for you! Someone ripped the entire re-mastered set and subbed it (although I’m fairly certain that they used the Central Park Media translation, something I’m not sure I can agree with entirely from a moral standpoint), so you can torrent it. And if you can’t torrent it because your computer is slow, or your connection is slow, or there are no seeds, I will burn the whole thing to DVD and mail it to you! I really mean it!

    • It’s heavy stuff indeed.

      I chose this angle too, because I’ve betrayed and have been betrayed, in my adolescence, between the best of friends, also in matters of love.

      Mine has a happy ending too (in many ways, but not completely) because I won my best friend back, after many years. I didn’t want to write this particular Diary of an Anime Lived post, because maybe it’s too painful. I think I did tell the story in the comment section of adaywithoutme’s post:

      http://gargarstegosaurus.wordpress.com/2010/02/28/diary-of-an-anime-lived-hell-and-the-maiden/#comment-2289

  2. redmaigo says:

    Utena, who is the prince without the y chromosome, eventually forsakes Anthy due to her own selfish pride, ego and agenda. Utena becomes someone who will deceive Anthy for anyone with a y chromosome and subconsciously fulfill her needs. Utena betrays Anthy in order to obey biological imperative’s in order to follow Akio who is the epitome of the scheming, dominating patriarchal alpha male.

    However, Anthy shares the blame in this. She knew giving herself to someone else who plays this game will eventually lead to betrayal and heartbreak — that is why she had a plan B.

    You must have a Plan B in everything. Life is not guaranteed and things do not fall in place like you wish them to be.

    Anthy, God bless her mercenary heart, understands this and plans accordingly. Being the toy/prize/plaything of a game she had nothing to do with would makes sense.

    • To be honest, I’m not sure I follow.

      Anthy set this plan to hedge her bets because she’s playing out a shitty deal? This much I get from what you’re saying. But Utena: selfish pride, ego, agenda? I don’t know about these things at all.

      Utena’s agendas are: be a prince, and save Anthy. If anything, her conflicts with Anthy are a result of her being compromised by the scheming men like Toga and Akio (and perhaps Mikage).

    • In the Rose Tale we are told Anthy is the Witch because “women who can’t be princesses have no choice but to become witches”, in other words, all women who are not wanted, desired, seen as good enough by men, are to be seen as dangerous, spiteful, malevolent creatures. All women who do not comfort to the role that patriarchal society would give to them as women, are to be rejected and punished, aren’t worth considering for anything else. A Witch is still seen as powerful, but in fairy tales she only ever uses it in jealous way against the younger princess; she never uses power in order to rule the land like the dark aspect of the Prince, only to deprive others of what they think is legitimately theirs – like the Princesses think the Prince is theirs. She has power, but only as a threat – so that the people are justified to punish her endlessly. Anthy being the Witch in SKU, is an expression of her being the ultimate scapegoat. She’s the Witch, she poisons wells and cast curses. Everything that goes bad is always her fault, and she’s always, endlessly being punished for it, slapped by almost everyone on Ohtori and suffering the pain of the Thousand Swords of Hatred. Anthy isn’t innocent, she does act in small and big acts of malice to get back at the people she doesn’t like. She targets Nanami, especially, who is so Princess-like and similar to Anthy in many ways; and she manipulates the Duelists in order to orchestrate the duels alongside Akio; but most of the hostility she receives goes well beyond and happens before any of her petty acts. For women, as well, if they sidestep outside of the role society give them, they are punished way beyond the harm their infractions may have caused. And when something wrong happens to them, society is quick to ask ‘what did you do to deserve it?’ instead of blaming the perpetrator.

      Good stuff there. The punishment is by impalement by a million swords, a million phalluses.

      It’s interesting how Akio keeps Toga in his counsel, even if in a limited way. The way he goes about it — if to compare how he seduces women, is rather that as if they were equals. The photo shoot motifs, they were interested in preserving themselves. They found each other beatiful — so much so they want to keep their own images. Women can be transient, passing beauties — they have so many. But their own likenesses (even Saionji’s!) must be kept.

      The homosexual plane is among equals — if there is hierarchy, it is due to the alpha(betical) structure among equals. The heterosexual plain is hierarchical due to a received dichotomy between sexes: man|woman.

      I think this idea can be further pursued, as it’s not very thorough yet. But I think what you wrote about Anthy above speaks into this particular thought. Perhaps there’s merit in juxtaposing the Utena x Anthy relationship with the Toga x Saionji one. Both are complex homosexual friendships that may speak to gender politics.

      • Etrangere says:

        Interesting point about the photo shoots. I don’t, however, think that Akio see Touga as an equal or that the show portray samesex relationships in general as more inherently equal than heterosexual ones. Most of the homosexual and homosocial relationships we see are just as problematic, Saionji to Touga is all about Saionji’s inferiority complex, Juri and Shiori feel it both for one another for different reasons. For Touga, Akio gives him the taste of equality because that’s the honey to trap Touga : Power. But Touga’s in the end just as much played with by Akio, like any other puppet, and Akio rubs it in very purposefully when he taunts Touga and seduces Utena all at the same time, in order to put Touga in the position of challenging Utena that last time.

        It’s not because Utena and Anthy are both women they can build this relationship, it’s because in the end they face each other honestly and forgive one another and are inspired by one another to do better for one another.

        So, no, I wouldn’t fetishize homosexual relationships as being more inherently equal than hetero ones – especially not a a bisexual woman ;) human relationships, whether it’s with a man or a woman is tough, and power is always somewhere in it, and you need to learn to deal with it in order for a relationship not to be dysfunctionnal, that’s all.

        Perhaps there’s merit in juxtaposing the Utena x Anthy relationship with the Toga x Saionji one. Both are complex homosexual friendships that may speak to gender politics.
        They are quite the contraxt, yes, and they certainly illuminate the complexity of gender roles, and how difficult and sexist even the male gender role can be on people. Do you know the American TV show Mad Men? It deals with gender roles in very interesting ways as well, including that part.

        • I know of the show but have not seen it. I’m more interested now. So perhaps there’s not much to the idea of a ‘Lysistrata’-like situation between the men and the rest of the female characters. I don’t feel equipped or inclined to pursue the subject further but I would certainly enjoy reading new material on it ^_^

  3. Adam says:

    “Love gets real in the face of betrayal.”

    I’m oddly reminded at this point of Sarah Kane’s play, “Cleansed”. It’s a story in which lovers are brutalised, tortured and forced to betray one another in every possible way; in a sense it’s asking what is the ultimate root of love, that which cannot be taken away, no matter what is done. I can’t help but think that someone more literate than myself could draw all manner of interesting parallels and contrasts between it and the story of Anthy and Utena; they lie and hurt and betray one another again and again, but in the end they each find a hope in the other that surpasses it all.

    “I love you now.
    I’m with you now.
    I’ll do my best, moment by moment, not to betray you.
    Now.
    That’s it. No more. Don’t make me lie to you.”

    • I’m afraid I haven’t heard of this play and the author, and it sounds like this work is particularly cruel and horrible.

      In the case of RGU I sense little of the “I’ll do my best, moment by moment, not to betray you” because Utena, being so young and naive has never betrayed anyone in her life. If anything, Anthy and Akio are her first regrets.

      • Adam says:

        Oh, I certainly wouldn’t expect that attitude from Utena herself, no. Even after all that happens, she’s still an idealist at heart. That, obviously, is both her downfall and her salvation.

        In their context, those lines are delivered by an older, more damaged character to his young, naive boyfriend who, much like Utena, believes that love will conquer everything. So whilst the parallel isn’t at all exact, I can certainly see Anthy, who after centuries of torment is forced to see exactly what she will do out of fear to one she loves, arriving at a similar realisation. (It’s interesting to speculate on Anthy’s exact motivation for stabbing Utena, too. Fear that she might fail and leave Anthy trapped, or fear that she might actually succeed. Why yes, I am an Anthy fan – for my money she’s far and away the most interesting character in the series.)

        Oddly enough, the play itself is actually hopeful (and very blackly comic, like much of her work), because it contends that there really is an irreducible core of love which can find a way to communicate and to forgive.

        • The possibility that there is an irreducible core of love is powerful and uplifting. Finding this in really dark and painful works, while perhaps being a more insidious guilty pleasure, is preferable to me than obviously optimistic works.

  4. adaywithoutme says:

    You know, as I was reading through this I kept thinking, “I should really put together a post linking to all the excellent Utena posts out there – an Utena fan would love that.” and then I saw at the end that you’ve already compiled all of your Utena posts under one link!

    Anyway, I think you would really enjoy some of these essays: http://ohtori.nu/analysis/03_analysis_essays.htm . There are quite a few very, very good analyses on different aspects of Revolutionary Girl Utena to be had there.

    Man, this reminds me that I really, realllly need to re-watch this.

    • Part of me wants to kill you. Part of me wishes I read these essays earlier.

      Part of me thanks you for keeping these to yourself until just now. The amount of the material (and the potential quality) may just intimidate and prevent me from putting this post out.

      Go rewatch. Your entry in the Diary of an Anime Lived was a big influence on me to go ahead and watch this. I think you can get more people to watch. But also, I think you have a lot more to say on Utena and I’ll be looking forward to it.

      • adaywithoutme says:

        I think I may actually re-visit the movie first. I actually watched that before the TV series, if I recall correctly. I finally actually bought a copy of it at Anime Boston last year, but have managed to not watch it yet!

        I am happy to hear that my post inspired you so much; I think SKU is a show that every serious fan should watch. And re-watch. And discuss with others. It is such a rich show.

        I absolutely do have more to say about SKU. I have a draft that’s lain dormant for a while on SKU, specifically its depictions of ‘evil’ vis-a-vis gender. Writing about SKU is such a huge time commitment, so I have to be very motivated before starting.

        Have you checked out the movie?

        • I will in a few days. digiboy and I will probably try to do something in tandem, and I want to get into character when I write the post with him (who though? Nanami? Miki? Juri? Kozue? The shadow player who always goes GOGAI! So much fun!). This show is indeed so rich and I was told that the movie is actually a bit crazy. I want to respond in kind.

  5. kadian1364 says:

    Yet again another profound take on Utena, yet more amazingly doesn’t even retread anything I’ve read about the series elsewhere. We could easily get 20 different bloggers watch this series and just as easily get 20 different and unique reactions and analyses. Utena’s just that kind of show.

    I won’t try to get into this right now since I could easily lose the rest of my precious weekend, so I’ll just like some other Utena blog posts not yet mentioned:

    gaguri’s particular eye for architecture:
    http://guriguriblog.wordpress.com/2009/02/02/revolutionary-architecture-of-utena-adolescence-apocalypse/

    OGT’s “rejourneyings” and his muses after watching Utena for the 3rd time (posts which finally got me over the hump to watch this show for myself):
    http://animegeijitsu.wordpress.com/2009/01/07/revolutionary-girl-utena-upon-this-black-rose-i-swear-i-will-make-sense-of-you/
    http://animegeijitsu.wordpress.com/2009/03/02/revolutionary-girl-utena-the-four-wheel-drive-of-the-apocalypse/

    • Thanks Kadian, but you should really pay attention to the Further Reading section of my posts because I’ve linked to these in the previous posts I’ve done. It’s not so amazing (about the retreading part) because,

      1. I already read the posts you linked to, prior to making my own; and
      2. RGU/SKU is really so damn rich.

      But tell you what, I appreciate that you’ve gone looking for these posts. I look up to gaguri — he does things that are beyond my competence — and is quite influential to me (you should read coburn’s work too). It’s due to readers like you who care enough to do these things that makes writing posts like these worth it.

      Oh btw, Etrangere’s post (she left a link above) is well worth reading.

  6. Pingback: (Utena IV) Power « Super Fanicom BS-X

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