Victory and Authenticity in the Student Council Saga of Revolutionary Girl Utena

Dual guns and nary a sword. This is indicative of the inauthenticity of the duels in relation to the revolution.

The Student Council Saga, if not the whole show, is organized in a sequence of duels. In the arc, the prize is always the Rose Bride, which means the Sword of Dios — supposedly, the sword that grants the power to revolutionize the world. Is this even true? In the second duel (Choice|Saionji II) Saionji says that the sword possesses no power in itself, but is only potent in the hands of a great swordsman. What does ‘great’ even mean?

Utena has a measure of skill, but is not even equal to the likes of Juri and Toga. Does this mean greatness has a threshold? Saionji was the possessor at the beginning of the arc, so there is some merit to this thinking. This somewhat eliminates a moral greatness, or strength of character as a qualifier, since Saionji arguably has neither, but Utena has aplenty.

The sword, Anthy — who chooses only the one who wins the duels values victory over authenticity. By authenticity I mean consistency in expressed goals and behavior towards accomplishing whatever revolution it’s a supposed tool for. An even more problematic example is Toga himself, who demonstrated the power of the Sword of Dios in the seventh duel (Self|Toga II); and it’s difficult to describe him as a person of moral greatness or authenticity.

Why? The motives of each duelist are very different. Instead of revolution, we have the following: (those reading this post on a feed reader may not be able to view the slideshow)

I have no problem agreeing with the idea that symbolism (especially related with the themes and motifs) are (profuse and) superficial. The superficialness doesn’t detract from the effect I believe. But what effect? For me I feel an effect of immersion in a game of ideas. The ideas themselves aren’t the value, but rather how they’re played with to involve me as a viewer in a game of guessing and second guessing.

This is why I appreciate the ‘dueling’ of ideas, in the sense that there are multiplicities and contradictions. The contradictions are part of the experience. In the end we end up making up our own meanings, however we wish — and it’d be valid all the same. Does this reduce the work into utter meaninglessness? Perhaps, but it does something just as valuable: it’s immensely entertaining precisely due to the play of ideas, motifs, symbols and what not. Ist’s fanservice for symbolismfags, if you will.

Friendship : Enmity

Episode 01: The Rose Bride

Utena fights to ‘free’ Anthy, perhaps in the spirit of making friends with her. But the actuality is that she doesn’t free her. Anthy only transfers her supposedly unwanted yoke in the hands of Utena. The traditional binary of friendship vs. enmity is contradicted by a relationship of friendship and servitude.

The Rose Bride is a servant of the reigning champion. She is less bridal in the sense of being a love partner, more like a prized possession — especially since she is also the Sword of Dios. Her manner of relating to the champion is singularly that of a servant. This undermines any kind of friendship Utena may offer.

Choice : No Choice

Episode 02: For Whom the Rose Smiles

Saionji challenges Utena anew, and by the rules of the duels, she must accept. Utena tells Anthy at some point that she doesn’t want to fight, that these duels are meaningless, but she has NO CHOICE but to fight. She does have a choice. She is perfectly free to forfeit — if not that, to purposely lose.

However, this conflicts with her own purpose of eradicating the very being of the Rose Bride. To Utena, the Rose Bride is an abomination, and Anthy should be an ‘ordinary girl.’ This desire, in Utena’s logic, takes away the choice to lose. A desire or goal cannot take away a choice. These are bot concepts in the mind. Only the chooser makes the choice, and bears responsibility for it.

For Utena to say she has no choice, is an act of bad faith. This is the very difference between Rossiu and Simon in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Rossiu is eminently rational, but his decisions are made for him by the reasonableness of the items in the selection. He is not the agent of choice. Simon, on the other hand, is unreasonable (Kamina is unFUCKINGreasonable). He kicks reason to the curb. His choices by contrast, would appear almost random and arbitrary, if consistent with the good of all (albeit against bad risks/terrible odds). If Rossiu’s actions were to be explained by a lack of choices, that explanation would be an example of bad faith.

Reason : Arbitrariness

Episode 05: The Sunlit Garden — Finale

The Sword of Dios is the power to bring the world revolution. Dios — from Deus (Latin: God); in many Filipino languages, Diyos — the common word for God (mostly used by Christians/Roman Catholics). The fight to wield the Sword of Dios is dueling for the ability to wield the power of God.

The contradiction here, is how Miki doesn not have that as a primary goal. More than the ability to bring the world to revolution, more than the project of Godhood, is a desire to return to innocence — to childhood. In this case, characterized by idyllic piano duets with his sister in a sunlit garden.

Due to tragic circumstances, his sister refuses to play music again, and is estranged with Miki. Miki wants to possess Anthy, who can play a similar kind of music on the piano. The contradiction again: a wish to return to innocence by means of violence and conflict through swordplay; and by this action, the almost rejection of (or perhaps indifference to) Godhood.

Love : Indifference

Episode 07: Unfulfilled Juri

Juri wants to disprove the existence of miracles…  but her defeat (not) at the hands of Utena is miraculous. But before that, she dislikes Utena and her fantasy for the Prince that gave her the ring. To Juri, to fight for the Rose Bride is to fight for world revolution, and the sentimentality of love is false. Juri reacting so violently to this makes the contradiction obvious: her intending to prove false what she thinks is false made that very thing true for her while she fights it.

True Love, that’s a contradiction for the ages. It’s interesting however, that Juri’s ‘false’ behavior is an indifference to most things, an of not caring too much about anything. Indifference is a stronger opposite to both love and hate, but it’s her indifference that is a sham. Juri cares very much about love, and miracles, to hate them so much.

Adoratrion — Adore : Be Adored

Episode 10: Nanami’s Precious One

Earlier on, Nanami (ab)used Tsuwabuki Mitsuru in her manipulations to get more of her brother Toga’s attentions. This exemplifies the duel in the theme. On the one hand Nanami is all about adoring Kiryuu and to be sure, there is much of that in her. But in actuality she does less adoring Kiryuu, than seeking adoration from him.

Nanami slaps Utena in extreme vexation, blaming her for Toga’s injuries in the illegal duel with Saionji. It’s a display of devotion, if anything — an extreme offshoot of adoration. But as I said, more than adoring she wants to be adored by Kiryuu; which is why she killed his cat — a gift she gave him that she soured at almost immediately when she found Kiryuu liking the thing too much.

On the other hand we find Toga who does indeed adore Nanami, but as a pawn in his game to duel Utena and obtain the Sword of Dios to bring revolution to the world.

Conviction : Convicted

Episode 11: Graceful and Ruthless, the One Who Picks the Flower
The contradiction lies in Utena’s imposition of her own belief system upon Anthy — who never asked for it in the first place. She doesn’t reject them, but her compliance is quite consistent with the compliance of the Rose Bride to the current champion.
I have to protect Anthy I know I can turn Himemiya into a regular girl. I won’t giver her to others, not even my prince!
The contradiction is that the overt conviction is to set Anthy free, but the consequence of that is complete possession. That is, one only gives away something someone possesses or contains. Utena is just another cage.
As a contrast, Toga is pure and completely consistent with being a liar and breaking the world’s shell forgoing moral scruples. His conviction is truer than Utena’s — another contradiction. The title obviously hints at Toga, who indeed picks the flower in this episode, the only duelist so far to beat Utena. Grace and ruthlessness is apparently a pair of dueling ideas, but consider that Toga’s complete acceptance of his own ruthlessness allows him to move with conviction and grace.
By this I mean there is no crippling self-doubt and second-guessing. Toga is graceful and smooth.

Self : Other

Episode 12: “Perhaps for Friendship’s Sake”
Utena lies about liking her regular uniform “it’s normal,” she says. She tells herself that she “has to be normal.” She denies herself, basically. What self means in this context is her identity, signified by several things:
  • Her representing herself as a “prince” — by this she means someone who can protect a princess. Since she failed to protect Anthy, she felt unable to claim this identity any longer.
  • Her representing herself by male-type costume: this fulfills the above mentioned intent, and is very important given how she stands out and is admired precisely because of her appearance.
Just ignoring me isn’t normal…”Nothing normal is normal for you
–Wakaba

I find it interesting that normalcy is posited as ‘anything besides how Utena has presented herself so far.’ It denies the possibility that Wakaba herself is deviant, unless her homoerotic worship of Utena is being passed off as normal. This is present in many of the female students; there is clearly a healthy same-sex admiration that can be read as homoeroticsm of some form.

Utena’s victory — she wins not only the Rose Bride and the Sword of Dios, but her authentic self. At least, she wins back the feeling of being able to claim her identity. What’s interesting here is that in the manner of her victory, where the actual prince of her imagination/dreams/memories intervened and ‘possessed’ her physically to beat Toga.

What then is her authentic self? Who really won and what is the prize? Authenticity becomes very muddled in this instance, and quite appropriately the theme is that of the self. Truthfully, I can’t say I can explicate it satisfactorily. Perhaps the next arc is there to build on this theme. What is fairly obvious is the seeming paradox (two incompatible, dueling ideas): Utena wins her self back by fighting for another (Anthy, for friendship).

Further Reading

The Student Council being a ‘shameful sham’ is consistent with the idea of dueling themes; that Utena is rife with entertaining contradictions. In any case, this post is a good read (animekritik 2009/10/26)

My post can be considered a interpretation-based partner of the fine work done here to showcase the repetition and variation in the student council arc (otou-san 2009/11/10)

I feel I’ve grown a bit after my first impressions of Utena, and it’s an awesome feeling [->]

One Year Ago…

We remembered Itazura na Kiss… doing an Epic Win style dialogue between me and mai waifu. [->]

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.
This entry was posted in analysis, Revolutionary Girl Utena and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Victory and Authenticity in the Student Council Saga of Revolutionary Girl Utena

  1. adaywithoutme says:

    I always enjoy reading posts on Utena, since I think it is one of those shows you can keep dissecting and dissecting and still find something new each time. I don’t really have anything to add to this, but I wished to make note of the fact that I’d read it and enjoyed it nevertheless.

    • Glad you enjoyed it! It was fun to write, with otou-san being a big help discussing my preliminary ideas on the analyses. I’m remiss in not acknowledging his contributions!

  2. animekritik says:

    Great read. Toward the end, you ask about Utena’s self. I think there is an interesting possibility that her Self is Blank. Or to put it another way, maybe this is a story about Zen. You commented on Wakaba’s musings on Utena’s abnormality. Later on in the Black Rose arc (and this isn’t really a spoiler coz it’s just a very general comment) Wakaba gets angry at how Utena seems to be oblivious to lots of things. She is who she is by just being, there seems to be an utter lack of self-reflection on her part etc.

    Winning her Self by fighting for another is a lovely paradox…and it just begs the question: what IS UP with Anthy? (but please, no one spoil that for me!! I’m still in ep 22-23).

    • I had thought a lot about this comment… (I couldn’t respond in a timely fashion because my wife gave birth to our daughter last January 3rd ^_^)

      I have problems thinking of Utena as unreflective ==> blank self. Her moping and depression are active decisions. She drew conclusions which included a failure to live up to an identity.

      What’s interesting is how the Prince selectively ‘possesses’ her anyway. Doesn’t this undermine Utena somehow? She wants to be ‘a’ prince, not the exact same person she met once. She doesn’t accomplish things through her own power… which is different from wielding the Sword of Dios, which needed to be won first.

      So Utena goes through victory living a lie, for lack of a better term. Fighting for another you find yourself… she didn’t really! She just thought she did! But what difference does this make in the conversation of self as identity? I don’t know really!

  3. Kashira kashira! Gozonji kashira! 😀

    I love Utena. It is still my favorite anime of all time despite the advent of new greatness like Gurren Lagann. When I proposed to my wife I gave her a Duelist’s Ring. For realsies.

  4. Etrangere says:

    yay Utena post!

    The contradiction here, is how Miki doesn not have that as a primary goal. More than the ability to bring the world to revolution, more than the project of Godhood, is a desire to return to innocence — to childhood.
    In a way that is the case for every single Duellists (Utena included). Which is a contradiction, of course!

    • Yes! What’s such fun here is how these thematic contradictions, instead of coming off as ‘theme’ holes (sort of like plot holes) come to us as ideas to play with, to entertain us while confounding us. I do like it, I really do!

  5. donkangoljones says:

    As someone who’s seen this series to completion, I have to say I’m impressed. You really did your homework on it so far. You point out how multi-layered and hypocritical some of the themes of the show are. Too bad this post is way too complicated for me to take in during the meager amount of time I’m allowed to soak it in. I’ll have to come back to this one after I’ve refreshed my mind in reference to the material.

  6. Crusader says:

    While agree that there is always a choice, losing just seems to be a decidedly unattractive one…and one I wouldn’t choose losing so long as the there is still a reasonable fighting chance.

    Toga may move with conviction and grace, but ultimately is a nothing more than a unthinking zealot like Anavel Gato. Such single mindedness however admirable it may be will only get one so far until one hits an immovable object since the thought of going around might not even cross his mind. There are always other ways to get what you want, and Toga found out that there were limits to his swordsmanship, though perhaps since the tosser spent more time flirting with the ladies and jawing his nonsense instead of perfecting his skills he deserved to lose.

    Personally I think that it is the decisions you make the count the most in defining who and what you are.

    • Agreed. Losing is almost never an attractive choice — I think we’re biologically engineered to loathe and fear loss or losing that we actually avoid conflicts just to avoid losing. Utena would have actually preferred never to duel, it that option was available without adverse consequence.

      I can’t really comment on what or who Toga ‘ultimately’ is, as he’s been noticably absent in most of the Black Rose Society arc where I’m in now.

      Defining self as a result of decisions seem to be the job of an external observer and judge. To define is to declare parameters, where one’s self ‘ends.’ Similarly, decision is from the latin. Decide… to cut off; see incise, or even better, homicide, deicide, infanticide, genocide…

      To decide is to cut off other possibilities of choices. One can certainly ‘choose’ an intention of being, but the definition of what or who someone is, is largely in the hands of others — the observers and judges.

      All very interesting to me, because I’m not certain where self-empowerment ends and vanity/narcissism begins.

  7. Pingback: Lies, Murderous Intent, Remembering Love Gone Wrong, WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS Black Rose Society Arc of Revolutionary Girl Utena « We Remember Love

  8. Pingback: Notes on Star Driver « Oi Shibi! Anime Blog

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