Love Is Power: Revolutionary Girl Utena and Inner Apocalypse
To solve the mystery of the revolutionary girl I referenced last blog post, the next few posts are dedicated to Revolutionary Girl Utena. My new favorite show, the 1997 anime is full of symbolism, metaphor, thematic references, and oodles of other goodies that make for highly rewarding analysis. For now, my attention is drawn to how the repressive system of dueling is overthrown in Revolutionary Girl Utena.
The conceit of the show requires a little bit of explanation, so wikipedia will do nicely here:
Utena Tenjou is a tomboyish teenage girl who was so impressed by a kind prince in her childhood that she decided to become a prince herself (expressed in her manner of dress and personality). She attends Ohtori Academy, where she meets a student named Anthy Himemiya, a girl who is in an abusive relationship with another student. Utena fights to protect Anthy and is pulled into a series of sword duels with the members of the Student Council. Anthy is referred to as the “Rose Bride” (薔薇の花嫁 Bara no hanayome?) and is given to the winner of each duel. It is said that the winner of the of tournament will receive a mysterious “power to revolutionize the world”, and the current champion is constantly challenged for the right to possess the Rose Bride.*
That’s enough to get us going at least. Utena is a complex masterwork exploring that vital time of adolescence through high symbolism. Since the show has so much going on within it, I’ll be as curt as possible so this analysis doesn’t get bogged down. So here it goes:
The dueling system in the academy is simple: each Duelist is given a rose worn on their chest, and whichever duelist gets rid of the opponent’s rose is the winner.
The dueling system is ritualized with sets of practices. For instance, the second and third seasons have certain motifs present in each duel, the latter being cars for example. Every duel is also preceded by a minute-long transformation sequence showing Utena approach the dueling arena.
Aww yeah, that’s my jam.
Nearly every episode of Utena‘s 39 episode run has a duel. Now, consider the objects and their uses within these ritualized duels: swords and roses. In other words, phallic objects and yonic objects. Phallic objects destroying yonic objects.
Symbolically, duels are a repeated ritual of patriarchal oppression and violence towards women, a truth gradually unveiled as the show’s main antagonist, Akio Ootori, reveals himself as well.
Anthy’s older brother, Akio is the mastermind behind the dueling system. The fallen half of the prince Utena met in her childhood, Akio seeks to reclaim the power he once had as a noble prince, secretly training and finally taking the strength the Rose Bride’s betrothed, which was accumulated throughout the duels. He steals Utena’s heart/soul sword (a motif developed int he second season), which embodies her nobility and strength, and forcibly tries to reclaim the power by attacking the doorway to The End Of The World, where the power lay dormant.
Akio’s attempts are in vain, however, as the sword breaks. Akio remarks that this entire process has been repeated multiple times, but it has always failed so far. While this occurs, Anthy is in intense suffering, and Utena refuses to let it go any further, going to the door despite Akio’s dismissal of her efforts. Instead of forcibly breaking the door open, Utena instead uses all her strength to open it. What was once a door is now revealed to be a coffin, a motif used throughout the series to indicate, among other things, constricting social structures and inhibition of growth such as arrested development. Utena slowly opens the door, revealing Anthy inside, who is literally and metaphorically trapped in this perpetuating, abusive relationship.
What enables Utena to open the door to reveal such power is her absolute love for Anthy, an important prerequisite for any princely aspirations.
It’s Utena’s love and sacrifice for Anthy that breaks the cycle of violence, opening the door for Anthy to breaks the cycle and her own oppression. Anthy is not weak or stupid, and that Utena had to completely save a la damsel in distress. She merely opens the possibility, and offers it to her.
Utena opens Anthy to the freedom to walk away if she so chooses. And in the end, that’s what she does.
Utena’s actions also prompt character growth for all the other characters in the series. By the end of the last episode, we see glimpses of the Student Council members taking action to achieve their own goals instead of seeking some higher power to achieve it for them. Like Anthy, they have been liberated from self deception that they are powerless to change themselves or the system. The power laying dormant in The End Of The World -apocalyptic, shattering change – is revealed to dwell within all of us.
*To get a good grasp of the set up, it would probably be much easier to just watch the first episode, which is available on youtube legally, courtesy of Nozoimi Entertainment.
Shout out to http://empty-movement.tumblr.com/ and other bloggers for the images. Some of them might not be the prettiest, but they get the job done.