Utena: Bottom of the Ocean

[Utena Content Note: Domestic Violence]

Utena Recap: Utena won her first duel against Saionji and gained reluctant ownership over Anthy, the Rose Bride.

Links: Froborr's excellent posts and color symbolism guide are here. My live-tweets for each watch are here. I'm watching the subtitled episodes contained in the blu-ray collection here. There is an HD remaster coming out in December that is available for pre-order here. If you wanted to watch before you buy, you could find this episode on YouTube here.

Revolutionary Girl Utena, Episode 2: For Whom The Rose Smiles

Froborr has compiled his color symbolism in a post here and I 100% recommend it because it's like a color key to character motivation in the best possible way. I can't gush enough about how this made the series "click" for me because I'm a very Color-Coded For Your Convenience demigirl.

Episode 2 starts by showing us more about how Utena is the darling of her grade level and all the girls are in love with her. I enjoy this because--at least to American viewers like myself--it's a wonderful normalization of queer attraction. (Note: I'm aware that female desire has different cultural connotations in Japan and that "girl love" is a somewhat socially-accepted "phase" of childhood that women are expected to grow out of, and that this cultural attitude can be problematic for lesbian and bisexual women. I'm also aware that I'm not qualified to comment on any of that, so I'm speaking strictly from my own reactions here. Adjust statements like "normalization of queer attraction" appropriately to that lens.)

I additionally love that all the girls adore Utena because it's a way of avoiding the common "mean girl" trap of femmes supposedly hating girls who do not conform to femininity. This is important to establish, because in a few episodes we will see a feminine girl hating on Utena and Anthy. So I appreciate the clarity upfront that makes certain we understand that the hatred to come isn't because Utena is unfeminine, nor is it something normalized that unfeminine girls should expect to face.

We cut to class where we see friend Wakaba rebounding in a healthy manner after being humiliated by Saionji and I love her so much. I didn't love her my first watch-through because she can be a little childish and silly at times, but it's easier now to see how much a lot of that is a defense mechanism she maintains in order to thrive and survive. Her friendship with Utena is sweet and good and I love that we have girl friends who are not seriously girlfriends in the way Utena/Anthy and Juri/Shiori will be. (For all Wakaba's protestations of "love", it's clear that she and Utena are just friends.)

Smash cut to the mysterious student council where Touga, Miki, and Juri are playing cards. (I love how everything in this school has the rose brand on it. The Joker cards are rose-branded.) Touga reminds us that, like tiny chicks in an egg, "If we don't crack the world's shell, we will die without being born." If we don't push our way out of the cage of social expectations and externally-imposed roles we stagnate and die without ever having truly lived as ourselves. Juri meanwhile is pissed that a new duelist just waltzed onto the scene without any more information than they have. Miki is preoccupied with his stopwatch and I do love the theory (which Froborr made me aware of!) that he's noticed that time moves wrongly at Ohtori Academy and he's trying to "catch" it.

Utena is assigned to a new dorm by the student council (dun dun dun!) and she finds Anthy in her room cleaning and penciled in under her name plate to be Utena's roommate. Anthy doesn't even try to pretend it's a coincidence they're rooming together: she's the Rose Bride engaged to the top duelist. I think this is where the show can be hard for first-time viewers, because it's weird that Utena doesn't quiz her more on this. Sure, Utena asks a few questions but she passively accepts a lot of weirdness that I think most viewers would want to press on. Instead, we get a narrative that contains a lot of regular acceptance of the incomprehensible as a thing they have to deal with. This works really well as a metaphor for things like "self-discovery" and "growing up" but it can be baffling the first time around.

Next we get to meet Chu-Chu (which I wrongly identified as a mouse in my tweets; he is instead the world's tiniest monkey) who may or may not be the embodiment of Anthy's emotions or possibly her familiar. Anthy explains to Utena that she is part of the game now and will be challenged to duels. Utena is all about the heroic Refusal of the Call and is like "fuck no I won't" and I like that this fits her character? She's wants to be the Prince in order to save people, but she's not into fighting for bragging rights or for the rush of winning. She's got better things to do (like saving people!) than this ridiculous sword fighting game she doesn't understand.

We smash-cut to Saionji, our local domestic abuser, who is having sads at his friend Touga over the loss of his girlfriend Anthy. And I actually do sympathize with Saionji because this show is very good at making at making clear how broken all the folks are. Saionji is a terrible person, but he's a terrible person who is flailing in the general direction of trying to do better. He's just really really bad at it.

Speaking of: Chu-Chu runs to get Utena! There is a problem! Saionji is outside with Anthy and he is berating her before escalating to backhanding her again. Utena is told that if she doesn't accept Saionji's duel challenge, she'll be expelled from the school. Bu she hits upon a clever solution! She'll just lose on purpose and then she won't be the top duelist and no one will challenge her. And this is such a good example of Utena's cruel innocence that Froborr talks about, because she hasn't put together what losing will mean for Anthy: if Utena loses, Anthy will have to go back to her abuser.

The Shadow Girls appear to warn the brave hero that "losing may be harder than you think". This is, of course, foreshadowing that Utena will come to understand the consequences of her plan. As much as she wants to be out of this game, she cares more about protecting Anthy from abuse.

[Spoilers] Once again, Utena approaches a yonic rose gate and gets it wet to open it and I told you all the subtext was intentional and I meant it. Anthy digs a sword out of her chest and I have a lot of feelings about the sword coming out of Anthy's breast when we know she's eternally pierced with swords. It'd be very easy to metaphor the heart swords as past trauma, now called forth to master in battle, and I'd be tempted to suggest that Akio--the Devil in our drama--might be the one person who can't summon forth a heart-sword. He's hated plenty, don't get me wrong, but he's never been truly wounded.

Anyway, Utena pulls a sword out of her girlfriend's breasts and that's normal everything is normal here. We get our second duel song--Zettai Shinka Kakumei Zenya--and I confess I don't understand it as well as yesterday's. It's about geological eras and evolution and erosion and fossils, which makes me think it's about Utena's evolving understanding of the situation with a side-order of the stagnation of Ohtori Academy? We know the rose duels have been going on for a long time and Utena is taking on a scientist's role to sift through the past to find answers.

She'd intended to throw the duel, but finds herself instinctively protecting the rose on her chest--the Rose Bride--before her own safety; Saionji notes that she's willing to risk her life just to protect the rose she's wearing. (Flash back to the Shadow Girls: "losing may be harder than you think.") The song turns to the sea, its history and depths, and being oneself at the very bottom--just as the spirit of the Prince descends to Utena and here I want to quote this:

Like the whale
Like the dolphin
Like the seal
I'll go to the bottom of the ocean, the marine me.
At the bottom of the ocean lies a grand history.
The bottom of the ocean, where I will be myself.

With the spirit of the Prince, Utena wins the duel so decisively she breaks Saioji's sword. But why? In my first watch of this I didn't realize we were subverting the Prince narrative, so of course I thought that the power of Love gave her the strength to win: that Utena defeated Saionji because her desire to save Anthy was strong enough. But when we get to the end of the series, we realize how toxic the Prince ideal is and that the breaking of the shell involves breaking out of narratives and finding the strength to be our true selves. And we look back at those song lyrics, which aren't about true love or protection; they're about descending to find oneself and then becoming that self.

Revolutionary Girl Utena is a deconstruction of the Prince. We start out saying YES to the repeated opening question "was that really such a good idea?" and end up saying NO. And it's such a clever subversion because it's so instinctive to cheer Utena on at the beginning. Yes, be a Prince! It's only over time that we realize there are more options than taking on a role to play.

Anyway, Utena wins the duel but tells Anthy she did it for Chu-Chu because Saionji would tease him and it's very sweet. That's all of that episode! Tune in next time for naked ballroom dancing.

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