Utena: Nanami and Tsuwabuki

[Utena Content Note: Misogyny]

Utena Recap: Nanami is about to experience comeuppance for her bullying treatment of Anthy in the previous episodes.

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 8 and 6: "Curried High Trip" and "Take Care, Miss Nanami!"

Today I'm skipping to Episode #8 and then coming back to #6, because they were aired out of order and they make more sense in order.

Episode #8 opens with another recap of the Prince's meeting with Utena and I love so much how the whole series is slowly trolling us: the narration always asks "was that such a good idea?" when Utena wants to be a prince, and we in the audience supply a reflexive supportive "YES!!" Because, well, yes! Be a prince, Utena! Be whatever you want in your heart to be! We support you!

Except the question isn't whether she should be a boy (sure, if you want!) or a boyish girl (also great!) or devote her life to helping people or whatever other interpretation of the Prince we bring to the table. No, the question is whether she should step into and assume a traditional patriarchal role of power over others and... no. No, she should not. No one should be a Prince. Princes are not good, actually.

This whole series is like a cautionary tale about how feminism should go: it should be about offering help, not about replicating old oppressions. That's not a revolution, as the saying goes; that's just a change in management. Anyway, Episosde #8 ("Curried High Trip") is a filler episode about MAGIC and CURRY and ANTHY'S REVENGE on Nanami, and it's not one of my favorites so we're going to plow through it pretty quickly.

Utena and Anthy are in a cooking class and Nanami conspires to switch out their curry spice with a special super-hot painful spice that will hurt them. But Nanami's trio of gossip girls accidentally swap out the curry with "blow you to smithereens" spice and the building explodes. (I warned you this one was silly.) What's interesting here is that the council calls an emergency meeting because the Bride and her fiancee are injured, and this was unforseen by The End of the World. I'm not sure, but I think Nanami is the only supporting character who surprises Akio! Way to go, Nanami! Shake up the patriarchs!

On to the conceit of this episode. The curry, we come to find, has the power to swap bodies: Anthy is in Utena's body and vice versa. Everyone takes this shockingly in stride because this is Ohtori and no one is too bothered by blatant magic.


But! This switcheroo situation allows us to see how Utena reacts when she's placed into the role of witch / fallen princess that Anthy usually occupies! When the girls who usually bully Anthy now bully Utena-in-Anthy's-body, Utena returns their blows and offers to escalate; they flee instead. And... I wish we could've explored this more without giving the end twist away? Because I'll bet Anthy tried that escalation response long ago. The thing about girls defending themselves against the world is that... it only works for so long. Eventually the world strikes back with overpowering force.


Back to the body-swap, I do like that the overall student body is supportive of both girls. They like the new athletic Anthy and the new gentle feminine Utena, but one isn't valued over the other; Anthy doesn't suddenly become the darling at the expense of Utena's previous popularity. And I really appreciate that touch! The gender subjects that the series touches on are complicated and it would have been so easy for the series to veer in a direction of hating soft femmes and uplifting masculinity/masculine-androgyny, but it doesn't. Every kind of femininity is valued and made room for, and I love that so much.

Nanami has to travel to India to get more magical curry to switch Utena and Anthy back, because Touga tells her she can't come home until she does. Here is your reminder that Touga is beautiful and terrible, and his terribleness goes a long way towards explaining Nanami (who I love).

Saionji (always out of the loop) drags "Anthy" into a closet to "explore their love" but it turns out he wants her to write in their exchange diary. And this is... god, such a complicated scene for me to distill into a recap. Saionji is an interesting character and very much Your Mileage May Vary because he's essentially a sympathetic abuser. He's ridiculous and nerdy and foppish, but egged on by the patriarchy to wield power (physical and social) to get what he wants. I noted in a previous recap that Miki is the larval form of Akio; Saionji is somewhere in between them on the journey from nice guy to Nice Guy to Depraved Patriarch. He's something of a tragedy, as we'll see later in Wakaba's arc, a bit of "the patriarchy hurts men too".

Yet despite being hurt by the patriarchy, he's still participating in it as an abuser. Normally I would be wary of a character like Saionji because I don't like "sympathetic abusers" as characters, but here he seems to serve as a cautionary tale. Saionji sits between the innocent side of the moral scale (Utena and Miki) and the evil side (Touga and Akio) and illustrates that someone like Akio isn't an unfathomable monster. He's a person, and Miki or Utena could very easily grow into his role. We know that, because we see Saionji on that very journey. Saionji is a reminder that victims can become abusers, if they choose to follow the siren call of patriarchy.

Anyway, in the fashion of filler episodes, the body-swapping works itself out. Anthy and Utena are restored, while ChuChu and Saionji swap bodies. We get a cute shot of ChuChu practicing swordplay while Saionji stretches languorously on a tree branch and eats a banana in a surprisingly phallic shot. The end. There's almost a theme here, with exchange diaries and exchange bodies: how you can only know someone once you've seen their innermost self. Except I don't think the diaries or the bodies were explored enough to really bring that across, so it's more like an aborted moral (or me reading too much into the juxtaposition).

Next up: Episode #6 where we talk about stalking. (Mood whiplash!)

In "Take Care, Miss Nanami!", Nanami is being stalked and her life endangered yet no one takes her fears seriously. This is so usual in the real world that it hardly needs justifying, but it makes more sense after Episode #8 showed Nanami and Touga on the relationship rocks after her open defiance of him and his Student Council mission, coupled with her magical shenanigans. So of course this looks like more of the same.

Abandoned by everyone but Miki (who seems more interested in musing on his own sibling relationship than on her problems) and her gossip-girl toadies, Nanami decides Utena is the one trying to kill her. This is then amended to Touga and Anthy being in a pact to kill her, because surely someone must want to kill her! All these dangerous near-deaths can't be accidents! She's not wrong!

A RAMPAGING HORSE APPEARS! Nanami is nearly trampled, but a Prince saves her at the last moment. Another Prince! He's strong and tall and his voice is deep. He wraps her wounded hand and disappears into the night. Yet... yet when we meet the "prince" he's a little boy. He's small and short and young. He's several years behind her in school. She has to kneel to look him in the eye. Miki and Utena are at first shocked and then horrified. Only Nanami can't see how very very wrong her "Prince" is for her.

We cut to the Shadow Girl play which is interesting: they're camping and anticipating a meal cooked over the campfire. When the meal is ready, one girl points out that the food... is not that good? It's watery and burned and uncooked all at the same time. The other girl keeps eating, insisting that the fresh air is the best seasoning and makes the meal exquisite.

Froborr points out that the play is about self-deception and the way narratives shape our lives. Tsuwabuki isn't a Prince to idealize or someone Nanami should be enamored of. He's watery and burnt and uncooked. (More on his flaw later, but they aren't just "he's younger than her".) Yet she's cast herself into the role of a princess in need of saving--or, rather, she's been thrust into that role and she's passively accepting her place there--and Tsuwabuki is ready and available to play the role of the Prince.

In a way, this particular Shadow Girl play is a microcosm of the whole series, which is about people playing "roles" they think they want/need/must. The core argument of the series is that the only true freedom is throwing off those established and assigned roles to figure out what you actually really want. What Nanami wants is not what a Princess wants. Nanami would never want Tsuwabuki, but a Princess wants a Prince. He's the nearest and most available candidate, so she accepts him into her life.

Miki believes Nanami is using Tsuwabuki as a replacement brother now that Touga has abandoned her, which is possibly not far from the mark, but this too fits into the Prince framework: Nanami had a Prince in her big brother and now that he's gone she's willing to fill the void with the first vaguely Prince-shaped candidate to come along. We know that Nanami isn't hurting for affection, love, or companionship--several older and more suitable boys try to profess their love to her--but she thinks she needs a Prince, and since Touga refuses to fill that role and Tsuwabuki offers, she feels she has very little choice. Tsuwabuki is it.

We get a series of montages with Tsuwabuki waiting on Nanami as essentially a servant and I'm going to go ahead and spoil the rest of the episode to pause and talk here: Tsuwabuki signed up for all this via violent stalking. He has a fixation on Nanami and decided to repeatedly put her in danger in order to "save" her and gain her notice. This is really fucked up, and we're supposed to agree it's fucked up, because it's also the logical conclusion of the Prince narrative.

The Prince exists to save damsels in distress. But what happens when damsels aren't being distressed at a reliable pace? Tsuwabuki supplies that answer: You put them in distress in order to get them out. No harm is ultimately done, right? You save them, after all, and the play goes on. Nanami's reduction of Tsuwabuki to her servant is genuinely harmful, but this too is the role of the Prince: he exists to serve the Princess. All of this is part of the series-wide deconstruction of these roles: both the Prince and the Princess role hurt everyone in them and around them. They aren't good roles.

After Tsuwabuki gets into a fight "protecting" Nanami from the three older boys who want to possess her, Utena throws a shit-fit and this scene is so good, because Utena carries on in her usual innocent hypocrisy.She protests that it's not right for Nanami to just stand by and watch while Tsuwabuki fights for her! Um, Utena, you mean like Anthy does when you fight for her?

Nanami turns up her nose at Utena's objections: "Tsuwabuki is my boyfriend and I'm free to treat him as I choose." This is so, so wrong--but it's the flip philosophy of the Rose Bride. The Rose Bride repeatedly submits to abuse because she's the Bride and has no rights of her own. Now Tsuwabuki mirrors that role. Both roles are harmful. This is the series flashing big lights at you: it's a bad idea to be the Prince or the Princess. Not because femininity or masculinity are bad, but because the baggage we humans have attached to the concepts of Prince-ness and Princess-ness is harmful.

Tsuwabuki now reveals to Miki and Utena that he's been fixated on Nanami ever since a runaway bull nearly killed her and her brother Touga saved her. I here bring up the repeated starting story arc of Utena's beginning: Tsuwabuki witnessed a prince saving a girl and, so taken was he with the Prince, he decided to become a Prince himself.

"But was that really such a good idea?"

The problem is, once Tsuwabuki became a Prince and located his ideal Princess, she wasn't in distress. She was happy and confident and had a full life. What could he do? Well... clearly he just needed to help the narrative along a little. Add some distress, and presto. He would save her and she would be his. The narrative would be fulfilled exactly the way it was supposed to go.

COINCIDENTALLY AND OUT OF NOWHERE, a kangaroo in boxing gloves breaks loose and attacks the group. Miki and Utena are helpless, but Tsuwabuki is determined to protect Nanami and become her big brother and a Prince. When all seems lost and Tsuwabuki about to be flattened... Nanami saves him in the most Nanami way ever: by carrying him to safety while belittling him. "I won't cry for you if you die doing this!"

Note the yellow roses and their yellow hair. Per Froborr's excellent analysis, yellow is the color of innocence, youth, and the Princess. Both Nanami and Tsuwabuki are thrust into the role of the Princess Bride throughout this episode, and both struggle to break free.

Nanami is hardly the fastest runner in the world while carrying her underage boyfriend, but (miracle of miracles!) Touga just happens to be there with boxing gloves and he defeats the kangaroo. And isn't it odd that, in an episode about Princes endangering girls in order to save them into Princesshood, a kangaroo just happened along? My theory, for what it's worth, is that Touga decided to one-up Tsuwabuki and win Nanami back. He didn't want her until she replaced him--and then he wanted her very much, to prove to himself that he could have her.

That's Episode #6 and #8. Next time we'll do #7, which is a Juri episode!


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