Utena: The Choice To Break Away

[Utena Content Note: Abuse, Sexual Assault, Stalking, Rape, Incest]

Links: Froborr's excellent posts and color symbolism guide are here. I'm watching the subtitled episodes contained in the blu-ray collection here.

Revolutionary Girl Utena, Episode 32: "The Romance of the Dancing Girls"

Before we start this episode, I want to gush about two things from the last one. One, I really appreciate that Miki was genuinely worried about Nanami when she asked to stay the night at his place and wasn't interested in taking advantage over her like Akio, Touga, and possibly Tsuwabuki. Miki recognized Nanami's request was highly unusual for her, realized that something was wrong, and was actively worried for her, like a good friend and genuinely nice guy. Considering that Miki has struggled in the past with Nice Guy toxic tendencies, this is delightful to me because it shows that people at Ohtori can improve and do better. I'm so proud of Miki.

Two, I love how Nanami is an actual character in this series. It would be so easy to make her the stereotypical "rich bitch", queen bee, socialite with the ho-ho-ho noblewoman's laugh and stop right there. Indeed, it's easy to think that's all she is the first time you go through the series because we've seen that trope so many times before. But it's here in season three that her arc really ramps up and I appreciate that she is the first one to see Akio and Anthy as they really are, laid bare before her. Our last shot of Nanami was of her fleeing in the elevator, still in her nightgown (so scandalous! so inappropriate for Nanami, who always looks her best!), just trying to get as far away as fast as she can. She's seen what Utena won't see for a long time yet to come and I love that Nanami is the narrative vehicle chosen to explore this.

So here we go!

We open with Nanami back in the bedroom she was sharing with Utena; it's morning and she stares out over Ohtori while listening to more of Touga's messages from smitten girls. Anthy and Akio are acting like everything is normal while they serve breakfast and I respect how much Nanami isn't flustered; she's just death-staring everyone down. We stan a legend, etc. When Anthy startles her at the table, Nanami swats her away and stalks off, screaming at Utena when she tries to stop her.

Finding solace in the music room with Miki, Nanami doesn't know how to talk about what she's seen except to say she hates it in the chairman's residence. She asks if Miki wants to trade so he can live with Anthy and Nanami can live in his house and he stammers that he'd never consider such a thing. Nanami withdraws the offer, worried that Miki would be hurt by Anthy and Akio.

Stressing that she has nowhere left to go, Nanami seeks out Touga at the rose garden. He's meeting a girl and Nanami hides herself, while Touga reassures the girl that there's no one else present. (I do feel like it's odd that these scenes keep happening in the rose garden; that's Anthy's space, not Touga's. It feels symbolic, but of what I'm not sure.) The girl says his sister would kill him if she saw them together and he says he "has no sister" because they're "not related by blood". Knowing she's listening, Touga says his perfect big brother persona was "just an act" that his father ordered him to do. Touga mocks and belittles her, saying he'd never associate with a "common, boring girl like her" otherwise. [Kissmate: "How much of this is planned versus just fucking with her?" Me: "Oh, I firmly believe he's manipulating her on purpose in order to get her back." Kissmate: "...he's NEGGING HER?? I guess her knows her better than me, but DUDE."] The girl dances away, laughing that Nanami is finally getting what she deserves, and Nanami realizes it's her friend Keiko.

Nanami enters the rose garden to strike Keiko down and plead with Touga to go out with a better class of girl than Keiko. Touga asks whether Nanami is the better choice, which she denies in a stammer. Keiko cuts in to slap Nanami to the ground and it's noteworthy that the Prince in this scene is doing nothing to intervene on behalf of either of these girls. Touga leaves with Keiko, refusing to answer when Nanami asks if he meant what he said about pretending to be nice to her. His phone rings in her pocket and she muses that she's become no different from the other girls who swarm around him.

At the tower, Akio grips Kanae's chin while Anthy feeds her a slice of apple. (I think it's Anthy, anyway. Either that or Akio now has three hands, one of which is more feminine than the others.) She looks almost drugged, or strangely subdued. The apple nearby is stabbed all over with eleven forks. I've never understood this scene. I think we can say that Kanae has stopped being an independent entity at this stage; whatever Akio and her mother agreed upon during their Private Time seems to have had the effect Akio wanted on his fiancee. She's become compliant, or has given up, and he and Anthy have her in the palm of their hands, feeding her whatever story they want?

I mention to Kissmate that, spoiler, this is the last time we see Kanae. Kissmate asks if they're killing her in this scene, if maybe the apple is poisoned. Kanae did mention during the Black Rose saga that her father was ill and she blamed Anthy. But I don't have an answer for why Akio would kill her, since (in theory) he'd be out of his chairman job unless there have been new arrangement made to make him the heir some other way. Perhaps this is a metaphorical death? Kanae marries him and just accepts her role in life as an unloved wife, no longer dropping in to see him and messing with his plans? Kissmate notes that if Akio is Lucifer, well, so too was the snake in the garden of Eden--though that was temptation and not... whatever this is.

My best theory is that a combination of her father's illness or death, her mother's sleeping with Akio (which Kanae may well have found out about if her mother was indiscreet), and Akio's persistent manipulations have caused Kanae to give up on life. Whether or not that means she's actually dead, I suppose we'll never know. Poor Kanae. As for the forks, the number eleven makes me think of "the eleventh hour" when it's usually too late, too close to the end, to turn things around.

[Coming back to this later, we notice the red apples in Nanami's duel flashback and how they were a metaphor for the "self" she couldn't reach without Touga's affection and attention. If the red apple is "self", then Anthy and Akio are carving up Kanae's self and feeding it to her, while stabbing her in the back repeatedly with forks. Kissmate notes the curious idiom of "forked tongues" for lying serpents (Lucifer) and how Akio and Anthy have been lying to Kanae.]

Utena wonders when Kanae will return because it's almost dinner. Anthy offers to make shaved ice. Uncharacteristically, she stops Utena from interrupting Akio and Kanae in the other room. Nanami listens to Anthy play the good sister act for Utena and thinks to herself how scary Anthy is. I think this is an important contrast: even as Nanami is wondering whether Touga conceivably could have been playing a perfect part for years, here is Anthy--a person she doesn't respect in the slightest--playing that perfect part for Utena with ease. She has to be thinking that if Anthy can do it, Touga could too.

Nanami sleeps with Utena again, complaining as usual. When Utena points out that Nanami took Anthy's bed, she says Anthy is probably glad she did since she can sleep with Akio now. Utena agrees, saying they're such close siblings. Utena compares Anthy and Akio to Touga and Nanami, and Nanami stares at her rose crest ring that Touga gave her. A girl calls saying she's lonely and wants to hear Touga's voice--Nanami's exact thoughts, how convenient. When she asks in a deadpan who this is, Akio answers "The End of the World" and tells her Touga is waiting. Kissmate notes that the girl sounded like one of the Shadow Girls.

Entering her old home, Nanami finds Touga sitting in his purple throne before massive windows. She asks him what the End of the World is. She says she still loves him, no matter how he feels towards her, but that they can never go back to the way things used to be after how he's acted. [Kissmate: "The lamp is purple, but with a yellow halo. She still admires him but the new hatred between them keeps the admiration at bay."] She says she requested a transfer to another school and intends never to see him again. I'm so proud of her for getting away from her abuser. Touga interrupts her to hold up the transfer request. [Kissmate: "The Chairman set her up. They're not going to let her get away that easy."]

Touga asks if she can hear it, and we're in for another car scene. She has to go with them, they have her transfer request; they could not have made it more clear that she has no autonomy here. From the backseat, Nanami asks who Akio is and shuts Touga down when he says Akio is the chairman. "This man isn't normal," she doggedly points out, and I'm certain she's the first duelist to get this on her own; I'm so proud of her. She's too disgusted to reveal what she saw between him and Anthy, and Akio laughs. He says she's trapped in an endless rut, but that he can show her the way out.

Punctuating Akio's remarks, Touga covers Nanami's body with his own. She orders him to stop and shoves him off, clutching at the door and turning away from him. Touga insists that she's always wanted this, and that they aren't "really brother and sister". Nanami tells him this isn't what she wants. Touga asks her what she does want and Nanami looks shocked, like she's never considered the question before. Akio announces he reveals the End of the World before doing his car hop.

Outside of the obvious sexual assault in this scene, how is Nanami experiencing adulthood? Or, a better question, how is she experiencing adulthood in a positive manner, since these are supposed to be temptation scenes? My thought is Touga's question awakens in Nanami the realization that she can be proactive rather than reactive. Everything we've seen of her up until now has been of a reactionary person: she has modeled her life around Touga's wants and needs. Even the things that seem to be "hers", like her social standing and friend groups, are ultimately about "protecting" Touga from "predatory" girls, and about securing his attention for Nanami so that he doesn't "drift away". During this arc she has again been reactive: running away from Touga when his affections waned, latching onto Akio only to run away again, and finally applying for a transfer simply to get as far as possible from the both of them.

For the first time, Nanami is considering that she is allowed to want something for herself, rather than as an extension of her relationship with her brother. What does she want? She probably doesn't know, but it's a big first step just realizing that she can. If that is the glimpse of adulthood that she finds in the car, however, I don't think it's the one Akio and Touga planned for her. Akio and Touga both consider abusive incest to be useful means to controlling a victim, and I believe Touga expected Nanami not to resist him. His question, though revelatory, was asked in anger and frustration, not meant as a useful guide. If that's the case, this might be a rare instance where the glimpse of adulthood in the car was a good first start rather than an incomplete picture: "what do I want" is a good lesson Nanami needs to take to heart.

Kissmate notes that a huge part of adulthood is being able to "step back" from a moment and re-evaluate a situation. All the girls who have been "predatory" towards Touga were actually harmless all this time; Nanami is realizing that she's been "protecting" a tiger from gazelles, an abuser from his victims. By being able to put herself in the shoes of the girls who call him, by taking that step of empathy instead of remaining firm in her mistaken belief that she is "special" to him, she's making an important transition from childish surety to adult doubt: sometimes we have to question the things we "know".

I'm not sure where else to put this, but I want to speak about Nanami fighting Touga off. I know every time I was assaulted, fighting never even felt like an option because I was too scared and too frozen by the sheer utter shock of someone I trusted being willing to hurt me in that way. The fact that Nanami was able to react like she did makes me think that perhaps she's been fearing something very like this situation. His repeated "jokes" about showering with her, kissing her, and so forth with their abusive pauses and gaslighting "just kidding" backtracks all influenced her decision to avoid him once she realized they weren't blood relations. She's refused to be alone with him, refused to go home with him, and now even at this confrontation refused to approach him--instead choosing to talk at him from the other side of the room. Has she been unsettled by this "blood relation" reveal *at least in part* because she feared he would do something like this if no incest taboo was present to stop him? I don't know, but seeing how rapidly he escalated his abuse to assault, it wouldn't surprise me if Nanami's fears ran close to reality here.

At school, Nanami approaches Keiko and listens while the other girl gloats that they don't have to follow her orders anymore. It is fascinating--especially in light of what I know is coming much later--that Nanami loses all her social standing among the girls at school the moment the prince's protection has been withdrawn. She's "fair game" now that her prince is no longer on her side. We hear a slap, but it's Anthy who falls; not Keiko or Nanami. The camera pans up and we see a triumphant Nanami standing before the broken, bruised, and subdued trio of girls. Nanami yells that she isn't like Anthy, and all I can think is that *she* thinks that Anthy is her antithesis: a sister who willingly joined and supported her predatory brother rather than resist or escape. She has taken Chu-Chu hostage, which is... kind of amazing, especially if we keep with the idea that Chu-Chu is Anthy's emotional representation. How *does* Anthy feel seeing Nanami resist Touga and Akio?

Shadow Girls! A psychic performs a series of impossible tasks while the other girl insists it must be a trick, even to the point of being harmed when she's bent like a spoon. Nanami does think Anthy is trying to trick her, but she's not wrong. Kissmate wonders if the girl is Utena; Nanami has tried to tell her several times about Akio and Anthy, and Utena keeps not listening to her words. She's so determined not to believe the incest is real that she's about to be hurt by her determined naivety.

Arena! Nanami reclines like a pinup girl on the car hood, dripping with confidence. Touga isn't even in the scene until he has to walk on like an extra. This is Nanami's show and he's only here because the game requires his presence. Nanami says she wants to surpass everything: is this the answer she came up with? If it is, then we have the theme where a taste of adulthood does not an adult make; it's a very childish answer: 'I'll just be the best at everything, and beat everyone who challenges me'. It's a child's idea of an adult's goal, and utterly impossible to obtain or even really articulate. She tells Utena that if she can beat her in a duel, then it's proof she's surpassed her brother. She's still being reactive.

The duel starts. Touga pulls the sword from Nanami's chest and we note that their pose actually comes closest to recreating Anthy's and Utena's, though Utena seems at peace while Nanami looks pained. Nanami goes on the attack but her mind is on her brother, consumed with childhood flashbacks. Touga was part of who she was, but it was all a lie. Utena says the relationship can be valid without a blood connection, but she doesn't know about the rampant lying. Dios comes down and the car crashes, but Nanami is still standing.

Before, when Ruka was standing after his defeat, we believed it pointed to the fact that he wasn't emotionally invested in the outcome with Kozue. Kissmate notes that this duel is just another tantrum for Nanami, not the actual answer to the question of what she wants. She didn't really care about beating Utena, and I don't think she cared about beating Touga at swordplay. I don't think she wants to be better than him, so much as she wants to be free from him and doesn't know any other way to go about it.

Coming back to the duel song, it's about planets and their prescribed Platonic perfect orbits about the sun. Ancient astronomers believed that God created the planets and their orbits in perfect spheres, a beautiful dance of mathematics. The song is about one's inherent nature and the orbit of bodies around each other, even as Nanami flashes back to her childhood relationship with her brother and her need to be close to him. She's questioning whether her inherent nature *requires* her to orbit him--in a perfect Platonic sphere, like the hung planets, or the girls who flock about him no matter how badly he treats them--or if she has the free will and choice to break away and chart her own path. Is she stuck with him or can she leave?

On the bed of Bad Ideas, Akio lounges in post-coital bliss and asks if Touga plans to tell Nanami the truth that they are related by blood. They were *both* adopted by the Kiryuu parents and only Touga remembers the truth. He tells Akio he finds the idea of a brother and sister not related by blood "much more romantic". This confirms that everything Touga said about acting like the perfect big brother because their father asked him to was just a lie to manipulate Nanami further.


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