Critical Analyses of Utena

Instead of giving you guys just one take on this weird show, I’m just going to cram a whole bunch of them together. You’re welcome!

I.Recapitulation of the Problem

b) Quotation from previous post:

The story: as a child, Utena’s parents were tragically killed in an accident. While grieving, she was consoled by a mysterious prince who, before disappearing in cryptic fashion, gifted her with a ring that would one day reunite them. So impressed is she by his manner that she herself decides to become a prince who will rescue damsels in distress and so forth.

Flashing forward to adolescence, Utena attends the prestigious Ohtori Academy, which looks like what would happen if you repurposed Minas Tirith as a high school, and which is effectively run by an absurdly powerful student council. The student council, on orders from a mysterious person known as End of the World, is engaged in an elaborate series of duels which involve slicing off a rose pinned to an opponent’s chest with live swords (perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of Utena is the lack of impaling and dismemberment that such a contest would likely entail) in a floating arena, suspended above which is an upside-down castle. The champion of these duels becomes engaged to the so-called Rose Bride, a girl with mysterious powers named Anthy. Whoever the champion is at the end of these duels gains the right to enter the castle where they will be gifted with the “power to revolutionize the world.”

As it turns out, dueling candidates are chosen by dint of their having received the exact same sort of ring that Utena wears. She winds up being goaded, without understanding the circumstances, into challenging the current champion (Saionji, student council vice-president and narcissistic abuser) to a duel, and wins, thus becoming attached to the Rose Bride and bringing the attention of the student council. After some initial reluctance, she decides to keep fighting; at first in the hopes that it will unravel the identity of her prince, but ultimately to protect Anthy and save her from being a de-facto slave passed around like a football.

b) The real story

The Prince was originally Dios, a godlike entity which went around being Superman to the whole world and made everyone princesses or something. This turned out to be taxing on his health, and so his sister, the Rose Bride (Anthy), sealed away the power of Dios in an attempt to save him. This caused her to receive the anger and wrath of the world, basically leaving her in a state of constant pain and torment. Over time, Dios grew kinda lazy and corrupt, and became End of the World (Akio, Anthy’s brother and acting chairman of Otori academy). Meanwhile, Anthy grew resentful of her constant punishment.

Akio wants to re-attain the power of Dios (the power to revolutionize the world), and doing so evidently requires the entire elaborate system of duels in order to sufficiently power up the champion’s sword, the Sword of Dios, to a level of strength capable of breaking the seal. The champion was never intended to receive the power themselves, and indeed almost all the mystical pageantry with the floating castle and extravagant duelling arena is an illusion created by a rather impressive projector that Akio owns. Akio and Anthy are manipulating everyone for this purpose. Despite learning all this, Utena still sees the good in Anthy and, in an act of self-sacrificial love, gives Anthy the courage to leave Akio and the academy behind.

Man, when you phrase it like that, it kinda sounds like a Kingdom Hearts game.


a) Adolescence

The most common and obvious interpretation is that Revolutionary Girl Utena symbolically depicts the painful but necessary transition from childhood to adult maturity. For that reason alone I’m just going to ignore it.

b)1. Platonic

Ohtori Academy is Plato’s cave, a world of sensory illusion in which the characters are bound. The characters are literally subject to unreal projections. Pushing things into a more discomfitingly gnostic direction, Akio is a maleficent demiurge keeping the characters enslaved in this world for his own inscrutable purposes.

2.Platonic by way of esoteric Straussian reading

Ohtori Academy is a representation of the meritocratic polis in miniature, the characters in question ostensibly being groomed to become wise, just rulers. However, the pedagogy is intended to be ironic in effect. Ohtori Academy, a supposed image of the just state, is in fact an absurdity and an illustration of what can go wrong when the supposedly wise set themselves up as philosopher-kings. The characters are covertly being taught to not waste themselves on statesmanship and instead devote themselves to the life of the mind.

c)Akio as eros as god

Akio is the personification of what can happen to eros when it becomes an idol. His primary means of manipulation is by way of sexuality, and his plans succeed due to the toxic relationships that the characters are often embroiled in. Eros can be a cruel and demanding god that ultimately doesn’t love you. This was eloquently captured in Book III of the Faerie Queene, when Britomart enters Castle Busyrane and confronts a rather sinister version of Cupid:

Next after her, the winged God him selfe

Came riding on a Lion rauenous,

Taught to obay the menage of that Elfe,

That man and ebast with powre imperious

Subdeweth to his kingdome tyrannous;

His blindfold eies he bad a while vnbinde,

That his proud spoile of that same dolorous

Faire Dame he might behold in perfect kinde,

Which seene, he much rejoyced in his cruell minde.

Of which ful prowd, him selfe vp rearing hye,

He looked round about with sterne disdayne;

And did suruay his goodly company:

And marshalling the euill ordered trayne,

With that the darts which his right hand did straine,

Full dreadfully he shooke that all did quake,

And clapt on hye his colourd winges twaine,

That all his many it affraide did make:

Tho blinding him again, his way he forth did take.


d)Hegelian Interpretation

Utena is being. Anthy is nonbeing. Together they form the concept of becoming. The duels are the dialectic wherein Spirit becomes itself through time and attains absolute knowing.

e)Kierkegaardian Interpretation

Utena, in the duel known as Revolution, approaches the moment of absolute paradox, the necessity of the prince and the impossibility of the prince. Through a double movement of faith she passes the test, surrendering everything and attaining everything.

f)Marxist interpretation

Akio’s projections and system of dueling manufactures seemingly eternal religious values and artificial needs which are used to reinforce existing class structures and keep the proletariat characters in a state of complacency. Only by seeing through these falsehoods and taking direct action can the true revolution take place.

e)Financial interpretation

Male uniforms have a tendency to suggestively come undone for no reason at all, a tendency which increases as the show progresses. This indicates that Ohtori Academy has contracted the production of these uniforms to a low quality manufacturer. Furthermore, the academy seems to be perpetually understaffed, as we rarely see any faculty, and indeed almost never see them actually teaching. All this suggests severe budget cuts. Meanwhile, the Chairman’s quarters has a projector which can physically manifest objects, while the Student Council is given an entire tower with a picturesque view. All this is obviously an indictment of how many educational institutions allocate funding in an inefficient manner, resulting in greater financial burdens on students and a lower quality of education.

f)It’s all theatre

Everything about the castle and the duels is, of course, an elaborate show put on by Akio to trick the main characters. But that sense of artifice extends to the entire aesthetic of the show, from the shadow puppets to the tableaux and the near continual use of motifs referencing theatre, radio and cinema. In Lynchian fashion, the show makes us self-conscious of the fact that what we are watching is indeed an elaborately staged work of fiction.

e)Akio’s car

About Josh W

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6 Responses to Critical Analyses of Utena

  1. Gaheret says:

    As much as I like your economic interpretation, I interpreted Utena as being an anti-theistic Humanist shoujo, which was quite inevitable, “Dios” being God in Spanish. I ended it with mixed feelings: I find some redeeming elements and I liked the show, but in the end that´s what I saw. The characters meet the Nietzschian tomb of God, recasted as the typical Cindirella high school Prince of shoujo, which couldn´t exist because only Christ can be the Bridesgroom of every bride, and every human trying to fill the place of the Redeemer would destroy himself, corrupt himself, change unwillingly, use others, lie, be unable to cope with his own shortcomings, etc. Y

    In the place of God and His order, there is therefore an “structure” of power, subjugation seduction which uses the natural impulse to Heaven (referenced via happily-ever-after Disney castle) for its own self-perpetuation while increasing its power via cosmic (aristocratic/sexual/psychological/romantized high school) liturgy in which people willingly participate due to vocational narratives used as weapons. This aristocratic ethos is part of the girl fantasy common in shoujo. But some (Anthy) are the scapegoats, perpetually alienated as a result of the game, so alienated they don´t know it anymore, yet suffer, in a “princess” role out of Rose of Versailles Marie Antoniette. Without a Prince who loves her for herself, the Princess is only something in which everybody projects their own desires.

    Utena it´s sort of an anomaly in the “Prince” God-serving system, but she embodies its knightly values almost perfectly. She comes to see them (as well as her vocation story) as a lie she was projecting in others, yet sacrifices herself for the opressed: the vocation has been transformed in an ideal, in modern terms an utopia. This is a more extreme version of Rose of Versailles (spoilers) change of heart of the aristocratic maiden soldier De Jarjeyes, who is loyal to the King and Marie Antoniette but comes to serve the French Revolution for love, escaping her birthright and destiny. Kind of. Utena thus brings the world “revolution”, like a secular Messiah, and even if nothing seems to change, Anthy is able at last to find herself and go out of the “structure”.

    Of course, this has also parallels with the way Christianity enters in the world of the old gods, who are idols (in that sense, reflections of the human heart combined with the search and the thirst for the divine). The distortions of the world of power and desire are directly reflected in the cosmic idols, including the sinful, unloving aspect. Jesus Christ identifies Himself with the opressed and goes all the way to save them, and in doing so he solves the paradox. Your Kierkegaardian reading fits with the more valuable aspects I find in the show, which are close to the Book of the Long Sun in that (spoilers) God is also the Outsider, while the gods are part of the corrupt structure. The pagan hero (Silk) comes to see the power of the gods as structure of power, kind of loses his vocational narrative and distinguishes between the true ideal and the manipulation, embracing the first. The difference is that he does so at the impulse of the Outsider.

    The thing is, I´m pretty sure that the reading the author intended was more the first than the second, due to specific “tomb of Dios” reference.

    • Gaheret says:

      -In my view, Platonism is inverted in Utena: the characters are trapped in highly significative worls of ideas, which are the bright shadows (projections) of themselves.

      -Ohtori Academy aristocratic ethos, which as you say is called into question is a very interesting theme. One of the aspects of Utena which appeals the most to me is the meritocracy and the cult of nobility, and also its shortcomings. But maybe, as Tocqueville said, is just that the world seems more appealing this way, with the good and the bad being more manifest than they are in the equalitarian Modern imagination where the President is just a guy and not supposed to display nobility or anything. An equalitarian shoujo is just impossible by definition, I guess.

      -The metafictional aspect is also quite funny, now that you mention it. It´s easily my favorite aspect of the show. Or the characters, maybe.

      -The shoujo high school prince is pretty much eros as a idol, as you say. And Akio is an uber-shoujo prince. In our narrative story, romantic love is perhaps the strongest reminder of God´s love, yet it can easily end up in a corruptio optimi pessima. Idols of love are thus very interesting: Wolfe´s Kypris is (spoilers) good, his Disiri is kind of neutral, Lewis Aphrodite in Till we have faces is (spoilers) is bad, but his Eros is good. Dante´s Beatrice, while not exactly an idol, is good too. Some interesting general theory of the narrative, vocation and romantic love could be derived from here, but I have work to do…

      -Now I´m more interested than ever in that unexistent Catholic-Anglican-Orthodox fic of yours.

      • Josh W says:

        I think you may have a far more considered interpretation than my own; when I got frustrated at my inability to write anything substantial about Utena, I just started writing joke interpretations.

        That said, I never got a specifically anti-theistic vibe from the show. That’s likely due to my own aversion to allegorical interpretation (despite this post) and my tendency, post-Evangelion, to treat Abrahamic references in Japanese pop culture more as evocative flavoring than anything else, unless there’s some explicit theological/religious commentary going on.

        I think a Nietzschean interpretation would more easily apply to the movie than the show (though Anthy certainly has a lot of ressentiment going on), which perhaps leans closer to Schopenhauer – the revelation of the truth about the nature of Utena’s world is destructive and disillusioning and Utena can only escape it through a kind of self-negation. Whereas the movie is a lot more gung-ho about killing the prince and undergoing the necessary transformations for a brave new world.

        I doubt that Utena fic will ever see the light of day, but I have been recently working on a fantasy school story of my own. It’s early going, so I can’t make any promises as to what/if it will ultimately be, but I’m guessing it’ll skew heavily into my own obsessions.

      • Gaheret says:

        Heh, the part about the fic was a joke. But, it’s good to know you have a work in progress. Maybe you’re right, I haven’t read Schopenhauer (or watched the movie).

  2. Pingback: Heroic links – Zoopraxiscope

  3. Morrigan1111 says:

    I vote for the Akio car interpretation!

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