Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Truth: Duncan reviews Shōjo Kakumei Utena

Part Four - "The End of the World Saga"

SPOILER WARNING: This review will give away all of the ending to the series.

I haven't mentioned the Shadow Play Girls in my reviews before now since, even though they have been in the series since the very beginning, they have not until now played a significant role in the narrative. Their presence in the series at first seems no more than a quirky motif, as they turn up about halfway through each episode, perform a short Shadow Play that could be thematically linked to the events of the episode (sometimes this link is clear, other times you'd have to squint quite a bit to see it), and then vanish again without having interacted with any of the main cast. Until, that is, several episodes later - into "The Black Rose Saga" - when their Plays are maybe seen by Utena and maybe she comments on them.

Do they exist within the reality of Ohtori Academy or don't they? It is infuriatingly impossible to be certain either way... until now.

With almost no warning of what is coming, Akio, Anthy and Utena go to see a play, and it is a Shadow Play put on by these characters. In it, they provide the complete backstory of Anthy and Dios - the Rose Bride and the Prince - in a maddeningly allegorical style that raises more questions than it answers.

One thing the play does finally make explicit - to the viewers if not to Utena, who is not yet ready to make the link - is Anthy's secret nature as not the helpless victim she appears. This was subtly introduced very early in the series (she knows more than she tells Utena; but then at that point so do most of the main cast), and then made more obvious in stages that now, with hindsight, seem very much clearer.

The cleverness of this episode is that it gives us a better idea of what has happened, even though we still don't know what is really going on. And within the same episode, on top of the play, we get both a flashback and a dream sequence which add to this backstory and Utena's own history and involvement with Anthy and Dios.

Together the shadow play, the flashback and the dream sequence provide the audience with something so open to interpretation that I cannot help but impose my own view of what is significant and what it all means, and the same will go for everyone who watches this. In this respect it makes Revolutionary Girl Utena just what I was looking for - "another TV series as open to interpretation as The Prisoner."

There is, however, a significant weakness to the revelations of this crucial episode (one which perhaps invites more of a comparison to the piece-of-shit 2009 version of The Prisoner than the '60s classic), and it is that the plot of the series hinges on Utena's laser-guided amnesia: without this contrivance Utena would have been up to speed on the events at Ohtori Academy, including the significance of the Rose Bride, from the start of the series. While we just have to accept this as necessary for the story to play out the way it does, it is the weakest link in the otherwise strong narrative.

For all that the series has shunned familiar narrative conventions since the start (or used them only to subvert them), it has now left even the conventions of its own first three arcs behind. The legacy of The Rose Signet episode is that subsequent events must be coloured by the interpretation the viewer puts on them. While all reviews are, by their nature, subjective, I suspect that the rest of my review will be even more so.

Anyway, the plot continues: Utena's penultimate duel of the series is with Touga. Touga, who was the principal antagonist of the first story arc, has undergone significant character development and is now almost a tragic figure himself.

Touga has fallen for Utena but, like the boy who cried wolf, he cannot convince her he is serious because of his past manipulation of her. Nor can he entirely give up being devious, even though by this point it is obvious he is not nearly so subtle or cunning as his mentor Akio is in playing with Utena's affections.

Touga duels Utena hoping to defeat her and thus save her from having to go on to some sort of confrontation with End of the World. When he (inevitably) loses the duel, his final warning to Utena remains infuriatingly cryptic and vague.

That night, thinking she has fought her last duel, Utena finally sees Anthy and Akio together, with Anthy naked in Akio's planetarium. This is a superb cliffhanger, and it is at this point that the anime trope of concluding each episode with a post-credits next-time trailer gets the Utena deconstruction treatment. Each episode prior to this has seen Utena and Anthy, in voiceover, discuss what is coming up next time. But this episode:
Utena: "Oh Anthy, I just can't forgive you for what you've done."
Anthy: "Miss Utena, don't you know how much I've always despised you?"
This isn't dialogue from the next episode, it's a way of underlining the cliffhanger by showing us the two characters' thoughts.

Utena is clearly devastated by this revelation, but she doesn't react aggressively . The only outward show of her emotional turmoil is that she takes her ring off, a subtle but significant sign because she has never done this before. Utena even joins Akio and Anthy for breakfast, but doesn't know how to cope when they act as though nothing unusual has happened between the three of them.

Utena seems much more upset with Anthy than with Akio, even organising to go on a "date" with him that day, and while this might be because Akio has so seduced her that she cannot be properly angry at him, it is also that Anthy's betrayal of her (as she sees it) hurts Utena on a more fundamental level.

And so, even though she has won the last of the Rose Bride duels, taking off the ring means Utena cannot reenter the dueling arena to meet End of the World and bring the world revolution; she cannot claim the prize for winning. It takes a meeting with Miki, Jury and Nanami, once rivals but now her friends, for Utena to sort out her feelings and make friends with Anthy again.

That night Anthy attempts suicide by jumping off the roof of the high tower they live in, and is saved by Utena. The tone of this scene is dark and disorientating, as it is not a scene we have seen before in the series and the characters' voices are distorted with a dream-like quality. While we have seen the torment of Anthy the Rose Bride in fantastic scenes before now, this is the first time we are shown how she suffers in a semi-realistic way - with no physical symptoms her pain is mental, perhaps akin to severe depression, and Anthy feels she cannot live on with its constant presence. Utena swears to help her, resolving to stick with Anthy and go through with the meeting with End of the World. They go to the dueling arena for the last time.

End of the World is the name of the penultimate episode, which you might have thought they would have saved for the finale. But of course it refers to the fact that in this episode Utena at last sees that Akio is End of the World, although their dialogue indicates she guessed this "a long time ago" but was merely in denial.

Akio insists that Utena must give up her ambition of being a prince to become his princess since he is her prince, the one she has been looking for all this time. This brings the duality of Utena to its final crisis - until now she has wanted to both eat her cake and still have it; to be both a prince (to Anthy) and a princess (for her prince, but also for Akio when she allowed him to seduce her). Now she must choose to be one or the other.

Akio dresses Utena in a dress, reminiscent of the Rose Bride dress Anthy wears (and the one familiar to viewers from the first credit sequence Truth), and insists Utena hands over her sword to him since, he says, it is not appropriate for a princess to carry a sword. Also, if Utena surrenders her sword to Akio, he will gain the power to bring the world revolution, not her. Her prize will instead be to spend eternity with her prince. Happily ever after?

Utena refuses for the sake of Anthy, as if she is not the prince then she cannot save Anthy, who would continue to be the Rose Bride "forever and ever" as Akio admits. So Utena resolves to be a prince, giving up her chance to be a princess. Akio responds by turning off the projector, revealing the dueling arena and his own rooms to be one and the same, just disguised with the magical trickery of this McGuffin.

They fight.

And then, when it looks like Utena will win, she is literally backstabbed by Anthy.

This is the cliffhanger ending to the penultimate episode, and it is superbly done.

Anthy's betrayal of Utena and where her loyalty ultimately lies has been foreshadowed since the same source as Utena's dress - the Truth end sequence. Her pose and look as she holds Dios (or Akio?) are the same as when she stabs Utena.

Anthy's motivation for siding with Akio in the end is revealed in the final episode Someday Together We'll Shine: she believes Utena cannot be her prince because she is a girl. Utena then spends the episode proving her to be very wrong.

But before I talk about the ending of the series, I'm going to make a small digression to talk about Jury, since I earlier called her "a failed Utena." Here we have seen Anthy backstab Utena, and while Shiori's betrayal of Jury was not quite so literally a backstab, the circumstances are comparable and the two characters' (Utena and Jury, I mean) different reactions to their betrayals defines them and illustrates why Utena is the hero of the series and Jury (who is in so many ways as admirable, if not more so, than Utena) only a supporting character. Jury never recovers from the event; she is unable to move on emotionally and has become bitter and jaded - when we first meet her she duels Utena to "disprove the power of miracles."

Jury has been twisted by her experience and is no longer heroic, even if she is not actually a bad person. It takes her second defeat by Utena before she can move on (and grow up), and then she no longer wants to duel since she recognises that her motivation for doing so was not pure.

Utena too sees that her initial motivation for dueling was not a pure one - she thought of it as a game, a chance to play at being a prince with the duelists of about her own age, in effect: children. In denial about it when first challenged about it by Akio, Utena now accepts it as the truth, but it is a sign of her maturity that she goes on to accept the challenge of continuing to play the prince even when the stakes are her own life and Anthy's soul. Neither Akio nor Anthy see this, and if Anthy hadn't stabbed Utena then perhaps Utena wouldn't have seen it either.

Akio has the Sword of Dios. His goal: to open the "Rose Gate" and so gain the power to revolutionise the world. As he proceeds towards the gate, "the million swords which shine with human hatred" are summoned and begin to gather around the dueling arena. This is a stunning sequence, and shows that this series (unlike some other anime I could mention) hadn't used up all of its budget before the end.

Akio can't open the gate with the sword, and it breaks. With his gambit having seemingly failed, he chides Utena (who has spent the first half of the episode lying on the ground in pain) for struggling on uselessly, and gives away that if she could open the gate then she could use the power to save Anthy. Akio gets a cocktail (does it matter where from?) and watches Utena struggle painfully to the gate, thinking she struggles in vain - after all, if he couldn't open the gate with the Sword of Dios, what chance does she have with only her bare hands?

The answer to this is both wonderfully symbolic and a callback to the recurring sequence of Utena opening the gate to the dueling arena - the water from her tears opens the gate.

Inside is a coffin, and (mirroring the coffin the young Utena hid in until found by Dios) inside the coffin is Anthy. Utena reaches out to save her.


I think so.

When the gate opened, the entire dueling arena began to collapse, and just when it looks like she has been saved, Anthy falls away from Utena into the darkness. Utena thinks she has failed, and then the million swords stream down towards her, from which there is no escape. Fade to black.

Now I've seen some doom-laden, bleak endings before in my time, but this... oh, wait. We fade up on scenes of high school life, and the Shadow Play Girls discuss (in  voiceover, of course) what they will do when they leave school.

Eventually, just when this looks like a total non-sequitur to the preceding scene, they discuss Utena, and each has heard a different rumour about why she is no longer around at the school. This is followed by brief scenes of the other characters getting on with their lives. Utena does not appear, but we do see Anthy, back in her school uniform.

Akio thinks no revolution has occurred, and plans to begin the Rose Bride duels again for another futile attempt at getting him the power to revolutionise the world. Anthy knows differently, and leaves him, and Ohtori Academy, in search of Utena. She is no longer the Rose Bride.

Now, given how open the series is about Akio being a stand in for Lucifer, it is not a stretch to compare Utena's actions in the finale to Jesus - she sacrifices herself to save Anthy, here standing in for the whole human race in Christian mythology. So at the end Anthy turns her back on Akio and goes looking for Utena, believing that they will meet again. "Someday Together We'll Shine."

If you don't choose that interpretation, and I see Utena as being Christ-like without being Christ, then the ending will probably come off as ambiguous, if not melancholy - Anthy has been saved, but what about Utena? Is she dead?
For me the answer comes from the music which, like in Fall Out, has added so much to the experience of watching Revolutionary Girl Utena; suggesting but never spelling out. The music which plays over the final closing credits is an upbeat, na-na-na version of the opening music to the image of Anthy leaving Ohtori Academy. It says to me: how can this not be a happy ending?

In conclusion: Revolutionary Girl Utena is a wonderful series. Either you've seen it and you know that already, or else you've seen it and you've read all this anyway, or else you haven't seen it and I've totally spoiled the whole plot for you. If it's the latter then watch it anyway. I'm going to watch it again.

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