Screenshot: Anime Limited
With my recent week’s holiday, what better to do than relax watching strange late 90's anime with my increasingly bewildered teenage daughter? October in the UK is cold, wet and miserable. It’s not like anyone wants to leave their house at this time of year anyway, though our government’s escalatingly byzantine multi-tier lockdown rules make the concept of ill-considered outside autumnal ventures even more confusing and annoying than they were before. Am I allowed to visit my relatives right now or am I likely to be executed? Who knows? Best to stay inside under a blanket and gawk at the pink-haired lesbians.
Anthy and UtenaScreenshot: Anime limited
Last time, I wrote about The Student Council Saga, or at least the first 12 episodes of it. That arc doesn’t properly conclude until episode 13, the first of this set - though it’s mostly just a recap clip show with some extra information that recontextualises everything that came before, so it’s inadvisable to skip. The main bulk of this middle blu-ray release is The Black Rose Saga, a 10-episode arc comprising episodes 14-23, bookended with another recap/clip show in episode 24. The Student Council Saga was a lengthy but essential introduction to the characters and the world of Utena. In it we met our 14-year-old protagonist, the pink-haired titular Utena Tenjou who aspires to princehood. Utena becomes embroiled in the intrigues of Ohtori Academy’s duelists and inadvertently becomes engaged to Anthy Himemiya “The Rose Bride”. The suspiciously passive Anthy is viewed as a prize to be contested by the other duelists (most of whom are members of the Student Council), and Utena is dragged into swordfight after swordfight to keep possession of her friend.
Cool Utena action shotScreenshot: Anime Limited
Now in this second arc, a new threat - that of the Black Rose Duelists - arises, and this time rather than to win Anthy, they intend to kill her. Most of these new duelists are characters we’ve been introduced to before - friends, acquaintances or family members of the Student Council. Since their base characteristics have been set, this arc then deconstructs their motives, their desires and in doing so also illuminates the equivalent attributes of their corresponding main character.
SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOLLOW
This is Akio, and with his introduction comes another deeply troubling brother-sister dynamic.Screenshot: Anime Limited
The first Black Rose Duelist is Kanae Ohtori, fiancée of new character Akio - Anthy’s older brother. Akio shares the same darker skin/purple hair aesthetic as his sister, though he appears to be about 7 feet tall and is not dissimilar in appearance to Utena’s childhood prince. Apart from a couple of teachers in the previous arc, Akio and his fiancée are the only adults we have met so far in the show. Kanae’s father is the Head Teacher of Ohtori Academy, and Akio stands in as Acting Head in his absence. Kanae can’t stand Anthy because of her “dead eyes” and creepy, emotionless demeanour (I mean, I totally empathise...) Kanae meets with another new character, conspicuously pink-haired Souji Mikage for an impromptu elevator counselling session. After this, she obtains a black rose ring and the status of duelist, challenging Utena with Anthy’s life at stake. Utena of course wins, and following her defeat Kanae collapses. She does not appear again during the rest of the arc.
Do these two... kind of remind you of some other characters?Screenshot: Anime Limited
Before we discuss the other Black Rose Duelists, let’s consider Souji Mikage. Who the hell is he? A student? A professor of some kind? The show offers contradictory, vague answers. He runs something called “The Mikage Seminar” which seems to attract the brightest and best students, some kind of think tank perhaps? Mikage approaches Miki who is uninterested. It seems Mikage is has designs on the student council/duelists, and if he’s unable to use them directly, he’ll use the people with emotional ties to them instead. He meets with Akio on several occasions and he has a close relationship with a young boy named Mamiya Chida who bears a striking resemblance to Anthy. In fact Mikage desires the power to revolutionise the world for himself, and intends to replace Anthy as Rose Bride with Mamiya. At this point, the story has not explained 1) what the hell the Rose Bride actually does or 2) what “revolutionise the world” means. Because the symbolism starts to become that much more dense, it can be hard to know if what is happening on screen is intended to be taken literally or not.
Kanae has a pretty black flower stabbed into her chest. This sort of thing happens a lot at Ohtori Academy. Gee, doesn’t Mamiya look kind of... familiar?Screenshot: Anime Limited
Mikage’s favourite trick is to draw his emotionally vulnerable victims to Nemuro Memorial Hall where he counsels them in a descending elevator, encouraging them to “go deeper” into their trauma, breaking them down until they are vulnerable enough for Mamiya to stab their hearts with a black rose and become brainwashed into fighting Utena. Within the elevator is a framed butterfly that devolves during the descent into a cocoon, then caterpillar and then leaf, signifying the regression of the victim from rationality into base emotion. Only once does this fail, with one character who Mikage deems is “too good a person, with no stake in this fight”. Nemuro Memorial Hall, where Mikage holds his “seminar” is a rebuilt building in which apparently one hundred boys met their untimely deaths some years previously. Occasionally, a creepy image of them pops onto the screen. Their corpses seem to reside in the basement of the building, and from them he harvests their rose seal rings which turned black upon death. Whenever a Black Rose Duelist fails, the corresponding corpse is ejected into a furnace. Uh... ok... We know there is something deeply wrong with Mikage and Mamiya, but the extent isn’t revealed until later. What is obvious from the beginning is how deliberately they mirror Utena and Anthy.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say all of these boys are long dead - though why they keep staring at me, I don’t know.Screenshot: Anime Limited
Next on Mikage’s list is Miki’s twin sister Kozue who harbours... unnatural feelings for her brother. She forcibly removes Miki’s dueling sword from his heart in a twisted parody of Utena’s withdrawal of the sword of Dios from Anthy’s body, leaves him lying unconscious while she duels Utena. With each duel, Utena realises that her opponent is not acting like themselves and when she beats them, they return more or less to normal. Mikage has only a limited number of black roses (quite where they come from is never explained as far as I can tell), so next he targets return student Shiori. Who? She was the girl who student council member Juri loved, but their friendship ended when Shiori mistook Juri’s upset at Shiori dating a boy for for jealousy rather than heartbreak. (Though it seems Shiori deliberately dated the boy as she thought Juri liked him... She’s a total bitch, and was oblivious to the fact Juri loved her.) Their relationship remains complex and fractured - Mikage uses this to his advantage and Shiori yanks a sword from Juri’s chest.
Surprisingly, the next duelist is Mitsuru Tsuwabuki, blonde queen bee Nanami’s voluntary slave. He’s only a grade school kid but wants to grow up to be a viable love interest for his idol. Not happening, kid. Yet he still draws a sword from her heart and afterwards as she remembers this violation, she blushes. Awkwaaaaard... Even Utena’s friend Wakaba is not immune to Mikage’s meddling. Turns out she’s been hiding disgraced, expelled, green-haired, serial-slapper Saionji in her room. He’s a pathetic wretch that she pities due to her feelings for him. Remember, he publicly humiliated her with his rejection of her love letter in the last arc. He makes her a pretty wooden hair ornament, that somehow ends up instead on the head of Anthy, his true obsession... That doesn’t go down well and leads to another counselling session and a further episode of chest-sword extraction, from Saionji this time. Perhaps that was orchestrated by Mikage, but I wonder what Anthy’s role was in all this? She’s been acting incredibly suspiciously. Utena refuses to fight her friend, but Wakaba is consumed by irrational (or is it?) hatred towards Anthy.
Mikage’s final victim is Keiko - one of Nanami’s female friends/hangers-on who she takes for granted and has a crush on Nanami’s brother. Of course this is absolutely unforgivable in Nanami’s eyes - she’s the only one who can love her brother! Yes, the disturbing incest subtext continues. Anyway, once Utena dispatches this sixth Black Rose challenger, all that’s left is for Mikage to use his final black rose on himself. Much like the first arc, Utena faces seven different duels, and most of the episodes follow a very strict pattern. Utena and Anthy are almost peripheral characters in their own show, as the bulk of each episode focuses on the conflict between Mikage’s victim and the object of their unrequited affection. Sometimes they are also victims of unequal power dynamics, of which there are so many. Once the conflict is established, the victim attends the “counselling” session, they retrieve a sword, challenge Utena by leaving her a note in her locker, this season’s shadow girl performs a weird (though often relevant) monologue to which Utena actually responds each time(!), then it’s up the spiral staircase to a heavier version of the “Absolute Destiny Apocalypse” song and it’s time to duel. Each duel has repeated common elements - rows of desks with character-specific items on them, painted outlines of dead bodies on the floor... This repetition isn’t as boring as might be expected - it’s fun picking out the differences each episode, and jarring when some of the episodes buck the trend.
For example: the “Nanami episode” where she mistakenly wears a cowbell around her neck that she thinks is jewellery. Truly it is utterly bizarre, especially as she starts to adopt cow-like mannerisms before finally transforming into a cow herself. Utena must “duel” her like a matador to retrieve the cursed cowbell... Possibly one of the most deeply strange anime episodes I have ever experienced. Also pretty funny, especially the way the Japanese language track tries to cram the sound “moo” into as many places as possible in Nanami’s speech. I did not watch the dub, so I’m unsure how that was managed in English. There’s a further “Nanami Episode” at the end of the set (episode 24) that is basically a recap of Nanami’s weirdest antics so far, from the viewpoint of slave-boy Tsuwabuki. It’s not exactly essential viewing and your tolerance for it will depend on your tolerance for Nanami herself. I’m not really a fan.
Souji Mikage in his Professor Nemuro days... Yeah, I don’t really get this either.Screenshot: Anime Limited
The Black Rose Saga culminates with a very confusing flashback and subsequent duel that upends everything we have assumed about some of the characters so far. Souji Mikage’s real name is apparently Professor Nemuro and he first came to Ohtori Academy perhaps even decades before and has somehow not aged in the interim... Ok...? He seems to have been instrumental in “opening the way to eternity”, which I assume means the dueling arena and the inverted castle in the sky. He’s been following Akio’s instruction all the way, and seems to have lost his mind years before when Akio started fooling around with the girl Nemuro liked (Tokiko, sister to the sickly Mamiya) and set fire to his building (the one now - tellingly - referred to as the “Nemuro Memorial Hall”, murdering all 100 of the boys/researchers/potential duelists within it. Was it this sacrifice that opened the way? It seems this event broke his mind, as he mistakenly remembers Mamiya setting the fire, yet by this point Mamiya was already dead... What?
Mamiya’s sister Tokiko, all grown up - unlike Nemuro/MikageScreenshot: Anime Limited
If you are struggling to follow the plot’s throughline via my summary above, join the club. When watching the final two episodes of this arc with my daughter we turned to one another and asked “what the hell is going on?” Up until this point, Utena mostly followed the conventions of standard storytelling, and even though some of the deeper meaning was obscured beneath layers of colourful symbolism, it had never been as willfully obtuse as the resolution to this arc. Utena has been doing a Sixth Sense on us, as Nemuro/Mikage is the only one to interact with Mamiya. Is he a figment of his imagination? No - it’s not as simple - or as sensible as that. Mikage even looks younger than he did when he joined the academy to do his research, yet Mamiya’s sister has aged in that time. Tokiko even comments that the boy she knew was never younger than she was... Is there something weird going on with time at Ohtori Academy? Akio mentions how none of the characters who stay in the school will ever grow up... Nemuro has spent years in a state of arrested development, refusing to grow up and move on from Mamiya’s death and the breakdown of his relationship with Tokiko.
There’s only one Shadow Girl this time. The previous duo flew off in a UFO!(?) Utena herself seems to hear and even responds to her. Again, it’s unclear whether this is actually happening or if it’s merely odd symbolism. Or perhaps both. In the flashback episode, Shadow Girl instead interacts with Tokiko.Screenshot: Anime Limited
Nemuro approaches Utena directly at the end, perhaps intending to ally with her? Utena sees the pictures of the Black Rose Duelists who fought her on his wall, plus a picture of herself as a child. Realising Nemuro is her true enemy, Utena - for once - issues her own challenge to him. At the climax of their duel, Nemuro realises his memories have somehow been tampered with, that Mamiya did not have brown skin and purple hair, but looked like a normal boy... and that he died many years before. Following this, he disappears and all evidence of The Mikage Seminar disappears, the Nemuro Memorial Hall is reduced to rubble, having apparently never been rebuilt, and Utena remembers nothing of the Black Rose Duelists. I ask again, What The Hell Is Going On? I realise I can’t expect simple answers from a show where characters regularly fight in a floating arena beneath a rotating, inverted castle using magical blades to win a Rose Bride with the power to revolutionise the world... but... eh? Is this a different timeline now? Were they all hallucinating? Has everyone’s memories been wiped? Was Mikage not even real?
Is this Utena’s prince? Who is he? Is he even real?Screenshot: Anime Limited
Akio appears to be the source of all the anomalies. I don’t know what his deal is, but he’s uncomfortably close to Anthy (yet more incest vibes), and seems to be involving her in his twisted schemes. It’s likely that Anthy helped push each of Mikage/Nemuro’s victims towards mental instability, and it is revealed that - somehow - Anthy took Mamiya’s form to manipulate Mikage/Nemuro. That means that Anthy herself stabbed the black roses into the victims, forcing them to fight Utena for the right to kill her... My head hurts now. It’s clear that Anthy is not trustworthy and Akio is basically Satan. He doesn’t seem to be Utena’s prince because we see him speaking to a similar-looking yet short-haired man who is immobile. I expect at least some of these mysteries will be addressed later, but probably not without some extremely obscure symbolism. I’m not sure how I feel about this opaque storytelling. It’s very easy to dress bullshit up as “meaningful” when you add some pretty flourishes, repeated motifs and clever-sounding allusions. But if your story is incoherent and inconclusive, what’s the point? I guess I did enjoy this, and certainly it has something to say in terms of power dynamics and complex, abusive relationships, but I do worry for the story to come . I hope it doesn’t disappear up its own arsehole like it threatened to do here.
I do not trust this smirk. What are you up to, girl?Screenshot: Anime Limited
I’ll be back again to discuss the final set that contains episodes 25-39, plus the movie. First I’ve got to convince my daughter that she’ll probably understand the next arc, definitely, totally, honest, so please watch it with me.
The contents of set 2, including postcards and posterPhoto: Anime Limited
Revolutionary Girl Utena Part 2Collector’s Edition Blu-ray: The Black Rose Saga
Series Director: Kunihiko Ikuhara
Production Studio: JC Staff
Original Japanese TV broadcast: June 25th 1997 - September 10th 1997
UK Blu-ray release: August 17th 2020
Runtime: 300 minutes (episodes 13-24)
Video: 1080p pillarboxed 4:3 ratio
Audio: Japanese with English subtitles, English dub
Distributor: Anime Limited
Anthy and Utena happy together in Akio’s planetarium. Utena is a completely clueless main character who has no idea that she’s being used, nor any idea how to navigate the complex maelstrom of conflicting relationships surrounding her. She’s been almost totally reactive so far - she’d better get a clue - and soon.Screenshot: Anime Limited
You’re reading AniTAY, the anime-focused portion of Kotaku’s community-run blog, Talk Amongst Yourselves. AniTAY is a non-professional blog whose writers love everything anime related. To join in on the fun, check out our website, visit our official subreddit, follow us on Twitter, or give us a like on our Facebook page.