Allegory, Allegorier, Allegoriest: Visual storytelling and empathy in Revolutionary Girl Utena

By: Meg Ross May 27, 20200 Comments
Nanami holding an egg as birds take flight against a red panel in the background

Spoilers for Revolutionary Girl Utena

Content Warning: Discussion of misogyny, queerphobia

“Have you heard?” one shadowy silhouette whispers to another. “Did you know?” The shadows break the fourth wall and address the audience directly like a Greek chorus. They are acting out a kind of fable– the story of an egg that is not an egg. “I don’t think that was an egg,” one shadow says bluntly. The intermission ends abruptly and we return to the main story, which is also about an egg that is not an egg. Except it’s not really about that, either. Watching this episode for the first time feels like watching Ikuhara Kunihiko himself laugh at you derisively for twenty three minutes.

Revolutionary Girl Utena has a well-deserved reputation for being difficult to parse. Dense with metaphor, thinly-veiled critique of old shoujo tropes, and allusions to obscure literature, Utena’s style of storytelling relies heavily on its own visual language. Broadcast censorship and budget constraints also forced the show to lean on its strong boarding and shot compositions in order to get its points across. A certain amount of nudging and winking at the audience was required to approach some of the show’s topics, strong visuals required to make up for economical animation. 

The most fascinating thing about Utena’s approach to visual storytelling, however, is the purposeful way that it ties into its central themes, inviting its audience to take the same journey as Utena herself as she attempts to understand the bizarre world she occupies.

top-down view of desks and outlines of bodies on the floor

While it may take a few viewings to become fluent in Utena-speak, the show’s most important metaphors are fairly easy to follow: Coffin imagery evokes dread and resignation to the inevitable. Mikage’s victims confess their darkest secrets in an elevator that rockets downward, faster and faster, until it hits rock bottom. Akio’s fancy red sports car represents ideals of adulthood like freedom, power, and sexual conquest.

Grasping hands are used repeatedly to show Utena’s attempts to reach out to someone in need. Most evocatively, the iconic multicolored roses can mean many things depending on the context: love and passion, rose-tinted nostalgia, the purity of Utena’s ideals, life’s fleetingness, a beauty hiding sharp thorns, and the list goes on. 

While these visuals are certainly stunning and entertaining, they also have a certain utility. The show invites its audience to dig deeper and ask questions: What exactly is everyone so afraid to resign themselves to? Why do they think that attaining power will protect them from it? Why, specifically, do they look up to End of the World? To Dios? To Akio?

What – or who – is Utena trying to save everyone from?

nanami in bed cradling an egg. subtitle: Everyone's laying eggs!

Nanami’s Egg: A Case Study in Utena’s Visual Language

“Nanami, do you know why we’ve been able to live together so happily?” Touga asks. He turns away from Nanami, whose hands tremble as they conceal her dirty secret.

“It’s because you aren’t the type of girl that lays eggs.”

The scene’s palette shifts to dramatic blues and reds as a flock of shadowy birds flies past Nanami in the window. She is devastated. She is, in fact, the type of girl that lays eggs.

Even in context, this is undoubtedly one of the most absurd exchanges in all of Revolutionary Girl Utena. All of episode 27, “Nanami’s Egg,” is pretty absurd, beginning with the premise of Nanami actually believing she may have laid an egg when she wakes up to find one in her bed. To make things even more confusing, the ending leaves ambiguous just how much of what took place in the story was even real, or just part of Nanami’s dreams. It’s difficult enough to sympathize with Nanami at this point in the story, but the absurdity of her situation makes it seemingly impossible to relate to her. She ought to know better! People, after all, don’t lay eggs.

Nanami imprisoned next to other pinned-up animals

But Nanami grapples with the same thoughts. If people don’t lay eggs, what does that make her? Over and over, she imagines herself being thrown into a cage with other egg-laying animals while her peers laugh at her expense. Worse, what if people do lay eggs, and she’s somehow weird for never having laid one before now? Or, what if people can lay eggs, but it’s somehow morally wrong? Suddenly, things begin falling into place. 

For many of the women in the audience, the experiences of Nanami and her egg may not be so different from our own experiences trying to navigate a world where our bodies and sexualities are taboo to the point of incomprehension. We suffer the same internalized shame and social stigma as Nanami. Sexuality is framed as alien and intimidating.

We have family members who only accept us until they find out that we are “the kind of girl who lays eggs.” We understand that to grow up means to lose something precious, and to confront something far more terrifying left in its place.

Nanami imagining herself being mocked by a classmate. subtitle: Nanami, you must be a space alien.

Perhaps the most on-the-nose moment of the episode is when Touga misunderstands Nanami saying that she would prefer a girl to hatch from her egg and launches into a hypocritical speech about the dangers of homosexuality, leading to that strangely tense shot of Nanami hiding her egg in her trembling hands. We know, instinctively, what the egg is shorthand for. It’s not about the egg at all. It’s about Nanami’s fears and the source of them.

With no one to turn to for advice without the risk of humiliation, Nanami is left to try to figure out what to do with her egg on her own. It’s cruel, it’s absurd, and it’s horrifically familiar.

Familiar, that is, to a certain subset of the audience. Others must search for a different way to interact meaningfully with Nanami and her egg, and that can be a struggle. 

Two chairs and a table in the grass under a tree. Subtitle text: "It's just a memory now."

The Path Which Has Been Prepared for You

Utena grapples with the same problem throughout the show. As badly as she wants to protect her peers, as obvious as it is that they are suffering terribly, she can’t seem to truly relate to them and the cause of their pain. How can she be the school’s prince when all of the people she wishes to save behave so incomprehensibly? When Ohtori Academy itself is so incomprehensible?

The audience shares in her struggle to understand. The things that Utena sees with her own eyes – floating castles, strange specters, a girl turning into a cow – seem too fantastical to be believed, wrapped up in layer upon layer of subtext and allegory. Everyone around Utena seems to speak in riddles and grand metaphors that they themselves don’t fully comprehend; the student council espouses grand and vague ideals of miracles and gardens and shining things that give life meaning. 

Adults like Akio answer her simple questions by waxing poetic and smiling condescendingly about how maybe, one day, she’ll understand. Every time it seems as though the mastermind behind all of the nonsense has finally been revealed and defeated, someone else takes their place. The dueling arena continues to host its pointless, repetitive duels, and the chorus continues to lament the “empty movement” of a perpetual motion machine.

“What do you see with your eyes?” Akio once asks Nanami, reveling in the anguish he has inflicted upon her. “Merely your own world. The world you perceive. The world in which you exist. A world like a labyrinth with no way out, where you are doomed by your limited point of view to endlessly wander the same path.”

silhouette of Anthy looking at projection of constellations. subtitle: I didn't want to look at the real ones.

Systemic oppression is central to all of Utena’s imagery. It’s impossible to understand the world of Ohtori Academy without confronting the experiences that it illustrates – misogyny, homophobia, child abuse, and all the subtle ways that they are built into the system. The show forces us to broaden our “limited point of view” in order to follow the story, and to question the archetypal narratives and imagery that it uses, who they serve, and who they hurt. Over and over again, we are challenged to peel back the layers and confront the reality of what we are watching: abuse, oppression, exploitation.

If we want to understand a character’s pain, we have to empathize with them and their place in Ohtori as minorities or otherwise vulnerable members of society. When we put ourselves into Nanami’s shoes, we understand what her egg is trying to say: for young girls, reaching adulthood is, quite literally, an alienating experience.

When we put ourselves in the shoes of closeted gay kids, it’s easy to understand the significance of Juri’s locket, tucked into her shirt, out of sight but always at risk of discovery. We can see the difference between the warm, nostalgic dojo in Saionji’s childhood memories of himself and Touga and the cold, desaturated dojo of Ohtori Academy. We can see how Ruka towers above the crouched and trembling Shiori when he discovers her polishing Juri’s sword. 

outside observer view of Miki, Nanami, Anthy, and Utena studying together. subtitle: No matter how she hurts people, she ends up getting hurt the worst!

When we put ourselves into the shoes of abuse victims, we can see Touga’s horse, his silly motorbike, as meager attempts to somehow match up to Akio and his car. We can understand why Nanami clings to Touga’s cellphone, unable to stop herself from listening in on each lovesick girl who calls him.

When we put ourselves into the shoes of children from broken homes, we can see the difference between Kozue, leaping recklessly out a window to save a nest of baby birds; and Miki, left alone with the stump, the empty nest box, and his regrets. It’s easy to understand why they are so vulnerable to adults who praise their brains and independence, tempting them with the promise of a sunlit garden of which only they have proven worthy. 

When we put ourselves into the shoes of young girls, we understand all too well what Anthy means when she says that “all girls are like the Rose Bride.” We watch the way that she is used as a scapegoat for her ideally masculine Prince, taking the “million swords which shine with the world’s hatred” in his place.

Anthy asleep in a coffin full of roses

When we put ourselves into the shoes of all of the above, we have Utena – still searching desperately for meaning in a world that is so senselessly, unendingly cruel.

The world that Utena occupies, the world of Ohtori, makes no sense. There’s a giant upside down castle in the sky. There are shadow plays performed by aliens. There are kangaroos and explosive curry and a student council that doesn’t actually seem to work for the students. There’s a counseling seminar that radicalizes the students by encouraging their worst impulses rather than helping them. There’s a chairman who flirts with his underage students without reservation. 

There are princes on white horses. There are witches. There are narratives.

An abstracted image of cracks emanating from what the silhouette of what appears to be a body, against a pink background that appears to be shattering, or scattered petals. Subtitle text: "The still tell the story, even now.

Have You Heard? Did You Know? 

In the first half of episode 34, “The Rose Crest,” Utena goes to see a play with Anthy and Akio. The play tells the story of the gallant Rose Prince and his little sister, the evil witch who sealed him away forever, casting the world into darkness. The show suddenly becomes incredibly blunt in confirming what it has been hinting at all along; A spotlight falls upon Akio when the players speak of the Rose Prince, and upon Anthy when they speak of the witch. They say that the prince is the only one capable of obtaining all of the things the student council has spent the whole show desperately searching for.

The play begins and ends with a warning: the witch still walks the earth to this day, so beware…

Back at home, after Anthy leaves for bed, Akio pulls Utena aside and begins to lament how terribly difficult it must be to be friends with Anthy. He echoes the narrative of the play, and of students like Wakaba who complain about Anthy being unsociable. Though Utena rejects this narrative, she doesn’t understand how intentionally it is being used.

three coffins, one in shadow. subtitle: We're all trapped in our coffins

Ohtori is, at its core, a hierarchy. There is a clear line drawn between those with power, and those without. One of the ways that power is obtained is through controlling the narrative. Touga takes advantage of the narrative of Utena’s prince. Ruka leverages Juri and Shiori’s secret against them. And Akio carefully constructs and reinforces his narratives with every conversation that he has with Utena.

“All life is like a play,” he tells her smugly. “You’re either an actor or a spectator.”

And so he directs his victims to act according to a script that only benefits himself. He crafts a narrative so senseless that his audience gives up on trying to find the point. So long as no one realizes the true villain of the story, too caught up in the theatrics, he is free to do as he pleases. 

Utena's arm clutching Anthy's wrist against a starry night background

Someday, Together… 

The second half of “The Rose Crest” reveals the truth behind Akio’s carefully manufactured narrative: rather than sealing the prince away, Anthy is subjected to eternal torment for the crime of trying to save him. And rather than being inspired by Dios’s gallantry, Utena’s princely identity was inspired by her frustrations at his failures. By her desire to save Anthy in Dios’s place. 

As Utena starts to understand the reality of what’s going on in Ohtori and under Akio’s roof, the show trades its metaphors for increasingly blunt portrayals of Akio’s abuse and Anthy’s trauma. By the final episodes, Utena is unable to neatly reconcile this world with the fairy tale world that she has thus far inhabited. That world was only a construct. It never existed. 

The truth that Utena discovers in the finale is that everything – the duels, the arena, the letters from the End of the World – was all an illusion created by Akio in order to manipulate Utena and the student council into following his scripted roles for them.

close-up of teary-eyed Akio. subtitle: There never was a prince in this world to begin with.

As an audience, this is our light bulb moment; we’re not supposed to be able to suspend our disbelief and accept Utena’s world for what it is. This isn’t the natural state of her world at all. The strange visuals, the cryptic metaphors, it’s all just subterfuge. There have been two stories playing out, at odds with one another, the entire time.

But the show was never trying to fool us. It’s trying to fool its own characters.

What makes Utena so powerful isn’t just its messages, but also the methods by which they are imparted. The show’s masterful and creative storytelling stands on its own, but there is also a purpose to it. It gives us something. It challenges us. Like Utena, we are encouraged to foster a sense of deep understanding toward the students of Ohtori in order to parse the show’s visual language.

We are rewarded for questioning the iconic fairy tale imagery and who the narrative truly serves. And we are confronted with truths that force us to expand our points of view, even in the world that we occupy. Our world is also ruled by the same narratives and constructs that serve to protect an oppressive status quo – gender roles, heteronormativity, victim blaming, etc. Like Utena and her peers, it’s easy to feel lost and confused and crushed by the weight of the world’s hatred.

Anthy and Utena holding each other, the image obscured by bars

Yet, the show’s hopeful message is clear, embodied by its very medium in each and every shot: the key to Utena’s revolution, to Revolutionary Girl Utena, is empathy.

Though Utena ultimately fails to save her peers as a prince, she does save them as a friend who cared to try to understand them. The student council finds redemption in solidarity, rallying together around Utena to support her as duelists. Anthy is saved, not by a dramatic rescue, but by a genuinely loving relationship that emboldened her to save herself. 

It’s no coincidence that some of Utena’s most iconic and lovingly crafted images are of Utena reaching out her hand to Anthy in a genuine effort to understand her. From beginning to end, Utena’s sincerity is the true source of her heroism. The show gently asks us to take a small step toward becoming like Utena – if we can extend patience and understanding toward the characters of the show, can we not also reach out to the people around us? Examine the narratives that define our daily lives in the same way that we examine Utena’s visual language?

Perhaps then, we could be able to build a world that we could be proud to live in for an eternity.

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