The Death of Innocence and Rebirth of the Hero in Revolutionary Girl Utena

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Look… your teen years are confusing as hell. In many cases I think dousing coming of age stories in magic and metaphor actually helps us comprehend them, which is perhaps why we as storytellers love structures like The Hero’s Journey so much, and also perhaps why Revolutionary Girl Utena so loves dealing in the abstract. The show’s first arc gives us the story not just of our hero Utena’s first steps into the strange dreamlike world of the duelling society, but her first clumsy steps into the world of young adulthood: the First Threshold she has to cross and the necessary first defeat that she has to go through on her personal Hero’s Journey. Just as ol’ Joe Campbell says heroes and mythic figures have to die to be reborn, so does childhood have to “die” to let said heroes grow towards maturity. For our hero Utena this first death/rebirth takes place at the climax of the Student Council Arc, and includes facing all the terrors of sexual maturity, self-identification, and the sad truth that comforting as they are, fairy tale tropes cannot always be applied to real life, and sometimes the “handsome prince” is a manipulative sack of dicks that you need to challenge to a swordfight.

Content warning: this post contains discussion of sexual assault (however metaphorical, the subject matter is still there)

Spoiler warning: this article discusses episodes 11 and 12 in depth, and there are references to later events in the series

There’s been a lot of talk about whether a Hero’s Journey, or even a coming of age story full stop, can truly be “universal” or if it’s one of those things that’s just inherently different for guys and gals. Revolutionary Girl Utena, I think, builds its home on a neat sort of middle ground. While many of the hallmarks of a traditional action-fantasy-surrealist-spectacular are going on in Utena, I’ve found so far that each element of the typical “universal” Journey not only physically appears, but has a complementary psychological equivalent that’s very much connected to female adolescence, and if you don’t have both at once you just don’t get the same impact.

For instance, what this post will be discussing is episodes 11 and 12, where Utena duels Touga—first being defeated by his wily tactics, and then coming back and winning in round two. Or, her first defeat (or symbolic death) and how she overcomes that with new things she learns from the defeat (or symbolic rebirth. You have to first get swallowed by a whale to be spat out of one, and all that). Obviously the duels themselves are the physical manifestation of the whole death and rebirth thing, but this is Utena we’re talking about, so the physical layer isn’t the only one. There’s also a psychological, and uniquely feminine, “death and rebirth” going on here that gives the story so much more weight and poignancy (partly because it’s Too Real, but we’ll get to that in a moment).

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Yeah, it’s pretty overwhelming

As all Campbellian heroes do, Utena begins the show firmly rooted in the familiar world of childhood, with a fairly clean-cut view of things and a simple and idealistic goal: to be a prince who saves princesses. She gets her chance (Call to Adventure!) when she challenges Saionji, clearly A Bad Dude who has upset her best friend, and succeeds when she beats him in their duel. Once this neat battle between A Prince Who Rescues Princesses and A Bad Dude is done, however, things begin to get much, much more complicated. And so the “separation” stage for our Hero (and, interestingly enough as a sidenote, the shadow girls do call Utena “hero” rather than “heroine”) begins: whether or not she intends to, Utena is very much leaving the nest when she strides into the arena for the first time. On the physical level, she’s crossing a literal threshold and stepping forth into a strange new space through that rose-topped gate, and after she does life will never be the same. On the psychological, she’s stepping away from childhood and towards adulthood.

The strange dreamscape of the duelling arena is laden pretty heavily with sexual symbolism. In case the swords weren’t enough as a phallic symbol, the whole place is surrounded by yonic symbols as well, mostly in the case of the roses and especially the gateway. To win a duel, you also have to knock the rose from your opponent’s chest… quite literally “de-flowering” them. The whole bizarre liminal space of the arena and the as-yet-unexplained business of the Rose Bride and End of the World and the upside-down castle just goddamn floating there in the sky… yeah, the confusion in that pretty accurately matches up to the confusion you have when you crash headfirst into puberty, complete with a constant unsettling sense of threat and dread. Utena, though, is determined to simply follow her dreams and brush off all the confusing stuff, and strides straight into the duels—and her symbolic maturity—with admirable but eventually regrettable flair.

When she enters the world of the duellists, Utena leaves behind the clear-cut world of her childhood and steps into one that is, unfortunately, more complicated than the fairy tale setup she’s basing her identity and goals around. The biggest part of this (at this early stage) is Touga, the student council president and, as far as Utena can see, most likely candidate for the secret identity of the prince she met long ago. It becomes increasingly obvious the further into the arc you go that Touga knows what he’s doing: he has a handle on his sexuality (as opposed to being awkward about the whole thing, as with characters like Miki and Juri who are clearly much more repressed, albeit for different reasons), he’s confident in his skills (as opposed to Saionji, who embarrasses and practically destroys himself to try and match/beat him), and he has a direct connection to and understanding of End of the World (as opposed to… everyone else, but mostly Utena). So he has a firm handle on both his adolescent life and the metaphor for adolescent life. He’s the top dog, no question. (Among his peers, at least–this is all before we meet Akio, and this mini-arc sets that conflict up very nicely, but lets keep the focus on Mr Council President for this post)

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For the love of God someone wipe that smug expression off his face

So he’s confident, he’s suave, he’s skilled, and he’s downright princely. As much as I feel bile rising in my throat, I can admit I see why Utena is drawn to him. It helps that he’s played directly against Saionji, the aforementioned Bad Dude who is very openly A Bad Dude: he’s physically abusive, he insults women, he’s smug and nasty. But Touga, oh, Touga is calm and collected, Touga is charming, Touga is the one who comes to Utena’s rescue when Bad Dude Saionji causes trouble, even sacrificing himself in the process. If a prince is someone who rescues girls, then surely that’s exactly what Touga is? The thing is, Touga is also a bad dude, in fact in many ways a worse dude than Saoinji. He’s bad behind closed doors, is the difference; emotionally abusive rather than physically, manipulative and backstabbing rather than insulting anyone to their face. He regularly manipulates his friends and siblings for his own gain, and has engineered more than one situation where he creates disaster in order to heroically rescue Utena from it, making himself look good in the process of being utterly awful.

This is the terrible thing that Utena is forced to realise when the arc comes to a head: when Touga, sweet and chivalrous Touga, tugs her heartstrings in all directions like a master puppeteer, then brutally attacks the weak spot that he himself made and beats her in their duel. Again, we have the literal, physical defeat in which he beats Utena in the fight and leaves her physically overpowered and realising that she’s out of her depth. But in the symbolic layer woven in amongst this, he effectively seduces her, preys on her ideals and plays into her weaknesses, then completely takes advantage of her. The whole “de-flowering” imagery of the duellist’s roses becomes particularly frightening and terrible here, when you realise this whole debacle could very much be read as a metaphor for him manipulating and then sexually assaulting Utena. He leaves her distraught and crushed and confused, blaming herself for the whole thing and questioning if she should ever have tried to be a prince in the first place. This is that first “death”: both a physical defeat and a psychological implosion into hopelessness and distress.

As tied up as it is in magical duels and fairy tale stuff… this part felt horrifyingly and wonderfully real. Unfortunately, part of growing up as a woman is the realisation that men can be nasty and frightening. Maybe someone you love takes advantage of you and you lose your sense of safety in what was a good relationship, maybe a friend you trusted makes a rape joke and you no longer feel comfortable around him, maybe a public figure you idolise does something despicable and you feel sickly and wrong for ever looking up to him. Every woman has at least one pivotal moment like this, and by making this moment synonymous with Utena’s first “death” this realisation is given weight and significance, shown to be anything but trivial.  Coming of age stories, especially those that revolve around altruistic heroism, often involve the young hero learning that morality is not black and white nor are people always what they appear. Touga’s betrayal and the realisations that come with it are an essential part of Utena’s growth as a hero, but as this is a girl’s coming of age story they hold these extra, specific connotations. He who seems to be a prince should not always be trusted—he might just be a villain instead, and you’d have no way of knowing until it’s too late.

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Life lessons: if he has to announce himself as a Chivalrous Nice Guy, chances are he isn’t

Not only does Touga “kill” Utena here by knocking her duellist’s rose off, but he also effectively kills her innocence, dealing the first significant blow to her idealism. No matter how far you choose to read the assault metaphor, there’s no denying that Utena has been betrayed on a deep and fundamental level, stripped of her agency and her dignity by someone she had grown to idolise and trust. It shatters her confidence and her perception of what is good and bad, and robs her of the pride and happiness associated with being a “prince” and a duellist. As well as proving himself to be a nasty piece of work, in defeating her in the duel Touga also damages Utena’s trademark boys’ outfit, stranding her in the girls’ uniform. Once again, surface-level damage that matches up to psychological damage: he’s killed her sense of identity. She’s clearly uncomfortable in the skirt and blouse, but because she blames herself for what happened she retreats into uncharacteristic passivity and depression.

Sometimes the Hero needs rescuing too, in fact for many it’s an important stage (“Rescue From Without” if we’re sticking with Hero With a Thousand Faces terminology). It’s Utena’s friend Wakaba, the same friend she originally defended from Saionji in the fight that started this whole mess, who eventually pulls her out of this state and re-instils some confidence and faith in Utena. Add the scene where Juri lends Utena her sword to challenge Touga, and our metaphor continues onwards from its frightening and sad place: now, we have a story about Utena throwing herself into the adult world without abandon and without the mental maturity to match, getting exploited, but then getting back up from this horrible moment with the help of the women around her. With a helping hand, the hero’s rebirth begins in the wake of her trip to the Underworld.

The image of the ideal prince that Utena carried in her heart since childhood has been shattered in her adolescence. So she goes and stabs the bastard.

Needless to say, Touga getting his ass kicked in the duel is satisfying on both the physical and the psychological levels. When Utena crosses that threshold into the magical world/the metaphorical realm of sexual maturity for episode 12’s climactic fight, she’s armed with new knowledge, self-awareness, and the support of other women. It’s fitting that this is the part where the stock footage of Utena climbing the stairs changes for the first time, signifying a shift in the way she’s interacting with this world. It’s also fitting that, all illusions thrown aside, it’s this duel where the sexual imagery gets more blatant than ever, with Touga commanding Anthy to get on her knees and kiss his sword (ew), and Utena’s girls’ uniform getting slashed up so Touga reveals more of her skin.

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I’ve been staring at this screencap for five hours now. It’s beautiful

Touga, aware that he’s lost his grip on Utena and thus there’s no reason left to be smarmy, attacks brutally… not dissimilar to, say, the way some men will turn around and hurl slurs at a woman they’d been flirting sweetly with a moment before, when she makes it clear she’s not interested. He’s got what he wanted from her, and is enraged that she’s challenging him on her own terms. But Utena fights for herself—not for the ideal of “rescuing a princess”—and wins. It’s a shift in both the power dynamic of the duelling arena and in Utena herself, and her success heralds the end of the arc and the end of her Separation chapter. She’s tripped, but then found her feet again, in “the perilous realm”, reformed as somebody new after being taken to pieces. It’s a gut-wrenching, but in the end amazingly satisfying, little slice of character development.

Revolutionary Girl Utena is a coming of age story, and one that never shies away from poking around in the dark heart of what moving from childhood to adulthood means. At the end of this first arc, Utena has completed the first steps on her Hero’s Journey, stumbling into the literal world of magic duellists and the psychological world of sexual maturity, getting knocked down but then climbing back up with new understandings and with the support of those who care about her. Her idealism has been shaken but not broken, and she now defines “being a prince” as less of a wafty ideal and more of something that’s part of her identity, something she’s resolved to protect and stand up for now that she has a better understanding of what threats are out there. This, of course, is before we even meet Akio, so it’s safe to say that this conflict with Touga is very much the level one Boss Fight and a sign of things to come: the battle ahead is established as one against nasty men masquerading as princely, and the best weapons in Utena’s arsenal are self-respect and love and support from (and for) other women.

In beating her in the duel, Touga laid a devastating blow to her childhood naïvete, but damn it if Utena didn’t rise back up, drawing strength not from fairy tale ideals but from the supportive love of the women around her. Utena the Hero has changed and grown as the result of this first clash, as has Utena the Teenaged Girl, and so she strides forward into the next stage of her Journey, no longer as innocent but with newfound strength and knowledge. Which she’ll need, because this is just the tip of the rose-petal-covered iceberg in terms of how this show explores maturity and adolescence (as I said, we haven’t even met Akio yet)… but for now, she’s good, and it makes for a very narratively satisfying end to the first leg of her Journey.

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1 Comment

Filed under Archetypes and Genre, Fun with Isms

One response to “The Death of Innocence and Rebirth of the Hero in Revolutionary Girl Utena

  1. Pingback: Flip Flap, Flip Flap: September ’17 Roundup | The Afictionado

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