Saturday, February 17, 2007

That's one of dem furrin comics, isn't it?

Contrary to popular belief (and possibly what I've written on this blog) I don't absolutely despise Manga. I'll read it, of course, but I don't like to review or rant or comment on it. I just finished reading Revolutionary Girl Utena, Volume 5. I imagine with a simple search I'll be able to find blog articles on the sexuality in the story. The gender roles that switched, the gender roles that weren't, Utena as a romance hero vs Utena as an action hero, homosexual undertones, homosexual overtones, lesbian text, bisexuality, whatever you can think of. Probably all written by people who know Japan better than I do because I don't know a damned thing about Japanese culture. I've never been there, and I don't really have the inclination or funds to go. I try to read enough about Eastern religion and philosophy to recognize when someone's blatantly ripping off and/or disrespecting an Eastern religion in paganism, but really that's not the same as studying culture. So, while I'll read and enjoy anime or manga that's been recommended for a very specific reason (Utena was suggested after I did a short message board post on why I liked Wonder Woman) I can't break down the story like I can a book by a British or American writer, because I feel like I'm out of my element when it comes to the symbolism. I'll make an exception here, though.

(I told you I'd use that banner). Spoilers, but I'll summarize first (and gender-specify because I know shit-all about japanese names and I'm willing to bet some of you are in the same boat) for those of you who haven't read the series but still want to read the post.

Please note, this is the Manga only. I haven't watched the anime, and I've heard it goes totally different.

In this series, Utena (female) gets rescued from drowning as a little girl by The Prince (male) and decides she is going to be just like him when she grows up. (Also, he's promised they'll meet again if she's noble and strong so most of this series is her looking for him). After moving to a new school, Utena rescues Anthy (female) from her abusive spouse Saionji (male) in a duel (which has special effects and a sword beign pulled out of a woman's chest), and then gets informed that Anthy is the Rose Bride and is now her Bride because she won the duel. There are lots of MYSTERIOUS and SECRET happenings with the duelists, and there's a special dueling field that is directly underneath the floating upsidedown castle where The Prince lives.

Utena then duels Juri (female) over the affections of Touga (male), and Miki (male) because Miki's sister is being held hostage. Then Touga (male) because he was leading her on, pretending to be The Prince. After she's won against just about everyone, enter Akio (male), who is Anthy's brother and apparently The Prince. He gets into a romantic relationship with Utena. Touga, who still has a crush on Utena, tells her that Akio is just toying with her emotions like he toyed with his emotions and one things leads to another and Utena ends up dueling Akio. Akio wins, turns Utena into the Rose Bride, and reveals that oops, no he's not The Prince but he's The Bad Guy who has been manipulating them all series. Well, that sucks, and the enchantment around being the Bride manages to keep Utena from stopping Akio from climbing up into the floating upside down castle to kill The Prince. She snaps out of it, though, and is then pissed and gets Anthy (who switches sides more than Ares in Wonder Woman) to lead her and the other four duelists up to the floating upside-down castle.

While inside the floating upside-down castle, Juri, Miki, and Saionji try to get everyone to turn back, so Anthy imprisons them in glass coffins because all of a sudden she's a major power and shit, and Touga and Utena follow her on. Touga gets injured, Utena moves on and finds The Prince, already injured and dying. She then fights Akio, gets the exposition, does some funky power merging thing with The Prince's Soul, merges Akio and The Prince (because they were just two halves of the same diety), saves the world and gets locked up in the floating upside down castle -- or it gets destroyed, I'm not too clear on this.

Touga wakes up to find that he remembers everything, but no one else (Juri, Miki, and Saionji) remember Utena, Akio, dueling, or the floating upside-down castle. He finds Anthy, who is now acting exactly like Utena, and she explains that Utena's waiting in the floating upside-down castle and that someday she'll go up there and they'll hook up.

The reason I gender-specified (instead of letting people guess!) is to point out who was in a samesex relationship with a divine figure and who wasn't. Akio and Anthy are established as divine figures in the end. Touga was with Akio, and Utena was with Anthy. Saionji was with Anthy, so he was with a divine figure, but he didn't have a samesex relationship. Miki has no romantic relationship (his sister prevents it). Juri only has romantic interest in Touga and Ruka (male). She actually doesn't interact with women much at all. Juri, Miki, and Saoinji are unable to go forward in the castle, and they end up forgetting the entire experience.

Kalinara swears Juri is a lesbian in the anime, but in the manga she's like the token heterosexual woman of the story. Only shows interest in male characters. They make a point of having her say she's not dueling for Anthy, but for Touga. She doesn't even interact with women other than Utena. (Actually, I was surprised in the second volume when they pointed out that Juri was a she! She's thin, in a male uniform, and only ever spent time with male characters). I'll probably rent the anime just to see how much differently everything works out with the character sexuality realigned. But in the manga, it lines up so that the bisexual characters get to advance, but the straight (by which I mean strictly) heterosexual characters get caught up, and the straight homosexual side-characters don't ever make it to floating upside-down castle.

So I wonder, is there a point to that particular division? Was not embracing both genders romantically a sign of being blind/unaccepting of divinity and destiny in this book? Or was it simply because these three characters were minor, they just weren't important enough to get a samesex relationship or an epiphany?

Maybe someone who wasn't surprised to find out this book wasn't set in a small communist South American nation can help me out here.


  1. I've never actually read the manga, but I watched part of the anime, and between some of that (visual motifs, mostly) and your post, I have to say, it sounds almost alchemical.

    Not sure that's at all what I'm supposed to be glomming onto, but someone who's actually managed to get ahold of the manga will have to answer that.

    ...In that light, I'm not sure this comment's at all helpful, but I figured I'd throw in my half a cent anyway.

  2. I'm glad you liked the manga. I've only seen the movie, and I'm catching up on the anime episodes online.

    Like Kalinara, I swear Juri's a lesbian in the anime and (probably) the movie. She has an unhealthy relationship with a former female friend to whom she feels attracted, though in the movie she doesn't get as much screentime.

    I've never heard anyone propose the theory that limited attraction to one gender meant the character can't move forward. The two main characters are definitely involved in a f/f relationship, and in the movie at least (I haven't seen the anime ending) Anthy and Utena both have to take on decisive, 'masculine' roles in order to break themselves out of their prisons. I thought a main message of the movie was that girls can be princes, choosing to save themselves, and/or that gender roles should generally be flexible and open to choice. Saionji appears to be very much the wrong kind of masculinity, but Juri and Miki were probably just left out of the reward because they were secondary characters.

    The anime seems to be more about solving psychological issues and moving on, as well as continuing to play around with gender roles. Anthy's the passive Bride, but she's also the witch, and she still has to make a choice in the end.

  3. I'm trying to make an intelligent comment, but I'm still tripping over the whole 'Juri is not a lesbian' thing.


    The thing with the anime is that not only is it an exploration of gender roles and weird fantasy roles and such, but also the ramifications of abusive relationships. On both a personal and metaphorical level.

    Haven't read the manga, though now I think I should.

  4. Wow, I've read the manga a couple times over, and I never even noticed that it was only the bisexual characters who advanced in the castle. That may be because I read the manga after watching the anime, and in the anime everyone with the possible exception of Miki (asexual) and Juri (lesbian) are bisexual. Like, seriously, *everyone* in the anime is bisexual. Even Saionji. So I guess that the division between homo/hetero and bisexual characters in the manga didn't even, well, register in my brain.

    Or was it simply because these three characters were minor, they just weren't important enough to get a samesex relationship or an epiphany?

    You know, that may very well be the case.

    Or it might not be.

    Chiho Saito has spoken out in a lot of interviews about the manga (all in Japanese, unfortunately) and was famously irked at Kuniko Ikuhara (the anime director)'s insistence that Utena and Anthy should be pure lesbians. I don't know if she every said why exactly, but perhaps a character who (romantically) rejects either men or women isn't fit to be the heroine of Utena.

    I think one of the main themes of the anime is how problematic the gender binary is in the first place. In the anime, it's revealed that one of Utena's greatest flaws is that she conflates "masculine" with "strength" and "feminine" characteristics with "weakness." In order to be a strong person, she also believes that she must literally become someone else (a prince) because she can't be strong herself. In this context, if the gender binary is bad, then it does make sense that the central heroine should be bisexual, because that sort of represents an ultimate freedom from gender restrictions.

    The thing is, I don't see those themes as present in the manga. So I'm kind of left scratching my head as to why Chiho Saito insisted on Utena and Anthy being bisexual.

  5. I'll admit, even though I recommended Utena, I still haven't read the second volume yet. Since it's a long weekend for me, I guess I'll just have to catch up on my manga reading. Oh well.

    P.S. There's a sequel (I think it's three volumes) called The Adolescence of Utena. I think it's a companion to the movie. But maybe it's more normal than the movie and Utena doesn't turn into a pink car in the end!

  6. As far as I am aware, the Adolescence of Utena manga is a pure adaptation of the movie and nothing to do with the original manga.

    I've only seen the anime, which is amazingly surreal for a TV show, but although during the credit sequence Utena is shown reaching the castle, she never does so in the story. I was always disappointed by this but people told me that Utena's striving to reach the castle was symbolic and other existential BS. I shall have to get the manga now.

    Oh, and if you've never seen the anime you are missing out on the wonderfully absurd music. I liked it so much I bought the CD.

  7. mmm most of the time I don't get to deal with the confusion of some people who read/watched utena, but I will try to help as much as I can.

    Utena manga ≠ Utena anime ≠ Utena movie ≠ Utena movie manga.

    They are all similar because it was a "studio project" and not just and adaptation of already written manga. The anime and the manga appeared at the same time. The movie and its manga counterpart came years later.
    They are different because both the visions of Utena of Chiho Saito (manga writer) and Kunihiko Ikuhara are different. While the manga flows straight to the point and looks more like a traditional shojo, the anime is full with symbolism and characters that you thought you knew are not what you thought, even the abusive boyfriend type. (Well except for Touga who is just an irredeemable bastard)

    If you have the time try to visit this page
    This is probably the most complete page available in the web about Utena. And it´s forum, ( full of people that are more able to give a better explanation about the series than I could ever give.

  8. The reason Juri, Miki, and Saionji get left out in the cold in the manga isn't, I think, because of being straight, but rather because they failed to be chosen by one of the two 'gods' of the story. And they aren't chosen, because in the end, they don't fit the type that each of the two gods is looking for. Anthy wants a heroic prince like her brother used to be, and Akio wants a manipulating bastard like himself. That basically comes down to Utena and Touga as the best candidates.

    Juri, Miki, and Saionji are all better served by the anime which has more space to develop them and give them their own internal dynamics, though.

    In the anime, pretty much everyone is bisexual to some degree, though they have preferences. (A lot depends on how you interpret the symbolism of the Rose Bride and her Prince. It seems to function as a symbol of male dominance / female submission in a relationship. Taken that way, the various Prince / Rose Bride pairings we see would indicate just about everyone in the main cast except Miki has an interest in both sexes.)

    Juri seems to be mostly lesbian, but her relationship with Ruka comes off as an unhealthy het one. Miki gets to have incestous overtones to his relationship with his twin sister (Kozue), but is pretty much straight. Saionji is mostly straight, but probably has sex with Akio at least once and possibly Touga too (and acts as 'bride' for Touga at one point). Touga will pretty clearly sleep with anything. Utena is clearly bi, and Nanami has an unrecognized by herself until near the end incestous crush on her brother, Touga.

    One big difference between the Anime and the manga, though, is that the supporting cast gradually grow and overcome their flaws and bitternesses as a result of their battles and interactions. Touga realizes he's gotten in over his head, Saionji overcomes being an asshole, Juri lets go of her bitterness, Miki and his sister stop hurting each other, and Nanami manages to accept her past mistakes and move on.

    The ending is as confusing as the manga, though.