The bird is fighting its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Whoever wishes to be born must destroy a world. The bird is flying to God. The god is named Abraxas.
—Herman Hesse, Demian
Revolutionary Girl Utena, episode 2: “For Whom the Rose Smiles.” Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. Character designs by Chiho Saito. Be-Papas, 1997 (Nozomi Entertainment, 2011). Approx. 24 minutes. Rated “16+.”
The 39-episode anime series Revolutionary Girl Utena is complex and weird enough that it admits probably several interpretations. After kicking around on the internet, I’ve decided that in spite of the large volume of ink already spilled, I don’t feel redundant for writing this series of essays, because after I read anything anyone else has written, I inevitably come away saying, “No, that’s completely wrong.”
Like, I don’t know what “toxic” means in this context, but I do know that if you’re getting life lessons about sex, noun declensions, and relationships from this show, you’re doing it wrong. I’m not even sure what you’re doing, but I’m certain that you’re doing it wrong. That’s about as disturbing as saying that you learned a lot about life and love from the Gor novels.
So … I learned a lot about incest from Revolutionary Girl Utena. Does that count?
Anyway, we move on now to the second episode, “For Whom the Rose Smiles.” The first episode rushed us through the introduction to the main character and the basic concept. Unsurprisingly, the second slows down, recaps the premise, and introduces some new details. But this episode also presents a particular line of dialogue that will appear repeatedly in future episodes. So after I give a quick summary here, we’re going to focus in on that.
Utena’s obsessive best friend Wakaba, having been slighted by the green-haired Saionji in the most humiliating way possible, has now recovered, or is at least making a brave show of it. She’s back to glomping Utena, though with a hint of wistfulness, as she’s also reading dippy romance novels.
Utena gets a new dorm assignment, only to find that Anthy, the Rose Bride, has moved in. On the plus side, Anthy cleans. On the downside, she doesn’t cook, she brings vermin, and she’s an all-around weirdo.
Along with Anthy comes the cartoon’s obligatory animal mascot character, Chu-Chu. Chu-Chu is supposed to be a monkey, but he looks like a mouse. Like most animal mascots, he has no real purpose aside from comedy relief: throughout the series, he’ll get stuck in various objects, eat various objects … the usual.
Worth noting, perhaps, is that Chu-Chu’s design here is markedly different from that in the manga. In Chiho Saito’s manga version, he actually does look like a monkey, albeit a very cartoonish monkey, and has a different personality.
Speaking of Saito-sensei, her interview in the laserdisc liner notes offers several intriguing gems, since, as a manga-ka who collaborated on project and wrote an alternate version in manga format (which, to make things extra confusing, actually appeared first, in 1996, but was based on the plans for the anime, which aired in 1997), she is in some ways both an insider and an outsider on the project. Although she is pushed in this direction by leading questions from her interviewer, she describes the anime version of Chu-Chu as a type of masculine ideal, a character who might live the way men would if they had no duties or responsibilities to take care of: eating, sleeping, and playing.
Of course, that’s likely how everyone would live without responsibilities, so she’s probably not far off.
From the girl’s perspective, I can’t help but want boys to make an effort. But I get the feeling maybe boys think that a whole world of happiness would open up for them if they stopped making an effort and lived like anime Chu-Chu. —Chiho Saito
Speaking of making an effort, the first time I watched this episode, I was irritated with Utena: by the end of the first episode, she had her lifelong dream dumped in her lap, yet in this second episode she reacts to the whole situation with a combination of bemusement, longsuffering, and lack of interest. In fact, she even decides that, when another student council member inevitably challenges her to a duel for possession of Anthy, she will simply lose on purpose and be rid of the whole business.
Based on her backstory and goal in life, you’d think she’d be blabbering about how this is her destiny or something. Instead, she treats it as a hassle. That’s a serious lack of gratitude right there.
Even stranger, she knows that the Rose Seal ring she wears makes her a Duelist for the Rose Bride, and she received the ring from the mysterious prince she’s looking for. So shouldn’t she be a little more keen on all this, since it has the possibility of leading her to her prince?
Over the course of the series, Utena will prove to be a decidedly incurious character: she comes to accept her bizarre circumstances, but does next to nothing to investigate what’s going on or get to the bottom of things. Stuff happens to Utena, but aside from kicking posterior in the dueling arena, she doesn’t do much. The show reminds me of Moby Dick, which opens with the iconic line, “Call me Ishmael,” yet Ishmael disappears after a few chapters when Ahab takes center stage. Similarly, Utena all but becomes a background character in her own anime after the student council members take center stage, which will happen in just a few episodes.
Chiho Saito, describing how she sees the anime version, puts it this way:
… the way the anime is structured, Utena is far too removed from the center of the drama, and I’m really not sure that’s suited for manga.
I’m really not sure that’s suited for anything.
Looked at one way, Utena is best understood not so much as a character in her own right, but as a vehicle through which the other cast members deal with their neuroses, obsessions, fixations, and psychosexual issues. She is the only character in the show who is psychologically normal and emotionally balanced, overwritten naïveté and crossdressing habit notwithstanding. She becomes the other characters’ release valve, a means of reaching catharsis, the vehicle through which they discover how to get on with their lives. The piece-of-garbage movie version even tries to depict that literally, and does it in the most hamfisted way imaginable—but we’ll discuss all of that when the time comes.
We aren’t told exactly what the rules are of the Duel, but the Duelists can apparently ask for at least one (maybe only one) rematch. Not surprisingly, Saionji is taking the loss of Anthy hard, so he comes calling to demand a rematch. And, of course, he gets slap-happy again. As I mentioned last time, Anthy gets slapped like a purple-headed stepchild in this show. I think there’s one slap per episode for the first four episodes, if memory serves.
So Utena returns to the dueling arena, her ascent-of-the-staircase animation gets recycled, I miss most of the action because I’m headbanging to J. A. Caesar’s catchy yet extraordinarily goofy music, and things go much as you would suppose. This episode offers nothing unusual or unpredictable, but it does have a lot of slick editing and what we would call creative cinematography if this were live-action. I don’t know what you call it in animation.
Most notably, this episode introduces Utena’s equivalent to a magical girl finishing move, in which a prince figure clothed in white descends from the castle in the sky and and combines with her before she administers the coup de grâce.
So even though Utena expressed reluctance earlier, she does her duty and is thus still stuck with Anthy.
Now, I’d like to bring the reader’s attention back to one of the earlier scenes. We still haven’t properly met the members of the student council besides Saionji, but we’ve seen them. They gather together on a large balcony overlooking the school where they discuss the letters they’ve received from World’s End and their plans for the Duel, and they also wonder exactly what Utena’s role in all of this is.
The student council comes together in almost every episode, and their scene typically opens with an ascending elevator and ominous music, while a voice announces:
If it cannot break its egg’s shell, a chick will die without being born. We are the chick. The world is our egg. If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without being born. Smash the world’s shell! For the revolution of the world!
Kuniko Ikuhara, in his commentary on this episode, explains the origin of this line: in middle school, a friend handed him a copy of Herman Hesse’s novel Demian and told him, “Inside this book is everything about me.”
Ikuhara relates that, later, he asked his friend about Demian again, but the friend had forgotten the book entirely. Ikuhara, however, was struck by one particular line in the novel, the line I’m quoting at the top of each essay in this series. He adapted it for Revolutionary Girl Utena, and also adapted some of the book’s themes.
Ikuhara says something else I find wryly amusing, because it sums up my opinion of Demian: “I wonder if Hesse wasn’t needed in the world [my friend] lived in after middle school.”
Demian is the second novel of Hesse’s that I’ve read, the first being the more famous Siddhartha. Both are spiritual, psychological journeys, and have a number of similarities. Siddhartha appears to me a much more mature work, so I was surprised to learn that Hesse wrote the two books only two years apart. The apparent difference in the maturity of the works may be due to the source material: in Siddhartha, Hesse taps the ancient religious traditions of India, but in Demian, he taps the fads of Jung and Nietzsche.
The protagonist of Demian is Emil Sinclair, a man reflecting on his youth. The book starts with his childhood, progresses into his teenager years, and stops there, which seems appropriate. He encounters several individuals who shape his character and his personal philosophy, but the most important of them is the titular Demian. Demian is Sinclair’s classmate, and he strikes up a conversation with him after a Bible lesson on the story of Cain and Abel. Demian reinterprets the story and proposes that Cain is really the hero, and that the mark of Cain is a sign of his superiority and greater intelligence, and that he has the right to kill Abel because he is powerful and Abel is weak.
Although Sinclair recognizes that sober exegesis won’t support Demian’s interpretation of the text, he is nonetheless intrigued by Demian’s philosophy and takes him as a mentor. Demian has certain quasi-mystical abilities: he can, on demand, perform a sort of self-hypnosis or deep contemplation, and he can also control other people, even from a distance, by exerting his formidable willpower on them. Because of his innate superiority, Demian does not need to restrict himself with either the social norms or morals that guide other, lesser people. He is a superman, and he teaches Sinclair to discover his own innate superiority as well.
There are strong hints that Hesse is employing the Romanticist technique of personality fragmentation, and that Demian is not to be understood as a separate character, but as an aspect of Sinclair’s own psyche. There are possibly hints of something similar in Utena: buried in the supplemental material to the remastered edition is the indication that Anthy is not supposed to be a separate character, but a representation of Utena’s feminine side, her desire to be a princess that remains in spite of her princely aspirations. If this is really what the staff intended with the show, however, I would say it doesn’t come across. Demian practically demands that the reader understand Demian and Sinclair as the same person. Utena does not demand the same for Utena and Anthy, and I never would have guessed it if I hadn’t read it.
Sinclair, from Demian, comes from a good family. His father works at a respectable job and makes enough to live comfortably. Sinclair gets along well with his sisters and his mother. Being an intelligent and energetic youth, he could potentially follow in his father’s footsteps and live as a productive, moderately wealthy citizen of the upper middle class. But he also, in his childhood, has a habit of hanging out with street louts, a habit that leads him to a great deal of trouble when a thug blackmails him, a problem from which Demian ultimately rescues him.
For reasons not quite clear, Sinclair finds his respectable home life unsatisfactory, though he also finds the criminality in the streets terrifying. He wants, somehow, to combine the two, to have the best of everything. This desire is represented in the book by Abraxas, a Gnostic god combining God and Satan into a single being.
Although Abraxas is a representation of Sinclair’s goal in life, we never actually learn what that goal looks like when lived out. One of the most striking aspects of Demian is how damn vague it is. Sinclair is dissatisfied with his family, but we don’t know why. He and Demian are supposed to be supermen, but aside from magic willpower, we aren’t told what makes them superior. They assert superior knowledge, but don’t bother to divulge it to the reader. At the end of the book, Sinclair goes forth to live Demian’s philosophy even though it causes him “pain,” but we don’t know how he lives, or what he does, or what Demian’s philosophy is, or even what pain he experiences.
In other words, Hesse’s novel suffers the same problem that attends his master Nietzsche: Nietzsche rants about the superman, but as his critics are fond of pointing out, he doesn’t ever quite say what a superman is or what he does, except that he’s unfettered. It becomes nothing but an adulation of raw power, and Demian is the same way: what Demian preaches is the worship of power coupled with pride.
We have a word for people like Demian and Sinclair, people who consider themselves beyond good and evil, who believe morals are for little people, who are experts at manipulating others to further their own ends. The word is psychopath.
Demian is a classic, so I suppose I’m obligated to recommend it, but nobody should read it without also reading Siddhartha, or more widely exploring Hesse’s corpus. In Siddhartha, the titular hero progresses over time to old age. He reaches a stage that looks somewhat like Demian‘s endpoint, a youthful justification for self-indulgence, but Siddhartha eventually becomes disgusted with that and moves on.
In short, the hero of Demian is a teenager with a teenage philosophy. It is a book nobody should need after middle school.
Bringing the discussion back around to Revolutionary Girl Utena, I detect irony. Utena takes its inspiration from Demian and contains many of the same ideas. As we’ll discuss in later essays, Utena, like Demian, treats of the things that hold civilizations together—traditions and social conventions and morals—as things for little people that supermen have no need of. But from there, it heads in a very different direction. Demian is fixated mostly on Jung’s mystical religion posing as psychological theory, but Utena is fixated on second-wave feminism. In Utena, the two-sided god is not an object of veneration, but of horror. And the amoral superman who can manipulate others with his all-encompassing willpower is not the hero, but the villain, a representation of domineering manhood.
How do these two works start in the same place but end up at two very different conclusions? Simple: once you throw off traditions, social conventions, and morals, all bets are off. With no foundation, you are at that point vulnerable to the fad of the day, whatever it happens to be. When Hesse wrote, Jung was the new hotness, and Hesse was himself undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis when he wrote his novel. When Utena was made, feminism was the new hotness.
Revolutionary Girl Utena‘s attack on Demian is like Robespierre getting the guillotine or Trotsky getting the ice axe. When you tout your alleged superiority to all that has gone before and make revolution and rebellion the basis of your philosophy, you set yourself up to get offed, because the next generation of revolutionaries will find you insufficiently revolutionary. If they didn’t, they couldn’t keep the eternal revolution going.