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 5: “The Sunlit Garden – Finale.” Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. Character designs by Chiho Saito. Be-Papas, 1997 (Nozomi Entertainment, 2011). Approx. 24 minutes. Rated “16+.”
Although the main plot of this show still eludes us (and will continue to do so until the third and final arc), this fifth episode represents a sea change in Revolutionary Girl Utena because it is the first episode to reveal what we’re really in for.
In the episode previous, we met Miki, another member of the student council. A mere middle school freshman, Miki is a child prodigy, a highly skilled fencer, pianist, and math student. He also has the hots for Anthy, whom he calls his “shining thing.”
Miki has a peculiar quirk: he carries around a stopwatch, which he is constantly clicking. Later in the series, we will hear a lot of characters speaking of “eternity” or “something eternal,” a phrase equivalent to Miki’s “shining thing.” Miki’s constant clicking of a stopwatch is symbolic of his desire to stop time, to find a happiness that goes on for eternity. He sees this happiness represented in Anthy, the Rose Bride, and it is turn reflected in the fairy tale castle that hovers upside down over the dueling arena. The castle to which the duelists wish to ascend by means of possessing Anthy and the Sword of Dios is a representation of never-ending joy, of lasting fulfillment—ultimately, as the name “Dios” suggests, of heaven, a concept that these characters find to be vague and elusive but also compelling and inescapable.
Ultimately, they want what everyone wants: they want to be happy. There is a lot of sleaze and decadence in Revolutionary Girl Utena, but as the old saying goes, “The man knocking on the door of the brothel is searching for God.” All things are good ontologically, so no matter what a man grasps at, no matter how base, he is really searching for goodness and thus, ultimately, for the source of all goodness. But in the universe of Utena, as will eventually see, one who seeks God can in the end only find the devil.
In the previous episode, Miki had reassured Utena that he had no desire to duel her. Moved by Utena’s rejection of the duels, he meets with the other members of the student council and suggests that they disband.
In response to this suggestion, the rakish student council president, Touga, gets his revenge on Miki by sleeping with Miki’s sister.
Two things happen here that will direct the course of the show from this point forward. First, this episode contains the first student council meeting to contain what we might call a “symbolic background image.” It is relatively simple: during the meeting, there is an apple sitting on a chair.
At the end of the meeting, in a final shot, the apple has been cut into slices carved into rabbit shapes, suitable for a child’s bento.
This is suggestive of change, transformation, revolution—one of the show’s overarching themes. According to the interviews in the extra material that come with my collector’s edition, this arresting image started a competition between the episode directors, each one trying to top the others by adding bizarre and increasingly elaborate imagery to the subsequent meetings of the student council. In future episodes, we will see the council members surrounded by electric fans, surrounded by colorful balloons, trying to talk while a baseball game goes on around them on their tiny balcony, or shouting over a rushing freight train. Here in episode 5, the carved apple is simple and powerful, but from this point forward, the imagery accompanying the student council meetings will grow increasingly bizarre and bathetic. Any attempt to discern meaning from them is probably fruitless, as they apparently had mostly to do with a game of one-upmanship amongst the show’s creators.
Second, this episode contains the show’s first sexual content. The depiction, as always, is simple and understated: Miki walks into a music room to practice piano and runs into his twin sister. He asks why she’s in a music room when she’s given up the piano. She acts somewhat stiff and adjusts her skirt in a suggestive way.
Then she says this:
When Miki walks into the music room, he finds Touga leaning on the piano with his jacket hanging open. As always in Utena, no explanation is offered, and the audience is invited to read between the lines, but what happened in this room before Miki arrived is clear enough.
After I’ve watched this multiple times, this isn’t especially striking, but it certainly was when I watched it the first time. My initial reaction was along the lines of, “Wait, what? Did they … ? Are you … ? Wha … ?”
The sexual content never becomes explicit and always remains, as here, suggested rather than directly depicted. But it too will reach the point of bathos as the show proceeds.
In conversation with both Touga and Anthy, Miki realizes that the Rose Bride is entirely beholden to the whims of her betrothed, meaning that Anthy is effectively Utena’s slave. Therefore, bent on recapturing the feeling he had when playing the piano alongside his sister in childhood, and having convinced himself that he’s working to free Anthy from bondage, Miki finally challenges Utena to a duel.
He loses, of course, which is perhaps implausible, as he’s allegedly a fencing champion and Utena has no prior experience with swords that we know of. The sword fight is passable for ’90s animation, but shows no evidence that the animators actually studied fencing before they went to work. There are several occasions in which Miki should have stabbed Utena multiple times if he really knows how to fence, since she has a habit of leaving herself wide open while striking dramatic poses.
At the episode’s finale, we discover that Miki’s sister is actually a terrible pianist. His fond but false memories of her, and his apparently mistaken belief that he is capable of freeing Anthy, suggest that his “shining thing” may be an illusion.