Something Eternal: The ‘Revolutionary Girl Utena’ Rewatch, Part 9

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 9: “The Castle Said to Hold Eternity.” Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. Character designs by Chiho Saito. Be-Papas, 1997 (Nozomi Entertainment, 2011). Approx. 24 minutes. Rated “16+.”

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In this episode, after two weeks of filler, we return to the main plot. The first story arc, known as the “Student Council Saga,” is drawing rapidly to its conclusion. In this episode, the basics of the show’s underlying mystery are laid before us, though that might not be obvious to someone who hasn’t already watched the whole show through.

Saionji returns. He’s still something of a joke character, but he plays an important role in this episode. We now learn that there’s more to Saionji’s obsession with Anthy than had at first been apparent.

Much of the story is told through flashback that fills out Utena’s fairy tale-like backstory. Saionji and Touga have been friends and rivals since they were young children, Saionji always seeming to be in Touga’s shadow. When they were small, they were riding home from kendo practice in a rainstorm and passed a church where a funeral had just taken place.

The funeral, we discover, was for Utena’s parents. For some reason, there are three coffins in the church, and the little girl Utena has crawled into one and hidden there, where Saionji and Touga find her. Since she has gone missing, there are people searching for her, but Utena tells Saionji and Touga that if she is discovered, she will simply crawl into another coffin and hide again. The death of her mother and father has driven her to the existential crisis that afflicts Postmodernity: she says she does not want to live because “there’s no such thing as something eternal.” In other words, because God is dead, and because life inevitably ends in death, life is meaningless. There is no point in living.

Utena’s crisis here is reflected in several philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it particularly echos Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, in which he famously wrote, “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Camus begins from the same point at which Utena has arrived: life is pointless, and it inevitably ends in death; it is “absurd.” Camus ultimately rejects suicide as a proper response to this absurdity, but Utena has embraced it, albeit in a passive way—attempting to escape life by hiding from it.

Sainoji and Touga leave Utena in the coffin; Saionji suggests that they should help her, but Touga merely smirks and says, “Then show her something eternal.” In other words, he challenges Saionji to what is presumably an impossible task, to prove to Utena that life has meaning.

Saionji sees Utena again the next day, but finds that she has changed: something has happened to her, and she has found a reason to go on living. As we know from the show’s original introduction, this is because she met a prince on a white horse who inspired her. Utena has not arrived at Camus’s conclusion that it is possible to find pleasure in absurdity, “in which the whole being is exerted in accomplishing nothing”; rather, she has rejected absurdity and believes she has found meaning. At this point in the story, it is still an open question whether she is correct or not.

Saionji believes it is Touga who must have, somehow, shown Utena something eternal, and he is jealous. But it is unclear what this “something eternal” might be, and it is increasingly doubtful that Touga is indeed Utena’s prince.

This is, by the way, markedly different from the version of Utena’s backstory in Chiho Saito’s manga. In that version, after her parents’ death, Utena falls into a canal and nearly drowns, and the prince appears and rescues her, so she dedicates her life to finding him again. This is a stock premise for a shoujo manga: if you want to see it done unironically, I recommend Kitchen Princess by Miyuki Kobayashi and Natsumi Andō, which depicts a lovelorn lass trying to track down the half-remembered prince of her childhood by baking desserts rather than by sword-fighting over a girl in bondage.

In any case, in the present day, Touga makes hints to Utena that he may be her prince. Meanwhile, Saionji is determined to get Anthy back because she once told him that the floating castle overhanging the dueling arena contains “something eternal.” Saionji believes that, by possessing Anthy, he can rise to the castle and find that “something eternal” himself.

This makes clear something already strongly hinted in earlier episodes. All of of the duelists are fighting over Anthy in order to obtain something they can’t quite define, yet desperately want. Saionji’s “something eternal” is the same as Miki’s “shining thing” and Juri’s “miracle.” The flashback sequence in episode 9 connects this “something eternal” with the prince who appeared to Utena, who is in turn connected to the Sword of Dios that Anthy possesses and is apparently in some way identified with the prince figure we’ve seen descend from the castle during the duels.

In short, the duelists are searching for God. The question remains however, whether they are searching in the right way or, for that matter, for the right thing. Again, in this episode, we witness Anthy’s curious ability to manipulate: she casually states to Saionji that she wanted to visit the castle because “something eternal” dwells there, and that sends him over the edge, much as her piano-playing sent Miki over the edge. It is still unclear if Anthy is doing this on purpose.

And then there is another player on the board, the mysterious World’s End, who sends letters to the student council to give them instructions. In this episode, Saionji receives his own letter from World’s End, telling him that “tonight the castle will come down.” Believing he’s on the cusp of finding the one thing he most wants, he kidnaps Anthy and hauls her to the dueling arena. She pleads with him that she’s not allowed in the arena when no duel is scheduled, so he—as usual—beats her up. The casual abuse is more serious in this episode, and (thankfully) lacks the bathos that has afflicted earlier scenes of Anthy getting slapped.

Utena goes chasing after Saionji and Anthy only to find Saionji facedown, unconscious, in a pool outside the arena, with no clear explanation of how he got that way. Because Utena sucks at CPR as much as she sucks at chivalry, she attempts to revive him by slapping him back and forth across the face. Because this is a cartoon, this method works.

They find that the gate to the arena, which can only be opened by the Rose Seal rings, is standing ajar. They ascend the stairs to arena, and here begins a series of bizarre images that will be reflected in show’s final episodes. In the center of the arena, they find a giant rose. In the middle of the rose is a coffin like the one in which Utena hid as a child. The coffin opens to reveal Anthy lying inside.

The arena erupts into chaos. Pillars burst out of the ground, and the castle in the sky crumbles. If we take the layout of dueling arena as a microcosm (which seems a likely interpretation), this would represent the universe breaking apart, with both heaven and earth falling to pieces.

A tower from the castle falls onto Saionji and crushes him while Utena jumps from pillar to pillar, trying desperately to get to the rose to rescue Anthy.

It turns out in the end that this was all a vision. The arena returns to normal, and the castle returns to its place in the sky. Utena finds Anthy asleep and revives her. Saionji, in anger, draws his sword and attacks Utena from behind, but then Touga appears: he jumps in front of Saionji’s blade to rescue Utena and takes a hit, further emphasizing his hints that he might be Utena’s prince.

A couple of times in this episode, Touga describes himself as “chivalrous,” according to the subtitles, but if you listen close to the dialogue, you can tell that what he’s actually saying is “feminist.” He is apparently being ironical.

The episode ends with Touga talking on the phone while he’s in bed recuperating from what turns out to be a minor wound. Just to bring home the point that he’s a jerk, he has a couple of girls in bed with him. He’s on the phone with World’s End, and it is clear from Touga’s end of the conversation that the two of them had set up the whole situation, deliberately manipulating Saionji so that Touga could could get closer to Utena.

It was already clear earlier that Touga was a creep, and we now know from this that World’s End, whoever he is, probably does not have the duelists’ best interests at heart, either.

This episode makes a lot of use of back-lighting and silhouettes. This may partly be an animation shortcut, but it also ties into something I haven’t discussed yet—a short vignette that appears in each episode featuring characters usually referred to as the “Shadow Girls.”

The Shadow Girls are unnamed characters (we’ll meet them later) who perform short shadow puppet plays against a wall. They typically appear immediately before a duel, but sometimes show up at other points. The miniature plays they enact are usually thematically linked to the episode; sometimes the relationship is clear, though in others it is strained. In this particular episode, one of the girls laments that she wants to continue believing in UFOs because she has discovered that things such as “Santa Claus,” “fairies,” “true friendship,” and “princes on white horses” are all make-believe, “so at least leave me UFOs!” Certainly, Touga is a false friend to Saionji and a false prince to Utena; perhaps later in the series we will be able to discern if it’s true that these things don’t exist at all.

The Shadow Girls are possibly meant to evoke Plato’s famous metaphor of the cave in The Republic, in which he compares the world to a play of shadows against a wall, which the people who see it mistake for reality. Throughout this episode, various characters appear in shadow, and the episode climaxes with an illusion of the world ripping apart, perhaps suggesting that the characters in Revolutionary Girl Utena, like the prisoners of Plato’s cave, are fundamentally mistaken in their understanding of reality.