Paradise Kiss: Modeling Agency

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Yukari’s career of choice does present some issues.  Yazawa chose it due to her love of fashion – she went to school for fashion design before she became a mangaka – and she displays some truly incredible fashion design throughout the series.  Nonetheless, I am leery of a coming of age story where a woman’s primary asset is her appearance.  Yukari was blessed with natural good looks, and because of that all she needs to do is knock lightly and all the doors will swing open.  Mikako tells Yukari, “The fact that everything is falling into place is just proof that this is the right path for you.” If only things were that easy in reality! Yes, it takes initiative for her to knock, but it’s all too convenient.  “If my longer-than-average limbs will be weapons for survival, maybe I should be a bit grateful to my parents for making it so.”  In a world where a woman must be, above all else, beautiful, it is complacent at best to set a story in a world where beauty is favored above all other qualities.  The modeling industry runs rampant with abuses: eating disorders, sexual abuse, racism, and a multitude of other problems.  Yazawa’s vision of the industry is a kinder, gentler one, where the right friends, long legs, and a desire to make it suffice.  Yukari’s success is due to her initiative, yes, but she is helped along amply by those around her, with no real obstacles other than her mother’s obstinacy.  While this is preferable to a salacious soap opera where she is exploited at every turn, it all just seems a bit too glossed over.

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There is, on the other hand, a distinct advantage.  Yazawa’s version of the fashion world is one dominated by women, allowing Yukari to meet and be mentored by accomplished women in her field.  Mikako, star of the prequel manga Gokinjo Monogatari, has gone from temperamental teenager to a highly sought-out fashion designer and the president of her own company; she even continues to go by her maiden name, despite marrying her high school sweetheart and lead photographer, Yamaguchi Tsutomu. Shimamoto Kozue is a former fashion model using her knowledge of the industry to start her own agency. In Japan, it is rare for women to progress above the position of office lady; industries where women are not only taken seriously, but at the forefront are rare.  In this context, it makes more sense: the story of a young woman taking charge of her own life belongs in a world where women can take charge.  She needs role models and mentors, women who have succeeded due to their drive and determination, in addition to friends and peers.

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“Watching this slightly rude, but clearly prettier woman laugh at me, I felt like I got a glimpse of the world I was entering into,” Yukari thinks as Shimamoto laughs at her so hard she falls on the floor.  This is a world where none of the usual rules apply, clearly.

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Mikako and Shimamoto aren’t just businesswomen; they’re a bit strange. Quirky. Off-beat. They’re the kind of people who would feel restricted operating in the normal business world of sober suits and polite bows and endless keigo.  The very same kind of people as Paradise Kiss, and that Yukari is learning to be, and really was always meant to be, now that her mother is no longer trying to stuff her into a pigeonhole she doesn’t fit.  After her meeting with Mikako, Yukari walks through the streets of Harajuku, and says to herself, “It’ll be fine. I won’t lose. Even if my folks desert me, or I stick out from society, I won’t vanish.” That, more than anything else, is the most important lesson she learns from these older women. There’s plenty of time to learn about makeup application and business savvy and the best way to pose on a runway.

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What Yukari needs to know, from older and more experienced women, is that there is room for someone like her in the world.  That she can exist outside the restrictive mold she’s been forced into her entire life and not only get by, but flourish.

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Paradise Kiss: A Coming of Agency Tale

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Paradise KissA Coming of Agency Tale

Manga/Anime/Live Action Film

Summary: Hayasaka Yukari never considered a life beyond prep school and college exams, until she is approached by a group of students from Yazawa School for the Arts asking her to model for their senior art show.  Yukari questions everything she ever knew when confronted with an outlook on life completely different from her own… and when she meets George Koizumi, the charismatic, eccentric leader of the group.

Potential triggers: Abuse, rape, transphobia

Would I recommend it? Yes

Paradise Kiss could easily have been a standard “Girl meets boy, girl’s life is changed forever” narrative.  Luckily, in the capable hands of Yazawa Ai, it instead becomes a beautifully drawn, thoughtful meditation on adulthood, ambition, and the ways we hurt the ones we care about.  With the issues of agency, identity, and non-conformism front and center,Paradise Kiss has the potential to be a powerfully feminist narrative, and while not an unqualified success, it certainly succeeds on some levels.

Yukari’s situation is utterly typical for many students who feel pressured to succeed: she goes to school all day and studies all night.  Her evenings are spent at juku; weekends are for cram sessions at the library.  For her entire life, she has been pressured to succeed by her education-obsessed mother, pushed into elite schools where she can barely stay afloat.  She has had no time to develop any interests or hobbies of her own. “God, I’ve lived soberly for 18 years.  Is this even fair?  If so, instead of studying so much, I should have done more of what I wanted to do. But what would I have even wanted? I never even thought about it. My life was such a monotone world,” she complains as she revives from a shock-induced faint, convinced that she’s died.

It is her encounter with the members of Paradise Kiss: Isabella, Arashi, Miwako, and George.  They are people unlike anyone Yukari has ever encountered: they dye their hair bright colors, wear unconventional clothes, have sex on the pool table, and openly discuss being gender non-normative.  Such a world is a shock to her system at first, and she is quick to judge and dismiss them when they approach her about being the model for their student fashion show.  “Sorry, but I’m studying for college entrance exams and I don’t have time for something like that,” she says with an air of condescension.

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However, Arashi, bedecked in his punk rock couture, is quick to take her to task when she calls their fashion show “goofing around”: “Who you are or what the hell you do might not be our business, but we don’t work our sewing machines for fun! Hey, are college exams so much more superior?”  Yukari is abashed, and tries to apologize and flee, but is stopped by Miwako calling her “Caroline” and inviting her back to the studio.

But it’s George who draws Yukari in, and the subsequent relationship between George and Yukari makes up a large part of the series.  Theirs is not a healthy relationship, to say the least.  It is clingy and simultaneously emotionally needy and emotionally withholding, frequently manipulative, and fraught with jealousy.  They fight frequently over slights both real and imagined. It is a far more cynical look at first love than most media aimed at young women contains, and far more believable.  Yazawa does an excellent job portraying an unhealthy, but still loving relationship between two immature, emotionally damaged people without slipping into abusive territory.  Yukari doesn’t fall for George because of his dashing good looks (though those certainly don’t hurt), or because of any sort of bad boy, devil-may-care demeanor.  She falls for him because he is passionate and driven.  She falls for him because he takes an interest in her and listens to her problems without dismissing them.  When complaining about her mother and her lack of direction in life, she stops herself and says, “I’ve done nothing but complain about my life. Hearing this isn’t fun. Sorry, I’ll stop now.”

He responds, “Why are you stopping? You’re talking about your life, right? Don’t say it’s stupid. I’ll listen seriously.”

In short, she falls for him because he respects her as a human being, something no one before him has done.

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The most interesting part of the manga is Yukari’s internal struggles. Drawn out of living life on autopilot, she founders as she learns making her own decisions and figuring out her own priorities is more difficult than it seems.  The first time she visits George’s apartment, it turns into a fight about her tendency to pin the blame for everything bad in her life on someone else, even as she claims, “I’m making my own decisions, and I’ll take responsibility for what happens to me.”  She takes his refusal to take the blame for any negative consequences of her involvement with him as not caring.  In the end, he tells her, “You may pretend to be rebellious, but in the end, you need to live by the rules. You can’t feel comfortable without someone setting boundaries. You can’t help it. It’s the way you were raised,” and sends her home.

Only a few days later, Yukari runs away from home to escape her mother’s control, the first step in her enormous personal transformation into a determined, independent young woman.

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Can a series be feminist if a woman decides to change herself because of a man?  It’s a complicated question with no easy answer.  We all have people who inspire us, who make us want to be the best version of ourselves.  Those people could be friends, family, role models, those who look up to us, and, yes, romantic partners.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with it.  However, we can’t ignore the cultural precedent of men believing they know what’s best for women and narratives that support it – My Fair Lady and Pretty Lady are two of the most famous Western examples, and the tsundere archetype popular in moe culture is largely based around it.  The difference between a woman being inspired to improve herself for her own sake, and paternalistic makeover stories, lies in how much of the woman’s motivation is intrinsic, how much she herself personally benefits, and how much she relies on that single man.

Yukari is definitely not wholly reliant on George for her change.  In fact, when she first runs away, she doesn’t move in with him but stays at Arashi’s temporarily vacant apartment.  While staying here, Yukari gets her first modeling job and discovers her true calling; she loses her virginity in Arashi’s bed.  When she does move in with George, it is not because of any delusion that they will live happily ever after or a need for protection.  It’s so she can access the purity of passion and energy that only George has, because she is naturally drawn to his personal magnetism.  It’s not perfect; the two of them end up drawn into a borderline-combative back and forth of mind games and mental manipulation.  And though Yukari always feels like he has the upper-hand, the text often makes it clear that they both feel equally helpless.

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Even as she is inspired by George, she often falters at his hand and does start to lean on him.  When she is accepted by a modeling agency but must acquire her parents’ permission, she plans to talk it over with George when it gets home.  But he comes home horny and ready to play at domesticity, and when she tries to tell him, he waves her away, asking if it could be “more important than making love to me?”  She gives in and forgets what she was even going to tell him.  The next day, he’s both angry that she didn’t tell him, and that she wanted to discuss her dilemma with him.  He’s being a complete asshole.

Two meetings earlier that day help Yukari break away from her dangerously increasing dependence on George and his approval.  First, she meets with Hiroyuki, who is not acquainted with George and thus is not subject to his charisma.  Thus, he is able to point out the flaws in how he treats Yukari and his reasoning.  “No one can be completely sure of their own will.  Everyone is worried and confused and influenced by the ideas of people around them.”  Yukari realizes at this point that she’s been striving toward an unobtainable ideal, influenced by who she thinks George wants her to be, and it’s making her miserable.  To be an island, completely uninfluenced by others, is an ideal as unrealistic as the photoshopped models and plastic surgery-enhanced porn stars that are marketed to women.  Later, when she goes to meet Shimamoto, she meets George’s mother, Yukino, who was impregnated by a married man and forced to leave her modeling career.  Now, trapped in the thrall of that married man, completely dependent on a man who does not need her at all, blaming everyone but herself, she is constantly unhappy.  She, who raised George, is so the opposite of his ideal.  “George doesn’t want me to end up a woman like that.  I’d rather die than turn into a woman like that!” she thinks as she packs her bags.  “Thanks to her, my eyes have been opened. I’m going to fight!”

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Yukari realizes that she must find a point between the two extremes, one where she can follow her own path and make up her mind, but still accept the influence of the people around her.  This is a major turning point for her, and the point where I can accept that Paradise Kiss can be a good model for teenage girls.  To find a happy medium, instead of careening between two extremes, is essential to finding balance in one’s own life and achieving one’s goals.  Trying too hard to be anyone else’s ideal, be it her mother’s or George’s, did not work.  Trying to live completely free of anyone else’s influence was impossible and driving her toward a nervous breakdown.  Instead, able to stay aware of the ways she is influenced by the world around her, to accept that influence when it suits her but to also assert her own will, she is able to find happiness and, more importantly, agency.

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The final few chapters of Paradise Kiss are bittersweet, as Yukari and the members of Paradise Kiss are forced to enter the world of adults, where that ability to walk the line between independence and influence is vital to survival.  Each one has their own path to walk, different from what they had been hoping.  Even George prepares to become a makeup artist, ready to leave behind his beautiful, impractical designs, more art than marketable fashion, until his father agrees to pay for him to go to Paris to study haute couture.  Yukari, knowing that her chances of making it on the international fashion scene are incredibly slim, decides to stay behind and pursue her own career.  When George sails away, she receives a key in the mail that leads her to a storeroom.  She opens it and finds all of the beautiful clothes he made, and falls down, weeping.  “He turns the black and white landscape into beautiful colors. That’s what George was to me.“ For all their problems, by George’s side, Yukari learned to conceive of a world where there was more than studying and university, where beauty dominated.  Armed with the strength of mind and practicality she learned in her months with George and Paradise Kiss, she becomes a successful model and, more importantly, her own woman.

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Utena and the Four Horsemen of the Patriarchy: Touga and Gender Essentialism

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Touga is Akio’s right-hand man.  He receives individual correspondence in addition to the same letters the as rest of the council.  He is smart, manipulative, and perfectly conscious of his every action and choice.  Because of this, he is the most dangerous of the student council members and very nearly Utena’s downfall.

Most elements of the patriarchy are insidious and drift below the surface of our consciousness: long-held societal views, biases, and assumptions that are learned at a very young age and are difficult to unlearn, even when one makes an effort.  However, there are some men out there who see women as inherently different from men, even inferior, and do their best to force them into that role.  A few even see the relationship between the sexes as antagonistic, and do everything in their power to exploit women for their own gain.

Touga watches Utena’s first duel, the one against Saionji, from a distance.  As the bells ring out, he smiles down at her and says, “Oh baby, you’ve lit a fire in my heart.”

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But it becomes increasingly clear that he has absolutely nothing heartfelt in mind for Utena.  Instead, as the arc progresses, he does everything in his power to break her down psychologically and rebuild her as a second Rose Bride… and through his very conscious manipulation of her weaknesses and insecurities, very nearly succeeds.

The first time he actually meets Utena, rather than watching her from afar, he inserts himself into her conversation uninvited, introducing himself as “Kiryuu Touga, Student Council president and totally normal boy.”  He reaches out and runs his fingers through Utena’s hair with a confidence that betrays that he has performed this gesture on women unchallenged dozens of times.  Utena, however, is no ordinary girl, to be cowed or flattered by his attentions, and instead slaps his hand away, rejecting his blatant invasion of her personal space.  Touga, as a powerful, masculine figure, feels entitled to Utena’s time and attention, but she refuses to grant it to him.

He doesn’t give up here – rather, he seems to take it as a personal challenge.  Instead, he takes it upon himself to invite her to a party, sending her a pink frilly dress that is in complete opposition to her usual androgynous style.  She dons it reluctantly as moral support for Anthy, and Touga moves in once again.  He showers her in compliments, commenting on what an attractive couple they make, once again physically engaging her without consent.  This time, her resistance is much softer – a blushing, stammered objection. She is broken from Touga’s thrall when Anthy’s scream rouses her, reminding her of who she is and why she is there at the dance: to be a prince and provide support to her socially anxious friend, rather than to be subjected to the invasive advances of a man who doesn’t understand the meaning of the words “personal space”.

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Touga treats everyone around him, especially the women, as playthings to be used in his plans.  He plots and manipulates with no regard for the feelings, agency, or even humanity of those around him – his behavior is borderline sociopathic.  When Saionji is expelled, Touga promises to take care of the exchange diary he shared with Anthy, but instead throws it into the fire and scoffs at him for being so foolish as to believe in friendship.  Saionji has filled his role, and thus is no longer needed in Touga’s plot.  He is, as Juri describes, the clown: not a funny one, but a tragic one, to be mocked and pitied for his misfortune, and then forgotten.

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The purpose of all his plotting is twofold: to obtain the power of the Rose Bride for himself, and to destroy Utena’s confidence and force her into the role of Princess.  Indeed, he forces everyone in his life into a pre-established archetypal role.  He has even assigned himself a role: the hero, the leading man, the Prince.  And there can’t be two princes, which is why Utena must be broken down and rebuilt into role he feels suits a girl better.   Utena is threatening in her androgyny and her demand to be taken seriously and treated as an equal, all the while challenging those around her to break out of their pre-established roles as well.  She is threatening to Touga’s masculinity the same way that many men are threatened by feminism.  These men similarly try to take down feminists, albeit generally in a less calculating or competent manner.  A fairly recent law of the internet states that the comments on any media about feminism justify feminism, and some years ago Maxim published an article titled “How to Tame a Feminist”, in which they advise men on how to soften up supposedly man-hating women, going from a laughably stereotypical and inaccurate feminist in a wifebeater and unshaven armpits to a woman in lingerie saying, “Your Camaro makes me hot.”  He feels he must “fix” her: establish his dominance, put her in a dress, and force her into a feminine role.

Men are so threatened by powerful women for a reason that ties into the other half of the reason for Touga’s manipulation: they feel it diminishes their power.  Anthy is the archetypal Princess, and if women can be Princes, that robs men of the institutional power to rescue, protect, and exploit women at will.  Touga scoffs at Anthy’s chit-chat about how much fun it is, doing normal friend activities with Utena.  “Your job isn’t to cook. All you need do is stay here and tend the roses. This birdcage is your domain, and you are the lovely little bird who stays within it. I wish to make this cage my own, and I would never let you out of it…ever.”  All he desires is power: the power granted by the Rose Bride, and power over Anthy.

And so, Touga launches his master manipulation of Utena.  He pits her against Nanami, who is so immature and unskilled she doesn’t stand the slightest hint of a chance.  Instead, as she weeps against Touga’s chest over her loss, he can comfort her and look chivalrous to Utena.  The next day, he spies on Utena lunching with Wakaba and Anthy, telling Miki that he is watching a “lonely princess”.  Miki doesn’t understand what he’s talking about.  “You cannot see it. Only I can,” Touga tells him.  Miki sees Utena as a human being, not a stereotype, so he “cannot” see the gender role Touga feels she should fit.  But Touga’s plan is already in motion, and when she approaches him in the rose garden, he outright states that he is her prince.  At the beginning, Utena wouldn’t have bought his claim so easily, but now that he’s worked her over so thoroughly, she accepts it unquestioningly, and is shocked when he challenges her to a duel.

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At first, Utena fights with her usual spirit, summoning the sword of Dios.  She is startled by the ferocity with which Touga fights, but holds her own fairly well, even when Touga aims a vicious blow at her face.  It is only when drops his guard that Utena remembers that he is supposedly her Prince and loses her resolve, creating an opening for him to strike the flower from her chest.  “How lucky for you. Now you no longer have to be caught up in these unfathomable duels,” Touga gloats.  To drive the knife deeper, he has Anthy tell Utena that she is happy being the Rose Bride.  You were always wrong, is his message.  Feminism is a lie, and women are happier when living according to their prescribed gender roles.  You were just trying to force your ideals onto a blank slate.

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Deeply depressed, with her usual boy’s uniform torn, Utena goes to school the next day in a sailor outfit.  Her demeanor is meek and submissive, allowing Touga to touch her and ask her out even in front of Anthy.  “This is normal, right?” she says, a question aimed at no one but herself.  Touga is her Prince.  He must be right.  A girl can’t be a prince, so it’s better to just be a normal girl, doing feminine things like wearing dresses and going on dates and submitting to the advances of men.  Touga, on the other hand, is thoroughly enjoying his victory.  He accepts dates with other girls over the phone while at tea with his new fiancée, flirts with her at Student Council meetings – to the great discomfort of Juri and Miki – and even asks Utena out in front of her.  After all, he is the prince, and a prince’s whim is law.  Princes can do no wrong.  He aims to display his prowess as a paragon of masculinity to all those around him, especially those uppity women who dared to defy him.

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It is Wakaba, Utena’s best friend, who saves the day.  Wakaba, an ordinary girl uninvolved with the duels, is confused and angered by Utena’s sudden transformation, blaming it on a fight with Anthy.   Utena tries to tell her she doesn’t understand, that these are forces outside of her.  “I want you to stop criticizing me,” Utena says. After all, Wakaba exists outside of the Prince/Princess/Witch paradigm.  But it is her plain, no-nonsense, thoroughly ordinary girl input that saves Utena’s spirit.  Wakaba doesn’t care about ideals or gender roles or revolutionizing the world; she sees that her best friend has been dealt a devastating blow, and wants things to go back to normal.  She sees straight through the bullshit when Utena comments, “This is normal, right?”  “Not being normal is normal for you!  This sort of normal isn’t YOUR sort of normal!” Wakaba corrects her.  “It’s like something’s been stolen from you and made you a coward!  I don’t know what it is, but if you can get it back then get it!”  These are the words that snap Utena back to herself, and she goes straight to the rose garden to challenge Touga to a duel.  Wakaba, after all, knows Utena better than anyone else at Ohtori.  She loves Utena exactly for who she is, androgyny and all, and can see that femininity is not right for her, and not making her happy.  Touga tried to force Utena in a role because she is a woman, and Wakaba reminds Utena that she does not, in fact, have to conform.

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Utena’s second duel with Touga, and the final one of the Student Council Saga, is the most difficult one she’s had to fight.  Juri, now an ally in the face of Touga’s egregious chauvinism, gives Utena a sword, since she no longer has the Sword of Dios.  Touga, on the other hand, wields the Sword of Dios, even bragging that he better knows how to unleash its true power: “Rose Bride! Abandon your body and protect the sword!” he orders, and Anthy kneels and kisses the tip of his sword, a gesture extremely reminiscent of fellatio, and the sword even begins to glow red.  The camera pans slowly over it, emphasizing its length.  How appropriate that the source of his power is visually similar to a sex act focused on the pleasure of the man, one that is frequently expected of partners regardless of their own desire.  Anthy, as the archetypal woman, devotes her self to supporting and protecting a dominant, oppressive man.  And it’s true, Touga does wield and enormous amount of power, slicing effortlessly through Utena’s blade and shredding her uniform as she dodges his thrusts.  The imagery throughout the battle is extremely sexual – Touga’s phallic source of power is literally destroying the clothing of his female opponent.

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Anthy watches as a passive observer throughout the whole fight.  She thinks on how she pities Utena, wondering at how she doesn’t realize how futile it is.  She stands on the sidelines, expression unchanging, until Touga has Utena kneeling on the ground, mercilessly driving his blade through hers for a second time.  Her eyes widen, and Dios’s silhouette flashes as she things, “It’s like what happened that time…”  She sees Utena’s determination, even in the face of insurmountable challenges, and it reminds her of what true princeliness is. Her spell over the sword breaks, a tear falls from her eye, and Utena is able to throw Touga off and slice the flower from his pocket.  “I’ve taken back what I was,” a victorious Utena tells Touga.  It is through the power of women – Juri’s sword, Utena’s will, and Anthy’s emotions and memories – that he is defeated.  It’s a fitting end for the most consciously misogynistic and manipulative of Utena’s opponents.

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Utena and the Four Horsemen of the Patriarchy: Juri and Internalized Misogyny

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Juri is the only woman in a position of true institutional power in Revolutionary Girl Utena. By all appearances, she has everything: she’s beautiful, treasurer of the powerful Student Council, captain of the fencing team, and she has the respect and adoration of not only the student body, but the faculty and administration as well.  And yet, rage seethes and simmers just under her placid surface.

Oh, she hides it well, most of the time.  When Utena says, “They say that you’re trouble, and those who know your hidden face wouldn’t get within 10 meters of you,” she laughs it off, responding, “Heh, makes me sound like a wild animal.”  But it is this rage that forces her to become an unwitting tool of the patriarchal system of dueling to possess the Rose Bride.

There is no doubt that Juri rose to her position of power through her own competency.  She displays great skill at every turn, after all.  But even that is called into question early in her episode, when the vice principal offers to “discuss the student council’s plans over lunch”.  Sure, his intent could be purely professional, but this is Revolutionary Girl Utena, where an adult man’s interest in a teenage girl is almost never well-intentioned. His invitation is completely inappropriate, but exemplary of how attractive powerful women are frequently objectified and treated in ways determined by their looks, rather than their abilities.

Juri masks her anger most of the time with a veneer of aloofness, claiming not to believe in the power of miracles.  Even as Touga and Miki discuss her at their meeting, she lies back on a chaise lounge, responding only with dry remarks.  She claims that she only wants to possess the Rose Bride to disprove her power, that she is just another teenage girl.  She jokes that it would be useful when taking exams, a line she took directly from a conversation with Utena herself.

These “miracles” that Juri fights against are any unfair favors that a person may receive due to what they are, rather than who they are.  Yes, Juri is hyper-competent and ambitious, but as her conversation with the vice-principal indicates, some of her advantages may have been earned by her looks, rather than her achievements.  It’s a question that appears whenever an attractive woman achieves a high rank, recognition, or even is hired for a job where she is visible to the public: was she truly the most qualified candidate?  She doesn’t even have to sleep her way to the top, she just exist within the standards of traditional beauty.

And then comes Utena.  Utena, who is so much like a young Juri: beautiful, adored, and good at most everything.  Utena, who wears the Rose Seal without an appointment to the Student Council.  Utena, who won the Rose Bride and her powers without even understanding the rules of their dueling game.  Utena, received her ring from a mysterious man, and hopes someday to meet him again. Utena, whose connection to another woman is little more than a ticking time bomb.

This makes Juri furious.

“You make me sick. That ‘nobility’ of yours… You have it because some guy you like tricked you into having it! Besides, if dueling for the Rose Bride is stupid, then this sentimental mush for your ‘prince’ is just as stupid!  The only worthwhile thing it’s given you is nobility.  The rose seal isn’t meant for a girl like you!”

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“A girl like you.”  Juri’s rage and disappointment in Utena, and in the whole system, is poured into these words.  The friendliness with which she had spoken to Utena disappears in an instant, only to be replaced by hatred.  Her face twisted with anger, her locket sparkling, Juri challenges Utena to a duel to forcibly remove her naiveté.

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Utena reminded Juri of herself a few years ago, the reason why she lashes out with such anger.  Juri is never seen interacting with another female character in a friendly manner outside of flashback.  As the only woman in a position of power, who was hurt long ago by her sole female friend, she’s grown convinced that she’s not like other girls.  She saw a potential ally in Utena, another girl worthy of leading the students of Ohtori Academy.  To find out she received her ring from a boy, and only duels in hopes of meeting him, is a betrayal of the highest order.

Before the duel, Juri tells Utena, “If you win using a miracle, you deserve your conceit.”  But where has Utena displayed conceit?  Utena is probably one of the most humble characters in the entire show.  This conceit is, rather, her belief in her prince and thus the power of miracles. It is the belief that she is special and loved in a way unique to her, allowing her to participate in the duels.  It is that she came to possess the Rose Bride, not through her own doing, but through some unique power.  To believe in miracles is conceit.

In their duel, Juri attacks Utena ruthlessly.  Her skill is obviously much greater – after all, she’s captain of the fencing team.  She taunts Utena as they fight: “Poor girl.  You’re already exhausted.  But I absolutely won’t let up on you.”  As she says this, her memory flashes back to the girl she once was, and the words of her friend Shiori betrayed her, stealing away the boy she thought Juri loved.  “Believe in the power of miracles, and they will know your heart,” she said.  This was the girl who destroyed Juri’s innocence, who robbed her of the belief that she could be special and loved for it.  In the same way, Juri wants to destroy Utena’s innocence.

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And so, she disarms Utena.  As she throws her down, preparing to slice the flower from her breast, Utena’s sword falls, impaling Juri’s flower and slicing it from her chest.  “No…that was just an accident!  No miracle was involved!” Juri protests, but the fight is over.  Utena, whether by accident or through the power of miracles, retains possession of Anthy.

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Juri’s vicious attacks against Utena, both in and out of the dueling arena, are representative of one of the most insidious elements of the patriarchy: internalized misogyny. She hates Utena not for who she is, but what she is: a young girl who is willing to admit to something as silly and girlish as competing in a high-stakes competition in hopes of finding a boy.  In denying the power of miracles, she holds claim to the belief that she achieved her status entirely through her own merits, denying that anyone else is held back by their gender (or race, or orientation, or identity).

Utena and the Four Horsemen of the Patriarchy: Miki and the Virgin/Whore Complex

Ah, Miki.  Poor sweet, stupid Miki.

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Miki, the secretary of the Student Council, is in seventh grade and the youngest member by far.  He is also the most “normal” (as far as that goes in this series) and likable of the student council, and throughout the show usually treats Utena and Anthy with dignity and respect.  He is highly intelligent and sometimes serves as the innocent, virginal foil to his compatriots.  But innocence can lead to black and white thinking and one being easily manipulated, as is the case with Miki and his virgin/whore complex.

Miki is an accomplished pianist, frequently found playing the piano in the music room.  He takes credit for the famous piece The Sunlit Garden, claiming he and his twin sister composed it as children.  He frequently reflects on these fond childhood memories, but there is an edge of bitterness to it – when pressed, he claims that he “smashed it with his own hand.”  The anger he has toward himself is unfounded, as it is revealed he became ill just before they were supposed to perform.  Forced to go on solo, his sister fled the stage and never touched the piano again.  It’s a sad story of talent destroyed too young.

That’s what we’re led to believe.  But in Revolutionary Girl Utena, things are never as they seem, and more pieces of the puzzle fall into place when we meet his sister Kozue.  She bumps into Miki as she emerges from the piano room, knocking the sheet music from his hands.  He treats her icily, completely different from the kind, warm boy we’ve known so far.  “I gave up on you long ago,” he tells her, but she doesn’t seem perturbed.  She wasn’t in the piano room for the piano, she tells him.  Her rumpled clothes and Touga leaning against the piano, his shirt open, tell Miki everything he needs to know. Miki is horrified.

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A cigar is never just a cigar in Utena, nor is a piano ever just a piano.  The shining thing Miki seeks is his relationship with his sister, clearly, but it was not spoiled by their botched concert.  If that were the case, he wouldn’t have treated her with such naked contempt.  The piano and their song is just a symbol for what Miki believed they had.  ”No matter how much I polished my technique, I could never match the feeling of my sister’s playing,” he says. They complemented and completed each other.  But, at some point in their past, she changed.  Instead of playing piano with her brother, she spent her time pursuing boys and sex.   In Miki’s eyes, she is fallen.  Society at large takes a similar view to girls and women who actively enjoy casual sex – Kozue certainly is not in a loving, committed relationship with Touga – condemning them as sluts and whores.  Female sexuality is deviant, threatening, and worthy of condemnation.

Anthy, on the other hand, is the Rose Bride, and the Rose Bride is whoever you want her to be.   Upon hearing her piano playing, Miki immediately begins projecting his longing for the relationship he once had with Kozue onto her.  At first, per Utena’s suggestion, he recommends the Student Council cease their dueling and dissolve, freeing the Rose Bride.  “No matter how great this power is that we’re supposed to get, I can’t support a system that robs Anthy Himemiya of her personal freedom!”  A noble, selfless sentiment, and one that not a single member of the council honestly believes.

The ever-manipulative Touga recognizes this, and convinces Miki that Utena will rob him of this shining thing. Miki has come to believe that Anthy must be protected…and by “Anthy”, I mean “Anthy’s purity”.  She is the virgin of his virgin/whore complex, never mind that she has been engaged to less high-minded individuals.  “If you don’t protect the things precious to you, people will take them away from you,” Touga says, prompting Miki to ask Anthy if she’d stop playing if Utena told her to.  Of course she would, since she is the Rose Bride and must do as her fiancée says.  It doesn’t matter that Utena never actually would demand that Anthy stop playing piano – the fact that she has the capacity to take that away is enough to convince Miki to try to win Anthy in a duel.

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When Miki is thinking of Utena as a potential threat, of course, it’s not actually about Anthy playing the piano, but about Utena as a sexual threat.  In Miki’s eyes, Utena could sully Anthy, defile her, rob her of that purity that he finds so desirable.  Anthy’s own desires in this situation are irrelevant, and Miki, who once desired to restore Anthy’s lost agency, returns to seeking to control Anthy and her decisions about her body.

How common is it, in society, for men to try control women’s decisions regarding their own bodies, to try to preserve virginity and purity that does not exist?  In America, we have father-daughter purity balls, abstinence-only education, and purity rings.  Young women are taught that if they have sex, nobody else will want them, although no such restrictions exist for young men.  In Japan, innocence is even further commodified, asidol singers aren’t allowed to have boyfriends so as not to destroy the fetishized version of innocence they sell their fans, and transgressions can be career-destroying. Miki is no better than those who would try to control young women’s bodies, throwing aside his high-minded ideals at the idea of Anthy not living up to an arbitrary standard.

As is the case with all the duels in Utena, Miki’s sexism is the source of his downfall.  He is a skilled fencer and very nearly defeats Utena.  However, when Anthy begins cheering for Utena to win, he is momentarily shocked, giving Utena the opening she needs to cut the rose from his chest.  He is startled at the realization that Anthy doesn’t need his protection, and that she may be happy with the person he has come to view as a threat.  This is what culture needs to realize about women – that women do not need protection from their own sexuality, and to fight their honor is a useless endeavor.

The final piece of the puzzle falls in place at the end of his second episode.  Kozue, with some friends, is playing the piano…terribly.  Her friends express shock that she ever played, and Kozue reveals that Miki always covered for her.  “Even with my sloppy playing, he could still follow it,” she explains.  But there is no emotion in it to make up for the lack of technique.  It was all Miki.  Kozue was never who he believed she was.  He merely projected upon her who he wanted her to be, and condemned her when she couldn’t live up to it.

Utena and the Four Horsemen of the Patriarchy: Saionji and Violent Control Through Abuse

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We first see Saionji through Utena’s eyes.  Unnoticed, she watches as Saionji and Anthy quarrel outside of Anthy’s rose garden, until Saionji slaps her across the face.  Utena is horrified as Saionji prepares to strike her again, but Touga catches his hand before he can, ending the confrontation.  At this point, Utena’s thoroughly ordinary friend Wakaba joins her, explaining that Saionji is the charismatic and popular Student Council Vice President, while Anthy is a nobody, certainly not somebody who Saionji would deign to date.  Already, we can see the rumblings of rape culture: why would Saionji bother with someone like Anthy Himemiya anyway?  She would be lucky to even get a second glance, let alone any sort of sexual attention.

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But Wakaba hasn’t an inkling of what’s truly going on.  The next time we see Saionji and Anthy, they’re at a meeting of the student council, where their relationship is the topic of conversation – specifically, Saionji’s poor treatment of her.  But even when Touga specifically tells him, “Don’t abuse the bride, Saionji,” Saionji simply smirks and replies, “The Bride and I are just a happy pair of lovebirds.”  And even though, from Anthy’s body language and expression, she is anything but happy, she and the rest of the council are powerless to do anything.  Saionji owns her, and until someone else defeats him, not a thing can be done to save her.

How many domestic abuse victims feel similarly helpless?  Despite the best efforts of their loved ones, they can’t escape their abuser.  The bond of the dueling rules could symbolize any one of dozens of possible legal, social, or cultural reasons a victim may remain bound to her abuser.

Saionji’s callous disregard for the emotional well-being of others extends beyond his troubled relationship with Anthy.  Utena becomes involved when she confronts him about his posting a love letter Wakaba sent to him on the bulletin board.  “For that incredibly stupid…I mean, cheerful letter, I thought the best thing to do with it was use it to give others a good laugh,” he laughs.  So, Utena challenges him to a duel, meaning only a simple kendo battle…but then Saionji catches sight of the rose signet ring on her finger, and directs her to the dueling arena.

However, after Utena wins the duel and Anthy’s hand that Saionji’s abusive and controlling personality only becomes more prominent.  Despite the results being absolutely clear, he believes that he still “owns” Anthy.  One night he appears on their doorstep, demanding Anthy return to him and insisting that she is his.  When she refuses, citing the rules, he once again slaps her across the face, this time so hard she falls to the ground. He calls her “shameless”, implying that by forging a bond with anyone, even if she is just following the rules she is bound to, she is in fact being promiscuous.

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Although his duel in the Student Council Saga make Saionji’s influences and motivations more clear, they do not excuse his behavior.  He kidnaps Anthy, taking her to the arena against her will when there is no duel scheduled, which is expressly forbidden.  Utena goes to rescue her and finds Saionji in the water and unconscious.  She questions him, asking, “Do you really love Himemiya?  Then why did you try to win her in a duel?”

“Because if I don’t win duels, I’ll never beat him!” he answers.  He tells of how a childhood encounter between he, Touga, and a young girl left him jealous and longing for “something eternal”, something he believed Touga had.  For him, the Rose Bride and her purported ability to grant miracles represent the only path to his desires.  Although he claims he loves her, it’s apparent that she is more a tool, a means to an end, than a lover.  He cares nothing for her as a person, only what she represents: a source of power and security in his masculinity.  He treats her as he does – controlling, possessive, and abusive – because her thoughts and desires are nothing to him.

When Saionji and Utena arrive at the arena, they are greeted by a haunting sight: a giant rose with a coffin in the center, which creaks open to reveal an unconscious Anthy surrounded by white roses.  As they run to her, the rose shoots up on a column of bricks.  Several other columns rise as well, including under Utena’s feet, but Saionji remains alone on the floor.  The castle begins to crumble, and Saionji just…laughs.  “I’m here, End of the World! Keep your promise to me! Give me eternity!”  Instead, he is almost crushed by a falling tower.  This cements that he does not care for Anthy, that he only desires that “something eternal”.  Utena, on the other hand, leaps to Anthy’s rescue with little regard for her own safety, pulling her from the coffin.

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Anthy is rescued, the arena returns to normal, and yet Saionji still lashes out with violence.  It is finally clear to him that he has lost, once and for all, but his reaction is not an acceptance of defeat, graceful or otherwise.  Rather, it is one of blind, violent rage, as he attacks Utena and Anthy, intent to seriously harm or even kill in his eyes.  Many domestic abuse survivors say that the true danger lies in leaving their abusers, who become even more violent when fueled by their possessive grudges, and lash out at anyone they see as having helped their victims escape.  It is unclear whether Saionji’s strike was aimed at Utena, Anthy, both, or merely a blind outlet for his rage.  His attack is blocked at the last second by Touga jumping in front of the couple, taking the blow himself.  Of course, Touga’s intent is hardly benevolent, but more on that later.

Saionji is the most obvious element of the patriarchy – most people are well aware that domestic violence is a problem that exists and needs to be combatted.  He alienates nearly everyone through his flagrant disregard for the rules, tantamount to law in the world of Ohtori Academy, and for common decency.  And yet, he is oddly sympathetic.  His horrid personality stems from a deep insecurity, rather than simple malice.  His actions are an attempt to reassert his all-important control and masculinity, redirecting his aggression to those who cannot defend themselves rather than the alpha male who threatens him.  He serves as a reminder that those that abuse are not inhuman monsters that appear in a vacuum, but rather human beings shaped by their experiences and surroundings.

The Four Horsemen of the Patriarchy: Introduction

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Revolutionary Girl Utena is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite anime of all time.  As a teenager, I fell in love with it for its beauty, its surreal story, and Utena’s incredible strength.  Unlike many of the anime I grew up watching, it withstood the test of time.   As I’ve grown and learned, I’ve come to appreciate the show more and more.  The densely layered symbolism, so impenetrable to me as a naïve 13-year-old, reveals itself to my older, wiser, and more socially conscious self.  I’ve come to realize that Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of the most honest commentaries on gender roles and agency I’ve seen in any medium, from any country.

So, you can expect to be seeing it on this blog a lot.

The show starts with the Student Council Saga, the only part of the show that saw US release for a number of years.  While it is generally considered the least interesting of the sagas, it nonetheless sets up the tone and major symbols of the show to come.  We are introduced to Utena as a princess who, due to a childhood encounter, decides she’d rather be a prince.  And, years later, it seems that she is not too far from succeeding – she’s beautiful, athletic, and adored by her peers, all while donning a distinctive boys’ uniform at the prestigious Ohtori Academy.

But it’s not so easy to buck gender norms, which she learns when she meets the incredibly powerful student council, second only in authority to the mysterious End of the World, the pseudonym of Akio Ohtori, the school chairman.

As the show wears on, and we learn more about the sinister forces behind the duels and Ohtori Academy as a whole, it becomes blatantly obvious that Akio is the embodiment of the patriarchy.  But what of the student council members, his (mostly) hapless pawns in the dueling game?  They were largely unaware of the true nature of their activities, as each one is deftly manipulated into maintaining the status quo, rather than revolutionizing the world, as they swear to in their speech.

Just as most men go about their lives, unaware of the patriarchal systems of male privilege they benefit from and uphold.

Each member of the Student Council represents an element of the patriarchy, so deeply instilled that they – and we – are rarely aware of it.