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.
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.
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.
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.