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Digging Deeper: Repetition in Utena

If you've seen one episode, you've seen them all... sorta.

 
 
 
The most common criticism I hear about Utena is how repetitive it is.
The most common criticism I hear about Utena is how repetitive it is.
 
I had a terrible first experience with the show. We were watching it at an Anime club and it was on before Read or Die, the show I really wanted to watch. I mean, I had nothing against Utena, it was just weird, and not like weird good. Random cars, shirtless dudes, and abstract stuff everywhere. Normally that is a recipe for love, yet I had a hard time finding the through line to see what inspired such mess.
 
Then I came back the next week. Wait, what? Did they realize they put on the same exact episode? No, I definitely saw this part. The really pretty dude is talking to the other dude and trying to get him to sword fight Utena. Wait, now they are shirtless and one of them is on top of the hood of his car. Yeah, totally remember this one. By week three I found the repetition horrible, not lazy. By week four it was hilarious, and I loved every second of it. The shift was sudden and shocking to even me.

This happens alot. Learn to like it.
This happens alot. Learn to like it.
What only dawned on me later was how methodical Utena's process is, and that Utena is not the protagonist of the episodes. Her consistent role makes her the heroine of the series, but each episode usually tends to focus on another student around her.
 
The Breakdown of nearly every episode
A) Talk about character X.
B) Character X is inspired/forced/seduced to fight Utena.
C) Shadow girls perform a quick play with variable amounts of connection to the current issue.
C) Character X loses fight to Utena.
D) Everyone is better off for it.
 
Conclusion: Wonderful. We've all watched repetition in plenty of other works (Hellgirl, for instance,) yet here it seamlessly builds one of the best ensembles I have ever seen. The pool of characters is only so large, and the show is divided into story cycles of duels. The duelists come in, have an entire episode where the character's complexity is centerstage, and then, "Bam!" right back to the background. By the time the rotation has completed, the plot has moved onto a new arc, which will reinspire the characters to once more duel Utena (For example, to kill the rose bride, instead of possess her.) Each character gets their chance at the helm not once, not twice, but three times. But the end of the story the mere inclusion of their graphics on screen drips with depth. 
 
 
Bertolt Brecht, bigwig theatre guy, believed that emotionally investing in characters and their plights ruined the director's goals. By worrying about what the characters are going to do next, wondering if they'll be alright, the audience is too absorbed in the delivery to see the overall picture. Repetition is one of those dangerous distancing tools. By letting us know the simple rules of the show (Character's always sign deals with the Hell Girl,) we know better than to concern ourselves with their well being. Investing emotionally in them is rather pointless, as we know how its going to turn out. Instead, the audience becomes full observer instead of observer participant, seeking merely to experience and gleam some image of the world that has created our narrative.
 
Of course, I'm not saying that emotional investment is entirely forsaken, otherwise we'd probably consider it more of a lecture than entertainment. Once expectation has been established, then... then you can destroy your audience. For an entire arc we watched was Akio, the beautiful headmaster seduced one person after another... yet, for whatever reason... it shocked me when it happened to Utena.
 
This also happens alot.
This also happens alot.
Other than that, repetition can also be useful for comedic purposes. If family guy has illustrated anything, its the principal that if you push something too far, it can become hilarious. The formula demands results. The meek must become mighty, and that situation alone might breed amusement.
 
Schedule of Content:
Saturday: Introduction
Sunday: The Music of Utena
Monday: Digging Deeper: Repetition in Utena
Tuesday: Hot, Steamy Pictures
Wednesday: Profile Through Pictures: Akio Ohtori  
Lanon Aug. 10, 2009 at 10:50 p.m.
Oh John, you just had to bring in Brecht didn't you? Have you ever seen his plays? I watched a part of it in my Intro to/Enjoyment of Theatre class (my prof. was a big po-mo theatre kind of guy who liked weird stuff). He's really nuts. Obviously, I don't agree with his principle about investing in the character destroys the play. I don't think his principle of shocking the audience out of their complacency really works to make them understand the meaning; I think he alienates the majority of his audience. I always find myself emotionally invested in the characters, but maybe it's because I'm older and my mind has been savagely, taken over by the academy that I can still see how they connect to things overall. The repetition is important because the duels are like a ritual and have to be performed a certain way. There are rules to be followed. Yet somehow I want to say Utena explodes those rules...she doesn't want to fight but is forced too...this ties into some larger metaphor for something I haven't yet quite figured out but will and when I do, I'll write a brilliant long critical article on it... ;) Plus the repetition isn't pure repetition, there are some differences like the lyrics in the song that plays each time Utena walks to the dueling arena. I haven't finished rewatching season 1, and I haven't seen season 2...so I'll have more to discuss once I do.  
 
Oh and I had a great 1st experience with Utena. The crazy lesbian who lived down the hall from me in my freshman dorm introduced me to it. Figures. She apparently was a fencer too. Putting all that aside, she lent me the whole first season, telling me I had to watch it. She warned me about the repetition, but told me Utena and Juri were the best characters. I loved every minute of it. I think the characters are an integral part of what make the show so good. Take that Brecht! ;)
N15PCAon Aug. 10, 2009 at 11:01 p.m.
That is Utena if you look at it at face value.   Which was what your posting was about. 
 
To me Utean it's about what it means to be hero and that you might have to lost something in order to be that hero.  It also about people memories and how those memories can change over time.  Their are some many different layers to it.  I can only think of very few shows/movies that do that.  Here are some of my favorites other any Utena. Watchmen, Sky Crawlers,  Angel Egg and Patlabor 2: The Movie.
Baku_Senseion Aug. 11, 2009 at 2:18 a.m.
@John_Martone: Let's make our own anime. It'll be called Anetu, and I'll be the Rose Prince. You can be my Princess.
John_Martoneon Aug. 11, 2009 at 9:36 a.m.
@N15PCA: I've never even heard of Angel Egg or Sky Crawlers. To the internets!
 
Oh man, so many places to go with memories. I don't want to go heavily into the purgatory idea, but I'll just give it this nod. Also, I love how memories create a yearning so deep (for something they had, something they never had, but always wanted, etc.) that the duelist feels they have no choice but to act upon those wishes in violence. They throw themselves into the want for a power that can just "fix it all" rather than work to actually achieve their ends (of course, some are impossible... like curing terminal illness.)
John_Martoneon Aug. 11, 2009 at 9:46 a.m.
@Lan: I gotta make use of that theatre degree somehow. I don't "agree" with his teaching, and in the works he personally propagated, I was mostly... un-entertained.
 What I do respect/love is the concept that we get so obsessed with our personal wants, and needs to know the how, when, where that we seemingly lose sight of it all. Not in Romeo x Juliet mind you, but "actual" Romeo and Juliet are idiots, and I cannot stand it when they make the entire show out to be the tragedy of star crossed lovers. Like making Juliet 13 or under doesn't say something... like Romeo physically wailing for love of a woman moments before meeting Juliet is just background. The people meet, they brashly proclaim their love, probably aided by the taboo nature of it all, and it rolls down hill. 
 
The ending is even ruined in the opening. By telling you that they are going to die, you are "supposed" to internalize this fact and just move on.
 
Days after meeting, they are married and buried. Audiences tend to over-relate to these figures, but the tragedy is that uninspired cycle of hatred the houses are in allowed for their precious children to die.
 
Wow. That was off topic. Anyhoo, I'm actually more of an Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty, but I still respect and internalize Brecht's ideas. 

Dig Deeper into Revolutionary Girl Utena

A concurrently created anime and manga series revolving around a tomboyish girl named Utena Tenjou. After being rescued by a Prince as a small child, Utena resolves to be a Prince herself one day. Her ambitions eventually lead her to Ohtori Academy, where she intends to find her lost Prince.

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