Note: contains spoilers for the”Revolutionary Girl Utena.” For more information see:
The ending to the anime series “Revolutionary Girl Utena” usually leaves viewers confused and somewhat frustrated, because it’s unclear what happened to the titular character and, on the surface, it appears like nothing has changed for the supporting characters. This was the impression I got when I first saw Utena back in 2004 when I was a junior in college, but after my religious misadventures and some repeated viewings of the series, I now view the ending in a very different way.
On the surface, “Revolutionary Girl Utena” appears to be your typical shojo (i.e., girl’s) anime, but it’s actually a highly metaphorical and allegorical commentary on both Western fairy tales and the shojo/magical girl genre itself. It’s for this reason that Utena is often referred to as a “feminist fairy tale,” although I’m not entirely sure that I would describe it as such, simply because the series seems to view idealism of any kind as a crutch, illustrated by how Utena’s resolve to become a prince is used against her by Akio and Anthy. Indeed, there’s no “fairy tale ending” to Utena’s story, as her will to save Anthy is ultimately shown to be insufficient and she disappears from Ohtori Academy altogether at the end of the show, seemingly forgetten by everyone who once knew her. This is where viewers get frustrated, since it appears that the entire series was for nothing if Utena and her actions have been forgotten and everything is back to the status quo.
But is it?
As the first wave of credit roll, we see Anthy walking through Ohtori Academy with the members of the student council in the background engaged in the same activities they’ve been doing since episode one, but now they’re slowly getting over the neurosis that once dogged them: Juri is the captain of a fencing team that now contains her former friend/enemy/unrequited love Shiori, Touga and Saijonji are repairing their friendship by practicing kendo together, Nanami is shown to be less possessive of her brother, Touga, and Miki and Kozue are practicing piano again (with Miki shown taking a mentoring role to Tsuwabuki, illustrating his embrace of the growing up process that he once shunned). Likewise, we also see Wakaba becoming an Utena-like personality (complete with an obsessive fangirl), rising above the mediocrity that she once feared was inevitable for herself, and Nanami’s former henchwomen are also coming into their own. While the corrupt and distorted world of Ohtori Academy is still intact, the fact that the former student council members and their associates are managing to grow and move on is a revolution in and of itself, which makes them that much more likely to escape in the future.
Which brings us to the final scene with Akio and Anthy. The former is shown trying to restart the Dueling Game by sending out a new set of invitations from End of the World, cheerily noting that Utena has disappeared and no one remembers her. However, Anthy corrects him, saying that Utena hasn’t disappeared; she has simply disappeared from his world. As Anthy says this, she removes her glasses, which symbolize her moral blindness to the various evil acts she commits throughout the series. After doing so, Anthy leaves Akio and Ohtori Academy to search for Utena.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erlu3pPotMw (this clip starts at the scene where Akio says that the student body is forgetting Utena existed)
So what does any of this have to do with MLK or religion?
Like Anthy, many people are caught up in abusive situations or relationships, and feel like they can’t leave for a variety of reasons. While it’s true that Anthy could theoretically leave anytime she wants, she had become so used to her mutually dysfunctional relationship with Akio (as well as the internalized notion that as an “evil witch” she didn’t deserve any better out of life) that it was easier to just stay in her coffin. This is why Utena couldn’t save Anthy in the last episode, because at the end of the day (or the series), Anthy had to decide that she wanted to save herself. Similarly, I always had the option to “just walk away” from St F’s, traditionalism, and the prison of belief itself, but I had to believe that I could. When you are firmly enmeshed in any religion, any evidence that contradicts your beliefs will be discarded, much like Anthy ignores Utena’s entreaties to leave the coffin. In this case, Anthy’s “religion” is her own past as a “witch,” which she assumes has to be her life script in perpetuity (it’s implied that Akio and Anthy are hundreds, possibly thousands of years old, so it’s safe to assume she has a lot of prior bad acts to feel ashamed about). Akio uses Anthy’s past and any ambivilent feelings she might have about her past actions to bind her to him and impress upon her that she is nothing without him, much like how many religious groups, warn their adherents that there is no happiness, salvation, or meaning if they choose to leave. While it’s convenient to stay in our coffins of belief, because that’s what we’ve become accustomed to, we can’t grow if we don’t leave them.
The last scene of Utena also reminds me of MLK’s influence on society and the world. I’ve mentioned before how conservotrads don’t like MLK and how this affected my belief (see https://extraecclesiamestlibertas.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/the-rise-and-fall-of-my-faith-part-6-the-return-of-ml-king/). As with the Utena’s seemingly failed revolution, it can seem sometimes that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t do much good: black youths are being arrested and shot with impunity, many schools are as segregated today as they were pre-Brown vs the Board of Education, the school-to-prison pipeline, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, etc. It’s enough to make anyone despair, but as with Utena, you have to look for the small victories to understand the real impact of MLK’s work. The formerly closed doors that are now open. The ability to use public facilities without having to look for “colored” or “white” signs. Being able to be referred to as “Ms” or “Mr” as opposed to Aunt, Uncle, “boy,” or “girl.” Just providing a view of Southern black people that didn’t stink of the Lost Cause industrial complex was a feat in and of itself. As with the post-Utena lives of the student council members, nothing has changed, but everything has changed. The savior figure of Utena/MLK is gone from our world, and while their inspiration may live on, it’s up to us to change things on our own.
And when we do, someday, together, we’ll shine.