Absolute Destiny: Apocalypse

July 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

Since it’s “my introduction to anime” week at The Crab-Flower Club (fittingly so, since a shared enthusiasm for anime is how this group came about), I thought I’d contribute my own installment.

When it comes to anime, I was never a real omnivore. Some years back, in college, I would watch an animated film here or there as an effort to extend my love of comics and movies outward— two great tastes!— but my attempts were scattershot and halfhearted. Then one day I happened to see a certain book on the manga shelf at the comics store— this was before the Tokyopop boom, so it was indeed just the one shelf, occupied chiefly by a seemingly endless march of Lone Wolf and Cub.

The book that held my attention was Revolutionary Girl Utena Vol. 1: To Till; the cover, a girl in a tailored uniform holding a sword surrounded by rose petals. The title and image promised something: revolution? I was mainlining radical feminist texts in those days, so I thought I knew something about what that meant.

utena-cover-photo

If my introduction to anime was haphazard, my introduction to feminism was more so. The year I found Utena was the year I came out, and my addiction to stories about girls loving other girls led me to weightier texts that gave me context and interpretive strategies for these stories. I wasn’t not a feminist before— I believed that women and men were equal— but I felt alienated from what I thought of as mainstream feminism, and some dark part of me resisted and hated identifying with women. Opinionated writers, unapologetic artists, iconoclasts: the people I admired were nearly always male, the women scattered exceptions. Thank God for Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, or fifteen-year-old Katie would have had no women at all in her big collage of heroes. (That collage was a real thing, by the way. I scotch-taped pictures all over my closet door. I’m sure parents these days are thankful for Tumblr and Pinterest.)

It was a while before I figured out that I wasn’t alone in this resentment, that I was a cliché too. A woman only sees herself as an anomaly, as the exceptional woman, at the expense of other women. And your sense of individuality, that little stone inside your chest that you fiercely guard and love, will not protect you from bigger forces in the world. Patriarchy doesn’t give a shit who you are, or who you think you are. But that little stone is all you have, so you better hold onto it.

This, of course, is the lesson of Utena.

I read the books and watched the series as they were released (no fansubs not because of my faithfulness to the law but because I had no clue that they existed), memorizing each DVD release date and compulsively checking the video store for the latest volume. Fandom as religious fervor may be a facile analogy, but it persists because there’s truth in it: I surrounded myself with the commercial art and analyzed scenes and dialogue like they were partially obscured scraps of a sacred text. Many, if not most, of us in the land of mass media have done this; you too have done this, or you wouldn’t be reading this blog. But somehow every time there’s something intimate about it. The text is a paradoxical series of puzzle boxes, each one nested inside another: you open the last and somehow you’re outside the first again. And you don’t mind figuring them out once again, opening them over and over.

At first I identified with Utena. She was what I wanted to be, though my moody, clumsy presence couldn’t measure up. Who doesn’t want to be Utena? She’s peerless as both a girl and a boy, strong and noble, like the story says. But the more I watched the series, the more I saw that the secret hero of the story was Anthy, the cipher, that magnetic portrait of deference and passive aggression. Anthy, like the rose that is her ever-present sigil, represents a promise of yielding loveliness. Like the briar the rose implies, she also represents imprisonment. Like the thorn, betrayal and piercing pain. Anthy is the personification of that ideal of womanhood the duelists want to possess, that Utena wants to escape. She is a compressed collection of meanings, the gathered metaphors of femininity weighed down by the centuries. When you listen to the oral histories of women and their domestic labor, Anthy is the sigh of resignation you hear.

Anthy

But here’s the thing: Anthy is a person. And people cannot be contained by metaphor. This is one of the great tricks of fiction. I hadn’t realized how far I’d traveled with this character until I got to the last episode and she surprised me. And the feeling I had when I watched that episode stuck with me. We are all Utena, but we’re Anthy too.

This won’t be the last time I write about Utena. There are so many mirrors there it’s tough to know where to begin. But this is one place.

 

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