Us Living in Fictional Cosmogonies
Part X: Shoujo Kakumei Utena: Sex/Not-Sex
by Travis Hedge Coke
Know what is really uncomfortable to talk about? Adolescent sexuality. I don’t want to talk about it. You probably don’t want to talk about it. And, that is kind of how the worst people – the people you do not want to control that narrative – control that narrative.
In Shoujo Kakumei Utena, nearly everyone we encounter is driven to preserve their safest self by controlling the narrative of their past and being. They misremember early childhood, they defy plausibility to avoid emotional duress, push guilt off or onto themselves.
Most narratives can be places framed as either a pilgrimage narrative or a quest narrative, with contemporary eurocentric tastes positioning the quest narrative as the more mature or proper form.
A quest narrative is one driven forward by the seeking of a specific goal, what does the protagonist want drives everything. According to playwright and director, David Mamet, this is the only reason why human beings speak in real life and the only reason they should speak in entertainment. It is the most common revisory element of formal writing classes. What does your character want?
A pilgrimage narrative is a narrative in which the protagonist can want things or not want, but in which wants do not drive the significance of the story or audience experience. A pilgrimage narrative is experiential. Characters experience and, in their way, understand what they experience.
A number of anime or manga which are maligned in anglophone cultures for having filler, in fact, simply have pilgrimage narratives. The communal baths episode, the arc at the beach, the demonic tree and sad aliens arc, the one where the protagonist is sick in bed and cared for or cares for someone else sick in bed are not useless or empty, they are not lacking in narrative or significance regardless of how little or how much they contribute to what an audience perceives as an end-goal.
The quest narrative obscures and falsifies sexual understanding. The rape of Revenge of the Nerds is perceived as not-rape because it is a means to the ends pursued for the quest. In Utena’s world, the world controlled by demigod or devil figures in the semblance of an emotionally-decimated, walking on eggshells private school, the quests many characters believe they are on, allow them to ignore their own traumas, their situation, their victimization, their social disruptions, their sexuality and their gender.
Like gender, we have a difficult time nailing down what sexuality is, because we are being fair and reasonable and not bigots. Bigots have an easy time defining and limiting sexuality or gender. They pick something that agrees with their worldview and they harass anything outside of that into surrender, silence, or erasure.
We are, in general, afforded the ability to be careful. Entertainers and artists working with adolescent sexuality do not have that luxury. Care, in art, is only more or less of different kinds of mess. Many many fine brushstrokes. Minimalist lines and implication. Avoiding complications or diving into them. Diluted, common cases or the outliers and drama.
Anyone who has survived adolescence can probably confirm, in a moment of honesty, that it is largely the same. You make yourself a wallflower. You play a cartoon character. You are a commonality. You are unusual. And, generally, a mess. One or another kind of mess.
Traditionally, even neighboring or closely culturally-aligned nations have looked on one another’s handling of the subject matter with a wary eye, and the pressures and repressions of a particular time and place create frictions between the safe expressions of normatives, the expert-driven public education drives, and the expressions of groups or individuals as artists.
The genderqueer and impressionist manga of the Year 24 Group, a loose descriptive term applied to several manga authors who came to prominence in the 1970s (Showa year 24 being Gregorian 1949, when some of these mangaka were born), were personally and communally-driven expressions of repressed sexuality and culturally-mandated behavior, as were the similarly queer and symbolist Go Nagai works, who came to prominence as well in the 1970s, also appears to frequently violate normative cultural expectations of behavior, biology, and reader-identified gender and sexuality.
Meanwhile, subversive in her own way, Rumiko Takahashi, whose career begins at the end of the 1970s, hews much closer to cultural norms, satirizing primarily what we already broadly considered out of date ideas and practices, while reaffirming essential patterns of male/female dichotomy, not male/female interchangeability or mutability.
Osamu Tezuka, one of the founders of manga as it is understood in the 20th Century (and today), creates Black Jack in the 1970s, utilizing his standing as community pillar, elder statesman, and as an MD, with a PhD in medicine, to cover directly or by allegory various sex, gender, and maturation concerns, including gender confirmation, hysterectomies, homosexuality, and male/female social dynamics. The title Black Jack, an outlaw medical doctor for hire, bears a face based upon the movie poster for The Man Who Knew Too Much, which, in-story, is a dramatic skin graft from a Black childhood friend, though almost always colored an inhuman blue.
All of these manga authors come to influence Shoujo Kakumei Utena and the work of Be-Papas as group and individuals, and the group-author nature of Be-Papas allows them to operate as all three types simultaneously, as established veteran educators, as social-reaffirmers, and as individuals with outlying or radical initiatives. Their shared influence on Be-Papas is only one demonstration that these demarcations are not demarcations of quality, potency, or affect, only of political strata in the injection of ideas and ideologies, of potential, into society.
It is unknowable, of course, but I can only imagine the Be-Papas situation is what allowed Utena to debut and continue in such a rigid period in Japanese animation and social reconstruction.
Looking back to my own youth, in the United States, the amount of animated fare and comics which presumed an inherently sexual dynamic in adolescent and pre-adolescent male/female interactions is cartoonishly horrific in that it was almost always a demonizing or violent one, interracial dynamics always put a stop to it, and even in entertainment aimed at girls, the girls or women were always pushed off their footing. In the 1980s Rainbow Brite cartoon series, Rainbow consistently teases the human boy who sometimes appears, but also has to bend narrative and her own initiatives around his significance as boy.
Growing up, the most important Spider-Man comic, for me, was a comic in which Spidey admits to an abused child, that he was sexually abused when he was young and that it does not make anyone lesser, worse, or themselves, wrong. This public service announcement comic from the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse and Marvel Comics, is now and was then greatly reviled by many self-professed Spider-Man fans.
In my early teens, Malibu Comics published Elven, now owned by Marvel, a comic about a sexually abused child who reshapes herself into an overtly eroticized adult elf-warrior caricature and who, despite being around ten years of age, is sexually provocative and frustrating to adults and other children. This comic found its way to me somehow, probably a bundle purchase or quarter bin, and even as a teenager, this comic made my stomach tighten, made me ashamed, afraid, upset. A character co-written and co-created by someone eventually convicted of possession of images of child sexual abuse, the level of demonization and blame in Elven and in her appearances in other comics, such as Power of Prime, should hurt to even consider, but they were presented as naively-edgy or adults grappling with serious psychological and social issues, in a way informative to children.
If I were to name the co-creators or other creatives who worked on those comics, who added to the horribleness, I have no doubt that their defenders would come out, some prominent, as if I were unfairly maligning them. Notably, the late Norm Breyfogle’s original visual designs for the character are markedly different than what saw print in stories and had much more potential as a children’s character. They chose not to use that.
The folks making her comics chose to eroticize, objectify, and to portray her and her stories the way they did, in stories that also involve a “thousand years old.. demon,” “the greatest of the… lovers,” in the body of an adolescent boy who also talks erotically to adults and children page after page and makes an adult’s clothes disappear simply to be a letch.
I suppose I have reacted defensively on behalf of Be-Papas and its members, and, I hope, I have allowed criticism as well, and considered it carefully. No human is immune to opining, no one fully detaches from their own adolescence, and many of us have concern for the youth of today, the youth of tomorrow.
In addressing the territory, we transpose maps of ourselves, our assumptions of our scenario, other generations, other people, we create rhetoric and make arguments for a priori and defenses which swing on hinges of conjunction fallacies or the idea that seatbelts do not save lives because someone once lived a full car ride without wearing one. Some of us are fairer and more educated, sometimes educated and fair do not go together in one person or one argument, but we complicate the matter because even at our most fair, our most expert, our most careful, we do not wholly or concretely grasp if there is a real underlying territory or if there is only a stack of obfuscating and aligning maps.
What we should expect and how we should expect it, the distinction between the adult and the adolescent situation change from culture to culture, time to time, but the general human assessment seems that whatever the local approach is, we are messing it up.
Utena is not about the damage of education systems, political systems, cultural expectations and the myths of youth, but it is about those things. It is obsessive about those things.
Children, especially teenagers, in entertainment that uses actors, are rarely portrayed by age-accurate performers. The average live action teenager is portrayed by an actor in their late teens or twenties, sometimes in their thirties and forties. The voice actors for the title Utena of Shoujo Kakumei Utena were in their twenties when they gave their performances.
Some casting-older is due to the need for actors do deliver lines maturely or to work longer hours than actual children are permitted, but a great deal of casting-older is because teenaged characters will be put into situations we cannot comfortably (or sometimes legally) arrange for genuine teenagers. Riverdale or Twin Peaks cannot have fifteen year olds playing fifteen year olds. Visualization and vocal performance help to disassociate Utena and other children from their in-story ages, in the same way that hiring men with five o’clock shadows and women they can objectify less subtly has long been a standard practice of television, because we want to see adolescent engagement played out – it is healing or reaffirming or intriguing to us as adults, it is informative and reaffixing for youths – and we also, largely, do not wish to see it played out. Because we intuit abuse. We know not only the potential for abuse to occur, including our own voyeuristic abuse, we know that statistically, abuse is likely. Children are abused. Children are manipulated, and taken advantage of, they are misled, fooled, used.
The world is cruel to children and fictional worlds largely are as well, even the fun or light ones.
It is a world of uncertainty and objectification.
Audiences talk of Juri having “milf energy” or “35 yr old divorcee energy” because we know not to talk of her as a sixteen year old child. We ascribe a maturity to her playing dress up. To the degree that when teenagers in fiction do teenaged things, immature things, we often immediately question, “Why did she stop and look for the deer who hit her car instead of just driving to class if she was so worried about being late?” “Why did she not just tell the boy she was alone with that she did not like him and wanted to go home?” “Why did he cheat on that test so obviously, did he not know he would be caught?”
We do these for the same reason many of us are so quick to ask two children if they are boyfriend/girlfriend or married. Two toddlers farting in diapers and throwing a toy truck between them. Inevitably, some adult: “Is she your wife?”
Sexual dynamics are not about sexual awareness or sexual engagement, or sexuality of the parties directly involved. Sexual dynamics are established by culture, community, by family, educators, by entertainment and theater and role-play, the instructions of toys and playlets, of common games, of social expectation.
The rescue of a drowning child or the failure to rescue a drowning child has a sex dynamic, because we sex the children. We gender the children and we ascribe sexualities and sex-based agendas upon them. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Phil Larkin. We fuck we up.
That our default verb, our default catchall word to use there is one of sexual root and of sexual violence.
We fuck we up.
One of the worst novels I have read in my life hinges on a common trope: Cool, slightly older teenage girl, kind of a tomboy, has sex with the unsure audience-proxy boy, then dies or gets shipped off to a boarding school. A recent Netflix miniseries plays the same trope.
John Hughes movies affect an audience in what feels positive ways until they do not. Everyone ages out of his teen-centered films, and why?
They feel one way and are another. They are set pieces of adolescent feeling and adult manipulation.
The audience for Utena does not seem to age out, nor does Utena age poorly. Yet, characters are racially objectified in both, makeovers and self-image play large roles in each, young girls who think they are more mature than they are and the older sleepy boymen who are a rapey learning curve.
I think, whatever age we come to Utena, it is that the franchise reassures us that these are fiction. Not truth. Not true fairytales. Shadow plays and videotapes, reenactments, retellings, revisits, replays, sketches, skits, fiction. And, the gender roles, the sex dynamics, the social embroidery are just as fiction.
The surgical mixture of race in Black Jack is a sexual politic. The human/nonhuman dynamic of the Shadow Girls in Utena is a sexual politic. Anthy, set apart from her nominal peers, at Ohtori Academy is distinguished by her racially-coded differences. Her separation is enhanced in storylines such as the body-switching curry, with Nanami’s journey to retrieve more of the magic curry resulting in Nanami’s tan; a visibly darker skin color. The drive to be a classic, and presumed-by-Saionji superior man, a man’s man, in Utena, is a sexual and gendering drive. These are more than only xenophobic or stylistic, fetishistic or othering, they are sexual in their politic and dynamics.
Sex, like gender, can only be poorly defined. They include a sense or sensation, and learned and experiential responses to those sensations. Significance, relation, and taboo syncretize and fragment and in those fragmentation and syncretization, the internal and understood sexual politic, further multifarious ordering and reordering occur on social lines, creating group and participatory sexual politics which also can only be defined poorly. A concretely, clearly, rigidly defined sexual or gender politic, a rigid and clear definition of sex or gender, is by human nature circumvented and belied uncertainty, certainty, and the implication of something irrecoverable.
Is it any wonder that while Utena is an experiential pilgrimage narrative, an experiential pilgrimage world, the characters, aside from the eponymous Utena, believe they have world-solving quests? That children, adults, and ancients who are liminal to youth and age strive to define something irrecoverable in an attempt to define and salvage themselves?