Revolutionary Girl Utena Newbie Recap: Episodes 18-23, The Black Rose Saga
"What I hate most are people who don't care about themselves!"
So much about the Black Rose arc has been about introducing new characters and then, as quickly as they pop into view, sliding them back into the milieu surrounding Utena and Anthy, the Duelist and her Rose Bride, both against the world and against the odds. After all, how did Utena come to be the chosen one, and really, how did Anthy land into her own lifelong appointment? The Black Rose arc answers some of these questions and, as these things are wont to do, there are only more questions ahead.
First off: hi! I’m now writing these Newbie Recaps in arc format vs. an episode a week, partly because this way I will potentially spoil myself less and also partly because of other reasons. Let’s wrap this season up.
Episode 18: “Mitsuru’s Impatience”
As I mentioned in my intro, the show’s deliberate introduction of certain characters, only ever in relation to one of the main cabal of characters, pays off pretty well in this arc. In this case, Nanami is the mark of Tsuwabuki’s affections, and turns him into an unlikely contender for being a Duelist.
The elementary student is still blindly in love (?) with Nanami, bringing her everything she needs and trying to anticipate her needs in general. Everyone around Nanami uneasily humors this, but she herself doesn’t directly rebuff the boy. (And yes, he is very much a boy.)
A fun observation: he’s wearing Jury and Miki’s umbrella colors, but not Nanami’s.
Tsuwabuki, for his own part, is still oblivious as to the “adult” expectations that are layered on top of relationships, something that comes to a head when his childhood friend Mari teases him about his fruitless affection toward Nanami.
He responds “No.” If only more people would grasp this!
So he does what any normal child does: goes to his older peers for advice; in this case, Utena and Anthy. Utena tiptoes around the question, but Anthy cheerfully tells Tsuwabuki that her and Utena’s relationship is “adult,” something that’s picked up by school gossips. (Mostly, it just highlights Anthy’s own “naiveté.”)
We’re all just trying to figure this out.
Mamiya and Mikage set Tsuwabuki as a mark for a black rose, but they’re not happy about the choice to use someone so young. Turns out, it’s this youth that he’s so frustrated with anyway—and after clumsily being rebuffed by Mari, his peer, and Nanami, the “adult” he wants (though she’s really still a kid herself), he heads to Nemuro Memorial Hall to try to change his fate.
The height difference though…
And so, he draws two (!) swords out of Nanami and challenges Utena to a duel. Utena is nervous about fighting a just barely-not-baby, but surrounded by figures holding chocolate (which he’d gotten for Nanami and had been snacked on by Mari), he really goes after her.
Those double blades though.
Of course, he’s not a real challenge; after all, Nanami was never a very strong Duelist in her own right, and having her in blade form without the burning jealousy that fueled her “rivalry” against Utena at work, combined with Tsuwabuki’s general small-ness, means this was never really a battle for Utena. But afterward, Tsuwabuki chooses to hang out with Mari instead of Nanami, for at least a day. That’s progress of sorts.
Episode 19: “A Song for a Kingdom Now Lost”
Now, let’s take on a relationship with real, even devastating stakes. Wakaba apparently has her own prince dreams, and at lunch with Utena, someone who just might be him appears: Tatasuya Kazami, a childhood friend of Wakaba’s. Nicknamed by her as “the Onion Prince,” he bears a love letter for Utena. Wakaba instead holds onto it, and tells Utena that she’s still mad at him because he transferred out of her school without her, only to return, again without telling her.
As the Onion Prince moniker is shown in a flashback to be a direct response to people bullying Wakaba about her “onion hair,” and her interactions around him a little erratic, it’s easy to believe that she’s hopelessly in love with someone who doesn’t quite love her back. It’s the same crux of conversation that happens at a Student Council meeting: Miki thinks about Anthy all the time and has her photo in his sheet music; Nanami goes on and on about her brother; Jury, while teasing them about their “true loves,” clearly has some baggage in that area too.
In a seemingly regular meeting with Utena, Akio tells her that it’s hard to read the true nature of people’s hearts; as he’s a bit of a duplicitous man himself, it’s pretty “Hmmm”-inducing, but Utena takes it upon herself to peel back Wakaba’s feelings for her Onion Prince, and perhaps ask Kazami himself how he feels. And during a meeting supposedly about giving him a second chance, she instead literally sips tea as Wakaba and Kazami banter and flirt.
In a separate meeting with Kazami, Utena gets him to reveal that he’s actually into Wakaba, and wanted to use Utena as a way of getting close to her friend. (A convoluted line of logic, and one that’s repeated later on.) So, she asks him to tell Wakaba how he feels, and it goes…
…poorly. Using Utena’s advice and information, Kazami tells Wakaba to go to her prince. She’s enthusiastic about this advice and then promptly abandons Kazami without a second glance. Frustrated and confused, he goes to Nemuro Memorial Hall with no appointment, and is actually rejected by Mikage. (Here, another piece of information is revealed: rumor has it that students can receive counseling there. This is twisted.)
We’ve all been there.
The reason he isn’t accepted as a Duelist is something vague: he’s actually a good person who’s clearly gotten wrapped up in something he has no actual stake in. And thus, Kazami exits the narrative, so who was Wakaba’s prince?
None other than the one who began this whole sordid saga: Saionji.
Episode 20: “Wakaba Flourishing”
Oh, that feeling of seeing a face you definitely weren’t expecting to see. Turns out, despite Saionji being humiliated and expelled by Touga, he’s hiding out at Wakaba’s. From her POV, this is the best thing ever: after longing after him from the sidelines and then later being publicly humiliated by him, he’s now at her beck and call, looking to her plaintively for support and shelter. Never mind that it was him, and his treatment of Anthy, that led Utena down the dueling road; Wakaba doesn’t know that, and so she keeps Saionji as a personal specific secret.
At a meeting with Akio, Utena reveals that Wakaba’s been acting happier than ever, and wonder what’s the cause. Akio actually makes sense this time: Utena is one of those people who’s just special, and whom everyone knows and recognizes as special. Something is happening to Wakaba that is affecting her in a similar way, but unlike what’s up with Utena and, say, someone like Akio, Wakaba’s sparkle will eventually fade.
And that happens, fast. Saionji makes Wakaba an admittedly adorable leaf hairpin, but his affection for her is limited to her room. Mikage later visits Saionji and the latter reveals that he plans, somehow, to get back into school and into his rightful spot in the highest social circle. Mikage offers to help him, but there’s a small price that has to be paid by Saionji.
This is the exact same face, down to the teardrop, that she made when she’d seen her letter to Saionji being read out loud by a bunch of random students. Cruel.
What’s the thing that Saionji trades? Mikage asked for the thing that would bring Wakaba to him: the leaf pin, which he then passes onto Anthy.
/Kill Bill sirens/
In the Nemuro elevator, Wakaba shares her jealousy; not just of Anthy, but of Utena and all the other shining people who walk around with no idea of the light they illuminate. With that, she slides a sword out of Saionji and sets off against Utena…
…who is so completely heartbroken to see her friend in front of her, that she never draws her own sword from Anthy. Instead, she pleads with Wakaba to snap out of it, but the onion girl is under the spell of the black rose and comes the closest of any Duelist to actually killing Anthy.
This entire sequence was devastating.
Surrounded by little wooden leaf clips, Wakaba pours all of her hurt and jealousy onto Utena (and lets slip that she’d been harboring Saionji), and eventually, Utena finally takes a sword—Wakaba’s own, and cuts her friend’s rose into pieces.
Mikage, for his part, keeps Saionji around (and calls him a fool). Things seem somewhat normal, but when Wakaba gets home, she still says “I’m back” to an empty room. Love fucking hurts.
Episode 21: “Vermin”
After a mini-arc like that, it’s nice to watch something with lower stakes. Such is the case with this episode, which focused on Keiko, one of Nanami’s three henchwomen.
Apparently, Keiko, Aiko, and Yuuko (they have names!) first met Nanami the day after the middle school entrance exams, and were drawn to her partly because she was popular and partly because, hello Touga. Keiko in particular has it bad, and is singled out by Nanami to miss a big party (where he’d be there) to complete some uncompleted Student Council paperwork. She grins and bears it, and continues to participate in Nanami henchwomen activity, like calling Utena vermin for literally being in the same room as Touga.
An aside: Utena and Anthy hang out with Akio together, and he compares them to Castor and Pollux, the Gemini twins. After Utena leaves, he directs Anthy to keep her relationship with Utena strong and to only strengthen it; cue the “dun dun dun!” music.
One day, Keiko spots Touga in the rain, and, knowing that she could face Nanami’s wrath if caught, offers him her umbrella. Of course Nanami sees it, and in the basement, a black rose is plucked, but whose?
Well, Nanami makes it easy: she calls Keiko vermin for daring to speak to Touga, and Aiko and Yuuko shun her in turn. So, she goes to Nemuro Memorial Hall to seek the power to change her fate.
Pretty relatable, to be honest.
Surprisingly, this little-known character is the one who plucks Touga’s sword, and surrounded by umbrellas, her duel against Utena goes underway. Utena takes care of her pretty easily, but at the end of the duel, she reveals: she didn’t even know the girl’s name.
“Or know who I am, apparently!”
It seems strange to end the Duelist-of-the-week arcs with Keiko, but it’s revealed that Mikage mostly set this duel up to see what happens. Keiko eventually falls back in line with Nanami; when Utena asks why, Anthy sagely says that “it’s for love.” (But is Anthy or the Rose Bride saying this?)
And now, onto the answers… kind of.
Episode 22: “Nemuro Memorial Hall”
At last, we return to the prince and the ponytail man. Apparently, Mikage and Mamiya are down to their last black rose, which begs the question: is it Mikage’s turn to duel?
Meanwhile, the Student Council finally takes the question of the Black Roses seriously. (As Nanami, the holdout, was finally used as a sword.) It’s obvious now that End of the World is moving in the shadows and without them, but they still haven’t figured out who’s behind the Black Roses.
Utena, while looking for Chu-Chu, stumbles into Mikage, who tries to recruit her into his seminar. She’s wary of him, but it’s not just him she should be worried about: Mikage is approached in his office by Akio, who reminds him of a contract made long ago.
And thus: the flashback. The prevailing tale about Nemuro Memorial Hall, first told by Miki, is that Professor Nemuro and 100 male students perished in a fire. This is only partly true: Mikage is actually, somehow, Professor Nemuro, and the boys who died in the fire and then are being used as Duelist fuel (and then, darkly, being disposed of in fire once more) were his students and collaborators.
Rocking that cyberpunk aesthetic.
In the hall that would become Nemuro, he and his students are doing some sort of secret research. Nemuro, who’d been invited into the school, is surrounded by boys wearing rose rings, which he’s told are some kind of fashion statement.
He’s mostly apathetic about his research, until Tokiko Chida enters his life. An inspector from the school board, she’s there to see what’s going on. While it’s unclear as to the nature of his affection for her, Nemuro is captivated by her and becomes more and more involved in the research, which is in turn named as “eternity” and as “the power to revolutionize the world.”
Throughout this episode, little blinking hands signal things both important (the presence of Tokiko’s lipstick on a teacup in Nemuro’s office; a framed butterfly) and things perhaps less important (like the number of cats on Tokiko’s sill, which grows throughout the above sequence).
It’s at this meeting that Nemuro first encounters Mamiya: Tokiko’s sickly brother, who loves roses and respects Nemuro as a person. It is for his sake that Tokiko is interested in Nemuro’s research, and it’s her belief in the rumors that perhaps fuels his desire to move forward.
As the research gears up, more and more of the students gossip about Nemuro and his supposed lack of insider knowledge. Well, he eventually gets it: Akio (!) visits Nemuro and gives him the answer to a long-frustrating equation. Nemuro is horrified by the answer, and by the contract that Akio asks him to accept: a rose crest, and the promise of seeing this research through to whatever end. Nemuro worries, most of all, that this contract won’t make “her” happy—but it appears his her (Tokiko) is too busy hooking up with Akio to worry about Nemuro.
Alas, Nemuro eventually takes the contract, and as a result: Mamiya burns down the research hall, all 100 boys inside. This was apparently the key to the equation and, a stepping stone for the select few who survived to reach their quest for immortality.
For those of you who know, this is a very Fullmetal Alchemist-like conclusion.
In the present day, Tokiko visits Akio after dropping flowers off at a grave. She comments that the school’s changed; but clearly, echoes of the past remain. For instance: Anthy and Utena fight in the greenhouse about some mysterious thing that Anthy has to do, and as Mikage watches surreptitiously, Utena says a line of dialogue that Tokiko had previously said: “What I hate most are people who don’t care about themselves!”
But for Akio and Tokiko, the past is more than just echoes. To Akio, the school is a place where, once you’re there, you’re frozen in time as a student, bound to the institution. And with that, Tokiko reveals that she’s only there to drop flowers off at Mamiya’s grave. Wait, what?
Episode 22: “The Terms of a Duelist”
Mikage/Nemuro and Mamiya (?!) are down to their last Black Rose, but unlike previous attempts against Utena, Mikage feels like a duel against her is now unwinnable. His solution: get Utena to join him.
This is what the Student Council feels as well, even Nanami. They think recruiting the enemy of their enemy might draw whoever’s behind the Black Roses out, but alas, they never quite have to enact this plan.
Anthy, true to what she said earlier, is missing, and Utena searches for her in the greenhouse, where Nemuro finds her. In Utena, Nemuro sees shades of Tokiko’s spirit, and asks her if she has friends with problems, presumably in an effort to recruit her… as a Duelist? As a partner in eternity?
Utena flashes back to the first time she met her prince, and after waking from the dream, she finds Anthy holding hands with her.
This moment’s sweetness is, ah, undercut by what’s to come.
In that instant, she realizes that her role in this saga was, at some level, something she could step away from. Anthy’s Rose Bride status is permanent in comparison, and Utena feels tenderness toward her purple-haired friend—with, yes, problems, but not the ones Utena thinks she has.
Utena goes to meet “Mikage” at Nemuro Memorial Hall. (Aside: in his conversation with his departing secretary, Nemuro admits that he was in love with Mamiya, right? His relationship with Tokiko is unclear, at least to me.) While there, Utena sees all of the portraits of former Black Rose Duelists on the walls.
As before: the gender dynamics of the duels and of the Black Roses are messed up.
In a flashback, Nemuro reveals that he used the boys to open the pathway to the dueling arena/castle. His students hoped to be the ones who revolutionized the world, but instead it was Nemuro and Mamiya (?) who reaped this power. Tokiko, presumably, was asked to join; and as Nemuro literally sees Utena as Tokiko, he extends the offer.
But in doing so, he reveals what the Duelists had in common: they fought to change their lives by changing their memories and preserving them, perhaps in perpetuity. This desire was the fuel for Nemuro’s dreams; Utena is furious, and then she sees a portrait of her younger self on the wall, causing her to attack Nemuro.
GO GET HIM!!!
But Nemuro points out that Utena isn’t void of the same impulse: to preserve her memories of her prince, of the moment that changed her life irrevocably. The rose crest, black or otherwise, is a promise to remember, one that both can be manipulated and one that’s inherently manipulating the person making and keeping the promise. Both disgusted with and grappling with that idea, Utena issues her first ever challenge: and Nemuro finds himself in the elevator, with Mamiya’s voice guiding him on the way down.
An aside that I’ll later answer: did Nemuro never know that Tokiko was alive and still visiting the school? He aligns herself with her memory, but something feels wrong about their clashing narratives. And this is confirmed by the Shadow Girls skit (I know, it’s the only one I’m writing about): a bitter dad, harped on by his wife and slighted by his child, decides to go back to school to try to relive his glory days.
On the dueling ground, portraits of Tokiko and Mamiya surround Nemuro and Utena. He again repeats his creed that she, too, changed her life because of one person, and the memories around that exchange are what fuel her. Even as they duel, Nemuro hears Mamiya’s voice in his head: that he will lose. In this moment, Nemuro’s story falls apart—who really set the fire? In his memory, Tokiko is furious at Mamiya, but slaps Nemuro. The Mamiya we’ve been introduced to can’t really be Mamiya after all, as Tokiko had laid flowers at her brother’s grave. Who is he? Who is Nemuro, for that matter?
And with that, his memories collapse. The dark brown-skinned Mamiya we’ve been seeing isn’t him; Mamiya is dead; and as Utena rushes toward him, Nemuro releases the memories that’d been holding him together, and perhaps into existence at all.
After the duel, Utena and Miki search for Anthy in a burned up building. It’s Nemuro Memorial Hall, except… it’s not. That’s not its name, and it hasn’t been built. It is a husk, a shadow of a shadow.
And then, the curtain comes up. Nemuro had subsisted himself, his eternity, upon his memories of Mamiya (who’d died years ago) and Tokiko. So, who was the person who’d “been” Mamiya: in the basement of the Black Rose, speaking to him all those times? None other than another dark brown-skinned, purple-haired character: ANTHY!
This reveal legitimately made me gasp; I knew that her character was shifty and strange, but the extent to which her and her brother manipulated the events of the Black Rose arc and, in turn, Utena, is something else. How deep does her deception go? Is it actually Anthy doing this, or the manifestation of the Rose Bride? Until next time (so, about a month).
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