Sunday, November 22, 2015

Postmodern Constellation Apocalypse: Classical Mythological Themes of Utena

There are, to be sure, a lot of sources of themes in Revolutionary Girl Utena. This article addresses just one possible source: that the principal characters of Shoujo Kakumei Utena (SKU) are each represented in the winter night sky.

Director Ikuhara's previous series focused on characters who represented planets, the pretty soldiers of Sailor Moon. It's almost trivial to draw parallels between the student council's hair color and the corresponding Sailor Senshi's outfit color. A logical next step for someone who worked on a shoujo about the planets is to work on a shoujo anime about the stars. The mythology of the constellations serve as the fairy tales of the classical Greeks, which works quite well for SKU's tale.

This article assumes the reader has a passable knowledge of Greek mythology. In particular, you should be familiar with the story of Perseus -- a super-short version of his story is available on the Wikipedia page about his mother, Danae, because ancient gender roles persist to this day.


Fig 1. The Winter Sky
Character Constellation Aspect
Utena Tenjou Orion Huntress
Wakaba Shinohara Canis Major Faithful companion
Miki Kaoru Gemini (Pollux) Twin, demigod
Kozue Kaoru Gemini (Castor) Twin, tree-climber
Juri Arisugawa Andromeda Chained maiden
Shiori Takatsuki Aquarius Ganymede
Ruka Tsuchiya Pegasus Divine aid
Touga Kiryuu Perseus Prince
Nanami Kiryuu Cassiopeia Haughty queen
Mitsuru Tsuwabuki Cepheus Queen's consort
Aiko Pleiades Sister maiden
Yuuko Pleiades Sister maiden
Keiko Sonoda Pleiades Merope
Kyouichi Saionji Taurus Sacred bull
Mikage Souji Ophiuchus Asclepius
Kanae Ohtori Cygnus Leda
Dios Hercules Hero
Akio Ohtori Venus Lover, fallen star
Anthy Himemiya Virgo Persephone
The plot Eridanus Journey, monomyth
Akio car Auriga Chariot
Castle Draco, Ursa Emperor's palace
The shell Genbu Black turtle

In the interest of getting on with it, I propose that these characters are related to these constellations herein. Some of these aren't actual constellations: the Pleiades are an asterism and Venus is a planet. The Aspect column relates the particular way in which the constellation exemplifies the character, or a specific mythical identity for the constellation for those associated with several figures.

The roots of this theory come from none other than Akio himself. Akio provides a lot of context for what is going on, as and Anthy are only characters who has any inkling of the greater plot. But, we must be careful, as Akio is a liar.

Akio associates a lot of constellations with Utena directly, but this really is just a demonstration of which other character she is reflecting at the time; typically this is the episode's focus character. He also mentions the fall and winter constellations directly, which gives us a good idea of where to search.

The Huntress

I associate Utena with Orion, the hunter. For one, she's more than a little bit based on Usagi from Sailor Moon, so naturally Lepus the rabbit sits as her base. Orion's profile looks more than a little bit like Utena, with that thin waist, broad shoulders, sword in a belt, and battle frills. The other reason is that Orion so loaded with bright stars that it stands out among an already interesting portion of the sky. Also ɣ Orionis is named Bellatrix -- female warrior -- so there is that.

There are a few legends about Orion's death. The most common is the scorpion story, where Earth sent a scorpion to prevent Orion from hunting every beast in the world. Hyginus writes down a more relevant tale: that Apollo objected to his sister Artemis's love for Orion, and tricked Artemis into killing Orion. This tale is so relevant, I don't even need to explain why. Greek gods were assholes, even to each other.

Shinohara Wakaba may not think of herself as special, but she is. Notwithstanding her interactions with Saionji being the instigating event of Utena's involvement in the duels, she makes a big impression on the viewer. Like Canis Major, she is as faithful as a dog chasing after Utena (Orion) and also towards Saionji (Taurus). Also like Canis Major, she's not one of the important constellations, just a lesser being following in their wake, hoping for reflected glory. But on a hazy winter night when no other star can be seen, Sirius (α CMa) shines through the clouds like a beacon. Wakaba's inner world is troubled and dark, but the true happiness in her heart, when it shows, is a light that guides her companions through the night.

On the other side of Orion lies Taurus the bull, which represents Utena's first opponent, Kyouichi Saionji. Saionji has the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, but he also has the more desirable traits of bovines. He is the strongest physically of all the duelists, and his desire for the sacred is suitable for a sacred cow. Zeus took the form of a white bull to abduct Europa, and abduction is essentially what Saionji has done to Anthy. Europa may be another name for Demeter which, while not quite the same as Anthy's Persephone, is certainly in the right neighborhood.

The Twins

Gemini, constellation of twins, is associated with many, many people in this story, due to the extent of which everyone is covering up their true nature -- presenting two faces to the world. Not to mention the rampant bisexuality.

But there are two obvious twins in this story, Kozue and Miki of the Kaoru family. Together, they do a remarkable impression of the mythological twins and half-siblings born to Leda, Castor and Pollux. Castor is born as a normal child, son of King Tyndareus of Sparta, while Pollux is an immortal child of Zeus due to that one Swan Incident. And there lies the source of conflict: Kozue knows that Miki is special in a way that she is not. And despite everything, she will always be compared to him, as his twin, and come out losing. Miki himself knows of the shining thing (kirameki), the divine spark that Kozue never had, but he too fears he has lost it.

The mythological Dioskouri never displayed this level of fraternal enmity. SKU characters are broken versions of themselves, who don't live up to their own expectations or archetypes. Much as we all do. Castor himself causes his doom after climbing a tree, much as Kozue does, and must be rescued by his brother.

The sunlit garden, however, is another piece of mythology entirely. In this aspect, I believe that Miki and Kozue represent an aspect of Adam and Eve -- a man and woman crafted out of one flesh. The Garden of Eden is the dream time in the childhood of humanity, and most of Miki's efforts come in just getting a glimpse of that past glory. And yet it was ruined by the woman; both are no longer children, having tasted of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. For Miki this becomes knowledge of how to stay pure in spirit. In contrast, Kozue gains carnal knowledge, embracing the role of temptress.

In either case, Miki's relationship with his father is distant, and with Kozue it's even more strained. He may own a zaibatsu, or be some other form of divinity, but they are lost children, now wild animals living east of Eden.

Clash of the Titans

Touga Kiryuu certainly plays the role of the hero well, which identifies him with the constellation Perseus. Perseus is more or less at the center of the action in the winter sky, which is where Touga often finds himself. In mythology, he's the hero who slayed the sea monster (Cetus) and saved Andromeda. But there's a heart of darkness in Perseus, the demon star Algol (β Per, an eclipsing binary) which represents the head of the Gorgon. Medusa's head is the proudly on display, the latest female conquest of this ladykiller.

Perseus, like Touga, was adopted by a powerful family. He was put up for adoption by his father Acrisius casting him into a box in the ocean (not unlike a certain cat). Acrisius hoped to spare himself from a prophecy where the son killed the father, but Perseus' discus veered off course and accidentally struck the father in the end of the story. And that's the problem with Touga -- his heroism always falls short.

Nanami seems to be best represented by Cassiopeia, the Queen. A haughty woman, Cassiopeia of Ætheopia was once so boastful that she claimed that she and her daughter Andromeda were more beautiful than all of the Nereids. This did not turn out well for her. In the end, Cassiopeia's punishment was to be places in the heavens, bound to a chair. And as the constellation lies far to the north, every night, Cassiopeia hangs upside-down for a time.

That really is Nanami's story, at least at the outset. A haughty woman, whose world is continually turned upside-down. She is also, of the student council, the most removed from the action, of the characters represented by more southerly constellations.

Nanami also spends time impersonating other constellations -- playing Andromeda the maiden in need of rescue, Perseus the traveling hero on the curry quest, Taurus the magnificent bovine, and Gemini as an all too close sibling. She never manages to live up to the rest of the Student Council.

Nanami's circle of girlfriends is associated with the classical circle of maidens, the Pleiades, by no less than Akio himself. This open star cluster is known as the Seven Sisters in both New and Old World mythologies; but budget cuts and light pollution have unfortunately forced us down to three in SKU. Just like the stars, they're more noticeable as a group than individually. Nanami carefully keeps them from ever coming in contact with Touga, their prince, and so we get one episode to remind us that a circle of maidens without a prince is a coven of witches.

The Consulting Analyst blog notes that Keiko might be identified with the Pleiad Merope; because she was attracted to the wrong man, Nanami would "disappear" her just like the seventh star "disappeared" from view. Celaeno is another Pleiad, and I would like to mention that the scene where Keiko gets sent to the student council records office in the night would do a passable imitation of the Great Library of Celaeno from the Chthuhu mythos.

Tsuwabuki Mitsuru is a character that I associate with Cepheus, primarily because he serves as the companion to Nanami. Cepheus was King of Ætheopia and husband of Cassiopeia, but isn't really known for much else. He was willing to sacrifice his daughter, Andromeda, to appease the gods, and I can see a bit of Tsuwabuki's self-sacrificing nature in that. But this is probably one of the weaker connections, much as Cepheus is one of the less brilliant constellations.

The Andromeda Strand

While this region of the sky is still associated with the Perseus mythology, the western portion of it is connected with Juri's story.

Juri is very clearly associated with Andromeda, the chained maiden. Daughter of Cassiopeia, Andromeda too was punished for the incident mentioned above. Andromeda lay chained as a sacrifice to the sea monster Cetus, until the hero Perseus came to save her. Juri's chain is made of the same stuff as Sailor Venus, a "Love-Me Chain", if you will. Her heart remains captured until freed by Utena's sword. Also, Juri's character design is reminiscent of the tall, slender form of the Andromeda constellation.

Aquarius is associated with Ganymede, who was such a good looking guy that the gods kept him around to be their water bearer. And such is Shiori, the object of homosexual attraction. Even a fake, cross-dressing Ganymede can be at the center of a love triangle in Shakespeare's As You Like It, and that's exactly what Shiori is in SKU.

And so, the constellation between Andromeda and Aquarius must be the person between Shiori and Juri. That person is Ruka, represented by the constellation Pegasus. Pegasus makes a near square in the sky, and I guess Ruka has some pretty square shoulders. OK, you can tell that this one is a bit weak. However, the winged-horse pegasus does represent a form of divine assistance to Perseus. Ruka too tries to bear Juri to hero status, by getting her to return to the Tournament.

Scattered Stars

Anthy is almost certainly represented by Virgo, the maiden -- in particular as an aspect of Persephone. The captured and raptured maiden meme so common to Greek myth shows its face again here, though in this one it's often straight out referred to as "The Rape of Persephone". The springtime goddess is brought to the underworld to become the wife of Hades -- who can probably do a passable impression of the somewhat dead Akio. Due to trickery, she cannot escape the underworld and must return there for half the year, which is why we have a winter.

Spica (α Vir)[1] usually represents a bouquet of flowers held by Virgo. Since Anthy is the one who hands out all of the flowers and is loved by all the animals, it's not terribly hard to associate her with a springtime goddess. It's not even that much of a stretch to associate a harvest goddess with Anthy's other feminine representation of a witch -- neopagans do it all the time.

Notably, Virgo is a spring constellation, and can only be seen very late at night during the winter. And, as all of the other constellations fall off the end of the world, she is the only one left. At the end of the story, she must chase after Utena alone.

Akio more or less tells us to associate him with Venus, the morning star which is in turn a name associated with Lucifer, the betrayer. Venus is of course not a constellation at all, but a planet. And quite often the third brightest object in the sky. But unlike all of the other characters, his light comes not from within, but from the reflected light of Dios. He pretty much lampshades this too, just like everything else in this paragraph. Even if you're not on board with this theory of SKU characters being constellations, Akio is.

To me, Kanae Ohtori feels a little bit like Cygnus, the swan. Leda was a beautiful princess that Zeus saw from the heavens. In a distressingly familiar plot twist, Big Z transforms her into a swan so that they could ballet dance have hot, nonconsensual swan sex. The twins Castor and Pollux soon hatched from her eggs, finally answering the question of whether human girls can lay eggs.

The connection between Leda and Kanae is not too strong, but I think she shares the same aspect of being captured by a higher power, as well as being elegant and slender as a swan. Cygnus is a summer constellation, though it is relatively close to Aquarius.

Souji Mikage's story is out of phase with the rest of the story, so it isn't a surprise that his constellation is also a true summer constellation. Ophiuchus, literally meaning serpent-bearer, is surrounded on both sides by the constellation Serpens. In Roman myth, he represents the physician Asclepius, the son of Apollo who learned the art of medicine from Chiron the centaur.

And then one day a serpent slithered up to Asclepius and whispered secret knowledge in his ear, from which he learned how to cheat death and revive the dead. It is this gnostic power that Mikage seeks in his first campaign at Ohtori, to save the life of Mamiya Chida. The power that was whispered in his ear by a certain serpent -- perhaps the same one in that Sunlit Garden. Asclepius was thunderbolted to death by Zeus for abusing his power to raise the dead. Some accounts say that Zeus agreed to bring him back to life, so long as he only raised souls on Zeus' orders. Which begs the question: in the Black Rose Arc, just how many souls of the past were raised as shadows?

Non-character constellations

Right next to Perseus in the sky looms Auriga, the charioteer. And while you could make an argument that Saionji is Auriga with the aspect of Bellerophon, I prefer a cooler theory. That rather than represent the charioteer, it represents the chariot -- the Akio car. The legendary '57 Chevy convertible would have enough room to carry the charioteer and the three goats as a four-seater. Yes, goats; this constellation's mythology is really mixed up. Just assume that it's a chariot with a lot of horsepower.

For a different kind of there is the celestial river Eridanus, that starts right at the feet of the Orion. And if Orion represents a hero, then Eridanus looks like the path for a hero's journey. There's no real support for this idea, so we'll move on from here. I'm just kind of a fan of the monomyth. Woo Campbell!

Chinese Astronomy

While Utena seems like it's mostly working from a Western mythos, there's a little bit of Chinese culture in there too. After all, SKU is postmodern. Chinese astronomy is by and large pretty boring -- even superbright stars like Caph and Fomaulhaut (α Cas and α PsA) aren't in constellations, because they don't fit in the conception of the celestial order or something. But there are a few points of interest.

The castle in the sky is a common theme in Chinese astronomy, which represents the polar stars as the center of the sky and palace of the heavenly emperor. Thus it's not really surprising that castle above the dueling arena rotates. Though it's not from Western astronomy, the meaning is fairly clear -- it is the eternal castle where the prince of heaven dwells, and around which everything rotates. Sure it looks like a fairytale castle, but it's the Purple Forbidden Enclosure and the seat of heavenly power.

So far I've talked about the primarily winter constellations, but the Chinese system associates one animal with each quarter of the sky[2]. The animal associated with winter and the north is Genbu, the black tortoise. So finally, as a representative of the whole cast, we get a creature with a shell. The world's shell is not a giant leap at this point.

To extend the metaphor of the chick breaking the shell even further, we can apply an classical astronomical meaning as well. If one takes the ancient Ptolemeic or Aristotelian systems of the heavens, Earth and all that we know is surrounded by a system of crystal spheres. The fixed stars and all the constellations are affixed to the penultimate sphere. The final shell, which encloses the world, is the primum mobile which set everything into motion. And by breaking the final shell of the world, the hero can reach the Empryean region beyond, whereupon God is in His heaven, and all is right with the world.

Ultimately then, this connects to the other meanings of breaking the shell of the world. If the shell is the coffin of death, it means that the power of heaven lies beyond the firmament. If the shell is adolescence, it is us as humans finally understanding our place in the world. And if the shell is our planet, it means finally being able to leave our tiny home to see the big universe beyond. We are all in our coffins, whatever it may be. One day, you must break open that shell, or you will die.

So, I urge to all of you to help break the world's shell -- call your representatives and ask for increased funding for NASA, JAXA, ESA, Roscosmos, or equivalent. Do it for the revolution of the world.

Is this legit?

It's difficult to tell how well the night sky really applies to SKU. The stories of the constellations are those of classical archetypes, both heroic and tragic. The kinds of archetypes that keep recurring in legend, fairy tales, and Revolutionary Girl Utena. So perhaps it's just terribly easy to find an archetype and shoehorn it in.

Still, this kind of shoehorning is exactly the sort of thing a postmodern work should do.  Combine the best parts of the works of the past, while rejecting the part that sucks.

Certainly there is something to this theory, as Akio does a good job of specifically pointing out a few bits of astronomical symbolism. As such, the bits about Gemini and Aquarius are almost certainly valid. If you're going to do symbolism, you might as well make it super-obvious like roses everywhere or a bright green light across the bay.

The symbolism of the constellations are appropriate for Utena's world. In some sense, the rampant levels of bisexuality and incestual plots in Utena are almost toned down from the Greco-Roman legends that they represent. And the stories enshrined in the constellations -- and Greek mythology in general -- almost universally deal with man's folly in rivalling the gods. Poor Icarus, he was just one of many. The larger-than-life, archetypal characters are defeated by their own frailties and desires. And if that doesn't describe the cast of Utena, I don't know what on Earth does.

Ad Astra

The constellations only serve as the starting point of the Utena cast; their characters are further deconstructed from there. In fact, Much of the discussion of SKU centers on the deconstructive nature of the work. But the construction, upon which said deconstruction was wrought, was nearly as impressive. It was built from shoujo tropes, fairy tale motifs, character archetypes, and the wisdom of classic and modern civilizations. The deconstruction of that much is truly impressive.

The deconstruction is so successful, there's really nothing left at the end of the plot. And yet, once the shell has been broken, the last episode invites you to speculate: now what? And at that point, the only possible answer is reconstruction.[3]  It's what we post-modernists do, after all.  The end of Utena is the story we tell ourselves.

Like Anthy, we need to go out and see the greater world ourselves. The real story, not the fake stars in our planetarium. The story is all around us. Go outside and look up.

[0]: The title of the post is inspired by this comic.
[1]: As a side note to Lyrical Nanoha fans, Spica figures into the ED theme (Hoshizora no SUPIKA) because in the Japanese language, it was known as the Pearl Star (真珠星).  And Raising Heart looks a lot like a pearl.  Source.
[2]: As Fushigi Yuugi viewers already know.
[3]: I think this is the main reason that I like the fanfic Symphony of the Sword so much as Utena fanfiction; it is a relentlessly constructive and syncretic universe. Moreover, space opera is a natural fit for characters with stellar archetypes. The Symphony describes Utena leaving the Aristotelian universe and coming into her own in the stars beyond. I can't think of a more fitting fate.