Empty Movement?: Recycled Animation in Utena


“The path before you has been prepared.”

Ah, Revolutionary Girl Utena – a show which I sincerely wish had had the same level of animation budgeting as its movie counterpart did. However, even if it did, there is one fact that wouldn’t have changed – the sheer amount of recycled animation. Utena entering the dueling arena, Utena drawing the sword of Dios from Anthy (later, the reverse), Mikage’s interactions with Mamiya and the Black Rose duelists, the intro piece about Utena meeting a prince as a child… the list is fairly exhaustive. But if there was a budgetary change, why wouldn’t they have tried to mix this up a little bit more?

Recycled animation in Revolutionary Girl Utena has a two-fold, arguably three-fold, purpose; firstly, it did help save money on the budget. Secondly, Ikuhara could very well have been quietly mocking other mahou shoujo-type shows (granted, Utena really doesn’t fit into this category), such as his earlier efforts on Sailor Moon. But most importantly, the repetition of animation served the larger purpose of symbolism within the show.

Utena is a show which thrives on symbolism; in all the anime I’ve ever watched, and I have seen quite a bit, I’ve never had a show leave me as frequently befuddled as Utena (the only exception I can think of is Cat Soup or Angel Egg, and I’m not entirely convinced that either was supposed to make sense anyway). Utena is the perfect show for a re-watch, since the sheer amount of layers it possesses means that every viewing leaves one with a slightly different perspective and understanding – one will miss things they caught in an earlier viewing while discovering things they missed their first time round, lending a slightly different flavor.

As such, we can’t really take the recycled animation at face value, e.g. as a move made purely for economic reasons.

I used the title ‘Empty Movement’ because it comes from the second Utena ED, Virtual Star Embryology (this also happens to be Saionji’s second duel chorus). Its a good way of encapsulating the way that the recycled scenes eventually come across to us as – we view them so many times, they become devoid of meaning. If we watch them at all, as opposed to fast-forwarding through, we watch it on auto-pilot, since their significance has been stripped away by our multiple viewings of it.

This is exactly how we’re supposed to feel about them, because this is how Anthy essentially views the entire process. Up until the very end, Anthy views Utena’s presence in her world as just another duelist playing at being a prince, a person who is ultimately going to fail, re-starting the whole thing once again. Once upon a time, Anthy probably did have some hope of the proceedings having results, but repetition has led her to believe that there really is no chance for any resolution. So she simply goes through the motions, not expecting there to ever be a different result; this is why Akio is so shocked when Anthy walks away at the end after he speaks of beginning the duelist game once again. Anthy has come to realize that she doesn’t have to endure the endless cycle, that there was a meaning in the repetitious actions of Utena’s tenure at Ohtori.

I would tell you that the next time you’re about to fast-forward through Zettai Unmei Mokushiroku you should take notice of the purpose of the recycled animation… except, all things considered, that would actually ruin it’s purpose, wouldn’t it?

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11 Responses to Empty Movement?: Recycled Animation in Utena

  1. 2DT says:

    Detachment of signifiers from their intended meanings? I can buy that. This is also especially interesting in light of what’s going on with the current season of Haruhi and “Endless Eight.” If we’re meant to be feeling a certain amount of boredom– and perhaps anxiety borne of realizing said boredom, especially when this was originally airing on TV– then repetitive techniques like this one certainly do a good job of it.

  2. TheBigN says:

    “This is exactly how we’re supposed to feel about them, because this is how Anthy essentially views the entire process.”

    I never thought about it in that way, but it makes much sense. Thanks. :3

  3. Beren says:

    Another wonderful post on Utena. I had already read about the symbolism of those repeated scenes, but never thought they would represent how Anthy sees the whole duelist game. On the other hand, Utena’s animation quality may not be awesome, but there’s something special about it. Although a remake would be welcome in terms of animation, I’m not sure it would turn out as good as the original series.

  4. adaywithoutme says:

    @ 2DT – Although I would say, judging from others’ reactions (I’m not a Haruhi watcher), that Haruhi has been a little too effective on that count.

    @ TheBigN – Honestly, I’d never thought of it that way until I actually actively mentally began to defend Utena’s use of recycled animation – I had always sensed it was important in a symbolic sense on some level, but never taken the time to sit down and actually analyze its symbolism before.

    @ Beren – I think I would just love a remake that simply re-animated everything, but left everything else intact, so no scene or dialogue or storyline changes, just shinier animation =)

  5. Dr. Weeaboo says:

    Good job noticing the importance of recycled animation in Utena. I think it also ties in to this image of ‘revolution’ not in the sense of social revolution, but in the sense of things revolving. It isn’t just the animation that gets repeated in Utena, imagery (time pieces, eggs, butterflies, cars, elevators, the rose borders around characters) are repeated, characters make the same mistakes over and over again, and there is a lot of imagery of things that spin or make other repetitive movements (like the tablecloth in the Black Rose Saga) or repetitive sounds (the record player Touga listens to in the Black Rose Saga).

    Ikuhara said in one of the interviews that the school is supposed to represent society and the way that social ideas and norms are spread and propagated is through repetition. Wish I had some references on this, but people tend to believe things because they are repeated, not necessarily because they are proven to be true. These repetitions become the web that surrounds us and we are, in a sense, bound inside of these meanings. So these repetitions could be seen as the boundaries of the egg that nurtures us (the egg’s shell from the student council’s elevator speech) and at the same time the coffin that contains us. Breaking out of these cycles and finding new meanings outside of the ones that are continually being reproduced in the world around us is, I think, what the revolution in Utena is about.

    Of course, if you reject the status quo, then you’re bound to become a social pariah. You can leave society or disregard it, which is, I think, what Anthy does by leaving the school. If you don’t leave on your own, though, you’ll end up being cast out, like Utena is, often through violent means. I think what people sometimes forget is that Utena also made a choice. If she wanted to remain within that world, she could have, as long as she became a Rose Bride (aka a girl). She did not reject this identity as such because she found it unpleasant but because she recognized that it required a sacrifice in the form of Anthy. In seeing Anthy’s pain and in seeing herself in Anthy, Utena was able to reject the identity that Akio wanted to give her, an identity that most shoujo heroines, regardless of how tomboyish they are, often accept in return for the love of a princely man. So in a sense, both Anthy and Utena were able to recognize the problem of their position in this society through each other. If Utena had a hand in saving Anthy, then Anthy also had a hand in saving Utena.

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  7. desuMaKun says:

    That was greatly put; and I have been thinking the same thing. I just saw the move for the first time and the repetition was something that I found distractingly absent (what kind of sentence is this? xD). It almost makes me angry thinking about how short the movie was! But the again, I have only watch it once =P *goes to re watch it!*

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