The Self-Actualization of Utena Tenjou

"I've taken back what I was."

So as of late, my partner and I have been fairly obsessed with  Mawaru Penguindrum. However, I had never seen Ikuhara’s previous work, Revolutionary Girl Utena. I’ve been told by several people that I’m doing a great disservice to myself by not having watched it, so I’ve taken it upon myself to get up to speed by watching it with Emily and a few friends on skype.

The first cour passed in all of its riveting grandeur, what with shadowy societies, secret duels, and copious symbolism all set along a high school backdrop. But as we finished up the first story arc known as the Student Council Arc, the episode following did an interesting thing with regards to recapping all of the events thus far:

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Friendship. Choice. Reason. Love. Adoration. Conviction. Self. I did not know that all of the duels that had occurred were given proper names, and thus with this little bit of added context I was given an entirely new framework with which to view this series. This show, at least where the first arc is concerned, is about the self-actualization of Utena Tenjou.

The Hierarchy of Needs is a theory of psychology that was created by Abraham Maslow. He talked about how every person has this innate desire to realize their full potential, but that in order to do so, they have to fulfill certain more basic needs before being able to achieve what he calls Self-Actualization. The most basic needs are things like breathing, food, water, sleep, then the next level includes things like safety and shelter. You can fulfill the higher needs while neglecting a few more basic ones, but it’s incredibly difficult to do so. Once you do achieve these higher echelons, then you become the end result of all of the potential that you are. You are the best possible you that you can be. The Student Council Arc was the story about how Utena achieved her own self-actualization through the various duels she participated in.

Specifically, I feel that the duels involving Friendship, Love, & Adoration belong to the tier regarding love and belonging. Whereas Choice, Reason, & Conviction I feel belong to the tier regarding esteem. We can assume that she’s met all of her physiological and safety needs since she is going to a rather prestigious school. The duels aren’t perfectly in line, and, spoiler alert, she doesn’t win all of them, but the duel that ends the arc was the duel called Self. When she wins that, she achieves that which Maslow describes and becomes fully human, a person capable of spontaneity, creativity, and real regard for others.

But with her actualization, she becomes an individual who’s come into the notice of the Black Rose Society and another organization known only as the End of the World. They see her, they consider her, she is a known factor now. From here on out, I feel that either she’s being cultivated by End of the World, or else she’s being deconstructed by the Black Rose Society. But I can only sit back and watch as the characters delve deeper.

…go deeper.

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7 Comments

Filed under Editorials, Revolutionary Girl Utena

7 responses to “The Self-Actualization of Utena Tenjou

  1. At the time of the writing of this post, I had only seen up to episode 14, the beginning of the Black Rose Arc. Please give me due regard if you’re going to discuss any spoilers.

    Thank you!

  2. The irony proffered by the show at the end of the arc is that the title of the episode where Utena wins back her authentic self is “Perhaps, For Friendship’s Sake.”

    The authentic self that she’s re-acquiring here is that bone-headed individuality that can only manifest if she’s fighting for the sake of others. The Prince told her to not lose her nobility… and this nobility is manifested almost entirely by her willingness to fight for the sake of others — be it Wakaba, or Anthy.

    Contrast this with the (Western) tradition of individuality which is the inward search for one’s passions and dreams and to forge a path to that no matter what (cue any random valedictory address during graduation exercises). It is a selfish kind of individuality — but is there any other kind? Utena shows us how, that the key to win one’self back is to be a person of action… for others.

    • Or not? if you consider some episodes before the end and where this whole concept of her playing the prince lead her….I can’t say much without spoilering, perhaps only that the ending song reveals also that a prince isn’t such a noble beast… hm and perhaps till the point vucubcaquix has watched is quite evident that Utena doesn’t really take in account what Anthy’s true wishes may be (see Utena’s urges for Anthy to become a ‘normal’ girl with friends- who’s talking, huh?) …

  3. animekritik

    I agree with ghost that the Western tradition leans more heavily to the individual and self-centered perspective, but there’s also a very healthy community tradition (i guess specially strong in the middle ages) where everyone must work for the city or the kingdom or whatever. The problem is that even in the middle ages there was a tendency for the lord or king to subsume (=hijack) the community under his own epically selfish individuality.

    From the perspective of the Student Council, the final winner takes all and the dueling is very individualistic. Utena cares for Anthy and upsets this dynamic. But yes, one needs to go deeper…

    Enjoy the show!

  4. hearthesea

    I don’t think I’m ever going to ‘click’ with Utena in the way most people seem to do (I saw quite a bit of season one, and I only really liked the Juri episode). That being said, I had no idea about the duels having specific names, either — that’s a great touch.

    I like the connection to Maslow’s HoN — good stuff. It seems like more of an emotional/psychological perspective that I didn’t feel much when I watched the show, so thinking about the duels in this particular sense makes them a bit more interesting to me. At the same time, I always get the sense that most of Utena’s characters feel like ‘types’ or detached figures that represent a certain element rather than being naturalistic, humanised people. While this seems to be the point (the show glories in symbolism and the abstract) it makes it difficult for me to relate to them…aside from Juri.

    Either way, nice post.

  5. Don’t want to say too much about further events, since it gets even more complicated; so far you’ve got some great stuff built up.

    To be honest, I had no idea of the HoN. However, when I went through the show, I found Utena’s actions and her self-realization comparable to a different scale that I had recently read about: the battle between power and force (Power vs Force, Hawkins). The path of human self-actualization, consciousness, and of “true power”, was argued as follows: shame < guilt < apathy < grief < fear < desire < anger < pride < courage < neutrality < willingness < acceptance < reason < love < joy < peace < enlightenment and self. A lot of the "steps" on this ladder correlate to the HoN, now that I notice. While the great majority of the analysis of his book is contemporary (or, I'd say, our specific economic generation), I found it great to look at Utena through these lens.

    At the conclusion of the student council arc, I believe it's fair to contribute Utena to being at a stage between neutrality and willingness; her idealism keeps her from surpassing into acceptance (interesting stuff about this one, you'll know when it happens). All of the opponents that she has faced up to have been characterized by one of the stages below neutrality: Saionji's shame and fear; Miki's grief and desire; Juri's grief and anger; Touga's desire and pride. I don't think it was a coincidence that these basely relatable human states started with the lowest and began to progress upward in power until Utena's victory and exultance above all the challengers (she goes from shame straight up to neutrality after beating Touga).

    Both of our interpretations seem to be working towards the notion that Utena is reaching out towards self-actualization. Now, the question is whether or not see reaches it.

    Enjoy the show.

  6. Yi

    I wonder if winning the duel means she has met all the needs a person has. I interpreted self as self-esteem. She has realized all the things before self actualization, but she has yet to face the final block: understanding her morality, being challenged and accepting certain facts… etc etc. She is ready to find herself with respect to those areas, but I wonder how she will fare, if she will ever achieve the final things, especially with the meddlings of Black Rose and End of the World.

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