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#1 | Back to Top07-21-2008 11:24:34 PM

rhyaniwyn
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From: Tallahassee, FL
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Water Symbolism in Utena (Also the female principle & some Campbell)

In the last episode of Shoujo Kakumei Utena, during one of the most pivotal moments of the series, we are shown a scene that I, as a viewer, had seen so often that I had begun to take it for granted.  In order to gain access to the dueling arena, Utena grasps the handle of the door while a drop of water forms in a pool with a mysterious source.  Once the drop of water touches her rose signet, the doors to the arena open and water floods out to transform the entrance.  This sequence is the one chosen in the final episode to portray Utena's ability to gain entrance to the Rose Gate and the alleged Power of Revolution.  This choice, and the use of water throughout the series, is loaded with symbolism.

First, to grasp the meaning of the oft-repeated water drop sequence, you can free associate about water.  Water is nourishing because we require it to live.  Water is also destructive because you can drown in it.  Water is changeable, filling the shape of whatever container you put it into.  Water is mysterious; because when it is very deep you cannot see what is inside it.  Water is also illuminating because it can reflect things if you look in it and water has had a long association with scrying.  Finally, water is purifying when we use it to bathe.  Those are simply some of the qualities of water that I can name off of the top of my head.

A study of mythology and symbolism takes these associations to another level altogether.  Water is an element normally associated with the feminine principle, associated with Yin in Chinese philosophy [1] and apt to the female archetype in Jungian theory [2].  Furthermore, water is associated with the unconscious and particularly with Jung's collective unconscious [3].  In religious mythology, water is closely associated with the creation of the world and birth as well as with death [4]. 

Ultimately all qualities relate back to the feminine principle.  One of the most obvious and important functions of the feminine principle is giving birth.  This associates the female energy very closely with any creation or birth, even in patriarchal religions.  Water is a major feature of many creation myths worldwide: Egyptian, Christian, Babylonian, African, and Indian to name just a few [5].  Often in these myths creation rises from the dark waters.  The water is the goddess, as Joseph Campbell says, and it is the liquid environment of the womb in which we are suspended prior to birth.  The ritual of baptism symbolizes being momentarily submerged back into the womb to be reborn.  It is the act of birth/rebirth that gives water its purifying qualities, recreating us clean.  The maternal quality of water is also where it derives other qualities: nourishment and mystery.  The mother gives birth to the young and (generally) sustains and nourishes the young.  In addition, one of the greatest mysteries is the mystery of the ultimate source of creation and consciousness--where does it come from, where does it lead, what is its (and does it have a) purpose?  Often comparisons are drawn between blood and water, the ocean especially.  This is because water is not only the source of life, but it also sustains life and gives life vitality and fertility.  There are many fertility goddess associated explicitly with water, notably Aphrodite.

So, where does the relationship to death and destruction come in amidst all of this vital, generative energy?  There is a negative and positive side to both the male and the female principles: on the positive side the female principle is creative and nourishing, on the negative it is destructive and suffocating.  The Hindu goddess Kali is a very good example of both of these sides of the female energy.  In the stories that make up her popular mythology, Kali is most often portrayed as destructive, slaying and devouring hordes of demons [6].  In one myth, when Kali is possessed by bloodlust, an infant Shiva stops her; after hearing the baby's cries Kali stops to nurse him.  The form of Kali known as "Mahakali" or "Great Kali" inspired the following quote:

Sri Ramakrishna wrote:

My Mother is the principle of consciousness. She is Akhanda Satchidananda; indivisible Reality, Awareness, and Bliss. The night sky between the stars is perfectly black. The waters of the ocean depths are the same; The infinite is always mysteriously dark. This inebriating darkness is my beloved Kali.

A closely related image regarding water's darker side is the whale or the leviathan.  The Jungian archetype of the shadow, which is "the 'dark side' of the ego", is often represented as a frightening guardian creature, such as a snake, dragon, or demon that stands at the entrance of a pool of water that represents the collective unconscious.  In order to access the power of your unconscious or to gain wisdom from the collective unconscious, you must somehow overcome or assimilate the guardian [7].  This is similar to the narrative of Jonah and the Whale, in which a whale consumes Jonah, a device mirrored in the story of Pinocchio.  Once a hero is able to overcome the leviathan, or the ego is able to assimilate the guardian, they are able to move freely within the waters of the unconscious and bring back power, wisdom, or renewal. 

There are several meanings arising here: first that the nature of life is all-consuming.  This should remind you of Kali and her habit of devouring as well as of a mother animal eating her young, but it transcends the female principle.  There is a quote Joseph Campbell's "Myths to Live By" that is relevant:

Joseph Campbell wrote:

"Let me recount now a really marvelous Hindu legend to this point, from the infinitely rich mythology of the god Shiva and his glorious world-goddess Parvati. The occasion was of a time when there came before this great divinity an audacious demon who had just overthrown the ruling gods of the world and now came to confront the highest of all with a non-negotiable demand, namely, that the god should hand over his goddess to the demon. Well, what Shiva did in reply was simply to open that mystic third eye in the middle of his forehead, and puff! a lightning bolt hit the earth, and there was suddenly there a second demon, even larger than the first. He was a great lean thing with a lion-like head, hair waving to the quarters of the world, and his nature was sheer hunger. He had been brought into being to eat up the first, and was clearly fit to do so. The first thought: "So what do I do now?" and with a very fortunate decision threw himself upon Shiva's mercy.

Now it is a well-known theological rule that when you throw yourself on a god's mercy the god cannot refuse to protect you; and so Shiva had now to guard and protect the first demon from the second. Which left the second, however, without meat to quell his hunger and in anguish he asked Shiva, "Whom, then, do I eat?" to which the god replied, "Well, let's see: why not eat yourself?"

And with that, no sooner said than begun. Commencing with his feet, teeth chopping away, that grim phenomenon came right on up the line, through his own belly, on up through his chest and neck, until all that remained was a face. And the god, thereupon, was enchanted. For here at last was a perfect image of the monstrous thing that is life, which lives on itself. And to that sun-like mask, which was now all that was left of that lion-like vision of hunger, Shiva said, exulting, "I shall call you Face of Glory, 'Kirttimukha', and you shall shine above the doors to all my temples. No one who refuses to honor and worship you will come ever to knowledge of me."

The obvious lesson of all of which is that the first step to the knowledge of the highest divine symbol of the wonder and mystery of life is in the recognition of the monstrous nature of life and its glory in that character: the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed. Those who think--and their name is legion--that they know how the universe could have been better than it is, how it would have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without life, are unfit for illumination. Or those who think--as do many-- "Let me first correct society, then get around to myself" are barred from even the outer gate of the mansion of God's peace.

All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be. So if you really want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it. And that, no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is. That is the meaning of the monstrous Kirtimukha, 'Face of Glory', over the entrances to the sanctuaries of the god of yoga, whose bride is the goddess of life. No one can know this god and goddess who will not bow to that mask in reverence and pass humbly through."

Second, that it is dangerous to confront the goddess/mystery/the unconscious unprepared.  Myth and folklore are filled with monsters that live in the water, awaiting the unwary to drag them in--ranging from the whale/leviathan, to the kelpie, to the nix.  However, to the individual who is ready to confront mystery, water is a source of illumination.

Wikipedia, Kali wrote:

To the Tantric worshippers, it was essential to face her Curse, the terror of death, as willingly as they accepted Blessings from her beautiful, nurturing, maternal aspect. For them, wisdom meant learning that no coin has only one side: as death cannot exist without life, so life cannot exist without death.

Mahanirvana-tantra wrote:

At the dissolution of things, it is Kala [Time] Who will devour all, and by reason of this He is called Mahakala [an epithet of Lord Shiva], and since Thou devourest Mahakala Himself, it is Thou who art the Supreme Primordial Kalika. Because Thou devourest Kala, Thou art Kali, the original form of all things, and because Thou art the Origin of and devourest all things Thou art called the Adya [primordial Kali. Resuming after Dissolution Thine own form, dark and formless, Thou alone remainest as One ineffable and inconceivable. Though having a form, yet art Thou formless; though Thyself without beginning, multiform by the power of Maya, Thou art the Beginning of all, Creatrix, Protectress, and Destructress that Thou art.

Third, it conveys another mythological theme in SKU, the presence of cycles: everything came from water and all is going back to water.  All creation rose from the waters before time and will sink back into them at the end of time.  You were birthed from the waters of the womb and will cross the River Styx in death (in Greek mythology), or will retire to a "[paradise] with rivers flowing below" after death (in the Quran) [8].

Now that we've taken that journey, we can return to the water drop sequence with which Utena gains access to the arena and, ultimately, to Anthy's coffin.  When Utena stands at the gates, she is standing on the threshold of the unconscious mind.  We as the viewer see what Utena sees, at first, a relatively normal door, but then we are shown the greater issue at hand and the metaphor underlying the metaphor.  When Utena goes to duel, she is confronting the mystery of the goddess (Anthy) and challenging the guardians of the unconscious mind (possibly the other Duelists acting as agents of Akio and Anthy, who could be Leviathans, even if they are something else, too). 

In the first episode, Utena feels the water drop hit her hand and jumps back, exclaiming, "it's cold!"  She is a stranger to the proceedings and it is the ring more than Utena's own readiness that gains her access.  However, there is a sign that it will be possible for Utena to successfully assimilate the powers of her unconscious mind; the water that fountains out when the doors open for Utena runs free, profusely, and clean.  These "upper waters" are not the same dark, mysterious waters of the portal to the unconscious that Utena has just confronted, the profuse flow represents her potentiality [9].

In the last episode, however, Utena comes to the gates as a penitent, on her knees.  It is not her hand on the door that triggers the sequence, because this is the final confrontation and it has higher stakes.  Happily, Utena has seen the whole of Anthy as a Witch--both the positive female principle and the negative female principle that Anthy embodies--she has accepted it and so she is prepared.  In the Episode 39, Utena is required to merge with the unconscious in order pass the final threshold.  Symbolically, Utena gives a piece of herself to the waters when her tear (or sweat!) lands in that invisible pool.  Utena has already been betrayed by the powers of her psyche and the leviathan has already swallowed her.  But like many heroes before her, she has returned from the darkness with new wisdom that ultimately tips the balance of the battle in her favor.  As a result, she is able to overcome the forces arrayed against her to access the world beyond the waters, where she is able to finally meet the goddess [10].

The Belly of the Whale
The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero's known world and self. It is sometimes described as the person's lowest point, but it is actually the point when the person is between or transitioning between worlds and selves. The separation has been made, or is being made, or being fully recognized between the old world and old self and the potential for a new world/self. The experiences that will shape the new world and self will begin shortly, or may be beginning with this experience which is often symbolized by something dark, unknown and frightening. By entering this stage, the person shows their willingness to undergo a metamorphosis, to die to him or herself.

The Meeting with the Goddess
The meeting with the goddess represents the point in the adventure when the person experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. It is also known as the "hieros gamos", or sacred marriage, the union of opposites, and may take place entirely within the person. In other words, the person begins to see him or herself in a non-dualistic way. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by the person finding the other person that he or she loves most completely. Although Campbell symbolizes this step as a meeting with a goddess, unconditional love and /or self unification does not have to be represented by a woman.

Loosely structured as an essay...  There are some other things I'd like to touch on eventually, such as:

- Saionji's nearly-deadly confrontation with water in the first arc.
- Juri's gratuitous shower scenes & the symbolism of water between her and Shiori

- When Utena meets "Dios" as a young girl, she cries and he wipes away one of her tears with his finger.  This is nicely symmetrical with it being a tear that ultimately gives her entree to truly meet Anthy.

- You can view the water drop that touches Utena each time as a baptism or an annointing.  She isn't just building strength through the dozens of duels, but also through cycles of dozens of symbolic rebirths.

- Other stuff I'm forgetting.


Some guides & sources
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Last edited by rhyaniwyn (07-21-2008 11:52:38 PM)


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#2 | Back to Top07-22-2008 06:47:44 AM

Stormcrow
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Re: Water Symbolism in Utena (Also the female principle & some Campbell)

The first stray thought I had while reading this was that as a fetus, we all breathe water until we are born. I wonder how that might inform Saionji's brush with death.

I'll need to read through this again when I'm more awake, but I can say for now that I really like what you're working on. In particular, I've never really made the connection of Anthy with the goddess, but it seems so obvious now that you mention it. Or perhaps Anthy WAS the goddess, before she became the Rose Bride? I need to think a lot more about how I perceive the goddess before I can come to any conclusions on that. I also need to read more Joseph Campbell, I feel like a stumbling fool trying to reason this stuff out...

In thinking of Utena as the Hero's Journey, I find myself thinking about the other duelists...are they also on the path, or are they simply foils for the true hero? Certainly in the format of the show they are little more than antagonists for her...and yet, they seem to have more personality for the most part. emot-tongue

About the only thing I can take issue with in your essay so far is the separation between the "waters above" from the "dark waters"...I can't quite say why that rubs me the wrong way either, I'll need to return to this when I have more time and I can put together a coherent thought. Excellent work though!

poptart


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#3 | Back to Top07-22-2008 09:22:06 AM

rhyaniwyn
Myth is my Bitch
From: Tallahassee, FL
Registered: 11-09-2006
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Re: Water Symbolism in Utena (Also the female principle & some Campbell)

That's "upper waters" in the sense that when they appear, they are not symbolic of Utena assimilating the collective unconscious and releasing its powers.  That water is not the the unconscious bursting forth victoriously, but is another quality of water--nourishment and vitality.  Not that confronting the unconscious is something that can only happen once--I'm merely drawing a distinction, because Utena is certainly tapping into the unconscious/mystery before each duel, but it's practice for the ultimate challenge of truly diving into it in Episode 39.

Normally the unconscious is a pool or sea--the shallower pool is the personal unconscious and the deep ocean is the collective unconscious.  When you have water in motion (fountain, river, etc.), it's symbolic of a different quality of water.

Anthy is certainly the female principle and the goddess.  "The Witch" is woman in her negative aspect--destructive and consuming/smothering in addition to more prosaic negative female stereotypes, such as manipulative, possessive, passive-aggressive, two-faced, etc.  The "Rose Bride" is the female principle subjugated to the male principle.  Anthy reunited with herself is The Goddess, the unrestricted female principle in all its mystery as both creative and destructive.

It's particularly interesting because Utena is a female who dresses like a male, speaks like a male, and aspires to a male role.  She is polarized and her inability to understand and embrace the feminine side of herself is a weakness Akio is able to exploit.  Her meeting with Anthy is symbolic of her own ability to finally transcend the world of "pairs of opposites" and assimilate both anima and animus.

Last edited by rhyaniwyn (07-22-2008 09:32:39 AM)


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#4 | Back to Top07-22-2008 10:03:27 AM

Stormcrow
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Re: Water Symbolism in Utena (Also the female principle & some Campbell)

Ah thanks. That cleared things up. I was thinking of waters above vs dark waters as some sort good vs evil thing, and that rankled. But this makes sense. I think I need to rewatch the scenes in question before I comment further though.


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#5 | Back to Top07-22-2008 11:42:11 AM

Baka Kakumei Reanna
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Re: Water Symbolism in Utena (Also the female principle & some Campbell)

Wow, great read. Ya blew my mind.

But come to think of it, isn't "Zettai Unmei Mokushiroku" full of imagery of both birth and destruction?


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#6 | Back to Top07-22-2008 01:05:23 PM

rhyaniwyn
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From: Tallahassee, FL
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Re: Water Symbolism in Utena (Also the female principle & some Campbell)

Translation from Ohtori.nu wrote:

The Absolute Destiny: Apocalypse
The Absolute Destiny: Apocalypse
My own birth, Absolute birth, Apocalypse

A wet-nurse and a midwife in a dark desert
A gold-gilded Shangri-La
Day and night reversing
A time-gilded Lost Paradise

Darkness over Sodom
Darkness ever glowing
Darkness over yonder
Darkness never ending

The Absolute Destiny: Apocalypse
The Absolute Destiny: Apocalyptic Darkness; Apocalypse

As the name implies it is mostly about apocalypse. ;-)  But there is birth imagery "My own birth, Absolute birth" and "A wet-nurse and a midwife in a dark desert", as well as imagery about lost/destroyed cities.

The song is about cycles, but it emphasizes the fact that all creation is ultimately destined for destruction.  What might be noteworthy in this vein is "day and night reversing"--where "reversing" means that the destruction becomes a new creation even as creation is destroyed.  And all the lines about "darkness", which hides things from sight (mystery).


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#7 | Back to Top07-22-2008 02:19:52 PM

Stormcrow
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Re: Water Symbolism in Utena (Also the female principle & some Campbell)

It may also be worth pointing out that apocalypse actually means revelation...not sure about the Japanese word though. I'm pretty sure someone else mentioned this in another thread a while back, but I've forgotten. Like I do. emot-rolleyes


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#8 | Back to Top07-23-2008 04:35:43 PM

Giovanna
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Re: Water Symbolism in Utena (Also the female principle & some Campbell)

rhyaniwyn wrote:

- When Utena meets "Dios" as a young girl, she cries and he wipes away one of her tears with his finger.  This is nicely symmetrical with it being a tear that ultimately gives her entree to truly meet Anthy.

I'm not normally one to bring up the manga, but he actually licks her tears away there. Even worse, symbolically.

As for the essay, omfg FAP. Finish it plz so put on EM plz. etc-love You take SKU and Campbell and weave it into pure joy.


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