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#1 | Back to Top06-12-2016 06:04:38 PM

Davine Lu Linvega
Spam Arsonist
Registered: 06-08-2011
Posts: 88

Election Year Special: A Marxist Analysis of SKU

After a long absence I've returned, and politics are in the air, so here's something you should enjoy.

A specter is haunting Ohtori Academy...

When discussing a story about a revolutionary girl, it seems natural that one's thoughts may turn to the revolutionary granddaddy of them all: Karl Marx. What light can Marx's writings shed on the symbols and characters found in SKU?

Marx's aim was to bring about a revolution of the proletariat: the foundation of a society in which workers, rather than existing as subordinates of capital, collectively organized for mutual benefit in a classless society. His Communist Manifesto and other works were written to spread consciousness of the class divide between workers and capitalists (a.k.a. "bougeoisie") and promote the overthrow of the capitalist system. The worldview he espouses is based on a concept of "dialectical materialism." What that basically boils down to is that one should hold to be true and real nothing that cannot be empirically proven (the "materialism" part) and that one's concept of reality should be refined through continued debate and examination (the "dialectical" part).

So through this lens, how must we see Ohtori Academy? At Ohtori, dialectical materialism is conspicuous in its total irrelevance. The dueling arena, Nemuro Memorial Hall and many other magical fixtures of the school fly in the face of materialism. Ohtori represents idealism, which Marx opposed to materialism. He saw idealism as a curtain that hides reality, the shell that must be broken to see the world as it truly is.

The central characters in the show ritually state their intention to do just that, "for the revolution of the world." But as the series goes on, the history of Akio's dueling game that we learn makes it clear that their actions will never break the world's shell, and rather serve to reinforce it. Why is that? The answer can be found in an analysis of the Marxist archetypes that the characters represent. Let's go down the list...

Anthy: The Proletariat
The heart of Marxist philosophy is the self-actualization of the working class, which SKU embodies in the form of Anthy. We routinely watch her cleaning, tending plants, making food and doing other things wholly unbecoming of Ohtori's aristocratic student body. Indeed, we learn that the academy rests on her shoulders and that she's endured ages of agony in order to keep Akio's dream world running. Nonetheless, she vacillates between refusal to acknowledge her power to stop it and refusal to believe she deserves anything better. The only one who can break her out of this cycle is...

Utena: The Revolutionary
She's the revolutionary girl. If you believe a girl can be a prince, why not believe that workers can own the means of production? Like the little boy crying that the emperor is naked, Utena protests the dress code, the dueling game, Anthy's status as living trophy and other absurdities that most students take for granted. Utena upends stereotypes and upsets the established, but she won't reach her goals easily. Her efforts are stymied by the Student Council, comprising:

Miki: The Intellectual
The intellectual has an appreciation for the proletariat, but they are incapable of truly connecting with it or creating revolution. Accordingly, Miki's view of Anthy is romantic and has little to do with her reality. Miki's relationship with Kozue may point to the intellectual tendency to become disassociated with the practical and material, and the intellectual impotence that results from this disassociation. By the end of the series, Miki makes a shift toward more aggressive and possessive behavior, mirroring the potential of intellectuals to be larval bourgeoisie.

Juri: The Petit-Bourgeois Revolutionary
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx discusses petit-bourgeois as the middle class, those people who drift between the proletarian and bourgeois classes. The market shifts and upheavals driven by capitalism constantly threaten to push them down to proletarian status. In response to this, some petit-bourgeois make efforts to revolutionize society, but the aim of their revolutionary activity is never the abolition of capitalism and the class system. They just want a kinder, gentler class system that doesn't threaten them. This ties into many of the discussions around Juri. She wants revolution but at the same time she really doesn't. She wants to disprove miracles and romantic ideas because such ideas threaten her equilibrium, as uncomfortable as it might be. She's the only girl to wear the student council uniform and she partakes in many traditionally masculine activities, but her existence doesn't negate the system of gender norms that's implicit at Ohtori; she's just the exception that proves the rule. The pain she carries with her can be seen as a parallel to the oppressive class system that the petit-bourgeoisie may wish to reform but never to abolish.

Saionji, Touga and Akio: The Bourgeois
These three represent capitalists at different tiers of influence. Saionji, at the lowest level, is straightforwardly controlling and abusive towards Anthy. His actions betray deep insecurities and he wishes to crush Utena, who he sees as his rival for possession of Anthy. He sees Touga alternately as a mentor and as the rival he must defeat to reach the next level of power.

Touga is a step up from Saionji. He is self-assured of his status, but he also knows that he isn't calling all the shots and that he occupies the position he's in by someone else's fiat. As his understanding progresses, so does his sense of urgency to gain Akio's power. He sees Utena as a novelty he wants to suborn and control. Anyone wanna buy a Che Guevara T-shirt?

Akio rules the roost. He has every imaginable luxury available for the asking, but deep in the back of his mind is the knowledge that he's utterly dependent on Anthy. His actions aren't focused so much on maintaining the Ohtori-reality; Anthy and the Student Council members do a good job of that by themselves. He's more concerned with maintaining Anthy's reality, preventing her from seeing alternatives to her state and reinforcing the idea that his system is the only way things can be. He sees Utena as a part of his plan, a natural outgrowth of the conditions he creates, but he doesn't see her potential to create a true revolution because it's outside the scope of his understanding.


So that's the characters and setting, but how can plot elements from SKU be viewed through a Marxist lens? Stay tuned for updates and let me know what you think.



#2 | Back to Top06-15-2016 03:36:26 AM

Ends of the Fandom
From: Edmonton, AB
Registered: 10-12-2006
Posts: 8793

Re: Election Year Special: A Marxist Analysis of SKU

Very cool!!! It's always fun to try on a new pair of trousers with this show. school-devil

I especially like where you place Juri; it seems to fit well with her in the sense of her wavering back and forth as to where she wants to land. The idea of a revolution excites her, but at the same time would cost her dearly contrasted to what benefits the system has for her now. She can legitimately ask 'would I be better off?' because she's comfortable enough to see that it could be worse. As opposed to your proletariat; Anthy has no where to go, really, but up.

I have to admit a near total ignorance when it comes to Marx. My exposure usually involves someone angrily talking about 'the man' holding them down and fooling everyone into thinking they'll get to be like him if they remain good little cogs on the wheel. Certainly sounds familiar to me. What does it say, though, that the bourgeois in SKU actively sells the Revolution? Controlled burn, perhaps?

Actually reminds me a great deal of Snowpiercer, if you've ever heard of it. Very good movie and definitely draws from Marx where it's applicable here.

Akio, you have nice turns of phrase, but your points aren't clear and you have no textual support. I can't give this a passing grade.
~ Professor Arisa Konno, Eng 1001 (Freshman Literature and Composition)



#3 | Back to Top06-15-2016 10:36:57 AM

no, definitely no cons
From: New Orleans, Louisiana
Registered: 10-16-2006
Posts: 10328

Re: Election Year Special: A Marxist Analysis of SKU

Giovanna wrote:

What does it say, though, that the bourgeois in SKU actively sells the Revolution? Controlled burn, perhaps?

My take is that the member of the bourgeois you're mostly talking about -- Akio -- actually doesn't sell the Revolution at all!  The Revolution Davine identifies is the one Utena wants: no more dueling game, no more Rose Bride.  This whole rotten system has to come down!  Akio can't have that, so he sells his social inferiors the promise of "revolution" -- but "revolution" to the duelists is only ever a personal revolution, one where they personally become part of the bourgeois and gain the power to command the proletariat to do what they want.  Dangling that promise in front of them gives them a stake in keeping the proletariat right where she is.  Calling it a revolution is just a funny irony for Akio to laugh at, like when Donald Trump tells his proletarian audience that the source of their problems is not the class system, it's the Mexicans, and stopping the evil Mexicans will revolutionize the nation/make America great again.  That's not something that will actually happen.  It's just something Trump says to get people to do what he wants.  Ditto Akio!  Real Revolution is so difficult to bring precisely because so many people have a stake in the system as it exists now: either they're (possibly petit-)bourgeois and know they could have it much worse, or they're proletarians and they've been promised that it will get better.

Do I have that right, Davine?  I'm very curious about how you (or anyone else!) read various plot points in the show through a Marxist lens.  Some specific questions I have:
- Utena is a revolutionary and she says she wants to end these stupid duels, but she participates in those duels, and she is not untempted by Anthy's companionship and Akio's promises.  For all her big talk, I never saw her do anything to dismantle the duels, only to protect Anthy.  The only time she dueled to end the duels was her last fight with Touga, and that was something he offered her.  Is sincerely caring for the proletariat enough to make you a revolutionary?  Or do you actually have to smash the world's shell?  Or are those the same thing, whether Utena realizes it or not?
- Mikage is a wild card.  He doesn't seek to control Anthy; he seeks to kill her and install Mamiya to replace her.  How do you read that one?  Is Mamiya some kind of strikebreaker, a proletariat more sympathetic to the particular bourgeois who is Mikage, or what?  Does it matter that Anthy and "Mamiya" are in fact the same person?
- The Marxist proletariat may participate in their own repression, but usually they don't do it in the active and knowing way that Anthy does!  Does that matter, or is SKU just making this aspect of Marxism more vivid?

poptart for this thread!!



#4 | Back to Top06-19-2016 10:32:10 PM

Davine Lu Linvega
Spam Arsonist
Registered: 06-08-2011
Posts: 88

Re: Election Year Special: A Marxist Analysis of SKU

Time for Part 2! Satyreyes, some of your questions are addressed below and more will be answered shortly...

In this edition, we'll look at two major plotlines from SKU through the lens of Marxism.

The Dueling Game: Class Struggle
Marx perceived history as an ongoing class struggle. In every generation, the ruling classes have worked to devise new ways of corraling and controling the masses. Akio's dueling games over the centuries are a natural simile. He periodically gathers the most talented of young people, tempts them with the power of revolution and leads them to compete in a tournament whose true purpose is to reinforce his ordained way of things.

Despite their recited insistence to break the world's shell, the Student Council spend the bulk of the series offering no challenge to the circumstances they inhabit. Their signet rings, the dueling arena, the Rose Bride, and all other accoutrements of the contest are provided to them by the "Ends of the World." When Utena appears with a ring of her own, even her perceived threat to their social standing is not enough to make them disregard the rules of the game, and they accept her as a duelist.

All of these characteristics apply to the class struggle as Marx understood it. Rule Number 1: even as the factions of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois enter pitched battle, the subservient status of the proletariat shall never be in question. The arch-capitalists set the stage, make the rules and sit beyond the boundaries of the battlefield, inviolate. No contender's victory is ever permanent - the duels are never intended to end. And we ultimately learn that the skill and strength of duelists means nothing - each duel's result is decided by Akio to provide for his narrative.

Utena wishes to end the dueling game, but she concludes that in order to do so she has to win the duels, affirming a Marxist outlook on class struggle. Marx believed that the class hierarchy would only end through a violent uprising, and while Utena tries to dissuade the Student Council members from the duels, it becomes apparent to her that the only way to end the duels is to defeat the other participants.

It's interesting to note that Saionji is the character who does the most to challenge the dueling institution - first by breaking the rules in anger, and after his return by questioning it more pointedly than anyone but Utena. But his story also draws attention to the insidious self-reinforcing nature of Ohtori's hierarchy. Following his initial transgression, Saionji is cast out of the capitalist class but he buys his way back in by betraying Wakaba -- who can be seen to represent an individual proletarian, in contrast to Anthy's collective representation. In the real world you could argue that lower echelons of bourgeoisie are the most likely to initiate social changes, and also likely to resume exploitative relationships after the dust clears. Even as Saionji challenged the dueling game following his initial losses, his return affirmed his social status and role as an exploiter, and after his restoration he dueled once more. Once a bougeoisie, always a bourgeoisie, perhaps.

The Black Rose Saga: Reaction
The Student Council saga embodies a fairly straightforward conflict between social classes. Once it's over, a mysterious enemy twists the minds of supporting cast members and leads them into duels with Utena. Mikage represents what Marx called reactionary socialists. Typically led by bourgeois thinkers, reactionaries wish to undo cultural changes while keeping the class hierarchy intact. In Marx's day, they often pined for the loss of the feudal aristocracy; during recent years, they've spearheaded fascism and other nationalist movements, and lately brought up the idea of "making America great again." Marx noted their nostalgia and detachment from reality.

So what makes up Mikage? The roots of his behavior lie in fantasies and distorted perceptions. He originally occupied a privileged, insulated position he didn't question. He came into contact with a high-ranking member of the ruling class -- Akio -- and two people who he imagined as his surrogate family and desired to help. He then experienced a primal violation by the ruling figure when he saw Akio and Tokiko kissing. This drove him down a destructive path, where out of mixed feelings of duty toward Mamiya and vengefulness toward Akio, he killed a hundred young men. Or at least thought he did.

Crossing this Rubicon changed him from a passive observer to an agent of change as he understands it. Unlike the Student Council members, he wants to really and truly end the class struggle, but he's fighting for a phantom. The reactionary is thus presented as the dark mirror of the revolutionary; he claims to want the best for the proletariat, but his proletariat is an impostor standing in for someone who died a long time ago. And the sexually coercive undertones present between Mikage and Mamiya highlight that Mikage's motivations may be even less noble than they appear. The scene of Mikage sucking blood from Mamiya conveys the same idea more bluntly, as do the means of his challenge -- the manipulation of people just above proletarian status into attacking Utena and threatening Anthy's life.

So why does Mikage want to kill the Rose Bride? If there's one reactionary thinker who can best shed light on Mikage's view of Anthy, it would probably be J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien mourned the decline of bucolic Southern English farm life, which never quite existed in the way he envisioned, and his orcs have been likened to the burgeoning industrial workers whose culture he found distasteful. Mikage shares the disdain for a living, breathing proletariat in favor of a fantasy working class. This outlook reduces him to a tool of Akio, who uses him to move the dueling game forward and reaffirm Anthy's negative self-image.


Coming next: the Apocalypse arc!



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