revolution/yonaoshi

from too much eric hobsbawm, christopher hill and herbert bix.
oh, and the manic street preachers song 'revol'.


I am the deity of renovation (yonaoshi daimyoujin)...
The time has come.
Until now I have had a role to play.
Hereafter there will be those who succeed to it.

- from the 'rising for 3 go of millet', January 1834, Hachinohe fief, Japan.


The term 'revolution' has become almost a modern misnomer, its meaning now far divorced from its entymology. A revolution is barricades in city streets, kings' heads held up for the gaping crowd to see, families disposessed by the rumours of jealous neighbours and the twitchings of a despot, armed mobs on the rampage and young men with high ideals gazing around in wonder at the palaces that were once the property of the upper classes and now belong to the People. Right?

Well, not quite.

Revolution has come to mean these things, true, but only since the English Revolution of 1649 (a country at war, a king imprisoned and killed, those gallant cavaliers with their pretty moustaches and nice hats with feathers in them all disappointed and impoverished and the eevil Roundheads banning Christmas): before then revolution was not so much change as renovation, the world turning full circle rather than the world turned upside down.

The word stems from the Latin: re-, prefix, meaning 'again'; volvo, volvere, volvi, volutum, verb, meaning 'to roll, to go through'; revolvo, verb, meaning 'to go over again', in the passive (revolvor, revolvi, revolutus) 'to come round again in due course'. No mention of change, only of a return, of revolving.

The classic model of revolution is seen in the yonaoshi, a kind of revolt typical in nineteenth-century Japan, which is mirrored by similar acts within 'modern' revolutions of the previous and next century in Europe. Yonaoshi is explained by Miyala Noboru as being essentially an agricultural metaphor. Yo defines the cycle which runs from the beginning to the end of the rice growing, and yonaori is the beginning of the new yo, the new rice-growing year. If there is some kind of obstable preventing the start of this new yo or inhibiting the growing of rice, this must be removed: and this is yonaoshi.

A yonaoshi revolt, in the nineteenth century, meant an attempt to cleanse the world of evil and renew it for further growth, or a catastrophic event which would herald a new world's advent, a new world which was not noticeably different from the old one except better. The yonaoshi was a life-affirming experience, Herbert Bix explains, and "one engaged in such actions to exorcise the evils of local society, thereby preventing the world from coming to an end". In practice, this tended to be an attack on local landlords and tax collectors - who are inherently evil, as we all know - by the 'peasantry'.

This can be compared to what Marxist historians traditionally refer to as the 'peasant's revolution' part of the French Revolution in 1789 (the basics of the Marxist analysis of the French revolution divide it into four separate revolutions, one each for the aristocracy, bourgeoisie, artisans and peasants) in which the houses of local nobles were destroyed or harmed and the terriers, not small dogs but lists containing details of how much feudal tax each peasant had to pay, were burnt. Just as with yonaoshi revolutions, the attack was primarily on the property and feudal rights rather than the persons of the local elite: the aim was to right a specific wrong in local society, not to change its fundamental core. The same form appears in the Russian Revolution of 1917 - and in the next two years - although it is somewhat overshadowed by the Civil War of the Red and White Russians. There is thus, clearly, a huge gap in meaning between the revolution that is renewal, referred to as yonaoshi for the sake of clarity, and the revolution that is sudden change (there is a third form of revolution, the revolution that is slow change such as the English Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but this is more an 'evolution' than anything else, a miscoinage by historians eager to divert attention from the more immediately grabbing idea of the violent revolution).

All very historical and esoteric: yet it relates to Shoujo Kakumei Utena in its own way. The aim of the duels, after all, is to bring the world revolution, yet we are never told what meaning of 'revolution' is intended. It is my argument that these two different meanings of revolution - of renewal and of social change - are a point of contention between characters, and that the traditional yonaoshi form eventually loses out to the change that is a modern revolution.

The attempt to bring the world revolution has, one assumes, never succeeded. Akio and Anthy, after all, are still in the school, still playing the same roles of dead Prince and Rose Bride. Yet that is only true if one adheres to the idea of the social-change revolution: if the revolution that the duelists bring the world is to be yonaoshi, ensuring that the world is cleansed for the new rice-growing season, the revolution has to come again and again. If the revolution is, as Saionji believes, a glimpse at something eternal, it must be a glimpse at something unchanging, at something which renews itself continually in order to stay the same.

"Yonaoshi", Bix states, "was based ultimately on a traditional idea of time as a cyclical change": traditional, just as the fairy stories which appear in the lives of the students of Ohtori Academy are traditional, as the very idea of duelling is traditional. Akio is nothing if not a traditionalist, really, bound to the image of a Dios he is no longer: he is a symbol of the old order, still believing that a girl cannot be a prince, still believing that he is the brother who comforts his little sister, still believing that the world will be renewed by each yonaoshi revolution he sets into place, unable to conceive of a revolution that changes the way things are. Utena is the new idealist, revolutionary in her conception of revolution, not accustomed to the traditions of the Student Council and yonaoshi. She brings the world revolution, and does not bring the world renewal (as in one of the politically allegorical songs of the ee jya nai ka, "who cares what happens?", movement of July 1867, where a list of circumstances are presented "just for world renewal").

The school year is a yo of its own, the students growing in education from the beginning of the year to their harvest of exams at the end. In Ohtori Academy, Akio says, "the students do not fight" (possible paraphrase), and in a sense they do not: the threats to the progress of the yo are eliminated through a yearly series of duels culminating in the final duel called revolution, the final duel which could just as well be called yonaoshi. Within the greater student body, there is little disturbance, most social aggressions and difficulties fought out by the Student Council or transmuted through appointments with the Black Rose Society. Utena appears and is herself an obstacle to the yo in her idealism and middle-school popularity, and the final duel is supposed to be there to remove her in an act of yonaoshi.

Things don't quite work out that way.

As aforesaid, Utena is a true revolutionary - in the modern sense - and the strength of her ideals and belief are enough to bring her through and beyond the duel they call revolution. Unlike Akio, she is capable of breaking through - she actually wants to break through - and is capable of taking the pain of the Rose Bride upon herself for long enough to change the world rather than just renew it. Her disappearance is enough to make Akio believe that the revolution was another yonaoshi and the obstruction to the completion of the yo has been removed: he prepares for the next yoanori, oblivious to the true revolution that has happened around him, incapable of imagining anything that is not the "traditional... cyclical change".

Anthy, in leaving, indicates both to Akio and to the viewer that the situation has changed: the world may have been renewed ostensibly as it was before, but there can never be another yonaoshi through duelling once Anthy has left. The time of Akio's world renewal has come to an end, and the students will from now on have to take revolution into their own hands rather than depend upon their upper class of the Student Council to do it for them.

Thus the revolution Utena brings is a revolution of social change, a revolution of behaviour, as much as it is a basic modern revolution. Yonaoshi may well continue within Ohtori Academy once she is gone, but it will not be the yonaoshi that Akio commands: it will be a student-led, public movement to right the evils of their own local society, just for world renewal.



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