Bishonen: Tenjou Utena

from the Momus song of the same name.


Once there was a girl, and she was very sad because her parents had died. She wanted to die, too: what was the point in living if you would only end up dying? Crawling into a coffin and willing herself to die didn't work, and then a prince came up on his white horse, and at first she thought he was Death come to claim her, but he said he did not bring death. People who could die, he later would say, are lucky. Instead, he took her to see something eternal, something very important to him: a witch, his little sister, imprisoned forever suffering the pain of the swords of humanity's hatred. He could not save her, he said, she was not his to save: she had kept the prince from all the princesses of the world, and was being punished for it. No-one could save her, except a prince she believed in. The little girl decided, therefore, that she would become that prince, even though the prince she was talking to said it was very difficult: she was a girl, and would soon become a lady, and besides, she would most likely forget all about it.

Tenjou Utena forgot some things, but she remembered to become a prince and to save the witch from her eternal suffering.


There is, actually, a reason why this mini-essay is named "bishonen". Mark McLelland, in his "Male Homosexuality In Modern Japan" (Curzon Press, 2000), references the "otokoyaku", or "male-role actors", of the all-female Takarazuka theatre company, who are more popular than their female-role counterparts. They inspire, McLelland states, devotion and adoration among female fans similar to that inspired by j-rock singers: and also have been the subjects of homosexual scandals (which may or may not be connected to the fact that Takarazuka actors are forbidden to marry until their contracts have run out, giving more scope for sexual scandal). For more information on Takarazuka, Jennifer Robertson's "Tarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998) would probably be the best source ('probably' because I have yet to find a copy, so cannot recommend in full).

McLelland identifies the otokoyaku's appeal to women as being that of not only the woman transcending social gender roles, but also of the feminised male, the perfect partner: the same values he uses to explain the popularity among female manga readers of the bishonen. He makes the parallel explicit:
"In the figures of the bishonen and the otokoyaku, biological sex is overlooked and gender becomes a performance which, when acted out in fantasy, is free of the restrictions which impose certain gender traits on male and female bodies" (p82)

It is my argument that Tenjou Utena is essentially an otokoyaku, a woman playing a male role. Her popularity among the girls of the school, as attested to by several scenes, is that of a Takarazuka actor: when Wakaba, in the first episode, claims to be waiting for her "boyfriend" it is not just an attempt to make herself appear more favoured than the girls to whom she talks. It is also a manifestation of desire: not for Utena herself, but for the kind of feminised "boyfriend" Utena represents, "'as if'... male but more handsome and refined" (from an article in a Tarazuka fanclub magazine cited p80 by McLelland, as cited by Robertson). The ideal boyfriend as the feminised, more refined and more handsome man is also behind the appeal of the idealised homosexual man to women, McLelland states in the chapter of "Male Homosexuality..." entitled "Gay Men As Women's Best Friends and Ideal Marriage Partners", with reference to the film "Okoge" (translatable as "Faghag") and to the media boom over the idea of women choosing knowingly to marry gay men. Sexuality and marriage are divided, he argues, with marriage a pressing social responsibility as much as an outlet for romantic love, and idealised gay men are seen by women as perfect partners because of assumed "sensitivity", or because of a belief in companionate love surpassing sexual desire. Comparison to films like "My Best Friend's Wedding" and TV shows like "Will and Grace" is probably apposite.

According to Jennifer Robertson, the Takarazuka conceit "both parodie[s] convention and reinforce[s] the status quo" (the quote is from "Takarazuka..." found in an essay by Brian Ruh of AnimeResearch.com on women-authored manga, to be found here). Utena, at the beginning of the series, is not rebelling against her feminine social role so much as she is choosing a masculine one. In order to take on the one aspect of 'masculinity' that is being a prince, it is necessary for her to take on all the aspects of 'masculinity': to refer to herself as 'boku' rather than 'watashi', to dress as a boy, to play basketball with the boys, to have the fanbase of a popular boy (her "kakkoii!"-squealing audience, with their offers of towels for her to use after a basketball game and reference to her as "Utena-sama", echo the fanclubs of popular boys in shoujo anime and manga - for example that of Sohma Yuki in "Fruits Basket" - far more than they do Nanami's coterie). She is as much colluding in the social stereotyping of male and female as she is denying it, unable to mix masculine attributes with femininity.

Utena has, so to speak, already reconciled her physical femininity with her 'masculine' ideal - to become a prince - by limiting herself to 'masculine' behaviour. Her struggle is against this reconciliation she has already made,


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the youthful hero, doomed to fall like blossom.