Why “Wakaba Flourishing” is a Masterful Episode

Source: Episode 20, Revolutionary Girl Utena

By: Beata Garrett | @clearsummers

It’s difficult to pick one episode of Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997) as my favorite because they all lend weight to the overall story and the themes. Removing one, even the silliest such as “The Cowbell of Happiness,” feels wrong. However, I can safely say that Episode 20, titled “Wakaba Flourishing” is not only one of my favorite episodes, but one that deserves to be rewatched solely by itself for what it brings to the table. 

Revolutionary Girl Utena is no stranger to fleshing out its side characters and making even the most unlikeable and shallow-seeming ones complex and fascinating. “Wakaba Flourishing” is special though because Wakaba doesn’t have the same level of a relationship with one of the council members or Utena in the same way as someone like Nanami or Shiori. Wakaba is Utena’s supportive friend, nothing more than that, and that’s one of the aspects that makes Episode 20 so successful. The show understands how it’s depicted Wakaba up to this point and how the audience views her so its focus on her struggles are rooted in that very “ordinary-ness” that she conveyed.

This post is an in-depth look at how “Wakaba Flourishing” peers into the inner lives of the “ordinary” at Ohtori Academy and theories about visual symbols throughout it. If you’ve read my other post, “Why ODDTAXI’s Episode 4 is a Masterpiece” (https://theanimeview.com/2022/01/18/why-oddtaxis-episode-4-is-a-masterpiece/), this post will be similar to that one. 

Without further ado, let’s get into why “Wakaba Flourishing” is a masterful episode.

[Editor’s Note: Please assume from this point forward that everything–quotes, images, and summaries–in this post, unless cited otherwise, comes directly from Episode 20 of Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997). This post also goes into spoilers for the entire series. Thank you.]

Disclaimer: This post mentions domestic violence, which may be upsetting for readers, and I highly recommend looking up warnings if you plan to watch the entire show. Please click “Read More” if you’re comfortable with this warning.

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The episode begins with Wakaba walking to her dorm amidst a voiceover of students talking about Saionji’s recent expulsion from the academy. Near the end of this voiceover, one girl says, “I really had a thing for him for a while there, too” and his previous popularity is made evident–as well as the fact that no one truly cared for him. Amidst this are flashbacks to the duel that caused Saionji to get expelled as he fought Utena and injured Touga when the latter jumped in front of Utena to “save” her. 

As the girls continue talking, the show hammers in how pathetic Saionji has become in the eyes of the students and his previous admirers. He’s no longer special to them in the same way that the rest of the student council is. Yet, despite all this, the girls reminisce on how cool he was before he was expelled and wonder where he is now. Using this voiceover at the beginning of the episode conveys just what kind of image Saionji had built for himself at the academy and a larger commentary on the lookism that allowed him to prosper for as long as he did. As the audience, we know Saionji regularly hit Anthy and that his goal was to one-up Touga by achieving something eternal. 

However, Saionji’s cruelty was ignored by everyone because he was an attractive boy who was good at kendo and who served on the student council. Even Wakaba, when she and Utena witnessed Saionji hitting Anthy, dismissed his violent tendencies and blamed the victim instead. Unfortunately, Saionji’s reputation hasn’t been completely damaged by his expulsion and instead given him a new air of mystery that works in his favor.

As Wakaba walks home, it’s interesting to note how far away she is from the academy. Unlike Utena and the other council members, she lives off-campus. Her route home takes her down stairs and inclines, symbolizing that even in terms of where she lives, she’s not as special as those who are allowed to live on-campus. It also demonstrates how distant she is from the true core of Ohtori academy and the duels and power struggles that occur there. She lives amongst other “ordinary” people who live their everyday lives away from the academy and the show takes the time to show all of this so the reveal that Saionji is now living with Wakaba is made even more shocking. 

What’s really jarring to me is not Saionji actually living outside the academy, but that he’s no longer wearing his uniform. Costume design is really interesting to look at, especially in a show where the outfits are so homogenous for the most part. Saionji’s new outfit emphasizes how he’s fallen, especially when we see his uniform on a hanger in some shots, but also humanizes him. He’s always been a teenager, but only now does he look like one for the first time.

In the shot above, you can see Saionji’s bag is still there. He hasn’t made himself at home quite yet because he still holds out hope that he’ll return to the academy and regain his place there, but Wakaba’s decision to buy matching cups for them both indicates how serious she is about him and how much she wants him to stay. It’s a recipe for disaster as these two characters are clearly at odds with how invested they are in this relationship.

The Matching Cups

Let’s get more into the matching cups themselves and what they could possibly represent.

First of all, they’re pretty cute and represent Saionji and Wakaba respectively, as seen by the bow on the sheep cup and the green bowtie on the ram one. As I mentioned before, Wakaba buying them indicates how much she wants Saionji to stay despite her agreeing to help him return to the academy. I don’t think she recognizes this desire yet as it’s a subconscious wish until she’s threatened by him actually about to leave and return to the academy (and to Anthy). 

The matching cups also indicate to me that Saionji and Wakaba are more alike than perhaps either one would like to admit, and for a reason that may be unpalatable to them both. Sheep and rams aren’t seen as animals that are threatening or special in any way but as submissive, domesticated animals. Despite Saionji seeing himself and being seen by others as special, the matching cups and his role throughout the story is far from being anything special.

At the beginning, Saionji is almost bland and comical in how evil he is and it’s made clear after the first two episodes that he isn’t as big of a threat as the other council members, especially Touga. He’s easily manipulated by those around them and pushed into leaving school. When he does leave, he still believes Touga is a true friend and has his best interests at heart. 

Saionji’s naive nature and role in the anime makes the matching cups very appropriate as, in the eyes of the audience, Saionji is ordinary and gullible too. He’s a supporting character who couldn’t even cut it as one of the big villains. By getting matching cups, Wakaba is noticing that the two are similar than he wants to admit and signaling this to the audience.

Manipulations 

It’s made immediately clear how much Saionji is manipulating Wakaba by playing upon her pity and love for him, but Wakaba isn’t entirely a victim either and is also using him, subconscious as it may be. When Wakaba arrives at the dorm, Saionji greets her. In response, she smiles and quickly locks the door. Wakaba’s first question to him is, “Did anyone come by?” and while it may come off as concern that he’ll be discovered living with her, I read these actions based on the fear that someone will take him away and the desire to keep him to herself. 

Throughout the episode, Wakaba calls Saionji her “secret” and there’s a clear pleasure that she gets out of doing so. It makes her happy to feel relied on and she thinks to herself, “he was a distant dream that I thought I could never reach. When you think about it, I never could have had him.” These thoughts are important because they show how Wakaba’s love for Saionji now is partially based on possessing something that was previously unattainable. Despite his cruelty towards others and even her when he posted her love letter for everyone to see, she still helps him out because she wants to be close to him and to be special. Unlike all those other girls at the beginning who wondered where Saionji was, Wakaba knows where he is. In her mind, she’s different from them and has begun to be separated from ordinary people.

On Saionji’s end, he apologizes to Wakaba for still staying in her room but has no intention to leave. I find it funny and sad that Wakaba ignores most of his posturing and his flattery towards her as if she’s heard this before (and probably has), but the moment he pretends he’s leaving, she practically begs him to stay. 

Unfortunately, Wakaba never gets to ask him if he’d like to begin dating as she clearly wants to when they’re interrupted by a fellow student knocking. In one of the funniest bits in the show, Saionji promptly spider crawls away and hides under the bed. When he crawls out, he pretends to be cool again. It’s a ridiculous scene but emphasizes just how in love Wakaba is with him and what he represents that she’s willing to ignore his pathetic moments.

A Special Secret

On the surface, Wakaba seems happy, but it’s shown that she’s neglecting other things in her life like hanging out with Utena to return to Saionji at home. Ironically, Wakaba’s desire to keep Saionji with her to make her special, as if some special quality of his will rub off on her, is similar to people’s desire to possess the Rose Bride or Sword of Dios throughout Revolutionary Girl Utena. By possessing both, a duelist is supposed to have “the power to revolutionize the world” yet no one has done it yet. Even Utena doesn’t revolutionize the world by the end of the series.

Saionji doesn’t actually make Wakaba more special, but the show implies that there is some change that comes over her. Utena notices it and asks Wakaba whether something good happened to her, which she laughs off. There’s a montage of Wakaba “flourishing” and doing well in school and, most importantly of all, being the center of attention. One question I’d like to pose though is whether this would’ve happened anyway without Saionji and I truly believe it would have. Rather than it being a case of Saionji transferring some special quality to her, I believe that this is more a result of distancing herself from Utena and of showing us the results of confidence. 

When Wakaba is around Utena, Wakaba fades into the background. Even in terms of character design, Utena is meant to stand out amongst everyone, including the student council and we’ve never seen Wakaba around other people without Utena. Perhaps, when not focused on the most “special” person at the academy beside her, Wakaba truly does flourish. It’s also important to note that this kind of flourishing is one that our society typically deems successful–that is, Wakaba flourishes academically and socially, but, like many other successful characters in the series, there remains a fragility beneath this exterior. It’s surface level and built on a shaky foundation. 

The Myth of Being Special

As Utena’s curiosity over Wakaba’s recent change increases, she turns to a recently growing confidante and the true antagonist of the show, Akio. By this point, Akio has successfully charmed her into believing they’re truly friends or that, at the very least, she’s found a caring and trustworthy adult to talk to about her problems. Instead of telling Utena to talk to Wakaba though and communicate in a healthy manner, Akio only isolates Utena more by perpetuating the myth of being special. 

Akio even tries to sever Utena’s ability to empathize with Wakaba by telling her, “You wouldn’t understand, would you? You’re born for a special destiny […] Most people exist as one among many. But, given the chance, they can shine as they never have before.” However, he points out that this ability to shine is only temporary though. This talk with Akio reminded me of the ways in which adults burn out children by putting their worth onto their abilities and some intangible thing like being gifted. It’s true that some kids may be more advanced in areas than others, but the special treatment that’s given to them and the conditional worth placed onto them has many negative consequences. A lot of kids labeled as gifted grow older and find themselves burned out by these expectations. 

Akio’s speech places Utena on a pedestal, but it also reveals his own arrogance as he clearly believes himself to be special too. When Akio fell from grace as Dios, he still sought power in any way that he could and believed himself to be above all law, including morals, because he was the prince. 

Similarly, other characters in Revolutionary Girl Utena believe in this myth of being special that is cultivated at Ohtori and fixate on their relationships or being good at something. For example, Nanami believes that being Touga’s sister makes her special in ways other girls can’t compare to but remains threatened whenever her brother becomes romantically or sexually intimate with someone else. Miki is applauded for his academic intelligence and Juri for her athleticism, yet both are unable to attain happiness and yearn for someone who truly understands them beyond those traits. Being special is not fulfilling, the show seems to tell us, but is actually rather lonely.

One last note I have about this scene is the lighting. I assume the two are talking in Akio’s planetarium and while there is enough light to see them, it’s still pretty dark in there. I believe this is representative of how Akio is misguiding Utena, leading her into the dark if you will, and that despite the stars that Akio is looking at, he doesn’t have any intention of truly enlightening her. 

That Leaf Hair Clip and Girls as Meat

About halfway through the episode, Wakaba comes home one day to find Saionji making a hair clip for her. What’s especially interesting to me is the choice of color and motif for the clip. Roses are so prevalent in Utena, but they belong solely to those connected with Utena’s prince and to the duelists. Wakaba’s hair clip is not any kind of flower, but is a simple leaf in a color not quite gold. Despite this simple gift, Wakaba cries because of it and the hope that it may mean Saionji has feelings for her or is beginning to. To her, the hair clip signifies that she’s almost completed her transformation into being someone permanently special.

However, life is cruel and, as more time passes, Wakaba realizes that Saionji still cares more about Anthy (or the Rose Bride, specifically) than about her. He asks after Anthy while not even looking at Wakaba; it’s as if he can’t either be bothered to or because he’s a coward. For the first time, Wakaba consciously realizes that Saionji going back to school will mean forgetting about her. The hair clip, while nice and still meaningful as Saionji truly did it out of a moment of appreciation, doesn’t erase the fact that he’s still clearly set on Anthy. 

The setting for this realization is at a supermarket. As the Absolute Destiny podcast points out in their great episode on “Wakaba Flourishing,” Wakaba’s grip on the packaged meat she’s holding parallels the tension in that conversation with Saionji. As she presses her fingers against the plastic wrapping, almost but not quite breaking it, the tension in the other scene and their overall relationship is increased.

I also love the supermarket setting because the choice of packaged meat instead of something else brings the animal imagery in the show to mind again. 

Throughout the show, girls are compared to animals and have animal counterparts. This is most evident with Nanami, who has a pretty antagonistic relationship with many animals because she doesn’t get along with Anthy, who is an animal whisperer of sorts (similar to witches or princesses having familiars and affinities for wildlife). In “The Cowbell of Happiness,” Nanami is literally turning into a cow and this comes with the realization that she’s actually been treated as livestock for most of her life by her parents and Touga. There’s more cow imagery later with even Utena and Anthy being connected to it through bell earrings and certain poses that call back to “The Cowbell of Happiness.” 

In short, the idea of girls as livestock to be used and consumed by the men in their lives who are in a position to hurt them is brought up time and time again. Because of it, I read much deeper into Wakaba’s scene in the supermarket than is perhaps reasonable. I believe setting this realization in the meat aisle and having signs that even point out that the meat is on sale points to how Wakaba realizes that she herself has a limited time to win Saionji over. She is meat that will go bad soon and that is being sold. 

Simultaneously, she’s also in a position of power as a consumer buying the meat. In this vein, I read it as the power she has over Saionji as she’s also keeping him like livestock in a sense. It would be easy to see the relationship as one only of Saionji using Wakaba and while I do see it as him manipulating her more, Wakaba is also possessive over him and stops having his best interests in mind. This isn’t to say that she’s the true villain of the episode, but rather to say that she’s been so conditioned to think of herself as unordinary and to value the idea of being special that she is using him subconsciously. During her confession in Nemuro Memorial Hall, Wakaba despairs that “A little longer and I would have changed myself forever.”

The show has told us how important the hair clip is to Wakaba so the loss of it is devastating. While Saionji may have the potential to change, he clearly isn’t going to this episode as he hands the hair clip over to Mikage in return for his expulsion being revoked. Mikage even calls the hair clip “a trifle” and Saionji calls it “that thing.” The words both boys use for this object that means so much to Wakaba tramples over her feelings. 

Mikage clearly knows the importance of the hair clip because he uses it to push Wakaba to the edge. Through some kind of magic or collaboration with Akio, Wakaba sees Anthy wearing the hair clip. There are no words exchanged as she watches Anthy walk away, but the look on her face is one of devastating hurt and she ends up in Nemuro Memorial Hall. And, as viewers of the show know, nothing good happens in Nemuro Memorial Hall.

Another interesting word choice for Mikage and Saionji’s conversation is Mikage calling Saionji’s exile “purgatory.” The purgatory that people may be most familiar with (like me) is similar to limbo as a state neither in heaven or hell. Those who go to purgatory must undergo purification before they enter heaven as a kind of punishment. By implying that Saionji’s current state is purgatory, Mikage poses Ohtori academy as heaven and Saionji’s time with Wakaba as punishment rather than a kind girl being taken advantage of by a boy she liked. 

Wakaba’s Confession

Every confession done in Nemuro Memorial Hall is striking in its own way, but Wakaba’s is painful to me in a way no one else’s is. As she pours out her feelings, she doesn’t blame Saionji for giving the hair clip to Anthy but blames Anthy. Wakaba says, “That girl, with a face that says she alone is special, will steal everything away from me!” In contrast to Anthy as having a special visage, Wakaba denotes herself as “a face in the crowd.” This is painful because she has been a face in the crowd until this episode. The only thing that distinguished Wakaba was her relationship to Utena for viewers of Revolutionary Girl Utena and this adds a meta layer to the confession. While Wakaba’s confession avoids the core issue of the problem, which is Saionji’s treatment of her exacerbating her insecurity, it succeeds in confronting the viewer in how we view those not special enough to get screen time and how this carries into reality (think of how we idolize celebrities and popular kids in school).

When Wakaba leaves Nemuro Memorial Hall and confronts Saionji, startling him, he offers no apologies or thanks. He tells Wakaba, “I’m going back to my old world” as if she doesn’t go to the same school as him. Saionji makes it clear that he has no intention of even acknowledging her once he leaves by stating that he’ll mail Wakaba something more expensive to replace the hair clip. 

Wakaba isn’t visibly surprised by any of this at all. She rejects Saionji’s offer and tells him, “I have something nicer now,” showing off her Black Rose duelist ring. During this entire conversation, Wakaba’s face is blank and her eyes are almost dead. It’s a startling departure from her typically cheerful demeanor. She then proceeds to take her sword from his chest. Again, this is part of the typical formula for duels in the Black Rose Saga, but Wakaba’s is striking in how violent it is.

In previous episodes, the Black Rose duelists aren’t as aggressive and the sword that they pull from their victims usually comes out on its own. However, the way Wakaba is animated to rush at Saionji, physically overpower him, and rip the sword from his chest is uniquely hers. It’s the only one in which I see more anger than sadness and feels very appropriate as Wakaba’s feelings for Saionji are very one-sided and as Saionji, who prides himself on his masculinity, is physically overpowered by a girl he deemed weak.

Daily Dose of Shadow Girls

For this episode’s skit featuring the shadow girls, it’s a very short one! My reading of it was that the shadow girls are mocking the ridiculous games that go into dating and relationships in general, but specifically pointing out how girls often get the short end when in relationships with men. It’s also curious that the shadow girls divide themselves into a fox girl and a rabbit girl in a way reminiscent of how girls are either sanctified or demonized. I think this reading has more validity considering the depiction of the rabbit girl in a traditional hairstyle as if she’s presenting herself as more demure before switching to a Playboy bunny outfit. In reality, the rabbit girl is what she is either way but it’s a question of presenting oneself to be appealing enough for marriage.

In response to the conundrum, Utena tells the girls, “Why not just NOT get married?” Interestingly, this is right after the rabbit girl says that these traditions are law for them. Utena’s response is also ironic considering that she is part of this very system. The conditions for being the Rose Bride are just as arbitrary, something Utena even acknowledges at the beginning of the series, but this response demonstrates a certain carelessness to Utena’s character that we’ve seen previously and that will be important in the future.

The Duel

The duel in this episode is my favorite in the entire anime. The finale is a close second. For Wakaba, the tables that show up during duels in the Black Rose Saga are filled with the leaf hair clip in multiple colors. To me, this represents all of the possibilities and potential Wakaba, and potentially Saionji, could’ve had if things hadn’t gone the way they did. The spread of colors is once again reminiscent of how flowers come in all colors when you take natural and dyed ones into account yet leaves are never given the same treatment. Leaves are just seen as accessories, as background characters, to the flowers so seeing them in as many colors as flowers can be read as both touching and tragic. On one hand, Wakaba’s nature as a leaf will never change, it seems to say, yet the leaf is just as worthy and as full of potential as the flower, isn’t it?

As with Wakaba pulling the sword from Saionji, her duel with Utena is vicious and one of the most aggressive in the show. It’s also one of the few times I’ve been afraid that Utena may lose as she takes on the defensive position and refuses to pull the sword from Anthy. Utena still sees Wakaba as a friend, but Wakaba views Utena as an enemy and vents her frustrations with the entire system and Saionji onto her. She scoffs at Utena’s ability to understand her, yelling “You and that girl and the student council, too! You use the special gifts you were born with and, without a second thought, trample the rest of us!” It’s a powerful sentiment because there’s a kernel of truth in there. 

There’s an earlier episode in Revolutionary Girl Utena titled “For Friendship, Perhaps” and I feel that this episode would’ve fit that title in some ways. Utena never pulls her sword on Wakaba and uses Wakaba’s own sword to cut the rose on her uniform instead. There’s a pivotal moment when she grabs Wakaba’s hand, acknowledges that she can’t fully understand her but still wants her friend to be happy, and spins her around. While previous duelists have fallen to the floor, signaling they’ve lost and have now been abandoned by the Black Rose Circle, Utena holds onto Wakaba. 

Friendship doesn’t fix everything, but I like to think that Wakaba understood that Utena cared for her at that moment. It’s also the second time Wakaba cries in the episode as she finally resigns herself to the understanding that Saionji never cared for her, but that Utena does. To me, it’s pivotal that she cries while looking at the castle that hovers above the dueling arena–it’s as if she realizes how unreachable the ultimate special place is.

Black Rose duelists lose their memories after a duel and it’s significant that they still carry a large portion of the problem burdening them before it afterwards. As Wakaba takes her long walk home, there’s a sense of melancholy as she’s no longer rushing towards Saionji. But there’s also some peace in it as well even if no one is there to welcome her back anymore.

Concluding Thoughts

I feel as if I’ve been writing this post for a long time, but I know there’s some things I missed. This is such a packed episode and shows how successful Revolutionary Girl Utena is at utilizing its formulas and in creating visual imagery. I don’t rewatch the entire show every other month, but this is one of my favorite episodes to put on when that itch comes. There’s no doubt in my mind that “Wakaba Flourishing” is one of the best episodes on Revolutionary Girl Utena.

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