Recently, I sat with my pastors and a few other congregants after church as we had one of many ongoing discussions about the #MeToo movement. We based our discussion on an article by Nadia Bolz-Weber called “We’re in the midst of an apocalypse. And that’s a good thing” published in The Washington Post. If you’re not already familiar with Bolz-Weber’s work, I highly recommend it. She brings an element of grace and humor to her cynicism that is difficult to find.
As my church family and I delved into discussion, we focused for several minutes on the meaning of apocalypse. The word has one meaning in mainstream culture and a more specific, nuanced meaning in Christian theology. Mainstream culture generally thinks of apocalypse as a huge, world-ending event that destroys everything we know. Books, TV shows, and films abound with these bleak images of a society attempting to carry on after this huge collapse. In some Christian theology, the meaning is a little different. I like the way Bolz-Weber articulates it: “a big, hope-filled idea that dominant powers are not ultimate powers.”
If apocalypse is an undoing of dominant powers and systems, then depending on our privileges and perspectives, we as individuals undergo apocalypse daily. When ugly mindsets and behaviors are uncovered, either personally or collectively in the public eye, then a shift occurs into a better way of being. In this sense, an apocalypse can be a very personal experience. Rather than thinking of apocalypse as the end of society as we know it, our small group discussed apocalypse as the end of our own personal ways of ordering and understanding the world.
While we did move on to other discussion points from Bolz-Weber’s article, I sat there fascinated with this particular use of apocalypse and immediately connected it with Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Of all anime I’ve seen, Revolutionary Girl Utena does one of the best jobs in making the best of needing to repeat footage episode after episode. The nature of the story and characters makes it easier to glean meaning from the ritualistic repetition. Perhaps the most memorable repeated sequence is when Utena makes her way to the dueling arena in each episode. The catchy song, “Absolute Destiny: Apocalypse,” evokes unsettling and sometimes contradictory imagery (“day and night turning back on one another,” ; “the darkness of Sodom, the darkness of light”).
Apocalypse is all over Revolutionary Girl Utena and it struck me that for most of the series, we see the characters undergo personal apocalypses. Sometimes, they’re very painful and disturbing. For most of the series, it’s Utena’s opponent whose particular way of thinking or brand of darkness rises to the surface and then, once Utena defeats that person in the duel, it marks the beginning of their change. This article gives some examples of these changes and how they at least point to a possibility of betterment even after breaking away from abuse.
Then, it’s Utena’s turn for her own apocalypse. Even though she is on one level a catalyst for apocalypse for other characters and even the system of Ohtori Academy itself, she also has certain mindsets and behaviors that play into the very cycle keeping Anthy under Akio’s abusive control. She is so determined to be a prince generally and, as the series goes on, to be Anthy’s prince and savior specifically. While this is certainly a challenge to a heteronormative way of operating in the world, it is still an attempt to fit into a role in a system that inherently continues a cycle of abuse. But this dominant power is not an ultimate power, and the way Utena understands her relationship with Anthy has to be undone. At one point in the later episodes, she does apologize to Anthy, but that can’t stop the total unraveling in the series finale. After all, the absolute destiny is apocalypse. Everything Utena believes about being a prince, finding a prince, and saving Anthy is brutally and painfully torn away. There is a very symbolic yet obvious uncovering and peeling away as the castle and dueling arena collapses into nothingness. Afterward, Utena is “dead” yet other characters talk about her as if she transferred or left school for some other reason. However, it is this very crumbling that finally gives Anthy the space to leave Ohtori and find Utena, which represents breaking out of a cycle and framework.
Perhaps Utena “dies” because she is too determined to fit into a prince role that is about to collapse as the apocalypse occurs, and there will be no such role left after the apocalypse is finished. More optimistically, Utena is so revolutionary that she brings this last apocalypse and breaks beyond it so much that she literally cannot exist in any form of Ohtori Academy anymore, even this new one that Anthy now has the power to walk away from. Either way, all of the apocalypses in Revolutionary Girl Utena mark a change that looks forward to a bright, hopeful future, even though the collapsing of the familiar is terrifying and painful.
My blackout poetry collection, Forgive Us Our Trespasses is available as a paperback and an ebook! The poems explore faith, doubt, lament, and hope. Check it out and discover why readers have called it “pithy,” “insightful,” “visually stunning,” and “emotionally challenging.” Be sure to add the book to your Goodreads list and leave a review when you’re finished!