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> En Garde!: Fencing at Ohtori Academy

This analysis was donated by Leaf.


    Having started fencing about six months prior to seeing Utena for the first time, it was perhaps no surprise to anyone that my favorite characters were -- almost instantly-- Juri, and, much later, Ruka, the captain and former captain of the Ohtori fencing club. I don't mean to suggest that the only reason I like them is because they fence -- although it is rare to see portrayals of modern fencers in any sort of visual medium -- but it seems to me that fencing, and the way they fence, brings out certain aspects of their characters, just as the interactions between Touga and Saionji in the dojo do.

    Try to describe Juri and Ruka in a sentence or two without including the word "fencing". It's possible to do, but you're leaving out quite a bit. On or off the strip, both Juri and Ruka are skilled perfectionists, respected, admired and feared for their talent and technique. Fencing demands dedication, determination, agility and speed, an awareness of one's adversary, as well as the ability to read their body language and respond accordingly -- all of which Juri and Ruka display over the course of the series.

    Fencing is about following forms and conventions, rather than letting emotions, feelings and innermost desires rule. Fencing is about discipline and control, forcing one's body into unnatural positions. (The fencing en garde stance is not a natural position -- it is one that must be practiced for a long time before it becomes truly comfortable.) Calculation, efficiency, concentration... all of these traits are necessary if one is to be good at fencing. Doesn't this sound like people we know?

    While it's true that Miki fences as well, it is his piano playing that defines his character, rather than his fencing. This is evident in the fact that Miki's talent for the piano is brought out in every Miki-centered episode, whereas we only see him fencing to serve as a foil (pardon the pun) to Juri. If one were to strip Juri of her skill, position and talent on the fencing strip, something fundamental to her identity would have been lost. However, if Miki were not to fence, I feel that his character would not change much. Fencing is key to all of the Juri-centered episodes, just as piano playing -- not fencing-- is key to Miki's.

    As both a fencer and an Utena fan, I felt compelled to go through the fencing scenes to see what I could learn from the tantalizingly brief excerpts the series presents us with. And now for a short disclaimer: though I fence foil, I am by no means an expert on the subject. I don't claim for this to be an exhaustive analysis, either, but merely a record of the details I find interesting and important. Also, given the nature of the series, the focus is on symbolism, aesthetics, and the personality of the participants, rather than achieving technical accuracy in the animation. Nevertheless, analysis of the technical matters isn't a waste of time; it often reveals some surprising things about the show's characters, as I think we will find. And if *that* isn't a critical to understanding the nature of Utena, I don't know what is.

Tools of the Trade

    For those unfamiliar with fencing, there are three different weapons in common usage, each with their own sets of rules, conventions and quirks.

    -Foil is the basic style, originally intended as a training mechanism, though it gradually evolved into a sport of its own. In foil, valid target area is the back and front of the torso. Points can only be scored by hitting the tip of your weapon against your opponent's target area. In addition, a certain convention known as "right of way" exists, so that whoever extends their arm to attack first will get the point if they touch, unless the opponent follows a certain procedure to take the right of way back from them.

    -In saber everything above the waist, including head, hands and arms, is valid target. Like foil, right of way convention is followed, but certain footwork moves are not allowed, and slashing is legal.

    -Épée, like foil, is a point weapon, but all parts of the body are valid target area, and the right of way convention does not exist. Épées can be distinguished from foils by their extended bell guards, which serve to protect the weapon hand, which is not valid target in foil. Historically, the modern épée is descended from the rapier, a long thrusting weapon developed in Europe around the 16th century.

    (For those still unclear on the distinctions, pictures and more information can be found here.)

presque corps-à-corp    In the Ohtori fencing club, all of the weapons I can see appear to be épées. Some of the fencers in the background might be carrying foils, but since they are so far away, these could easily be epées as well -- it's hard to tell from a distance. Certainly in all of the close-up shots, Juri is holding an épée, as is Miki. We the viewing audience can observe this quite clearly right before Juri sends his blade flying onto the balcony during the Black Rose Arc.

    It's also worth pointing out that all of the weapons we see being used at Ohtori are French grips, rather than the more modern pistol grips. This makes sense on several counts. One, anyone can use a French grip, as long as it's tilted for the appropriate dominant hand, so it's something more commonly seen in club settings, where a lot of people are coming and going, and not everyone has their own equipment. But even Juri, who certainly should own her own weapons, has a French grip on her épée, indicating that it's not just convenience that's the issue here, but something that strongly points to the philosophy of the club, and of Ohtori Academy as a whole. More on this in a second.

    My inclination is that Juri, although undoubtedly skilled in all three styles of fencing, is primarily an épée fencer. This would make sense, given the amount of skill and dexterity necessary to specialize in epée, and the nature of the duels, where hits on any part of the body are permitted -- although in those duels, the only hit that matters is knocking the rose off of the opponent's chest. In many ways, épée is the least limited of the modern fencing styles, with no right of way convention and no restrictions on target area. Both aspects would make the study of épée an ideal choice for the dueling arena.

What about Ruka?

    Ruka, however, is another matter entirely. Ruka is using a "special" weapon, one that looks distinctly different from the épées that Juri, Miki and the other fencers are using. Ruka isn't using a part of the standard repertoire of modern fencing -- Ruka is using a rapier. Other students, including Juri, are not shown using this in the club. This is important.

     As mentioned earlier, the rapier is a long, thrusting weapon that eventually evolved into the modern épée. Rapiers are distinguished from épées by their complex, ornamental hilts, often with a slender curve of metal coming down from the bell guard to the pommel. Ruka's rapier has a decorative quality that all the other weapons lack. This is intended not merely to be functional, but beautiful as well. It's also pretty damn distinctive -- for one thing, it's golden, while all of the other weapons are silver-colored. It would be impossible for anyone with any knowledge of fencing whatsoever to mistake his sword for anyone else's. This is going to prove important later on, when it comes to Shiori.

     Why is Ruka fencing with a rapier when Juri and the others are fencing with épées, anyway?


    I mentioned earlier that there are three different weapons commonly used in fencing. There are also several distinctive styles or schools of fencing. Although there are countless variations, all of them can be roughly grouped into three major categories: historical, classical and "sport" fencing.

     Historical fencers attempt to re-create what fencing looked like before the development and proliferation of the foil, saber and épée. Classical fencers, on the other hand, use these three weapons, but try to fence in as martially accurate a manner possible -- that is to say, as if one were fighting a real duel with sharp weapons. In sport fencing, however, the goal is to score as many points as possible while staying within a stringent set of rules. This last kind of fencing is the most prominent style today, and is the kind you'll see at intercollegiate events and the Olympics.

     If the architecture of the school and the 19th-century military-style outfits (complete with epaulets) worn by the members of the Student Council weren't enough to give it away, it's pretty easy to tell that the Ohtori Academy fencing club follows the classical school.

     For one thing, in classical fencing, the object is to touch the other fencer without being touched. That's it. If you get touched, you've lost, because in classical fencing, that sword your opponent just used was sharp enough to kill or incapacitate you. This is why Juri is able to go through so many opponents so fast. In sport fencing, though, bouts are usually fenced to five or fifteen touches, and the person who gets the most touches wins the bout. We don't see anything like that here.

     Another clue is that we never see any wires or electric scoring machines being used in the fencing bouts. Outside of practice, all sport fencing bouts are scored with these machines, which means that participants have to attach wires to themselves and their weapons in order for that machine to be able to register their touches. Unlike sport fencing, which has undergone numerous changes over the years as technology has improved, classical fencing has stayed relatively unchanged since the early 1930s or so, since it uses the judgments of a human being rather than a machine. This explains the proliferation of French grips, rather than the newer pistol grips we see on the épées.

     Classical fencing also would explain why Ruka is using a rapier instead of an épée. This would be both highly unusual and against the rules of modern sport fencing, where the rapier is no longer used. In classical fencing, however, there would be no such bias. It would still be a somewhat unusual choice, though and it would certainly be much harder to come by than a standard épée.

     A final indication is that Juri and Ruka both are using the classical stance in their en garde position -- non-weapon hand held curved up with hand held up behind them. While a lot of sport fencers do this as well, many do not, and its use is considered a sign of at least a little classical training.

     What's the significance of their use of the classical style? For one thing, it fits well with the background and philosophy of Ohtori Academy. For another thing, classical fencing treats fencing like a martial art -- that is, for use in actual battles with real blades -- instead of just a sport. In baseball, if the opposing team gets a home run, it doesn't necessarily mean they've won the game. In classical fencing, if your opponent touches you, you've lost and there's nothing you can do about it. This makes excellent preparation for the duels for the Rose Bride, as Utena is never able land any sort of touch on Juri.

     Classical fencing is also more concerned with aesthetics than sport fencing. This isn't to suggest that sport fencing completely ignores aesthetics, but it is true that aesthetics, technique and perfection are more heavily emphasized in most schools of classical fencing. And you've got to admit, aesthetics certainly matter at Ohtori, and in the series as a whole.

Day to Day in the Ohtori Fencing Club

    What is life like for the fencers at Ohtori? We only get to see a few moments, but even those are enough from which to draw some conclusions.

     First of all, who fences at Ohtori? Although it's hard to distinguish gender when the fencers are masked, there seems to be more females fencing at Ohtori than males.

     There are a ton of unmasked girls in fencing whites hanging around when Ruka is running the club, (although how many of those girls have just joined since Ruka's arrival and how many leave after he disappears is unclear). But even at the end of Episode 29, after Ruka has left the school for good, we are shown a group shot of a room full of unmasked fencers, the majority of which seem to be girls. Finally, in the last episode, all of the unmasked fencers surrounding Shiori are female. This is not to say that there aren't any guys fencing at all -- there's Miki, Ruka, and one unnamed boy who retrieves Miki's épée from Anthy into Episode 17 -- but from what we're shown, the club is mostly, if not entirely, female.

     This makes sense when we consider how much the female population of Ohtori admires Juri. (She always merits a respectful "senpai" from Utena, which should say something.) I imagine many guys might find her quite intimidating... and certainly, having Ruka as captain, with the hordes of adoring fangirls, is much more likely to attract women than men.

     Practices usually start with warm-ups, stretching and footwork exercises, before proceeding to blade work and bouts. Most of what we see in the club setting are bouts between Juri and the members of her club, although occasionally we catch a glimpse of her teaching, as well. ("Don't forget the trick I just showed you.") We also see Ruka coaching people on the basics of hand and body positions in Episode 28.

     (Speaking of Ruka, the en garde position that Ruka and the girl are in in that scene is pretty terrible, actually.crowded practice The front foot should be facing forward, while the back leg should be at a ninety degree angle to the front foot and slightly off to one side. Given the position of her legs, she's probably intending to be in a lunge position. All we hear Ruka tell her is to close her stance more, and tilt her hips. I'd probably tell her to fix her feet and hold herself more upright -- she looks like she's slouching a lot, even in her lunge. Then again, she's a novice, and Ruka's feeling her up. I'd probably find it hard to keep my balance in that kind of situation, too.)

     Practices seem very formal and follow strict procedure. Juri mentions the existence of a definite schedule, and Ruka's first appearance is as a disturbance of the normal order of things – Miki was supposed to fence next. At the ends of bouts, there is applause and the obligatory "Arigatou gozaimasu!" from the defeated opponent. It's clear from her tone of voice as she yells "Next!" and her rebuke to Miki in "Thorns of Death" that Juri can be a hard and demanding taskmaster.

     Yet for all that, she truly cares about her fencers. When a girl is injured at the end of "Azure Blue Paler than Sky," Juri is the one who takes her to the hospital and reassures her anxious worries. She even tells the girl not to push herself, that healing is the most important thing to focus on at the moment. Juri may be imperious, but she takes her responsibilities as captain seriously. As Nanami aptly puts it, "There's nothing to worry about with Juri in charge."

     The girl also mentions an upcoming local meet, which indicates that the fencing club might participate in events with other schools as well. While competition is not the focus of classical fencing, her comment indicates that the club belongs to a local or regional classical fencing league with other rich, private high schools, which would be uncommon, but not unheard of.

Juri and Ruka's first bout (Episode 28)

    Ruka is definitely left-handed. He put his glove over his left hand, and when facing a right-handed Juri, their weapon hands are on the same sides of their bodies. (If Juri were left-handed, their weapons would on opposite sides of each other.) From an animator's standpoint, this is the mostsquaring off in the salle aesthetically pleasing position, since we can see the front of both fencers, whereas if they both were right- or left-handed, the body of one would be facing away from the audience. From a tactical standpoint, it means that Ruka is going to have at least a slight advantage over Juri, as left-handed fencers are not as common as right-handers, and are most easily able to get around their right-handed opponent's en garde position (parry six) unless their opponent takes special precautions against them.

     We don't get to see very much of this bout -- most of the time is spent watching the reactions of Miki, Anthy and Utena. We do, however, see Juri retreat as Ruka attacks, before Ruka continues pressing his attack and Juri rushes forward to attack. The camera pans out to show both Juri and Ruka in lunge position with their arms extended. We then see that Ruka has touched Juri. The entire sequence takes about fifteen seconds, which is not atypical in fencing.

     The one noteworthy thing about Ruka's touch is that he hits her on her left breast, exactly where her rose would be if she were fighting in the duel arena. Coincidence? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Whose Sword is It, Anyway?

    I am now going to take this opportunity to make a claim that will contradict what many people believe about the end of Episode 28 That is to say, we "know" that the sword that Shiori claims to be polishing isn't Ruka's, but Juri's. We know the first bit because Ruka says it wasn't his sword after all, and we generally assume the second part because his locker is shown as being right next to Juri's.

     Except Ruka's lying.

     Nobody else in Ohtori is using a weapon like Ruka's. It's flashy. It's pretty. It's distinctive. But we never see anyone else in the entire series -- even Juri -- use anything like it. And it's pretty obvious that the sword that falls out of the locker is identical to the one Ruka used in his bout with Juri earlier in the episode. This means that either

       A) Ruka is lying to Shiori when he tells her that it wasn't his sword to begin with
   B) Somebody else (most likely Juri) *has* a sword like Ruka's, but never uses it
   C) The animators didn't know what they were doing, and assumed that all weapons looked like that

     Option C is out because it's pretty obvious that the animators know what épées are supposed to look like, as discussed above. Option B is possible, but what's the point of insinuating to the audience that it's actually Juri's sword when we never see her using any weapon like that? Therefore Option A is the most likely explanation. When Ruka tells Shiori at the end of his duel that it wasn't his sword that she had claimed she polished every day during his absence, he is lying through his teeth in order to break her.

     And, really, doesn't that fit with all of his actions towards her? Build her up, lie to her, and then -- completely and totally crush her, both mentally and emotionally. That doesn't sound out of character for Ruka at all, to use whatever means necessary -- including lies -- in order to accomplish his goal of saving Juri from Shiori, and from herself.

     Watching the locker room sequence, I think, supports this. Shiori walks past Juri's locker, and runs her fingers against Ruka's lockerRuka's nameplate, and is then shown leaning against a locker whose nameplate we can't see. Ruka startles her, she turns -- and in that split second, you can see the nameplate on the locker she's leaning against, and it's Ruka's name. (It flashes by really fast, so it's hard to see even when you're looking for it. Nevertheless, it's definitely there. ) Regardless of whether she was leaning against Juri or Ruka's locker, the nameplate of the locker her hand hits is definitely Ruka's – because the sword that falls out is definitely his.

     Ruka obviously didn't expect Shiori to notice the difference between his weapon and all of the others, as a more experienced fencer would. Then again, even if she did notice, she was evidently in too much shock after being thrown through the windshield of an Akio car to call him on it.

     In any case, given the significance of this particular sword in their relationship, it's especially apt that the sword Shiori draws from Ruka's chest is identical to the sword he uses to fence Juri, and the sword that falls out of his locker. We only get one quick look at its distinctive hilt -- right when she's pulling it from his chest -- but even in shots from other parts of the duel, it's pretty clear it's the same sword in all three cases. Viewed through this lens, the locker room sequence suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

Postscript: After the Revolution

    Given all that I've implied about the significance of fencing in the lives of the characters, a new question emerges at the end of Episode 39: Why does Shiori fence?

     It's perplexing, when you stop to consider it. Aside from her romantic attachments to various club members, Shiori has never shown any interest in the actual act of fencing (claims of polishing swords aside). And yet, suddenly we see her among a cluster of girls clad in fencing whites, a smile on her face as she acknowledges Juri's imperious "Next!" How did this come about?

     I take this to mean that Shiori has stopped wanting to bring Juri down – instead, she wants to become like her. All her life, she's watched Juri from the sidelines, and as a result, she has been continually enveloped in a stew of malice, jealousy and self-loathing. Now she has taken the first steps to becoming a real human being instead of a vicious parasite by actively working to achieve skill and competence at something, rather than being held back by her envy of Juri's innate talent. The only way to have freedom is to know oneself, and the only way to know oneself is through hard work and discipline, and fencing requires both. (Why then does Juri still need Ruka's help to get free of Shiori? Because it's not that Juri doesn't know herself; she just doesn't think that it's possible for her to change, which is an entirely different problem.)

     It's clear at the end of "Azure Blue Paler than Sky" that things have changed between Juri and Shiori. How would Shiori respond to such treatment? Without Ruka around, and with Juri suddenly immune to her manipulations, perhaps Shiori is attempting a new beginning.

     And even if that's not true, if Shiori hasn't changed, and her fencing is still just a ploy, it won't work. When the locket shattered, Shiori lost all power over Juri. But I prefer to believe that even Shiori, who acts not to advance any particular agenda of her own, but only to cause pain in others, is capable of changing for the better, of acquiring a purpose of her own -- something worth fighting for. I choose to interpret the final fencing scene of "Someday, Shine with Me" as supporting this idea.

Personality + Relationship + Narrative + Miscellany + Music

Introduction + Characters + Reference + Submission

Go Home
Analysis of Utena + Empty Movement

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