The Power to Remember: Memories in The Adolescence of Utena and Other Anime

CAUTION: SPOILERS FOR THE ADOLESCENCE OF UTENA AHEAD

Hey everyone, it’s been a while.

Yesterday I decided to re-watch “The Adolescence of Utena” with a few friends over a Skype call. Now, I won’t pretend I understand everything that went into the movie or even the show. Some of it is still way beyond me and I’d need to do some research into various different subjects before I even came close to fully understanding some of the themes and messages that Utena was trying to present in either medium. I’m not saying Lain is easier to understand but it had less episodes so at least I could focus more; I haven’t even re-watched Utena yet. I plan to at… some point. Anyway. Onto the main point for today’s article.

The point of today’s article is to look at how memories are used in anime, not only in Utena but in other anime as well. However since this article was heavily inspired by Utena it’d be rude to not give it some more attention than the other shows I’ll mention. I’ll be at least trying to give my basic thoughts on the importance of memory and how it’s used in different shows and in the movie itself.

First it’s important to note how powerful memories can be. There’s been countless studies done trying to understand the human mind and memories as a whole but memories shape your life experiences, they influence you as a person, they hurt, they make you laugh, they can completely control your life if you let them. The most important aspect about this is that memories shape who you are as a person. If you didn’t have all of your combined life experiences from all past events and all the trials you had suffered and enjoyed you wouldn’t be the same person you are now.

In Adolescence we see Utena and her repressed/replaced memories of Touga. In psychology repression is the act of blocking out unpleasant memories often due to traumatic life experiences (which the death of a chlidhood friend/love interest would be). Beyond that Utena seems to have replaced the memory of Touga dying with the idea that he went away after asking her to leave with him (which he tries to do again as a ghost).

Regardless of the secondary characters being able to interact with Touga, Utena was the one who was obsessed with him. She got mad at Anthy at the mere THOUGHT that she had slept with Touga and/or changed him. She tried to run to catch up to him when she saw him near the rose garden. She ultimately confronts him alone and realizes that her obsession isn’t good for her.

Clinging onto the past is a theme that shows that deal with memories treat as not only “bad” but unpleasant. 5 Centimeters Per Second deals with that theme too in another way. It’s used often to show how much holding onto something can be poisonous and can stop an individual from moving forward with their life; they don’t notice the things around them because they’re only looking at one thing.

At the same time however as I already said memories are important in shaping who you are as a person. it’s extremely important that Utena remembered what happened to Touga because if she had forgotten she wouldn’t have learned anything from the experience. Blocking out memories has the potential to be as toxic as holding onto them. The trick is to move past it without forgetting it happened. As anime and real life shows constantly this is one of the hardest things to do in the world.

On the subject of replacing memories, we have the romantic idea in the movie that Touga left Utena to possibly meet up with her again at a later point. Sure, it’s not a happy thought that the two who are in love have to be separated for whatever reason but it gives Utena hope that she might see him again and realistically she couldn’t have placed him at her side in her memories. She had the basic knowledge to know that he was gone but it made her happier to think that she might see him again.

Serial Experiments Lain does the same thing with memories. It’s one of the key aspects of Lain as a show. Why have bad memories when you could just replace them with good ones? There’s no need to have bad memories, is there? But if there’s no bad memories, how do you determine what the good memories are? What’s the baseline for bad vs. good if you can’t definitively say that some memories are bad? It’s not to say that bad memories should be cherished but, to reiterate, if you don’t have them you can lose out on valuable life experiences.

To go into the “shaping you as a person” bit a little more from what I’ve seen of anime and how it treats memories, the “nature vs. nurture” argument seems to lean in favor of nurture time and time again. Memories make up who you are, they define you. Even in the show Utena is defined by the idea that she wants to become a prince because she remembers an experience where a prince did something noble. In the movie she wants to be like Touga who she saw as a prince.

Additionally one of the scariest things that seems to happen to some characters is the idea that the memories you have might be artificial or false. Someone could have implanted them into you. Full Metal Alchemist was the first show that brought this idea to my attention; Alphonse briefly questions how he knows his memories of him and Edward are legitimate because, after all, he’s a suit of armor.

The reason false memories can be so frightening is ultimately a culmination of what I’ve been writing in the article; if you have false memories you have no experiences you can anchor yourself to. It’s harder to define yourself as a person when you’re not even sure what’s real and what’s implanted. It doesn’t help that memory is unreliable; when you remember something you’re remembering the last time you remembered it. So memories can become twisted and unreliable as first hand accounts which is why things like eye witness testimony isn’t treated as seriously as some other evidence.

In conclusion, I just kind of wanted to brain dump about memories and their function in some shows and Utena’s movie. I hope I made enough sense here. Some messages about memories really get to me specifically because I am in the midst of still trying to get into the “move past it but don’t forget it” mindset. This doesn’t even touch on the “promises made when the MC was a child” trope (which is more of a light hearted thing but one I don’t think works here). As always I hope you enjoyed reading.

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