Is Utena a Tragic Hero?

(The first draft of this was my response to a debate on the Utena-ML about Utena's status as the literary figure known as the "tragic hero.")

(quoted material from

"According to Aristotle's Definition of the Tragic Hero:

"1.The tragic hero is a man who is characterized by good and evil. He is a mixture of good characteristics and bad characteristics."

Leaving aside the "requirement" for a male character here, Utena is not characterized by both good and evil. She is the epitome of good and truth and nobility in the show: the Prince. Just about every other character in the series qualifies under this part of the definition, however. To many people who see the show, Utena is one of the shallowest, least developed characters because she has no innate classical flaws. (Although our cynical 21st century sensibilities perceive naivete and innocence as flaws, they certainly weren't by classical notions.)

Of the other characters, Touga, Saionji, Mikage, Nanami, Shiori, and even Akio fit this part of the definition quite well. Each of them possesses significant personality flaws that revolve around a central point of pride. Miki might fit here as well, if you consider him to be part of the contingent of classical tragic heroes who are fundamentally innocent, trusting, and deluded (Cu Chulainn's son comes to mind, and though those stories are not precisely Greek tradition, their telling has been heavily influenced by Roman invasions, bringing the joys of Greek tradition to the Celtic world). Juri doesn't have a powerfully evil side, though she can be nasty. However, her downfall might certainly have come from her intense pride.

"2.The tragic hero has a tragic flaw, or harmatia, that is the cause of his downfall."

Utena doesn't really have a downfall in the sense of the classical tragic hero, who experiences the destruction of all his plans, the loss of all the good things he had at the beginning of the story, and a fall into misery. If we assume the worst, that she dies when the swords come for her, then she is nothing less than a savior, dying to renew (revolutionize) the world. She came from having nothing -- no family, no real history, no possessions -- so she has virtually nothing to lose. Everything she fought for in the course of the story has come to fruition: Anthy is free. In fact, everyone (except Akio) is free to make their own choices.

Without the downfall, it's hard to argue the existence or nonexistence of the tragic flaw.

"3.The tragic hero has a hubris surrounding him, a person or thing that sets the stage for his fall. It will include all of the conditions that will cause the tragic hero to fail."

This usage of "hubris" puzzles me. According to hu…bris n. Overbearing pride or presumption; arrogance. [Greek: excessive pride, wanton violence.]

So I will use this conventional definition.

As noted above, many other characters, particularly the other Duelists, actually fit this condition.

Ruka is an interesting case, however, a demonstration, I think, of how a turnaround in attitude changes the outcome. Initially, he was dueling in the hopes of making Juri love him, and to this end, he used Shiori as a catalyst and pawn. However, his loss, followed by the confrontation with Juri, broke the prideful (and very adolescent) goal he'd set himself, and he turned around to have the selfless goal of freeing Juri from the chains that bound her, thus foreshadowing Utena's later realization of her own true goal. His end also foreshadows hers -- dying to the present world in order to free the one s/he loves.

Utena doesn't possess an excess of pride. She, perhaps, dallies with hubris after her seduction, but she realizes that it is as hollow as hubris' personal representative, Akio.

"4.The tragic hero almost always goes on a journey."

If one talks about the journey as an exploration of collective unconscious and the world of Ohtori, or even as a journey rite of passage, one could argue that Utena does, in fact, go on a journey.

"5.The tragic hero is someone people can relate to. If people were put into the tragic hero's position, they could see they would probably do the same things that the hero does. The tragic hero is not perfect, for he is not exalted to a god-like status, but he is human. He has the same human problems, and he goes through life with the same obstacles."

Utena is someone to whom people can relate, and becomes even more human as the series approaches its end. But she is, and remains -- for the most part -- an icon of nobility. She is the Prince. Not everyone could go on at all the points where she goes on. If most people were put into Utena's position, they would fall aside, as Saionji, Miki, Juri, and Touga do.

"6.The tragic hero always fall in the end, and that is why he is called a tragic hero. His tragic flaw always ends up in tragedy for himself and for those around him."

Utena's fall, if fall it truly be, does not lead to tragedy for anyone (except herself, wherein the worst tragedy is that at the end, she thinks that she's failed). She shatters the illusions, the chains, that bind everyone at Ohtori. Everyone suddenly has the freedom of choice -- the choice to leave, to move on, to break out of their stasis. Even Akio is redeemed with the freedom of choice. We might even assume that he doesn't need to fear the swords anymore, since Utena has taken them. He doesn't take his chance, of course, but everyone else (apparently) does. Particularly Anthy.

So, applying the Aristotelian standard of the tragic hero, it becomes clear that Utena is an epic hero walking among a cast of tragic heroes, and ultimately saves most of them from their folly.

Now the question is, is Utena a tragic heroine?

I noticed, in the course of the cursory research I did for the above, that the characters called "tragic heroines" in drama and literature (by literary critics) come in two types: women who (gasp) commit the sin of being headstrong and defying tradition/convention/dogma and therefore suffer a pathetic end or punishment (for example, Antigone); and women who wallow around helplessly in a passive, convenionally female, victim role assigned to them by fate and culture (for example, Amanda from "The Glass Menagerie"). The transition between the two types can be easily traced to the first-wave feminist movement in the nineteenth century.

It is interesting that both types of tragic heroine characters exist in Utena: Utena herself as the first, defiant variety, and Anthy as the latter. But neither experiences a tragic ending. Anthy walks out on her passive victim role, and Utena's sacrifice is not pathetic nor a punishment: it is redemption.

In conclusion, it appears that Utena herself is neither a tragic hero nor a tragic heroine in any sense. If anything, she is a savior, an epic hero whose sacrifice frees the prisoners of Ohtori.

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