Is Shuuichirou Sawaki all that bad?
I’ve seen this question asked fairly frequently as Wonder Egg Priority has continued to air. Sawaki, who is protagonist Ai Ohto’s teacher and visits her house frequently, hasn’t technically done anything wrong. Even in the series’ latest episode, his desire to date Ai’s mother (which is his most egregious action thus far) isn’t bad per se. Most of Sawaki’s actions are framed as suspect, but could still be written off as over-caution or a negative bias on Ai’s part due to his presence in Koito Nanase’s life (and, presumably, her death).
Although Kunihiko Ikuhara isn’t involved in Wonder Egg Priority‘s production, his influence is present throughout the series. I wanted to take the time to talk a bit about Ikuhara characters found at schools and how Wonder Egg Priority is framing Sawaki in a very specific way.
Spoilers for Revolutionary Girl Utena, Mawaru Penguindrum, and Yuri Kuma Arashi.
The position of a teacher, or school advisor, or someone in a position of power at a school is reserved for a certain type of individual in Ikuhara’s works: someone who is hung up on their past. More specifically, someone who has lingering childhood trauma or someone who feels the loss of something they cherished when they were young. As someone who now looks over children in a school environment, they desperately try to regain whatever or whoever they lost (often by controlling children), and all of their actions are dictated by this attachment.
They are chained to the school (childhood, children) just as they are chained to their past.
Revolutionary Girl Utena‘s Akio Ohtori is the first example of this teacher or any adult working with children at a school archetype in Ikuhara’s series, save Professor Souichi Tomoe in the Ikuhara-helmed Sailor Moon S season. As principal of Ohtori Academy, where protagonist Utena Tenjou and others attend school, Akio is directly in charge of everything that goes on at the school, and is also the person who initially inspires Utena to become “a prince” by appearing to her as his former self, Prince Dios. He exploits his younger sister, Anthy Himemiya, and leverages his power over her, perpetuating the toxic duelist system with Anthy, the Rose Bride, as the reward.
The most important thing that Utena ensures that you cannot forget is that Akio was Dios once — at one time he was seen as heroic in the same way that Utena is seen as heroic (albeit with her and our ideas of heroism challenged along the way) throughout the series. Akio’s existence as Akio in contrast to Dios is important as it shows that, like the duality of women as witch to be fought or princess to be saved, he cannot be “all good” but also is not “all bad.” There’s an idea handed down by the framing of a prince or a villain that once a prince is corrupted just a little bit, they suddenly move from good to bad. Innocence is something that is firmly lost, not slowly poisoned in grey areas. The existence of Akio as Ohtori Academy’s leader, and the leader of the cycle that Utena breaks — even after she discovers that there is no prince and even after Anthy betrays her — places him firmly in a grey area because he was Dios, despite the fact that he himself rejects anything but a strict duality.
As viewers we’re trained to see things in “good” or “bad” without exploring the nuances of why or the ways that societal mores impose their rigid value systems on us. Utena challenges all of this.
At the end of it all, Akio remains in his tower at Ohtori Academy, unaware of how Utena has broken the cycle and her impact on Anthy, as Anthy finally leaves the school. He remains imprisoned by his past.
Keiju Tabuki appears years after Utena in Ikuhara’s 2011 work, Mawaru Penguindrum as the high school teacher of leads Kanba and Shouma Takakura. He is also the love interest of Ringo Oginome, the sister of his deceased childhood friend Momoka Oginome.
Unlike Akio who is cool, distant, and presented as someone undeniably in power to the point of discomfort, Tabuki is first presented as a harmless bird-watching dork. He’s outwardly oblivious to Ringo’s machinations — which include obsessive stalking, and breaking into his home among other things — and becomes engaged to another one of Momoka’s childhood friends, Yuri Tokikago. The initial hint at Tabuki’s inner turmoil comes from his appearance in Penguindrum‘s opening sequence, where he’s presented as a caged bird.
Everything in Penguindrum comes back to the 1995 Tokyo Subway Attack which caused Momoka’s death. Momoka is a heroic figure in Tabuki’s eyes, saving him from his abusive relationship with his mother with her friendship. Tabuki becomes stuck in that moment where Momoka dies and is later inspired to harm the Takakura siblings out of spite for their parents’ involvement in the attack. Although Tabuki isn’t in charge of the cycle like Akio was in Utena, he affects an oblivious air, manipulating those around him while remaining stuck to his past. At the end of the series, both he and Yuri are shown musing about why they were left behind while Momoka moved on.
Yuriika Hakonaka’s family name means “inside a box,” already hinting at her role in Yuri Kuma Arashi. Like Akio and Tabuki, she is imprisoned by her past and placed in a position of power at school — Yurikuma‘s Arashigaoka Academy. Once close friends with Kureha Tsubaki’s mother, Reia, she grew jealous when Reia married and killed her. Yuriika is mentally and emotionally stuck in that moment.
Her office wall is made of drawers or boxes where she keeps things for herself that will never age. When she was rescued as a child, she was immediately taught to be selfish and keep the things she loves in boxes so they won’t lose their innocence. She herself is placed in a box by her savior. Yuriika uses Arashigaoka Academy to preserve what she was taught as a child, despite her obvious guilt and the pain of losing her closest friend Reia by her own hand.
Looking back on it now, Yuriika is one of the more fascinating characters in Yurikuma because of how she’s so forwardly presented as someone who is undeniably a victim of the system while also an active participant in charge of — as much as any woman in Yurikuma can be in charge of anything within it’s toxic cycle — perpetuating it and ensuring that it continues. In a world where women’s relationships with other women are so obviously policed by men (the three Judgmens specifically) Yuriika does all she can without ever realizing any sort of life outside of the system.
On the surface, Shuuichirou Sawaki hasn’t done anything technically wrong. He encourages Ai to feel better about her heterochromia — the primary reason why she’s bullied at school. He shows up at her house to drop off printouts and see how she’s doing after Koito’s death which is a little invasive but helpful for a house-bound student trying to recover from a traumatic experience. He adopts cats according to his niece, Momoe. And if he wants to enter a relationship with Ai’s mother, sure it’s a little weird because she’s the mother of one of his students but they’re both consenting adults and he hasn’t been shown doing anything untoward.
However, as with most things in Wonder Egg Priority, it’s all about the framing, especially when considering what else this series is attempting to tackle: suicide, bullying, and societal stereotypes all as they related to young women. It’s no coincidence that Sawaki is one of the few men in this series outside of the wonder killers that the girls fight and Aca and Ura-Aca (who are arbiters of this toxic system in the first place). Everything Sawaki does can be initially presented as innocuous, but with further examination is all suspect. Hugging a student in an empty classroom as he does with Koito is weird. Drawing one of his students (Ai) for an art competition while bringing up the very thing she’s self-conscious about in the process is manipulative. And there’s no reason why he couldn’t drop off the printouts with another student or, if he was that personally concerned, do it in a way that’s less invasive. Sawaki frames his actions by saying he’s doing these things for Ai, but the actions themselves are manipulative in a way that places the burden of forgiveness unfairly on Ai herself.
We don’t see (or haven’t seen yet) whether Sawaki is hung up on some event in his past, but the fact that he’s in a position of authority at a school could hint to that. His treatment of Ai is suspicious especially after the fifth episode where he’s shown sketching her in preparation for a painting. He effectively pins her to the sketchbook both literally and figuratively, by capturing her likeness. Others have pointed out obvious parallels to the René Magritte episode of Penguindrum where Yuri Tokikago’s childhood trauma comes at the hands of her artist father.
When I see people fervently hoping that Sawaki is somehow a good person — or at least not a completely awful and exploitative person — I’m reminded of myself when I first watched Utena. Until the final episode, I kept wishing that Akio would become that true prince — that instead of perpetuating the cycle, he would somehow end it as Dios. Obviously this is not the point of Utena, and Utena taught me so much about my own preconceived ideas of what a story or fairytale should be by showing me what it could be. I hope that Wonder Egg Priority continues to excel and ends in a way that causes a similar revelation for those rooting for Sawaki to be “a good guy.” Again, Wonder Egg Priority can still stumble in a lot of ways, but like many pieces of the series, this particular framing of Sawaki is reminiscent of — and arguably more heavy-handed than — Ikuhara’s works.
A/N: As for Ikuhara’s latest work, Sarazanmai, the two similar characters to this archetype actually end up being policemen for very specific and obvious reasons. I’m not going to mention them here since, while they have some similarities, there are slight differences and this is more about adults that work at schools.