Utena’s use of shadows isn’t confined to the shadow plays (it’s another of those time-saving animation tricks, after all). But because the plays are probably the loudest examples of shadow use (and because animated film is a dramatic medium), maybe we should employ the lens of shadows as entertainment.
Shadow play or shadow puppetry seems like the obvious place to start. Quite simply, puppeteers work with puppets positioned between a screen and a light source. This is what all the shadow plays in Utena suggest. Consider the physical impossibility of, say:
True, we probably won’t be taking these scenes too literally. It has little bearing on the plot that a living person can’t have a hole in her head for light to pass through. That’s largely beside the point. But it’s notable that the players, in their shadow forms, look more like puppets than human beings. This doesn’t exist in thematic isolation. Think of Akio (or Anthy!) as the supreme puppetmaster. Plenty of characters have little agency, and many of the same aren’t what they appear to be. The silhouette distorts the true form of the thing.
Well and good. For Utena purposes, though, I’m more interested in phantasmagoria, the use of a magic lantern to project images onto screens or smoke. If you’ve finished the show, you already know how image projection comes into play. The magic lantern was indeed used by charlatan mediums to “conjure spirits,” so Akio is in good historical company. Note, too, that phantasmagoria allowed for audience interaction. It wasn’t necessarily delivered to audiences as was drama; you could approach the screen and so become part of the projected scene.
Phantasmagoria often used the fantastic and horrifying as its subjects. I tend to think that Utena’s silhouettes also add a sense of creepiness to otherwise recognizable images. Consider the forming of the gate in the Zettai Unmei Mokushiroku montage:
It’s just a rose, but in shadow and behind mist it could be damn near anything. I’d have a hard time standing my ground if I saw that monstrosity assembling itself above me.
I take a kind of pleasure in the fact that, when it comes to shadows and (especially) image projection, the confounding force isn’t darkness, but light and its positioning. The white-clad prince of the show’s introduction uses light to fool everyone. Only the black-clad heroine can cut through his ruse. This turns the western conception of light vs. dark on its head, but it also nods toward the idea of the female/male binary as a manifestation of yin/yang (shadow/light). Utena’s victory, her incorporation of many traits, is a victory over that boundary, too.