Sunday, May 9, 2010

Anime Review: Oniisama E

Oniisama E is a bit of a difficult title for me to review. As manga legend Ikeda Riyoko's most famous work after Rose of Versailles, it's well-done, but very much a product of its time (or times- it's a 1991 adaptation of a manga from 1975)- especially towards the end. If it required less of a time commitment (like the 3 volume manga, which Tezuka Productions adapted into a 39 episode series- surprisingly, without making it feel like it's based on only 3 volumes), I would have been more forgiving, even though I kept the historical context in mind while watching it.

Oniisama E is the first anime series ever about a starry-eyed everygirl freshman entering a rarefied all-girls' academy and getting caught up in capital D Drama with the Special People at her school. (Admittedly, the drama in Oniisama E is more...intense than the drama found in later girls' school shows.) Like Lillian, Miator, Spica, Lulim, and Fujigaya, Seiran is a Catholic school, and like Lillian and the Ichigo-sha schools, the student body of Seiran virtually worships a small handful of "elite" students, known as the "Magnificent Three": Ichinomiya Fukiko (a.k.a. "Miya-sama"), an ojou-sama who acts as Student Body President and head of the Sorority, a group of esteemed (but not on the same cream-of-the-crop level as the "Magnificent Three"), highly-priviledged students that selects a small number of first-years to join them each year; the über-cool, athletic Orihara Kaoru ("Kaoru-no-Kimi"), who opposes the very existence of the Sorority and hates Fukiko; and Asaka Rei ("Hana no Saint-Juste"), a similarly cool, reclusive, pill-popping Oscar de Jarjeyes look-alike who has a lot of baggage from her past involving Fukiko. Poor Nanako doesn't know what she's getting into. ^^;;;

The Sorority invites Nanako to join them, even though she doesn't fit the "typical" Sorority member profile (rich, blue-blooded)- for reasons that only Fukiko knows. After Nanako joins the Sorority, she faces the scorn of students both within and outside of the Sorority who wonder why she got in. Nanako has a few allies from the outset: her friend and schoolmate Arikura Tomoko, who she knew before entering Seiran; Shinobu Mariko, another girl who was chosen for the Sorority, but still faces bullying from some students because of her father's profession; Kaoru, who, along with Tomoko, is probably the sanest person throughout most of the show; and Rei, who comes to care for Nanako (much, much XD ) more than she ever expected to.

Oniisama E is a soapy shoujo melodrama if there ever was one. The character designs are updated from their original manga incarnations, but they still retain their 70's sensibility. The entire show is permeated with Ikeda's well-known fetish for old European (particularly French) culture- like Fukiko's hairstyle, the random French references ("ma chèrie la poupée"; I laughed hard when Nanako told the Sorority that de Sade was her favorite author, without knowing what he actually wrote about), and the general tone of the story. It felt very much like the anime equivalent of reading a Gothic novel (or watching a Gothic-influenced Takarazuka show like Elisabeth). Since I like Gothic novels and shamelessly over-the-top shoujo melodrama, this worked for me. (An example: *Nanako tells Fukiko that she wants to leave the Sorority* *dramatic music plays as a dove crashes through a stained glass window and the pieces fall down in slow motion* *a flower petal-laden gust of wind blows through the room* *the camera slowly pans over Nanako and Fukiko as Nanako looks up while walking away from Fukiko as the wind continues to blow*)

 Even though most of the show is entertainingly soapy "zOMG-angst!!!", being an early 90's anime with yuri (several of the girls get crushes on one another; Nanako and Rei even almost go on a date), you have the inevitable non-yuri friendly ending. (Teenage same sex crushes are just a passing phase that girls go through during that special, delicate adolescent phase of their lives. Unless they fall off a bridge....) I kept that in mind from the beginning (unless I'm mistaken- I'm pretty sure that Sailor Moon was the earliest anime and manga to portray a happy, functional yuri relationship with a happy ending), but it still wasn't a pleasant element to deal with. Add that to how much the "Nanako's stepbrother reconciles with his father as if he'd never done anything wrong"-arc stunk (if I were in Takehiko's shoes, I would have been like, "You bastard. You can rot in hell. I'm going to spread the word about how you treated me for 13 years and f-ck over your reputation." Guess I'm not as nice as Takehiko. :-) ), and the ending left a bitter aftertaste. At around the series' mid-point, I also stopped watching for a while because I was flabbergasted by the revelation that all of Fukiko's issues came from the STUPIDEST incident. (Even by this show's standards- really??)

My favorite arc was definitely the Sorority-abolishing arc- it was hugely satisfying and the high point of each character's development- even Fukiko became more sympathetic. If the story had ended there, I would have been a happy camper. :-) Despite the "meh" ending and a few of the earlier "relics" from this series, it was still, mostly, a pretty entertaining, soapy (and consequently, unintentionally funny) ride.

Story: Very mixed bag- but as good as it gets for yuri pre-Sailor Moon.
Art: B+
Overall: For most of it...B to B+. For the last few episodes...aughh. My low yuri expectations didn't bulletproof me enough. And why, Takehiko, why?? > <

I know someone (female, gay and out) for whom Oniisama E is one of her favorite series- so obviously, perspectives on this series can vary immensely. It's at least worth checking out an episode for the historic value. (Ikeda Riyoko had a huge early influence on shoujo and yuri manga.)


Anonymous said...

I just watched this series around two months ago and found this review to be spot on. I consider myself to be a seasoned yuri fan, I understood that due to the period this series hails from not to expect a happy yuri ending but even I was flabbergasted!

The revealing of Miya-sama motivations was the absolute low of the series. The high was the abolishment of the sorority.

Kaoru-no-Kimi was for me the most likable character but due to events in the last three or four episodes... Well let's just say it has to be seen to be believed.

Overall I stuck with the damn thing for close to forty episodes, I'm not usually the type for it but I just totally go sucked into the DRAMA!!! It came to the point where I HAD to know what was going on between the characters.

Awesome review, I was laughing and nodding all the way through it!

Erin said...

Onii-sama E is one of my favorite anime of all time, period, but I hesitate to recommend it to modern yuri fans unless I think they would appreciate the old-school style and melodrama. It's like Marimite to the nth power.

I don't know if I'm just a sucker for drama (and the particular style of the anime: the stills, the BGMs, the way different characters are portrayed in different lights depending on the context--Fukiko seems larger than life until we see her interact with Takehiko, at which point we are reminded that she is a teenage girl) or if my love for the series stems from the time at which I consumed it: what was going on in my life, the selection of (yuri) anime that was available at the time, etc. The moment I saw the first volume, I was hooked, and the wait between volumes (back then, there were months--sometimes even years--of waiting between volumes, which typically contained 4 episodes apiece; you also had to pay for the blank tapes + shipping and then wait for your request to be filled and arrive in the mail) heightened the anticipation.

The ending does have its problems, but I have trouble imagining the series ending any other way. Though I certainly wouldn't say no to an alternate universe where Nanako and Rei end up together!

Kaoru no Kimi is my favorite character, and I'm happy with the ending she got in the anime. I don't care if she's gay or straight or bisexual or pansexual or what have you. I like her story and am glad that she got her happy ending, even if it meant that she might not be "one of us."

Katherine said...

@ Anon- What bothered me at the end actually wasn't that Kaoru-no-Kimi married Takehiko; he's a good guy and he makes her happy, although it was kind of "meh" how she ultimately didn't seem to want anything besides getting married, while he had other ambitions (it's a shoujo trope that has bugged me in other titles, like Itazura na Kiss)- but it's a choice that works for some people. (And admittedly, there was a strong chance that she only had 4 years left to live anyway- she may as well spend the time she has left with the person she loves the most.)

The biggest "augh!!!!" factor for me was the futility of Nanako x Rei by the end- since they were the closest (oh so close) thing to a bona fide couple. Plus, I'm one of those unreasonable fans who want their favorite character to survive, plot be damned. (See: Natsuki in Mai-Hime and Alphard in Canaan.) Some of Fukiko's comments about Rei, and the fact that she was still hung up over Mr. "Omigawd, he didn't come watch me play the violiiiin!!" (even though she was mature enough to give good advice to Kaoru by the end) were also grating- although as Erin points out (which I didn't think of), she is a teenager, and one who's always been used to getting whatever the hell she wanted.

@ Erin- "Marimite to the nth power" is the perfect tagline for this show. (The one that I thought of was, "Marimite's manic, pill-popping older sister.")

Even though it might jar with the expectations and sensibilities of most modern yuri fans, I still think that every yuri fan should at least give it a try- especially given how many self-professed hardcore yuri fans are out there who have seen, say, Queen's Blade or Kanamemo, but never considered this. (Or other classic older titles.)

And thanks for sharing how you became a fan of Oniisama E. :-) From my earlier years as an anime fan (of general anime, not only Sailor Moon), I know that it does feel more rewarding to have to "work" more to watch the titles one is interested in than instantly finding them online. (Even though hunting through brick-and-mortar stores and rental sections for VHS tapes really isn't on the same level as having to wait that long at a time for fansubbed tapes via mail. I feel spoiled now.)

On Nanako and Rei- agreed! They unexpectedly became my OTP. ^^;

I didn't have a problem with Kaoru marrying Takehiko- just some aspects of how it was handled, although it isn't any "worse" than many other shoujo titles. (Unlike the male leads in many shoujo and josei romances, Takehiko isn't a jerk.) The fact that I wound up being invested in what happened to the characters is a sign that it was a well-done show, though.

hashi said...

One of my favorite anime, despite -- or really because of -- the outlandish plot and insane levels of angst. Kaoru, of course. But St. Juste, too. Couldn't help liking her. And I found it easy to identify with Nanako and ride with her through all this. But it's like reading Jane Austen: I just accept that it is set in a different age.

Katherine said...

@ hashi- All good points. (I'm actually reading the manga now- which feels even more girly and dramatic- and keeping some of the newer perspectives that I've gleaned about Oniisama E in mind.)

And I also liked Nanako as the lead- even though she wasn't as assertive as the "Magnificent Three", she was still a strong person, given what she was dealing with.

Erin said...

@Katherine: I can understand finding Kaoru's choice problematic in the context that other shoujo heroines were making the same one. However, I also agree with you that we have to consider what else was going on in her life at the time.

"Marimite's manic, pill-popping older sister." is a good tagline for the show. These girls are dealing with problems that the Marimite girls generally do not--the characters in Marimite are more sheltered, though issues like suicide and family problems do come up from time to time.

I should encourage more yuri fans to check out the show. Maybe I'm just afraid that they'll reject it, and I feel personally invested in it somehow. Haha.