By Noel Kirkpatrick
Episode 1: “The Magnificent Ones”
Original airdate: July 14, 1991
I know very little about Oniisama e… beyond the fact that the manga was written by Riyoko Ikeda, who is best known for the popular and influential The Rose of Versailles. Oniisama‘s manga was never (officially) translated into English, and the anime was never (to my knowledge) licensed for distribution in the United States.
It’s not surprising, though. Contributors to Wikipedia cite the show’s “controversial” content and its challenges in finding airings overseas, while TV Tropes identifies the manga as one of the earliest modern examples of yuri in the medium in 1975. It’s not content that, in 1991 when the anime was first broadcast, was likely to catch the eye of licensors here in the States. I can imagine that these qualities made it attractive for illegal translations and bootlegs at fan conventions, however.
So when the show was announced to be streaming on Viki (which is where I’ll be watching the episodes), it garnered some attention from the anime and manga folks in my Twitter feed, and I became intrigued based on their reaction and excitement. And while I never got around to watching it until now, I kept it filed in back of my mind.
“The Magnificent Ones” isn’t exactly exciting storytelling, and it’s very “pilot”-y in its execution. Basically, you can boil the episode down to “Here’s EVERYONE you need to know. What crazy things will happen next?!” I’m not a fan of this particular type of storytelling, but given that we have secrets and illnesses and pill-popping and lesbian undertones to address in the span of 39 episodes, it does make a certain amount of sense in terms of narrative economics. (Part of this, of course, is also an issue of adaptation. This episode feels very much like the first chapter of a manga, and it likely was.)
In broad strokes, we have our protagonist, Nanako, and her best friend Tomoko starting their first day at a pretty exclusive all-girls school called Serian. Through the course of the first day, Nanako meets the three most popular girls in school, including Karou, a star basketball player who left school for a year due to a mysterious malady; Ichinomiya, the sorority president; and Rei, the super-androgynous pianist pill-popper who has some sort of relationship with Ichinomiya, if that umbrella is any indication of things.
Nanako also meets the clearly creepy-obsessive-clingy Mariko, who is also keeping the color of thumbnails a secret. Finally there’s the titular oniisama. A college-aged man, most likely the adult version of the boy in the opening scene, he is the one receiving Nanako’s letters, and he’s even looking to buy a gift for her (but he won’t be putting his name on it, lest her parents figure out who it’s from).
So, yes, what we have here is the potential for a lot of romance melodrama. Already little hints of it, mainly Nanako’s daydream of Rei and the umbrella, are starting to come through. And if anything is ever drawn in a different art style, with different lighting and coloring than the rest of the episode, know that it is not only a likely cost-saving measure but also really important. Think of these moments as analogous to the intense, gauzy close-up in the American film and TV melodrama traditions: They’re meant to be excessive and out of place so as to heighten the emotion through their breaking of the series’ artistic style.
Which, of course, means that this series may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I hope that you feel compelled to watch along with me. Cory laid out some reasons for wanting to bring this blog into existence, and most important of those reasons was a look back at television’s history. But television’s history isn’t just American television history, and if we’re going to consider the medium’s history, we should do so from as many different countries and contexts as possible.
Oniisama may not be Astro Boy or Urusei Yatsura in terms of high profile influence on anime, but history isn’t always about the influential. Oniisama‘s impact was likely a larger one in manga than it was in anime (the anime aired in 1991, 16 years after the manga concluded its short three-volume run), but with a medium as varied and diverse as television, looking at even minor shows can help us gleam an understanding of the culture and industry that created it.
Like the Super Friends posts, Oniisama is a bi-weekly review appearing on Tuesdays. Oniisama will be back on July 3, and I’ll start writing about two episodes per post. That means “The Glass Slippers” and “Nanako is Disqualified?” will be next.
- “That time, her voice resonated deep in my heart.”
- So who wants to see a young Krysten Ritter play Mariko? Just me? Okay.
- “Those girls live in a different world from us.”
- Pretty sure Rei’s pills were actually gravel based on the sound effects.
- I’ll try and talk about the opening credits next week. Or we can discuss them in the comments now!
- I’m taking air dates and episode titles from Anime News Network’s page on the show, so any errors in this information is due to me trusting them.
- Speaking of ANN, head over to their site for an interview with Viki.com co-founder and CEO Razmig Hovahimian. Viki is an incredibly fascinating site in which fansubs of shows are actually licensed and streamed by the site. The interview offers some insight into the site’s creation and business model, so it’s well worth the read.