By Noel Kirkpatrick
Episode 2: “The Glass Slippers”
Original airdate: July 21, 1991
This is what I was looking for! That was just melodrama-tastic. I’m an unabashed fan of well-executed, classical melodrama, and it’s one of the reasons I tend to respond to shoujo series since they thrive on it. “The Glass Slippers” had me covered in that regard, and I’m hoping this is just the beginning.
We start things off getting a little backstory on the titular oniisama as Tomoko (already convinced she’s the only perfectly adjusted person in the series) teases Nanako for writing letters to her brother that isn’t her brother and who also isn’t her boyfriend. And even Nanako is aware of this odd sort of relationship she has with Henmi, though for reasons she doesn’t completely understand she needs Henmi in her life.
There’s an odd fetishization of the word ‘oniisama’ by Nanako. She likes how it sounds, the resonance of it. And there’s also a sense of security in it as well for her. It’s a male relationship that her father, who seems a bit disinterested (he isn’t her biological father, so maybe that’s playing into it), perhaps hasn’t provided. And Nanako acknowledges that it’s not “love between a man and a woman, definitely not love.” So it’s something else, mostly on her end since Henmi doesn’t even know her name (add a nice parallel to Saint Juste-sama not recognizing Nanako in the hallway later in the episode, and we’ve got all sorts of fun things going on here).
Once the girls reach Seiran, things begin to spin out of control. Mariko’s clingy and obsessive tendencies come out in full force as she forcefully removes Tomoko from walking next to Nanako, but also some random no-name student who is sitting next to her in their class. If Nanako is looking for a close platonic male relationship in her life, Mariko may be looking for a close (maybe not so) platonic female relationship in her life, but she’s not exactly sure how to go about it without behaving like a stalker.
The classroom is where the bulk of the action takes place, and again we get hints of Rei/Saint Juste-sama’s (I’ll likely be referring to Rei as Saint Juste-sama since no one uses her actual name) past relationship with Miya-sama and her potentially current relationship with Kaoru (who does a better job of controlling the class than any teacher seems capable of). Saint Juste-sama’s breakdown from an incredibly brief exchange with Miya-sama is one of those delightful melodramatic instances I was referring to earlier. She stumbles through the hallways, finally making it the music room (her only refuge it seems) and begins to play the piano as a form of revitalization. It’s just so intensely unmotivated, in a sense, since it was only a sentence between them, but it totally wrecked Saint Juste-sama’s cool and easy confidence she just displayed with Kaoru, and despite not knowing the reasons why, we can see the effects all too clearly of what passed between Saint Juste-sama and Miya-sama.
And we get our first big personal secret bombshell of the series as Misaki, furious that she wasn’t selected as a candidate for the Sorority (and that Mariko and Nanako were), vocalizes the knowledge that Mariko’s parent (probably father) is a writer of porn for magazines. And I use the word “vocalize” intentionally here since it was something everyone knew but didn’t say. Now that Misaki has uttered it aloud, it becomes fair game for taunting and bullying. Between that bombshell and the massive, stiffly-animated but still oddly effective slap, things are ramping up in a big way.
While we end with Nanako wondering when it will turn midnight for her (since she’s Cinderella and all), I want to quickly highlight the use of nature in the episode. With the first episode, we got the cherry blossoms, a common trope in Japanese culture, but here we have nature as a force in and of itself, also a common trope in melodrama. Nature expresses the characters internal struggles, making them external, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say Oniisama e… has reached that point, gestures are being made. Whether its the shock of a winter tree superimposed over Henmi’s face, or the wind whipping through Mariko hair and dress, nature serves as both stylistic flourish in both cases, though the wind is outdone by the gradual fade of Mariko into silhouette, eradicating her from existence.
Episode 3: “Nanako is Disqualified?”
Original airdate: July 28, 1991
While not as juicy as “The Glass Slippers,” this episode does offer some signals as to how important the Sorority is to some people. And by “some people” I mostly mean Misaki.
There was little doubt that she’d be out for some revenge after not only being slighted by the Sorority in the previous episode but also getting restrained by Kaoru in front of the whole class and then getting slapped by Mariko. It’d be enough to drive her to murder, but since it’s only the third episode, I suspect we’ll have to wait a little while longer before Misaki heads up Seiran’s clocktower with a high-powered rifle.
Misaki’s means of discrediting Nanako in the eyes of the Sorority are the sort of attempts that, while conniving and vicious, also seem charmingly low-tech in this day and age. I don’t mean this in a bad way, and it’s a testament to the storytelling that I initially didn’t balk at using a bulletin board in the school’s hallway to question Nanako’s heritage, or a pay phone (of all things) to make the call about the selection party being postponed.
If this were updated, we’d have it on Facebook (or a generic social networking site) for the heritage question and, well, I’m not sure what she would use for the postponement (a burner cell?). If anything, however, there’s a certain elegance to it all as presented (remember: Manga written in 1975, anime adaptation in 1991, and there doesn’t seem much updating happening here). It’s simple, dramatically effective, and allows for Misaki to pop her coat collar as she grins evilly in a phone booth while a train rushes by. More often than not, Misaki’s depictions reminded me of Joan Crawford.
Between this behavior and the show implying that she takes a swing at her family’s dog, Misaki is clearly wound a little too tightly about this, but then again these sorts of extracurriculars are a big deal in Japan (or so anime has kept insisting to me for years now). Misaki is likely under lots of pressure between her mother being an alum and her father a high-powered lawyer.
The older girls, namely Kaoru and Saint Juste-sama, are again put into a close connection as Nanako notices a man’s scent on Saint Juste-sama’s body after crashing into her (and it has an odd effect on her as well). Later they connect the literary dots to Kaoru of the series and Kaoru from the The Tale of Genji, who was known for his unique body smell. I like the episode doesn’t play up the connection by flashing back to Nanako’s run in with Saint Juste-sama, and instead just relies on the two names to do the work for them. Believe me when I tell you that it’s not uncommon for an anime to flashback to something that happened in the same episode.
But what does it imply about their relationship? I think we can all guess, of course, but notice how the episode just allows it to be implication. I keep coming back to this series as drawing heavily on the Western melodrama tradition, and this sort of implication of illicit relationships or ambiguous diseases is really a big part of it. Some of it, yes, was issues of censoring. But audiences understand the signals, and so they know what to look for as well. Oniisama is relying on that to propel the narrative and our interest.
- “How stunning! Prince Kaoru’s annoyed face!”
- “It’s a mutual hate bond.”
- Henmi’s friend seems to know an awful lot about the Seiran. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts he’s related to someone, but I can’t decide if it’s Misaki or Miya-sama. (I lean toward Misaki, because since he seems to know something about Henmi’s connection with Nanako’s family, then he knows about her parentage as well, and inadvertently spilled the beans.)
- The other thing I really dig about the series is how well-balanced the episodes have felt with these two. I feel like we’re getting a lot of story in 22 minutes, and the episode structure, acts broken up by letters to Henmi, is pretty effective.