Oniisama e…, “The Music Box” and “Thorns of Suspicion and Doubt”

By Noel Kirkpatrick

Nanako and Mariko

Episode 4: “The Music Box”
Original airdate: Aug. 4, 1991

In the random bits of the last installment on Oniisama, I mentioned how much I like the episode structure, and I wanted to elaborate on that just a bit. There’s a real pleasure in the series’s use of cliffhangers (like in episode 3) and then its easy transition into that episode’s particular storyline. This, of course, is thanks to its previous existence as a manga in the mid-1970s. As a weekly storyline in a shoujo magazine, you needed to a reason to have readers keep coming back, and the nature of those chapter installments is not at all different from the structure of a weekly episode in a serialized television program.

Kaoru helps Misaki and her friend hear better in class

“The Music Box” follows this idea to a degree, but it feels very much like the second part of “Nanako is Disqualified?.” Of course Nanako still gets into the Sorority, despite not arriving on time and embarrassing herself by liking Anne of Green Gables and then scrambling to say she also likes the works of Marquie de Sade (appropriate for this school though). The series, in this episode and “Nanako is Disqualified?,” has gone to great lengths to demonstrate Nanako’s naïveté, her child-like nature, her actual innocence. She likes making cakes, swinging in playgrounds, and she doesn’t know the meaning of sadomasochism. She’s not ready for the world that she is entering, and she’s already starting to pay the price.

One of the payments is the knowledge about her father and mother’s marriage, which basically boils down to Nanako being born as the result of an affair and Nanako’s father ditching his other family for this little girl and her mother. Not only does this continue Misaki’s attempts to discredit Nanako in front of her classmates, but it adds another strand to this melodramatic tapestry, extending the intrigue of the school into the home.

But the episode isn’t without its levity. I like how the series mobilizes Kaoru for some much-needed humor, both in her man-handling of Misaki and her crony and later with her inability to separate eggs and yolks. And while she’s aware of the challenges these girls are facing, and none too happy about them, she is keeping a sense of humor about her and trying to set a counter-example. Thank goodness someone is.

In a dream, Miya-sama strikes Nanako with a kenzan

Episode 5: “Thorns of Suspicion and Doubt”
Original airdate: Aug. 11, 1991

Speaking of payments and elegant continuation of storylines, boy oh boy does “Thorns of Suspicion and Doubt” fit that model. I think it may be the best episode yet, to be honest.

So when I talk about the smoothness of the storytelling in the series, I love that the episode devotes a decent chunk of its run time to the collapse of Tomoko and Nanako’s friendship, a thing started at the end of the last episode and developed here. Tomoko becomes another form of payment for Nanako to be in the Sorority, a depressing one at that. If there’s been one constant in Nanako’s life, it’s been Tomoko, and that loss will start to weigh heavily on her, sooner or later.

Saint Juste-sama and Kaoru

But the real focus of the episode is deeper look into the bizarre relationship between Miya-sama and Saint Juste-sama/Rei. There’s a real sense of mystery about this, and I like how the episode mobilizes Nanako as a sort of audience surrogate (which is what she’s supposed to be anyway), that we’re being exposed to this insane love triangle through unknowing eyes (though we do end up with more information than Nanako).

And so we get little bits of things. Kaoru is trying to break Saint Juste-sama of both her pill addiction and her subservient impulses to Miya-sama, but not terribly successfully. There’s a bracelet that appears to be some sort of a trigger, enough for Miya-sama to purposefully knock a kenzan onto Saint Juste-sama’s hand.

It’s this horrible act of violence that leads to the disturbing dreams for Nanako, as she plays out Miya-sama’s words to her at the initiation ceremony, both a compliment and a warning to be less-than-kind to ever survive, and then Nanako’s psyche adds Miya-sama striking out with the kenzan, blood already dripping from her hand. If you thought this was just going to be girls surviving bullying (with sapphic undertones), clearly there’s something much darker going on here.

There’s a rawness to this, regardless of the time period that Oniisama e… was being consumed in, whether it be 1975 or 1991 or 2012. It’s timeless, despite the things that may seem out of place to us now, like phone technology (Everyone uses payphones! There’s no caller ID!) or clothing. The story and the emotions it seeks to explore aren’t chained to a decade, and the fact that it’s standing up as well as it is is pretty impressive.

In closing, I just want to make a brief mention of the series’s animation. It does have some of the hallmarks of limited animation so common to anime, but I feel like Oniisama e… does a nice job of incorporating these cost-saving measures into its style. The very rapid shot-reverse shot of glares between Saint Juste-sama and Miya-sama is just one example that adds to the melodramatic flair while also saving the production some cash. I’d add that repeating frames of hair billowing and whatnot likewise helps, in a way, to elongate time, stretch out the drama. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am certainly grooving on it.

Random bits

  • I really cannot stress how much I loved Kaoru in the cooking class. And the exchanges between the teacher and her, about whether or not she was a girl? A nice nod to the character’s androgyny, but I do feel there’s something more going on there…
  • “You daughter of a pornographer!” I’m going to start calling people that.
  • “She obeys Miya-sama like a tamed lamb.”
  • So a lot of forward momentum on the Henmi storyline as we discover that he is, in fact, Nanako’s half-brother, the child from the marriage that Nanako’s father left behind to be with Nanako’s mother. I rather like that he’s being mature about this. It is a tad bit refreshing, but, again, SO MANY SECRETS!

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