Title: Oniisama e…(1991)
Episode count: 39
Original Language: Japanese (Subtitled, English)
Genre: Drama, Shoujo, Romance, Shoujo-ai
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Amidst the blossoming shades of spring, between the pink-dressed cherry blossoms, under the sun-kissed sky, lies an all-girls-academy. Embracing the wave of the new season, starts a new school year; not just any school year, but for many attendees, their first year of high school.
As initially painted by the rose-colored imagery and setting, it is easy for one to be fooled into thinking that Onii-sama e is a series that maintains a light-hearted tone reveling in the daily lives of girls starting off their new journey as high school students financed by the usual formula of first loves, budding friendships, and fun trips to the beaches. However, it doesn’t take long for that innocent pink embellishing to morph into a sinister red: as the show delves into a multitude of dark themes and emotions, any sort of preconceived notion that might have crept into one’s expectations will be inevitably inverted.
At its very core, Onii-sama e is a coming-of-age-story filled to the brim with fascinating characters, great story-telling, an immersive soundtrack, and stellar direction. Actualized from the talents of Osamu Dezaki–better known for directing another genre-defining piece, “Rose of Versailles”–comes a heartfelt tale told from the perspective of a young girl and her letters that she candidly writes to her “brother”.
Within these letters lies the heart of the show as they are the primary lens through which the viewer experiences the events that unfold from the perspective of the main character. This form of narrativized story-telling works extremely well here as it personalizes every situation and the viewer gets to understand various characters and events from such a distinctive scope. This can be seen as unreliable to a fault, but that isn’t the case here because there is a strong sense of candor in Nanako’s words and the viewer is not only able to step into her frame of mind, but those around her. There is an obvious degree of personal subjectivity and bias in the story-telling (as would be, with any story told from a first-hand account) but that in no way detracts from the show. The series explores each situation and character delicately and with proper conveyance which truly brings a shine to the way the story progresses.
The story here is a simple, personal one. It revolves around Nanako Misonou, a seemingly timid girl starting her first year at a prestigious all girls-high school. The academy, however, is grasped tightly by the influence of a sorority—which is the pride and joy of all the students— and admittance to such an exclusive club, is the hope of one and all. It’s a ticket to a lifestyle truly fit for the rich and famous: extravagant parties in decadent mansions, the gaze of envy and admiration from the “less fortunate”, along with the general perks of being loved and idolized. As our demure heroine gets more and more involved with the sorority and those inside and outside of it—the innocence she once held onto begins to waver—and her expectations for a quiet, peaceful high school life come to a full halt as all that she once knew, including herself, begin to move in a direction she couldn’t grasp before.
As can be simply assumed, there isn’t a cohesive plot, but a series of character-based subplots and situations that add depth and perspective to each and every character and theme. Perhaps, Onii-sama e’s greatest strength lies in its ability to craft a breadth of gripping characters. Each character has their own defined periphery, which the series examines greatly; showing their vulnerabilities, weaknesses, secrets, strengths, and flaws and tuning them carefully to a broad spectrum of respective responses. It’s not that there is a great sense of originality in these characters, but what sets them apart is their believability and complexity and by extension, their ability to evoke empathy and attachment from the viewer. There is an incredibly “real” factor to them and as the show progresses, unlikable characters become likable, misunderstood characters become understood, and those initial unfathomable, irrational characters don’t seem so crazy. From the anti-sorority revolutionary, to the “perfect” head of the sorority; from the more-gentlemanly-than-gentlemen beauty to the obsessive, man-hating pretty face, comes a cast packed with so much flavor and charm that the viewer cannot help but tip their hat to such a well-rounded troupe of dynamic personalities.
Furthermore, the show isn’t just a superficial drama steeped in girl problems and high-school irregularities, but highlights some very tough themes that really elevate the impact of this series. Dealing with topics such as suicide, abuse, unconventional romances, bullying, depression, alienation, identity, deception, betrayal, and many others; Onii-sama e really probes into dark corners and how minds can be so easily impressionable and influenced to act and react in certain ways, along with exploring problems that many can agree to have felt or personally experienced in some way or the other. The show isn’t riddled with cheap drama, but maintains an air of authenticity so that even the over-dramatization at points feels justifiable.The redundancy of high-school set works will not be felt here. The reason being that there is purpose to (what many may consider as excessive) drama: it either adds to the character, a theme, or both. There are rarely instances of forced drama that plague so many like-minded series where characterization or quality is compromised for the sake of cheap, unnatural spectacles. Additionally, the series isn’t completely drama-centric as it has a heavy dose of charming comedy and humor. Coupled with stellar writing and proper handling of drama, the series is not burdened by its ambitions, but rather, illuminated by it.
Adding to the magnificent stage set by the characters and themes, comes the unique visuals and pitch-perfect sound. A soft pastel palette is often used to create pleasing backgrounds and settings. Each scene or background feels like a slow-moving painting. Frequently, gorgeous still-shots and panoramic scenes are employed, bringing out the true splendor of the art-style. For many, the design and art can be off-putting as it seems outdated and static, but it is very fitting for the show as it has a classic allure and grace. Lighting and colors are used fittingly to accompany the changing tones and moods of the scenes and characters.
Complementing the feel and look of the show is the musical score, which is absolutely a pleasure to listen to. Composed of mostly soft piano, classical violin, and very fitting vocals, the OST is one that will surely be remembered not just as an accompaniment to a series, but as a standalone gem.
Conclusively, Onii-sama e is a remarkable show that is not only solid in terms of production, but an extremely well-crafted narrative. It achieves what many aspire to, so effortlessly and so honestly. The high-school setting does not make it jarring; rather, it is a surprisingly mature tale that is able to manifest many universal themes in an empathetic manner.
Onii-sama e shows us—like the turning leaf, the shifting seasons, the falling petals—those forever-changing moments; the good and the bad in an infinite cycle, of people fairly similar, seeking belonging and meaning in their own and often twisted manner, during a time where vulnerability is unmatched and emotions are warring in a chaotic abyss. Through the eyes of an ordinary high-school girl, witness a “world” full of insecurity and flaws–perhaps in many ways, not just exclusive to a fictional high school–and how defining moments can change one’s perspectives and disposition indefinitely.