Saturday, 5 May 2012

Watching Xanadu -- Oniisama e...

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. –Albert Camus


Oniisama e is the best anime nobody has seen. It is a victim of its place in time, a long, slow paced series shoujo series that has almost zero marketability. First airing during 1991, it stands at high contrast to the mecha shows of the 1980s, and is a forerunner to the popular shoujo series that came existence later that decade. Its closest descendant is Utena, but it lacks the male crossover appeal of the sword fighting eponymous character. If it had aired ten years later in would probably be a well know classic, but without Oniisama e to pave the way, it is possible that the shoujo mainstays that followed after would never have existed at all.

The twenty-six episode of Oniisama e marks the two-thirds point of the show. It also marks the point in which the show begins its ramp-up to the climax. The viewer sees, for the first time, the rebellion of Nanako. For most the show, Nanako has been a doormat—she is a sweet, innocent girl, free from ambition and incapable of hatred. And so, of course, she is like a lamb tossed among lions in this show. She always obeys what the other girls say, even if she disagrees. She has, with time, began to disobey Miya, the tyrant of the school, but in a passive-aggressive manner, assenting in person, only to revert once Miya's eyes have turned away. And when it comes to tyrants, Miya is quite the specimen. A spoiled rich girl, she rules the school with an iron fist, destroying any who oppose her. She also shows signs of mental imbalance (like most the characters of this show), and delights in tormenting and abusing others. But in this episodes, for the first time, Nanako stands up and defies Miya.

Why now? This is a woman that has both tried to drown and tried to yuri-rape Nanako. Why, in this scene, does Nanako finally reject her?

At the start of Albert Camus' The Rebel, he writes:
What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion. A slave who has take orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command...Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that, somewhere and somehow, one is right.

What made Nanako rebel here, where she has failed to do so at any other point so far? Love. Nanako is in love with Miya's illegitimate sister, although whether it is romantic or platonic is yet to be seen. In fact, Nanako herself is unsure, but she knows she has undeniably strong feelings for the Byronic figure of Rei. However, her feelings are, as of this point, one-sided, as Rei is obsessed with Miya. When Nanako goes to visit Rei after she slides into another one of her drug-aided depressions, she encounters Miya, and her demure patience breaks.

Nanako no longer can trust her beloved to the hands of Miya. This is the trigger that causes Nanako to rebel, and it is the trigger that changes Nanako. Before, she was a child, a pawn to be moved across the board. With this action, she has become a woman of her own, independent, and willing to stand up for her own interests. Of course, defying Miya will not come without consequence, but at this moment of time, Nanako is willing to sacrifice whatever for Rei. This act of rebellion is a powerful and moving piece of character development.

The other half of this episode is concerned with suicide. In the past, Miya and Rei planned a double suicide, which Miya ultimately could not follow through with. I had some questions about Miya's motivations—at first I thought she was manipulating Rei into killing herself, but the end of this episode changed that. Miya, like most bullies, is secretly a coward, and I believe she truly wanted to kill herself at that moment, but chickened out at the last minute. Here, she again attempts suicide with Rei, but this time it is Rei that stops the tragedy.

I rewatched this scene, and again I am unsure if Miya was bluffing, or serious. I think Miya was goaded into standing on the ledge by her own pride, but again chickened out, only to accidentally lose her balance. Maybe she really tried to jump, and maybe she did jump knowing that Rei would prevent her (unlikely, but again, she is not entirely stable). But given the heartrending scream at the end of the scene, I think it was accidental.

Suicide is big subject in Japan, understandably so. What is interesting about this is how different the characters feel about it. Miya rationalizes because she believes she has the right to control and destroy everything concerning her, even her very self. Rei accepts suicide, because she has never truly had a life of her own to preserve in the first place. But when Rei asks Nanako what she feels about suicide:

Nanako rejects the very concept. Not only has she never considered the idea, she rejects it. This could be viewed from the traditional Japanese media line, that suicide is a bad thing, but this is more than simple propaganda, shown by how vehemently Nanako rejects the idea. Her response to this question is the strongest we have seen Nanako react to anything in this show, stronger than her rebellion against Miya, and rivaled only by her confession of love to Rei. But the reason for this rejection is not would it seems at face value. Nanako may be a doormat, but she is quite intelligent. Her rejection is because she realizes that despite what Rei said, she is really asking if Nanako would accept Rei's own death. Nanako's strong emotional reaction is her fear of losing Rei manifest. The question Rei did ask is yet unsettled.

One of the things that makes Oniisama e so good is how it seriously it deals with the issues of life and love. The issue of suicide remains central to the story, and I doubt this is the last we've seen of the debate. Will Nanako change her position or will Rei accept Nanako's? How will they answer what Camus calls the fundamental problem of philosophy? I can't wait to find out.


  1. where did you find the episodes? :O

  2. Camuy was an existentialist, he would say that suicide was the only philosophical problem. Furthermore it really doesn't appeal to me that the whole blog post is tying one quote into a whole episode.