Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ore no Imouto

Complications Involving Big Brothers and Little Sisters

I'm one of those people who didn't really like the upgrade that Kyon no Imouto got in the Suzumiya Haruhi animes versus her more distant supporting role in the source light novels. She usurped an important character development point of Kyon's.

That said, I'm following the Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai anime and I must admit to some complex opinions on it.

At left, the cover of volume 1 of the Ore no Imouto light novels.

Beforehand, I was worried that it was going to be some variation on inappropriate pervy/incestuous stuff like Kodomo no Jikan, which could be cute, but is mostly just creepy. (See Hanamaru Kindergarten for this same plot done without the creepy lolicon) Happily, it isn't, at least not so far (ep 7).

The lead character (Kyousuke - 京介) is a Kyon sort. He's the mild-mannered man seeking a normal life being constantly (at least during the plot) thrust into abnormal situations. It's not a new idea in comedy - several of the great Hollywood and UK comedies of the 20s and 30s use the straight man comic lead (Harold Lloyd and the young Alec Guiness come to mind), but the Japanese seem to have come late to it. Tanigawa's leading man in the Haruhi stories has become a trope. I can't regard this as an entirely bad thing, nor an entirely good one. I'd rather have quirky original non-trope characters, but if they had to use a trope, at least they picked a non-annoying one. The good news is that at least they didn't choose the iconic Sugita Tomokazu (the voice of Kyon, Yuichi in Kanon, and Rin in Shuffle! among thousands of other cool, detached male characters) to do the role. Instead they got the guy who played Tomoya in Clannad, and Ryuu in Kimi ni Todoke to do the deed. I think he's an excellent choice - someone as detatched as Sugita's characters would not fit the quiet desparation that drives Kyousuke to take muscly dad's right cross in place of his little sister.

Kyousuke is, by any measure, a late bloomer. He's 17 and seems to just be noticing that girls can be something other than annoyances or platonic companions.

L and R: If Manami had anything to say about it, Kyousuke would have more action than a pinball machine in an earthquake.

Something that
the anime does well is provide an initial expected trajectory for Kyousuke's life. He's perfectly happy to be a good student, go onto college, and then settle down to some sort of civil service job for the next 40 years or so. He expresses an interest in a simple, relaxed life, going so far as to purposefully delay taking the logical 'next step' in some of his relationships to maintain it. While he doesn't appear to be interested in police work (his father's career), he does seem to have a strong sense of and appreciation for the proprieties and gentilities of quiet existence, including brotherly duty to his junior sibling and valuing peace and order above self-expression.

There's a surface similarity here to Kyon in the Haruhi books, but the difference is that Kyon mostly uses the 'normal man' suit as a sort of camouflage. He eventually admits even to himself that he loves being the straight man consort to a fickle goddess because it livens up his otherwise somewhat dull life. By comparison, at least as of episode 7, Kyousuke really does seem to be more desirous of 'comfortable' than 'interesting.' The source light novels are currently being translated, and I'm curious to see how much depth the characters gain relative to the anime.

All of this set up gets pushed around in the first couple of episodes in which he discovers that his 14 year old little sister is not a noisy annoyance but a person, and that she seems to value his opinion and support, much to his surprise.

Fourteen-year-old Kirino-桐乃 (the little sister in question) is practically a walking stereotype. Not a trope, mind you,

At right: The core cast. L-R: Saori, Kuroneko, Kirino, Manami, and Kyousuke

although she embodies several of those as well, but she actually is very close to what I remember many/most middle-school little sisters of friends being like when I was in high school and college. She's not especially bright, is very focused on appearances, and is certain of her own certitude until she makes some misstep or is challenged, whereupon she collapses into a weeping puddle or has a fit of pique.

Her relationship with Kyousuke is mostly tsun-tsun, with increasingly common moments of mild dere creeping in as she begins to trust him as a source of support.

The OP music is the same every time but there's considerable variety in the OP animation including character introductions new to that episode. The ED songs vary by show and have unique animation for each one. I like this trend - if you have to tack on the OP and ED stuff, at least make it entertaining and different every episode.

So far, so good. Now the predictable, eye-rolling bits.

1. Her need for 'life counseling' is a consequence of her infatuation with otaku culture. And no, not just any otaku culture.

Couldn't be Harlock, Gundam, BL or Yaoi, nope. She has a thing for magical girl stories (and, a-la Genshiken, she has a 'bogus' favorite mahou shoujo anime that we'll no doubt be seeing animated in a couple seasons) that has, as she has grown to her current surprisingly-mature-looking 14 years, grown(?) into an obsession with erogames. Little sister erogames.

At left: Kyousuke deflects trouble from Kirino by claiming the eroge is his. Otou-san is not amused.

As I commented when I had just seen episode 1, "Basically, it's just a crossing of the characters of Kyon and Kyon no imouto from Haruhi with the plot from Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu."

Yeah. Pretty weird. And if it were played for irony, deconstruction, or social criticism, it would be predictable and possibly cogent and incisive, but probably not very popular with the viewership.

So far, though, Kirino is taking the traditional (and hollow) youth culture tack of declaring that her self definition is dependent on self-expression through eroge and expressing her inner otaku.

Her relationship with her favorite fellow otaku (a taciturn goth-loli) is similar to her relationship with her brother. Again, very typical in my observations. This is not the eye-rolling part. The eye-rolling part is that she's an otaku despite there being no reason given why she might be or why she picked up an interest in imouto eroge of all things. It's counterintuitive, and would bear exposition. So far, (ep 7)they haven't even hung a lampshade on it.

2. Her income stream. She has to be cute. It's in the title after all.

At left: Kirino's secret closet of addiction.

She doesn't, however, have to be a model. This is rather obviously a simple plot device to a) explain her ability to afford a secret closet full of (really expensive) erogames and anime, and b) will presumably serve to get her involved in the anime business pretty soon. Middle school models aren't particularly common. Again, it's just a little too convenient and there hasn't even been a vague attempt to explain it or lampshade it.

3. Complete lack of recognition that a hardcore otaku lifestyle might be marginalized by mainstream Japanese culture because it's - oh yeah - antisocial and unhealthy.

At Left: Kirino's 'normal' friends are not thrilled to find that she's an eroge otaku.

Tthe downsides of otakudom are either glossed over or handwaved away. This makes some sense for Densha Otoko, but a 14 year old girl with welcoming access to mainstream society is a different matter.

4. Fan Service. Yes, they were doing fan service with the 14 year old girls. Not much, thankfully, but it was definitely there.

At right: Kyousuke is always willing to give his sister a hand.

There's been a spate of this lately in a wide variety of shows - you'd think middle school girls were the apotheosis of feminine sexuality from the number of upskirts and low angle shots we've had lately. Factoring in a) that Japanese girls develop more slowly than they do in Europe and America and, b) they don't eat as horrible a diet as American kids do, it's reasonable to assume that a Japanese middle school girl wouldn't be cuter/more developed/more feminine than the American middle school girls I see every day when I drive e-chan to school. Quite a few of them are cute, yes, but generally not in a 'want to see her pantsu' way to any healthy male over about age 18.

5. Complete ignorance of the Westermarck effect. No, I don't expect Fushimi-sensei (the author of the light novels) to know about a fairly obscure bit of imprinting research, even if it is iconic in the psychology business and even if it is a standard checkbox item in Psych 101 classes the world over. That said, all you need to do is ask anybody who has a sibling what they think of getting some action in that quarter. Put simply, the only people who actually find the idea of sexual hijinks between siblings interesting are those without siblings. If either party cohabited with the other before the age of six then there never is romantic interest between them.

The 'love my imouto' stories that have been popular lately all have this blind spot. It's pretty much a requirement for the plot to go anywhere. A better question is: why are these plots popular in Japan now? My theory is that it's a consequence of Japan's low birth rate - relatively few Japanese below the age of 30 have a sibling. The concept of a sibling is an abstraction to them and they don't see any reason why there wouldn't be some sexually-charged moments between siblings.

So having named its deficiencies in considerable detail, why am I still watching it? Because it's entertaining and ambiguous. I'm curious to see which of the possible plot paths it will take, and it has consistently been willing to go anywhere with the characters to get a laugh out of the viewer.