Thursday, August 20, 2015

Video Backlog: “Dear Brother”

Publisher: Anime Sols (USA)
Format: Region 1 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Subtitles.
Length: 39 episodes x 25 minutes
Production Date: 1991 - 1992
Currently in Print (as of writing): No

Upper middle class 16 year old schoolgirl Nanako Misono has managed to get into the elite girl’s school, Seiran Academy, along with her childhood friend Tomoko Arikura. On their first day on route to the school, Nanako has a chance encounter with older student, the tall, androgynous Rei Asaka. Known adoringly as "Saint-Just of the Flowers", after the French revolutionary Louis de Saint-Just, she seems to be a bit of loner despite being popular with the students. Rei helps her on the bus and Nanako is immediately captivated by her. Nanako also meets Mariko Shinobu, a rich but seemingly lonely girl who latches onto Nanako and is rather possessive of her, forcing Tomoko away when she comes to talk to Nanako. Seiran Academy is of course filled with the daughters of the rich and elite, but their attitudes surprise Nanako. At a school assembly, Fukiko Ichinomiya (affectionately known as "Miya-sama" to the students), the Student Body President, introduces herself and the Sorority, an elite club made up of select students. Only 10 students will be selected to join this year. The students are excited by the news and are all vying for place in the Sorority.

Though Nanako holds no real inertest in the Sorority and believes due to her background she would be chosen anyway, she is utterly surprised when Miya-sama announces that she is one of the candidates along with Mariko. This sets off a storm of jealousy, with fellow student and Sorority hopeful, Aya Misaki, leading the charge. Aya slanders Mariko’s reputation by revealing that her father is an author of erotic novels and that Nanako’s father isn’t her real birth father. Eventually things become so bad between Aya and Mariko that one day it becomes physical. A senior student, the tomboyish and well respected Kaoru Orihara (called Prince Kaoru by the students) intervenes. Orihara herself has also been shortlisted for the Sorority, but had previously publicly declined the offer in front of Miya-sama, as she dislikes the concept of the Sorority. Later Miya-sama gives Nanako an invitation to the Sorority selection party, but it clashes with her plans with Tomoko. Adding to the strain to their friendship is Mariko’s scheming to separate the two and for her to become Nanako’s best friend.

Worse is to come for Nanako with a letter being anonymously posted on the message board claiming that her father, Professor Misono, is not her biological father. The culprit is Aya and her circle of friends. Later Aya phones Nanako’s home pretending to be Miya-sama and tells Nanako’s mother that the party has been rescheduled later in the afternoon. While Nanako is pleased that she can meet Tomoko and attend the party, she soon realises that she’s been duped when she arrives at school for the party. Two hours late, Nanako’s interview with the senior members of the Sorority is a disaster. But despite Nanako’s faux pas, incredibly she is selected to join the Sorority (along with Mariko). Aya does not get a place and furiously ramps up her campaign of bullying. Amongst other things this involves the theft and destruction of her gym clothes and verbal attacks from students who weren’t selected for the Sorority. Worse yet, Mariko has managed to convince Tomoko that Nanako has no time for her due to her Sorority duties and manages to end their long friendship.

It’s all too much for Nanako who pleads with Miya-sama to resign from the Sorority. Miya-sama persuades her to ignore her tormenters and sets about making sure she will no longer be harassed by Aya. Feeling alone Nanako heads out to the city where she bumps into her old cram school teacher Takehiko Henmi. Years ago as Takehiko was due to cease working as the school, Nanako pleaded with him to become pen pals as she feels a strong bond with him. In the letters she refers to him as her brother. Takehiko tells her to keep strong and to continue writing to each other. However Miya-sama discovers that the two have been writing to each other and forcefully tells her to end all correspondence and contact with him. Worse is to come with Mariko becoming extremely possessive which frightens Nanako. Meanwhile Nakano becomes more involved in the lives of Rei and Kaoru. Rei hardly ever attends classes and is continually taking medication from the stash of hundreds of pills she seems to keep on her. Nakano befriends and cares for her after Miya-sama wilfully hurts her hand in a meeting at the Sorority. Naturally Miya-sama frowns upon Nanako for doing so. Kaoru also cares for Rei but has her own health problem she should attend to.

This is the last Anime Sols show I got from the company just before they shut down permanently and subsequently deleted all of their remaining stock. Based on a short manga series from 1975 by Riyoko Ikeda (best known for “The Rose of Versailles”), this is one hell of a ride in terms of melodramatic shoujo drama. Not only is Nanako subjected to some truly hideous behaviour by bunch of snobby, elitist, rich high school girls, but many of them seem to harbour deep seated psychological problems. There’s implied lesbian and incestual relationships, suicide pacts, children born out of wedlock, extreme bouts of jealously, characters facing fatal illnesses and more. Early on (and especially without explanations for character’s motivations, which are given in the latter half of the show), it does seem that most of the ladies at Seiran Academy, especially the ones in the Sorority, are completely bat shit insane. The only sane ones in the show at times seem to be Nanako and Tomoko. The rather heightened melodramatic situations in the show almost feels at times like it’s a satire on the shoujo genre. One of the more insanely over the top scenes features a dove crashing though a plate glass window inside the Sorority building at an extremely melodramatic moment. None of students in the room seem to notice this extraordinary event.

However in the latter half of the series certain characters motivations are revealed and you discover that there are reasons for their strange behaviour. The melodrama is also toned down a lot. Relationships are reformed and bad behaviour is forgiven. A kind of student revolt breaks out in the last third of the show which changes the tone of the show as well as the dynamics of the relationships between certain characters. However these still a lot of melodrama injected in this section of the show with helpings of tragedy, in both flashbacks and the present. Surprisingly very little time is devoted to any male characters. Putting aside Nanako’s narration which is meant to be her reading out the letters she sends to Takehiko, he only appears in the story in a major way in the last third of the series. His friend, the more flamboyant Takashi Ichinomiya, appears even less often. The show is also seemingly influenced by the Takarazuka Revue with both Rei Asaka and Kaoru Orihara being more masculine than some of the men in the show. In fact the focus in the last quarter of the show is squarely on these two characters, not Nanako.

There is a problem though with this adaption of the material, which by the way does change a few of the situations from the manga. Though masterfully directed by the late, great Osamu Dezaki (“Rose of Versailles”, “Space Adventure Cobra”, “Tomorrow’s Joe”) with plenty of his infamous “postcard memories” shots, in inexplicably seems to be set in the year of its production, 1991. Yet the style of the show, including most the cast’s clothes are definitely mid 1970’s. So it’s a bit strange to see modern items such compact discs and background characters dressed in modern 1990’s fashion. There was absolutely no reason not to set this in the mid 1970’s. Having said that, this is the only misstep in the entire production. The animation on the whole looks fantastic and Anime Sols’ DVD sets benefit greatly from what seems to be a recently done HD telecine transfer. They look great upscaled on my BD player. The only problem I can see with the release is the artwork and menus, created by Tezuka Productions themselves as they wanted to exert control over that aspect of the project. They’re a bit of a bland affair.

Going back to style of the show, even though the source material is from the mid 1970’s, there are some weird things in the show. For example Nanako’s parents are always dressed in very traditional clothes (yukatas), which seems very conservative and out place, even for the mid 1970’s. The other odd thing was Kaoru’s doctor, who features infrequently in the show, is always seen wearing sunglasses, even indoors in his surgery. But everything else is pretty much bog standard shoujo in terms of presentation. So much so that everything does seem to be a little clichéd at times. But this is not because it’s a copy of other’s works, it’s because manga artists have been influenced by Riyoko Ikeda’s style. Miya-sama herself looks at times like she just stepped out of the Versailles Palace.

In closing, this is a fantastic melodrama. It is at times insanely over the top to the point of satire. And yes the title does telegraph a key plot point from the end of the series (come on, it’s not like you didn’t see that coming). However the story has plenty of twists and turns, the characters are fantastic and the series is directed in an utterly stylish way by Osamu Dezaki. It’s easily the best of the three series that Anime Sols managed to release on DVD before their demise. As a result of Anime Sols shutting down and no other sites streaming this series, it’s a real shame that show won’t get the exposure it truly deserves. 8 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: Five series, four movies, two OVA/specials, also waiting for second part of one show to be released before viewing it.

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