As a child, I used to dream about going to an all-girls boarding school, living away from my parents, and having bold, giggly adventures behind my teachers’ backs like in those Enid Blyton novels. Once I hit my teens, I could think of nothing worse – I learned to prefer the company of men, and my idea of social hell is getting stranded on a desert island with a bunch of young women. To understand my reasons why, watch Brother, Dear Brother.
It begins an angst-ridden teen soap opera in which the rich bitches of a prestigious high school vie for position, power, and other such petty rewards. Their concerns are typically superficial and have no grounding in everyday reality. I recall a particularly illustrative scene after Nanako wins a place on the Sorority, the school’s most elite club. One astute peer observes, ‘I don’t see anything special about her. Not exceptionally pretty. So she must be the only daughter of a very rich family.’ Her friend knowingly responds, ‘No, she’s lower middle-class.’ The former, now truly aghast: ‘You’re kidding. That makes no sense to me!’ I’m not sure which saddens me more – the girls’ life-long imprisonment in a rose-tinted bubble or the fact they’re correct to question Nanako’s abrupt selection based on such inane criteria.
Over time, however, the series evolves into something far more interesting, if no less disturbing - an edgy psychological melee in which everyone hurtles towards madness in that Lord of the Flies sort of way. This is shoujo, alright, but shoujo with a surreal flavour – like biting into an apple and tasting hints of orange, banana, and magic mushroom.
Key to its free-for-all feeling is a narrative that’s as expansive and convoluted as it is thought-provoking: the protagonist Nanako Misono falls in love with the fey (and slightly demented) Saint-Juste, who in turn has a destructive relationship with the most popular girl, Miya-sama; aloof and cunning, she presides like an ice queen over the Sorority, which insecure Mariko Shinobu and bitter Aya Misaki are desperate to join; and both of them try to rise to the top of the playground food chain by targeting Miya-sama’s new favourite, Nanako Misono. Breathless yet? Just think, that’s only the beginning. Later, more relations, twists, and intervening characters add to the complications.
Of the various intertwining plot strands, viewers will likely find Miya-sama’s and Saint-Juste’s obsessive relationship the most emotional. Miya-sama maintains a strange hold over Saint-Juste and manipulates her with the megalomaniacal glee of a puppet master. In turn, fragile Saint-Juste rails and flounders, clearly in distress but just as clearly tied to Miya-sama by some sentimental bond. Although gripping for the most part, their tale does take on a predictability that’s difficult to stomach. Saint-Juste turns out the kind of victim who, despite half-hearted suicide attempts and endless crying, runs willingly back into the hands of her oppressor. Instead of a sympathetic tragedy, this tango of punishment describes the pathetic descent of a loon; I thought the sooner she jumped off a bridge, the sooner she could release me from her cycle of self-abuse.
Granted, Brother, Dear Brother is not without visual flaws. It overuses its still shots to the point when entirely mundane situations such as Mariko and Nanako getting off a bus have to be immortalised as a sketch. One side effect is that the series has aged poorly and nobody could mistake it for anything but a nineties production. More often than not, though, the stills are delightful; like paintings or manga artwork, their stylistic touches create a dreamy wistfulness that makes the show distinctive.
Most importantly, when the animation flows, it does so with incredible beauty. The slender, doe-eyed cast glide through frames rich in detail and potently atmospheric. A portentous wind may then blow in a timely manner, lifting lush volumes of hair and diaphanous skirts, while the sun makes eyes sparkle beatifically. What’s more, at the mere sweep of a paintbrush, the characters’ ephemeral sensuality can slip into frightful ugliness.
Indeed, what Brother, Dear Brother lacks in technical polish, it makes up for with evocative style.
Heard once, the background melodies are perfect accompaniments tinged with melancholy, particularly the eerie ditty that sounds like a circus theme. Unfortunately, like a broken music box, Brother Dear Brother’s soundtrack goes round and round, repeating the same handful of tunes until any listener will feel nauseous. After hearing same tunes every third or fourth scene during one episode, I was occasionally tempted to watch with the mute setting on.
In contrast to their graceful character designs, the girls of Seiran High have damaged and ugly psyches. Vicious, two-faced, insecure, and disturbed, their’ neuroses peel away over time to reveal tragic back-stories. Take Mariko, one of the more outstanding characters, whose China doll looks and manic possessiveness combine to make for a creepy personality. Behind her unstable temperament, however, lies a sense of isolation caused by her volatile family situation.
Be it their social class, perhaps years of privileged inbreeding, or just pubescent hormones, these are women at their most contemptible but also at their most captivating. Nonetheless, for the same reasons that make them singularly entrancing I could never relax with them; as much as I understood their deplorable actions, I could never like them.
Melodrama woven through art woven through coming-of-age woven through high school romance. The show takes full advantage of its explicit femininity, building a plot that’s intelligent but also offbeat and bewildering. There’s a lot of trauma, a lot of twisted shit, and a lot of emotional behaviour. Dare I say, it’s a girl’s worst nightmare.