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12 Days, 12 Moments 2010: OreImo, the Show and the Phenomenon Reviewed

This final belated moment in the 12 Days series belongs to the entire show, Ore no Imōto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai (OreImo henceforth). It also doubles as my informal series review. It was both a show and a phenomenon, the most talked about series in the blogosphere and a bellwether of the state of anime in 2010.

The key to understanding why it’s even worth talking about a show with a title like “My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute” is that it tried so hard to rise above it. Its anime adaptation was penned by a talented screenwriter, Hideyuki Kurata, who has written gems like Now and Then Here and There, the Read or Die OVA, and Kannagi. The evidence of a writer who understands how to establish and express character is everywhere, especially in the early episodes where Kirino and Kyousuke behave so much like real siblings. Kuroneko and Manami get revealing character turns later on, and there’s a convincing rapport between Kyousuke and the bespectacled Saori. Kurata was clearly aspiring to Haruhi/Kyon territory, along with the social observation of a Genshiken and Welcome to the NHK.

But it never quite manages to gel. Why?

The first obstacle is Kirino herself. Kurata never quite manages to pull off the trick of making her at once a realistic sibling, a believable otaku, and a sympathetic person. Kirino, as attractively drawn as she is, is almost too convincingly bratty and teenage: too convincingly, in short, annoying. This is presumably part of the point: “real sisters aren’t the pliant blobs of moe sweetness but are usually petulant annoyances,” the show shouts. Point granted: but so what, other than to puncture otaku fantasies? That’s not enough for an interesting character.

Her stash is huge.

Then there is the otakuhood. The show wants this little sister to be into the same male otaku interests as the audience and also be a fashion model and a successful light novel author—an example of wish fulfillment if there ever was one. Despite this, Kirino seems to combine the snobbery of an otaku and a popular person, with two-faced hypocrisy on top: for a wish-fulfillment character, she’s sure not fulfilling. Even badly flawed characters like the ones in NHK were trying, though failing, to become better people. Kirino sort of does in the “good end” of the TV show, but it feels last-minute and forced rather than natural. (Perhaps the alternate endings coming on the DVD might be better?) Moreover, Kurata seems to know just how unsympathetic Kirino is, with the episode where he unflatteringly contrasts her playing an eroge with Kuroneko being a fan and taking care of her sister. So are we supposed to not like Kirino? Is it the intention that the supposed side characters often prove more appealing? If this series was intended mainly as a critique, that would make sense. But it’s not clear whether that is the case.

Second, the series was frequently sidetracked with improbable plots that seemed calculated to Make A Point: either in gallant defense of otakuhood, or later an indictment of the industry for it’s lack of originality and attention to the needs of fans. The dialogue often lurches into cringe-worthy speechifyng in those moments, with all the subtlety of propaganda and little of the witty repartee that characterized the show’s best moments. They are also usually put in the mouth of Kyousuke, whose defenses of his sister seem extravagant for someone he regards almost purely as an annoyance. Yes, even bickering families will unite in the face of outside opposition, but the lengths he goes to just feel forced. For instance, we have a non-otaku giving a rousing defense of not just otakuhood, but porn game (as one fansubber vividly translated “eroge”) otakuhood, and pretending the errant games are his. Originally, this article was going to be about that moment, which was where the show descended into mediocrity in my view. (The subsequent groping was just icing on the cake.)

It's just business.

Moreover, the indictment of the sheer commercial/economic nature of anime production fails because the current type of unoriginal anime we see now is a direct result of the kind of fandom that is celebrated and personified by Kirino: the collector, database animal approach that pays less attention to storytelling coherence and more to fetishized tropes and types. Oddly enough, the lack of quality this mentality might lead to is recognized by the skeptical screenwriter in the anime production committee, who asks basic questions about Kirino’s work: why would the haremettes be attracted to the main character? Why is it necessary for the protagonist to be female? (Kuroneko’s spot-on explanation—that this is a Mary Sue character—again signals that OreImo’s screenwriter knows exactly what is going on.) Considering that I’ve asked the same kinds of questions in many produced, professional anime, if anything this is too kind a depiction of the industry: the quality of shows might be higher if there were more skeptical screenwriters like that!

What’s so frustrating about all this is that there are so many indications that Kurata knows better, and he shows it to wink and nudge at the audience: “hey, I know this is kind of unbelievable, but we’re going to do it anyway for the sake of fan service and completion. Look, cat ears on Kuroneko!” Though it makes great discussion fodder on the mixed motives and directions of the story, it’s actually one of the worst kinds of artistic compromise, where one deliberately sabotages one’s talents in order to pander but lacks the courage to do it all the way. This is the difference between OreImo and Panty and Stocking. The latter so thoroughly revels in vulgarity and is directed with such abandon that it actually becomes refreshing, poop and promiscuity and all. OreImo is a show that winks about incest, but lacks the courage of its convictions, something even Yosuga no Sora manages. Its ambivalence does not feel nuanced, except perhaps in the beginning of the show. It just feels timid and half-assed instead.

Gendo is one of the few who speaks the truth. But of course.

Despite all this, it certainly got everyone talking. Should OreImo receive some kind of special credit for causing such notoriety and discussion? The answer is a reluctant, but definitive, “yes.” This show wrung more articles out of me this season than any other, and apparently that was true of most other anime bloggers too. It was worthy of discussion because it is a sign of the times where otaku-oriented anime is: struggling to find quality within increasingly rigid tropes, such as the recent turn toward imouto fetishes, eroge adaptations, and meta-humor. Watching OreImo was like watching a battle between the characters who yearned to break out of their typecast roles and the plot and cliches that confined them there; I kept watching episode after episode, hoping to see something surprising and entertaining. It happened often enough that I kept going, despite vows to the contrary. That is some kind of accomplishment and deserves recognition. Sometimes the shows that are of mixed quality, like this one, are actually more interesting to talk about than those that are simply good or bad, perhaps because more than any other kind it plays on hope and anticipation for something different.

OreImo is not a great show. It is only occasionally very good. But being memorable is more than 90% of anime can claim in any given season, and seeing that we had a surprisingly decent season for once, let’s just call it a day (and a year) and say that the OreImo phenomenon—whatever the quality of its source—was my most memorable anime moment for 2010.

Well enough negativity. That’s the last post of the year for me. Happy 2011, everyone! (Resolution: shorter, less biting articles, maybe…)

The “12 Days, 12 Moments” series is part of an aniblogosphere-wide project to blog about the most memorable moments in anime for the year in the 12 days before Christmas. It was started in 2007 by CCY of Mega Megane Moe. Others participating this year include Aorii8Cprototype27Scampschneider, Borderline Hikkikomori, TWWKLandonJanettedigiboydrmchsr0doctordazzaFawkesFNSNAsuper ratsJubbzRPTheBigNJinxmefloraineCaranielglothelegendChiiValencedai1313, and bitmapchaos.

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