The Pains of Being Pure At Heart: Dear Brother
The most commented-on aspect of Dear Brother goes a little something like this: it’s the anime where one girl breaking a promise to bake cakes with another can lead to a murder plot, or something equally dramatic. This is tonally true, though not literally true. The series is a melodrama that busts out loud, emotive strings and striking visuals for every story event and plot twist without any real discrimination or sense of scale. A girl on the verge of suicide really does get the same dramatic treatment as a rift in a long friendship. This threatens to trivialize the escalating sense of drama, as the series goes from schoolyard bullying to the shameful secrets of powerful families and the dramatic reformation of a ritzy, exclusive school. But oddly enough, it really works, perhaps because when you’re a hormonally-charged teenager, everything is dramatic. And it makes for a series with a powerfully dark mood that it doesn’t break for long periods. It’s a fantastic series that dives into dark, neurotic territory and yet still feels romantic, even idealized. ‘
Seiran Academy is a prestigious all-girls school with a second layer of enviable privilege: the Sorority, an after-school club populated by the most beautiful, intelligent and popular students. Every year, they select freshmen members to induct into their world of classy parties, horse dressage, and intense study sessions using old tests and material no other students have access to. Nanako is one of those freshmen, even though she isn’t as pretty as the other candidates and her family isn’t nearly as prestigious as some of others who were passed by, and that causes her pain. She only wants to be loved by everyone, and that kind of open, pure heart makes her a naive plaything for everyone else. The series becomes about more than just the bullying her selection provokes, but also the secrets that the three school idols carry: the manly Saint-Juste, the ideal beauty Princess Miya, and the androgynous, pretty Prince Kaoru. Nanako’s desire to love and be loved by everyone draws her into being a key player in these idol’s tragic lives. She writes about all of this to her “brother,” a former teacher who became a pen-pal, someone for her to voice all her uncertainties, troubles and insecurities to, and someone who also ties into her own family’s biggest secret.
The series has a dreamy, idealized look at school life and the beauties who inhabit it that meshes well with the ugliness of its story. Director Osamu Dezaki developed a distinct visual style in the second half of Rose of Versailles that helped make its thunderous ending memorable, and here, he uses that style to great effect throughout the entire series. Pastel freeze frames, creative use of screen space and a generous usage of dramatic angles give weight to all of the drama. Underscoring the visuals is a loud score that is best played at full volume, with the sound bleeding out of your headset and into the next room. Dezaki seems like the director who best knew how to work on a very limited budget and wring every ounce of emotion out of his work. Emotive drama was always his greatest strength, and he feels like such a perfect match for Dear Brother. I honestly can’t imagine any other director handling the same material and it coming out nearly as good- the story requires a heavy, nearly sense of drama balanced out by intelligence and skill. For this series, you’re in the hands of a master craftsman.
The series deals with subjects like suicide, lesbianism, death, obsession, jealousy, bullying, drug abuse and isolation, and makes all of it beautiful, even in its ugliness. It doesn’t handle all of this equally well, and some of its most memorable moments get stunted by that idealism, perhaps because Dezaki wasn’t willing to be as needed for a children’s show. One of the most affecting episodes is about Mariko, a very pretty Sorority freshman with a creepy obsession with Nanako. That obsession explodes in a memorable episode on her birthday, when she tries to seduce and then force herself onto a horrified Nanako. For twenty-three minutes, I had the very rare experience of feeling like I was living in the mind of a lonely, neurotic teenager who was blissfully happy to finally have someone she could call a friend, and while in that manic state, too overwhelmed with hormones and desire and bliss to be rational, she makes an awful decision that drives away the one happiness she has in life. The next two episodes intelligently handle a delicate make-up between the two friends, and then… nothing. In fact, everything becomes okay for a while, and Mariko never follows up or explains her feelings for Nanako. And this can’t be because lesbianism was somehow off limits for this show, since it has strong, erotic yuri overtones. Mariko later becomes the focus of two more story arcs, one almost equally affecting, and the other really lame. And because of the lack of follow-through on all of those, Mariko feels undercooked as a character, nowhere close to the potential we see early on.
There are other story-lines with arrested development, especially a crucial one near the end of the series, and yet even then, the series maintains its spell. It’s so easy to forgive it when it can consistently evoke primal emotions like fear, lust and sadness. I’m having a hard time remembering the last series that was as good at evoking a strong reaction from me. Loving Dear Brother is like a loving a very pretty, very neurotic woman. (For the purposes of staying true to the spirit of the show, I would like you to pretend you are a woman for this metaphor, even if you aren’t.) You two have an uneven relationship where the occasional lows are wiped out by charged, extended lovemaking. Her mistakes are forgivable, even forgettable, in the face of the overwhelming spell she has cast on you. And you couldn’t forget her if you tried.