Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Kyosuke Kosaka has long had a cool relationship with his younger sister Kirino, and having to live in her shadow as she becomes Miss Perfect – top grades, pretty, athletic, stylish, popular, and even an actual model – during her middle school years hasn't helped. Kirino has a big secret, though, one that Kyusuke literally stumbles across one night: she is also a closet otaku with a particular fetish for “little sister” ero games, which she claims she adores because she's entranced with the cuteness of such characters rather than the sex scenes (although Kyosuke later comes to suspect that there is more to it than that). Though mortified that her carefully hidden hobby has been discovered, Kirino is both relieved and warms up to her brother just a bit when Kyosuke proves non-judgmental about her curious interest. As she tries to force her brother to understand her hobby, he helps her to manage her hobby better by encouraging her to connect with other otaku girls, interceding when their Dad and her best friend find out about her hobby, buying games for her that she can't, and generally being there for her at other crucial times. Meanwhile, Kyosuke has a potential romance budding with a classmate/childhood friend that Kirino derisively refers to as Plain Girl and strikes up his own friendship with Kirino's two new otaku friends, which helps the three of them to deal with the precocious but also sometimes-irascible Kirino better.
In the follow-up “True Route” OVAs (listed here as alternate episode 12 and episodes 13-15), Kyosuke replaces looking after Kirino, who has gone to America for track training, with looking after Kuroneko, who has joined his school as an incoming first-year. Kyosuke's efforts to get her involved in club activities brings them into contact with a fujoshi who is a diehard fan of homoeroticism.
Oreimo is the commonly-used truncation of the full title Ore no Imōto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai, which essentially translates into English as “My Little Sister Can't Be This Cute;” the title of each episode is merely a variation on this. Both the titles and any brief description of the premise of this light novel-based series can easily give a newcomer the wrong impression, making this seem like a vastly more salacious title than what it actually is. In fact, given a current anime environment rife with visual novel and ero game adaptations, it is quite remarkable that this one doesn't stoop to pandering to the most base elements of fandom even as it spins a story which explores those very same elements. This release includes both the original twelve TV episodes and a four episode OVA follow-up, the first episode of which is an alternate version of episode 12.
The concept presented here is not a new one. 2008's Secret of Haruka Nogizaka explored much the same territory: an otherwise-perfect school girl's secret otakudom is discovered by a non-otaku boy, who accepts her non-judgmentally and gradually gets drawn into the world of the otaku with her. Like this one, Secret also dealt with the heroine's concerns about being colored by the unpleasant Japanese image of otaku, the blow-up her father has upon discovering her secret, and various otaku-related firsts for the heroine, including visits to Akihabara and Comiket. The two series take distinctly different tones and approaches, however. While Secret was a sweet, fluffy, otaku-flavored variation on a standard romantic comedy, complete with requisite fan service elements, Oreimo is a heavier and more focused series which features minimal fan service, casts a more sharply critical eye on the seedier sides of fandom, and explores more into family dynamics and otaku socializing. Where Haruka Nogizaka was a delicate, gentle flower of womanhood, Kirino is cut more from a tsundere mold. While the former was merely into anime series, the latter escalates dramatically to ero games (though she is also a fan of certain anime). The plentiful, almost reverent homages to other anime series seen in Secret become sometimes-brutal genre parodies in Oreimo; for instance, the whole business with the Siscalypse fighting game and the amusingly seedy names for ero games in both the series content and the eye catches (“I'd Never Steal Something Like Onii-chan's Pantsu!!”) are twisted and perverse rips on one of the creepiest of actual ero game genres. In other words, liking one of these series is hardly a reliable indicator for liking the other.
Evaluated independently, the merits of Oreimo become apparent from the start. The charming first episode clearly establishes that, whatever else may go on, sibling relationship dynamics are an important part of the series; in fact, both versions of the series' climax largely come down to that. The writing occasionally strongly suggests that, while Kirino has nearly everything else going for her, she has long been unhappy that she has not had a closer relationship with her brother and yearns to establish one, though her pride prevents her from being forthright about it. Kyosuke, meanwhile, clearly loves and wants to look out for his little sister but finds her typically acerbic attitude towards him difficult to deal with. Even so, his inclination to play the caring “big brother” remains such a prime motivator that he later transfers to looking out for one of the supporting characters when Kirino is temporarily out of the picture. The latter development, which happens in the OVA episodes, also muffles speculation that an incestuous attraction may exist on his end, though the writing remains coy on whether or not Kirino views Kyosuke that way; she vehemently denies any such attraction, but her jealousy does flame any time Kyosuke seems to be getting along well with another girl and the series does imply that her specific obsession with “little sister” games may be partly a surrogate for the relationship she hasn't had with her brother.
The series is also blessed with a strong supporting cast. Tall, apparently rich, boyish-dressing otaku girl Saori uses an archaic speech affectation as she tries to encourage the hobbies and social connections of the girls in her online group, while Kirino's model friend Ayase amuses with her disgust for otaku-like things and penchant for claiming that she will murder those who make her angry. Another model friend, Kanako, is a background character for most of the series but makes the most of her feature episode, where she shows a startling disconnect between performance professionalism in a cosplay routine and her personal disdain for such material. Sena Akagi, a diehard “macho homo” fujoshi, pops up in the OVA episodes to provide some great comic support, including some very funny but also very, very wrong lines. “Plain Girl” Manami is a more ordinary character, though her kooky family livens up the one episode which focuses on her and Kyosuke. The true supporting star, however, is Ruri Gokou, a diminutive anime and game otaku who regularly dresses like a loli Goth princess (sometimes with a cat theme) and insists on being called Kureneko. Though she has a quiet demeanor, her sharp tongue and sharper opinions help create a combative friendship with Kirino (and later Sena, too) that is wonderful fun to watch. She shows in the OVA episodes that she is quite capable of carrying the series in Kirino's absence and is much more than just a one-trick pony.
The content of the series covers a very broad spectrum of otaku elements - perhaps too broad. In addition to the aforementioned, viewers get scenes involving cosplay competitions (and crowd behavior at such competitions), anime-related manga and novel creation, game creation, waiting in line for midnight purchases, poking fun at magical girl series, otaku meet-and-greets, maid costume parties, Boys Love obsessions, and dealing with the reactions of “normal” friends and family when Kirino is outed. It even has one episode focusing on the ultimate otaku wet dream: getting one's story turned into an anime. The latter is arguably the weakest episode, as though it does deal seriously with the creative process involved in making an anime and does bring out some of the buried resentments other characters have towards Kirino, it is also the one part of the series which comes across as heavy-handed and the one that most stretches credibility. The seeming compulsion to cover all of the otaku bases also interferes with episode 12 (the original final episode), which features a major plot element which comes up - and gets resolved - much too abruptly. The OVA episodes do a wonderful job of compensating for that, however, as the first redoes episode 12 with some variations that shoot the plot off in a different direction, the second and third explore life without Kirino around, and fourth involves getting Kirino back. This “True Route” resolution is better-paced, better-developed, and vastly more satisfying.
The technical merits and musical score, while good, are nothing exceptional. Kirino and Ayase get convincingly pretty looks with an equally convincing level of fashion sense and attention to detail, such as the way Kirino's fingernail color varies over time. Kuroneko is darling in her loli Goth get-up, especially when she goes into Cat Mode, but also looks surprisingly appealing when shown in regular school wear in the OVA episodes. Background art is sharp and rich with detail. With an absence of true action scenes, the animation's best efforts show through mostly in Kirino's body language and some excellent train and vehicle animation. The soundtrack is also serviceable, doing a fine job of playing up the more light-hearted moments without being obtrusive. The pleasant but ordinary opener is set to visuals which change slightly with each episode, while the closers take a much more drastic approach: each episode has a new song sung by one of the seiyuu and new visuals - a remarkably ambitious effort. The voice work of Kana Hanazawa as Kuroneko is also a stand-out effort, though a weak effort will not be found anywhere in the Japanese dub.
Aniplex is releasing this title directly, which means that its DVD version has limited purchase options and the price is on the high side for a subtitled-only release. The production quality is excellent, however, as the Limited Edition Complete Box set includes a collection of series postcards, a double-sided mini-poster (one side features Kirino and Kyosuke in a holiday scene, the other shows Kirino in a yukata and Kuroneko dressed as a shrine maiden), and a glossy booklet which contains character profiles and a collection of copyrighted series art all stuffed in an art box along with the DVD case, which features a reversible cover. On-disk Extras only include a clean version of the base opener and clean versions of all of the closers, which are arranged in their own menu screen for easy access. Fans who are picky about subtitle visual styles will probably not be too fond of the ones used here. The subtitles do retain some Japanese honorifics and make a diligent effort to portray the odd style of Saori's speech in English, but they also toss in definitions for some terms that any dedicated anime fan could reasonably be expected to know. This is definitely not a title intended for casual anime viewers - in fact, a high and broad knowledge of otakudom is necessary to fully appreciate it - so why was this deemed necessary?
One flaw commonly cited about the series is that Kirino goes overboard in her aggressiveness, but while this can be a problem, it is not a crippling one. Having a 14-year-old girl be an enthusiast of erotic games may not set well with some, especially in one episode which hints that she gets much more into the erotic element of her games than she normally lets on, and the whole “little sister ero game” business, though regularly played for jokes, is conceptually very edgy. Some of the dialog in the OVA episodes also gets sputter-inducingly raunchy. In general, though, the series proves to be clever and quite funny as it provides a surprisingly entertaining and satisfying exploration of both covert otakudom and sibling relationship dynamics. It also avoids wallowing in the stream of clichés and fan service all too common with material like this and consistently feels at least a couple of steps better than what material about this kind of subject matter should be. If you were expecting to be disappointed by another round of thorough trashiness, you're in for a treat here.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B
+ Kuroneko, quite funny, surprisingly well-written.; OVAs add a lot.
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