Within Onii-sama e…’s fraught exploration of adolescent anxieties and the societal structures which bind, the elegant matriarch of Seiran Academy’s exclusive Sorority would be considered something an enigma where the student body is concerned. It isn’t too difficult to see why a figure such as Ichinomiya Fukiko would be considered the subject of every student’s adoration, however, all long skirts swishing with a gracefulness beyond her years, daintily arranging floral arrangements, golden curls whipping in the breeze. Despite the awe which follows, she nevertheless harbours a grave secret sealed deep within the confines of her heart… The source of which can only be found in a room which the maids have taken to calling ‘the sealed chamber’ in hushed tones out of milady’s earshot. Bedrooms often prove to be fascinating realms, revealing more about their occupants than words possibly could through personal whimsies. They essentially serve as a mirror upon which one’s psyche is reflected, yet unsettling implications lurk in the shadowy corners of Fukiko’s once the viewer is at last granted entry into this room and by proxy, her heart.
The 22nd episode of what would arguably be considered Dezaki Osamu’s most sophisticated televised achievement opens with an establishing shot of a Sorority window, dominating the screen. With restrictive window frames bringing to mind terms such as ‘confinement’, it sets a precedent for the material which ensues as the narrative delves deep into a heart tightly shut. Expressed through a subjective camera, an unnamed character observing Nanako and Mariko fussing over a delicately fashioned floral arrangement is cautious, biding their time before stepping into the room. Nanako herself is shown bathed in a blinding white light before being ominously juxtaposed with Fukiko entering via a domineering show of hands shrouded in darkness. Even as the framing finally shows the Sorority’s ruler in all her glory the focus suggestively remains on those hands, hidden in the comforting darkness which the door’s shade provides. Through a brief yet nevertheless arresting sequence, Fukiko’s manipulative inclinations arise, ushered along as summer waxes and wanes.
With every pleasant word exchanged, every careful step designed with breaching emotional security, Fukiko orchestrates her grand plot with a finesse befitting of the Sorority’s pillar. As a means of emotionally distancing the viewer, heightening the ambiguity suffusing the actions of such a malevolent figure, the cinematography rather strikingly obscures her facial expressions throughout the episode. Once Fukiko reaches Nanako and Mariko she is engulfed in duplicitous shadows as a chandelier suggestively conceals her face entirely. Delicate framing draws attention to the underlying moral struggle taking place with the brilliant white threatening to be consumed by an encroaching darkness. Fukiko’s goals hidden in the shade, she extends an invitation to her villa under the guise of preparing for an upcoming birthday celebration alongside several older Sorority members. In a startling change from her earlier confidence, unease surfaces via an otherwise poised character’s body language as she idly toys with a lily, the window restricting – ensnared by flights of fancies harkening back to a summer lost in the annals of time, beyond her grasp.
Fukiko’s villa is a curious lair suited for the episode’s moody atmosphere, dark and foreboding with claustrophobic halls highlighting the anxious shadows flitting about a psyche in emotional disarray. What ought to be a location characterised by serenity and relaxation instead proves to be a nightmarish realm – Fukiko confidently placed atop a darkened staircase with arms poised as she chastises a maid, emphasis on an inherent power imbalance with the maid rushing up from the bottom to meet her. Focusing on her face is once again avoided until an unguarded moment settles, white prevailing as she at last receives the key to her “sealed chamber”; lapsing into a childlike sense of security, cradling it with an unexpected tenderness. Yet the moment passes and Fukiko is once again on guard, receding ominously into a dizzying darkness beyond the maid (and audience’s) reach.
Serving as an extension of her headspace, the chamber itself is first shown through that blinding white light, resulting in Fukiko lapsing into the first of an unsettling fixture (“that summer’s day…”) as if it were a mantra – but perhaps, as far as she’s concerned it is. Slowly drinking in the room she takes comfort in its stasis and the litany of juvenile props which enhance such a farcical performance. A teddy bear perched upon a rocking chair, a straw hat adorned with floral trimmings, a calendar tellingly fixed on a date – despite ostensibly coming across as items designed to reassure, they too are submerged within a midsummer gloom, shadows laying waste to their intended functions. And all at once the viewer realizes that this is by no means the grand estate of the Sorority’s ruler but an unsettling entity all of its own as Fukiko once again succumbs to the seductive lure of summers gone. The ghosts of painful memories linger in every dim hallway; rustling in the leaves which twine ‘round her violin, dancing to deep laments unheard by the object of her affections.
Beyond the claustrophobic confines of the villa with its oppressive reveries, Nanako and Mariko are eager to explore the wide expanse of the country’s lush greenery and shimmering lakes, its bucolic soundtrack unmistakable. Despite the momentary tranquillity however it isn’t long before the narrative once again leans into its lavish gothic horror trappings, generously supported by all the usual staples an isolated setting cut off from reality facilitates. Following a restless night’s sleep Nanako sees Fukiko swimming and ventures down to greet her, curiosity inevitable. As water glistens and crickets creak, it’s a far cry from the security of our protagonist’s home and all its comforts, inherently possessing an unknown and dangerous quality heightened by the eerie absence of a BGM. Following Fukiko’s enticing trail of liquid breadcrumbs, Nanako further implicates herself in this immensely personal unravelling as she rises to the villa’s top floor, deeper and deeper into the innermost recesses of her heart. As if stumbling upon Bluebeard’s hidden room, as if she were Jane drawing ever-closer to Bertha, Nanako traverses through darkened halls at last peering through the chamber’s keyhole, into Fukiko herself. Into a past unseen, into memories dear.
The tatters of Fukiko’s “eternal summer” are left forgotten once the episode ups its spine-chilling stakes with a potent immediacy, Nanako slipping on the stairs while escaping from a feverish Sonnet 18 rendition. As Fukiko tears through the halls in search of the culprit who dared wrench her heart open, hurried footsteps resound with purpose. When the truth dawns you can’t help but wonder, if only for a moment, whether she actually will kill her – cue a glinting knife at breakfast the following morning. With Fukiko’s gravest secret forced out into the light, she once again seeks refuge in duplicitous wiles as a means of potentially silencing the figure that has ostensibly claimed the hearts of those dearest to her. Although Fukiko appears to maintain her “sealed chamber” with an unnerving tenacity, it is essentially a tomb for the girl she once was, who dreamed of poetry and played violins, dragging the woman of the present down. Resentment searing through her veins, Henmi’s abandonment leads to vindictive modes of behaviour unleashed on those that happen to draw close to her, serving as human-shaped alters upon which emotional relief can be obtained. If Fukiko is to finally move on she must cast aside the girlish whimsies of six years ago, but is that a viable option when she’s willing to drown someone that dares infringe upon the memory’s sanctity…? After all, despite Shakespeare’s dreamy insistence no summer is eternal, and Fukiko slavishly preserving Henmi’s memory via the haunting lines of Sonnet 18 does more harm than good.