A prestigious institution in the midst of celebrating its ninetieth anniversary, Onii-sama e…’s Seiran Academy would be considered one of the medium’s more ruthless takes on well-to-do finishing schools. A nod to traditionalist boarding school romps propelled along by literary figures such as Enid Blyton and Frances Hodgson Burnett, when contextualized they are essentially caste systems intended to nurture privileged young ladies, instructing them in all matter of femininity. Perhaps indicative of the period’s ignorance however, such idealistic settings generally avoided drawing attention to the societal mores which facilitated such a restrictive hegemony. Serving as a striking refutation to this model, Onii-sama’s 28th and 29th episodes resolve to aggressively tear down those structures built upon the misery of others – and all it takes is the flutter of a single dove’s wings.
Doves beat up a tempestuous storm deep within the darkened recesses of Seiran halls, flitting ferociously past whenever one’s heart stirs. Reflecting on a life-threatening illness soon to claim, swept into an embrace by the object of one’s affections, cornered by merciless tormentors – their shadowy wings are never far from sight, symbolic gestures resonating alongside worrying actions. The sound of flapping forever lurks at the edges of the casts’ collective conscious, overwhelming the soundscape in turn echoing this profound uneasiness. Dissolution has been clawing beneath Seiran’s immaculate veneer since Onii-sama’s premiere, yet through Dezaki Osamu’s vision it all surges forth in a magnificent two-parter which takes the form of the 28th and 29th episodes. The academy’s heart pulses via the elusive Sorority guided by its fearsome matriarch, Fukiko – notoriously selective, candidates are chosen based on a number of vague pedigrees which have little to do with the girls themselves, ranging from social status to parental occupations. Those fortunate enough to be selected will be sure to lead magnificent lives, held among society’s upper echelons forevermore, envied by those within the academy’s macrocosm.
Beyond the girlish elegance which flourishes alongside tea parties and soirees at sea fashioned with its members in mind however, the Sorority is an existence which causes much strife within the corridors of Seiran, damning those that enter its gates starry-eyed with hope in their hearts. Such is its pervasive influence that once everygirl Nanako is selected she suffers a notoriously venomous form of shoujo antagonism, scorned by all as petitions to banish her circulate, esprit de corps non-existent within an adolescent wasteland. As was the case with Yuri Kuma Arashi’s heart-rending thesis focusing on the queer and marginalized striving towards a conceptual framework free of prejudice, much of Onii-sama’s final act is concerned with driving away the shadows stifling Seiran’s student body. Few benefit but most suffer within an archaic caste system that feeds on sorrow and ostracism, pitting those even tangentially involved against each other.
As Onii-sama drifts ever-closer towards its solemn end, due to Mariko’s alleged transgressions the Sorority stands resolute, orchestrating her expulsion with a distinctly icy note. Does lashing out due to a difficult family situation years in the making mean anything within the insular confines of a microcosmic society where appearances are everything? Apparently not. The sequence which decides Mariko’s fate opens with a stained glass window, beautiful but fragile, representative of the Sorority’s precarious position as dissolution looms. Her banishment is supposedly unanimous, an absolute… Yet Nanako nevertheless finds herself objecting, toppling over a vase of flowers as panic mounts. It serves as a symbolic act of defiance for all that the Sorority emblematizes, flowers strewn about as she resists its horrific structures sustained by all matter of dainty whimsies; a candle flickers, its position tenuous. As Nanako takes a courageous step forward drums resound with purpose, sending a ripple through the puddle as she verbalizes all her pent-up frustration regarding the Sorority’s duplicitous wiles and lack of concern for its members. In response intimidating framing highlights Fukiko’s position of power, all insidious Dutch angles as she calmly states that Mariko’s expulsion is an “absolute”. In direct opposition however Nanako is unyielding and once she faces Fukiko, filled with conviction, the Sorority’s leader is cast as a smaller, comparatively humane existence despite being positioned in the same manner. Once Nanako firmly posits an individualist stance (私の決定) against collectivist conformity (決定は絶対), something shifts.
Serving as portentous harbingers, that the doves would appear at this point is something of an inevitability; wings tumultuously beating alongside such a startling resistance expected. And they do, of course, appearing with timed precision as they flutter past the stained glass window… Only for one to suddenly crash right through it, sending shards flying. Of all the symbolic gestures weaved throughout Onii-sama, this is perhaps the most damning for it represents an unnerving shift, that things can never be the same. The series ostensibly adopts an epistolary narrative via Nanako writing letters to Henmi, however given her position as narrator it is questionable where the line between letter-writer and story-weaver begins, granting her a certain degree of autonomy. Such is Nanako’s control however that once she explicitly rejects the Sorority and all that it stands for, the world responds in kind, rendering it an “absolute” of her very own.
Spurred on by Nanako’s ground-breaking act of insubordination, in a call for emancipation Kaoru posits the motion of abolishing the Sorority. As if responding to such a radical claim, Seiran’s chimes lapse into distortion while the scenery shifts into dizzying tilts for it’s something which threatens the very sanctity of the institution. Rather suggestively, the doves’ outlines are visible for what appears to be the first time in the series’ entirety as modernity finds itself in a clash against monolithic confines of the past. As the only other figure within the series blessed with a degree of narrative control, Kaoru resolves to change things while she still can. Although she has always been open about her loathing for the Sorority, lamenting its ideologies whenever possible, it is only through Nanako’s rejection that she finds herself able to at last set about liberating Seiran. She’s had enough of all the fighting, of her friends caught in a spiral of sorrow. And so pacifism shifts to resolve. On the day of the academy’s ninetieth anniversary its grounds are eerily still, the sequence inundated with rich illustrations of antiquated structures as tradition’s shadow lies heavy – yet there’s not a dove in sight, Nanako says. Despite the calm something stirs, revolution certain.
What starts with a courageous ripple ebbs with purpose as the cinematography steadily emphasises a dried up fountain, shots of it interspersed throughout Fukiko’s highlighting Seiran’s grand litany of achievements over the last ninety years. Not quite a century, but the notion of potentially sustaining this form of misery for another ten years hangs heavy in the air. Once Kaoru rises up to defend the marginalized, a magnificent quadruple take conveys Fukiko’s astonishment – that someone would dare defy the past and all it stands for is absurd. In support the floodgates quite literally open, fountain’s water frantically gushing forth in the midst of Kaoru’s call to arms. Such potent imagery serves a dual purpose, likewise reflecting Fukiko’s inner surge of panic with sweat beading her brow as she struggles to stay calm and poised. As the student body rises up with collective furore, deafening out tradition’s caste system and its need to place a value on one’s life – Nanako notices that a single dove returns. Yet instead of the impervious black mass the audience has no doubt come to expect, shadows ominously skittering past windows, we see the doves for what they truly are. They are white, brilliantly so, gliding confidently across Seiran’s grounds with renewed purpose. Once Kaoru and Nanako recruit signatures for their petition calling to abolish the Sorority, their reassuring presence adorns Dezaki’s trademark postcard memories. For now, at least, hope has prevailed.