Dear Brother, the 1991 animated series from Osamu Dezaki (Aim for the Ace, Rose of Versailles) at first glance seems to be a very ordinary kind of high-school drama story of the shoujo genre; it focuses on the social life and personal crises of Nanako and Tomoko, two students at a very exclusive girls’ school – and their interactions with the “Sorority,” an elite club for the most able students.
The story is highly melodramatic and focuses on how, for schoolgirls, even apparently trivial misunderstandings and slights can be blown rapidly out of proportion. In many ways this is immediately established as much more of a school story than many similar anime; while it focuses on an elite circle of privileged students (as with the “student council” or powerful clubs that define stories like Ouran Highschool Host Club or K-On) it impresses upon the viewer the hierarchical nature of school life and the importance of school rules and regulations.
Teachers and prefect-like senior students are the power-holders in Dear Brother; conflict between pupils is resolved on personal levels but at all times those who break the rules are shown to be accountable to higher authority. Immediately this quite oppressive structure sets this apart from a lot of school-set anime, where teachers are ineffectual guiding hands to give the plot cause to proceed but otherwise do little except remain on the periphery of the students’ dramas. Ineffectual teachers are shown to give the stronger, bullying students a chance to air their greivances and disrupt lessons – indeed, Dear Brother provides a quite pessimistic view of school. This world of inconsistent yet often heavy-handed authority, entrenched social circles and alienating customs makes the series particularly melodramatic but in a way which is a soaplike exaggeration of real concerns that a new student at a prestigious school would have. Drifting apart from past friends – as Nanako does from Tomoko when she meets a domineering girl who takes her under her wing – is a central concern of the early episodes. Much school fiction focuses on groups of friends in the same class sticking together – a prime example is Harry Potter, where the central group of protagonists all inhabit one house and dorm – or friends from different classes having a lot of time to spend as a group. Yet Dear Brother emphasises the alienation that being in a new school brings; when friends can only meet between lessons, and the school ethos demands more and more of that free time, then existing friendships must be replaced.
More interesting still is how the series places significant emphasis on social class and a very foreign public-school ethos. An early episode explains that the school Nanako goes to models itself on overseas colleges by having a sorority system – presenting the inevitable rejection of traditional school-story models as something foreign to be viewed with caution and concern – and as a result to new students it is almost impossible to properly understand how to fit in. Nanako’s parents tell her to wear school uniform on the first day when no-one else does, setting her out as someone who does not fit in. Friendships are defined by social status and the ability to fit in within the school’s student hierachies which are encouraged and emphasised by many of the senior students. The qualities that the students most aspire to are social status, formal etiquette and material wealth over and above academia and so for the distinctly unremarkable Nanako this poses a serious problem. Her lack of wealth and status immediately paints her as a target for bullying and what little support she does get from senior students (who do have the status already but do not have the associated prejudices, painting them as sympathetic characters in how they are a compassionate face of the system) is seen as a bad thing. This story – of a lower-class entrant to a school for the elite – is quite against the traditions of other school-set anime; traditionally being a privileged student is based on skill at something (as with Aim for the Ace‘s tennis elite), not simply parental connections. In this way Nanako’s rejection of Tomoko becomes all the more significant as a point of drama; it is not only two childhood friends moving apart but two girls of similar outsider status being separated as one comes to embrace and embody the system that alienates them.
While social class and family connections define all interactions within the school, the existence of a layer of hierachy among the students – the Sorority – complicates matters. The Sorority is shown to be on the surface concerned with maintining the elitist, class-focused image of the entire school yet its leaders are sympathetic and compassionate. Then there exists a third group of students; celebrated musicians, sportswomen and artists who earn the adulation of the lower years but who reject the Sorority’s social obsession. It is they who seem the most sympathetic because they see through the Sorority’s concessions to egalitarianism for what they are – mere concessions, not a sign of true commitment. Nanako’s entry to the Sorority is shown to be implicitly an attempt to “improve” her – her farcical entrance interview where her lack of class and manners are shown makes this apparent. Indeed, after seeing the school bully oppose Nanako’s entry to the Sorority so strongly to the point of trying to ruin her reputation and make her late for the interview – and this plot arc establishing the kind of backstabbing and nastiness that the class-obsessed public school engenders – a viewer may begin to wonder if Nanako’s whole progress is some ongoing trick to build her up and then mock her.
Dear Brother’s opening arc is thus a very compelling kind of school-set story. Its strong class focus – and its exploration of how seeing the perks of an unfair system first-hand can make someone first consider tolerating it and then becoming an active part of it – sets it apart from more egalitarian school stories where even if there is an elite it is a compassionate and social one, not one founded on unfairness and prejudice. Nanako takes the chances she is offered because it seems a good thing to do so – she is naïve and sees sops to compassion from the Sorority as a sign they are not unfair. At the same time, this inherently unfair social system is presented as an alien, foreign thing in Japan – as if painting other schools as not as base and greedy as this fictional one. In showing the worst excesses of class in the name of melodrama, Dear Brother almost acts as a reinforcement of the viewer’s faith in the alternatives.