In my previous article, eight or nine episodes into Dear Brother, I talked of how it provided a kind of subtle social commentary that was quite universal – or indeed quite specifically culturally relevant outside of Japan. Its talk of exclusive schools, “sororities”, social class and fitting in resonated with me in England, where a similarly exclusive and ultimately stratified-by-wealth tier of education exists; talk of how members of Seiran school’s sorority were promised contacts, partners and social status resonated with the fact and fiction of schools like Eton and Harrow, and by extension universities like Oxford and Cambridge. Dear Brother‘s drama, at its heart, was a drama about social mobility in public schools.
This has continued as I am now well over two-thirds into the series; even if the plotline of the sorority itself is increasingly giving way to a more personal drama involving protagonist Nanako and antagonist Miya over their relationships with a man called Henmi, the school-fiction aspects continue to rise to the forefront and provide the more universal and intriguing drama. These are generally only enough to sustain single episodes but the sense of continuity that these individual events gives – all focusing around first the efforts of other girls to force Nanako out of the sorority via psychological bullying and then physical acts and then Miya’s abuse of her position as a role model and authority figure – provides the socially-aware core which can drive the main plot. The rivalry over Henmi can only be taken beyond harsh words because Nanako’s life is dominated by Miya’s abused authority. That Miya essentially can destroy Nanako’s prospects at school with a word (shown by her humiliating eviction of a student from the sorority for being ill too often) forces Nanako into subservience; while the older girl’s control of the sorority is absolute, it is even more paramount for Nanako to stay on her good side because she is the social outsider at Seiran. If a student who “fits” and is otherwise popular can be ruined, one whose “suitability” for Seiran is already in question has no rights at all.
That every time Nanako tries to defy Miya’s most absurd orders (not writing to Henmi, for example) she is threatened and reminded of how tenuous her position is – and that she has no-one to explain this to – creates a low-key yet effective air of oppression by means of popularity. It is ultimately a believable situation; bullies with social privilege and influence in a school setting where it is assumed the older students are responsible role-models can act in this way. This ultimately comes to a head when Nanako and her friend Mariko are instructed to go on “holiday” with Miya; yet while Miya and the other seniors relax and play sport, the two first-years are left doing menial work. This then leads into Miya’s birthday, where the students of the sorority flaunt their wealth to buy ever-more lavish gifts – and Nanako, who is unable to do anything but make home-made cakes for her, is made to feel an outsider even if that is not warranted. This is the strength of Dear Brother – it communicates how powerless victims of bullying can be, especially in high-stress school environments where to admit there is a problem can be seen as a sign of weakness. Nanako’s reluctance to talk about her bullying to even her family or closest friend can be considered contrived in that it prolongs some plotlines – but it is if anything among the more believable aspects of the series not specifically because of any Japanese cultural relevance, but because it refers to observable behaviours.
Yet despite this, Dear Brother is increasingly imperfect; when it focuses on Miya’s status and abuse of it, or the general corrosive atmosphere at Seiran, it is strong stuff. Indeed, when in her closing narrations Nanako claims she cannot talk about her subservience to Miya, or her being threatened by Mariko earlier in the series, save through letters to an effectively anonymous penpal she calls a “brother”. She knows her “brother” is Henmi, but does not want to accept him as “Henmi”, simply as someone she can confide in about things that she cannot let others know. The viewer is effectively Henmi, here; they are seeing what Nanako goes through. The actual “plot,” however; not the setting or the execution of the plot and its role in being a kind of social commentary, but the story itself of the reasons for Miya’s estranged sister Rei’s insanity, the fact that Henmi is so distant, and Mariko’s gradual realisation of her homosexuality (and how this causes Nanako herself to question her own sexuality) is far less strongly executed. The subjects covered – sexual development in a single-sex school, the appropriation of this maturation by role model figures to promote a culture fetishising virginity and purity and the effect this has on presentation of feminist ideas – are fascinating and arguably underrepresented in popular media. But Dear Brother seems to rush its developments, mix them in with ludicrous scenes of heightened drama that seem quite unfitting. Miya and Rei rave, draw knives on each other, and try to kill those around them (one can accept well that Nanako would cover for her role model a lot, but when Miya apparently tries to drown her, it seems less plausible as a development) in a reductive view of insularity and resentment. The female love-interests of Kaoru and Rei are also shown to be highly idealised and almost deified while the men in the story – Henmi and his friend – seem less well-drawn despite their centrality to it.
The revelation of why Miya hates Henmi so much is arguably the weakest link in the story – it is apparently to do with a childhood betrayal which turned Miya into a kind of teenage Miss Havisham, sealing her bedroom off unchanged from her twelfth birthday. Ultimately this revelation, almost-Victorian as it is, undermines much of the stronger points of the plot; the idea hinted at previously of Miya fetishising Nanako’s sexual doubt as a way of preserving a virginal ideal was fascinating and invited questions of why; that it boils apparently down to a childish misunderstanding lessens the impact. While at this stage in the series Rei’s own role in the plot remains unknown, and it is possible there is more to do with Henmi than has been explained, the way in which these revelations are handled have driven the narrative into a low point. Similarly, an episode where Mariko spends an entire day out making pointed comments about how all men secretly want to deceive and rape young women takes the interesting angle of exploring homosexuality in a same-sex school, and the ways in which heterosexuality is considered when this meets existing gender double-standards and reduces it to soundbites.
Mariko’s character is much like this throughout, though; she undergoes the most changes from episode to episode as if required to do so by the narrative. At first she is the quiet, possessive girl, then apparently driven to a desire for tragic murder-suicide, and then she settles down having almost completely changed in character in about half the series. The revelation that she is homosexual redefines this change of character – she is coming to terms with her sexuality – but it all seems to too neatly try and wrap up the awkward juxtapositions of the ludicrous and melodramatic with the often chilling and emotionally powerful. When it is attempting social commentary, Dear Brother is powerful and often hard-to-watch. Yet these interesting aspects are frequently undermined by its core storyline.