OreImo manages, just by the skin of its teeth, to be more than the sum of its parts.
Because, honestly, it really shouldn’t be very good. It’s actually in the same line of succession as Rosario + Vampire and B-gata H-Kei, the latter of which has a character with a notable amount of similarities to Kirino, the girl at the centre of this anime. But while each of those I expected to be dreadful, only to find myself entertained and liking them whilst knowing that, actually, they were pretty crap, this one I expected to be mediocre, and found that it was mediocre…yet really, really enjoyed it.
At a basic level, this is harem anime with all the usual harem contrivances and awkward need to have the male protagonist not actually commit to any of the girls pursuing him, as that’s when the tension goes out of the story. There’s a veneer of cleverness overlaid in that eroge (the story-based erotic games that form the basis for many harem anime) are the subject of the plot, as referenced in things like choices for key decisions popping up on the screen and the alternate ending given in the OVAs being referred to as the ‘true route’, but that if anything counts against the show: at times it comes close to the smug ‘we’re above these clichés but we’ll use them anyway just to point out how silly they are and because we can’t actually think of anything else’ writing I dislike in shows like Buffy (see my Cabin in the Woods rant). But it’s the self-examining otaku-centric writing that also gives this title its charm.
Kirino is quite the perfect teenaged girl – she excels in academia and sports, has plenty of friends and is pretty enough to be a model. But her big brother Kyousuke knows her as the stroppy, arrogant girl who snubs him and constantly criticises him at home – until one day he discovers her secret. She likes anime and hentai games. A lot. And not the ones you might expect, but the ones known as the domain of the creepiest otaku – she likes moé-moé anime about little sister types, especially ones who get romantically involved with their big brothers. But not because she projects herself onto the little girl – no, no, she wants to be the big brother in the situation. Kirino is a pretty, clever, sporty, fashionable lolicon.
Upon discovering this, Kyousuke realises how lonely she has been and does his best to help her. He arranges for her to meet up with some other female otaku, and despite some difficulties she makes two entertaining friends – the hilarious clumsy, awkward old-fashioned otaku Saori, who gives her name as Saori Bajeena (both an absurd, funny-sounding name and a Gundam reference) and is secretly a refined ojou-sama type, and the acid-tongued, standoffish Kuroneko (a nickname meaning ‘black cat’) who is a loli in the other Japanese pop culture sense, ie a follower of Lolita fashion. She’s also a bit of a loli in the former sense – ie, looks like a little girl and is sexually appealing – though keeps everyone at arm’s length. So Kirino and Kuroneko are both tsundere in different ways: Kirino’s tsun side is all aggression, contempt and shouting, while her dere side is blushes and sharing, while Kuroneko is tsun with haughtiness and cruelty, then dere with softness, goofiness and…well, more blushes. And both soon show an interest in Kyousuke while trying to hide it from him, as do just about every other girl he comes in contact with – his spacey childhood friend, Kirino’s two model friends (a brat and a normal but very pretty girl who presses close to yandere) and even comic relief Saori.
Where the series succeeds is the otaku comedy. It’s nothing very new – most of it has been seen in Genshiken and Welcome to the NHK, even Otaku noVideo – but it’s very well-balanced over just a few episodes. Be it the reactions of disgust of the uninitiated seeing nudey transformation scenes a la Nanoha or Kuroneko revealing herself to be gaming goddess by easily beating a pro gamer (like I did today, kekeke…), be it pastiches of the kind of anime Kuroneko likes – the mesh of Code Geass and DNAngel that is Masquera (with a superb outro song made for it) or the obviously-named Rosen Jungfrau – or subtle inclusions of other incest-based anime like the DVDs of Da Capo on Kirino’s pile. More than most ecchi romances, it manages to actually be funny.
But it stumbles in its second half. A big part of this is the anime-only story that Kirino’s terrible fanfiction (which includes the emoticons she uses in online and phone chats) becomes published as a novel and enough of a smash hit that there was an anime adaptation, which leads to some scenes where Kyousuke is given the chance to stand up for his sister and look cool. The trouble is, it all seems like some wish-fulfilment fantasy that someone is going to wake from, or some bizarre Haruhi-like bit of supernatural reality-bending. It seems really jarring that Kirino could make this story, and inconsistent in the way it’s presented as simultaneously hilariously amateur and wildly popular. It all happens too quickly and with too little input from Kirino, and is all over and near-forgotten too soon – quite surprising given that they got premier anime writer Kurata Hideyuki (Uchuu Show-e Youkuso, Read or Die) for the script. It all basically felt tacked on so AIC could pat themselves on the back about fan-pleasing things like changing their intro every episode. And then soon after, it becomes apparent that her attitude isn’t changing. There’s a sweet ironic moment where Kirino finds a little sister character annoying because she’s too prickly and doesn’t show her cute side until much later (when Kirino of course does a U-turn), which she doesn’t see is a direct mirror of her own behaviour. But the trouble is that she’s just hard to like, it’s hard to swallow that her brother really doesn’t understand her actual feelings (which honestly seem unlikely for me for someone who likes little girls), and while I do like her, and enjoy watching her, she’s just not all that likeable and her character progression feels much too slow.
This is if anything highlighted by the OVAs, in which (following the original light novels’ plot) she leaves the country and Kuroneko goes to Kyousuke’s school. The two of them join the video games club and it all gets far more Genshiken as she clashes with a fujoshi and then the two of them work together on a game. The mini-arc is just far more enjoyable than the main anime, and Kuroneko is a rather more interesting central character, especially in a modern school setting rather than, say, as a loli detective in the 20s, Gosick-style. The fujoshi character is hilarious, and the Makabe-kun character I found utterly adorable, especially blushing wildly as he hears the horrible things Akagi the fujoshi has imagined him doing. I wonder what that hint about her brother despising him in the DVD extras was…
Indeed, the DVD extras deserve a mention – I thought ‘animated commentary’ would just be a waste of time, and the horrible basic animation of the SD chibis in the first episode almost bore that out, but ultimately it was less a dull commentary than a very interesting way to get characters discussing the anime from outside it – as well as having some really fun ideas like letting the characters from the anime-within-the-anime do some commentary and having the characters see things that happened in private. AIC Build at the very least know how to please fans with the trimmings.
My head says that I shouldn’t really like OreImo. Under all the self-referential humour, it’s still dumb harem, and its main character may be sweet but even with just twelve episodes it stretched credulity a little that she could be so blatant and yet Kyousuke remain oblivious. And yet I looked forward to every episode, I laughed at the jokes and the awkward situations, and though I preferred Kuroneko I was pleased when Kirino returned to the series. And I will definitely tune in for season 2.