Oreimo stands for Ore no Imoto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai, which translates as “my little sister can’t be this cute”. It’s an odd title, because “cute” is the last word I would use to describe Kyosuke’s sister Kirino. In most respects they have a relationship that will be very familiar to anyone with a sibling. She barely even speaks to him, and treats him as beneath contempt, acting aggressively towards him when they interact and very quick to blame him for her own problems. She’s a fairly typical grumpy teenager, very far from being “cute”. Whenever he offends her, she treats him to frequent slaps around the face, which is a common anime trope that I intensely dislike, as it normalises female-on-male violence and uses it for comedic purposes.
So far none of that is particularly unusual, until Kyosuke finds out about his sister’s hobby: she collects eroge, a genre of Japanese games with an anime art style and some erotic content, plus associated figurines. That in itself wouldn’t be too bad, except Kirino is obsessed with eroge that feature incestuous romances between brothers and little sisters. Somehow Oreimo comes close to normalising that, and it does so very cleverly and ever so slightly insidiously, by equating Kirino’s hobby with otaku culture. On a basic level that’s the Japanese word for “nerd”, referring mainly to a collector of anime, manga or games, but it has all kinds of implications that don’t translate, including often an unfair hint of discrimination against a section of society considered to be perverted in some way. Kyosuke tries to protect his sister from their father’s rage by pretending the hobby is actually his, and that sets him on the path to sharing Kirino’s love of eroge. He’s basically railroaded into joining in her hobby, but it’s quite poignant because she has never had anyone to share her enthusiasm with for the games she collects. If you can set aside the disturbing nature of her hobby (and I use the word “disturbing” with some trepidation because I don’t want to fall into the trap of engaging in the kind of discrimination against otaku culture that Kirino suffers), what follows functions very well as a story of an isolated nerd finding a way to live the life she wants to live, with the help of her brother. He helps her to go along to an IRL meeting with some like-minded otaku girls, where she makes the first ever friends in her life around whom she can be herself. The really interesting aspect of this, and the one that sets Oreimo apart from most representations of lonely nerds, is that she actually does have plenty of friends already. In fact, she has two very good school friends, who feature strongly throughout the series, but they are in the dark about her hobby and she can’t be herself around them.
This is all a window through which to examine some fascinating and entertaining scenarios. What happens when her schoolfriends find out about Kirino’s hobby? How will she respond when she is rejected, or forced to choose between friendship and being true to herself? Her brother is key to helping her overcome this kind of problem in her life, and soon becomes a rock for her to lean on through troubled times. When she goes off to the USA to pursue her dream of being a professional athlete she has to face the harsh truth that she is not one of the tiny minority of people in the world with sufficient natural talent to achieve greatness in her chosen sport, a tough thing to deal with and another life problem worthy of the close examination it gets here.
So against all the odds this is a great series for most of its two seasons, helped by one of the most memorable groups of supporting characters I’ve seen in a long time… and then it all goes pear-shaped. During the second season, the story moves slowly but surely in the direction of a harem anime, and it works quite well because Kyosuke is an all-round nice guy who enriches the lives of the female friends he ends up sharing with Kirino, as a consequence of helping his sister. It all makes a lot of sense and joyously he ends up actually choosing one of the girls and starting a relationship. This is ridiculously unusual in anime series with a romantic element. Normally they just tease the viewers and never reach a conclusion, but this gets on with the business of moving Kyosuke’s life forwards. Better still, his choice of girlfriend is the out-and-out best character in this whole thing. I won’t spoil the surprise, but she’s one of my favourite anime characters in anything, ever, so I was delighted to see their romance amounting to more than longing looks and a clueless main character, as per most anime series. After a handful of lovely episodes where they enjoy their summer romance, it all goes horribly wrong and the incest element of this series really comes to the fore in a big way… and I hated every second of it.
I don’t know when I’ve been more disappointed by the ending of a series. The last few episodes are relentlessly frustrating. It’s not just that the main relationship breaks down, it’s the way that every potential love interest systematically confesses her love to Kyosuke, only to be turned down. It’s a barrage of misery, seeing girl after girl who we’ve enjoyed watching for two seasons reduced to tears, so Kyosuke and Kirino can play out their fantasy.
To give this series its due, it just about makes sense of what happens here and why it happens. There is a very strong examination of their backstory, and what has led them to this point, and you can definitely see how Kirino’s feelings have become confused by her past and her hobby, but it’s sold to us as far more than that and I don’t buy the decisions Kyosuke makes for one second, despite valiant attempts from the writer to make it work. I came away from this series feeling depressed by the whole story and a little bit tainted by what I had just watched. Despite that – and I know this will sound odd – I do recommend this series. The characters are so entertaining, and the issues it examines (beyond the awkward incest) are so watchable and though-provoking that I wouldn’t want to have missed this, and for a season and a half it’s full of hope and joy. I suspect what went wrong here is that we actually have two-thirds of a bigger story, and despite attempts to construct a positive ending it’s simply a very bad place to leave the narrative. Damn it, another anime has made me want to invest in a book series. RP