Golden joy, silver sorrow/everything so far/for your sake, for love’s sake alone/let’s empty these two bowls
So ends the baleful, synthed-out theme song to the 1991 anime Brother, Dear Brother as images of carriages, antique clocks, and parasols fade off the screen. The scene is set for something sweeping and operatic, the kind of story where destined love must overcome war, class divides, or even death. It’s a fair expectation from a Riyoko Ikeda story and director Osamu Dezaki, the same combination on The Rose of Versailles, which had all of that stuff. Then the first episode starts and it’s about…Nanako, an everyday 16-year-old, and her first day of high school. Brother, Dear Brother dares to establish a setting where the chasm between epic romance and mundane teenage life isn’t that wide. It may not exist at all. The characters’ minor dramas – being slighted by the school’s most exclusive clique, low grades on midterm exams – are placed up against dark secrets, mysterious terminal illnesses, and the kind of unrequited love that can destroy lives.
I have a weakness for art that is overblown, baroque, and unafraid to lean into its Too Muchness. My fondness for melodrama is because it actually touches me. Especially resonant nuggets of truth about the human condition are often at the heart of the biggest, heaviest-handed stories. When a character in Brother, Dear Brother is compared to a historical prince, we are rewarded with a freeze frame her dressed as a royal and surrounded by fluttering cherry blossoms. Anger and conflict are punctuated by sudden storms, lightning highlighting wide-eyed expressions. The protagonist’s crush actually has a rose in her teeth at one point. It’s all ridiculous. And very charming. Most of all, it conjures a world of female adolescence that forces the audience to live in its visceral experience instead of gawking at teen drama or hiding behind cynicism.
Shojo media is particularly adept at handling female friendships because it recognizes it for what it is: one of the most sacred and terrible forces in the universe. To call it friendship doesn’t do these relationships justice. Even if we grow up to be cursed with an attraction to men, I believe many of us can look back on our adolescent years and realize that we were something closer to in love with a female friend. In Brother, Dear Brother, the beautiful but intense Mariko goes on a hunger strike after scaring off her only close companion, desperate for forgiveness. These story beats are drawn out in larger than life character moments, all tears and fainting and screaming. And yet the heart of this girl’s dread over being isolated again rings true to a time when linking arms with your best girlfriend at recess felt like armor. It was always a girl, whether she deserved it or not, that I was devoted to, tripping over myself to impress so that I might gain access to a secret space of confidences and intimacy. If she was for me, who could be against me?
We see it in Western media, too. Soapy teen shows like Gossip Girl spin convoluted webs of romance and sex, but the driving force of the narrative is still love between female friends, envy of other girls, revenge on other girls, the all-consuming desire to be another girl. It’s there in stories like The Craft, where the bond between teenage girls is so strong it becomes a supernatural force that threatens to tear the male-set status quo apart. We often brush off stories about young women or things made to appeal to them (boy bands, magical girls, gel pens) even though it seems not only unwise, but dangerous to underestimate the black hole force of their infatuations and obsessions.
In the world of shojo manga and the literature it takes inspiration from, like A Little Princess and Anne of Green Gables, creators understood that the interiority of young women was complex and powerful enough to carry a story on its own. Girls in these stories have wide eyes that hold galaxies worth of hopes, signaling that their perspective and minds are full of ideas worth sharing. Every tragedy and heartbreak fill the pages with their oversized nowness. Even if these difficulties can be overcome, the work allows the importance of the present moment to stand on its own, not stooping to patronize its characters or its readers about how things aren’t so bad when you’re young. Things are beautiful down to the tiniest detail, because the desire to surround oneself with beauty is still an impulse that’s tolerated – and a sparkling world feels possible. Everything can seem beautiful and intimidating at once, as it often does when you’re young.
There’s something very potent about pre-adulthood. The figure of the female adolescent, the rose about to bloom, is an evergreen image across cultures. Whether stories celebrate, demonize, sexualize, or trivialize female adolescence, there’s still a limitless sense of projection onto to this girl on the brink. Sometimes they recognize this power but only as it pertains to the downfall of men, as in Lolita or Naomi. The wish to tame and contain it has been popping up in literature since the prince set his eyes on the preteen Murasaki in The Tale of Genji. The brilliance of the best shojo stories is that they recognize and respect this power but leave the agency to its wielders
At 27, it’s easy to look back and wonder how full your bowls of joy and sorrow can really be as a high school freshman. I have the distance to realize that the things that seemed apocalyptically important at 16 were often just blips on the radar. The life-changing loves that drive the characters of Brother, Dear Brother are built on mere days, glances, or even dreams. The entire story takes place over less then a school year. But what it and stories in the shojo tradition have captured, accidentally or not, in their unapologetic maximalism, is the heightened urgency and importance that everything seems to take on in adolescence. No matter if the conflict of the week was drug addiction or a missed party, each episode ends with the lament “there is no end to my tears.” At that age, it’s inconceivable to see an end to any of the feelings that seem so new and all-consuming. The story honors that and is confident dwelling in the liminal and volatile space of girlhood.
Find me on: