Contrasting Portrayals of Female Nerds

This season features a funny coincident in that two of the more prominent anime feature hardcore otaku in the lead roles. And while Kuragehime‘s Tsukimi and Ore no Imouto‘s Kirino are both otaku, the differences between them are blatant. But there are also some interesting similarities past the surface. They both have issues with family and they both are, at times, awkward in their interactions with other people… Kirino at home and Tsukimi around strangers. They also both have a lot of interesting scope for character development. (Moderate spoilers for the tagged anime. Image taken from oreno.imouto.org.)

After watching episode 4, I’m starting to come around to the idea that there are two important, but not so explicit, themes in Kuragehime, and the first is virginity. The love triangle has been established between Tsukimi and the two brothers (or should I say half-brothers) Shuu and Kuranosuke, and it’s immediately obvious that the two who are most similar are Shuu and Tsukimi, which is why the temptation to ship this pair is so strong. The most obvious similarity between these two is that they’re both virgins, but I’d say the similarities run much deeper than that. More importantly, they’re both nerds, which underpins their respective virginities. Tsukimi is much younger than Shuu (maybe this is just a consequence of having spent my own youth hanging around with nerds, but I don’t consider an eighteen year old virgin to be all that strange) but they both have hardcore interests which don’t entail casual, social interaction. Tsukimi’s obsession with jellyfish is a lonely hobby, while Shuu excels in politics by maintaining an uptight, professional and impassive guise around other people. The irony is that Shuu’s uncle, who happens to be the country’s preeminent politician, is, as far as sex-drive goes, everything that Shuu is not.

It’s within these interests that these two people are at their most confident. Tsukimi in particular shows a starkly different personality when she goes with Shuu and Kuranosuke to her domain, the aquarium. That this happens to coincide with Kuranosuke physically transforming Tsukimi into the visage of a polite, enthusiastic yamato nadeshiko boosts the illusion to Shuu that she’s desirable (and I think she is… as far as I’m concerned, Shuu and Tsukimi are two people who undersell themselves and don’t realize how eligible they are, or could be). This had made for great sitcom material (helped by Kuragehime‘s impeccable comic timing) but the question of how Shuu’s current illusion of Tsukimi will effect their relationship as the chasm between expectation and reality widens and/or reconciles will be an interesting one.

Shuu’s father mostly behaves just as uptight as Shuu does, but the fact that his two sons have different mothers strongly suggests that he’s no where near as upstanding as his eldest son. Kuranosuke’s missing mother not only makes a point about the all too common link between power and sexual scandal (what some would call a trope, but I’d say is a rather accurate reflection of real life) but creates an interesting source of drama within his character. I’d also say it creates a similarity between Tsukimi and Kuranosuke. Tsukimi’s love of jellyfish and memories of her late mother are inextricably linked, something which seems to cause her constant grief. Kuranosuke’s affection for beauty and fashion come from his own young memories of seeing his mother’s vibrant and brimming wardrobe. The issues with their respective mothers tie together to make up the other not-immediately obvious theme of Kuragehime that I’ve noticed.

The contrast between Tsukimi, socially inept and visually coarse, and this season’s other prominent lead female nerd, Ore no Imouto‘s natural beauty Kirino, is stark. It’s a comparison that’s been made before, many times. I find Kirino interesting on two levels, and the first has to do with the responses to her character. She is, in a lot of ways, an ideal, which immediately differentiates her from the make up of Tsukimi’s character, which attempts to speak to something the audience can relate to, rather than something that the audience desires. But I find myself cringing at criticisms that Kirino’s a Mary Sue, given the rather blatant (and occasionally unappealing) character flaws that she’s been written with. The mixed responses to ep 7 often follow a similar theme: the first half of the ep was good because it had Kuroneko, but the second half wasn’t as interesting because it was all about Kirino’s selfish attempts to get her brother’s attention. I don’t disagree that this part of the ep was severely flawed (for example, we really could have done without the whole bucket thing… there are ways to portray Kirino as confused and emotional without also making her look completely bonkers), but with Kirino’s attraction to Kyousuke as explicitly stated as it has been to this point, they’ve opened up the incest path, which is a gutsy move, and have an opportunity to make something really meaningful of it.

As explicitly as it's been said yet.

I’ve debated The Cart Driver’s Scamp on this issue, who seems adamant that the show isn’t going to tackle the incest issue with any thoroughness, and therefore any reference to it which doesn’t advance the story amounts to pandering for the imouto crowd. He’s made the bold prediction that it’ll be similar to the Kannagi ending, whereby the equilibrium at the end of the show is exactly the same as that of three episodes prior, thus devaluing all the stuff that happened in between. Now I won’t dispute that the Kannagi ending was weak, but that was probably more a consequence of its limited runtime and the fact that it has to stay loyal to an ongoing source. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t say it invalidated the rest of the show, and I still consider the direction it took in the last two episodes to be relatively bold. What Kannagi direly lacked in relationship development, it made up for in character development, especially for Nagi. Ore no Imouto faces a lot of the same limitations as Kannagi as far runtime goes (and isn’t blessed with a director as studious as Yamamoto Yutaka), but even if Ore no Imouto doesn’t resolve Kyousuke and Kirino’s relationship, it’ll still be worthwhile if they develop Kirino’s character… and given her current flaws, there’s plenty of scope for them to do so. I still think the tone of Scamp’s criticisms stem from the fact that his expectations of Ore no Imouto are unfairly high, although they’re probably due to it starting like a rocket (as disappointing shows tend to do).

I can’t help but compare Kirino favourably with Nogizaka Haruka (from the woeful Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu), who is, in my mind, about as blatant a Mary Sue as I’ve seen in anime. Both of them are desirable female otaku, but Haruka was much guiltier of being an implausible moe construct than Kirino will ever be, mostly because the contradictions that existed in her character were nonsensical. (She’s into moe anime, but mentions of sex make her faint…? C’mon.) I wouldn’t quite be prepared to call Kirino realistic given the implications which go along with that word, but if certain obviously contrived aspects of her character were toned down, I would be prepared to call her believable. For one, her attraction to Kyousuke makes sense to me, and this is the second level where I find her interesting. Her feelings for Kyousuke and jealousy of Manami are both steeped in her own, up to the start of the story, insufficient relationship with her brother. Manami’s been much more a sister to Kyousuke than Kirino has ever been, who’s kinda been the third wheel and is overcompensating for it right now by engaging in what’s likely a childish teenage crush, but could well be something more (that much remains unclear).

9 Responses to “Contrasting Portrayals of Female Nerds”

  1. I’m with Scamp with the OreImo stuff but interesting reading nonetheless.

    Tsukimi is appealing because she’s a nerd in appearance and is not a hypocrite like Kirino. Sure she lacks social interaction because of it but at least she’s not lying to people about her true self. And I can relate with Tsukimi since I’m a V and all.

  2. I find Tsukimi appealing in a way that a comedian is appealing. Maybe I am just not otaku enough, but I think that is how Kuragehime’s charm comes through to most readers. So I sort of disagree that it attempts to appeal by being similar, or I think in addition to appealing through otaku kinship, it appeals more through empathy. Ie., you feel for Tsukimi.

    On the other hand I think the only way to empathize with Kirino is appealing through similarity, as someone who may be a teenage girl at one point in her life.

    Anyways, it’s all quite interesting.

  3. @kluxorious
    I agree that Kirino is a hypocrite, but that’s actually part of the reason why I find her interesting. As far as lying about her hobby, well, from that point of view I have a huge amount of sympathy for her. Keeping one’s otakuism under wraps is an important social skill, I’d say. I, myself, have no problem sharing it with people who I think would empathize (such as fellow nerds, even those who don’t follow anime themselves) but I have no interest in being that guy who loudly extols about the latest episode of Code GAY-ASS to not only the poor chap awkwardly accompanying him as they walk down the street, but anyone who unfortunately comes within earshot. That stuff is embarrassing, and it doesn’t do much for the image of other anime fans, who consider themselves slightly more “normal” and who do want some level of acceptance in general society, independent of their interest in anime. That’s why I do think it’s important as an anime fan to have the ability to “suppress your power level”. If it’s lying to be able to suppress it in public situations where the people around you aren’t necessarily accepting, then so what? I’d say lying is the right thing to do.

    @omo
    That is kinda what I meant when I said “relate to”. I don’t consider myself similar to Tsukimi from the point of view that every aspect of her life is surrounded by nerddom and any departure from that causes her great discomfort. But I do have no problem understanding what she’s going through, being an introverted nerd myself. Much like Ore no Imouto, the show overplays the characters flaws’ to an extent where it departs from reality and strains belief for the sake of… well, anime (I guess “entertainment” is the word I’m really looking for). But the core of the character is still empathetic, and her experiences aren’t completely alien to us, as viewers.

  4. In my eyes, the main difference between these two characters is how much they care about how society views them. Tsukimi cares deeply; Kirino doesn’t. Tsukimi reminds me of the meek kid in the back corner of the room who reads comic books, trying to be herself without getting notice from anyone else. Kirino genuinely doesn’t care what others think of her hobbies and has a boldness I haven’t seen in a character since Haruhi.

  5. Did they really open up the incest route? Originally, I thought exactly the same way you did, but after watching the episode again, I think that it is ambiguous, which I consider episode 7’s greatest strength, despite its flaws. That last scene where Kyousuke is speaking to Mamami on the phone and the way that he says that it is not a Christmas date (pretty resolutely, in my opinion) suggested to me that it could be taken as building the relationship between the siblings, rather than romantically. (Notice that Mamami represents the audience here, and makes the same conclusion the audience does, similar to the scene in episode 6 where the guy asks about Kyousuke and Mamami’s relationship. It suggests that perception is a motif, but that’s a totally different topic.) That being said, it’s not difficult to argue the other way as well, that it is a romantic development. Among all others, the big one would be that Kirino states that her brother is a sis con, in the scene you show in your article and at the end, which practically screams PROJECTION!!! to me.

    Overall, it could go either way depending on how you look at it, and I think that’s a good thing. No matter how you slice it, the imouto crowd is a niche audience, and this show, based on the timeslot and animation budget, wants to go farther than that. So keeping it ambiguous would appease both audiences, which isn’t a bad thing. It does suggest, however, that the ending will be a cop out for a second season, because keeping it ambiguous means it’s difficult to reach a conclusion either way. You turn off one audience or the other with the ending if they do commit, so I doubt they would even bother. I think despite that, this is one of the better shows of the fall season and hopefully it will remain that way until the end.

  6. @Shadowmage

    Wait a second, I thought that Kirino really does care about what others think about her in terms of image. Isn’t that why we both think that she’s a hypocrite?

    I actually view Kirino and Tsukimi as the same type of character (i.e. otaku) but I see them under different light in terms of character. They both have something in common: when their topic of interest comes under light, they tend to come out of the shell and be more forward about it. The difference is, Kirino comes off as more intolerant of the other person’s – mostly Kyosuke – disagreeing opinions. This is why Kirino’s personality rubs me the wrong way, although her character is interesting to watch.

    As for Tsukimi, there’s a hint that she won’t react similarly to Kirino (issue here being that, there hasn’t been anyone who tells her off about how uninteresting jellyfish are. Kuranosuke surely finds it interesting). Like Shadowmage puts it, she’s meek. Unlike Kirino, she would cower or go into panic mode in case a person tells her off. This is why I find her likable: you can’t really hate a nice kid.

    What I worry about OreImo is how Kyosuke may end up being an otaku at the expense of her sister needing a playmate. I would appreciate it if this otaku hobby is what brings them together closer as siblings, but I don’t see how that has to come with Kyosuke becoming an otaku like his sister.

  7. @Shadowmage
    Yeah, I’m kinda leaning with AC on this issue. Kirino cares, and she anticipated how her friends and family would react to it, hence why she kept it a secret in the first place.

    @The Big Guy
    When I say “open it up” I mean it’s now a distinct possibility, much more so than it has been to this point. I don’t think they’ll become a couple, but I do think, at some point before the end of the anime, they’ll address their romantic attraction.

    @AC
    Is Kyousuke an otaku, though? I’m not really sure he is. There’s nothing that really attracts him to the hobby other than a way to look out for his sister. For example, take the bemused reaction he has towards the Meruru screening. The only real reason he’s in it (and he’s not really all that “in it” at all) is to support Kirino.

  8. @Sorrow-kun

    For the moment he’s not, but there’s a faint hint that he may become one as the show reaches the end. I take the scene where he completed the eroge his sister presented to him, as an example. Sure, he played the game out of Kirino’s request but when he finished it (or a round, I’m not sure), he felt contented. Why? It may be a simple example of sense of accomplishment (which you experience every time you complete a video game, especially difficult ones), but it’s also valid to say that he’s beginning to appreciate otaku material. I’m just saying that it’s a possibility; the original intention was to help out his sister but what if he becomes like her because of it?

  9. Actually, it wouldn’t be that bad of an idea to turn Kyousuke into an otaku. It would be the type of irony that tragedies are made of, do everything to help her and the end result being that he becomes evil incarnate (hyperbole, but you get the point) himself. I don’t think the writers would go in that direction, because this show doesn’t seem to want to be a tragicomedy, but I think that wouldn’t necessarily be the worst direction for this show to go in.

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