Wednesday, February 23 2005

Ai Yori Aoshi: honorifics and sex appeal

I finally got around to watching the last volume of the first Ai Yori Aoshi series, which is a mostly-successful romantic comedy in the harem genre. The art and animation are quite good, the music works, the voice acting is excellent, the antics are generally amusing, and while the characters are built on common genre stereotypes, most of them manage to grow into interesting people over time. The reason it’s only mostly-successful is that the core romance moves forward at a glacial pace, but this is largely an artifact of their attempt to remain mostly consistent with the original manga.

The only real twist in this “nice guy ends up living in a house full of beautiful women who want him” story is that the childhood-friend/first-love character bags him before any of the others ever have a chance, but must keep this a secret to avoid a family scandal. This leaves the rest with the impression that his heart is up for grabs, and, as they say, “wackiness ensues”.

The female cast provides plenty of variety for a “who would you pick” poll, but the series is so popular (as both manga and anime) that I feel no need to create another one. Instead, I’ll give my own impressions of the cast, and focus on something that I found flawed in the setup of the story, namely the way the “big secret” is constantly compromised by the way certain characters address each other.

(spoilers of various degrees follow; now updated with links to larger screenshots)

Kaoru Hanabishi: nice guy, college sophomore, formerly heir to a major conglomerate run by a complete bastard.

Being raised by a complete bastard makes Kaoru a bit twitchy about his past and more than a bit reserved about people in general. Unlike most abused children, however, he turned out to be a genuinely nice guy. Combined with good looks and a good brain, this makes him a total babe-magnet. Really, the only thing that kept him unattached for so long was his unwillingness to open up to other people, something that Tina made a stab at in his freshman year, but that didn’t really start to fade until Aoi got to work on him. Of course, thanks to his emotionally stunted youth, he’s completely unaware of the effect he has on women.

When he was still the Hanabishi heir, a marriage was arranged with a suitable girl. After he turned his back on the family he hated, the marriage was scrubbed, and both families did their best to pretend he never existed. Except for the girl, who’d fallen for him at first sight, and spent years dreaming about her future life with this boy…

Aoi Sakuraba: female lead, heir to another major conglomerate, secretly engaged to Kaoru, doormat.

A lot of people insist that calling submissive/deferential female anime characters “doormats” is a kind of cultural chauvinism, but I’m not calling her a doormat because I don’t understand the cultural appeal of yamato nadeshiko. I’m calling her a doormat because half the cast wipes their goddamn shoes on her back, and she just smiles and keeps coming back for more. She actually does have a spine (in fact, the plot depends on it), but it’s usually smothered under her inferiority complex, social phobias, and neurotic dependence on Kaoru’s approval, all the result of a sheltered upbringing specifically designed to produce a trophy wife for the chairman of a major conglomerate. To be blunt, the chick’s a complete basket-case, and if she hadn’t been reunited with a Kaoru who lived up to her expectations, she’d most likely have snapped and gone on a killing spree. And she’s very, very good with kitchen knives.

Miyabi Kagurazaki: secretary/nanny/tutor to Aoi, devoted servant, educated modern woman, ice queen.

Does Miyabi have a life outside of service to Aoi? Is her usual cool, formal, rigidly perfectionist behavior the result of passions repressed or otherwise sublimated into her work? Gosh, I hope so, because she’s hot. This is a woman who’s basically spent her adult life training Aoi to be the perfect traditional Japanese wife, using the gently persuasive methods of a veteran drill sergeant. After many years of this relationship, I think she’s honestly stunned by the discovery that Aoi actually likes her and wants her as part of the family she’s building with Kaoru. This produces a gradual thaw in her armor, but at the end of the season she still spends most of her days locked up in her office, vigorously managing Aoi’s business affairs. The good news is that if she ever snapped from all the tension, the most likely result is a torrid romance rather than a mass slaughter. Meanwhile, I’ll bet she has one helluva collection of sexy lingerie in her closet.

Taeko Minazuki: college freshman, meganekko, live-in housekeeper, klutz, huge tracts of land.

Taeko stands out among the cast at least as much for her down-to-earth normality as for her massive bustline. She’s just a pretty girl working hard to put herself through college, hampered by a clumsiness that’s both endearing and destructive. Shy around men, the welcome she receives in Aoi’s household puts her in a position to acquire a serious crush on the apparently-available Kaoru (who, along with Tina, is also her senior in the college photo club). Naturally, harem anime conventions dictate that her clumsiness must result in frequent embarrassing incidents and compromising positions involving him, further contributing to both her shyness and her crush. In short, Taeko’s the sanest one of the bunch, and when she eventually figures out that Kaoru’s taken, she’ll easily move on and start looking for another man as good. And with her self-confidence boosted by her adoptive family, she’ll have no trouble acquiring one.

Tina Foster: college junior (more or less), aggressively outgoing, constantly outrageous, frequently oblivious, desperately in love with Kaoru.

Brashly American despite growing up in Japan, Tina’s wacky antics cover up a shy virgin who’d explode from joy if Kaoru fell for her. What she’d do if she found out that she never had a chance after he met Aoi is something that we find out in the second season…

Chika Minazuki: Taeko’s manic young cousin.

Chika starts out trying to push Taeko and Kaoru together, but ends up wanting him for herself. As the only member of the cast who really grasps the concept of sex appeal, Chika is lacking only two things to get her way: a bit of sophistication in her approach, and a competitive bustline. If Kaoru had a lolicon, Chika would already be Aoi’s most serious rival.

Mayu Miyuki: spoiled little rich girl.

That’s pretty much it, really. She’s got a thing for Kaoru because he was nice to her one day when she was a lonely little girl. She’d like to claim him for her own, but so far hasn’t made it out of the little-sister zone.

So where do the honorifics come in? Because Kaoru was disowned as the Hanabishi heir after turning his back on them, Aoi’s status-conscious family refuses to allow an open engagement between the couple. To allow them to be together without scandal, they’re put up in one of her family’s homes and forced to assume the roles of tenant/handyman and landlady, with Miyabi along as business manager and chaperone (responsibilities she takes very seriously). Because they’re pretending to run a boarding house, they can’t come up with a good excuse not to rent a room to Tina when she stops by to visit Kaoru. Soon after, soft-touch Aoi can’t refuse Taeko when she loses her live-in housekeeper job and needs another. Chika doesn’t move in until the end of the season, and Mayu (fortunately) is just a frequent visitor.

[side note: a popularity poll of the manga readers, taken before Chika showed up, ranked the characters as follows: Aoi, Tina, Taeko, Kaoru, Mayu, Miyabi. Considering that Mayu had just been introduced, this wasn’t good news for Miyabi…]

So, given that all the girls except Miyabi are in love with Kaoru, and his relationship with Aoi is a deep, dark secret that must be kept even from his housemates, how does everyone address each other? I’ll leave out Chika and Mayu, except to note that they refer to Kaoru as Onii-chan and Hanabishi-sama, respectively.

Kaoru: Aoi-chan, Miyabi-san, Tina, Taeko-chan.

Aoi: Kaoru-sama, Miyabi-san, Tina-san, Taeko-san.

Miyabi: Kaoru-dono, Aoi-sama, Tina-san, Taeko/Minazuki-san.

Tina: Kaoru, Ooya-san, Kanrinin-san, Tae-chin.

Taeko: Senpai, Ooya/Aoi-san, Miyabi-san, Tina-senpai.

[side note: the subtitles do a good job of preserving/converting these honorifics, but they miss subtleties like Miyabi’s constant use of watakushi instead of watashi as a personal pronoun, which reinforces her formality.]

As far as Tina and Taeko know, Kaoru has no pre-existing personal relationship with Aoi, and is simply renting a room in the boarding house that she owns and Miyabi manages. However, the way that Aoi and Miyabi address him imply a “familiar hierarchy”, with him in the superior position; he’s never Hanabishi-san or Kaoru-san, even in front of total strangers they’re trying to keep the secret from. Worse, he addresses his landlady more familiarly than he does the classmate he has a quite friendly relationship with (although in fairness, I think Tina is actually his senpai in the photo club).

[update: several people have written asking about the rule that the lack of an honorific is generally more intimate than even -chan. I went back and checked, and it’s pretty clear that this doesn’t apply to Kaoru just calling her Tina; one of the other photo club members does as well, making it the “informal American” exception. She knows what she’s implying when she calls Kaoru Kaoru, though; she has affectionate nicknames for the other two club members, but they’re based on their last names. Now, why everyone but Tina immediately feels safe calling Miyabi by her first name…]

Taeko is probably in the best position to notice inconsistencies and puzzle out the truth, but the flow of events hasn’t really given her much time to reflect, and since she was unaware of her own developing affection for Kaoru until Chika pointed it out, her thoughts haven’t been focused that way.

Tina, on the other hand, is very, very focused on Kaoru as Mr. Right, and quick to evaluate other women for their potential as rivals. Oddly, though, the only one she really worries about is Mayu; neither the honorifics (especially Miyabi’s) nor the obvious affection between Kaoru and Aoi sets off any warning bells in her head. Maybe it’s simply that she’s actually seen Mayu make a move on him, but I’d expect the token foreigner to be a bit more conscious of honorifics, especially as applied to the man of her dreams.

Who would I pick, assuming I had the chance? It’s a close race, but I think Miyabi narrowly beats Taeko. A slightly-older Taeko would probably win. Third place goes to Tina, although a much-older Chika would be quite competitive; either one would certainly keep a relationship lively. Aoi comes next (preferably after some time with a good therapist), with Mayu bringing up the rear.

Will I buy the DVDs of the second season, Ai Yori Aoshi — Enishi? I’ll buy the first one, at least, although I feel no real urgency. When I happen to spot it while looking for something else, I’ll buy it, but it’s not at the top of my list. I’m more interested in upcoming releases like Daphne in the Brilliant Blue and Tenjou Tenge, as well as new discs in series like R.O.D The TV, Chrono Crusade, Burn-Up Scramble, and Seven of Seven.