Why I Love Nanami Kiryuu
Your friend and mine, Mr. Scamp, has recently started watching Revolutionary Girl Utena, and last time I checked (although he could be past this episode by now, who knows), he was close to one of my favorite episodes in the series, ep16, aka the infamous cow episode. And it got me to thinking more after that about how much I enjoyed Nanami throughout the series, and how relatively little love she seems to get elsewhere . . . mostly because not only is she a scheming asshole who looks down upon others, but also because she’s not particularly good at the scheming, especially when compared to the heavy hitters in the show. She’s a punchline (always the star of the comedy episodes, notice), someone not taken seriously by the world at all despite the inflated opinion she has of her own worth.
But I always got a kick out of Nanami, for serious and not-so-serious reasons. She may earn scorn from a sizable (though it’s not for me to say how sizable) portion of the fanbase, but I love her nonetheless. Here’s why.
(Spoilers past this point, particularly for reason No. 3.)
1. Her comedy episodes are hilarious and, to me, borderline slapstick comic genius, at least as far as anime is concerned. Really, anime is very rarely laugh out loud funny, to me, anyway. The list of pure comedies that have made me consistently laugh is fairly small: Azumanga Daioh, Cromartie High School, Detroit Metal City, Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu, Hare+Guu, Martian Successor Nadesico (though it’s borderline as a pure comedy), Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (just the first two seasons) and the first two seasons of Slayers. That’s about it. What do a lot of those have in common? Great slapstick.
Slapstick is a staple of comedy anime, although not all do it well, of course. (Thinking of generic tsundere behavior here.) When it really hits its mark, slapstick cracks me up — the pure physicality of it is just great. (Watch some Buster Keaton some time and tell me that shit doesn’t completely hold up today.) Well, the Nanami comedy episodes pull off slapstick about as well as I’ve seen anywhere, not just in anime. The physicality, the timing, the sheer lunacy of the actions . . . it’s about as close to the spirit of Looney Tunes as anything can get without actually being the cartoons themselves.
Take ep8, where a curry mishap causes Utena and Anthy to switch bodies and Nanami and her entourage are forced to travel to India to obtain the secret spice that will switch Utena and Anthy’s bodies back to normal. What allows this episode to really breathe is that none of Utena to this point (or after) has been particularly realistic, and therefore the comedy can give in completely to inspired lunacy. They get chased by elephants upon, are stuffed into a van with deadly snakes (and the van is soon bowled over by an elephant, of course), an elephant dive bombs them as they climb up a sheer cliff (while the girls are in their school uniforms, mind, a detail that kills me for some reason) and so on. (Culminating in this fantastic visual.)
Fantastic, fantastic slapstick . . . and it wouldn’t be nearly as funny as it is if Nanami weren’t such a delightful buttmonkey. At this point in the series, Nanami is just a horrible person. Most viewers probably laugh at Nanami, cheer for the elephants or both upon watching this episode. (Or maybe they just sit there and don’t react if they’re soulless fucks who treat everything like Serious Business.) Nanami does something off the wall terrible, so she receives an off the wall punishment in return. An eye for an eye.
The cow episode is just something else. It’s one of my favorite examples of an illogical situation being steered (lol) toward a logical solution. Nanami gets a magical cowbell. She wears it and slowly turns into a cow. She slowly becomes more cowlike and randomly attacks students. How does Utena combat this? She becomes a bullfighter, of course! Whoever wrote that episode deserves a medal, and if Nanami were real, she would get a medal, too, for being a great comedian.
2. Building off the first reason a bit, I love Nanami for being such a failtastic ojou-sama type, bless her heart. She tries so hard to be refined and to keep her assumed place at the top of the social hierarchy, but she’s just so bad at planning because she’s like a normal high school mind working among giants of deception and cruelty. While I totally laughed at all the ridiculous things that happen to Nanami in her comedy episodes, I could never truly hate her because, frankly, she doesn’t give off any sense of danger at all. She’s not even as dangerous as dumbass Saionji, much less her brother or Akio.
The perfect representation of this: There’s the episode where Nanami is hanging out with Utena and Anthy, and she plots to plant various gross things around Anthy’s room to frame Anthy as this disgusting freak who will then be laughed at by everyone at school and then nobody will like her and then everyone will think Nanami is the most like totally awesome person ever. Of course, every one of her plans backfires because 1) Anthy reacts in ways that are the opposite of what Nanami expects, and 2) The plans are all terrible, anyway, like something the lead cheerleader would come up with in some B-grade high school flick. It’s almost endearing to see how lame she is and how desperately she tries to hold on to a position that is really just an illusion.
Even her relationship with little Tsuwabuki is kind of sad even though she pretty much treats him like shit almost the whole time. The person who is truly loyal to Nanami is a little kid who is so smitten with her that he doesn’t know any better. To me, it’s kind of like she is playing out her relationship with Touga, except she doesn’t realize it, and she isn’t anywhere near the Touga that Touga is. Oh, Nanami.
(Screenshot nabbed from this great post by ghostlightning.)
3. And that transitions decently well into the srs biz reason why I love Nanami: I really dig the layers of her character, especially the complexity of her relationship with Touga. In a way, you could say Nanami is similar to Utena in the essence of her innocence — not innocence in the sense that she is “good”, but innocence in the sense that she has some purity she clings to and wishes to keep uncorrupted. For Utena, it’s the ideal of the prince; for Nanami, it’s her relationship with her brother, Touga. Nanami really is like a true innocent — the only world she really knows is the world with Touga, and she internalizes it and fiercely defends it no matter who the opponent or the level of danger. She has no real life experience beyond this, and for most of the series, it doesn’t seem as if she wants to bother gaining that experience, either.
A basic example: The cat Touga has as a child; Nanami kills this cat because Touga starts paying attention to it juuuuuuuust a bit more than he pays attention to her, even if it’s for a short time. It’s an intense scene, and I think made all the more intense because of why Nanami kills the cat. She does not do it out of maliciousness, or because she is evil; rather, she does it because she is an innocent and doesn’t know any better. This is one of those dangerous subversions for which Utena is well known. Nanami has always been childish up to this point, whether that has involved the pettiness with which she views her standing in regard to the other girls at the school, the clumsiness of her plans to stay on top or whatever. But that story really shows the extent to which her childlike mentality colors her world.
It’s a weird sort of black-tinged moe, isn’t it? Nanami is the little girl dutifully dedicated to her beloved onii-chan, but that dedication manifests itself in disturbingly destructive ways. She’d gladly wake Touga up before school in the morning and fix him breakfast and oh, by the way, you don’t have to worry anymore about that fucking cat who was trying to steal your love way.
But even with that dangerous obsession, Nanami nonetheless manages somehow to keep some sense of purity about her relationship, probably because she is like one of those moe characters trapped in a series where they’re chewed up and spit out. Sex completely soaks the world of Utena, so most people (including myself) probably assume at first that Nanami just wants some deep dicking from Touga, to borrow a phrase from Banky Edwards. But late in the series it becomes clear that sex with her brother is something Nanami either does not want or does not understand (or possibly both) when she catches Anthy in the act with her brother, Akio.
The very sight repulses Nanami to her core; she can’t imagine engaging in that sort of relationship with Touga. Nanami wants Touga all to herself, but sex has nothing to do with it, which really falls in line with her character up to that point: She’s an innocent, and sexuality — the way it is used by Touga and Akio — is a corruption, a defilement of that pure, ideal relationship Nanami holds close to her heart that also cannot come to be because the world seems formed to destroy such a thing. (Just as Utena’s ideal of the prince is something she realizes she should not emulate in real life.)
I just love the way the series take this tender ideal that most series laud and completely stomps all over it while at the same time having Nanami come out of it much more relatable and sympathetic than she ever was before. In the grand scheme of things, Nanami really does not matter too much, but her journey and character really stuck with me throughout. I’ll always love that.
(By the way, I might have got a few details wrong here and there, so feel free to correct me. It’s been a while since I watched the series, and I made a retarded Bakuman-esque chastity vow to not rewatch the series until the release of the DVDs Nozomi will be putting out next year. What was I thinking? Chastity vows are a terrible idea!)