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!)

12 Responses to “Why I Love Nanami Kiryuu”

  1. That’s the beauty of it. Similar to Baron Ashura in Shin Mazinger Z you have a clear antagonist that is petty and annoying, that at first is treated like a buttmonkey. Then she is put through an emotional grinder that’s arguably worse than the ordeals of the main characters, even if only because of the loss of all dignity that’s involved.

    The miracle: she becomes sympathetic. We viewers are assaulted by new feelings. We only like her because of our malevolent schadenfreude? She has to be punished like that to be likable?

    How about our assumptions getting ground to dust? She is both terrible AND pure. How can we handle this? The whole sympathy business is mired in a quicksand of guilt.

    And ultimately she matters little, but by god, our experience of the show becomes so much more valuable if we reckon with her as much as you did here.

    • Yeah, that’s something I didn’t think about enough — really, most of Nanami’s transgressions are minor compared to other characters, but she is punished frequently and terribly. (The only possible exception might be her relationship with Tsuwabuki. I can’t remember to what extent Nanami abuses him, whether she just yells at him a lot (which is still pretty bad) or also smacks him around as well.) From what I remember, it’s not even that Nanami endures to become sympathetic; she just suffers and is mostly broken. The sympathy of other people is probably small consolation to her by that point.

  2. Dagger Says:

    Haha, I made the same vow!

    I’m pretty sure I hated Nanami the first time I watched Utena, but now I love her… it would be hard to get through rewatching it multiple times and not learn to love her in some way, I think. XD

    • Hey, good to see you ’round my little ol’ site! Hope you’ve been doing well!

      I might have disliked Nanami for a couple of episodes . . . but I have a weakness for the over the top ojous. They make me laugh, so Nanami won me over fairly early in the series, and then she just got better as her character got deeper, of course.

  3. Holy shit. I was born to read this post!

    This is why I like the TV series much more than the movie. The latter may be more effective with the portrayal of main themes, but it doesn’t have Nanami’s rich character.

    Oh, and Nanami has the best dueling outfit ever.

    • Yeah, though I generally enjoyed the movie, I was sad to see so little Nanami in it. She just has a cameo as the cow, right? Lame. Even the boost in Shiori can’t make up for that.

  4. adaywithoutme Says:

    Really enjoyed the post. I especially enjoy your highlighting of the fact that Nanami’s actions are very much ruled by her immaturity, not by a true maliciousness; if anything, I would perhaps argue that Nanami is one of the most realistic characters in the show as a result. She certainly gets more development than the oujo-sama in most shows do.

  5. In the magical girl tradition, Nanami is the incompetent, goofy antagonist who becomes redeemed some ways through the series by the main character’s Power of Friendship. Except in this case it’s not purity that changes her but the truly malevolent machinations of Akio, Touga; the sinister powers that be. By sheer comparison she becomes childish and unthreatening.

    But one can’t neglect her relationship with her girl posse. Tsuwabuki might have mirrored her own relationship with Touga, but her callous, draconian “friendship” with those girls always reminded me how much of a bitch she can be, and how ugly her own jealousy can manifest.

    • Yeah, definitely. “Purity” and “innocence” doesn’t always translate directly into “goodness”. There’s no denying Nanami is a fairly terrible person for most of Utena, even if the scale of what she does is smaller than the worst of the worst in the series. (Which says more about how terrible Akio and the like are than it does about Nanami’s actions, admittedly.) That childlike mindset of hers rules her relationship with her posse — they’re more like status markers than friends, trophies to show off how beloved she believes she is. But when one dares to threaten her relationship with Touga (even though the girl has absolutely no chance with the guy at all), she goes nuts like a kid who gets a toy taken away.

  6. I haven’t watched Utena in almost ten years, after a high school friend who was OBSESSED introduced me. I just started rewatching online as of yesterday, and am now up to episode 33. I kept saying to myself “I guess this isn’t a great anime (but then again, I don’t watch much),” but even so I found it permeating my mind, and not just because I spent my entire Wednesday on my couch watching it and knitting a sweater. Its subtleties can be missed by those too distracted by its insanities, and I certainly hated Nanami with a passion –
    Up until episode 32. Then the beauty of her relationship with Touga, and her own worth of her feelings hit home. And everything you wrote here is beautifully true.
    So well done for such a thought out piece, it reflects well on a complex and thought out anime!

  7. This post beautifully summarises why Nanami is not only my favourite character in “Revolutionary Girl Utena”, but in all of fiction.

    Her development was fantastic to watch, and I absolutely love the distorted sense of innocence she holds onto for much of the series. I love her shallowness, and also her shallow understanding of the world around her. I love how she deals with strong feelings of alienation, and I love how all of this ultimately gives way to painful realisations, shattered illusions, harsh experience, and loss of innocence. All of this happens in the background when compared to the prominence of Utena and Anthy’s stories, but we see how Nanami’s experiences have shaped her into a far more grounded, tolerant, realistic, and ultimately more wholesome person.

    The thing is, her growth is so subtle that you probably wouldn’t catch very much of it if you weren’t looking for it. But you can see it in the way she interacts with Utena and the other members of the council. I don’t think any other character in “Revolutionary Girl Utena” goes through as much as Nanami or changes as much as her. You can see all the different life crises she suffers through in each Nanami episode, and you can see how hard she tries and how hard she falls. The egg episode, in particular, is everything I love about her character. I love her superficiality and I love her depth. I had already grown to like her in the first 5 episodes despite not getting off on the wrong foot. She quickly grew on me.

    I also wrote about how much I loved the Nanami episodes and why I think they are so important to Revolutionary Girl Utena’s narrative.

    Can we get a spin-off titled “Revolutionary Girl Nanami” already? It was bad enough that they didn’t even include her in the film beyond that cow cameo.

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