Is ‘Onii-chan ha Oshimai’ a piece of Transgender Fiction?

In anime fandom today, there are no two things more guaranteed to stoke controversy than the inclusion of lolis and transgender characters. Or rather, characters who may or may not be trans depending on your interpretation. As such, it was a given that Onii-chan ha Oshimai! (お兄ちゃんはおしまい!, abbr. as Onimai) would be one of the most controversial shows of the year, especially given the high-quality of the adaptation.

A lot of ink has already been spilled of what to make of this project. Is it a show about the transgender struggle, or just a dumb comedy divorced from reality? Can trans people relate to it, or is the show too problematic to warrant such attention from the community? Is it a lovingly animated tour de force by a group of passionate creatives, or just lolicon filth that should be shunned?

In this post, I don’t want to talk not so much about the show itself, but the discussions surrounding the show, especially concerning arguments over whether Onimai is a “trans” show or not. I’ll point out the different arguments people have made about how the show should be interpreted, and critique those arguments as I offer my own perspective on the matter.

I should also mention that I’m a trans woman myself, having begun my transition a decade ago in high school. I’m usually not comfortable mentioning this to other people, especially not publicly like this. I rarely even mention to other people in private. I think it’s important I say so here though, so you all know that everything I’m writing in this blog post is coming from the perspective of an actual trans woman.

Now, lets step back from Onimai for a moment and talk about anime fandom at large–so you all understand the larger issue I have with how Onimai is being discussed. Personally, I think the biggest issue with modern media discourse is the lack of flexibility people have with interpretation, and their unwillingness to look at a piece of fiction through multiple lens of analysis. Discussions are dominated by people trying to argue for their interpretation as the correct one, rather than have an honest discussion and consider multiple viewpoints.

Regardless of authorial intent, there’s always multiple ways to interpret a piece of media. Not just in the sense of what we believe happens in the story or what it means, but in how we react and relate a story to ourselves and the real-world. An interpretation should obviously be supported by evidence (what objectively happens in a story,) but the evidence can be interpreted in many ways. Even seemingly contradictory interpretations can coexist with each other. “Two things can be true at the same time” is a maxim we would all do well to memorize.

Having said all that, I don’t think we should be asking “Is Onimai a piece of transgender fiction?”, despite the title of this essay. Because the real answer is that it depends on how you interpret it. Many aspects of the show directly match the real-world experience of transgender women, such as Mahiro’s trip to a lingerie store to get their first bra. There are also just as many aspects that are completely divorced from that experience, such as how Mahiro even becomes a girl in the first place. You can interpret the show as a transgender comedy, or you can just interpret it as a comedy that plays around with gender for laughs. Two things can be true at the same time.

With that in mind, lets examine some of the arguments that have been given for or against the show as a piece of transgender media.

One of the driving forces to the debate on Onimai’s status as transgender fiction rests on semantics. Many make a distinction between “transgender” and “gender bender” fiction, arguing that Onimai is the latter and not the former. As I understand it, the belief is that “trans” should be reserved for characters with the real-world condition of Gender Identity Disorder, and who undergo the necessary medical procedures to address that condition. “Gender bending” on the other hand, refers to more fantastical scenarios in which a character transforms from one gender to another overnight, skipping the long and arduous transition process that real-world trans people have to go through. This perhaps isn’t too different from the distinction many make between “lesbian” and “yuri” fiction–but I won’t get into that.

We have to keep in mind though that “gender bender” is only a term used by English-speaking fandom, and does not originate from Japan. So let’s examine the term that’s actually used in Japan. Works like Onimai which depict fantastical sex-change scenarios are called TSF, which stands for “Transsexual Fiction.” The original Onimai doujinshis even has “TSF” prominently displayed on all its covers.

At first glance that might seem like a clear indication that the genre is “trans”, though that’s not quite true. Like “gender bender,” TSF is typically used specifically for fantastical sex-change scenarios, at the exclusion of real-world sex changes. The term was originally just TS (for transsexual), and the F was later introduced to better distinguish the genre from real-world trans stories, which can either stand for “fiction” or “fantasy”. (Sources: [1] ピクシブ百科事典  [2] 月下のお話)

So as it turns out, TSF is pretty much equivalent to “gender bender” after all. In that sense you could certainly argue that “Onimai is a gender bender, not a trans story,” and you would be right… in a purely semantic sense. Note that strictly speaking, the only objective difference between “trans” and “gender bender/TSF” is how a character experiences a sex change. Whether a character experiences a sex change through fantastical means or not doesn’t mean we can’t examine these stories through the lens of real-world gender issues.

Putting semantics aside now, lets dig a little deeper and consider why people are having these arguments in the first place. Why do people even care if something is “trans” or not?

There’s really two groups of people trying to make this distinction, for different reasons. One would be cis (and maybe some transgender fans) who want to keep real-world politics and culture wars separate from what they think should just be a fun comedy. They want to consume fiction that plays with gender roles, but without thinking about real-world gender issues. Which isn’t wrong per se, I think that’s a perfectly okay lens to view Onimai. The problem is when people try to insist that is the only correct interpretation. Whether or not Onimai is intended to be a piece of transgender fiction or not, it doesn’t discount the fact that many trans women find the series relatable. Two things can be true at the same time.

The other group would be trans people and their allies who reject Onimai as transgender fiction due to the fantastical elements, as well as the elements with problematic real-world implications. Onimai is not a show that offers meaningful trans representation, they argue. Which I suppose fair, but we have to remember that Onimai is a cartoon comedy, not a documentary. It’s true that Mahiro getting drugged by his little sister without his consent would have highly problematic implications when applied to the real-world. One could even compare it to the forced transition narrative that’s so often used as a scare tactic in the US. But it’s also true that no one in their right mind would watch Onimai and think that scenario would be okay in the real world–we all recognize it is a fantasy.

The other major contention with Onimai is the fact that it’s a lolicon show, a genre which has only become more and more controversial the past decade. Some enjoy the TSF aspect of Onimai, but shun the lolicon element. Not everyone has to enjoy lolicon content, but I don’t think we should compartmentalize these two aspects of the show either, and call one side good and the other morally wrong. 

The transgender experience is a struggle between normalcy and degeneracy. To be transgender is by nature an abnormality. It is a condition a small minority of the population is born with, and which goes against the traditional values of society. In transitioning, the transgender individual is put into a state of degeneracy in the eyes of society, and then must chase after a new sense of normalcy as they pursue their target gender. In order to survive, we need to embrace normality and becoming functioning members of society. But do we need to reject our degeneracy in order to do so?

Perhaps in that sense, Onimai captures the trans experience better than anything else has. It is a story of someone reforming themselves and becoming a normal member of society, while also desperately clinging on to a degenerate lifestyle. All told through the perspective of extremely skilled creatives who are themselves both upright citizens of society and proud degenerates.

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