It’s a poorly-kept secret amongst those who follow me on Twitter that my taste in anime is often questionable. That being said, it’s probably not too much of a surprise that one of my favorite shows this season turned out to be Kono nakani hitori, imōtoga iru!, also known by its four-moraic abbreviation, Nakaimo.

More shocking, however, is the personal observation that the series seems to have a real appeal in its central mystery; love it or hate it, people keep watching, waiting to see if we are led closer to an answer. What Hiroki Azuma wrote in 2001 in Database Animals seems to hold true in 2012: anime fans are suckers for a good mystery.

So let’s dive into the question on everybody’s lips: just who is “imouto”?

“We all want to be the one!”

Nakaimo, like many a traditional mystery, is an exercise in misdirection, starting from the title. “One of these girls is the sister,” it promises in familiar light-novelesque verbiage, while presenting us with the five main girls: this immediately marks them as the main suspects, and draws our attention away from other possible candidates.

Or maybe it’s a double bluff: as the series progresses, it has done well to gradually convince us that the main suspects couldn’t possibly be the sister. Consequently, we as viewers are naturally drawn toward the side characters, including the mysterious Ikusu Mizutani and the newly-introduced Yuzurina Hōshō.

It’s enough to make your head spin, isn’t it? How about this, then: using quantum mechanics as an analogous starting point, I posit that each possible candidate for sisterdom is both in a state of being “imouto” and not “imouto” (however, not in equal probabilistic distribution, unlike in the classic thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat, which I’m sure this brings to mind).

What I’ve just described is quantum superpositioning: in this example, each heroine is both Shōgo’s sister and not his sister at the same time, a seeming paradox. But this only holds true for as long as there is no interaction with an observer. So what happens when the system is observed?

In quantum mechanics, what appears to occur is referred to as a wavefunction collapse: no longer in superposition, the system is reduced to only one of the single states. Whether this actually occurs or not is a matter of contention. One of the interpretations of quantum mechanics that rejects the wavefunction collapse is the many-worlds interpretation, which suggests that a system does not collapse into a singular state, but rather that reality itself branches out into all of the possible states at the moment of observation.

The implications of the many-worlds interpretation are at times radical, but it’s a concept far from foreign to the modern otaku; after all, this is the central idea behind what Azuma dubs “novel games,” but which are probably more familiar under the title of visual novels.

Novels with branched-path narratives were speculated upon as early as 1941, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the experimental French literary group, Oulipo, actually produced such works, calling them “tree literature.” This break from the traditional linear narrative (the sole form of storytelling until then), coincides nicely with the popularization of many-worlds, which also took place in the 1960s.

It’s not too much of a stretch to think that otaku became so enamored with visual novels because they seemed to reflect a newfound complexity in the world, something not present in the traditional novel. But what happens when the branching narrative of a visual novel becomes adapted into the linear structure of an anime? What we’re left is something very typical of anime and light novels, which I call the singular narrative branch.

But first, let’s talk about some visual novel-to-anime adaptations that aren’t quite as “singular.” Without a doubt, the gold standard for multi-branched anime is the 2010 Yosuga no Sora. Throughout its 12 episodes, Yosuga presents not a single linear narrative, but rather four overlapping, yet distinct narratives emerging from no less than three branching points in true visual novel style.

Another notable example is Amagami SS. Much like Yosuga, the anime adaptation of the visual novel Amagami starts off with a common event―here, the protagonist being stood up on Christmas Eve―but this is the only shared point, and from here the anime explores six main relationships which can largely be treated as separate linear narratives.

Finally, there is the first season of Oreno imōtoga konnani kawaii wakega nai (although it’s originally a light novel series, not a visual novel). The anime is a mostly linear story, but near the end, it splits into the “Good End” and “True Route” branches. Most interestingly, the viewer is made aware of exactly where the two timelines split: a “decision point,” the most common way of displaying choices to the reader in visual novels, is displayed on-screen in the episode in an immediately recognizable homage.

“1. Don’t look; 2. Look.”

Most visual novel adaptations, however, do not take such an innovative approach to storytelling. The standard fare goes something like this: a single route ending is animated (the “true” ending), but usually, events from the other story arcs are sprinkled throughout as a nod to the original. What results is a single story woven together from what was originally a much more complicated beast. And I think that best embodies what I earlier called the “singular narrative branch.”

In the traditional novel, key events have to occur to progress the plot logically; it couldn’t have happened any other way. A singular narrative branch is linear as well, but in contrast, both the producers and consumers of a narrative branch are aware that it is just one possible timeline of many; in other words, there are a number of possible key events that could have occurred instead of the one that happens to be shown.

This brings us back nicely to Nakaimo: far removed from the traditional mystery, Nakaimo is, at its core, a story where the culprit doesn’t matter, perhaps doesn’t even exist until the moment she does. The very suggestion that this is the case sounds ridiculous, but to the modern otaku, who thrives in the world of fiction, it is still in the realm of reason (or indeed, is perfectly natural).

So if the summer season ends without a definitive answer, despair not, fair reader, for it’s not one door which did not open, but many more doors which did not close. Talk about spooky!

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