Nothing kicks off a mystery plot like the feeling that something just isn’t right. Take the classic 1956 sci-fi flick Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which alien
pod people seek to overrun Earth by silently killing humans and taking on their identities. They look, sound, and probably smell (not that I would know) exactly like the people they’ve replaced, but without one distinguishing trait — true emotions — the clones can’t escape the perception that something is… well, a little off.
Minami-ke Okawari reminds me a bit of a pod person.
Let me explain.
The original Minami-ke, which ran immediately before Okawari (the sequel tag literally means
a second helping) in late 2007, was a real gem, and one of my personal favorite series. The essential premise may be fairly unremarkable, circling around the day-to-day antics of the three school-age Minami sisters — the motherly Haruka, the hyperactive Kana, and the sarcastic Chiaki — but in the difficult field of slice-of-life comedy anime, the first season sets itself apart in two areas.
On the one hand, there’s the impressive technical execution. Daume’s animation, while relatively simple and full of bright pastel shades, fits the light-hearted mood of the show perfectly. So does Yasuhiro Misawa’s energetic background score, which underpins a good number of scenes and subtly sets an easygoing tone.
Far more important to the formula, though, are Minami-ke’s impeccable comedic sensibilities — full of irreverence and unafraid to push into the subversively surreal. Don’t like leaving your characters boring love letters? Reinterpret them as challenges for classroom supremacy and turn a potential relationship into a bizarre rivalry. Want a show to put on the family’s living room TV? Give them a patently-ridiculous melodrama in the form of the fictional soap opera Sensei and Ninomiya-kun. Need to finish up the season? Forget dramatic closure — a scene with creepy romantic Hosaka laughing diabolically while standing on the edge of a snowy cliff with a bowl of noodles in his hand works just as well. Almost every element of Minami-ke was tuned for maximum strange hilarity, and the effort paid off in spades.
All in all, it’s a tough act to follow, even with Chiaki’s request for the audience to
not expect too much at the beginning of every program. To its credit, Minami-ke Okawari occasionally succeeds in filling the shoes of its predecessor, bringing back a handful of fun moments in every episode. The rest of the series, however, dies a death of a thousand cuts: between differences in animation style, the bringing in of a more serious storyline, a lack of original source material, and sporadic awkwardness in attempts at humor, Okawari’s changes make it feel like an entirely different show stuffed into the body of the Minami-ke we know and love.
First come the visual oddities. Daume, for some reason, wasn’t re-commissioned to work on Okawari. Instead, Asread (of series I’ve never seen like Shuffle! and Ga-Rei Zero) produced the follow-up. On a purely technical level, the reworking is actually pretty much a wash: the fluidity of the animation doesn’t suffer too much, aside from some anomalous faces here and there, and some of the backgrounds and establishing shots are actually more detailed than in the first season. The problem lies in Asread’s decision to make a substantial switch from the vibrant colors and character designs of the original to a starker, more muted palette in the sequel, which casts an uncomfortable pall that injects tension into otherwise calm scenes. It doesn’t help that the faces of extras are blacked out as a design (and possibly a budget) decision — characters that are supposed to add to the natural atmosphere of a busy scene instead turn into creepy artificial distractions.
Then there’s the actual content. Minami-ke’s first season was adapted from the manga by Koharu Sakuraba, which didn’t have enough leftover chapters for a full second run. In lieu of adapting the same stories over again, Okawari’s writers created entirely new material, simultaneously dropping fast-paced sketches for a more story-based approach. The results are passable, but inelegant, with two main plot lines going absolutely nowhere: irritatingly-deferential next-door neighbor Fuyuki moves in and out of the apartment building without a spot of character development, while a misunderstanding about Haruka’s selection for an overseas study program ends in a predictably-sentimental shot of the three sisters together. (I can’t complain too much, though, since that last one does also give us another closing Hosaka laugh.)
Similarly, the touch for humor has visibly faded between iterations. Where series one took as many openings for jokes as it could, series two lets a few too many uninteresting scenes run to drawn-out conclusions. It’s as if the writers were trying to split the difference between slower slice-of-life moments and upbeat comedy, causing the pacing to lurch back and forth between two different speeds. On the flip side, certain gags, such as Mako-chan’s persistent gender confusion, get worn into the ground through overuse. Even the characteristic shadowy
Bible Black faces can’t make it through intact — no longer a silly pastiche, but rather something just plain disturbing. With such a hit-or-miss mire, the random apparent shots at compensating through fanservice just feel out of place, especially when they come without the first season’s subtlety and self-awareness.
On the bright side, Okawari is no slouch in the sound department. Yasuhiro Misawa’s musical beds continue to work magic on otherwise-bland scenes, despite most of them being recycled from the last season — or perhaps because of their reuse, evocative of the original show’s light touch as they are — and the voice actors soften the blow of shifts in characterization by building on their solid previous performances.
Really, for all its flaws, Minami-ke Okawari is quite watchable; it gives its share of funny, touching, and even profound moments. Were it to stand alone, it would make a decent entry into the wacky-school-life category. The Minami-ke name, though, brings with it a set of high expectations that Okawari leaves mostly unfulfilled — and in that light, it’s hard not to see it as a disappointment.