1/13/2008

Series Review: Minami-ke

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"Haruka-neesama IS amazing."

Actually, wait, that's not a quote, nor is that Haruka. Have your pick of catch-phrases for the obligatory quote to kick off the post, then:
"NINOMIYA-KUN!!"
"Bakayarou!" (spelling brutalized)
"SENSEI!!"
"Rare expression!"
"*Hosaka's extremely strange laugh*"

And I'm sure I'm missing very many. It's a slice-of-life show that, like many, is simply filled with personality.

One of the shows that many have named as one of the better school life comedies in recent times, what Minami-ke does best is both embracing and breaking the bounds of slice-of-life shows.

Like many, the focus of the show revolves around a bunch of female characters in one place, and their adventures both at school and at home.

Unlike many, there actually are guys in this show, and even if they do get abused all the time like the uncommon male in a slice-of-life, their presence is very real and very central to the show.

Like many, the show relies quite a bit on repeated gags, both of the 'in rapid succession' and 'in every episode' types; some of which work well, others which do not.

Unlike many, Minami-ke doesn't shy away from the romance side of things, frequently left unexplored in slice-of-lives. Rather, it makes great fun of it.

Probably the best aspect of this show is the breadth of it. It has a bit of physical comedy, a bit of verbal comedy, a bit of disturbing comedy, and even a few Lucky-Star style sympathetic moments. Characters are introduced nearly on an episode-by-episode basis, and they nearly always come bearing new gags. Minami-ke does a great job of feeling like a contained snapshot of a limitless universe, where the characters were not the only ones in the world.

(And thus, neither did that make them the gods of that world. That review is coming later, I swear, officer!)

It's tough to gauge whether Minami-ke is truly the best comedy of recent memory, especially because the genre itself seems to be spreading out - there's dark humor (Zetsubou), the connective shows (Lucky Star), the relaxing shows (ARIA), and so on. Minami-ke feels the closest to what one might call the original school-life comedy roots, with the likes of Azumanga Daioh, and in that slot it functions quite well as a show.

Maybe it's a bit of a put-down to call it 'yet another good show from the fall season', but that's what it is; not forgettable, by any rates, but not legendary, either. The kind of show that lives on in catchphrases more than moments. And that's fine.

Oh dear, I've concluded the post already, what to do after the jump?

(Oh, and SPOILERS ARE BOSS, even though it's tough to spoil a show like this.)

The most important part of a show like this is definitely the characters, for in a comedy they serve two purposes.

They deliver the jokes, first and foremost; a good character can build up a stereotype around themselves, carve themselves a niche, so that when you see a half-naked guy cradling a fish you can laugh and go "Oh, that Hosaka."

Secondly, a great character will develop themselves by occasionally breaking out of that stereotype, by being actual, developed characters. Slice-of-life shows don't have to have the same rapid, smooth-flowing pace that other shows, like visual-novel adaptations, tend to maintain, but it's important that there be at least some sense of continuity as the show travels along.

Shows like Azumanga work because of this factor, that helps to achieve the same goal as any other anime; to make the viewer feel like they're really there with the character. Since slice-of-lives don't carry the same dramatic impact as others, in this case it's that sense of growing up with a friend; you learn about them and get to know them very well, and you can sense the little changes in them, you can be surprised when you see a side of them that doesn't appear very often.

While it doesn't seem like this happens very much in this type of show, it's quite essential and it tends to happen a lot more than you think (Plot? In MY slice-of-life?) - very few shows get away without a sense of major continuity, and that's because they're so insane and off the wall that they don't need it.

Minami-ke is one of the shows that works the 'constant evolution' factor quite well, in doing it in two ways. The first one is the easy one to do, that many shows do, and that is by introducing more characters. Minami-ke has a simply huge cast, from both pairs of the three Minami siblings, to the two-plus classroom friends that each girl has (one 'normal' character and one insane one, amusingly), to even a few token adults that show up. Not to mention, the legendary Sensei and Ninomiya-kun.

New characters can add a lot to the show, freshening it up with their new personalities and with the relationships they form with the other characters, romantic, comedic, or otherwise. And Minami-ke works it well in making so it doesn't feel like forced introductions; the characters have always been there, you just haven't seen them, or something of the like. Each character has their merit, and that's what makes it work.

Likewise, the main characters of Minami-ke aren't stagnant either. At first glance, Chiaki's the sarcastic, sharp-witted child, Kana's the energetic dunce, and Haruka's the wise, kind lady. They could easily be distilled down to their essences and pronounced near-copies of other, similar characters (in order: Tsuyuri [Doujin Work], Tomo [AzuDai], Alicia [ARIA]). But, you'd find out you'd be wrong.

Chiaki is a manipulative character less on purpoes, but more out of her childhood innocence. She doesn't know a lot about romance, or about people in general, and so her strange reactions to, for example, Fujioka's love letter, or the gender-bending Mako and Touma (?) are made even more amusing. Not to mention, of course, her sisterly love for Haruka, a key weak point.

And one that Kana's all too happy to strike. Taking a look back at her, she seems like the type of character that would appear in a murder mystery: the happy-go-lucky person that no one would expect of being the mastermind behind everything. Quite often, Kana is very air-headed and gullible, but she's shown great flashes of genius, of being able to deftly manipulative those with romantic or otherwise logical weakness. She is an entertainingly curious character, a "what if I do this?" type with no regards for sanity.

Haruka is actually much the same way, except in a more reserved manner. Her kind demeanor really feels close to her true self and not forced at all, yet she can play mafia boss like the best of them. She's well-meaning with her friends and siblings, and always tries to be kind to everyone, but even she shows lapses of judgment and mind. And a bit of skin too.

Minami-ke's fanservice (does shouting "cheap transition!" make it more so?) is actually pretty survivable, for someone who reacts to breasts in anime with the attitude of a 6-year-old scared of cooties. A few shows have left me in despair (now that's subtle) in how when the comedy well began to run dry, they replaced it with cheap fanservice instead, but the rare undergarment shot or otherwise exposure in Minami-ke is more productive than anything else. It's used as the means instead of the ends, as part of a joke or gag, and that's when fanservice works best, for risque laughs.

Aside from having a enjoyable and quite large cast of characters, the other thing that Minami-ke really deserves accolades for, as hinted at, is its approach to romance, and of the female-male interaction in general. Most slice-of-lives, at best, give these kind of jokes a glancing blow, with an occasional "you ever wonder why there are no guys in our lives?" non-sequitur, but Minami-ke tackles the issue in style.

There aren't many heart-pounding, blush-inducing moments that one would expect from a romance, naturally, but rather there are plenty of comedic scenes - or rather, characters - that revolve around romance.

Fujioka is probably the one that plays it the straightest, as he fills the role of well-intentioned guy that can't get a move in edgewise on Kana; effectively his tactics of trying to sell screen doors to submarines (it just doesn't work the same) are smirk-inducing alone, but when he's followed up by his own equally-lost stalker, things get great, like in the four-way busy-signal-fest in the final episode.

Hosaka's on the other end of the scale, with a creepily-obsessive-guy demeanor that's played both to his benefit and his expense, or maybe both at the same time. His devotion is awe-inspiring but laughably aimed, as he frequently lapses into entertaining stereotypical daydream sequences involving him, wife material Haruka, and miniature Kana and Chiaki kids, who are funny all their own, such as when they pop up from under Haruka's clothes during a romantic moment, demanding food.

Makoto (if anyone doesn't call him Mako-cakes by now) is the true idiot of this show, upstaging even Kana. As the elementary school kid he's extremely gullible, especially combined with a strange crush on Haruka (out of your league, kiddo) that makes him susceptible to both much Chiaki hate and Kana manipulation. As such he spends most of his time in drag, as he gets much closer to Haruka in his female form, to the point where everyone thinks he's kidding when he announces he's a guy.

In fact, great amounts of literature could be written for the amount of disturbing but downright hilarious cross-dressing that goes on in Minami-ke, with not just Mako but Touma, the other-family Minami who wants to be a guy. As such, 'gender swapping' is taken to new heights, with the enthusiastic efforts the two of them put together, in their own way, and with the amount of confusion that both they and their fellow characters have about their true identity.

The final thing that really stands out about Minami-ke is that it's a show with quite a bit of full-circling going on. I like nothing more than seeing a thread opened at the start and closed at the end, perhaps because it makes me feel smart or perhaps because it's a good way of establishing the previously-defined continuity.

There are a few examples of this - such as Kana kiss-attacking Chiaki in episode one, and a Minami relative returning the favor to Kana in the final episode - but none probably more distinctive than the legendary adventures of Sensei and Ninomiya-kun.

The two of them fulfill numerous purposes in this show. First off, it's an amusing parody of overdramatic soap operas, with more than a fair bit of ridiculousness to their adventures. This is evident in their second power, the strength of their running gag; whether it be the cries of "Ninomiya-kun! / Sensei!" or the speeding black car, it's repeated enough times to be hilarious, while still retaining some freshness in just how (and who) gets owned by a car this time. Not to mention, the epic video game in episode 4.

Finally, the show mirrors Minami-ke in coming to an end in the final episode as well; it's kind of a show within a show in that regard. Who didn't feel a mixture of amusement and delight when the speeding car drove right by Sensei in the final episode? It's a great example of how to start, maintain, and conclude a running gag in a show like this.

Moving away from characters, the more sensual aspects of the show were relatively average, although not in a negative way. The graphics were a bit better than the norm at least, with a few things that stood out; the tear-drops faces and dramatic eyes were distinctive, and occasionally the show would break out some downright stunning camera angles. And while the soundtrack didn't have anything memorable, it was nothing ear-rending, and the OP and ED were repeatable, if not a bit typical, songs.

It's tough for a slice-and-life to strike it big, if only because funny moments tend to be less impression-making, less memorable than dramatic, emotional ones. Double so since those elite slice-of-lives tend to be the ones setting the bar for every other one out there. Minami-ke has it tough in a sense, as even though it's really the only kind of its type for the fall 2007 season, it's got that big looming shadow of Azumanga over it.

Luckily, it was smart enough to step out from under that shadow; instead of trying to climb the back of giants it went ahead and made its own mountain, carved a path that, while familiar, was unmistakably its own. It tried to be different and it worked; I doubt that it will be a trend-setter nor a champion for other shows to knock off, but Minami-ke is definitely what could be filed as a "better-than-good" show. One that won't rock shake your soul, but one that will make you definitely feel like your time was well spent.

But as you know, Minami-ke's going into overtime with MK Okawari, where we'll see if the quick second season serves to heighten or tarnish its glory, while the hype for Haruka is still hot.

-CCY


(If there's one thing that bugs me, it's that I didn't devote a single other post to Minami-ke.)
(Seriously! ef! It's coming soon! As long as I review within 13 days it should be fine...)

The Path to the Post:
A few posts around the anime blogging networks that I browsed through in order to help make this post possible, which didn't really have a place in the de facto post to be cited.
* An extremely in-depth review - two parts! - over at neko's thinkbox, which shares a few of the viewpoints I held.
* Jason's many Minami-ke posts over at AoMM, which are funny as always, catchphrase-coining as always, and contain a few astute observations too.
* Stripey's post on fanservice and it's right place, which pretty much is dead on the money.
* And of course IKnight (random post linked), for pioneering this trend in blog citing.

4 comments:

I just lurve minamike

For some reason that picture at the top of this post was just disturbing... :)

A fine review, which makes me glad I discarded my own attempt to review this show. 'Better than good' pretty accurately pins it down.

Also good: it turns out from his about page that neko is an Earl Grey drinker too.

Hey, a comment from DC! Does this make me an official anime blog now? XD

Cameron: It is kind of an awkward pose, looking at it (is it a reference?), but this is what happens when you dig for images right before you make a post - or what happens when half of the image involve amazingly-unclothed amazing-Haruka. Or dirty pictures of trap Makoto. :O

IKnight: Suddenly I wonder where are all the in-between words in the English language. Like my quote said, it's not good nor great. Gah.

(Also, ooh, you actually do sip manly tea. XD I'm not a tea person, though.)