Okawari continues the Minami-ke series, telling no story in particular about the lives of the Minami sisters. Chiaki is irked by the new neighbor Fuyuki, Kana continues her selfish ways while oblivious to Fujioka’s advances, and Haruka is slowly becoming a slave to her sisters.
The story continues in much the same vein as Minami-ke, with each episode being a self-contained side story about some event or non-event concerning the Minami sisters. There’s actually the slightest hint of a story arc this time, though. One concerns Fuyuki, the mild-mannered neighbor boy who may very well be a metaphor for Superman. The other involves Haruka and her dual roles as a star student and as the caretaker of her family. The former subplot was not interesting to me at first but grew on my by the end. Chiaki’s semi-antagonistic relationship with Fuyuki sort of makes up for Fuyuki himself, who was a rather boring character to watch. The latter subplot feels like a wasted opportunity but I’m glad the writers decided to at least feature it. I shouldn’t write much more lest I spoil it.
Okawari shares more or less the same tone as Minami-ke, but the focus this season is more on the characters than the humor. As far as story structure goes, most episodes begin with a setup, a problem, and by the end a lesson is usually learned. Sometimes that expectation is defied, and it feels (strangely enough) like you got robbed whenever Kana doesn’t get her comeuppance. What Okawari does well is let these life lessons come subtly. Usually you see just a facial expression or hear an offhand remark, and that’s it – but you know the character has changed or grown because of that. It’s a very Japanese storytelling technique. I like it. You won’t get any South Park style “I learned something today” monologues (which in themselves use the lack of subtlety ironically), and it suits the style of the series.
One thing Okawari improves on over the first season is the use of the supporting cast. Thankfully, their roles are mostly cut down in orer to put more of an emphasis on the sisters. Makoto, Minami-ke‘s Jar-Jar Binks, was toned down to Attack of the Clones levels. I’m thankful for it all, but the stories they do take part in don’t really need their presence. Hayami, the senior, makes a few appearances that are particularly shoehorned in. Fuyuki’s side story with Chiaki also seemed pretty pointless until the very end of the series.
The biggest problem I have with Okawari is Haruka’s brief story arc, which is spread very thinly across a few episodes. It’s the biggest missed opportunity of the series. I can’t say too much about it, but there was a chance to see her really grow as a human being. Chiaki and Kana mostly hinder Haruka’s right to pursue her own ambitions. Although she caters to the others out of her own free will, it wouldn’t have been out of character for her to find her own fulfillment once in a while. When Haruka’s story is introduced, you think the writers will examine this conflict in earnest, but they almost completely sidestep the question. The resolution was a letdown; you don’t get the impression that Haruka gained anything.
Thanks to overall better writing, I’d say Okawari is an improvement over the first season. The balance between humor and drama, and the screen time of the sisters, worked out better. Still, Minami-ke is ultimately a show without a real purpose. It’s neither daring enough to live up to its dramatic promise, nor is it outright hilarious enough to satiate as a comedy. What it does, though is affirm the important bonds of family without overly feminizing its underlying sweetness.
Okawari places more emphasis on the sisters than the first season. The interactions between them maintain the same dynamic from the first season, but lacks those spouts of quick, witty dialogue that I so enjoyed. In its place you get something more nuanced, a method of expressing ideas hidden under layers of tangentially related words. Look to the scenes where Kana talks about her premonitions for examples. That’s not to say that Kana and Chiaki aren’t always at odds, or that Chiaki’s adulation of Haruka is any less forthright than it used to be.
The supporting cast is mostly the same as in the first season, although their roles are more ancillary than they used to be. Their characterizations are also somewhat more distinct, with Hosaka going even more over the top and Uchida becoming more pronouncedly stupid. Some characters really had to be forced into the plot, such as Hayami and Shuichi (although that was a nice self-referential dig). The major new character is Fuyuki, who moves in next door to the Minami sisters. His timid personality doesn’t sit well with Chiaki, who sees him as spineless. Ironically, Haruka is much the same way, yet Chiaki worships her. Pairing Fuyuki and Chiaki was a smart choice, at it shows us more about Chiaki and her outlook.
For the most part, Okawari follows the precedent of the first season as far as characters go. Although the side cast is more or less extraneous, I found the sisters more interesting to watch. They embody the complexities of sibling rivalry very well. I just wish their development was slightly more significant.
Okawari was produced by a different studio than Minami-ke, but pretty much all of the audio assets were carried over, as well as the voice talent. As a result, even though the visuals are different, the second season keeps a strong continuity with the first. The character designs and animation are more polished and consistent this time around, though the decision to blank out most of the extras is a bit weird. The color palette has been given an overhaul too, particularly for sunset and twilight scenes. As with any production, I noticed the attention the animators gave to lighting. Minami-ke Okawari is a surprisingly polished production, and the reuse of assets keeps the new season familiar while the new visuals make it look fresh.