No question about it, Minami-ke is really back. This material in the hands of staff who really understand it – the timing, the tone, the balance of different elements – is one of the true powerhouses of anime comedy (which is admittedly sometimes a pretty underpowered grouping). One of the major strengths of M-K is the deep and varied supporting cast, who form various orbits around the three sisters and sometimes cross over, usually with delightful results. This diversity allows the series to excel comedically in several different styles because each subset of the cast brings something different to the mix.
Just as loyalists of Minami-ke each seem to have favorites among the sisters, so it is with the supporting cast as well – and the spotlight this week fell on some of mine. First and best we have the irrepressible Makoto/-chan (Morinaga Rika), for my money the funniest take on the trap character in anime history. Then there’s the other Minami clan, the one with the Y-chromosomes – eldest brother Haruo (Kawada Shinji), second brother Natsuki (Hiroyuki Yoshino) – a classmate at Haruka’s – put-upon youngest brother Akira (Hayama Tatsuya) and finally, little sister Touma (Mizuki Nana). She might be the most butch of the lot of them, to the point where Chiaki refers to her as “my little brother”.
Seeing all these oddballs interact is part of the fun of Minami-ke. Each sister has their own subset of school chums, among which the three youngest Minami “B” clan members belong. Touma also belongs in her family subset, and she forms a small gender-bending subset with Mako-chan, which is usually aligned with Kana. Makoto is part of Chiaki’s school subset as himself, but also part of the Minami “A” household as Mako-chan, and both halves of his nature interact with Chiaki and her friends Yoshino and Uchida at different times. He also forms a small subset with “Plain Yogurt” Shuiichi (Ohara Momoko) as the male division of Chiaki’s elementary school set.
The reason both Makoto/-chan and Touma work so well as gender-bender characters, I think, is that both of their situations are so seamlessly integrated into the plot and they’re both so conflicted about their duality. Makoto tries hard to be a real man (“women’s clothing can no longer suppress his wildness as a man”) and is desperate to break out of the “trap” Kana laid for him. Yet he’s so damn good at being a girl – Chiaki laments that Makoto-kun “isn’t manly at all”, but marvels that Mako-chan is so ladylike, and wishes Kana would take a lesson from her (it’s also worth noting that Chiaki pointedly tells her friends she “doesn’t hate” Makoto, which for her is almost a confession). In addition to having a natural instinct at being a trap, Makoto’s ruse also allows him to be close to Haruka, on whom he has a hopeless if completely understandable crush – heck, it even got him to second base with her in Season 2.
Poor Mako-chan – even as he tries (for the 56th time – Kana’s counting) to save “what little masculinity I have” by taking off his hairpin and coming clean, Haruka pulls him back in again and he’s helpless to resist. For my money Makoto is the best supporting character in Minami-ke both because he’s hilarious and because there’s real pathos in his situation – he’s so earnest about every baka thing he gets himself immersed in. But Touma is a great character too, not to be underestimated. Her ruse is more selective – apart from Chiaki’s play-acting, it’s only Fujioka who actually thinks she’s a boy. Touma purports to keep scam going because it allows her to talk and practice soccer with Fujioka, but in truth it’s pretty obvious that she’s crushing on him just as hard as Chiaki is – as witness her reaction when Kana plays her “April Fool’s” joke and tells Fujioka she’s a girl. Poor Fujioka – if he were a lolicon, he’d have no relationship troubles at all, as he’s got the 6th-grade set helpless against his charms.
That whole April Fool’s gag is an example of how Minami-ke can extend it’s gags to the level of meta-humor successfully, and never more so then when the traps are involved. It’s also interesting to watch Kana interact with Touma and especially Makoto/-chan, because in that setting she’s almost mature and sensible – which is a cover, of course, for her scheming to keep both of them dancing like puppets at the end of her strings. That’s another thing that’s so fun about this show, and why when it’s “on” it never gets repetitive – all of the characters behave differently depending on the context in which we see them. It’s most obvious with Makoto but it extends to everyone in the cast, not excluding Kana’s two sisters. Haruka is a very different person interacting with her schoolmates (who we haven’t seen much of yet, indicating that this subset is likely to emerge next week) than she is at home, playing the den mother to her younger sisters and their large collection of friends.
Lastly, we had a welcome return to the spotlight for the male Minamis this week. They were almost totally absent from Season 3, and they were missed – their dynamic is yet another completely distinct facet of M-K’s rainbow of comedy. Akira is one I really feel for – his two older brothers, despite being idiots themselves, treat him with complete disdain and he barely seems to exist in their social structure. The older Minamis alternately dote on and confound Touma, as neither of them seem to understand the other in the slightest – despite Touma’s boyishness she’s still the only girl in a house full of men, and the strain often shows. It was interesting to see a different side of her this week, after the brothers challenged her to be more ladylike – going to Yoshino (not Uchida) for advice, which led her to Makoto (hilariously) then Chiaki. For tomboy Touma her sewing was “craft work”, but it turns out it was ladylike sewing all along – which makes her a big hit at the female Minami house.
There are still many elements of the recipe that haven’t emerged yet, starting with the uniqueness that is Hosaka. We also haven’t had any of the food porn that Minami-ke is legendary for, which is often connected to Hosaka (who intermingles with several other subsets, but more than anyone in the cast forms a set of one). Given how deep the well of humor that this series has to draw on is, those elements could still be weeks away – but there’ll be plenty to keep us amused in the meantime, even if that’s the case.