>> Friday, September 9, 2011
Maid-Sama (aka Kaichō wa Maid-sama!) by Hiro Fujiwara is the kind of school-centric, gimmicky-seeming story that could have become hokey or stupid or perverted (or all three) and desperately unappealing. Instead,I found it hilarious and charming with the occasional soupcon of drama and action. Once again (as it so often is with me), the characters are the key factor to making me fall in love with it because the plot is stupid. However, in all fairness, almost everything about this manga is hilarious, including the little side-bars and the Q&A stuff and even those parts about the author.
Unfortunately, this is one of my two on-going mangas that took a hit when Tokyopop went toes up earlier this year. Which means, as in love with this manga as I am, I'm stymied by the fact that I can't purchase any of the remaining books in English unless someone picks up the licenses (that are now available) and publishes them. Ironically, they just got a license for the anime in the US (though it is subtitled, not dubbed) so that's selling here. And books up until that point in the manga (and beyond) are available in English. Just not the rest of them.
Yes, I'm irked. I'm irked enough I'm going to add a new box to the side that includes links to several of the scanlation sites available on-line, where this and nearly every other manga can be read on-line. Now the whole scanlation-no scanlation debate is worthy of its own post, which I may or may not write, but not today. Suffice it to say that I read all my ongoing "gotta have 'em all mangas" on scanlations because they usually come out months if not years before the books are available. I'm not apologizing. I own every single available English volume of my favorite mangas (in fact, every one in my "Has a Certain Appeal" - except those not available in English at all and Alice in the Country of Hearts - another Tokyopop casualty with only one volume left to go. And that's true for most of my "Okay" ones, too. For Maid-Sama and my other GHEA manga, Shinobi Life, I've bought the volumes I can't get in English in Japanese, since I'm learning it for Tokyo Crazy Paradise. But I hate that I can't buy copies here in the States. I'm hopeful that Maid-Sama will someday get someone picking up its license.
In the meantime, it sucks. And makes it hard for me to recommend it to my friends. It's a real pity because this is a great manga.
If you read happen to read this manga, don't skip the sidebar stuff or any side stories. The mangaku's irreverent humor is laugh out loud funny whether she's trying to make her self-portrait more palatable or hosting a Q&A session disrupted by Usui. They're not only charming, they build on the layers of characters. Maid-sama also a manga that has no problems laughing at itself or many common aspects of manga thinking (a trait I always find appealing). Even though it has its serious sides, it doesn't take itself too seriously. And it has sarcasm, one of my absolutely favorite kind of humor. There is an anime, though it's subbed, and, yes, I recommend that, too. Sometimes the beauty of the characters doesn't come through when they do an anime. In my opinion, the characters are even more beautiful than in the manga, with the same humor and charm they display on the page. Which is fantastico.
Anime? Yes Volumes of manga: 13 (8 Eng) Status: Ongoing
My rating: Gotta have 'em all
Age range: Nothing here I'd be uncomfortable with a teenager reading. But then, I'm pretty progressive.
Taboos and "warnings": Some sexual allusion. Violence is frequent but not graphic and probably supposed to portray "friendly" ribbing. Cross-dressing here and there.
Premise: A poor girl with a chip on her shoulder about men becomes student council president of a school that recently became co-ed and where girls are in the minority. She determines to clean up the school and it's image, which she does aggressively with some level of violence and force of will. The only boy in school who can stand against her (though he really isn't the take-a-stand type) spots her in the extra job that embarrasses her mightily, working in a Maid Cafe, which is all about deference. Her initial fear becomes bafflement as he preserves her secret and tries to build a relationship with her.
What works: Takumi Usui, the one who finds out about her embarrassing part-time job (which is not a sleezy job, by the way). Usui is one of those "perfect" characters (whose perfection is part of the joke going through the whole book), smart, capable, rich, athletic, attracting all girls, all without any apparent effort. His effortless ability to do what she strives to do annoys our heroine no end. What's cool, though, is his interest, even fascination with the workaholic bristly class president, Ayuzawa Misaki. (Student councils apparently have a great deal more power and responsibility in Japan's high schools than they do here, by the way.) Misaki, who has everything she has through hard work and perseverance, makes things harder on herself by insisting on doing it all herself and taking on responsibility for everyone. Which means that it isn't necessarily because he's better, but because she's taking on too much.
As with many who have things too easy, he doesn't care about anything. He doesn't care what his classmates think (which makes him desperately popular). He isn't worried about being embarrassed or worshiped or hated or despised. In fact, you soon get the sense that one reason he's so successful is that he isn't trying too hard, which is the same reason people like him. It's only as he sees Misaki (the student council president) caring about everything too much that he finds anything that matters to him. The one person who doesn't like him without effort becomes the one person he wants to like him more than anything.
He has to work at it, work around her suspicion and her touchiness and her fear of her own reaction to him. He does so with patience and grace and gentleness and unflinching humor, while being dragged into any number of stupid escapades, often made more dangerous with the president barreling in without hesitation or any notion of self-preservation. He not only doesn't seem to mind, but has no hesitation sabotaging his own reputation or embarrassing himself and even seems to do so for his own amusement. He is hilarious and appears to have a complete grasp of everything except Misaki. He is protective and possessive, but also encouraging. He helps her learn to share her burdens, appreciate new viewpoints, even enjoy herself now and again. He is the perfect foil for her workaholic without being a lazy no-account.
It would be really easy to let such a character come across as overbearing or competitive or patronizing. That the author doesn't do so and, in fact, balances Usui's excessive brilliance with charm and an almost complete lack of self-importance (without imbuing him with false modesty) does a great deal to make him fun.
I like the lead, too. Although too bristly, too pushy and somewhat prone to tunnel vision, Misaki also cares deeply about people (even the boys), takes her responsibilities very much to heart and learns. That, alone, is a fine feature in a shoujo manga because that is not always so. She works hard and learns to appreciate people, friends and enemies alike, with an excellent instinct on who to trust, even if she doesn't consciously acknowledge it. She understand about responsibility in a way Usui doesn't so they balance each other nicely. Her earnestness is appealing without being preachy. I like a character who goes after everything 100%.
Villains are pretty darned villainous, which is nice. They're easy to hate without being cardboard. Side characters are absolutely a laugh riot, adding color and humor, particularly Yakimura who is the butt of a running gag through the entire series and manages this without losing his own humanity.
The humor is pervasive without sacrificing our characters. I laughed out loud repeatedly, either from Usui's sarcasm, the beat perfect sight gags, or the side bars or tongue-in cheek messages from the author. Nothing was sacred and I always find that amusing.
The artwork was nice without being awe-inspiring. The dialog for Usui was often more speaking than his face, which was largely drawn with the same (or nearly same) enigmatic expression. Often the in between sketching, without the fine detail, are the funniest panels. Still, it works as a whole, so I'm not complaining.
Usui: Hey, Ms. President, could you be a masochist? Since you seem to enjoy inflicting all this pain on yourself, maybe you're also a sadist.
Usui: In my opinion, giving a kiss is much better than receiving one.
Usui: I think you're fine just the way you are now. As in, if I had you as my little sister, just as you are now . . .
Misaki: If you had me as I am now?
Usui: I'd find it incredibly hot.
Misaki: How long are you going to follow me?
Usui: To the ends of the earth.
Misaki: Don't you ever think about things before you say them? You're totally grossing me out - even more than usual.
Misaki: Never mind that--why were you waiting for me?
Usui: You needn't let it disturb you. Since I am but a humble stalker.
What I didn't like: Like many school-centric mangas the scenarios, motivations and overall plot is frequently absurd. That's not entirely bad, since it's a huge aspect of the humor, but I had to roll my eyes once in a while. But I was usually laughing at the same time. And, let's not forget, you can no longer get the whole set in English, and even those that were previously published are getting scarce. Grr. On Amazon.com, only volume 7 is still available while the rest can all be had, but some are already at the $20-30 dollar range. Glad I grabbed them when I could.
Maid-Sama can be found on-line, but you'll have to look for "Kaichou Wa Maid-Sama." ("The Student President Is a Maid") The translation is often considerably different, losing the punchline with the on-line version, but sometimes picking up subtleties missed in the official version. There's a lot to translate with this one. And, of course, you can't get any new ones any more officially in English, not unless someone else picks up the license. If someone does, the title may also change.