Mahoromatic: A Maid Anime the Gainax Way

            (Mikhail Koulikov :: mkoulikov@gmail.com)

 

One of the few things in the world of Japanese animation that has held true over the last fifteen years or so is that when Gainax, probably the single most famous anime studio, approaches a concept, no matter how conventional it may appear, the end product is completely original and unique. Because of this, the decision to animate Bow Ditama and Bunjiro Nakayama’s manga “Mahoromatic: Automatic Maid” was met with a great deal of excitement. Whatever shape the series would take, it would be the first Gainax series produced for broadcast since 1997’s “Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou” (“His and Her Circumstances”). At the same time, by entering another title into the crowded field of “maid” series, already occupied by the likes of “Hand Maid May”, “Hanayuko Maids” and others, Gainax ran the risk of Mahoromatic being lumped in with those other ones and thought of as “more of the same.”

The easiest way to go about this is to state it right out: Mahoromatic has nothing in common with the “standard” maid shows, and little with a majority of anime out there. At the same time, it is very similar to other Gainax productions like Wings of Honneamise, KareKaro, and even Neon Genesis Evangelion. Again, the storyline is set against the background of a truly global conflict – this time between a vaguely-defined alien invader threat and the VESPER organization established by the world’s governments to fight against them. Again, the main character is a fourteen-year-old junior-high school student. And again, his parents are absent, though unlike in Evangelion, both Misato Suguru’s mother and father are dead. Into his life stumbles Mahoro, a “VESPER Employment Agency” maid, who immediately proclaims herself to also be a “combat android.” For eleven more episodes, Mahoromatic becomes a tale of Mahoro – who is in fact a decommissioned battle android – learning the various meanings and implications of being “human” – friendships and conflicts and cares. Despite the initial setup, in fact, many of the episodes become simple slice-of-life tales: a trip to an amusement park, the characters taking part in an annual town festival, exploring their school at night to put an end to some urban myths.

However, as in several of their other titles, Gainax uses this simple framework to explore deeper issues, for example the true extent of the relationship between Mahoro and Suguru, which is far more complex than initially appears. Most importantly, Mahoro is literally living on “borrowed time” – she is decommissioned because in all of around 400 days, she – a machine – will cease to function. This gives every one of her actions, lessons learned and things experienced, an extreme poignancy: that which humans take an entire lifetime to experience, she is forced to go through in just over a year.

Other than Suguru and Mahoro, the series’ characters include Suguru’s teacher, 25-year-old Saori Shikijo, and several classmates. Saori, one of the more controversial and “unique” characters in all of anime, is played completely over the top. Her only purpose, initially, seems to be chasing Suguru around and proclaiming her desire to enter into a sexual relationship with the boy. While plenty of people are put off by this at first, as the series progresses, the reason for her existence in the series becomes clearer as well: in a way, she is both a comment on Gainax characters like Evangelion’s Asuka and Misato, only minus the conflict with the Angels which allowed them to rise to an entirely different level. She also represents a natural foil for the quiet, reserved Mahoro, demonstrating one extreme of behavior, and through that, also demonstrating how and where the balance should lie. Other characters include several of Suguru’s classmates, both male and female, who serve primarily to provide a framework for various interactions between the main characters to take place in.

Finally, one topic that has frequently been raised about Mahoromatic is the prevalence of “fan service” in the series. At least once per episode, and usually more, some – if not all – of the female characters prance about onscreen naked, or in highly suggestive poses. The key thing to understand, though, is that while the fan service is certainly there, it is almost always in context, and most importantly, completely not self-conscious. It is almost as if the scriptwriters present the characters on-screen: what implications the viewers draw from the fact that the characters are naked, and whatever other emotions are elicited, are the “fault” of the viewers. For example, in the first episode, Mahoro leads Suguru into the bath to wash his back. Obviously, both characters are naked, but the situation is not sexual unless the viewer decides that it is JUST by the virtue of the characters being naked.

In twelve episodes, split about equally between character development and back story, slice-of-life and interaction, and a conflict between Mahoro and an alien android she has previously fought and defeated, Mahoromatic attempts to satisfy viewers looking for a number of different things from a series. By an in large, it succeeds; like the other Gainax titles, it is neither perfect nor willing to settle for playing to the lowest common denominator. But if you are looking for a series that is unique, memorable, and consistently interesting, Mahoromatic is a perfect fit.

 

[Following the success of the initial 12-episode run of Mahoromatic: Automatic Maid, the storyline was continued in a 14-episode second season, entitled “Mahoromatic: Something More Beautiful”.]