When we were a few episodes into Maid Sama! my wife asked me a question. The conversation went something like this:
“What do you think of Usui?”
“I think he’s a controlling, possessive jerk.”
“Not just me then.”
This is a series that has major issues in terms of male/female dynamics. The central character is Misaki Ayuzawa, who is in a small minority of female students in a largely male school. She deals with this by bossing the boys around and trying to get them to improve their behaviour, so she is a formidable character who is generally feared by boys. She has a big secret: in her spare time she works in a maid cafe, acting out a subservient role to generally male customers, which by necessity could not be more different to the persona she puts across at school. Popular kid in school Takumi Usui finds out her secret, and falls in love with her, having spent most of his time previously rejecting the advances of his many female admirers.
I have to give this series a lot of credit for actually having a conclusion. Across the 26 episodes (there is also an OVA, which is included on the Blu-ray set), Usui gradually breaks down the barriers Misaki puts up, and she slowly but surely falls in love with him. So many anime series have this kind of will-they-won’t-they thing going on and then leave us hanging at the end, but this one has an ending I really enjoyed. Getting there was hugely frustrating though. It doesn’t take many episodes before it’s obvious that Misaki is in love with Usui, and from that point onwards the writers are just employing delaying tactics, with Misaki frustratingly denying her own feelings. Worse than that, Usui basically becomes a stalker (he even admits that proudly), and that often crosses the line into uncomfortable territory.
The supporting characters don’t help matters much, either. A rival to Usui turns up quite late in the game, a childhood friend who is in love with Misaki, but he’s never a credible threat to Usui and he’s just highly irritating most of the time. There is an admirable side story with Misaki’s friend Sakura, a great character until the last few episodes. She has fallen in love with a singer in a rock band, but he is a nasty misogynist who treats her terribly and pervs after Misaki instead, while she allows herself to be mentally tortured. There is a euphoric moment where the jerk gets some home truths from Sakura and Misaki, which I thought was great, but it is completely ruined by a reversal of the story later in the season, with Sakura getting obsessed with him once again and saying he has changed. I think I get what the writers were trying to do here: showing us that somebody can change for the better, and it does seem genuine and that’s a very good thing to do, but when the person doing the changing has behaved like such a mentally abusive woman-hater it’s tough to watch his victim go back to him.
Speaking of victims, Misaki is written as one by the writers far too often. It’s like somebody making this was taking a joy in showing us a strong female character and then finding ways to take her down a peg or two. In one particularly nasty storyline, she is locked in a room by a popular and influential boy from another school, who basically tries to sexually assault her. Usui shows up to save her and it’s hugely problematical. Elsewhere in the series, Misaki is more than capable of defending herself, often committing acts of comedy violence on male students, and yet here she turns into a damsel in distress for the convenience of the writers. The implication is clear: if Usui hadn’t shown up, Misaki would have been raped, and yet there are no consequences for her attacker or his accomplices, nor does the series show us anything much in the way of emotional baggage that Misaki would inevitably carry away from a situation like that.
I have seen a few anime series that define female characters by little other than their attraction to a male character, but in a way I think this is probably the worst offender in terms of gender representation I have ever seen, because it takes a strong female character and breaks her down into somebody who is in need of a strong male character in her life to protect her, be superior to her and allow her to be more traditionally feminine, and then sells that to the viewers as a triumph. It didn’t help that the artwork got on my nerves as well. There is a huge amount of lazy chibi art to express emotions and for generally lame attempts at slapstick comedy. The animators clearly thought they had created something hilarious with a trio of idiots who stalk Misaki at her workplace (there’s a lot of stalking going on, sold to us as comedy), and their obsession is played for (hollow) laughs throughout the series, but they are animated so often with chibi art that I ended up forgetting what they actually looked like. The background characters are frequently blank outlines, which is either an indication of a lack of funds, or a terrible artistic choice that always distracts the viewer from the narrative of a scene. I have seen plenty of series that go down the route of an unrealistic style of animation, and it has its place, but it’s tough to overlook the annoyance of the silly chibi art when the story is also getting on the nerves. Ultimately, this was a frustrating experience in just about every department.
One thing I do have to say in its favour is the way the series avoids fanservice. Considering one of the two key locations is a maid cafe, the animators are remarkably restrained, allowing the focus never to be drawn away from the comedy and the central relationship. Sadly, though, the comedy isn’t funny and the relationship is insidious. I was glad to see the back of this one. RP