It’s quite admirable to set out to write a story that deals with interesting and difficult social issues, and it seems that Maoyuu Maou Yuusha definitely has that ideal. It’s quite another to have the chops to actually pull it off, and that’s the part I’m not sure of yet. I see elements I like a lot in the first two episodes, but there are also some worrying signs, most especially a troubling reliance on the crutch of cliché.
Of course, even that prompts an argument – because one might contend that those clichés are actually the point. When you have characters who have no more names than “Hero”, “Demon King” and “Maid”, it could be said that their being archetypes is their very reason to exist in the story. That may or may not be true, but for my money they still have to be interesting as characters for the series to work. It can be said that it’s an interesting idea to build a series around tropes, but what different does that make if it isn’t interesting to watch? It may very well end up being so, but for the first two episodes it was only intermittently so for me, and the characters themselves are a mixed bag when it comes to being people I want to watch interact. Hero, especially, is still a problem – while there were flickers of individuality and self-awareness this week, they were only flickers – and his courtship with Maou has been so rote that I feel no romantic chemistry between them whatsoever.
Then there’s the social issues that seem to form the heart of the argument for why Maoyuu is going to be a worthwhile series. In the premiere the idea of war for economic gain – call it Military Keynesianism of whatever you like – was the focus. This week we get a dig into the notion of serfdom and whether it’s any different from slavery, the ugliness of “Noblesse Oblige”, and a lecture on crop-rotation. All fascinating topics to be sure, and there are some nice moments here. But the tendency has been for the story to stop for a lecture about whatever hot-button issue is on the table, one of the girls to do something moe, and we move on. These questions don’t seem integrated into the plot to me in any real sense, not yet anyway.
I see two possible traps in the main, and they’re tied into the nature of the series itself. It’s something of a cross between Spice and Wolf and Sword Art Online to my perception. With SAO, what you had was an interesting scenario whose downfall was that the writing simply wasn’t good or literate enough to fill it with interesting people or believable conflict. That was never in question with S & W – it’s two cours were some of the more literate anime of recent vintage and it’s certainly the better show. But to be blunt, there were times I found Spice and Wolf very boring. Lawrence and Holo were interesting people (and had romantic chemistry out the ying-yang) but for me the story too often degenerated into endless romantic teasing and listening to people saying clever things they knew were clever. I loved the depiction of realistic life in a pre-industrial economy and I liked the main pair, but the whole never added up to the sum of the parts somehow.Personally I think it was a mistake to have Fukuyama Jun and Koshimizu Ami paired together again in a series so many were already comparing to S & W – it sets up an inevitable expectation that MMY probably doesn’t need (and it doesn’t help that the series share the same director, Takahashi Takeo). Yuusha especially doesn’t hold up to well to that comparison either, as Lawrence was a much better fit for FukuJun at this point in his career, when he’s much more believable playing adults with a few regrets (see Natsuyuki Rendezvous) than stammering adolescents.
Be that as it may, the fact is that there was no other series doing what Spice and Wolf was doing, and I don’t see another doing what Maoyuu Maou Yuusha is doing either. I like having an anime that can raise the question of slavery and then use it to call out the hypocrisy of the humans, who high-mindedly disparage slavery as depraved yet are perfectly comfortable with a system where peasants have effectively no will to decide where and how they live their lives. I like having an anime where a character like Maid (the wonderful Saitou Chiwa) can lecture serfs who risked their lives to try and be free about their being insects, and get the older of the two (the wonderful Tomatsu Haruka) to beg her to teach her how to be human. It’s an ugly, difficult moment – and I think it’s intended to be. But in the same stroke we’re given the younger of the two (Touyama Nao) a character so shamelessly manipulative of the audience that she could have fallen directly out of Kawahara Reki’s pen.
Which is it? That’s the ultimate question with MMY, and I don’t have any idea what the answer is yet. This is a show that’s full of contradictions, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing it can be indicative of some real issues that are going to be hard to shake. It’s an interesting mess for me at the moment, but then, SAO was a pretty interesting show for a while too before the true depth of it’s flaws became inescapable and I finally had to give up the ghost. I certainly had no trouble finishing Spice and Wolf even if I didn’t always love it, and I suspect that MMY is closer to that pole than the other – even more so given who’s directing – but in my heart I hope it can be more than that. It really all comes down to how good a writer Touno Mamare turns out to be, and how good a job Takahashi-sensei does in packaging his disparate ideas into anime form.