I’ve said it already, but this is just a damn good show – plain and simple. There are flashier series out there, but in a sense Hataraku is anime boiled down to its essence. Casting, animation, pacing, comic timing – it just gets it right. An episode like this one is a perfect illustration of that, because it seems so breezy and effortless yet managed to be hilarious while advancing the plot and character dynamics substantially at the same time. It’s hard to make it look this easy.
Of course, like most good shows, Harataku starts with character. In addition to the stellar cast here (Itou Kanae makes a fine addition) the characters themselves are well-crafted, and placed in a legitimately interesting premise. It’s not as if they or the situation are especially groundbreaking, but neither the plot nor the characters are textbook examples of the tropes they represent. They’re not parodies of those tropes, either – instead, they’re tweaked just enough that, coupled with the intelligence and wit in the writing, everything seems fresh. It’s not that we’re seeing these things for the first time – we’re seeing the familiar in new ways, and that’s just as much an accomplishment.
For example, we have the “romance” between Maou and Chiho. She’s certainly a genki girl and he’s a sort of clueless male lead, but both are more than they seem. It’s always nice when we see a crush dealt with as directly as this one was this week – Chiho (with some nudging from Emi, it must be said) had her “come clean” moment with Maou. She slipped in the “fell in love with you” quite off-handedly, and it was clear from Maou’s reaction that contrary to what one might have thought he was well-aware of her feelings – there were no spit-takes. He simply didn’t quite know what to do about it – he’s got no experience in such things, after all – so he’s been more or less leaving it alone, treating Chiho kindly and respectfully but not pushing the romance angle. It might be argued to be cruel on his part not to definitively respond one way or the other, but in this instance I don’t think there was really any way he could respond definitively. I think the odds of any romance here are pretty slim – I think that’d be the case even if Maou weren’t Satan – and I think even Chiho knows it’s mostly a fantasy on her part. But the fact that Maou is kind enough to maintain their current friendly but fraternal relational is a sort of consolation prize.
The driver for this step forward is, as mentioned last week, Suzuno – or Christia Bell, apparently her true name. She’s definitely been the catalyst for a major change in the chemistry of the main cast, and while some things were clarified about her this week she remains a bit of a wild card. Indeed, she and Emi were at crossed signals when it came to being “after” Maou. She’s an Inquisitor for the Church – indeed she apologizes to Emi for the Orba Mayer fiasco – and she’s in-town to, among other things, kill Maou. She also arrived to check-up on reports Emi had teamed up with him, but she’s cleared Emi (perhaps a bit too hastily) of that charge and even invited her to team up on killing Maou. Suzuno also happens to be utterly clueless, having taken her cues about what Japan is like from period J-dramas and the like. This provides the spark for some of the best humor of the episode, the classic fish-out-of-water type. Again, we’ve seen this kind of wide-eyed rube in Tokyo gag a thousand times – but rarely with the verve and cleverness displayed here.
I have many questions about Suzuno – as does Emi – starting with whether she’s been trying to poison Maou, Ashiya and Urushihara. It seems likely, but why is Ashiya the only one ill – and why does he seem to be getting better? Emi in fact warns her not to try any “petty tricks” on Maou, because – ostensibly – killing Satan is her turf, not Suzuno’s. But of course, this is really the biggest question posed by the series at this point – is that really the reason Emi said no to teaming up on murder? Emi is the least fresh and interesting character to me, but that’s partly a function of how great the rest of the cast is – she still represents an interesting twist on both the tsundere and stalker model. She’s been witnessing Maou’s kind, decent and honorable behavior day in and day out for months. Meanwhile, she’s also seen first-hand that a Church-affiliated attempt on his life (and her own, not incidentally) would have killed hundreds of innocents if Satan himself hadn’t intervened and saved their lives. She’s certainly asking herself who she should be trusting, and why – and you can’t blame her. In effect, then, that big question is really two questions and they directly set up both major threads of the plot – has Emi come to believe Maou is who he’s claiming to be and thus deserving to live? And has she fallen for him?
There are many other questions still out there – like the issue of the konbini assailant, who this episode seems to make clear was not Suzuno (could it have been Urushihara?). And then there’s the matter of the fast food wars, with Sentucky Fried Chicken having taken a serious bite out of MgRonald’s business). This too gives us some of the funniest moments of the episode, such as Manager-san’s warning that the last manager to lose a war was sent to manage a franchise in Greenland. It also gives us Sarue Mitsuki (yes, he looks exactly like James from Team Rocket – they should have gotten Shinichiro Miki, just to close the loop) as the oily SKC manager who comes over to introduce himself. I’m not a big believer in coincidences with this series, so I’m presuming there’s something suspicious about him besides his slimy vibe – perhaps he too came to Tokyo to make Satan’s life a living hell (and not in a good way).
None of that really does justice to how entertaining this episode was, but good comedies are often like that. The facial expressions were again wonderful, and there were very funny moment peppered throughout the episode. It’s always interesting to see how many ways anime can come up with to depict Starbucks (“Moonbucks” in this instance), where we got another good sight gag in Suzuno imitating Emi exactly, down to spilling her creamer on her tray when she opened it. My biggest laugh probably came from Suzuno’s comment about Tokyoites using “smart gourds” to pay for travel expenses (we’d need bigger ticket gate machines, for sure, and it would be messy). Like many of the best comedies Hataraku can mine gold in many ways – character humor, sight gags, puns – it’s something of a comic powerhouse that way. I hope this series sells well on Blu-ray, because there’s a feeling of enormous untapped potential here – this premise and these characters have a ton of miles on them before they’d start feeling tired, I suspect, and I would love to see more Hatataku Maou-sama down the line.