Perhaps the most overused term in anime discussion? “Slice of life” – but it fits this series pretty well. Like a glove, in fact – it seems as if Hataraku is really at its best when it’s turning its skewed outlook on the daily routine of its characters, and in turn it’s about as good at mining daily routine for laughs as any series since Working!. Now that I’ve lived in Tokyo for a while, I can say honestly that I’ve not seen another anime that so accurately captures the essence of Tokyo life on a pauper’s wage – trying to stretch every ¥¥, dealing with the transit system, life in an apartment that would have been a walk-in closet back in the States.
While this ep definitely meets the “nothing much happened” requirement that defines slice of life for some, it does so only on a superficial level – which is another example of the way this show tweaks cliches just enough to make them feel totally fresh. While it was perfectly possible to enjoy this ep strictly for the sitting-around-talking moments (I’d say just about impossible not to) as always there were lots of interesting hints at the bigger story underneath. Those routine moments in Hataraku rarely seem either coincidental or incidental so I’m always looking for the hidden reasons behind what we see (though I am starting to wonder whether Ashiya’s illness was in fact coincidental, as he seems fine now and there’s no indication Suzuno would have stopped trying to poison him, if indeed she started doing so) and this episode was full of them.
While this was the week Suzuki Rika was fully integrated into the antics of the main cast, for me the headline was definitely Ashiya’s return to the spotlight. I can’t honestly say the show has suffered – it’s continued to be excellent – but I’ve missed seeing him in a major role. His assignment this time was to scout out the enemy at Sentucky Fried Chicken, one he initially resisted because SFC wasn’t in the budget – indeed, Maou had to remind Ashiya that his actual role was as Satan’s strategist. This causes his path to cross with that of Emi and Suzuno, whom Rika has dragged to SFC to plot out strategy for how she can meddle in what she’s mistakenly (or not) pegged as the love triangle between them and Maou. He silently observes until he hears Emi go on one of her usual tiresome rants about Maou, at which point he’s compelled to rise and defend his Lord’s honor.
I can only describe Ashiya’s background story as brilliant – both in conception as an in-context device, and in the way its telling was executed. I like Ono Yuuki well enough but honestly, I’ve never heard him be anywhere near as good as he is as Ashiya – he’s brilliant both at the comedy and portraying Ashiya’s genuinely touching devotion to Maou. Seriously, wouldn’t any of us kill to have someone so supportive and diligent supporting us in our travails? The yarn he weaves about the business (“mostly real-estate and personnel placement”) he ran with Maou and their feud with Emi – told via the use of delightful and witty pencil-sketch panels – is utterly convincing (to Rika for certain) and surprisingly true to the spirit of what’s really happened. The point here is, I think, that Ashiya truly believes this is the essence of the struggle. It’s not so much that their experience has changed Sadao and Ashiya – in his view, they were doing the work of the just all along, and their conflict with Emi wasn’t a case of good vs. evil but a simple matter of people devoted to a cause fighting each other to the end in true shounen spirit. It’s a revealing and rather brilliant way of character development, and a pretty important one in framing the central conflict in the series.
In the world of reality, SFC is still kicking MgRonald’s ass – Ashiya notes that they have some sort of chicken where you can eat the bones (WTF?) and “Ogre-nic coffee”but in truth, the suspicion is strong that manager
James Sarue Mitsuki (Iguchi Yuuichi) is engineering the whole thing for nefarious if nebulous purposes. We’ve had enough hints now about the cologne and the sunglasses to pretty much confirm he’s hiding something major – he’s probably the one who attacked Emi at the konbini, at the very least. After the gang goes across the street so Rika can spy out just what Maou has going for him, we see the latter struggling through every traditional tack he can think of to fight for business – coupons, free samples, hawking the product in front of the store (having done my stint in food-service management – coffeehouse to be specific – I can empathize heavily here) all to no avail. The morale of the team is wavering, and Maou has to deal with keeping their spirits up at the same time he’s dealing with Rika’s frankly rather annoying busybody antics and fangirling over Chiho.
There are all sorts of implications in what happens to conclude the episode, when Maou enlists the help of an old gent named Tawabe-san to finally get the upper hand against SFC. First off, he met the guy doing community service – which is interesting in itself. The scheme itself is a good one – using bamboo to set up Tanabata decorations outside the store, and offering free drinks (S size, of course) to anyone who ties a wish to the tree. It’s surprisingly inspiring to see Maou treat a fast-food war as a battle for justice, and inspire such loyalty among his “army” – even knowing his background (as told by Emi’s side) it’s pretty much impossible not to really like this guy. But there’s definitely something weird going on with that tree, some sort of magic aura that’s no doubt responsible for the magically effective way it’s drawing in customers. Suzuno especially is obviously suspicious, but the funny thing is it seems as if Maou is playing this straight – he seems to have no idea anything is happening apart from a good idea (and it is a good idea) working out well. If that’s true, what’s the source of the magic?
Suspicion naturally falls on the one we know is close by, Sarue-san – who may now be using the situation he’s created in stealing customers through magic to undercut Maou’s standing with Emi and Suzuno by giving them back. That doesn’t tell us what his ultimate goal might be, though a natural assumption might be that he too is affiliated with the Church (who’re emerging more and more as the true bad guys of the piece). The thing is, there is a certain sinister quality to the notion of Maou inspiring a fanatical army of followers and winning the hearts and minds of the peasant masses – that is, if you believe the first part of the story played out as Emi and the Church say it did. But how can one not root for Maou and Ashiya just the same, given how sincere and dedicated they seem to be? This entire series is subtler and more insidiously clever that it appears on the surface, entertaining as that surface is. The more you consider the premise and characters the more nuance is revealed, but you’re never hit over the head with it – it’s just there, waiting to be discovered if one is inclined to look for it. Once again I’m struck by how easy Hataraku Maou-sama makes being this good look, and how hard it is to make it look this easy.