I wonder if Servant x Service is going to be one of those shows where if you could make a greatest hits album out of the best episodes and trim out the stinkers, you’d have a classic. The truth is that two of the first three episodes have been absolutely wonderful, and on balance that’s a pretty darn good batting average. You can’t ignore the ghastly stumble in the middle, because the big, gaping crack in the sidewalk that caused it is still around, and poised to cause more stumbles at any time. But any show that can produce material as good as this week’s episode is one that can’t be taken lightly.
I think part of the magic of Takatsu Karino is that she just gets people. That’s one of the reasons Touko stands out like a sore thumb and feels like a character that was written by an editor – she’s so out of character for Takatsu-sensei. Her skill at using the broad conventions of the manga/anime character database and yet creating characters that feel unique and true-to-life is a remarkable one indeed. I think the source of it is her understanding that everyone is exceptional in their own mind, no matter how mundane their circumstances – but not just in their own mind, either. If we were privy to what was really going on inside the heads of those around us, we’d surely be astonished – because no one at heart really wants to be boring and nondescript. And Takatsu’s manga are really all about seeing those inner selves exposed to the light, in all their usually loveable silliness.
Like Working, S x S is basically a sitcom seen through an anime lens. And like the best sitcoms, the characters drive the humor. As with Working, we’ve seen the cast very quickly establish themselves as likeable and interesting individuals. At the heart of this show are Lucy and Hasabe, and given that this episode focused almost entirely on them, it’s no surprise it was such a winner. Lucy’s charm, for me, is in the contrast between her ideal of herself and the truth of her self-perception. At heart she’s almost completely lacking in self-confidence, despite being extremely competent and attractive. And it’s not hard to extrapolate the path that led her to this point: the well-established anguish her name has given her (though I suspect that was always a bigger issue to her than to anyone else). And given her proportions, it’s not hard to imagine she had a rough high-school life – probably facing some jealousy from other girls, and certainly being the subject of a lot of ogling from boys. There’s no doubt that she’ll have faced the syndrome of being judged on her looks frequently, and that’s clearly built up a lot of scar tissue over the years.
That’s what makes her relationship with Hasabe such an interesting one. Hasabe is fast establishing himself as one of the best anime characters of the year – he’s hilariously funny, but a lot more complicated than he seems at first glance. He makes a very obvious contrast with Lucy in that Hasabe seems remarkably disinterested in what anyone else thinks of him. He’s very open about what he thinks and what he wants, he does what he feels like doing, and insults to him are like water off a duck’s back. Is he perfect? Hell, no – he’s certainly not making the most of his considerable talents for starters, but I think part of the message here is that there’s no shame in the path he’s chosen. He’s satisfied with his life, he’s successful at what he does, and because he hasn’t set lofty goals for himself he hasn’t set himself up for disappointment. That’s surely not perfect, but in the real world it’s no terrible thing.
But more than that, Hasabe take political incorrectness and bluntness to new levels. I don’t blame Ichimaya for popping him in the face when he was about to blurt out a comment about Lucy’s breasts (though he was just going to ask if her bra hook had broken) because what Hasabe does could easily be taken as sexual harassment. Heck, not only does S x S joke about it but Hasabe does himself. Hasabe is a troll of the first order, and he has a real edginess to him, and that makes him interesting. He’s also whip-smart, knowledgeable, understands people innately and seems to pick up anything he sets his mind to with infuriating ease. We’ve all known people like that and probably envied them for the effortless grace with which they seem to take life, but the fact is that Hasabe has been the one to step up every time he’s been needed in this series. Crying children, angry clients, deaf visitors – it was even Hasabe who gave Lucy a graceful way out without embarrassment (well, without too much) after the great bra-hook disaster of ’13 when the others were – in his own words – ready to “leave her hanging”. In truth, of course, Hasabe is also the only one who really understands the life of the civil servant – because after all, it’s effectively a family business for him.
There’s a lot of the same magic from Working at play here – characters in mundane jobs whose personalities are exaggerated for comic effect, but whose essential nature feels true to life. Wardrobe malfunctions like Lucy’s are the sorts of small-scale disasters that feel more important than world wars and earthquakes when they happen to us. The humor is really spot-on when Touko isn’t involved, case-in-point being the conversation on the morning after Lucy went home with a “cold” – perfect timing, right down to Chihaya’s pause. Lucy is on the receiving end of a lot of the humor so far – her name, her proportions, her cowlick (yeah, I keep wanting to smooth it down too) – but for me at least, it doesn’t feel mean-spirited (though I could see where it eventually might). She’s playing the Takanashi role here to some extent – the hard-working schlub at the heart of the cast who tries to maintain their dignity as madness explodes all around them – and like Takanashi, she’s very effective in that context. It’s a good formula – it worked at Wagnaria, and it works in the Ward Office too. Whatever concerns I have over its obvious achilles heel, Servant x Service is filling a unique niche on the anime schedule and doing so brilliantly most of the time so far.