Maybe I’ve become a soft touch, but Shounen Maid is really working for me. It’s been a while since I’ve read any of these manga chapters (the translations have been stalled for a matter of years) and while I remembered them fondly, I’d forgotten just how impactful they were. Either that, or seeing them play out on-screen gives them a certain additional resonance, which certainly happens often enough with anime adaptations that are handled with care and skill. And this one is, beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The obstacles facing this series when it comes to perception are obvious enough, but long experience with anime has taught me that perception and reality are two very different things. If they were books (well – actually they were) one might easily decide not to read R-15 or Ginga e Kickoff based on their cover – but what a shame that would be. And Shounen Maid has the added baggage of bearing a superficial likeness to material that a certain sort of anime fan finds especially off-putting – threatening even – right down to its title. It’s a lot to overcome, but the irony is that the actual process of enjoying the series and getting wrapped up in the story couldn’t be easier.
That Shounen Maid attacks this problem quite directly is hardly surprising, because the writing really doesn’t have an ounce of artifice to it. It toys with perception by quite openly poking fun at it in a way that never gets in the way of the story it’s trying to tell. It’s an unusual beast among anime in being quite emotionally transparent, especially in the way it approaches parent-child (and stepparent-child) relationships. There’s an honesty to this show which is very appealing, especially in the way it finds an essential truth in situations that in most series are covered in a thick pancake makeup of cliche.
The thing about Shounen Maid is that pretty much everybody in it is a decent person. Not in a flashy, saintly way – just nice. I know that’s not a plus for everyone but I quite like stories that focus on decency, and the heroism of everyday living. Take for example Chihiro’s best friend Yuuji and his grandfather. Under the pretense of taking care of Madoka’s garden after a long absence (don’t get me wrong, it needs it) they come to the mansion expressly to check on Chihiro – just to make sure he’s OK. Ojii-san casually lets it slip out that if Chihiro isn’t comfortable where he is, he would be welcome to come live in their bustling household – no problem. And Chihiro’s school friends notice things about him, changes in his mood and behavior. Not because they’re all that exceptional, but just because they’re his friends and they’re worried about him.
The premise of this episode is Chihiro’s discovery of an abandoned dog on the way home from school. This is mined for some comedy, much of it involving Madoka’ irrational fear of dogs (he loves cats but is allergic to them, poor guy), and the idea that the pup makes a useful guard dog for Chihiro’s bedroom. But it doesn’t end up the way you’d expect – rather than Chihro keeping the dog it’s adopted by Miyako – and the real purpose of the whole incident is to cast new light on the relationship between Chihiro and Madoka.
If one cares to look for them there are some fairly deep and subtle emotional themes being explored in this series. Both Chihiro and Madoka are suffering from abandonment issues – ironically both because of Chiyo, though under entirely different circumstances. And each of them responds in very different ways. Chihiro finds it very hard to trust, and though the lesson of self-reliance his mother taught him was a good one, it’s left him extremely reluctant to allow himself to be cared for. As a child that presents particular problems, but it’s not a problem that’s limited to children by any means.
The way Chihiro’s new cell phone is used to shine a light on all this is a very clever conceit. There’s a clear symbolism here in the way even responding to a message is excruciating for him, while Madoka gives vent to his own insecurities by obsessively messaging his nephew (these two are on opposite ends of the neuroses spectrum in so many ways). I think it’s actually pretty heartbreaking to see Chihiro all alone in the mansion, fighting a cold (refreshingly not overblown into an “anime cold” – just a cold), wanting so badly to hear Madoka’s voice yet not quite able to show that vulnerable side of himself.
Fortunately Madoka’s idiosyncrasies complement Chihiro’s, and he responds to his nephew’s failed attempt at a phone call by taking a taxi for three hours from his work venue to home (leaving poor Keiichirou with just a wig to cover for him), just to check on him. That’s the essence of the story here, really – everybody is broken in some way, but as long as you rely on other people you can get through it. That’s a very powerful message – enough so that a series doesn’t have to beat you over the head with it to be effective, and Shounen Maid never does. This is a show that’s so much more than it appears, so much more than the sum of its parts – and however few viewers out there give it enough of a chance to find that out, I’m glad to have it around.