I pity anyone who can watch Shounen Maid and feel nothing. You all have cold, dead hearts.
One can’t help but be struck by the contrast between this series and Super Lovers, the other series airing this season that focuses on the relationship between a young boy and his adult male relative. That series (I gave up on it a while back, unable to take any more) was slick and competently made, and for the first couple of episodes could almost have convinced you it was built around actual family drama. It’s not, of course – it’s offensively calculated, pandering and cynical. In other words everything that Shounen Maid is the complete opposite of. That Super Lovers is is the one that’s going to sell a lot of discs should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who’s followed the anime business over the past several years.
For my money this episode of Shounen Maid was functionally perfect – it would be really difficult to do this sort of warm, bittersweet story any better. The character interaction is just so spot-on in this series, and that’s why it manages to pack so much emotional heft without resorting to melodrama or theatrics (it floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee). It’s the opposite of Super Lovers in this way too, in that the gimmick is the hook to draw you into the story, which is really about the subtle complexities of family love and friendship (that the converse is true of S.L. should go without saying if you’ve ever seen it).
The whole question of whether Chihiro’s peculiar obsession with cleaning and care-taking is a healthy thing is very much a central theme of Shounen Maid. There’s no question he’s thrilled when Madoka gives him the new vacuum he hungers for (remember that scene?) as a Christmas present, but Madoka – while he deserves credit for being observant and picking the right gift – has every right to be of mixed mind about it. Is it a good thing for an 11 year-old boy to be too excited about cleaning house to join his friends in playing their new copy of “Splatoon”?
I really like Chihiro’s buddies – it’s a very believable and heartwarming elementary school brotherhood – and it’s so very like them to come over and help so Chihiro will finish cleaning sooner. Hino – who seems to have a future as a political operator based on his impressive contact list – even calls Miyako in to help. Chihiro dressing his pals up in frilly aprons (clever Hino brings his own manly apron) could have been awkward or even icky, but the touch here is so deft that it comes off as simply very funny and charming – especially when Miyako shows up (for a fifth-grade boy to be seen by a pretty high-schooler dressed like that…). Naturally the others prove pretty inept at cleaning (Madoka “cleans” the kitchen by throwing away all the dirty utensils) and Chihiro is a harsh taskmaster, but in the end he has a great time because he’s in his element.
Madoka’s instinct that even as happy as he is Chihiro needs something more prompts him to suggest a getaway for New Years, which ends up being a trip to the family “cabin” (it’s nice to be rich) in the snowy mountains (Hakuba, maybe?). Definitely sucks for Chihiro’s other pals they didn’t get invited too, but Hino and Miyako come along, and it’s clear there’s an overall strategy here to keep Chihiro from doing any work. This next sequence is pure slice-of-life (while not this show’s genre, it does go there sometimes) at its best – wholly adorable and whimsical, especially the ice-skating sequence (my favorite part of this is Keiichirou obsessively snapping family photos of every awkward moment).
As usual, there’s a deeper meaning Shounen Maid is getting across here that it doesn’t want to beat into the ground – Chihiro just can’t be happy unless he’s working, and it’s not wholly healthy. I think it comes from his anxiety after losing his mother, for which Chihiro blames himself for not doing a good enough job taking care of her. That’s what this really boils down to – it’s not about vacuum cleaners or making tea, it’s about taking care of people. Chihiro is an serial worrier, and it stems from that fear of loss – obsessively taking care of everyone around him is his way of coping with that anxiety. It’s relatively harmless now, and Hino is right in that it was probably time to just give in and let Chihiro be happy – but it still hangs in the air in a slightly unsettling manner.
The emotional capstone of the episode is the morning of New Year’s Day, when a sleepy Chihiro stumbles onto the porch to find Madoka out there waiting for the year’s first sunrise. It would be hard to overstate the spiritual and symbolic importance of this day and this moment to the Japanese, but it’s especially cutting to see these two share it together. They are, as I’ve said, refugees of Chiyo – swept up in her huge capacity to love and be loved, and left bereft by her stubbornness and pride. This was a ritual she shared first with Madoka, then Chihiro – and their memory of that ritual and of Chiyo binds them together now and gives them comfort. Chiyo may have acted selfishly during her life in many ways, but her benediction of bringing her brother and her son together was a redemptive act of kindness and wisdom.