Reviewby Theron Martin, Dec 4th 2006
Hayate the Combat Butler
16-year-old Hayate is really down on his luck. Because his unemployed parents are good-for-nothings who waste what money they have on gambling, Hayate had to start working at a young age to help out his family. Although such experience has made him inhumanly fast and tough and skilled at things boys aren't normally skilled it, it has also left him in an awkward position, as his parents have racked up such a huge gambling debt that they have sold Hayate to the yakuza for the value of his organs. In a desperate attempt to avoid that fate, Hayate decides to become a “bad guy” and kidnap someone to be held for ransom, but his efforts to do so are mistaken as a confession of love by the girl he targets. When he helps save the (as it turns out) ultra-wealthy 13-year-old Nagi from real kidnappers, she takes him in and gives him a job as her new personal butler (and love interest) until he can pay off his debt. But Hayate is more attracted to Nagi's beautiful teenage maid Maria, and head butler Klaus is initially disapproving of the boy with such a poor look. And then there's Nagi's pet Tama, who is also a force to be reckoned with.
Yes, Hayate the Combat Butler is as absurd as its title suggests. But that same absurdity is responsible for it being terribly funny, far moreso that you might initially expect.
The reason HCB works is because it parallels the path commonly followed through by typical anime/manga romantic comedies but always stays at least a step off of it. The little tweaks it does to give different spins on standard elements of such series keeps it fresh and lively, and it has a disarming capability to surprise its readers with random gags. To comment on the specifics of these would be to spoil the fun, but clearly manga-ka Kenjiro Hata has seen classic American cartoons and taken some inspiration from them.
It's also clear that Mr. Hata is quite the otaku, as HCB is littered with regular fandom-related references. A knowledgeable reader can spot references to Gundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Genshiken, Casshan, Doraemon, Batman, the magazine Newtype, and certain classic computer game lines, amongst others. Sometimes this happens a little too often, but other times the references are clever, such as the way most (all?) of the ridiculous Episode titles parody the wording or style of episode titles from widely-known series. (Remember the NGE episode title “The Beast That Shouted ‘I’ at the Heart of the World?” There's a take-off of it here.) The characters are also aware that they are in a manga, as regular references are made by characters to Shonen Sunday (the periodical that originally published HCB) and whether or not certain content is appropriate for a shonen manga.
The greater charm, though, comes from the twists the storytelling takes on standard story elements. A female character misinterpreting comments and/or actions by a male character as a confession of love is hardly new, but this time the guy is also misunderstanding the girl on a different point and a third character stuck in the middle is the only one who can see the complete truth. A cosplay session that Hayate gets dragged into takes a rather odd turn, and Nagi's pet Tama not only showcases an unexpected ability but his interactions with Hayate don't necessarily go the way you'd expect. Although Nagi herself seems at first to be the stereotypical cutesy, adorable heroine, she proves to be a lot more ornery that such heroines normally are, and while the inhumanly tough Hayate's attempts to be a “bad guy” getting shot down by his good-hearted nature isn't new, the skill set he has which actually makes him a good choice for being a butler is a fresh twist for a shonen male lead. Orphaned teenage maids who work for wealthy families and effectively become part of the family are an improbably frequent element of anime and manga titles, but Maria seems at least a bit more resilient than the norm and has already displayed a bit more character. Even the butler Klaus, the only other recurring character, has more personality than the hard-nosed bombastic individual one would expect.
The flaw in Mr. Hata's writing is his bad tendency to change perspectives with his explanatory comments, sometimes within the same page. As he himself notes in the very conversationally-written character profiles at the end (which seem to contain spoilers for future volumes, so be forewarned), he also makes a bad error on where Tama comes from. His writing is generally breezy and fun, though, which more than compensates for the minor deficiencies.
Unlike his writing, Mr. Hata's artwork doesn't cut any new ground, instead opting for a very common manga artistic style, complete with standard gimmicks for superdeformed characters. The only distinctive element is eyes often drawn completely black, as one might see in early American cartoons. Character designs are also typical, although Hayate comes off looking cutesy and almost girly and Nagi is occasionally drawn in dress and poses with lolicon leanings, especially on some of the Episode opening pages. Action scenes are handled well and the overall caliber of the artistry is a definite step above average. Though the title is rated Teen, there's only a little bit of blood and a meager amount of nudity-free fan service.
Viz Media's production of HCB offers colorful and appealing front cover art and good physical production values. All of the sound effects are translated, although the style of the originals has probably been maintained and, in several places, knowing exactly what sound effects are being used is essential to the humor. Numerous brand name references are compensated for by blacking out key letters in the name, though whether this was done by Viz or a carry-over from the original is unclear. The format has one Foreward page at the beginning, and bonus pages, the aforementioned profiles, a kind of Afterward by the creator, and a Bad Ending page at the end. Chapter page counts are irregular, varying between 16 and 30 pages in length.
Hayate the Combat Butler won't make you think much but will make you laugh a lot. Its first volume shows a lot of promise.
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Consistent humor, fresh twists on standard story elements.
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