Reviewby Carlo Santos, Apr 22nd 2010
At Seika Academy, nobody takes charge like student council president Misaki Ayuzawa. But in order to pay the household bills, Misaki has an embarrassing part-time job—she moonlights as a waitress at a maid café. This would all be well and good ... if weren't for the fact that Takumi Usui, the hottest guy in school, knows about Misaki's secret and loves nothing more than teasing her about it. Their tug-of-war relationship may be in danger, however, when a deranged schoolmate tries to turn them against each other with the power of hypnotism. Then, it's off to the beach for summer vacation, where Misaki quickly finds that Usui can be just as irritating by the shore as he is at school. But could an intense volleyball match reveal Usui's true intentions?
Perhaps no other current series gets more mileage out of a generic premise than Maid Sama!, which takes all the obvious aspects of maid subculture, shoujo heroines, and desirable bishounen—and still manages to be a refreshing delight. This one is pure pleasure, no guilt necessary, as Hiro Fujiwara pulls the maximum comedic potential out of some very familiar character types. Volume 4 even goes so far as to venture into the dreaded territory of a seaside episode ... and comes out with a highly entertaining round of beach volleyball. Truly, has any other comedy achieved so much with so little?
It doesn't just begin and end with the laughs, either. On the romantic side, the series also continues to find new ways to emphasize the "awww" factor in Misaki and Usui's relationship. When Misaki undergoes a malicious hypnosis that will be triggered after she falls asleep, Usui takes it upon himself to keep her awake for 24 hours—a scenario that is as endearing as it is goofy. It also happens at the beach, when the two of them are pitted against each other in the volleyball match, and we learn that Usui has some rather tender motives for wanting to defeat Misaki. But don't be fooled into thinking that it's only about fluffy, heart-to-heart humor: Fujiwara also proves in this volume that she can lean right over into the absurd, with a spoof take on Momotaro that not recasts the series' characters as participants in the Japanese fairy tale, but then rewrites the story in a way that makes sense in the context of the Maid Sama! universe.
Not every moment at Seika Academy is instant entertainment, however. The Misaki-Usui pairing may be a shining example of perfectly balanced (yet volatile) chemistry—he, the smug ladykiller with a soft spot; she, the charismatic overachiever who gets flustered at his advances—but the amusement factor drops off sharply after those two. Kanou, the hypnotist who was introduced as a villain in the previous volume, never really progresses past the level of unlikable side character and is eventually cast aside. Misaki's pals from the maid café, meanwhile, continue to be little more than a sideshow of girly-girl antics, not to mention that one boy who cross-dresses in Lolita garb (it was funny the first time, but he's only been an annoyance since then). Even the Idiot Trio—usually the best hope for a decent supporting cast—gets shafted by only appearing in the side-story chapters.
While the humor often adds up to more than the sum of the series' parts, the same can't be said for the artwork, which is often the weak spot in each chapter. Usui's devilish grins and Misaki's fiery expressions of rage are often drowned out by cluttered layouts and a rather pedestrian visual style. Let's be honest here: an unknowing reader, glancing through this volume for the first time, would probably dismiss it as "just some kind of shoujo thing"—and end up missing out on a perfectly fine comedy. An overflow of predictable character designs, repetitive and crowded imagery, and screentones in every nook and cranny end up being more of an eyestrain than eye candy. The one glimmer of creativity is in the Momotaro spoof, which takes the best of gag strips and children's manga and blends it with the series' own style to form an outlandish and amusing result.
The underwhelming art can also be blamed on the dialogue, which often ends up taking too much room on the page and crowds out the very characters who are supposed to be speaking those lines. Now, the lines themselves are very, very good—Misaki and Usui clearly haven't run out of sharp comebacks and one-liners, and the translation captures that energy perfectly—but this is still a visual medium, not a transcription of high school kids shooting smart-mouthed banter at each other. Ironically, the bonus "Requests Corner" in the back is a transcription of smart-mouthed banter, but again, that kind of material should be complementary to the story and not be overpowering it. And with so much text to follow, few will be concerned about the number of sound effects that go untranslated in this edition—besides, it's the characters and what they say that really make this series anyway.
From mad hypnotists to beach trips to re-imagined fairy tales, Maid Sama! has a way of turning even the most banal story concept into worthwhile entertainment. Like previous installments, this volume has some shortcomings—but the intense drive to generate as many laughs as possible often overcomes those issues. Misaki and Usui's constant back-and-forth bickering is a key component to that success, and their personalities have a way of pulling out pleasant surprises when the moment is right. Whether it's Usui showing some heart behind his cool exterior, or self-confident Misaki suddenly wavering under pressure, these two continue to reveal hidden layers that go well beyond working a secret job at a maid café. Who knows, one day they might even admit their feelings for each other ... but not just yet. Watching them go at it like this is way more fun.
Overall : B
Story : B+
Art : C
+ Continues to excel at both romance and comedy with a perfectly (mis)matched lead couple and their contentious behavior.
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