Reviewby Theron Martin, Oct 30th 2012
High schooler Kinjiro “Jiro” Sakamachi hates his full name because one can easily pull the English word “chicken” out of its middle when it is given in traditional Japanese order. He also suffers from gynophobia – a fear of contact with girls and women – due to the way his mother (a top-caliber pro wrestler) and sister (who aspires to follow in her mother's footsteps and so wakes Jiro up each morning by subjecting him to wrestling holds) have treated him over the years, a condition which causes him to break out in nosebleeds and faint with any degree of prolonged contact. Despite that secret, he leads a relatively normal high school life until he accidentally learns the secret of Subaru Konoe, the dashing and widely-adored teenage butler of wealthy classmate Kanade Suzutski: “he” is actually a “she.” Because she is an only child and desperately wants to continue her family's long-standing tradition of serving the Suzutski family (her father is the personal butler to Kanade's father), Subaru has been tasked with passing herself off as a male through her school years to prove herself. Subaru's secret getting out would end her chance to be Kanade's butler, so Kanade rather forcefully strikes a deal with Jiro: if he will keep Subaru's secret, Kanade and Subaru will work to cure Jiro's gynophobia. Naturally the arrangement becomes fraught with all manner of complications, but it also brings two important side benefits: a close and trustworthy friendship for Subaru (something which her situation has prevented her from ever having before) and a chance for Jiro to live up to his deceased father's entreaty to be a stand-up guy. But will Subaru be content with being just friends, or can she find a way to overcome Jiro's condition and make their relationship into something more?
Based on its look and feel, this 13 episode light novel-based 2011 series gives every indication of being a banal harem romantic comedy, one whose triple-whammy basic premise will doubtless cause many eyes to roll: not only does it extend the girl-shy nature of the male lead to the logical extreme by making Jiro gynophobic (though at least it does give him a semi-legitimate reason for having such a condition), but it also has a servant going to school with – and serving while in school – her mistress and one of the kind of contrived reasons for cross-dressing that can only really be found in anime. And, to an extent, it does play out as expected. The series is not entirely what it initially appears to be, however, and has just enough distinguishing merits to warrant a mild recommendation.
Despite what it looks like, Mayo Chiki! does not actually play out like a harem series. Of the five girls in orbit around Jiro – Subaru, Kanade, Kureha, the cat-eared otaku Nakuru, and (later on) the tsundere Masamune – only Subaru and Masamune are clearly shown to have specific romantic interest in Jiro. Kureha is instead enamored with Subaru's male persona, Nakuru is more fascinated with imagining what she believes is a BL pairing between Jiro and Subaru, and Kanade, while she does flirt with Jiro, seems more intent on playing with him and pairing him up with Subaru's feminine side than seriously entertaining romantic notions herself. This makes for an amusingly complicated relationship mix. None of the girls conflict over Jiro, either, although that is partly because the deception about Subaru's true gender interferes with any notion of heterosexual romantic rivals. Jiro definitely gets his fair share of feminine attention, but the potential romance inherent in it is limited.
Kanade's personality is a second factor which bolsters the series greatly. Jiro is a pretty typical nice-guy harem lead, Masamune is mostly the stereotypical tsundere, Kureha is fun but nothing special as the hyper-enthusiastic sister, and Subaru is a little more interesting as a main love interest struggling to balance growing girlish affection with her strong desire to pursue her unlikely goal, but Kanade is the one who stands apart and really makes the series fun to watch. Though seemingly a proper, refined young lady, she is delightfully mischievous and has a keen sense for how to manipulate people, which lead to her being responsible for many of the situations which arise in the series. Though she freely abuses her authority over Subaru to set up these situations and clearly does her mischief at least partly for her own amusement, there is rarely any malice to it and she often gives the impression that her schemes are intended to be ultimately beneficial for those she favors; that she genuinely cares for Subaru, despite what she sometimes puts Subaru through, is beyond question.
The series' third saving grace is that, for all of its trite antics and generally uninspired characters, it actually has a surprising amount of heart. On several occasions the Jiro/Subaru relationship shows a sweetness and charm that only the better harem series can typically muster; they actually make a fitting couple. That sweetness can also be seen to lesser degrees in Jiro's relationships with Masamune and his sister (though the latter hardly deserves it, given the abuse that she regularly inflicts on Jiro) and in the way Kanade regards Subaru in unguarded moments. Unfortunately that sweetness is balanced out by various typically crass fan service scenes (the cook who's always trying to feel up Subaru even though Subaru is wearing a chest wrap, for instance), but even those are not as pervasive here as in other anime in this genre. The series also less frequently goes for the cheap shots on fan service, instead opting more for sexy but tasteful swimsuits, some sexually provocative behavior by Kanade, the occasional prurient joke, and racy, double entendre-laced Next Episode previews. Only in one place – a mid-series-episode dream sequence which includes detailed nudity and strongly implied sexual content – does the series elevate its fan service game. The running gag that Jiro gets nosebleeds from general contact with females, rather than from sexually arousing situations, is a rather amusing twist, though.
The main problem with the series is that it does not do enough to distinguish itself, and that especially includes the artistic front. Animation studio feel. is not a studio who has staked their reputation on top-quality artistic efforts (Jinki:Extend, Otoboku, Listen to Me Girls, I'm Your Father!), and this one is no different. They are at their peak when depicting nudity (see also So, I Can't Play H!), but otherwise their character designs and animation are very ordinary and the rendering quality varies between mediocre and decent. Subaru is pretty enough as a girl but looks too girlish in the butler uniform to be credible passing as a male, while the busty Nakuru, with her mix of ganguro style and perpetual animal ears, just looks ridiculous. Background art is solid, but that's it.
The musical score does a better job. It uses its mix of light ditties, more serious numbers used in a comical fashion, and an occasional purely serious note quite effectively and gets extensive mileage after letting numbers deteriorate when a dumb joke bombs a scene. Neither the opener (sung by Kanade seiyuu Eri Kitamura) nor the closer (sung by Eri, Yuka Iguchi, and Mariya “Masamune” Ise), both of which are generic J-pop numbers, stands out at all. Yuka Iguchi's performance as Subaru in the Japanese dub does, as she makes a careful effort to always use a deeper pitch for Subaru when she is passing herself off as a boy.
As is typical for their releases of heavily fan service-focused series, Sentai Filmworks is giving this one the minimalist treatment. In this case that means no English dub, no Blu-Ray option, and no Extras beyond clean opener and closer.
Mayo Chiki! will not amaze anyone with its quality, and those expecting anything excitingly fresh will be disappointed. An uncomfortably quick and simplified resolution to a major issue at the end of the series also detracts, and the story clearly isn't finished at the end. It delivers just enough on its humor, character development, fan service, and charm to be entertaining, however, and for series like this, that's enough.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : B
+ Can be funny and charming, not entirely a typical harem series, Kanade.
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