The Summer 2021 Preview Guide
The Duke of Death and His Maid
How would you rate episode 1 of
The Duke of Death and His Maid ?
Community score: 3.4
What is this?
The Duke of Death is cursed to steal the life from any living thing that he touches. He is accompanied by his maid Alice, who enjoys teasing him, but is the only remaining person devoted to him.
How was the first episode?
The most interesting thing about this show is how it manages to balance the inherent darkness of its premise with a light-hearted romantic comedy. And make no mistake: there's some seriously depressing backstory glossed over in the dialogue, which becomes sadder the more you stop and think about it.
Our hero, the “Duke of Death”, was cursed and sent to live in an isolated mansion at the age of five. Now he is in his late teens (or maybe older given Philip's physical appearance). Since Alice only came to the mansion two years before the start of the anime, it's likely that the Duke spent a decade or more of his life—his entire formative years—in social isolation (except for his sole, elderly butler). We learn that none of his family have visited him—not even once. His depression during that time seems to have been so severe that he became malnourished to the point that it stunted his growth. We can only imagine at this point the situation Alice walked into.
All this explains why Alice acts the way she does. She's not bullying the Duke; she's building a human connection with him. All her overt flirting is an undeniable way of showing beyond cheap words that she cares for him. Being in his proximity day in and day out shows that she does not fear him or see him as the monster that so many others do. When he scolds her for getting too close, he asks again and again if she understands what would happen if they touch. She never responds by affirming the grim truth of his situation and instead dodges the question—showing that she does not accept his curse as a permanent, forgone conclusion.
Alice is trying to re-forge his kind yet broken soul by stoking the fires of what makes him a human being just like everyone else—be that through the simple pleasures of food and human company or by exciting his base sexual urges.
It's a truly heartwarming romance you can't help but root for. And with the mystery surrounding the Duke's curse and Alice's own shrouded past, there's clearly a greater story going on that will hopefully end happily for our heroes.
I'm curious to know just how much of The Duke of Death and His Maid's aesthetic is intentional. It resembles, in many ways, Hi Score Girl, which also shares much of its staff. In an interview about the latter, producer Yuji Matsukura said that they chose to use CG because of how they prioritized the recreation of arcade cabinets over character animation. The result was a show that was in many ways a visual love letter to the era, but looked kind of like butt when it came to the characters.
Matsukura isn't working on Duke of Death and there are no arcade cabinets in sight, but for whatever reason, the staff decided to go with nearly-identical CG for the characters. It's a bit disappointing; the backgrounds have been textured to look like oil paintings, which is a cool and appropriate choice for the era they're animating, but the characters, with their smooth plastic skin and painted-on faces, are a complete mismatch. It's not EX-ARM bad – nothing will ever be EX-ARM bad again, I pray – but it's still not pleasing to look at. It carries that weightlessness that's unique to bad CG, where everything looks like it's arranged close to each other, but isn't really touching. There's an extremely disconcerting moment where the Duke is “eating” a cookie, which disappears when it gets close to his mouth while his jawline wiggles up and down. It's not pleasant.
The plot itself is an odd combination of the bullying romantic comedy that has come into vogue the last couple years, and a human story about isolation and loneliness by way of the supernatural. The bullying part is uncomfortable; instead of gentle teasing, it's mostly Alice, the titular maid, flustering The Duke by lifting her skirt to show the Duke her historically-inaccurate thigh-high fishnets or thrusting her giant plasticky bazongas into his face while he flails and stutters, “Sexual harassment!”
Dear creatives, people treating sexual harassment like a silly non-issue is a problem and this is not helping, thanks.
All this is a distraction from the real meat of the story, which is the Duke's loneliness in the face of the curse. Alice is his only companion, the only one who treats him like a human being. When his childhood friend Philip visits, he's in constant terror of the Duke brushing up against him; worse, he brings news that the Duke's parents are considering passing the estate onto his little brother instead of him. With better animation and less sexual-harassment humor, The Duke of Death and His Maid could be good viewing, but the flaws are just too ever-present to overlook.
I won't exactly say I came into The Duke of Death and His Maid with extraordinarily high hopes or anything, but I ended up growing really fond of Hi-Score Girl, the last CGI anime from J.C. Staff that I watched. I gathered that the The Duke of Death might have a similar vibe based on the preview art I'd seen, and I like the painterly effect that's going on with all of the background art. I knew that the premise to this series was a bit more risqué than the young adult romance of Hi-Score Girl, but the two leads of The Duke of Death get to exchange spoken dialogue with one another, so that's nice!
Unfortunately, it's that whole “risqué” element of the premise that really threatened to derail The Duke of Death before even five minutes of the premiere had passed. You see, the so-called Duke of Death is a meek young man who was cursed by a witch so that anything he ever touches withers and dies, and his criminally horny maid Alice couldn't give less of a good God damn about that. She gladly yanks up her skirt for the Duke to see, even when he plainly protests; if he trips and falls on his back, Alice will just run up and wave her crotch over his face instead of helping him up; she stares lustily down his throat at every given opportunity, and rushes to undress with the Duke whenever he is changing, using her impending nakedness as both a threat and a lure. When the Duke flat out asks Alice to stop harassing him, she just tells him that she cannot and will not, and then proceeds to thrust her genitals at him some more.
It isn't just a problem that this is objectively gross and off-putting behavior, no matter how you slice it, but it's also just…not funny. Sexual harassment in general isn't funny, like, on a functional level of comedy, and I was ready to write The Duke of Death off completely once it felt like it only had the one single joke that it was going to recycle over and over. And over. And over.
Thankfully, the show isn't quite as lazy and crass as all that. Not only do we learn that the Duke and Alice have a long-standing relationship, but the end of the episode makes it clear that he genuinely does reciprocate her romantic feelings for him, and that her love and support is literally the only human warmth he receives now that literally every other person in his life thinks of him as a cast-off and a monster. That doesn't excuse Alice's completely absurd displays of sexual attention, but it is ever-so- slightly more bearable when you get the impression that the Duke wants to get all up in Alice petticoats, but he wants to avoid killing her with his cursed flesh even more.
What will really determine whether The Duke of Death and His Maid ends up being worthwhile or not is if the non-comedic writing can shake out, in the end. That doesn't just go for our titular leads — although it would help a whole hell of a lot if Alice behaved even remotely like a real person. There's all sorts of family drama and interpersonal strife that The Duke is going to have to figure out if he and Alice mean to break his curse. It's not a great premiere, but some folks might be able to look past the cringe- comedy of it all knowing that the intention is perhaps a bit more romantic than the opening lets on.
The Duke of Death and His Maid is trapped between two stories. The first is a tragedy about a young nobleman cursed by a witch to steal the life from whatever or whomever he touches, be they plant, person, or animal. He's banished to a remote family manor house in the forest, with only his maid Alice and his butler for companions. The second story is the goofy comedy about how maid Alice keeps trying to get her embarrassed and uncomfortable employer, whom she's known since childhood, to touch her or look at her unclothed body. Heck, there may be a third story in here, too, about the yearning, impossible love between the duke and Alice.
In the case of the first and third, there's no reason why the two storylines shouldn't coexist. The problem is with that second plotline. And really, even there, the problem is more that it's the one we really get introduced to first. Yes, the duke does explain his circumstances, but the action of the story opens with Alice trying her hardest to give him an eyeful of her assets while he tries equally hard to fend them off. Since the success of Alice's plan means her death, it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It's as if the original author of the story wasn't secure enough in their plot and decided to throw in some fanservice to make it more palatable to the audience.
There is, of course, another possibility as to why the sexy shenanigans are included: Alice may know something about how to break the curse. About all we, and the duke, know about his problem is that a witch cursed him to kill all he touched, and his mother summarily removed him from the family home. Sometime later, Alice showed up with no explanation. Since another piece of the curse is that no one would love the duke (which may be intended to explain his mother's coldness, although she could just be an awful human being), he could be in a Beauty and the Beast situation where someone must love him unconditionally for the spell to shatter. If Alice has always been in love with him, that would indicate that she spent some time figuring this out and that part of the solution is that he must touch her of his own volition, prepared to lose that which he loves most, with a similar emotion on her part. Alice, therefore, may simply be approaching the solution from a lust-based angle.
That, unfortunately, doesn't make the tonal dissonance go down any easier. As it stands, this episode has whiplash-quick shifts in tone, with Alice lifting her skirt one second and the duke mourning his losses the next. The looming presence of his mother, which increases in enmity as the episode goes on, is the most intriguing part; she could be a fairy tale evil mother (stepmothers are largely a Victorian addition to most fairy tales, so a biological mother as wicked isn't far-fetched in this kind of fiction). Childhood friend Philip, who comes to see him despite his fears, seems to imply this at least a little, making the intrigue factor have some potential. This may be worth a second episode to see how (and if) it evens out, awkward-looking animation and small contradictions in the art – like how the duke kills a tree by touching it but not the grass by lying on it – aside.
This is a premiere that makes a pretty bad first impression. For one, this is a CG show that is largely lacking in any significant animation. This is from the same principal team that handled Hi Score Girl's anime adaptation, and that series' best animation belonged to its 2D sprite work, so without that charming add-on this first episode looks largely unappealing. Characters only move when they have to – with the exception of Alice's chest, which they take great pains to make jiggle any chance they get. Facial expressions are minimal and generally stiff, leaving our cast feeling like ciphers when they really shouldn't. There are some nice enough backgrounds that manage to work both as a gothic backdrop to the premise's darker tragedy and as homey host to the romantic antics of our titular duo, but otherwise the show just isn't very pleasant to look at.
Said romantic antics also don't start off great. It's bad enough this show has to follow up a season with Don't Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro – a series that handled its dynamic of a nebbish male lead and his sexually aggressive love interest with more personality and better comedic timing. But the added wrinkle that if these two ever so much as touch fingertips she'll drop dead instantly turns the attempts at fanservice into something leagues more uncomfortable. Our unnamed Duke isn't just recoiling from Alice's advances because he's nervous or inexperienced, but because even an accidental tap would kill the only person in the world who cares about him. A stronger script might find a way to balance those competing tensions better, but here it just comes off as uncomfortable the moment you start to think about it.
That said, the second half of this episode does give me some hope there might be something worth following here. Once Duke and Alice's antics take a breather and we see him interacting with people who do fear his touch of death, the loneliness and tragedy of our hero's predicament gets to speak for itself. His lament about never knowing the warmth of another person's touch and never being able to physically reciprocate Alice's love isn't exactly groundbreaking, but it's an effective moment for making these characters feel sympathetic. Plus it's nice that they confirm right away that he does actually love Alice back. It doesn't make the whole flirting with death part of this episode any less uncomfortable, but it gives their relationship a bit more depth.
I don't think that'll be enough for me to carry on following this series – it just is not pleasant to look at, sorry – but it's always a good thing when a premiere ends better than it started.
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