Reviewby MrAJCosplay/Cartoon Cipher,
Duke of Death and His Maid
Once upon a time, there was a young noble cursed by a witch since childhood with a spell that kills everything he touches. Because of it, he is disowned by his mother and sent to live in a secluded estate inside a forest. For years he has lived a life of isolation save for two regular points of contact: his butler Rob, and the young Alice, his only maid who wishes nothing more than to get closer to his grace. In a world of witches and curses, can these two continue to grow their romance despite death being a simple touch away?
Despite the rather dark implications of the overall premise, I thought it was just another entry in the growing list of anime that are now making up this “teasing genre.” Thankfully, I was wrong. While there is certainly a lot of teasing in the show, both towards our titular Duke and towards the audience, it's carefully mixed in with a lot of heartfelt wholesomeness, simple but effective world-building, and a surprising amount of pathos.
The Duke of Death follows a young man who, for reasons that have not yet been revealed, was cursed by a witch who made it so he would never be able to experience physical affection from anybody unless he wants to be responsible for their death. Having grown up in isolation and cut off from what should be the main source of familial affection in his life, the Duke is a rather depressing character with a weak disposition and heavy eye bags. However, hope arrives in the form of a young maid who genuinely wants nothing more than to stay by his side. Their story develops into one of true love without any actual physical affirmation; despite having a rather hefty amount of fanservice, The Duke of Death and His Maid comes off as far more wholesome in the way that it communicates emotions like longing and affection.
The aforementioned teasing comes from the young maid Alice who never seems to waste a second flashing or exposing parts of her body to this young Duke whom she serves, but it never comes off as mean-spirited or harmful. There's a strong sense that the Duke is intended to be the sole recipient of such displays, with a subtle implication that it's unfortunately the most intimate that these two are allowed to be given the circumstances. As expected, there is an element of taboo to the relationship, but it doesn't feel like there's any power imbalance in the actual exchanges between the pair. The teasing feels genuinely nice and you get the sense that if it wasn't for the curse, these two probably would've consummated their love for each other a long time ago. The show doesn't beat around the bush or hide that clear and present attraction the two have towards each other since as early as episode two, both characters having already expressed a genuine open love for each other. It also helps that despite there being moments where the Duke is caught off guard by his maid's advances, you never get the sense that they are unwelcomed. It honestly feels like a newlywed couple that keeps looking for new and exciting ways to enjoy each other's company. There was never really a moment where I didn't think that either of them didn't deserve the happiness that they so desperately crave.
All of this comes down to the balancing act the show executes between those more lighthearted slice-of-life moments and the wider world-building that is anything but. Whether it's establishing the stifling aristocratic nature of noble families or giving us glimpses into the dark magical underbelly of this world where witches also exist, you really do get the sense that despite the loneliness and isolation, the Duke's secluded villa kind of acts as a safe haven from many of these harsh realities that permeate the outside world. Despite having a curse that bars him from touching any other living thing, there's a sense that the Duke is touching and protecting those who are dealing with their own curses, even if he may not be that aware of it.
Outside of the occasional bouts of playfulness, the show does have a very distinct sense of style with varying designs across all of its characters. Everyone seems to have a personal history that they are not immediately open about, but the show does a lot in establishing these other side characters without taking too much away from its primary focus. There are seeds of mystery sowed, and while many of them admittedly don't come with major payoffs, the show makes it clear that it was never about that. Our eyes are kept firmly where they need to be: on the relationship between Alice and the Duke. Everything is in service of that and the amount of legwork done was enough to keep me invested, but I can understand wanting more from this world outside of these two characters since the little glimpses that we do get are rather interesting on their own.
The original source material had a lot of exaggerated facial expressions and body movements, and the manga's heavy use of shadows can sometimes make certain scenes feel darker than their content suggests. I was genuinely surprised and a bit worried that the anime opted to go for CG models to communicate that expressiveness, but it turns out my concerns were mostly unwarranted. Despite some choppiness, the CG is very adept at communicating the intent of our characters whether it's exaggerated, or subtle and deliberate. The models retain a lot of the specific detail of the original character designs and if anything, there are even some moments where the choppiness acts in service of scenes thanks to careful directing masking a majority of imperfections. It helps that the overall shading on the character models helps emulate the style of 2D animation well enough. This does unfortunately clash with a lot of background characters and elements that are explicitly drawn in 2D, creating this really uncanny effect that doesn't always feel intentional. But for what we have, it's clear that a lot of effort went into the overall production in order to communicate this vision.
The voice acting in both languages also help carry the emotional states of the characters. Not only did the dub have a bit more snappiness to the character back and forths compared to the original Japanese despite the latter having better lip-sync, but there are also moments when the dub seems to better convey that genuine sense of longing between our two leads. Specifically, Kristen McGuire did an excellent job as Alice, being playful without coming off as stoic or mean-spirited. There's a genuine sense of hopeful yet sad actualization in her tone towards her love, to the point where I genuinely couldn't tell if the character was willing to throw her life away just for a chance to kiss the Duke. It also helps that she is literally bouncing off her fiancé Clifford Chapin, who brings a similar sense of longing to the Duke, albeit a bit more on the reserved and goofy side. We often don't get the opportunity to hear power couples tap into their own genuine chemistry for their performances, and while I have no idea what their relationship is like in real life, I definitely think that the love and affection these two have for each other translated well to this material. As a bonus, they also dubbed the little singing numbers scattered throughout the show, and each of them sounds just as charming as they do in the original, something that I'm thankful for considering that the rest of the soundtrack isn't the most memorable. It's just a shame the dub isn't complete at the time of this review.
Overall, The Duke of Death and His Maid had a lot more meat to it than I originally gave it credit for. I was surprised at how much love, wholesomeness, and affection could be squeezed out from such a dreary and at times lewd premise. For those interested in the show, my suggestion would be to treat the show more as a romance than some kind of involved dark fantasy, even though there are elements of the latter scattered throughout. The show has a good, solid handle on what kind of emotions it effectively wants to communicate to its audience despite playing with so many disparate elements. Despite being a show about people needing to keep their distance, I don't think fans of romance anime should do the same – I know I won't be able to stay away when season 2 eventually drops.
Overall : A-
Story : A
Animation : B
Art : A
Music : B-
+ A lovely couple at the center, good balance of wholesome and tragic, strong character chemistry
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