by Carlo Santos,

Hayate the Combat Butler

GN 17

Hayate the Combat Butler GN 17
Despite being abandoned by his good-for-nothing parents, Hayate Ayasaki has made a new life for himself as the butler of impetuous heiress Nagi Sanzenin. Whatever the situation, Hayate is there to lend a hand—whether it's Nagi getting freaked out by an R-rated DVD, or helping a friend look for a personal maid, or even stepping in as an actor for a local superhero sideshow. But when Nagi insists on getting a photo taken with Hayate as a memento of their friendship, she says something that triggers his deepest childhood memory. When Hayate first realized the emptiness of his parents' hearts years ago, he ran off in search of comfort and found it in Athena, a mysterious little girl living in an even more mysterious castle nearby. Athena's companionship made Hayate feel complete at last, but in the process, he also set himself up for heartbreak ...

Every hero has an origin story. Yes, even ones starring in joke-a-minute screwball comedies. It may be easy to think of Hayate Ayasaki simply as a super-talented everyman trying to make it in a zany world, but even he must have gotten his combat skills and butler training from somewhere—and at last Hayate the Combat Butler tells us where. The extended flashback that occupies two-thirds of this volume, and spills right over into the next one, is the series' most ambitious arc yet—and one that Kenjiro Hata had envisioned from the very beginning. Certainly the flashback arc is a dramatic change of pace, and proves that Hata is more than just a one-joke (or twenty-joke) artist. But is he talented enough to pull it off?

Before embarking upon that challenge, this volume warms up with a handful of typical Hayate chapters—quick, stand-alone situations that spiral into the series' usual brand of nonsense. These work better when there is some kind of pop-cultural context to work from, like when the first chapter does its spoof-take on scary movies (and sensitive viewers who shouldn't be watching them), or when Nagi's desire to get a picture taken with Hayate becomes a 16-page riff on photography geeks. The comedic highlight, though, is definitely Hayate getting roped into a live-action sentai skit and somehow being implicated in some Power Ranger yaoi (thankfully, nothing ever comes of it). By contrast, the chapter where side character Sakuya goes in search of a maid is far less effective, as airing one's complaints in a Kansai accent quickly wears out its welcome.

After 60-odd pages of lightweight patter, things finally get down to serious business with the dramatic "End of the World" arc. Although Hata's imagination is already on constant overdrive from making Gundam jokes and throwing Hayate into improbable situations, this is the first time he has actually focused it so intently on a single subject. The result is a flashback that seems to exist in its own unique fantasy world—and in a way it does, with never-before-seen locations, a brand-new character, and emotions that are unusually weighty and complex for a series like this. The plot, however, is nothing terribly special: a young Hayate experiences his first love, has to decide how much he really likes this girl, and every few pages insists on reminding us that the story has a tragic ending. The flashback gets so drawn-out and self-indulgent that it cuts off midway and forces readers to wait for a conclusion in Volume 18, so while Kenjiro Hata gets points for sheer ambition and the series' change of mood, the cumbersome execution shows that bittersweet childhood romance is not his natural area of skill.

The artwork also puts a limit on the expressive capabilities of the flashback arc, with the simple character designs and sometimes stiff poses more suited to comedy manga than works of heartbreaking gravity. Although the bug eyes, giant heads and spindly limbs of young Hayate and Athena are supposed to indicate their age, they end up calling more attention to the characters' awkward proportions than anything else, and the tendency toward static dialogue scenes shows that even Hata himself may not have felt entirely confident drawing them. There is, at least, more effort put into the backgrounds—the interiors of Athena's castle are wonderfully ornate and grand in scope—but even then there are signs of photo-referencing and software-aided modeling. At least in the stand-alone comedy chapters, the lack of artistic finesse is not as glaring, as the pure absurdity and energy of each situation tends to cover up for visual shortcomings.

Speaking of pure absurdity, the zippy one-liners and pop-culture tangents of the first few chapters continue to be a key part of the series' humor—from Nagi's over-the-top disgust when she stumbles upon an explicit DVD at the video store to the sudden outbreak of photography snobbery when Hayate and friends compare cameras. Yet for all the vitality that is poured into these lines (as well as the translation), it is when the dialogue restrains itself in the flashback arc that the script becomes even more effective. When Hayate and Athena discuss their feelings, they do so in broad, simple terms, just like real kids do—and not like other romantic protagonists who have a bad habit of sounding ten years older than they really are. This storyline is clearly the one closest to Hata's heart, and in writing it he brings out the spirit of young, innocent love. In fact, while caught up in the dialogue, one almost misses that all other text elements like street signs and sound effects have also been edited seamlessly into English.

So at last begins the origin story of this particular hero—the one who can make a cup of tea just as effectively as he can land a drop kick. It only took 17 volumes to get there, but for those who consider themselves faithful fans of Hayate the Combat Butler, consider it a reward for sticking around this long: after all the series' ups and downs, the furious battles and slapstick madness, it's time to get serious about matters of the heart. However, a manga-ka who's spent so long working mostly on slapstick madness is not entirely equipped to tell weepy romantic stories—the story is an extremely basic puppy-love tragedy, and the limited artistic technique will leave most eyes unimpressed. So while Kenjiro Hata does not entirely succeed, he can at least say he tried. Which is admirable enough in itself.

Production Info:
Overall : C+
Story : B-
Art : C-

+ Embarks upon a daring, dramatic change of mood with a flashback to Hayate's first childhood love.
Lack of artistic subtlety, and overly drawn-out story pacing, dampen the flashback's effectiveness.

Story & Art: Kenjirou Hata

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