Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
For fifteen years mankind and demonkind have been at war. Both have seized land from the other, but neither has the advantage. Mankind's greatest warrior, the Hero, leaves behind his party one day and drives deep into demon territory, straight for the fortress of the Demon King. It is the fate of Heroes to slay Demon Kings, and the Hero means to make good on his fate. But his fate changes when at the castle's center he meets… the Demon Queen. The goodhearted, ample-busted Demon Queen. The smart, far-seeing Demon Queen. The Demon Queen with a plan to end the war, not in victory and defeat, but in prosperity and peace.
There's a gimmick at MAOYU's heart. It is very much a show about what happens to an RPG-styled fantasy when the Hero, instead of fighting the Demon Queen, falls for her and joins her cause. But it isn't a gimmicky show. Gimmicky shows lean on their gimmicks. MAOYU builds something intelligent, heartfelt and oddly relevant from its little twist on fantasy tropes. That's not leaning. That's storytelling.
MAOYU isn't the kind of show to grab you by the throat. Its first episode is one long discussion of the economics of warfare. Its second passes the time detailing advances in crop rotation and fertilization. Later episodes eschew the fighting and adventuring of the Hero in favor of the Queen's battle of mercantile wits with a character called, appropriately enough, Young Merchant. It isn't until episode six that the show even dips its toe in action. And action of the romantic sort is even rarer. The Hero and the Queen are chaste sorts, as halting in their wooing as they are assertive in their respective areas of expertise. By episode six they haven't so much as smooched.
Instead of romance and action, the show prefers the deliberate unfolding of the Queen's grand plan. And it's thoroughly engrossing for it. Hers is perhaps the most logistically sound anti-war strategy in all of anime. She doesn't want to stop the war. She wants to cut the reasons for its existence out from under it and let it disappear of its own accord, leaving a healthier, more prosperous world in its wake. It's a plan of breathtaking ambition, one she undertakes with the most mundane of weapons: potatoes, turnips, corn, fish. Prosperity is the enemy of warfare, and prosperity begins with food. So she educates and trades, invents and recruits.
Watching her stratagem come together is as satisfying, even as thrilling (in its modest, intellectual way), as any battle: seeing how her trip to a convent fits neatly into her plan; sweating as she negotiates a crucial deal with a guild of mercantile cutthroats; smiling as the ripples she sends out make waves in far countries. Battles do come, but when they do, it's creative strategy and farsighted planning that supply the excitement, not action derring-do. The show knows what shows like Legend of the Galactic Heroes do: smart is exciting.
As you might guess, that doesn't leave a whole lot for the Hero to do, at least until episodes five and six or so. Mostly he just hangs around, demonstrating how great he and the Queen are together. And frankly that's enough. They're a wonderful romantic unit. More than just love interests: true partners, equal participants in a grand enterprise of their own making. The brain and brawn that drive a world-altering scheme. And also the warm human heart (so to speak) at the center of that scheme. Apart they're formidable, even frightening, forces: one an army unto himself, the other a political and social thinker of considerable genius. Together they're just two shy people, unsure of how to navigate this tender new relationship they've begun. They're cute enough together to melt cynics at twenty paces.
The show is as smart with its characters as it is with their grand project, if perhaps a little broader and more anime-friendly. As with the Queen's plans, the show takes great pleasure in letting personalities and relationships and evolving character emerge piecemeal as the story moves forward. We get just enough, for instance, from the sister maids adopted by the Queen's Head Maid to see their happy growth from abused outcasts to respected professionals, while never losing sight of the emotional devastation just beneath the surface.
Never does the show belabor a point or force a revelation. A portrait of the Hero's godlike abilities forms from offhand comments and fragments of fights. The Queen's alien culture and sometimes equally alien psychology are but hinted at. The connections between events in different episodes are left for us to make, and the relevance of the Queen's peacemaking strategy to real-world conflict is never explicitly stated. In short, the show treats us like adults. Nice for a change.
This is a fairly handsome production all told. Characters are simple but attractive, with realistic yet distinctive color schemes and clean features that easily register the emotions they're feeling. Settings have an aged, painterly feel that complements the show's storybook quality and looks great to boot. The animation is focused on the characters, their expression and movement, their physical contact. It can be equally funny or touching. Of particular note is the, um, bouncy first meeting of Hero and Queen as well as the achingly sweet sofatop tryst in episode two. Overall visual quality decreases as the series progresses, but not egregiously.
Takeshi Hama's score is an appropriately gentle thing, so unobtrusive in its support that you often forget it's there and that it's easily overshadowed by the tightly choreographed opening and icily beautiful closing (by the great Akino Arai, in a throwback to the frosty minimalism of her Outlaw Star days).
Like any show, MAOYU has its worrying signs. Plot threads can disappear for episodes at a time, sometimes without any discernible reason. This is particularly worrisome in the case of the Mage, whom the Hero rushes off to rescue but who is not so much as mentioned thereafter. Even more troubling, however, is the action (when it surfaces). It trades quality control for range of motion, taking on a weirdly Gainax-ish feel that is ill-suited to the show. The one big fight is also hobbled with a laughable opponent (a giant walrus-man) and a distinct lack of tension. It's pretty cool though, which I guess counts for something. It is also, ultimately, a rather petty thing to complain about when the show itself is the highlight of the anime week.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Fantasy warfare meets the social sciences in a smart twist on RPG fantasy tropes; great chemistry, strong characters, high entertainment value.
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