Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sub.Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
After 15 years of warfare between human lands and the Demon Realm, The Hero speeds ahead of his stalwart companions to confront the Demon King alone. He first discovers that the Demon King is actually a Demon Queen, and a pretty, disturbingly (for him!) buxom one at that. The surprises are far from over, too, for the Demon Queen has no interest in fighting him; instead, she wants to work together with him to put an end to the warfare between their lands – to see what lies beyond the metaphorical hill that is war. And the strategy she proposes is an ambitious one: to attack the root logistical and economic forces underlying the reasons behind the war, through means such as education, mercantile dealings, and bolstering agriculture to prevent famine. Though they win some important allies along the course of their covert effort, others resist, and the legacy of being the successor to the title Demon King cannot be ignored forever. But when figures as mighty as the Hero and the Demon Queen choose to work together and perhaps even awkwardly fall in love, their efforts might shake the foundation of two worlds.
Although this 2013 fantasy series is yet another one based on a series of light novels, its origin is less ordinary than most. It actually began as a serial of dialogue-only posts on the Japanese text board 2channel back in the fall of 2009 and was later collected on a separate Web site before eventually debuting in formally published form in late 2010. Likely as a result of this, the story retains a major idiosyncrasy from its original format: all of the characters are designated by their roles rather than their names. Thus the lead male protagonist is known by no other name than Hero, the lead female protagonist is known only as Demon King or Demon Queen or Crimson Scholar, two runaway serfs which become servants are known only as Big Sister Maid and Little Sister Maid, and so forth.
Those are hardly the only peculiarities about MAOYU, either. While it does have traditional fantasy elements like demons, wizards, knights, heroes, and magic, it almost immediately turns the classic fantasy structure on its head by having the characters who should be the classic protagonist-antagonist pairing instead work together and even fall awkwardly in love. Rather than tell an epic tale full of magic, action, and adventure, it tells an epic tale which focuses much more on the building blocks of medieval/fantasy warfare – the economic, sociopolitical, religious, and practical realities behind it – and how those can be combatted with powerful tools like education, food production, and even market manipulation. It briefly explores concepts like currency revaluation, dual currency systems, and the imposition of tariffs as defensive measures and goes into a little more detail about the plight of serfs, the way religion can be wielded as a weapon, and how the introduction of new crops and crop rotation methods can vastly expand food production capabilities, which can in turn empower both a kingdom and its people. This, of course, means lots of time is spent explaining things, and some grand deeds that would otherwise be the focal point of the action instead merely get summarized for sake of expediency. Even on the few occasions when actual action scenes do pop up, they often appear as much in the sense of tactical maneuvers as actual battles; watching the series with the expectation of sustained action ever manifesting would be a terrible mistake. In feel and pacing the series far more resembles Spice and Wolf than anything else, so the two having a common director and script writer should not at all be surprising.
But where Spice and Wolf is a more personal tale focused tightly on its two leads, MAOYU has a much broader scope and much greater ambitions – in some senses too much so. Hero and Demon Queen do form a neat couple, though their antics together sometimes smack of typical romcom hijinks. He is so immensely powerful that it isolates him from others and he worries that he can do nothing effectively but fight, while her earnestness to end the war and connect with Hero is vaguely suggested to be based on past failures in both regards. But this story is not just theirs. It is also the story of Big Sister Maid, whose struggle to rise up from her serf background – to no longer be an insect, but a human who can stand on her own merits – culminates in her impassioned “I Am Human” declaration in episode 9, a magnificent speech which is one of the finest ever depicted in anime form and among the highlight anime scenes of 2013. It is, to a lesser extent, the story of Female Knight, who loves Hero despite standing in his shadow but values her budding friendship with romantic rival Crimson Scholar/Demon Queen just as much. It is also the story of Young Merchant, whose scheming bends the Merchant Alliance to bolster both his own position and (less directly) that of the kingdoms who unite behind the teachings of the Crimson Scholar, and of the young Winter Prince-cum-Winter King, who strives to become a responsible and independent ruler in taking over for his father. It is also, to a much lesser degree, the story of lesser characters who appear as students early on but later play other important roles. Other powers also scheme elsewhere, and a female Wizard with a split personality, who was also part of Hero's original party, also occasionally pops up.
Sound like a little too much to complete in a mere 12 episodes? It is, and the series does suffer for it. Some concepts practically scream for greater development, and the writing drops tantalizing hints about an even bigger picture than we actually see, one where the current Hero is far from the first one, where “singularities” somehow fit into the picture, spells are defined by algorithms and operate on immense scales, the functional equivalent of the Pope is hip-deep in dodgy schemes, demon factions have their own agendas, and a Wizard has three coexisting identities, but the series runs out of time to go into detail about any of them. Also left unexplained is how Demon Queen's demon clan, about which we only know that its members specialize in chosen disciplines and seem to come from someplace called the Outer Library, fits into the overall demon hierarchy in such a way that she was able to grab the top spot and unite the demons despite not having the kind of combat prowess that demons normally respect the most. The writing does find time to descend into occasional bits of disarming silliness, which are not problems until they enter the realm of harem-like antics or start dwelling on Demon Queen's body image issues. (She has a quite generous bust but complains on multiple occasions about flabby arms, for instance.) These are not big flaws, but coupled with some massive dangling plot threads introduced in the final minutes of the last episode they do make the series feel incomplete and, at times, a little tonally disjointed.
The artistic effort by studio ARMS is a mix of thoroughly conventional and somewhat unconventional styles. The character designs are anime fantasy standard in style but well-done in execution, with several distinctive designs; Demon Queen, with her ample bosom and regular use of décolletage would stand out in any crowd of anime characters (with or without the fake horns, the early revelation of which is the series' most sputter-worthy moment), but so would the minimally-endowed Female Knight. Demon designs are not especially creative but do the job. Costuming is, for the most part, in line with Western Medieval standards with typical fantasy allowances, although the classic maid outfits are, of course, an anachronism. The background art represents the unconventional, as it is done in primarily water color (especially for outside shots) and only occasionally bolstered by CG effects, with impressive attention to detail on period furniture design. The animation sometimes puts some effort into crowd scenes but is not particularly active and depends heavily on recycled clips. While some of the displays of magic do show some spunk, the action scenes are rarely high points. True graphic violence is limited to a handful of scenes (including one character getting bloodily flogged and another character losing an arm) and fan service is surprisingly limited given how much effort goes into showing off the Demon Queen's bust.
The musical score offers a strong and especially effective, though usually understated, support to the content through a mix of piano, orchestration, drums, vocals, and instrumentation of a more Western Medieval bent (not quite the same sound as can be heard in Spice and Wolf, but there are occasional similarities). Though it is as its very best during episode 9, no other production aspect more consistently hits its marks. Opening theme “Mukaikaze” by anime newcomer Yohko sets the stage well, while closer “Unknown Vision” has a more mystical sound that singer Akino Arai has made a trademark in singing themes for titles like Macross Plus, Record of Lodoss War, and yes, Spice and Wolf II.
The Spice and Wolf connections continue in the Japanese voice work, as the voices for Demon Queen and Hero (Ami Koshimizu and Jun Fukuyama, respectively) were also the Japanese voices for Holo and Kraft Lawrence. Both do fine jobs here, too, in substantially different-sounding roles, and they are backed up by an overall excellent vocal effort, including Miyuki Sawashiro lending the more masculine sound that she used for Bakemonogatari's Suruga very appropriately to Female Knight, Haruka Tomatsu (the voice of Sword Art Online's Asuna) proving well up to the task in her key dramatic moment as Big Sister Maid, and Hiroshi Kamiya (Attack on Titan's Levi, Blue Exorcist's Mephisto) serving perfectly as Young Merchant. Sadly, Sentai Filmworks opted not to dub this one even though they are releasing it on Blu-Ray, a decision which seems odd given that Spice and Wolf did prove successful enough in streaming to warrant its own English dub.
Sentai also took the unusual move of loading all twelve episodes onto a single Blu-Ray disk. If the image quality suffered much for this, it would only be evident on a high-end system, however. The audio track is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The sparse collection of Extras included clean opener and closer and a set of subtitled Japanese promos, including ones for a social online card game version.
Ultimately the biggest weakness of MAOYU – and the reason why it merely a very good series rather than a great one – is that it does not fully trust its strengths. It certainly has no shortage of ambition or intelligence and features interesting characters, storytelling, and world-building, but yet it still sees the occasional need to resort to cheap antics. When it does not do that, when it fully plays to its strengths and presents its material with maturity and depth (as it does most prominently in episode 9), it can be outstanding. Either way, it is very definitely not your typical fantasy anime series.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Unconventional story approach, musical score, “I Am Human” speech.
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