Reviewby Theron Martin,
BD+DVD - The Complete Series
5th grader Chihiro has always lived alone with his mother, who was estranged from her wealthy family, so he finds himself at a loss when she suddenly dies. A chance encounter introduces him to the cat-loving but dog-shy Madoka, an eccentric costume designer who also happens to be his uncle. Madoka insists that Chihiro come to live with him, but the independent-minded Chihiro finds himself uncomfortable as a guest in Madoka's mansion. Once Madoka sees Chihiro's cleaning compulsion in action, Madoka proposes that Chihiro become the mansion's maid in order to earn his place there. The catch? He has to wear a frilly maid outfit! Though Chihiro only grudgingly accepts the arrangement at first, he gradually finds his comfort zone and starts building connection with some of the family he's never known before.
Anime comedies have proven time and again that they can still be successful without purely being lighthearted, and some comedies can even adeptly turn their serious aspects into achingly deep exercises in sentimentality. In that vein, this 13-episode series from the Spring 2016 season is easily one of the finest in recent years. It smoothly combines generous doses of silly content with a lot of heart and surprisingly compelling characters and situations, creating a series that's nearly as effective at bringing viewers to tears as it is at making them laugh.
Despite this description, Shōnen Maid's main characters are not all that extraordinary on the surface. Young Chihiro is essentially a cross between Tohru Honda of Fruits Basket and Ryuji Takasu of Toradora!. He's an obsessive-compulsive clean freak who's more passionate about not leaving the slightest speck of dust behind than anything else. Madoka, contrarily, is the immature, chaotic adult who's nonetheless a highly-sought whiz in his professional field of costume design. Neither character is all that original on the surface, and yet they both shine by gradually falling into a mutually-supportive relationship before Chihiro realizes what's happening. Just as importantly, they are connected by Chiyo, Chihiro's mother and Madoka's elder sister, which brings out much of the series' powerful sentimentality. Both characters clearly loved and were loved by Chiyo, and the bond that forms between them in her absence isn't so much one of shared grief as shared fondness. The circumstances under which Chiyo died may strain credulity, but the way that Madoka and Chihiro reminisce about her strengths, her quirks, and the impact she had on both of their lives does not.
The supporting cast is fresher in nature and just as solid in characterization. Keiichiro is the standard straight-man who manages Madoka's affairs, but Madoka's teenage betrothed Miyako surprises by not being interested in either of the protagonists; she has her heart set on Keiichiro instead. In fact, Miyako doesn't slip smoothly into any standard archetypes of a young ojou-sama. She's not unbelievably incompetent at domestic affairs, she doesn't abuse or flaunt her wealth, she learns a lot as the series goes on, and her infatuation with Keiichiro isn't over-the-top. Her character isn't exploited for fanservice bait, either. She's wholly and unreservedly likable, which is not something that can commonly be said for her character type. Yuji, the most prominent of Chihiro's trio of friends, is also eminently likable for his level-headed, practical-minded approach to life, sometimes to Chihiro's annoyance. There's also an older woman Chihiro occasionally encounters, who initially seems to be only comic relief but soon reveals more depth and involvement in the underlying plot. The only iffy member of the recurring cast is the exuberant youngest member of the male idol group featured in the closer (a group that also happens to be among Madoka's clients), who can wear out his welcome very quickly.
The actual story for the series is fairly thin, with events playing out in half-episode or full-episode vignettes scattered over the course of about a year. While there is some plot progression concerning the old woman and various developing relationships, most of the series consists of slice-of-life moments laced with generous doses of humor and interspersed with regular reflective scenes. A great example is the second half of episode 8, where the main players all go to Madoka's mountain cabin for a New Year's celebration. It features a good running joke about an amazingly-proficient but never-seen caretaker and various ice skating hijinks, along with a neat scene where Madoka and Chihiro bundle up to watch the first sunrise of the new year together, something they'd both done with Chiyo in the past.
This balance of silliness and sweetness is typical for most of the series, but the most intensely emotional content comes in the final episode, which works as an affirmation of everything that has transpired up to that point. The weakest part is arguably episode 8.5, a special episode aired almost two months after the series ended that focuses on Valentine's Day and a girl in Chihiro's class who's sweet on him. The series' most significant storytelling flaw is that it doesn't do enough to expand on the troubled relationship that Madoka and Chiyo had with their family, but at least we're given some inklings about what happened.
The animation production comes courtesy of studio 8-Bit, which doesn't typically do slice-of-life series but pulls off a sharp effort here. The frilly half-maid costume that Chihiro wears is ridiculous at first, but it can grow on viewers, and it's complemented by a number of neatly-designed dresses and outfits (especially for Miyako) over the course of the series. Character designs are anime-typical but drawn consistently, and the real strength of the visuals lies in its sterling background art. Whether a mountainous scene, the interiors or exteriors of different mansions, or various locales around town, the series seems intent on inviting viewers to visit the locations that were used as references through the series. Accompanying the nice visuals is a solid and unobtrusive musical score, which lightly complements whatever is going on in a given scene. The opener is nothing special, and the closer exclusively features a performance by the aforementioned boy idol group, who also frequently pop up in background advertisements through the series.
Funimation made a broadcast dub for this series as it was airing, and the effort directed by Caitlin Glass is mostly strong. Seth Magill, as Madoka, acquits himself beautifully in his first co-starring role, while more veteran Apphia Yu (Rita in Rage of Bahamut Genesis, Yuzuki in the WIXOSS franchise) capably handles Chihiro. Most other performances are also fitting, though actors called upon to voice younger versions of most characters can struggle to sound credibly young. Funimation's release comes in a standard Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack which includes the aforementioned episode 8.5, with only clean theme songs for extras.
Overall, Shōnen Maid isn't the kind of series that will blow anyone away, but it is well-made, strays at least some from rote formula, and can be far more affecting than is initially apparent. It's probably better-watched one episode at a time than in a marathon, but it's an enjoyable viewing experience nonetheless.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Can be both quite funny and quite emotional, Miyako is atypically unique for her role, strong background art
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