ANIME REVIEW: Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite

They say “nothing succeeds like excess,” a mantra that the anime maid subgenre seems to fully embrace. After all, the general idea behind the trope is a wish fulfillment fantasy about being fantastically rich (rich enough to afford live-in servants) and having at least one of those servants be a devoted, sweet girl who wants to take care of you. In a nutshell, traditional maid anime are about having it all. However, one maid anime stands above the rest in terms of pushing excess to its furthest limits. It’s Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite, and it’s this week’s anime review as Maid May continues here at Anime Obscura.

Before I get into the review itself, there’s some interesting history behind this anime and why it has the subheading “La Verite” (“The Truth / The True”). As a franchise, Hanaukyo Maid Team has been cursed with incredibly lousy luck, especially here in the West. It began as a manga by a Japanese husband-wife team under the pen name Morishige, and that manga was popular enough to merit an anime adaptation. However, the original Hanaukyo Maid Team anime (Hanaukyo Maid Tai) was plagued by production problems and quality control issues, and it was canceled after just fifteen 15-minute episodes. The series was rebooted under a new production studio as Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite, the anime we’re reviewing today, with considerably better results. However, the HMT curse seemed to repeat itself for releases in North America. The first three volumes of the manga were released by the small manga publisher Studio Ironcat, only to be canceled when that company went bankrupt. Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite was released by Geneon in its entirety in 2005, but that company also folded just two years later. Sentai Filmworks later picked up the rights to the series in North America and still retains them today without having gone bankrupt, a safe run of over a decade that I think proves the Hanaukyo Maid jinx didn’t carry on into the 2010s or beyond.

… Whew! In short, Hanaukyo Maid Team’s luck as a franchise has been about as bad as its protagonist’s luck was good. Speaking of ol’ Taro, let’s get into the story.

Taro Hanaukyo is a teenage boy who knows his life is about to change in a big way after his mother’s death. In accordance with his mom’s last wishes, he prepares to move in with his grandfather, who he has never met. However, Taro discovers to his shock that his grandfather is one of the richest men in Japan and owns a gigantic estate. Moreover, old Hokusai is also apparently an eccentric (and likely a bit of a pervert) who insists that his vast staff all be lovely young women wearing maid uniforms. They are the Hanaukyo Maid Team, a group which includes not only traditional domestic maids, but chefs, gardeners, security guards, scientists, inventors, accountants – everything the Hanaukyo family might ever need to remain fabulously wealthy, secure, and comfortable. There’s literally a maid for every aspect of daily life, including more questionable activities like bathing and getting dressed. There are also three nubile identical triplets who serve as the master’s “bedwarmers,” a role that is exactly as wholesome and innocent as it probably sounds.

In a final twist, Taro’s grandfather gave him the Willy Wonka treatment by departing the mansion right before his arrival and making Taro the new head of the family. The maids are beyond excited to meet and pamper their new master… to a degree that’s borderline dangerous to his physical and mental health. Thankfully, Taro is a humble lad with a good heart and a chill spirit, and with the help of several key maids, he takes to his new life like a duck to admittedly-troubled water.

Taro is an interesting character in that he ought to be contemptible, but he really isn’t. Even by the low standards expected of a harem anime lead, Taro is a total wimp. He’s supposedly in his late teens, but looks like he’s in elementary school, and he virtually never stands up for himself or puts his foot down when the situation gets out of hand. He can also be a bit whiny at times. Still, it’s hard to hate the guy because he’s neither a lech nor an absolute crybaby. Taro has a nearly invincible level of chill and humility, and – perhaps I’m revealing a bias here as a working adult I wouldn’t have shared as a teenager – Taro quickly reveals himself to be a damn good boss. He shows his staff of maids trust, respect, and deference, and he forgives them and helps them improve when they screw up. Altogether, the kid is all right.

As an anime, Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite follows the tried and true formula of “Introduction, Exploration of Cast with Character-Centered Episodes, Final Dramatic Arc, Conclusion”. Thankfully, the largest of these sections – the character episodes – are buoyed by an excellent supporting cast, most of whom bend traditional tropes just a bit. We have the strict, samurai-like head of security, Konowe, who is probably the most traditional of this anime’s characters, but a well-realized one. There’s also Konowe’s subordinate Yashima, a lovestruck lesbian with heart-eyes for her boss who happens to be a really cute dark-skinned anime girl as a great bonus. (Not sure if she’s supposed to be of Indian, African, or Polynesian extraction, but whatever her ethnicity, Yashima is adorable.)

Rounding out the cast further is Ikuyo-chan, the mansion’s resident mad scientist and probably its chief troublemaker. Ikuyo is a major geek and an aspiring manga artist, but her penchants for strange inventions and trolling people with false rumors are her main contributions to the mansion’s chaos. There’s also Ryuuka Jihiou, the visiting and nutty rich girl whose family is almost as wealthy as Taro’s, and the afore-mentioned “bedwarmer” triplets Lemon, Marron, and Melon, whose chief joy in life is attempting to seduce their boss.

Probably my favorite character in the whole series is Cynthia/Grace, a girl who possesses enormous talent but is burdened with a multiple personality disorder. I’m a sucker for stories of people whose dissociative identities get along either really poorly or really well as they try to navigate their daily lives, and while I won’t reveal how that plays out with this character, I do feel like it was handled thoughtfully and well in her case. Finally, we have the chief maid, Mariel, who is also Taro’s main love interest in the series. I initially felt Mariel’s demure and obliging personality made her disappointingly boring for a main heroine, but some of the later episodes reveal some secrets about her past that make both her and those traits considerably more interesting in retrospect.

From left to right: Cynthia/Grace, Mariel, Taro, and Ikuyo

As a point of observation, it’s important for potential viewers to know that the second episode rather than the first sets the tone for the rest of the series. Hanaukyo Maid Team is one of those anime that opens on a rather lewd note to hook the attention of viewers who are here for that kind of material, but at its core, this anime is much, much more heartwarming than it is pervy. Sure, Taro’s maids arguably constitute one of the largest anime “harems” of all of time, and Lemon, Marron, and Melon routinely throw their bodies at him, but romance and sex are not at the heart of this show or even at its forefront. The vast majority of it is about Taro and his staff of maids coming to appreciate each other as people in the platonic sense, and the number of them who are “after” Taro in a serious, romantic way arguably ranges between one to three, depending on how you interpret the girls’ intentions. Even among those who “like-like” him, most are subtle in their pursuit. Both the dramatic parts of this anime and its comedy aspects are well-executed, and while it won’t be everyone’s thing, the quality of the writing is higher than you might expect given the premise.

From a production values standpoint, Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite is extremely average – perhaps just a touch below average in the visual department. The character designs are nice, with goofy facial expressions sometimes being a high point. However, the animation itself is pretty lackluster and comes across as quite dated. Even compared to its competitors from the early 2000s, HMT doesn’t look great. (It’s not hideous – just “adequate” in an unimpressive sort of way.) However, there was a really bizarre exception to this. I am almost certain that Episode 11 of this series was animated by a completely different team than the rest of the series, and perhaps even by a different production company. Where we had been seeing minimal animation and a lot of “flat” shots with the camera facing forward-facing characters, we were suddenly treated to tons of odd and distorted angles, a lot more animation, and cartoonish facial expressions out the wazoo. On the negative side, several characters are drawn strangely in parts of this episode, especially some shots of Konowe where her face looks half-melted. To put it in context, imagine if a single episode of a series like Fruits Basket had been handed over to a new team to animate it in the style of FLCL or Kill La Kill.

I’m not certain what happened here, but I do have a theory. That episode was unusually action-packed compared to the entire rest of the series, and it’s possible that either the normal animation team had a panic attack and asked for outside assistance, or the production company overseeing them decided in advance (or after the fact, but prior to airing) that a different team’s services were required to do this episode justice. In any case, the old animation team was back to wrap things up for the epilogue in Episode 12. The one-off episode wasn’t a bad choice – in fact, it came across as a visual improvement except for the few odd shots of Konowe – but it’s another notch in the “damn, HMT had a weird and troubled production history” saga.

This terrifying front-door peephole shot is brought to you courtesy of Episode 11…

Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite fares slightly better in the musical and audio department than in the visual one. The background music for the series tends toward the classical and orchestral side of things, matching the anime’s gentle spirit and aristocratic vibe very nicely. The ending tune, “We’ll Serve You,” is sung by Lemon, Marron, and Melon and has a slightly jazzy vibe that I enjoyed quite a bit. I’m more on the fence regarding the opening tune, “Voice of the Heart”. It’s very sweet and matches the tone of the series, but it’s also a bit nostalgic and slow, making for a lethargic introduction to each episode. Typically, anime openings tend to be punchy, driving, and energetic to get viewers excited, and ending themes are emotional and slower. HMT essentially got that formula backwards. Again, both are good songs, but I wish it had switched them or come up with something that conveyed more excitement for the opener.

I should also mention that the English dub for this series (done by Geneon) is excellent. Geneon dubs have a bit of a mixed track record for me, sometimes coming across as being a bit low-energy, but that isn’t a problem here. The sweet characters sound sweet, the wacky characters are appropriately energetic, and the performances in general are quite good. I started singling out some English VAs as exceptional when first writing this review, but I soon realized my list encompassed more than half of the cast!

From left to right: Ikuyo, Yashima, Konowe, Cynthia/Grace, Ryuuka

I won’t lie to you and tell you that Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite is an all-time anime classic or top-tier, “must-watch” viewing material. It’s simply too average in too many ways to merit that level of praise. Nevertheless, it’s an anime I do recommend giving a try if you like the comedy genre because it was thoroughly pleasant to watch. This anime has a sweet core, it gets a lot of things right on the comedy side, and I thought its cast was interesting and likable. It also has a great final arc with much more drama than I would have thought this series capable of generating at the outset. While this last point won’t apply to all viewers, I also found this series strangely nostalgic despite viewing it for the first time this year. It’s very representative of the kinds of anime I was watching in high school in early 2000s that got me hooked on this medium in the first place, and it’s a fine example of a series done right from that era.

Watching Hanaukyo Maid Team today is easy enough, as the series can be streamed on either HiDive or VRV. However, if you’re a physical media collector, this one could be a big headache to procure. This anime was released twice on DVD, first by Geneon in a three-volume set, and then by Sentai Filmworks in a single “complete collection” set. Both are out of print and shockingly expensive, with a complete version of either release commanding prices of $50-120 USD on eBay at the time of this review. No Blu-ray of the series has ever been released. Because it is so pricey for a used release, I would recommend collectors only go after this one after you have already watched the whole series and ascertained whether or not it’s worth that kind of price tag to you. If you’re a completionist, want a more affordable physical memento of the series, or just loved this anime and count yourself a big fan, there was also a soundtrack CD released by Geneon back in the day that isn’t half-bad and is considerably cheaper than the anime itself.

In any case, Hanaukyo Maid Team is good fun. Even if it isn’t a top-tier anime, it’s perhaps the ultimate example and last word in maid anime, and here at Anime Obscura, we’ll take off our frilly French maid bonnet and curtsy to that accomplishment any day.

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