MANGA REVIEW: Hanaukyo Maid Team (Vol. 1-3)

I often find that my final opinion of an anime solidifies not on the day that I finish it, but about 2-3 weeks afterward. If I find myself glad to be done with it, or if it quickly goes “out of sight, out of mind,” it probably wasn’t my thing. However, if I keep coming back to it by revisiting scenes in my head or rewatching individual episodes, then something about it struck me as special and worthwhile. To my own surprise, Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite ended up in my personal winner’s circle. I reviewed the anime a few weeks ago as part of “Maid May” here on Anime Obscura, and while it certainly had its flaws, something about its characters and general vibe ended up thoroughly charming me. So much so, that I ended up hunting down the long out-of-print manga!

The original Hanaukyo Maid Team manga was a collaboration by a husband-wife team who wrote and drew under the pen name Morishige. It was published in Japan from 2000-2006 and ran 14 volumes long. In North America, the license was picked up by the small manga publisher Studio Ironcat, who unfortunately were only able to publish the first three volumes of the manga before going out of business. (Volume 4 was advertised in the back of Volume 3 but was never actually published.) These three volumes also encompassed the overwhelming majority of the source material the anime drew from, which is both a good and a bad thing. On the negative side, those hoping to follow the story’s progression after the events of the anime won’t have much to look forward to here. On the other hand, it affords an interesting opportunity for comparison between the original manga and its anime adaptation. (SIDE-NOTE: Since this particular manga license is long abandoned and has a snowball’s chance in hell of being picked up for a new North American print run at this point, I don’t think it does any harm to mention that decent fan translations are available for the remaining volumes. You can check those out here, but only the three officially-released volumes will be covered in this review.)

I’ll point you toward my review of Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite for the story summary, as the manga and the anime don’t differ significantly on their main plot points. The main differences you’ll find between the two is the order in which major events happen and certain characters get introduced. Most notably, the lovestruck vice-chief of security, Yashima Sanae, doesn’t appear until the manga’s third volume, whereas she was a main character in the anime from the very first episode. The other most significant change was that the dramatic story arc that concluded the anime, “Blue Silent Bell”, happened a bit earlier in the manga and was more of a reboot point than a grand finale.

Reading the manga after watching the anime, the thing I found most notable about the original Hanaukyo Maid Team manga was that it read like an experiment-in-motion, a series that had to search around for a while to find exactly the right vibe and tone that it wanted to hit. Once it found it, though, it leaned into it hard and immediately became a better comic as a result.

Volume 1 of Hanaukyo Maid Team is the most unrefined of the bunch in terms of both its visuals and story. We’re introduced to Taro, Mariel, Cynthia, Ikuyo, and the “bedwarmer” triplets of Lemon, Marron, and Melon (though never introduced by name in the manga) as our initial cast of main characters. Ryuuka is also introduced early on, though she’s less of a main character throughout these three manga volumes than she was in the anime. Konowe is another major cast member who makes her first appearance in this volume’s latter half. We also meet the freaky-looking guy below, Haruo Sankoda, who is a classmate of Taro’s from school.

These early chapters are 100% comedy and 0% drama, with hijinks from Ikuyo blowing things up providing much of the story and no hint of seriousness in sight. Interestingly, Taro is also of a fairly normal height in this first volume, but shrinks as the series progresses, something Morishige later admits in a note on his character profile. All told, these early chapters are pretty weak, though we do get small hints at higher ambitions for the story in the Konowe chapters and when Cynthia’s alternative personality, Grace, appears at the end of the volume.

Much of Volume 2 is taken up by the “Blue Silent Bell” story arc, and it constitutes a massive turning point in the manga’s tone. Without spoiling anything too major, some shocking revelations about Mariel’s past come to light, and Taro and his team of maids have to rescue her from a hostile force led by Taro’s own grandfather. These chapters are not only serious and action-packed, but become borderline-dark at points. The art and the writing both drastically improve in quality as this story arc progresses. The depictions of Taro’s grandfather shown below tell the story as well as anything, with him looking like a goofy old geezer at the start of Volume 1 and like a sinister mixture of Gendo Ikari (Evangelion) and Zouken Matou (Fate Zero) by the end of Volume 2.

Volume 1 versus Volume 2. Man, one book can really age a guy!

The manga becomes lighthearted again once “Blue Silent Bell” concludes, but it’s now clearly a much better manga with higher aspirations. Morishige seems to have become interested in not only providing good comedy, but in fleshing out their characters more and making us care about them. They treat “Blue Silent Bell” as the manga’s unofficial reboot point and are even willing to retread some familiar ground in order to do a better job with their premise. The end of Volume 2 retells Grace’s origin story with much more pathos and drama, and certain plot points and characters that were incompatible with the story’s new direction are also dropped by the end of this volume. Taro’s daily life at a public school is no longer mentioned, and the creepy-looking and uninteresting Sankoda character disappears from the story. (Good riddance.)

Volume 3 strikes a nice “best of both worlds” middle ground between the silliness of Volume 1 and the dark goings-on of Volume 2, treating Taro and company as complex human beings but putting them in hilarious situations. Much of this volume shines a spotlight on Konowe and helps us get to know and like her better as a character. It also introduces her apprentice, Yashima, who steals the show for much of Volume 3 and features as a key character throughout. This is a plus, as Yashima is an eminently entertaining character in these chapters. There’s also a bit of a throwback to the original story in one respect, in that Ikuyo outdoes herself in the mayhem she causes in the mansion.

After reading the manga, I can safely say the anime Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite is something of a master class in how to do a good adaptation of very uneven source material. Rather than try to retell the early chapters of the manga in a direct play-by-play as it grasped around to find its direction, the anime took the tone and look of the series as established by the end of the manga’s third volume and retold the entire story in that style from the very beginning. This required some pretty heavy cut-and-paste editing of certain story elements. They brought Yashima in early, presented Ryuuka and Taro with their visual designs from later volumes, and reworked “Blue Silent Bell” into a proper dramatic conclusion rather than a jarring reboot point. All told, though, it really paid off. The manga is a lot of fun, but the anime is far and away the better version of this story when it comes to consistent quality.

Something else I realized is that the anime included an unresolved plot point from Volume 3 of the manga (the underground castle and the portrait of a woman who looked like Mariel). However, by putting it before the events of “Blue Silent Bell” rather than after, it could easily mislead viewers (including this one, who fell for it) into thinking that it was just a poorly-explained connection to the Bell arc rather than a wild loose end completely independent of it. All told, I have to give props to both versions for different reasons: to the manga for having the artistic courage to reinvent itself midstream into a better series, and for the anime for having the artistic smarts to improve upon the original manga by incorporating lessons learned along the way.

Back Covers of Volumes 1-3

I can’t complete this review without commenting on the quality of the books themselves and the presentation by Studio Ironcat. Ironcat sometimes had a reputation for questionable releases, and the only other comic I personally owned of theirs prior to this was a single comic of Cutey Honey that was so poorly-translated as to sound borderline-illiterate and with the art printed altogether too dark. I’m happy to report that Hanaukyo Maid Team fares significantly better for the most part, although there were some quality-control issues I’ll get into in a minute. The physical construction of the books themselves is good, albeit a little smaller than most typical manga volumes printed today in both height and thickness. (And none of the three volumes is exactly the same height, something I’m sure will fill OCD manga collectors with unbridled joy.)

Volume 1 had the most problems of the three releases by far in terms of both intentional (but bad) editorial choices and unintended goofs. There were several times when the artwork was too dark, and there were also a number of typos in the text, ranging from the routine (like misspellings) to the truly bizarre (like the image below, where the start of someone’s email got typed over an image and left in the final printed volume).

Ironcat also apparently struggled with image manipulation for anything more complicated than replacing the speech inside speech bubbles, and their solution in the first volume was to put a long glossary of kanji sound effects with reference by page number in the very back of the book. The image manipulation thing is an understandable problem, especially if they had few artists or graphic designers on staff who could make translated sound effects look good or “repair” the damage to the artwork after taking out the Japanese-language text, but the end-of-volume glossary felt like an “amateur hour” solution to the problem. Flipping back and forth that much made for wildly impractical and confusing reading, and most of the time I just didn’t bother.

In later volumes, they came up with a still-strange but far more practical solution to this challenge by placing translations in the white space above or below the manga panels. This allowed you to read the English translation on the same pages where the kanji appeared, and the way they presented them made it easy to connect the translation to the appropriate panel. This made for a much more pleasurable and well-informed reading experience than the earlier “end notes” approach. You can check out the image below for a good example of this strategy at work.

Volume 2 also included considerably fewer typos (zero of the weird variety), and I don’t believe I spotted any typos at all in Volume 3. The third volume also displayed a leaps-and-bounds improvement in the presentation of the art itself, which is a bittersweet victory in light of the manga’s discontinuation immediately afterward. Ironcat had obviously figured some things out and was in a much better position to do this manga justice moving forward, but the vicissitudes of business and the manga market had other plans.

In the end, the North American release of the Hanaukyo Maid Team manga is best thought of as a bonus retelling or “storyboarding” of its more readily-available anime. The anime honestly does a better job than the first three manga volumes of depicting the Hanaukyo Maid Team’s early adventures, but the original comic definitely has its charms. The spots where it differs from the anime make for interesting reading, and it includes several manga-exclusive story arcs that are hilarious and well-worth experiencing on their own merits. (“Taro’s Day Off” from Volume 1, the “Valentine’s Chocolate” story from Volume 2, and Konowe’s training adventure from Volume 3 are easily my favorites among these.) These manga are long out-of-print but tend to be very reasonable on the used market, running about $15-25 USD on eBay at the time of this review if you find them from the right seller. As I mentioned near the outset of the review, true Hanaukyo fanatics or completionists can also check out fan translations to finish the story.

Well, we’ve maid it more than halfway through Maid May, reader. Stick around – there’s more frilly foolery of the anime maid variety to come!

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