It’s a tale as old as time… A poor, downtrodden girl who recently lost her home wanders onto the grand estate of a fabulously rich young man with a reputation for having a bad temper. Something about her strikes his fancy, and he hires her on as a servant in his mansion. He turns her into his miserable debt slave. Then she spends her days getting chased around the mansion by a horny alligator…
Wait, wait! Something’s wrong! This isn’t a tale as old as time at all! In fact, this is a tale so effed-up it’s only ever been attempted once. It’s called He Is My Master, and it’s how we’re kicking off “Maid May” here on Anime Obscura. This strange co-production by Gainax and Shaft is a difficult one to review because there are such broad chasms between its good and bad aspects—but we’ll get into that in a moment.
He Is My Master tells the story of Izumi and Mitsuki Sawatari, two teenage sisters who run away from home to protect Mitsuki’s pet from being sent away to be put down. While passing a huge walled estate, they see an advertisement on the front gate for maids to serve in the mansion—room and board included. Thinking this might be their meal ticket, they wander inside only to encounter the mansion’s sole occupant, Yoshitaka Nakabayashi, a boy Izumi’s age whose rich parents died and left him alone but fabulously wealthy. Yoshitaka turns out to be a bit of a pervert and a real jerk, and the Sawatari sisters temporarily flee the mansion to get away from him. However, after a complicated series of events that include the revelation that Mitsuki’s pet, Pochi, is a giant alligator(!), Izumi accidentally breaks a vase in Yoshitaka’s house that is worth a staggering amount of money. He demands that the sisters, and specifically Izumi, pay for the vase through their manual labor as his maids. What follows is a long and strange odyssey where the bizarre misfortunes that keep befalling Izumi leave her deeper and deeper in debt to this teenage monster as she tries to gain the courage and the means to steer her own destiny.
Before I get into the good aspects of this anime, I have to acknowledge the giant allig—er, elephant in the room: a lot of things about this anime are seriously messed up. Despite her chesty physique, Izumi is only 14 years old, yet 90% of the plot and the humor of this series revolves around the entire cast sexually harassing her. Everyone from Yoshitaka to her family and her classmates to her sister’s horrifyingly rapey alligator is constantly flipping up her skirt, putting her in suggestive situations, tearing off her clothes… you name it. Even if Izumi is drawn like she’s much older than the story states and the cast’s age isn’t a major plot point, this treatment of an underaged girl still teeters on the razor’s edge of whats’ considered socially allowable even in a transgressive animated comedy. Even leaving the sexual escapades aside, this anime is breathtakingly mean-spirited at points in terms of the abuse and manipulation Izumi gets subjected to. Now, it’s important to note that this anime is a satire of the whole “anime maid” genre, based on a manga that is explicitly a “gag manga” with a mean streak. If you keep in mind that subverting the audience’s expectations of something more wholesome is the whole point of the story, you’ll have a much better time with this anime.
It also helps that Izumi herself is such a capable and likable heroine, honestly one of my favorite characters in an anime I’ve watched this year. She’s the sole rock of sanity in this story: a humble, brave, kind-hearted, rational, and strong young woman who can stand up to a barrage of abuse that would crush a weaker girl. Speaking of strong, she’s also impressively powerful, and it’s hinted throughout the series that the constant backbreaking labor Yoshitaka is subjecting her to might be strengthening her to a level that borders on superhuman without her quite noticing. Her only real weakness is that she sometimes lets the insanity of the situation surrounding her overwhelm her good judgment, and she makes spur-of-the-moment decisions that play into the nefarious hands of those trying to take advantage of her. Despite those missteps, Izumi’s attempts to find her voice and her agency as a person, along with her flailing efforts to pay off her debt to Yoshitaka, form the core conflict of the story.
The other main characters in the series are also memorable and great additions. Yoshitaka reminds me of Montana Max from Tiny Toons more than any other fictional character, because money is the source of his power, but his willingness to leverage it in outrageously unethical and immoral ways is what makes him such a formidable antagonist. Izumi’s sister, Mitsuki, at first appears to be either an airhead or a sweetheart, but as the series progresses, we discover that she’s actually an airheaded sweetheart who rivals even Yoshitaka in her ability to manipulate others by leading them into zany “contests” she sets up. On an endearing note, Mitsuki seems to think her sister is the best thing since sliced bread, and most of her plans seem to revolve around getting others to feel the same and fuss or fight over her… at least at first. (More on that later.) The rest of the main cast is rounded out by Anna and Pochi. Anna is the pathetically lovestruck “third maid” who enters service in the Yoshitaka estate, a bit of a pervert in her own right who would be disturbing if she weren’t so adorable. Pochi is the alligator. The beer-drinking, porn-watching, rapey, thousand-pound alligator. He’s one of a kind in anime, and that’s probably a stroke of good fortune for our collective sanity.
In addition to its interesting characters, He Is My Master has several other things to recommend it. Perhaps more than any other element, I absolutely loved the sense of structure this anime displayed. He Is My Master predated Ouran Host Club by about 7 months when both of them launched back in 2002, and it beat Ouran to the punch on the “huge debt caused by a broken vase” motif. However, while Ouran used that as a vehicle to connect Haruhi with a harem of cute boys, He Is My Master uses it to plunge Izumi into crushing debt slavery, and the sense that it’s getting a little worse every day is palpable throughout the series. Almost every episode ends the same way, with Yoshitaka furiously planning how he’ll make Izumi pay for her insubordination as a counter displays to the viewer how far she is currently in debt. It works like an ominous mirror image of the money meter that used to end each episode of the live-action sitcom Two Broke Girls to show how much money they’d saved to open their bakery… though Izumi’s finances only ever seem to move in reverse. At the same time, the end of each episode also hints at activities Mitsuki is doing behind the scenes on her sister’s behalf, and those start to escalate just like her debt does, creating an interesting sort of tension over which will win out in the end.
There are several other high points to cover. For one, this anime is frequently hilarious in a dark sort of way. The first half of the series in particular constantly had me pausing the show to lean my head back, cover my eyes, and laugh in disbelief that “yeah, they just went there.” I also appreciated the anime’s art style, which I feel represents an improvement over the manga for some characters, especially in the decision to make Pochi more cartoonish. The opening and ending songs are both top-tier, beautiful, memorable tunes to bookend the craziness in between. The in-show animation and background music are not going to blow your socks off, but they are fine for a show where characters are this stylized.
So far this review has been all about the positives, and up through episode 6, He Is My Master was almost all positives. By the middle of the series, I was so enamored with it that I fully expected it to become one of my favorite comedy anime. Episodes 7 and 8 were a bit bumpier, but still solid. However, after episodes 9-11, I was so dismayed that I got ready to finish this anime in the full expectation of halfway-hating it. I’m happy to report that the final episode went a long way toward rehabilitating my opinion of it and making me appreciate it again, but a certain amount of bad taste remained. So, what happened here that made He Is My Master almost fly off the rails in the third act?
A few factors fed into this. Only the first manga volume of He Is My Master had been published when the anime’s production began, so the second half of the anime was an original story that didn’t appear in the manga at all for the most part. Even if there had been more manga content available, the anime’s producer felt that in order to draw viewers along, a one-to-one conversion of a self-described “gag manga” simply wouldn’t do. He wanted to give the anime more structure and a broader, overarching plot. I actually agree completely with his creative decision on that point and think he was on the right track. The plot the anime’s writers came up with was a good one, and it gave the series a sense of forward momentum and tension that made it more engaging than it would have been otherwise. I especially liked the focus he latched onto of Izumi gaining confidence and seizing more control of her life as a result. However, there were two, maybe three aspects of the second half that I have trouble describing charitably… they were basically botched.
The second half of the series brought in far too many throwaway characters who were introduced in a way that made them seem like major players, only to have them move the plot forward for just one episode before disappearing into the background. Even the character who served as a surprise final antagonist seemed to come out of nowhere and disappear into nowhere in the space of a single episode, creating a jarring sense of main character turnover. The second half also felt a bit less funny overall. Granted, some of this may have been necessary as the plot itself gained seriousness, but I feel like the dip in quality there was noticeable and unfortunate considering how big a selling point it had been at first. The latter episodes still managed to be extremely funny at points, but you can tell that He Is My Master tends to generate the biggest laughs when it’s drawing from its manga source material.
What irked me worst of all, however, was the change to Mitsuki’s portrayal in the second half of the anime. In the first half of the series, the blonde cutie was an intriguing and amusing puzzle. On the one hand, she was constantly putting Izumi into humiliating situations as part of her contests, and Mitsuki also made her the unwitting center of a scheme that took on an outsized importance in the second half. However, all of her mischief seemed to come from a good place: Mitsuki loved Izumi, she loved watching other people fawn over her, and she wanted to help her (even if she had strange ways of doing it). In the second half of the series, though, her ability to control the events and people around her became so godlike as to become unnerving… all the more because Mitsuki was not acting like a benevolent sort of goddess, but one in the Greek mold who likes to make mortals squirm for her amusement. In the final episode, Izumi gives her some side-eye and says, “You think anything is fine as long as it’s fun, don’t you?” Mitsuki’s reply? “Well, yeah.” The way things play out in the final arc seem to suggest Mitsuki is putting everyone through hell just because she’s bored, not because she’s thinking of her sister or trying to do something nice, and it made her come across as a bit of a smiling psychopath. This was a huge, regrettable blow to her likability as a character for me. This problem could have removed without harming the overall plot if the writers had humanized Mitsuki more by highlighting her good intentions or allowing her to make more mistakes and miscalculations she had to work through. But, it is what it is.
As I mentioned, the final episode went a long way toward making me feel better about the anime as a whole. It course-corrected on several problematic trends, showing that there were some strings even Mitsuki wasn’t pulling and didn’t directly control, and it also rehabilitated a certain other character who was shaping up to be a big disappointment in the final act. Several consecutive plot twists brought us to an ending to the series that was far, far more satisfying than what I had been expecting in the lead-up to episode 12. There were a handful of things that I would have preferred to see happen differently, but overall, it was so much better than what I’d feared I was heading into that I don’t feel like complaining about it.
He Is My Master is an oddball to try to assign a final rating or assessment to because of the ups and downs that I mentioned. When it’s good, it’s fantastic, and when it’s bad, it can be intensely frustrating. Overall, though, I have to tell you that I developed a real soft spot for this weird little maid anime. I love its characters and its twisted sense of humor, I found its plot very engaging and well-executed for the most part, and I loved its structure and pacing. For the rest, including the unnecessary barrage of new “major” characters at the end and the jarring tone shift in Mitsuki’s portrayal, I can acknowledge its flaws but also feel inclined to forgive them. This anime is original enough, funny enough, and memorable enough that I think it deserves to be cut some slack.
If you’d like to give He Is My Master a try, the easiest way is to stream it on HiDive or VRV. However, if you think this anime even might be your jam, I’d like to suggest you pick up a physical copy, for a couple of reasons. First, while I don’t want to get into a politics discussion here, He Is My Master is an anime that I can easily imagine being taken off streaming platforms entirely someday due to shifts in the culture that occurred after it was made. The way Izumi is constantly being sexually harassed was already borderline-unacceptable back in the early 2000s, and in the “Me, Too” era, its status as a poster child of how not to do consent puts a huge target on its back. If the anime community ever experiences a “wokeness renaissance,” He Is My Master will be one of the first things to go. This anime is also extremely cheap. Its publisher, Sentai Filmworks, currently sells both the DVD and Blu-Ray for just $30 USD at full MSRP, at $21 as their regular online store price, and I have literally seen the DVD version sell for as low as $2 (two measly Washingtons) during some of their holiday sales. (Since both releases are in SD, the DVD’s picture quality is just as good as the Blu Ray’s for this release.) Finally, the physical release is a good value in terms of the extras. Besides the anime episodes, it features TV spots and trailers, a really interesting interview with the producer about the process of adapting the manga to an anime, and creditless versions of all of the opening and ending tunes. (For the ending song, I was surprised in retrospect that there were so many visual differences by episode; it was very subtle about it.)
To sum things up, I can promise you that He Is My Master won’t be everyone’s cup of piping hot tea served in a priceless silver tea set for their beloved Goshujin-sama. It’s lewd, it’s crude, it’s mean as hell to its long-suffering heroine, and if you’re looking for a traditional rom-com, you’re barking at the gated front door of the wrong mansion. However, if you’re the kind of person who will like it, I suspect you’ll really like it. He Is My Master weaves a great tale of a girl learning to believe in herself and to find happiness no matter how desperate her finances become and no matter how many asshole employers and lascivious reptiles she has to punch in the face to do it. It’s not uplifting in the traditional sense, but it’s a hell of a ride, and one well-worth taking if you embark on watching it in the right mindset.