I don’t think I’ve yet used the term “by the fans, for the fans” to describe anything I’ve reviewed here, but Maid Machinegun cries out for that label. It’s a novel set in one of the stranger corners of anime sub-sub-culture — the world of the maid café, where folks (typically male fans) can pay for the privilege of being catered to by compulsively sweet-natured hostesses in uniform.
If you read that last paragraph and perked right up at the idea of a comedic story set against a backdrop of frilly aprons and elegant china, you don’t need my recommendation. If, on the other hand, that sounds just plain weird to your ears — well, let’s be fair: is there any part of anime fandom, or any fandom at all, that doesn’t draw long, uncomprehending stares from the uninitiated?
Machinegun purports to be the story of “Aaliyah” (no, not the late singer; it’s a pen name), a teenage girl working in a maid café in the heart of Tokyo’s Akihabara district, central hub of everything otaku-related. Her enthusiasm for her work is scary: for her, maid cafés aren’t just a hobby, but a Way Of Life — both for her and everyone else she can spread the word to. She writes with bemusement about her fellow maids: her slave-driver of a boss, Makoto; the unflappable, butler-outfit-wearing Yukino; and Ruruka, the space cadet, the kind of person people politely describe as “quirky” when they really want to say nuts.
Each chapter revolves around a different facet of the maid café world, or introduces a new character — like the efficiency-expert type who clocks Aaliyah’s performance with metronomic precision and dryly suggests ways she could improve. Through each one of them our heroine strives to show her fighting spirit and her never-say-die attitude, even when she’s surrounded by people who are rightfully indifferent to her valor.
There’s a plot, sort of, one which comes together by fits and starts. It involves the handsome Kiriya, a fellow who applies for a job at the café as a cook, and before long is urgently confessing his love to Aaliyah (that is, when he’s not driving her crazy with his coldly arrogant behavior). That warps her fragile little mind badly enough, but eventually big questions loom about whether or not the two of them were, in fact, acquainted with each other before, and where Aaliyah herself came from, and …
You get the idea. As far as plots go, it’s about as cohesive as the sort of thing we saw in the Cromartie High live-action movie — not so much to give the story a specific place to go as a framework into which to place various happenings and observations. To that end, the book works best when it gets laughs by simply looking. There’s one hilarious section where Aaliyah muses about some new maid café themes that are probably not going to work — e.g., “Mental Health Day”, where the maids slit their wrists, run amok with guns, and put specials on the menu like “DRUG OVERDOSE”. Another cute come-and-go moment involves the possibility of a “female ninja” café — now there’s something I’d pay to see, personally.
The bad news is that the best stuff is scattered amidst long dry stretches. Some sections, like an interview with another maid, go on far too long for too little payoff. At one point Aaliyah and the rest of the maids head off to Comiket, but it doesn’t feel organically connected to the rest of the story except maybe in the sense that it’s also an examination of fan behavior at its most extreme. (Sure, Genshiken had a similar plot detour, but there it had far more of a reason to exist since that story wasn’t confined to any one corner of the fandom experience.)
The climax is a mess yanked more or less out of left field, the kind of lunacy that just seems forced onto the material instead of drawn from it. And that’s just the problem: with any aspect of fandom, the best things are the ones you don’t have to make up.Maid Machinegun works best when it’s getting laughs naturally out of its material, observing behavior instead of fabricating it. I just wish it had done that more often.
Consumer Footnote: Despite the picture on the cover and the title of the book, the one time Aaliyah actually picks up a machine gun and uses it is right at the end. And it’s Airsoft, to boot.
Translation: I was iffy on Del Rey’s translation of Train Man, if only because they re-used a translation originally written for a British audience (something they admitted was probably a bad idea in retrospect). But their work with Maid Machinegun, courtesy of Anastasia Moreno, takes strong cues from Del Rey’s own manga-translation guidelines: there’s a good balance between immediate readability and peculiarly Japanese turns of phrase or references. For the latter, there’s a short glossary in the back where everything from yaoi and Goth-Loli to tsundere are explained in detail. Another thing the translators kept, quite wisely, is the occasional bit of inline iconography — the “smileys” or other extended-character-set dingbats that you see a great deal of in online forums in Japan.
The Bottom Line: I’m grateful Del Rey and other U.S. publishers are picking up quirky material like this from Japan, as they did with Train Man and as they’re planning to do with a number of other releases later this year. The definitive maid-café / otaku comedy of errors novel has yet to be written, if you ask me, but there’s still a lot here that will be funny to people familiar with the milieu … either as a participant or a slack-jawed spectator.