Monday, August 22, 2016

Manga (Retro)review: Maoyuu Maou Yuusha

(WARNING: This review/analysis contains spoilers.  You have been warned)


Maoyuu Maou Yuusha: 'Kono Ware no Mono to Nare, Yuusha yo' 'Kotowaru!'
Writer: Touno Mamare
Artist: Ishida Akira
Status: Ongoing

A random trip through the Interwebs has turned up yet another fascinating little series: Maoyuu Maou Yuusha, an economic treatise disguised as a fantasy manga, but so much better than that sounds.  I knew nothing about it before a few days ago, so I’m pretty late to a party that’s apparently been going on for a little over six years.  But this smart, witty, and optimistic manga really stuck with me, and deserves, I think, a worthy review - even as it also displays a few of the pitfalls that come in making “philosophical” fiction.  (Footnote: Maoyuu Maou Yuusha is a pretty expansive franchise, encompassing a light novel series, an anime, and several manga titles all with different artists.  I choose the adaptation running in Comp Ace Magazine, drawn by Ishida Akira and distinguished by the ridiculously long subtitle above, as it’s one of the more popular and accessible versions).

Plot Synopsis
In a medieval fantasy world embroiled in a decades-long conflict between demons and humans, a lone Hero of extraordinary power battles through the demon defenses to face, he assumes, his destiny: a climactic showdown with the evil Demon King, impaling the foul beast on the end of his blade and finally bringing this war to a close.  However, this standard fantasy script gets flipped when the Demon “King” turns out not only to be a large-bosomed cutie with hardly a malevolent bone in her body, but also a highly intelligent economist who calmly and firmly lays out all the political, social, and economic reasons why killing her won’t end the war -  and may actually lead to all sorts of nasty repercussions.  Our Hero finds his entire scaffolding of heroic fantasy tropes stripped away by her data and relentless logic, until she finally makes him an offer: to become “hers” (and she, “his” in exchange) and help her implement a series of innovations to ensure lasting change and peace for both humans and demons - beyond the temporary and destructive benefits of endless war.  Although Hero initially turns her down (funny note: the daunting subtle roughly translates to “Become mine, Hero!” “I refuse!” in homage to this exchange) he’s considerably more open-minded than your run-of-the-mill fantasy sword-swinger, and finds himself swayed by her facts and his own sense of righteousness.  With their “contract” now sealed, the pair return to the human world where, aided by Demon King’s - ahem, Queen’s - servant Head Maid and Hero’s former companion Female Knight (notice a naming trend?) they set about a plan to effectively save the world from its own worst impulses.

The story drew me in right from the start; I am a major fan of deconstructive fiction done well, and this series manages to tear down a whole slew of not only bog-standard fantasy tropes, but a few shounen manga conventions as well.  Our two protagonists are cut from very different molds than what’s typical in the genre, and in their own ways overturn many expectations.  Demon Queen is, quite frankly, brilliant, and though physically frail with a sweet and childish side, proves to be formidable in the arts of negotiation and verbal jujitsu.  Hero, too, is much more than he appears; though arguably the strongest being in existence, he recognizes his own impotence before an enemy he can't hack or slash, and is quick to support his consort in all her goals, even going so far as to proclaim her the real hero of the story.  More characters get added - each, however inconsequential at first, eventually becoming important additions to the narrative, often getting their own moments in the spotlight and driving home the central message that it's the small changes, enacted in the minds of others through trust and learning, that have the biggest impact in the long run.  But the real wallop of the story comes from the amount of intellectual firepower they packed into it, easily apparent in the early arcs as the Queen's plans are just getting underway.  Diligent anime fans often compare Maoyuu to another well-known light novel series - Spice and Wolf, which shares the same basic premise of supernatural girl hooking up with human guy to lend her wisdom in socioeconomic matters.  But instead of focusing on microeconomics and the interaction between its two leads like that series, Maoyuu tackles the wider world of macroeconomics, and how they influence and are influenced by political forces.  The author really knows his stuff, and through his avatar Demon Queen explains (sometimes in painstaking detail) how certain real-world innovations, like new crops or new tools for education, can cause dramatic changes.  In a way, this whole manga can be thought of as a massive thought experiment: what would happen if you suddenly introduced potatoes, corn, the printing press, and notions of individual free will and intrinsic rights - all things we take for granted in the modern world - into a feudal society where toil, famine, ignorance and violence are everyday realities.

Still, the story at times smacks a bit of historical teleology or even triumphalism, warping the manga's biggest strength into its greatest weakness.  Also, like most works aiming to inform and enlighten, Maoyuu often falls into the standard dilemma of too much telling and not enough showing.  This was particularly painful during the first few arcs, where the prose borders on the didactic, and the reader’s bogged down with entire chapters of dry economic explanations - so dry, in fact, that despite my own personal love of economics and numbers, I sometimes skipped a few pages, certain I was missing nothing of real substance to the story.  This gets better as it progresses, though there remain certain points when Touno is basically preaching to us.  Still, the strong character development and undeniably smart ideas running behind this series more than make up for the occasional dips into pretentiousness.   
Rating: 9/10

It’s probably unfair to critique the art as if it pertained to the series as a whole, since there are so many different versions, but just speaking of Ishida’s penmanship, I found the overall effect somewhat lacking.  The art wasn’t bad, not by any stretch; however, it looked pretty sloppy in how it was put together.  This is hardly noticeable in the beginning, when the cast is still small and the “action” centered on the bureaucratic gymnastics of merchant guilds and church factions.  But as more characters of significance appear, Ishida's generic style makes it harder to tell some of them apart - not helped at all by his thought bubbles being all over the place on some pages.  The action scenes were also lackluster, though that gets an easy pass; Maoyuu tends to focus on strategic maneuvering in combat rather than dazzling feats of individual fancy, so you don't feel like you're missing out on much.   Moreover, Ishida is great at displaying the two sides of this story - the serious economic drama on the one hand, and the light-hearted romantic comedy on the other - and really brings out the humor and warmth in what could easily have been just another gloomy bundle of pretense.
Rating: 7/10

There's a lot more to this universe than can be covered in my review.  While you can argue that the “innovations” introduced in the manga mirror the real world too closely - and hence, feel derivative or even lazy - it doesn't change the brilliance of the execution, nor the originality of the premise itself.  If you’re looking for a fine piece of literature that will make you think and give you a good laugh at the same time, you can do a lot worse than this.
Total: 16/20 = B

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