Maid-sama! Volume 6

By Hiro Fujiwara. Released in Japan as “Kaichō wa Maid-sama!” by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine LaLa. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

I’d actually forgotten about the initial premise of Maid-sama!, so it’s refreshing to see it brought up again in the first chapter. The premise being that this formerly all-male school is now co-ed, but the boys vastly outnumber the girls, and are, well, high school boys. And so this chapter shows that they need to clean their club room, as it’s gotten completely disgusting. Misaki and the others try to give a little bit of carrot by making them riceballs for snacks, but it’s mostly stick, with Misaki’s rage powering things. (Misaki’s riceballs being round shiny globes remind me of Special A, again, and the two series really do share a lot of gags.) Sadly, we get very little Usui teasing, and it’s the weakest chapter in the book.

But don’t worry, we get a new rival on the horizon, who will carry the next three stories. Yes, shoujo fans, it’s the long lost childhood friend, now all grown up! Hinata is the ‘aw, shucks’ country boy type, and once he realizes that Misaki was his childhood sweetheart, he tries his best to win her. Which really pisses Usui off, mostly as Misaki, being essentially a nice person, and also totally oblivious, won’t simply tell Hinata to go away. This leads to a great moment where Usui, never one for hiding his feelings for Misaki, notes point blank to her that he’s jealous. Cue blush.

Yes, teasing Misaki, aka the reason we read this manga. I have to say, I like tsunderes a lot more when they’re a) above the age of 13, and b) strong and dynamic female leads. As Misaki fits both, I can deal with the essential stammering denial. This leads to the best moment of the book, as Usui has watched Misaki deal with Hinata the same way she’s dealt with Usui – she regards them both as annoying problem kids she constantly has to watch out for. But when he presses her on it, she blushes more, knowing what he means, and indicates that Usui is “MORE trouble”. For a manga like this, that’s practically a confession.

This is very much of a snack manga, and will never wow you with its deep themes or amazing plotting. It’s shoujo-by-numbers. But the numbers are really pretty and the leads are dynamic, and there’s a great helping of humor. Lately Maid-sama! has been on the NYT bestseller lists, and it’s easy to see why – it’s cute romance with a healthy pile of humor.

Maid-sama! Volume 5

By Hiro Fujiwara. Released in Japan as “Kaichō wa Maid-sama!” by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine LaLa. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

Writing a shoujo manga where the plot is ‘will they get together?’ can be very difficult. Most shoujo romances I see, especially from Hakusensha, fall into 2 categories: 1) the heroine hooking up with the hero is the purpose of the manga, and it will end when she realizes her feelings; and 2) The hero and heroine hook up at some point during the manga, and the rest of it is fighting various things designed to cause trouble for them, and trying to get ‘closer’ (without getting too explicit – this is Hakusensha, not Shogakukan).

The difficulty with this, of course, is that you risk irritating your audience. Otomen makes fun of this exact point, having Juta desperate to get Asuka and Ryo closer so that his own manga can develop, but the two are trapped in a classic ‘shy and oblivious’ circle. Maid-sama has a similar problem, but in this case it’s all about Misaki getting over her dislike of men and coming to accept Usui has genuine feelings for her, and it’s not just about his sadistic love of teasing.

We understand where Usui’s coming from, because he’s right, seeing Misaki flustered and blushing *is* fantastic. She’s never cuter than when she’s warring with herself, as best exemplified by the final chapter in this volume, where we see her attempting to care for Usui after he broke an arm protecting her from a fall. Her cooking is horrible, and she laments that she’s unable to do anything for him, even after all he’s done for her.

Of course, Usui knows this is stupid, because he’s seen how strong Misaki can be. The butler contest shows her at her stubborn best, taking on a herculean task because of Usui’s rival Igarashi being a giant jerk. (Didn’t he try to sexually assault her when last we saw him? I’d expect a little more venom for him than we got, really.) She’s good at the physical, but not so much at the elegant, which is where Usui can take control. And she’s really good at laying into selfish people and coming up with the perfect rant to make everything better, which is what happens here.

The plot is inching along, slowly – we see Igarashi hinting that Usui should enjoy his freedom while it lasts. I’ve seen this sort of plot in a few other manga, notably Ouran High School Host Club and The Magic Touch, so I suspect that he’s in some way connected to an obscenely rich family, and will be having that old arranged marriage hanging over his head soon. I could be wrong, though.

The other characters are there, but more than any other volume this is a two-hander. Misaki and Usui dominate, and if you like them I think you’ll like the volume. No, it doesn’t look as if Misaki will be getting over her denial and getting together with Usui anytime soon, but at least she’s blushing and stammering more and more each time out.

Maid-sama! Volume 4

By Hiro Fujiwara. Released in Japan as “Kaichō wa Maid-sama!” by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine LaLa. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

There’s not much forward motion here in this volume. Misaki is still tsundere (count the blushes on her face here – you’ll lose count after the first hundred or so), Usui is still a smirking hero who dotes on her, and there are no major new characters introduced.

So much of this manga seems to be driven by trying to make Misaki realize that she doesn’t have to take everything on herself all the time, and can let others be there for her. It’s surprising, then, that the best moments are where Usui is not trying to get her to show feelings and be protected by him, but instead showing her being an utter badass. The whole hypnotist arc is built around a guy who thinks that women are weak and defenseless, and Misaki and Usui showing him the error of his ways, not just by Misaki beating people up (though she does), but by the other girls in the school merely being strong and competent.

Speaking of which, Usui’s methods of keeping Misaki awake towards the end of the first chapter is probably the best moment of the book. We’ve seen him, on occasion in previous volumes, get upset with Misaki for taking on fights she can’t win, and not letting him protect her. He knows how much this ‘I will save you from the evil baddies you can’t defeat’ thing pisses her off. So seeing him whisper “It’s OK, master’s here” is both hysterical and brilliant, guaranteeing that she’ll stay awake out of pure rage.

After that it gets a bit more traditional, with Misaki being afraid of ghosts and unable to admit it, and her valiant attempts to help Aoi in a beach volleyball competition (while failing to see the overall picture). These are less good, in that they remind us of the utter possessive streak that Usui has. As smirking shoujo guys go, he’s near the lighter end of the scale, but I’m still bothered by this on occasion. Admittedly, he’s also dealing with frustration as Misaki won’t get that he really does love her. He tries to be more honest and less perverse towards the end, but it ends up in failure as always.

There’s two extra chapters at the end, one a fairy-tale AU with Misaki as a demon hunter being assisted by Mad Hatter-type Usui, and the other dealing with the three idiots and their POV. Which no one cares about, which is probably why the fairy tale is a full-length chapter and the idiots’ omake is about 4 pages.

This is pretty decent if not spectacular shoujo, with the artist trying to present strong women kicking ass while still going for the princess being swept up by her loving prince plot. Watching them clash is the point of the manga, but can also be a weakness. Still, as long as we get to see Misaki’s well-drawn expressions of determination, frustration, and humiliation, it’s still well worth reading.