Hataraku Maou-sama! – Review

Maou is kind of a tricky beast to review, because though it’s always fundamentally a comedy, it puts on a number of specific hats throughout its run – satire, sitcom, drama, action, romance, etc. But it’s actually normally quite good at whatever it attempts; the action finales of 5 and 11/12 are fairly satisfying, the everyday life drama of the central characters is more believably slice of life than most actual slice of life shows, the characters are decently well-written (with a caveat – but I’ll get to that). The show’s overall high level of storytelling and aesthetic craft is almost certainly its greatest asset – but it can also sometimes kinda be its greatest weakness.

The base concept of Maou is a pretty obvious joke, but so are a lot of jokes – the strength of the material rests entirely in the execution. And the execution here generally shines. Maou uses all of its resources, constructing jokes out of soundtrack alone, visual cues along, tricks of pacing, tricks of dialogue, tricks of flustered expectations. Maou shows off this control within the very first episode, drawing almost all its humor out of the contrast between the direction/soundtrack (which evoke all the genre cues of a high fantasy conflict) and the actual content (Maou and Asriel causing a public nuisance, being briefly questioned by the police, and filling out paperwork). The show doesn’t always lean on this contrast in tone and content, but it’s a good trick that really makes the most of the conceit. And the aesthetic fluency isn’t the humor’s only strength – Maou works in a lot of different comedy styles, from scenes constructed entirely as deadpan genre satires and played completely straight to classic character-focused humor, sight gags, and an unending stream of pretty incredible facial reactions.

So yeah, a lot of good humor there, and the way the show can filter that humor through action scenes or drama is an excellent trick, leading to most of the show’s best moments. The flipside of that is my greatest complain with the show.

Maou toes a pretty careful line between straight comedy and slight character story/drama. Yes, it’s obviously primarily a comedy – but it also definitely wants you to care about its characters and their problems. And this presents a clash of priorities.

Humor is normally episodic, but when shows want you to care, maintaining the status quo works against that – even shows heavy on comedy like Toradora or Chuunibyou always couched their humor in scenes and episodes that progressed the character relationships and changed the overall dynamic. Though Maou starts in a similar way, the shift from episode 5 into the second arc reveals its true nature as a number of serial, stand-alone conflicts. The character relationships seem to regress back to the most friction-friendly dynamic, and their conflicts remain in limbo. This is a problem for any show that wants you to remain invested – when the conflicts are so clearly low-stakes and the relationships halted, the strings become obvious, and you begin to suffer diminishing returns both in the character’s dramatic and humor potential. Good character humor is reflective of character’s personalities and relationships – if those relationships never change, new humor cannot be mined. Additionally, serial arcs make the viewer less invested in the character’s emotional shifts – it becomes like a shounen where characters are constantly resurrected, in that dramatic turns have no weight because the viewer no longer believes changing relationships will have lasting consequences. It devalues your investment in the show. Maou is professional in all things, and its adherence to the financially stable formatting of serial light novels comes at the expense of its cohesion and meaning – sure, comedies don’t have to say something, go somewhere, or show growth, but that definitely results in a certain hollowness at the core of the show.

That said, this is all my opinion regarding what good comedies do – in my mind, comedies are always improved when they’re working towards a purpose and populating themselves with characters worth investing in. And the characters here are certainly fine, though they generally adhere to pretty standard archetypes and, as I’ve said at length, the structure does a disservice to their development. As a strict comedy, most of the episodes work well enough on their own, (with rare exceptions, like the pool/zoo episode which entirely concerns the female side of the cast walking around and comparing their boobs), though the show really shines when it’s pulling together some dramatic stakes, which lets the overwrought direction bounce off and be constantly undercut by the humor, and also generally leads to much snappier jokes than the standalones. The writing is strong, the visual design works well, the pacing and direction are generally solid, and the soundtrack is the show’s secret weapon. The show very occasionally hints at some really interesting themes regarding class society that make excellent use of the fundamental contradiction of having the Demon King as a likeable protagonist, but the way those themes are inherently linked to the progression of Maou and Emi’s relationship makes it impossible for the show to actually explore them without resolving issues it is not interested in resolving.

Overall, Maou is what it is – a confident, well-constructed comedy with a likeable cast of characters and unusually good and well-used aesthetic strengths. It’s not ambitious or deeply felt, but it’s not trying to be – it’s smart, consistently rewarding entertainment. Overall, I award it a 7/10 (Good), and would recommend it to anyone looking for a solid, reliable anime comedy.

5 thoughts on “Hataraku Maou-sama! – Review

  1. I was a little disappointed Maou sidestepped the larger, troubling topics of its own construction. Namely, Maou himself being a brutal warmonger who brought on the deaths of untold thousands having the reconcile with his (very recent) past actions, and the institution of the corrupt church which made for an easy generic villain but was never explored beyond that. Once I saw the series was going into a pattern of light romcom antics > mysterious quirky villain > magic-action conclusion, it didn’t have anything more to offer after the 1st round.

    But generally, I agree with your thoughts.

    • Yeah, I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but some of the early episodes made me think the show was actually going to go into how he can be a perfectly nice guy personally, but oblivious to the massive infrastructure of suffering going on beneath him – which would contrast nicely with his current belief that working at McDonald’s can eventually lead to you rising up in our current society. I can’t penalize it for not being an entirely different show, but I’d certainly prefer to watch that hypothetical different show.

  2. I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here. I admit I don’t really understand people who didn’t like Maou-sama! on the grounds that the backstory wasn’t strong or deep enough – to me, it seemed fairly obvious that the serious parts of the plot was intended to be of secondary concern compared to the comedy. And in terms of the comedy, I really thought the series excelled. There were as you pointed out a few places where the jokes fell flat (most noticeably the breast size gags), but otherwise this is probably one of the funniest new anime shows I’ve seen in quite some time. While the first half of Maou-sama! felt stronger than the second half for this reason, I still very much enjoyed the series on an overall level.

    • I think the main problem might be that the parts adapting the first book definitely had more of a focus on progressing the narrative and character relationships (for example, the fourth episode had almost no jokes, and focused very sharply on Emi’s emotional development), so the shift into fully episodic comedy meant giving up some of the things that attracted people to the show. The show itself conditioned viewers to expect a little more progression and momentum than they got.

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