The violence is part of the job,” says Nerula, an alien-themed service worker in the maid cafes of Akihabara, in a moment of nonchalant, offhand absurdity that the new original anime Akiba Maid War has now conditioned me to expect and love. In a series with an outrageous display of bloodshed, it might be the show’s commitment to a straight-faced matter-of-factness about the violent lives of cafe maids that makes it even funnier, its characters internalizing “moe moe kyun” as the guiding principle for which they bleed (“moe’’ has a broad meaning, but mostly connotes a “cute” vibe). It feels like there’s more anime than ever this season, but even amid a season filled with high profile shows like Chainsaw Man, Bleach, and Mob Psycho 100, Akiba Maid War deserves your attention.
Directed by Sōichi Masui (Sakura Quest) and produced by P.A. Works (also responsible for this year’s Ya Boy Kongming!) and Cygames, it’s a strong contender for the funniest anime of the season, an original managing to hold its own in a season packed with heavy hitters. A broad homage to yakuza films and other gangster pictures, Akiba Maid War supplants criminal brotherhood with maid cafes dotted around Akihabara, each operating as the arm of one of two wider groups — the animal-themed “Creatureland” and the sci-fi themed “Maidalien” group — competing for control of the area and bristling against a tenuous peace treaty.
It somewhat (and that’s extreme emphasis on “somewhat”) recalls works like Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza films, like if someone threw a frilly apron on his despairing and influential Battles Without Honor and Humanity saga; different in tone but tracing the evolution of warring gangs over the course of decades and the betrayals and cycles of violence that transform them. The Creatureland Group’s bid for business dominance contains echoes of the Yamamori gang building themselves into the capitalist conglomerate Tensei Group. As the show explores the ins and outs of what it means to exist in the moe mob, the underhanded politicking is compounded with echoes of the bloodiness of Takashi Miike’s work (the mind will also wander to Tarantino, considering the shared inspirations). Main difference is, the gangsters in this show also spend their time decorating omelets with ketchup faces.
Akiba Maid War goes about contrasting these homages with the cuteness that its characters so earnestly represent. You could say it’s in close proximity to this year’s Lycoris Recoil, which played with the conceit of teenage assassins using a cafe as a front as the story unfurls a long-running conspiracy plot. Even as both enjoy that gulf between cute and deadly as seen in the subgenre of girls-with-guns action, Lycoris uses contemporary surveillance and authoritarianism as its set dressing rather than criminal enterprise, while Akiba Maid War plays things more exclusively for laughs.
The idealistic Nagomi is the audience’s route into this absurdist history. Unaware of the barbarity of her chosen profession, she learns the hard way through various skirmishes with other rival cafes, confronting one another in dialogue laced with animal-themed threats, all admirably committed to stupid wordplay with utter seriousness. As Nagomi joins the pig-themed Oinky Doink Cafe in the first episode, she befriends the seemingly gloomy Ranko, an older maid fresh out of the joint for a crime not yet disclosed.
Nagomi and Ranko’s first outing together is nothing short of a disaster, however — Ranko introduces Nagomi to the reality of maid work, massacring a rival cafe on an errand originally intended to offer the two up as sacrificial lambs to appease an age-old beef. The result is a deranged set-piece for the ages, with the episode spiraling out of control following an incredibly dark gag where blood from a headshot whistles out of the wound and onto poor Nagomi’s maid outfit not once, but three times in delayed succession.
The shock of the moment turns into utter mayhem, with a shootout fight spilling out onto the streets as episode director Tomoaki Ota cuts back to Oinky Doink Cafe, where Nagomi’s coworker Yumechi is performing a high-energy number called “The Pure Maid’s Master-Killing Kiss.” The intercut sequence times Ranko performing elaborate feats of gun-fu with wotagei (basically a kind of dancing done by idol fans) to the resultant uptempo and vaguely threatening insert song about exploding hearts, with Ranko popping off rounds in time to the beat while knives and guns both take on the role of glow sticks. To borrow some critical parlance, it rips.