story by Ken Akamatsu; art by RAN; adapted by Kathleen Westlake
published by Del Rey Manga; $14.95 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Japan is under attack by aliens who want to steal their national landmarks. These wily aliens understand that you can’t beat the Japanese with advanced technology or superior numbers. The only way to insure victory is to attack the Japanese in their one true weakness, cuteness (kawaii in Japanese). So they’ve crafted the most charming monsters to come and pilfer the Japanese treasures. How can the Japanese government protect their cultural heritage when the public swiftly turns against anyone who dares to harm these adorable creatures?
Ah, but the Japan defense force is just a shrewd as the aliens and have fashioned the perfect counterattack force. The Special Defense Corps is made up of three super-cute elementary schoolgirls: Mao, Sylvia, and Misora. Only by being more kawaii then the enemy are these maidens able to fight off the aliens’ attempts at larceny.
Mao-Chan is an adaptation of the Ken Akamatsu anime released back in 2003 and 2004. Del Rey has combined the first and second volumes of the Japanese edition into one book for US release. When referring to either volume one or two, I mean as published in the Japanese edition.
The series starts off as a funny and insightful satire of Japanese culture, especially Japan’s kawaii cult. (To understand how pervasive cute things are in Japanese culture, read the book Hello, Please! Very Helpful Super Kawaii Characters From Japan.) I love the fact that the aliens have analyzed Japanese culture and realize the Japanese will let cute creatures do anything they want. When the Japanese public sees a cute creature, they go into a kawaii coma and are helpless to act against the invader.
It’s amazing how quickly the military is able to form its own cute defense force. Kinda like the government was already aware of this weakness and had a contingency plan in place just in case someone else figured this out. One of the funniest elements in volume one is how the Special Defense Corp’s (SDC) budget is directly tied to public opinion. So it becomes a battle of the cute, as the aliens try to either develop a creature cuter than the girls of the SDC or counteract their cuteness. I’ve always liked Akamatsu, but I found new respect for him as a writer seeing how deftly he handled this lampoon.
I think the setup for the series is brilliant. Akamatsu has created a show that allows him to poke good-natured fun at an almost unlimited variety of targets. For example, each of the girls wears a clover pin that allows them to transform into their SDC uniform. Fans of Sailor Moon will see the reference and parody of the magical girl genre. Each of the girls has a fighting specialty, Mao’s is ground defense, Misora’s is air, and Sylvia’s is the sea. However, they are able to combine their abilities to form a superpower attack. Fans of Power Rangers, Thundercats, Voltron, etc. will see the parody of Japanese superhero team shows here.
Akamatsu is also poking fun at himself and how he has made a handsome living exploiting Japan’s kawaii culture in his own series Love Hina. Even doting grandfathers aren’t safe from lighthearted ridicule. The SDC is headed by the grandfathers of each girl. They spend as much time arguing over who is the cutest and most beloved as they do over military tactics. Mao-Chan reminds me of the first volumes of Ranma Ã‚Â½ where Takahashi used the series to satirize gender roles, romantic relationships, martial arts movies, and fighting manga.
There is a shift in emphasis once we get to the second volume. The satire aspects are downplayed, and the series begins to focus more on character development. I have to admit I was a little disappointed at first. However, the first volume is very gag-driven and there really is only so far you can go before the parody wears out. The character-driven stories help balance the series out. It’s still a comedy series, just the focus of the jokes have changed. Another advantage of the second volume is longer stories, which are a nice change of pace from the first volume where each chapter is its own story.
I have only one minor complaint with Mao-Chan: the stories have a sitcom nature. This only becomes evident because we have two volumes to read through. Certain jokes and themes get repeated through each of the stories. Mao is clumsy, the grandfathers always argue over who is the cutest and should get all the credit, the alien spies always underestimate the SDC, etc. You can overcome this problem if you don’t try reading through the book in one or two sittings like I did. It’s best to read a story arc, then set the book down until the next day and then read the next story. Toward the end of the second volume, you can see the series moving away from this formulaic story structure.
The artwork in this book is excellent. RAN copies Akamatsu’s style very well. In fact, a few of the characters could be the twin sisters of other Akamatsu characters: Kagome Mishima is Naru Narusegawa (Love Hina) with a more realistic bust line, Sylvia Maruyama is a more mature-looking Shinobu Maehara (Love Hina), and Yuriko Ozara looks like Asuna Kagurazaka (Negi!) minus the bell barrettes and shorter hair. This can be a little distracting at times, but I consider this a minor flaw.
Since this is an Akamatsu series, you have to expect some fan service. Remarkably, there is much less than in his other series. (I would say about only a tenth of what you normally get.) RAN does a great job with character designs and communicates emotions well. He is also adeptly handles the fight scenes. There’s a wonderful sense of energy and fun in all the artwork throughout the book.
The book includes translation notes, original character sketches, three four-panel comic strips, a one-shot story of Mao and the SDC ten years later, and a list of all the aliens fought in the book. It’s a thick book, but it has a very nice tight binding. There’s an English website for the anime.
I thoroughly enjoyed Mao-Chan and recommend it to anyone who enjoys light satire. Fans of anime and manga will get the most out of the series, since they’ll see all the parodies. However, Mao-Chan is also accessible to newcomers. Akamatsu is smart enough to make the jokes stand on their own. I’m looking forward to the next volume to see how the storytelling continues to evolve as well as seeing what comes next for the Mao and the SDC. (A complimentary copy of this book was provided by the publisher for this review.)