From the stack: Maid Shokun vol. 1

As I was fulfilling my obligation to read Maid Shokun (Tokyopop), a question kept crossing my mind: is this what postmodern fan-service looks like? The cover promises to serve up a hearty tray full of pandering, and the concept – what is it like to work at a maid café? – invites the reader to impose all kinds of parenthetical phrases and subtext. But the series is really just about what it’s like to work at a maid café. Seriously, who does that?

In this case, Akira Kiduki and Nanki Satou are the ones who do that, and they did it for Comic Gum published by Wani Books. I don’t know much about Comic Gum, but it seems like the kind of magazine where fans of the up-skirt will feel right at home. This leads me to wonder what its target audience must have thought of a series that goes so far as to squarely consider the inner lives of women whose job it is to cater to one of their fetishes.

Kiduki and Satou are clearly and consciously creating tension between the services that the café provides – pretty girls in uniform cheerfully greeting guests as “Master” – and the fact that these employees are real women with complicated lives independent of their work. The maids display a fondness for their clientele that’s free of condescension; they like that they can provide these men with brief escape from their often bleak lives. But they’re very clear on the boundaries between occasional fantasy and the day to day.

The creators aren’t averse to letting things get messy. One customer loses sight of the aforementioned boundaries, which triggers a complicated series of responses among the café’s employees. It highlights the delicate balance those boundaries require to sustain the fantasy and keep it safe. Media attention proves to be a blessing and a curse for the establishment, and the maids are forced to consider the possibility of becoming an adult establishment. A relationship between two of the employees reveals homophobia in the workplace. Kiduki and Satou have a lot on their minds, and very little of it involves giving their readers a quick thrill.

Unfortunately, the series is more interesting conceptually than in execution. The creators are better at introducing ideas than incorporating them into a story, which results in a lot of chatter that’s more expository than involving. The characters inspire varying degrees of sympathy and interest. Some are clearly types – bossy girl Arumi, dippy innocent Chiyoko – but some show real potential – floor manager Haine, the most grounded, mature presence in the joint. Unfortunately, the types get the most focus, which makes it hard to invest much feeling in the series.

Still, this series is a whole lot more than a cursory consideration would suggest. If anything, it’s too cerebral in its approach to allow a reader to really enter the world it’s trying to evoke. With a little more heart, it could be something quite special. Of course, we’re unlikely to ever find out if it achieves that, since Tokyopop only managed to release one volume before shuttering its manga publishing efforts. I wouldn’t say I’m devastated by that outcome, as I can’t see Maid Shokun becoming a cherished favorite, but this book has offered a lot of food for thought.