Confounding? Yes. Interesting? That too.
Surely, somewhere, there must be a middle ground between teenaged males in anime who try to hump anything with a pulse, and those who’re so timid that they decline when a beautiful girl offers to have sex with them. Even when they’re married, for heavens sake. It’s a small and amusing exchange that takes up mere moments at the end of the episode, but it’s somewhat telling about the contradictions that leave this series in such a bind.
I don’t know the source material, but I’m beginning to get a sense that this is a particularly difficult piece of material to try and turn into anime form. Imagine a fantasy adventure where the world-building doesn’t set up the plot, it is the plot. For folks of somewhat obscure tastes like myself the prospect seems appetizing, but in practice there are serious problems with turning it into a compelling watch. In a cast where the characters are nameless avatars by design (taking the Japanese aversion to personal pronouns to new heights), a series that’s so dependent on dialogue has moments where it feels as dry as dust. As least this one does, so far. This is surely one of the talkiest anime I’ve seen since, well… Spice and Wolf.
I really, really wish Arms hadn’t gotten the director and two stars of Spice and Wolf for Maoyuu Maou Yuusha, because I just don’t see that doing the show any good. The things that Spice and Wolf did well MMY just can’t match – I don’t see any way the two leads will ever have the chemistry Lawrence and Horo had (though her reaction when he kissed her forehead was my favorite shared moment between them so far), and Fukuyama Jun is really at sea in this series – and there are things I’d hope MMY could be much the better that will only be weighed down by the inevitable comparisons. People were going to link the two series in any case – it’s almost as if Arms threw down the gauntlet and dared them to do so. Or perhaps more cuttingly, made it impossible for them not to.
All that said, is Maoyuu Maou Yuusha interesting? Yes, I think it’s pretty interesting most of the time, especially when it shies away from the formula anime clichés that are all the more irritating because they seem so out of place in this series. I’m still not feeling much from Yuusha – he’s frustrated that he hasn’t really found a niche in peacetime yet and that’s a start, but he’s still basically an accessory to Maou. Perhaps bringing his old party from the premiere back into the mix will add a little more color to his character, though the scenes with Sawashiro Miyuki’s Knight and Maou verbally sparring over him felt pretty tired and played out. It seems he’s going to be returning to his old life for a while, returning to the Demon World to look for the missing Mage, who went there looking for him – and while there, to “take care of” a few troublesome demon lords for his wife. People are criticizing Yuusha in some quarters as being dumb, but I don’t see that – he’s just a simple man who hasn’t had any education and lived the life of war since he hit puberty. No, it’s not Yuusha being dumb I’m struggling with, it’s the fact that so far he’s a bore. And that's going to be an anchor for the series as long as it stays that way.
There’s no doubt in my mind that MMY is at its best when it dips its toes into the world of politics and macroeconomics, if for no other reason than the fact that in anime terms it pretty much has that playing field to itself. It’s obviously at least fairly smart material – it’s nice to see a show focus on the way things which are utterly mundane to modern industrial societies (like potatoes and compasses) are game-changers in the medieval world. The role of religion is a focus, too – a completely different one than exists today, inseparable from the spheres of education and government. We’re also getting into the genuinely interesting area of the powerful role trading guilds and alliances (the Hanseatic League being perhaps the most prominent) played in this type of economy – in practical terms a more important and powerful entity than many national governments. Again, trying to fit that into the world of an anime – with the demands that requires for commercial success – is clearly not a simple process, and it’s been an awkward one at times so far. And it still isn’t totally clear whether this is an intellectual series that occasionally lapses into lowbrow cliché, or a formula anime that has pretentions to be intellectual. But given what an unusual question that is, it feels as if it’s going to be interesting to find out.