“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.
The show could have burnt out quickly after the shock of that first episode, but it capably transforms and continually iterates on what could be a single joke premise; within the context of the story itself, violence is merely expected. The seventh episode barrels into all-out war after genuine tragedy, with a classical soundtrack and sax solos scoring blood feuds. The eighth upholds that hallowed anime tradition, the baseball episode, complete with extreme roughhousing and, of course, a double homicide. An early favorite of mine is the third episode’s journey to a fight club, which quickly turns into a riff on Ashita no Joe, evoking Osamu Dezaki’s classic 1970 boxing anime with freeze frames of cross-counters and other iconic poses, as well as the manager turning into a sleazier take on Joe Yabuki’s coach, Danpei.
The third episode also makes for an excellent introduction to Zoya, a Russian expatriate who struggles to fit in due to her stoic appearance, who fights Ranko physically and ideologically over whether or not the two of them can even be considered “cute” or worthy of being maids. The show goes one step further by playing out her backstory via a dramatic flashback, as she switches languages to Russian in yet another moment where the show surprises the viewer by just how seriously it treats the details (in a wonderful touch, Zoya’s voice actress, Jenya, intentionally leaned into her native Russian accent to get the role on point, aggressively rolling her R’s).
Aside from the action, the personalities of its goofy lead cast are enjoyable on their own — Ranko is an obvious standout from the moment she arrives, as she earnestly and very seriously conducts maid work with glorious monotone cadence. Just as there’s more to Akiba Maid War than its surface absurdity, there are also compelling complications to Ranko, who is both ruthlessly violent but also the most receptive to Nagomi’s naivety and quixotic pursuits of peace.
Then there’s the manager, an eminently watchable weasel who never stops trying to press whatever minor advantage she can get, exploiting everyone in her care; she’s so awful she comes back around to being utterly watchable as she continually sinks to new lows. Not to mention that the Oinky Doink maids count among their ranks Okachimachi, an arsonist in a panda mascot costume who silently acts like an actual panda.
While there’s a lot more going on in terms of the show’s smart comedic timing, the surface touches are a delight to experience in and of themselves. Every episode begins with a shotgun blast of ’90s ephemera through the dingy video textures and The Prodigy-esque rave sounds of its opening song, “Maid Daikaiten” (sung by the cast). Its grimy synths suddenly transform into the kind of sugary pop song that one would expect from a maid cafe, in an extension of the show’s fun clashes of tone. (The ending, by contrast, is a hilariously soulful traditional enka track sung by Ranko’s voice actress, Rina Satō).
Within the context of the episodes themselves, there’s a fun clash of rough brushwork and colorful glitz amidst some surprisingly well-choreographed fights, all of which help to place the show within this insane parallel-universe take on this period of time. It helps that the writers also know when to be sincere and when to be foolish, when to uplift the maids of Oinky Doink as well as when to make their victories self-defeating — as well-meaning as a couple of them are, as they defend themselves they also blunder their way into multiple turf wars and standoffs that threaten to tear their livelihood apart. Such moments also display the writers’ smart commitment to deepening a sense of history in its absurdist re-creation of the district, which dovetails with how Akiba Maid War expands into other genre parodies as the story escalates its depiction of an adorable criminal empire filled with stone-cold killers dressed like farm animals.
In Akiba Maid War, as mentioned before, brutality is simply an everyday part of the job just as much as handing out flyers is, and the show has a lot of fun with showing the various degrees to which this infiltrates the minutiae of running Oinky Doink. As it does so, its homages to yakuza films are thrown into a meat grinder with a wealth of other genres and anachronisms in the establishment of its alternate history of 1990s Akihabara and beyond (in the world of Akiba Maid War the relationship between maids and violence is a proud tradition of 200 years, with a festival and everything). That, and you have cosplay maids throwing down in gambling rings and fight clubs. What more could you ask for?
Akiba Maid War is available to stream on HIDIVE.