Monday, May 25, 2009

Hayate the Combat Butler (manga, vol. 1) by Kenjiro Hata

Sixteen-year-old Hayate's life kind of sucks but he's doing the best he can with the hand he's been dealt. His father doesn't bother getting a steady job because he's always hoping he'll find something that'll suit him better, while his mother gambles all the family's money away (one of my favorite quotes out of many: "Mommy's not buying horse-racing tickets. I'm buying dreams. <3"). Hayate skips out on having a normal social life in order to devote as much time as possible to his part-time job, only to discover that he's been fired because he's too young. His parents told his boss his real age so that they could collect his final paycheck for themselves.

As terrible as this is, Hayate's actually kind of used to this behavior. The last straw, however, is his discovery that the "Christmas present" his parents left him with was their entire gambling debt, roughly $1.3 million. Rather than leaving Hayate to figure out how to pay off the debt on his own, his parents just went ahead and sold him (or, more accurately, his organs) to the yakuza. Hayate is understandably unhappy with this and runs away. He knows the yakuza won't leave him alone until the debt is paid off, so he decides to kidnap the first person he can find and repay the debt with the ransom money.

The first person he finds is 13-year-old Nagi Sanzenin, who just happens to be mega-rich, although Hayate doesn't find this out until later. Hayate beats up some guys who are hitting on Nagi, upset that someone's trying to take his "prey" from him. Nagi completely misunderstands the situation and thinks Hayate has feelings for her - Hayate thinks Nagi's willingness to stay with him means that he's successfully kidnapped her. He has absolutely no idea that Nagi is developing a bit of a crush on him. Hayate's obliviousness and Nagi's misunderstanding are an ongoing joke. Hayate runs off to call Nagi's parents and ask for ransom money, only to run into 17-year-old Maria, Nagi's maid/mother-figure. He instantly develops a crush on her and rescues Nagi from some kidnappers in order to help Maria and atone for trying to kidnap Nagi himself. Although Hayate gets hit by a car and gushes blood, his body is pretty much indestructible and he's fine after a bit of sleep. This is another ongoing joke.

As a reward for saving her, and because she still believes he has a crush on her, Nagi decides to make Hayate her new butler. Hayate's thrilled to have a job (one he's really good at), especially since it means he gets to be around Maria more. Unfortunately, the yakuza haven't forgotten about him, and Hayate ends up in their hands. Nagi saves him, pays off his parents' entire debt, and makes that debt Hayate's own, now to be repaid to her. Hayate's grateful, even though it will take decades to pay of his debt. He may have to deal with Klaus, the Sanzenin family's Head Butler and someone who doesn't really like him, Tama, Nagi's talking tiger, and Nagi's seemingly unreasonable mood swings (when he shows and interest in Maria, Nagi thinks he's thinking of cheating on her, unaware that he doesn't even realize they're a couple), but at least no one's trying to kill him. Well, no one's trying to take his organs, anyway.

I remember seeing an ad for this manga a while back. The ad told me next to nothing about the series, and yet I wanted to read it anyway, just because of the title. "Combat butler" sounded like fun, and it turns out it is. I'll have to wait and see if this series can continue to hold my interest for very long beyond this first volume, but it's done a great job so far. Just about the only thing I didn't like was Hayate and Nagi's misunderstanding. I was willing to put up with it the first time, but when it came up again and the misunderstanding still wasn't cleared up, I started to get a little annoyed. Maybe those scenes lost something in translation, but in English the wording that allowed the misunderstanding to develop and continue was pretty forced. Another one of the weaknesses of this series is its characters, which, despite what the author writes in the character profiles at the end of the volume, tend to come off as fairly one-dimensional and not very interesting. I do enjoy Hayate, but none of the other characters interested me very much.

I have a feeling, however, that most of the issues I have with the characters are a result of the amount of attention Hata has given to this series' off-the-wall humor - I love the humor, so I'm willing to forgive the weak characters. I'm a sucker for inexplicably indestructible characters who get horribly beat up but don't die and random things that get thrown into a story for no apparent reason, other than maybe because they're funny. It's not something I can take in large doses (I'd OD on this if I read one volume of this series right after another), but I love reading this kind of stuff every once in a while. I think the oddness and idiocy of it all wipes my brain cells all squeaky clean.

Another fun thing about this series is all the pop culture references. Most of them are, understandably, Japanese, so, in order to catch them, you have to have decent anime/manga knowledge. However, there are a couple references even an anime/manga novice should be able to catch, namely a Batman one and (I think) a Spiderman one. I wasn't able to figure out all the anime/manga references, but, of the ones I did catch, I particularly enjoyed the Death Note reference.

Overall, I liked this first volume, and I'm willing to see how long this series can hold my interest.

This volumes extras include a one-page introductory comic, character profiles (Hayate, Nagi, Maria, Klaus, and Tama), an author postscript, and a couple four-panel comics.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Excel Saga (manga) by Koushi Rikudou; Excel Saga (anime TV series) - Lord IlPallazzo and his team of ACROSS agents (two of them - hyper Excel Excel and Hyatt, who is sickly and coughs up blood) plan to one day take over the world - and they're starting with just one city. Their various crazy attempts always fail. Those who'd like another crazy comedy with anime/manga/pop culture references might want to try this.
  • School Rumble (manga) by Jin Kobayashi; School Rumble (anime TV series) - When Tenma learns that her secret crush is going to be transferring to a school in America, she writes a long (but anonymous) love letter to him. Karasuma, her crush, ends up postponing his transfer, and Tenma realizes that she's got to work up the courage to tell him how she feels before he finally does leave. Meanwhile, Tenma is entirely unaware that Harima Kenji, the school delinquent, has a huge crush on her, but he's too nervous to confess his feelings to her. Aside from the messy and bumbling love story, there's a whole cast of friends, classmates, and Tenma's younger (but more thoughtful and mature) sister. Those who'd like something else with idiot characters, misunderstandings, weirdness, and humor might like this series. I've read the manga but never seen the anime - however, from what I've heard, the two sound pretty similar, at least in tone.
  • Gin Tama (manga) by Hideaki Sorachi - Gintoki is a broke samurai in a world that no longer needs samurai. His life gets a little more complicated when he starts living with Kagura (a super-strong alien girl who looks tiny and cute) and Shinpachi. The group takes odd jobs, trying to save people and earn enough to eat and pay the rent. Those who'd like another manga series with weird, off-the-wall humor might want to try this.
  • Azumanga Daioh (manga) by Kiyohiko Azuma; Azumanga Daioh (anime TV series) - This series chronicles the everyday lives of some high school students and their eccentric teachers. For instance, there's Chiyo, an adorable 10-year-old genius, Sakaki, a cool-looking shy girl who both adores and is hated by cats, and Osaka, an airhead. Those who'd like another occasionally strange comedy might want to try this.

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