Maid Machinegun – A Lesson in Akihabara Culture

Okay, so my last two reviews of light novels have turned out to be a couple of big disappointments for this anime blogger. Because of that, I had decided to leave the novel reviews for the New York Times and stick with just comics and cartoons. But I became interested in Del Rey’s Maid Machinegun light novel after hearing a sample of the book being read at the “Lolita and Maid Fashion Day” event in New York City two weeks ago. The first chapter, an introductory lesson into the proper maid café etiquette, was convincing enough for me to give this book a try. It’s a good thing I did, because this novel turned out to be one of the best reads I’ve had in recent memory. It proved to me that one can come close to the manga and anime experience even through written prose.

Maid Machinegun is the diary of Aaliyah Kominami, an eighteen-year-old girl working at a maid cosplay café in Akihabara. Through out the book, she writes about the interesting characters who work at and patronize the café, her run-in with a very harsh otaku critic, her experience at Japan’s largest comic convention, and a love/hate relationship between her and a male co-worker. She has made it her personal goal to become the world’s best maid, and attempts to do so with each and every “master” and “mistress” she serves along the way.

The heart of Maid Machinegun is in the first person narration of the story. In this supposed autobiography, Aaliyah takes her everyday life and tells it as if she was in a comic book or TV show. She dissects the personalities of all the people in her life and turns them into simple anime characterizations. She portrays her boss as a heartless drill sergeant, one of her coworkers as the loving older sister type, and another coworker – arguably the most interesting of the bunch – as a satanic nut job.

Yeah, um, so, Ruruka-san is this . . . really unique person. A mysterious paranoid. Kind of out there, if you know what I mean. Okay, she’s an unstable nut who definitely belongs in a mental asylum. […] Her hobby is catching cockroaches with chopsticks and then chasing after the children in her neighborhood with it. […] Even the wristband she never takes off and the mysterious white pills in her purse are all part of her “persona” — I hope.

She sets up little episodes within each chapter and finishes them all off with either a comedic punchline or a dramatic cliffhanger. It is so creative and entertaining that you could easily imagine this book being turned into some kind of gag manga or a live-action comedy sketch. I’m surprised we have yet to see her story being adapted into other forms of media by now.

Aaliyah also interjects her imagination into the story at random moments. If the scene turns too serious, she will come up with the most ridiculous thing to say, but tells it in the same straight-faced tone as she would with any other normal part of the story. This creates some of the most hilarious moments in the novel. In one scene, she consoles a young female customer whose mother just scolded her for drawing boys’ love (BL) manga:

But despite my helplessness, Miss Masami continued to explain her predicament.

“Mother yelled at me and said, ‘Stop drawing sleazy manga!’ I . . . I don’t know what to do.”

Long, long ago, while I sat on my father’s lap, he told me, “Aaliyah, you need to be extremely careful when dealing with BL manga. Girls who love BL have so much passion for it, that passion will suck them in and destroy everything in sight, like a powerful Megiddo flame.”

But this kind of creativity can also be a fatal flaw to many readers. At certain points of the story, Aaliyah just completely lets her imagination run wild and transposes her friends into a world filled with ridiculous militaristic manga clichés, hence the “machinegun” aspect of the story. These particular over-the-top scenes completely blend into the overall plot and completely change an otherwise “realistic” story about working in a cosplay cafe. Many readers might feel betrayed at these moments, but I found it to be just another look as to how the author finds her creativity in a profession based completely on pretending and imagination.

Yet behind all the exaggerations, flights of fancy, and manga clichés is an incredible wit and analytical insight into the Akihabara and Japanese otaku culture. This girl might look and act like a subservient simpleton on the outside, but the reader can see that she’s got quite a brain on her. In one scene, she visits a tsundere cafe and provides a play-by-play commentary on her waitress’s performance:

[…] Her hesitant speech and mannerisms were so adorable. She lead us to a table in the far corner and said, “I guess I have to show you to your table . . . b-but I’m doing this because it’s my job, that’s all. Here, sit in this corner and shut up. You better take your time [she said in a tiny voice] and enjoy yourselves.”

The dere finally came out in the end! Folks, this is what we call a true tsundere! I’m stoked! I’m moved to tears! I had a hard time hiding in my smile. When Kiriya-san and I sat down, the waitress brought us some water and said, “I give water to all the customers, okay? You guys aren’t special or anything. C’mon, stop staring and give me your order already.”

Wave after wave of tsundere action continued. I never imagined the tsundere play to be so perfectly choreographed. I’ve heard about little sister cafés and BL cafés, but these specialized-character cafés might become mainstream someday.

Unlike their release of the Train Man novel last year, Del Rey does a fantastic English adaptation of Maid Machinegun thanks to the translation by Anastasia Moreno. The text flows nicely with very few interruptions. If she is unable to translate a Japanese word or idea, like “tsundere” in the passage above, she puts it in italics and writes up a translation note at the back of the book. She also doesn’t make the author sound too cute or annoying, but includes enough emoticons and LOL’s to make the text feel authentic. The book feels like it was written by an college-aged American anime fangirl, which makes it the perfect adaptation for an English-speaking otaku reader.

This release is not without its faults, however, and it comes in something as simple as the spelling of the author’s name. I’m sure by now some of you have already felt the same thing that CalAggie and I both felt when we first read the name of the author. For those who don’t know, Aaliyah was the name of a very popular R&B singer from the late 90’s. Shortly before 9/11, she died in a very tragic plane crash. True, it did happen almost 7 years ago, but it’s still recent enough to put a downer on this lighthearted story.

There’s also the issue of having “Aaliyah”, a very African name, looking completely out of place in a story about Japanese people in Japan. In few the sketches of the main character at the beginning of the book, you can see that her name is written as “Ariya” in hiragana on her name tag. This is how she writes it in the original text. “Ariya” just feels more Japanese, and would have probably worked better in this adaptation rather than the writing it with the African spelling. After all, that is why Viz Media chooses to keep the name “Kira” instead of changing it to “Killer” in their Death Note translations.

But this minor criticism still should not stop you from checking out one of the best light novels available in English right now. Thanks to its imaginative and witty narration, Maid Machinegun is a fantastic read from start to finish. If you are interested in Akihabara, maid cafés, cosplay, or just Japanese otaku culture in general, you will not be disappointed.

UPDATE: I received an email from the book’s translator, Anastasia, about the spelling choice:

[…] Regarding your dissatisfaction about the use of the name Aaliyah vice Ariya… it wasn’t up to me, the lowly translator. (T_T) The author’s name on the Japanese company (Boiled Eggs) webpage stated “Aaliyah Kominami” so I honored their choice of spelling, and the Del Rey editors probably honored my choice. Here are some links in Japanese:
I do agree with the sad connotations of the name Aaliyah, but my guess is that the Japanese author probably didn’t expect the novel to make it to the States, nor were they aware of the deceased R&B singer. Or maybe they wanted to be associated with her intentionally. Who knows?

There’s also a minor spoiler reason why the name “Aaliyah” needed to be used towards the end of the story. I missed the spelling when I was looking at the boiled eggs prior to writing the review, so I can understand her choice with going with that spelling through out the entire novel.

Thanks for the clarification, Ana! (^_^)

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