By Akira Kiduki and Nanki Satou. Released in Japan by Wani Books, serialized in the magazine Comic Gum. Released in North America by Tokyopop.
I have to admit, this title may be the surprise of my entire spring. There were so many things working against it. It's about a maid cafe, has a cute girl showing lots of thigh on its cover, and it runs in Comic Gun, home of Ikkitousen (Battle Vixens) and other titles known for being basic fanservice. I'd heard that there might be some yuri, but again, was expecting the 'ooooh, can I feel your breasts' sort of yuri you get in seinen magazines.
I'm here to tell you that I was mostly wrong, and that this is a charming and perfectly reasonable title to come out from the late Tokyopop. The basic premise is what I expected: a group of women work for a maid cafe in Akihibara catering to otaku, and one day take in a girl from the country who's come to the city to go to college. She ends up working there due to a series of wacky circumstances, and her eager to please, earnest personality proves to be both a boon and a liability. Will she be able to make friends and do well, even as her fellow co-worker seemingly hates everything she says and does?
Despite Chiyoko being the star, she's actually the least interesting part of the manga, being your basic naive yet bubbly heroine who wears her heart on her sleeve (she has a very Club 9 feel to her, only without the confidence). I was far more interested in the other supporting cast. Heine is in charge of the maids, and seems to be the sensible one with a good head on her shoulders. She also seems to have some sort of past with Arumi, the aforementioned maid who's angry all the time and can't warm up to Chiyoko. A lot of this seems to be due to her having a standard 'tsundere' personality, but we haven't actually seen the dere yet in this series. There are suggestions of something else, though, such as Arumi being 'different' from the other maids at the cafe, and Heine darkly hinting that Arumi has to obey all her commands. It's an intriguing plot thread that I would look forward to seeing resolved in future volumes if there were any.
But the big surprise to me was Chapters 4 and 5, which go into detail about two of the other maids, Hachiya and Airi. A couple of past chapters have gone into detail on Airi being stalked by one of the cafe's patrons, and what they can do about it without upsetting the other otaku who go there to essentially gaze at cute maids. As this happens, it becomes clear that Hachiya (who wears a bartender's outfit, and was very much 'the butch one' even before this chapter) and Airi are actually lovers, something that accidentally gets revealed to the others. It's amazing how realistically this plays out - one maid, Pamiru, finds it hilarious and disgusting at the same time. Arumi doesn't care that they're gay, but says they either have to break up or one has to quit, as their being together hurts the cafe. Heine is away. And the two of them have been fighting anyway.
We get a flashback to Airi's past... where she's shown to have been a prostitute. She runs into Hachiya, who is dressed as a man and acting as 'escort' to other women. After saving Airi from a crazy customer, the two slowly fall in love... and when Airi finds out the truth about Hachiya's gender, she decides that she loves her anyway. Unfortunately, societal and work pressures are adding up. Airi feels she's being a useless burden to Hachiya, and Hachiya is convinced this is a 'phase' Airi is going through.
It may seem anticlimactic, but what ends up happening is that they end up talking to each other, and resolving everything. This isn't as humorous or earthshaking as a series of wacky manga coincidences, but far more realistic. Hachiya feels they should break up as Airi is young enough to get married and have a normal life. She even notes that were she to die, Airi would get nothing from her estate, the way the world works now. Airi, who I think gains more confidence the more she sees how uncertain Hachiya is, tells her to shut the hell up and that she plans to love her for the rest of her life. It's a very sweet scene, but it's also rather rare in its honest discussion of what being a gay couple in Japan is like. The manga is worth getting for these two chapters alone.
There's a lot of discussion of the maid cafe environment, which in 2006 (the year this debuted) was still somewhat of a new thing. Arumi and Chiyoko have a long discussion about the cafe possibly being rated as 'adult entertainment', and what that would mean - both minuses and pluses. The last chapter features Chiyoko at college, having been secretly given alcohol by a couple of horny guys, being rescued by one of the maid cafe patrons - and he's now incredibly awkward with her, as the 'veil' that exists between the maids and their clientele seems to be removed. Given that over and over again the manga has emphasized the 'look but don't touch' aspect of the maids in the cafe, it actually does feel like a crisis rather than a goofy romance starting up.
Again, I note this is a Tokyopop series, so we will not be getting any more volumes here in North America. And no, it's not scanlated online either. And hey, Volume 4 is sold out at Amazon.jp, so you can't even buy the Japanese. I still recommend that you buy this manga, which rose way above what I thought it would be. And if you happen to find out what happens in the remaining three volumes, please let me know.