Content Warning: ableism
Spoilers for Akiba Maid War
Akiba Maid War is full of jaw-dropping moments, but what else is to be expected from a show that combines the shocking storylines of a yakuza film with the adorable culture of Japanese maid cafes? That said, no amount of blood splattering across the screen or sudden, emotional character deaths hit me quite as hard as the post-credits scene of the finale. It took just fifty seconds to make me squeal out loud and cement Akiba Maid War as one of the most impactful shows of 2022. This was because of its perfect rendition of something rarely seen in the medium itself: disabled joy.
At the beginning of the anime, naive protagonist Wahira Nagomi moves to Akihabara to be a live-in maid for the Oinky Doink Café. As she proudly proclaims in the first episode, “I’ve always wanted to be a maid so I’ll work like my life depends on it!” Ironically, she soon learns her job truly is a life or death prospect, thrust into the middle of what turns into a particularly bloody and death-filled raid on a rival café. Initially, she wants to run away (and even temporarily does so partway through the series), but eventually finds her resolve because she wants to still live her dream of being the cheerful and happy maid she has always wanted to be. Nagomi believes in the power of moe moe kyun and is determined that disputes can be solved without violence.
In the finale, Nagomi puts that all on the line as Nagi, the leader of the largest maid consortium, Creatureland Group, storms the Oinky Doink Café with a small army of elite maids with the intention of literally killing off the remaining protagonists. Instead of responding with a violent last stand, Nagomi leans into just being a maid, serving her patrons alongside her coworkers who all assume they are going to die. While the attacking maids are initially unconvinced—especially Nagi, who shoots Nagomi a total of five times—Nagomi’s earnest performance eventually wins over the rest of the Creatureland Group. The other maids come to agree that there are other ways to be a maid than this life of gangland violence they’ve all been living. Their last act of violence is to kill Nagi before the screen fades to black.
The ending is ambiguous—at least until the post-credits sequence. The final moments of the series skips forward in time and focuses on two male side characters visiting the New Oinky Doink Café with a friend to “see their favorite maid”… who turns out to be a smiling Nagomi, 19 years older. She’s using a wheelchair, likely having sustained a spinal injury from the shooting, but her joy in doing what she loves every single day is palpable. In those fifty seconds, in this short scene where Nagomi happily crosses the screen in her adorable wheelchair, Akiba Maid War managed to give me some of the best disability representation I’ve ever seen in anime.
First, there are the little things: Nagomi’s friends and fans at the café in no way treat her differently for using a mobility device. Nagomi is just as capable a maid as she was before. It’s also obvious her workplace has been made accessible for her with wide enough walkways for her to not only wheel through, but also spin around excitedly. Finally, she is actually using a style of wheelchair someone using a mobility aid would have in the longer term, a detail so often overlooked in any medium.
There are so few characters in wheelchairs to be found in anime—go on, try to name one other wheelchair user I could cosplay as in my chair. In my mind, there are only two modern anime that focus on well-represented disabled characters and stories: Animation x Paralympic: Who Is Your Hero? and Breakers. Both were produced by Nippon Housou Kyoukai (a.k.a. NHK) as a prelude to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. Characters in these shows were based on real para-athletes in Japan and were used to tell short, but powerful, stories explaining how several sports were played and introducing them to the general public.
However, they both had one thing in common with Akiba Maid War: these joyous moments were extremely brief. Episodes for both Who Is Your Hero? and Breakers were less than ten minutes in length, and unfortunately, short-form anime—especially promo material like this—often does not get widespread release, or the media or fandom attention, that longer series tend to get. While I enjoyed both series and felt they did a lot with what little time they had, it’s extremely discouraging that disabled stories have taken a backseat to other narratives. Also, it’s insulting that these anime were only created to promote a product, even if that product is in an event for disabled athletes in Japan.
It may be tempting to repeat the industry mantra that disabled stories cannot have mainstream success, and thus “have to” be relegated to specials like this—but that’s simply not true. One excellent, successful example comes in the form of Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish. Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish was a financial and box office hit in 2020, a time where theaters were particularly struggling due to COVID-19. Its critical and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes are 100% and 97% respectively, with a substantial number of reviews. Additionally, Josee was nominated for several awards, winning the 2021 Kotatsu Japanese Animation Festival Audience Award, and was even up for Oscar consideration. Overall, Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish managed to walk an extremely difficult tightrope of showing some of the realistic challenges of living as a disabled person in a world where abled people make accessibility difficult while not becoming a piece of inspiration porn. This was no doubt because of the time and care put in by director Tamura Kotaru.
“Actually, most anime main characters who start in wheelchairs are able to walk at the end of the story,” said Tamura in an interview. “Since all of those stories show characters gaining happiness once they overcome their handicaps, it makes it seem like people with incurable handicaps will always be essentially unhappy.” That idea didn’t sit well with him so he encouraged others to make stories where characters are unable to walk and still use their wheelchair by the end.
A lot of work was put into the movie to make sure wheelchairs in the film were animated well, despite how difficult that could be. As Tamura puts it, “Scenes where someone is struggling or flailing while riding a moving wheelchair are so incredibly difficult that they make the animators want to scream, ‘Don’t make me do it!’” With this in mind, it’s clear that the animation team working on Josee—and the team working on Akiba Maid War—really cared and put the work in. Not only is Nagomi shown wheeling forward in a scene but she also performs an adorable twirl in place in her wheelchair, all flawlessly animated.
While Josee, the Tiger and the Fish certainly showed moments of hardship, it’s not like shows with a focus on disabled joy do poorly either. Animation x Paralympic in particular had a “great response from the Japanese public on social media and in a survey conducted by NHK.” Breakers even got small mentions in most anticipated lists for the 2020 Winter season. Why couldn’t stories focusing more on disabled joy like these get big budgets? Why must it always be our stories with tragedy interlaced within them that get that kind of financial attention?
There are also incredible (and again, successful) manga that could be picked up and adapted that focus on disabled characters as longer television series. Powerful adaptations of Real, Murderball, Harukaze no Snegurochka, Kamiji!: Kamiji Yui (Kurumaisu Tennis) STORY, Roid, or Run On Your New Legs, could do extremely well and demonstrate the power of disabled narratives in anime. Many of these stories like Real or Run On Your New Legs are like any other incredible sports manga that have done well, showing the training, tournaments, and triumphs of characters… just with disabled protagonists. Others simply feature disabled characters in otherwise fascinating stories readers won’t be able to put down. These stories run the gambit from disabled joy to the harsh realities of living in an ableist world to paint a far better picture of disabled life for audiences, helping non-disabled audiences identify with our experiences and giving disabled readers exciting stories to see ourselves in.
It’s important to acknowledge that the anime industry likely has many accessibility barriers to working within it, ranging from cramped office spaces to difficult crunch deadlines and the overwork that comes with producing a weekly show. The irony is that if more of these shows and movies existed, there might be more discussions on how to remove these obstacles and make the anime industry fully accessible to anyone who wants to take part in it—something that would, in itself, open the door wider for more disabled perspectives and more nuanced and joyful disabled stories
If only there were more directors like Tamura Kotaru out there. “There are many live-action stories that deal with people in wheelchairs, but I feel like those usually tend to show things in a dark or depressing light,” he said in the interview above. “While I think those sorts of stories have their place, it would be great if we also start to see more animated and live-action stories with characters in wheelchairs that are positive and uplifting.”
Akiba Maid War’s final fifty seconds might not seem like much, but its portrayal of a genuinely cheerful, triumphant disabled character is one more step towards those goals Tamura put out there. Nagomi’s happy ending—where she breaks the cycle of violence in Akiba, and fulfills her dream of being a cute maid—is inclusive of her being disabled. It’s not depicted as a downside or a tragedy or a trade-off; she is happily living her life in a world that loves and accepts her. There have been so many dreams I’ve had and jobs I’ve wanted over the years that I have had to set aside because I use a wheelchair for mobility and the world is so extremely inaccessible. It may have been only a short post-credits scene, but Akiba Maid War let me imagine a future where I could live out my dreams just like Nagomi did.
Akiba Maid War is now a show that I’ll always carry closely in my heart. I can only imagine a world where better budgets would be given to directors, writers, and animators to bring disabled stories to the screen for longer scenes and deeper plotlines. How indescribably joyous that would be for viewers like me. That may not be the world we live in now, but I’m happy that directors like Kotaru Tamura and the staff behind Akiba Maid War want to lead the way there.