Content Warning: Mild fanservice
What’s it about? When he was five, a young man known only as “the Duke of Death” was cursed to kill any living thing he touched. His family exiled him to a mansion in the woods, where his only company is his loyal maid Alice. While she loves to make him flustered, he wants only to be able to break his curse and put a ring on her finger.
As I type this I can’t help but think about the years my wife has spent trying to get me to finish Pushing Daisies, the cult hit about a man who can’t touch the love of his life because it would kill her. I feel slightly guilty, because it’s going to go right back into the forgotten bin of my brain when I finish typing this, not unlike The Duke of Death and His Maid.
There’s a world where this is a very good anime. I like a rom-com about mutual yearning, and the ticking clock introduced at the end of the episode about the Duke being disinherited is fine parlor drama. It even sells a bit of genuine pathos about his Rogue powers when it’s not using them for wacky titty gags. But there’s a pervasive “not quite”ness that the episode can’t claw free from, and all of its elements fall just short of being satisfying.
Maybe the biggest hurdle is that this one is looking rough. It makes heavy use of CG, and the character models fall right into the uncanny valley you might’ve found in early idol rigs or seasons of RWBY, which is exacerbated by production slip-ups: the Duke eats a cookie (or rather it vanishes from his hand in two chunks) and chews by vigorously moving his jawline up and down while the rest of his face stays perfectly still, like a hellish ventriloquist dummy; Alice begins speaking only for her line of dialogue to kick in a full second after her lips started moving. First episodes generally get extra resources and time spent on them so they can hook in an audience, even if later parts of the series have to take shortcuts to make it to air—if this is how Maid’s premiere looks, I can’t imagine what nightmares are going on behind the scenes.
CG, especially on a sub-Studio ORANGE level, might have been the single worst choice for this material. If you want me to buy into a series about two people who really want to touch each other but can’t, I’m going to expect a bit of smoldering sexual tension. All Maid can offer is a thrust of Alice’s extremely shiny, plasticky boobs toward the camera or a bit of equally Barbie-like fishnetted leg. I’m not even really upset at the show’s singular dynamic of “Alice flashes the Duke or gets close to him, he gets flustered” because it’s pretty clear that he’s actually into her and they have something of a mutual understanding, although I’d really love for anime to stop throwing the term “sexual harassment” as part of a cheeky kink rather than a serious issue.
But while the quieter moments of their romance (almost) work this is primarily meant to be wacky ecchi slapstick, and it’s neither titillating nor particularly funny. Mostly it’s loud, with Hanae Natsuki popping up for the second time this season and doing a heroic impression of Fukuyama Jun’s famous squawk. The show’s also not particularly consistent about the extent of the Duke’s powers, as he’s able to safely lay on the grass with a shirt on but kills a tree when he touches it through his gloves. It’s a nitpick, but it’s part of that overall “not quite” issue. If the boundaries aren’t firmly established, how is it supposed to be triumphant if the Duke and Alice find a small circumvention of the curse? And knowing this type of anime as I do, I also suspect that we’ll be getting a lot more of the pretty same-y embarrassment schtick over any actual forward momentum on their relationship.
This ultimately feels like a show that could’ve been quite good with a few more rounds of revisions, a little more experience with its technology, and a few more resources. As it is, I doubt it’ll be remembered in two months, much less ten years.
….Man, I need to finish Pushing Daisies.