Content warning: gun violence, organized and anti-labor crime
Spoilers for Episode 4 of Akiba Maid War.
Living in late stage capitalism is a bizarre paradox of being expected to work harder and more skilfully than ever before, but receiving so little compensation that even a semblance of fiscal sustainability and job security are considered blessings. Supposedly stable jobs in the much-lauded tech sector fail to live up to the respect they demand from the public, with layoffs among tech giants kicking off 2023. Creatively fulfilling jobs, especially those related to anime production, are notorious for abusing young people while paying them next to nothing. Even gesturing at possibly improving these working conditions is suppressed by companies, as seen in MAPPA’s Chainsaw Man anime removing a thematically relevant reference to labor unions.
With this as the status quo for working and enjoying art in the world today, I was absolutely floored when Episode 4 of Akiba Maid War aired with a plotline that it is capital-a About organizing workers to resist corporate manipulation and exploitation.
Directed by Masui Sōichi and written by Hiki Yoshihiro, Akiba Maid War was the surprise hit of the Fall 2022 season, and is a lovably imperfect piece of feminist media. Episode 4, “The Inside Story! A Drillmaster For the Swine!!” sees the maids of the Oinky Doink Cafe fight against their parent company’s efforts to turn their pig sty into a cash cow. While not comprehensive, the episode perfectly captures many of the tactics corporations use to suppress their workers. Of course, the challenging relationship these characters already have with labor organizations as sensationalized mobsters further complicates the themes of this episode, but the pro-union sentiment of this zany plotline deserves analysis.
Even if Episode 4 is a little messy and has some gaps in its approach, a robust and hilariously subversive examination of practical labor politics was the absolute last thing I expected from Akiba Maid War, which is why this episode made the series my favorite anime of the year.
The episode’s cold open hooks the viewer with a horrifying in media res scene of protagonist Nagomi being thrown off a roof. Even before this, though, “The Inside Story! A Drillmaster For the Swine!!” bonks viewers over the head with political messaging. The episode’s title evokes the idea that employers view workers as units to be deployed militaristically, rather than individuals who make unique contributions to a business. It also conveys that real-world worker abuse is usually only surfaced through investigative reporting or whistleblower efforts. For instance, it’s hard to imagine that Amazon’s draconian treatment of its warehouse workers would ever come to light if not for writers going undercover at facilities or exasperated employees sharing their mistreatment on social media.
Once the episode does kick off, it immediately shows what this story’s bosses think of the people they employ. In a meeting of cafe managers, the Creatureland Group CEO shoots an embezzler and another employee immediately leaps to go to jail in her boss’s place. As this scene sardonically demonstrates, when company leaders talk about being loyal to a business they really mean that their employees should sacrifice and suffer for the benefit of the higher-ups; and that doing so is noble and praise-worthy. When bosses use familial language or terms like “company loyalty,” those are actually rhetorical propaganda meant to make employees work harder than they should.
As soon as the titular drillmaster, Sano Minori, arrives at Oinky Doink Cafe, the episode becomes a showcase of how corporations exploit workers and suppress their efforts to create a better workplace. The drillmaster immediately disrupts the organizational structure of the cafe by firing its manager and the off-brand panda mascot Okachimachi, leaving the Oinky Doink maids without recourse to elevate their perspective or a representation of their former work culture to rally behind. As Sano reprimands the maids for not working harder to generate more money for their parent company, she’s simultaneously telling them to serve worse, watered down drinks to their customers.
This is the endgame of capitalism and the world that those who benefit under it are trying to create. Here, places of commerce are soulless profit machines that are incentivised to provide worse products and services to customers, while giving those most directly abused by the system no recourse to advocate for themselves. In Marxist terms, these animal-themed maids become literal animals whose labor is directed by an unrelated party, rather than their work being to their immediate benefit.
Understandably, the Oinky Doink maids object to these changes and threaten to go on strike until Minori is replaced with a drillmaster who’s more open to their feedback. Instead of accepting this reasonable demand from a group of workers who care about their jobs and want their place of business to do well, Minori instead separates them, throws them off of their building’s roof (providing context for the cold open that makes it all the more shocking), and then saves them as a show of dedication to the Creatureland Group.
Breaking apart organizing workers for individual negotiations is a well established union-busting tactic, and Akiba Maid War even captures how the grand gestures made in these kinds of meetings are ultimately hollow. In the spirit of companies offering free snacks or unlimited PTO to striking workers, Minori saves the maids from a problem she created to trick them into being grateful.
Now that the maids are in line, Minori immediately puts policies in place to keep them from organizing again, such as a twisted version of peer reviews that ensures frustrations will always be directed towards co-workers instead of management. When the maid most ostracized by this system, gyaru Shiipon, attempts to escape, the threat of abject poverty—represented by the darkly hilarious image of her former manager dumpster-diving—inspires her to stay and change her appearance and personality to be more in line with company expectations. She is now a cog in this corporate machine and isn’t even afforded enough freedom for self-expression.
With their spirits broken and profits now higher than ever, Minori leaves the Oinky Doink Cafe as the maids work themselves to exhaustion. Frustrated with being disenfranchised in a workplace that used to bring her personal fulfillment, Shiipon frees the maids from this tyranny. In classic Maid War style, she achieves this by using a rocket launcher to blow up a monument to Creatureland that also symbolized their oppression. When Minori returns to the cafe later and sees her efforts thwarted, she panics and flees as she knows she will be the next target of the Creatureland Group’s ire. It’s clear here that the drillmaster, too, is another victim in the executive class’s efforts to subjugate the working class. She’s just a disposable figurehead who’s meant to be the bad guy in place of the people actually mandating detested new policies.
The episode ends with Shiipon commenting to fellow maid Nagomi how much she enjoys working at the cafe when she can do so on her own terms. This showcases that performing labor under an economic system, or even the concept of commerce more generally, is not inherently exploitative. Under economies that principally value worker contributions or with the benefits and protections created by worker advocacy groups, people can find meaning in their jobs without contributing to a cycle of exploitation.
While “The Inside Story! A Drillmaster For the Swine!!” does a great job of depicting the mindsets of corporate overlords and the tactics they use to suppress worker organization, there are some inaccuracies and omissions. Most of them can be chalked up to this being a single twenty-two minute episode of a full anime season, but they’re still worth noting here. After all, the strategies and language of anti-union efforts are constantly changing, and a greater awareness of these tactics makes them easier to combat.
Out of the gate, the Oinky Doink Cafe being previously established as a failing business makes the events of this episode feel unlikely. The layoffs mentioned at the top of this article didn’t happen because any of those businesses were losing money–executives and investors upended people’s lives because their revenue growth rates declined. In a world where people are laid off because a company isn’t increasing its profits year over year as much as they expected, it’s hard to imagine a company investing resources into a team operating at a loss.
Barring the Oinky Doink maids being fired, they likely would have been separated and spread across other cafes if this storyline took place across a more longform medium. Companies relocating the members of small teams trying to unionize is an increasingly common tactic.The suits utilize this strategy because its benefits are twofold: it is much more difficult for people to organize if they aren’t in close proximity to each other and, in the US, union status is more likely to be denied by governing bodies if workers can’t argue that they comprise a specific department within the company. While the main cast of Maid War were successful in fighting off corporate meddling together, if they had been spread across other cafes that are operated by maids fully under the Creatureland Group’s iron hoof, they likely would have failed.
The Creatureland Group also makes no effort to hire an undermining third party to derail the Oinky Doink Maids efforts to collectively bargain with company leadership. Drillmaster Minori is explicitly a member of the Creatureland Group, and likely in a position analogous to Human Resources. While HR departments are often at the frontlines of anti-union efforts, once campaigns are underway companies may hire disruptors to replace, spy on, or directly work against the desires of their employees. Dubbed “Pinkertons” after the—somehow still around!—nineteenth century company notorious for strong-arming unionizing workers, pretty much all notable unionization pushes today involve companies paying scabs and narcs to stop the cause.
Akiba Maid War also doesn’t feature the most common corporate response to collective action from workers, stall tactics. Since workers usually cannot cannot endure the income disruption or hostile conditions that can arise from a unionization campaign as long as a corporation can, execs will simply drag their feet at every opportunity. Labor organization often takes an incredible amount of rhetorical, logistical, and emotional work, and those against that organization will be as cumbersome as possible to make the passion it requires fade.
Thankfully, this old trick is becoming less effective today. Just as late-stage capitalism is putting unreal expectations on workers, businesses also now need to overperform at an unsustainable rate and now cannot endure profit impacting disruption for very long either.
The most interesting dimension of this episode, and perhaps Akiba Maid War more broadly, though, is how the maids’ engagement with organized crime alters and influences the themes present. Using maids as stand-ins for mobsters is already a brilliant decision, as their adjacency to crime and sex work places the cafe workers in dubiously legal positions. While in most episodes this premise transforms classic crime thriller storylines into hilarious genre subversions and empowering storylines, wrinkles form in “The Inside Story! A Drillmaster For the Swine!!” due to organized crime’s complicated relationship with organized labor.
Labor racketeering is the infiltration or manipulation of a union to wrongfully gain access to the funds or resources managed by that union, and it’s a staple of organized crime. While unions are absolutely one of the best avenues workers have to resist corporate abuse, they’re still organizations where power rests with a handful of critical individuals and are therefore vulnerable to corruption or improprieties. Officials accepting bribes so that unions buy materials or otherwise do business exclusively with mob-controlled businesses is so commonplace that the US Office of Labor-Management Standards completed over 200 criminal investigations into union asset misallocation in 2021 alone.
The Japanese yakuza, which the Akiba Maid War maids are explicitly based on, has a similar penchant for running labor rackets. However, Japan doesn’t have an established labor suppression organization in the same vein as the US Pinkertons. So instead, the Japanese government and business owners use yakuza toughs to strong-arm labor unions into negotiating contracts less beneficial to workers. In failing to display these union failings and organized crime’s role in creating them, “The Inside Story! A Drillmaster For the Swine!!” paints a more black and white version of labor politics than what exists in reality.
In a structure with so many fraught complexities, unions are imperfect, band-aid solutions to a failing economic system; but they’re the best means of making people’s lives better until capitalism can be overthrown with a worker-first economic system. For all its other inaccuracies or overlooked elements, Akiba Maid War definitely seems aware of this as, at the end of “The Inside Story! A Drillmaster For the Swine!!,” the Oinky Doink Cafe is still struggling to make ends meet. However, the maids working the cafe are happier and more fulfilled in their work after organizing against their corporate oppressors, and that’s why it’s important to do so. Coming together as a collective of like-minded workers allows us to find joy and stability in our chosen careers, and—whether or not the fight is as over-the-top as the ones depicted in Maid War— that is always worth fighting for.
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