Look to the front of most teen-aged Tokyopop graphic novel paperbacks and chances are you’ll find at least one ad for a book about a sexy mechanical babe. They’re all over the shonen manga map, apparently – A.I. Love You, Doll, Saber Marionette J – a testimony to the allure of hot artificial girlishness for a certain age of adolescent boy. I can attest to the appeal myself: I have fond memories of a pre-Catwoman Julie Newmar playing a shapely robot opposite Robert Cummings in the short-lived mid-sixties sitcom, My Living Doll. The show was no great shakes, but I was fourteen when it premiered, and, lemme tell ya, that didn’t matter one whit. I still think its cancellation was one of the great injustices of series television, even if the redoubtable Miz N. did eventually rebound into Batman and a place in drag queen mythology.
So it was, in a desire to reacquaint myself with a (the word is unavoidable) seminal teenboy fantasy that I decided to check out the robot grrl action. Fingering my way through the manga section at Borders for a suitable title, I settled on Bunjura Nakayama & Bow Ditama’s Mahoromatic (a.k.a. Automatic Maiden), an Older Teen series (Age 16+ – and wouldn’t the fourteen-year-old Bill have loved that?) that’s described in the helpful upper-right-hand corner of the back cover as “Comedy/Action” and is also source for an anime series. The series seems suited to my purposes because a.) it’s fairly new to American shores (the publication date for Volume One is May 2004) and b.) the cover shows our title heroine wearing an old fashioned maid’s uniform. Pretty kicky, think I, as I grab the first book and take it home for a look-see.
Volume One opens with four color pages, two of which depict the heroine in mild tease poses – one in her jammies, holding a large pillow; the second in her maid’s costume, staring open-eyed at the reader as she lugs a pail of water – then with the image of this selfsame femme, Mahoro, in skin-tight battle garb. In the early 80’s, we’re told, Earth was secretly invaded by aliens. To defend the planet, an android, “the strongest warrior mankind had ever known,” was created by an organization called Vesper. With the invasion quelled, Mahoro, who naturally resembles a lithe and big-eyed teengirl, is given the opportunity to live her remaining life span (37 days if she continues to fight for Vesper, 398 if she allows her armaments to be removed) as she chooses. Cut to orphaned junior high school student Suguru Misato, telling two of his buddies over bowls of Ramen noodles that he’s planning on hiring a maid. Suguru, we quickly learn, lives by himself and is definitely in need of someone to clean up his life.
Enter Mahoro, who later turns out to have her own reasons for going into service in the Misato house. Our hero first spies the winsome android on a city bus, and, noting her uniform, immediately engages in some healthy teenboy fantasizing. His dream is disrupted, though, by the sudden appearance of two would-be bus hijackers. In a fit of power-mad piggishness, they order all the women on the bus to strip, including Mahoro. She passively follows the duo’s orders, and we get a partly titillating/partly squirm-inducing full frontal shot of nekkid girlish android. Then the thugs threaten Suguru, and it’s clobberin’ time.
Gotta admit if I were still that 14-year-old Julie Newmar lover, I’d already be thinking on the basis of one chapter that Mahoromatic was the coolest comic ever. And that’s before Nakayama & Ditama introduce main story adversary Saori, the ultra-buxom man-eating teacher who has her sights on the apparently wealthy Suguru. When the top-heavy sensei goes breast to breast against our unclothed heroine (not once, but twice in this volume!), it’s everything my teenboy self wished was in those “Little Annie Fanny” comics I used to sneak a peak at in my Dad’s Playboys. Saori may be a walking predatory cliché (at one point we read her self-satisfied thoughts as she strolls through school and set a hundred boy students’ loins a-trembling), but she’s also not much different from the lust-crazed male teachers that we meet in G.T.O.
Once Suguru hires his rescuer to be his live-in maid, the story takes a predictable path to those of us who still remember sixties sci-fi/fantasy sitcoms like Living Doll or Bewitched. Our hero knows his sexy maid is an android (though at first he has his doubts about her sanity), but he wants to keep this fact from his friends at school (a quintet of boys and girls, the most distinctive of which is a blond named Chizuko who’s like a more compact Little Lotta in that all she does is gush about the food Mahoro packs for lunch) and his buttinski teacher Saori. He’s attracted to his automatic maiden even as he realizes she isn’t a living creature – when she steps into the tub to dutifully bathe(!) him, the moment is both erotic and infantilizing. Suguru nearly passes out, imagining that it’s his mother who’s washing and holding him, and, yes, I had the same thoughts that you’re having right now when I first read that scene.
Mahoromatic may, at heart, be a sitcom, but it doesn’t stint on comic glimpses into Japanese life. In one chapter, for instance, we visit a bath house owned by the family of Suguru’s friend Miyuki; in another, we learn about ecchi, I’m told are mild Japanese girlie manga. Mahoro reacts to the presence of Suguru’s ecchi collection by throwing them out – and later refers to Saori as an “ecchi sensei” – though why the android has such an immediate aversion to this material is not made clear. We also get some Iron Wok Jan! style depictions of Japanese meals fixed by Mahoro for her employer, including one the servant is forced to create from a nearly cashed refrigerator.
Ditama’s art is slickly done and easy to parse, with the exception of an action flashback that seems intentionally confused since it doles out info that’ll have impact later in the story. Since I’ve begun these manga explorations, I’ve grown more accustomed to many of the established visual conventions like big eyes, bigger teardrops, lots of expressive sweat and mouths large enough to swallow a muskmelon. But there are comic manga conventions that continue to throw me: like the moment when a character grows agitated and starts gesturing with arms and hands that have inexplicably turned into stumps. (What’s that all about?) In volume one, Saori is drawn in this state for the space of a panel, and it’s just plain disturbing.
The artist clearly gets off on rendering naked female bodies, but the scenes I’ve found more effective are the quiet ones between boy and android as they slowly get to know each other. Beyond the tease and the moments of frantic comedy, there’s a poignancy to these moments that’s emphasized by the ticking countdown planted at the end of each chapter. Mahoro’s days are literally numbered – something only the android knows – and scripter Nakayama doesn’t want us to forget it. And, for all of the book’s visual flirting, we don’t.
Per Tokyopop’s site, Mahoromatic is a limited six-volume series, which makes sense when you consider that we’re told in the beginning that she has 398 days and this number’s dropped down to 365 by the end of volume one. So I’ll most likely be following the series through to its end – if only to see if Mahoro receives a more satisfying resolution than the robot heroine of that still-remembered prematurely cancelled silly 60’s sitcom. . .