A two-volume spin-off from a popular Japanese teleseries, Makoto Tateno’s Happy Boys (Doki Doki/DMP) followqs a quintet of young men who work at a butler café known as Lady Braganza. In Braganza, the all-male staff act like proper servants as they serve tea and cakes to their predominately female clientele. Within this rarefied setting, the ambience is just as important as the food, so three of our young “footmen” are trainees learning the ins-and-outs of being an old-fashioned manservant. That all five of these happy boys are regular guys away from their job sparks much of the series’ humor.
Thus, in volume one’s first of four episodes (called “drips” to go with the tea motif), we’re shown our fivesome on the job, while the following episode takes us to the apartment where the boys share living quarters. Dorming together is a part of the job: as head butler Katano intones, “You’ll learn to respect each other” living in close quarters. At this point in the story, though, what they mainly do is get on each others’ nerves.
Though the cover to the first volume displays all five footmen, the story focus is primarily on the three trainees: Shiva, Renjo and Ivory. (These are the names of their servant personas: each character has their own name used outside the café — which can get a trifle confusing at first for the reader.) Of the three, Shiva (a.k.a. Kyoichi) struggles most to maintain his role, occasionally speaking in “common form” to the customers, but he’s also the most openhearted. His bespectacled roommate Ivory (Kosuka) is the most knowledgeable but has yet to achieve the proper deferential attitude for the job. Somewhere in between the two is light-haired Renjo (Junta), who claims to have once been the number one man at a “host club” (a bar where male servers attend the female customers). All three have been selected as trainees by the café’s invisible owner, who sees the potential that each has to become a great butler.
Our trio knock against each other like Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple, though in a pinch we know they’ll help each other out. In one episode, for instance, Shiva appears to be dating one of the café’s customers — a definite no-no — so the rest of our quintet follows him to a park rendezvous. In another, first footman Silk (Gen) is inadvertently seen by a customer as he rehearses a play in the park; he is subsequently suspended for this mishap. “We mustn’t disturb the dream for when they visit us,” head butler Katano solemnly states.
If the idea of a café catering to upstairs/downstairs fantasies seems more than a little outré in “class-less” America, the struggles of starting and learning a new job, of getting along with contentious co-workers, crosses cultures. Tateno, first known in this country for yaoi manga like Yellow, handles this teen-rated material relatively straightly. The only explicitly gay bits in the book come from the poofy patissier Kitchi, who has an unrequited crush on Ivory and is presumably a carryover from the teleseries. All of the main characters are modeled after the actors who played them, and while some artists may get hamstrung by this choice, it doesn’t appear to hamper Tateno, who makes her young male heroes expressive if not always as visually distinct as they could be.
As a workplace sit-dramedy, Happy Boys proves more entertaining than I know I expected it to be. If you told me beforehand that I’d be enjoying a comic with a setting devoted to celebrating the class differences of a thankfully bygone world, I’d have probably answered back with a condescending yeah right chuckle. Like the arrogantly brainy Ivory/Kosuka, I’ve still got a few things to learn.