I've never fully understood Japan's absolute fascination with Dragon Quest. Sure, everyone loves a game that played a part in their formative years, and in this day and age almost Japanese person that watches anime would have at least encountered "Dra-Que", but the respect for the series borders on veneration.
Perhaps it's just me. Like many folks raised on western gaming mores, my formative JRPG was a Final Fantasy title, in my case Final Fantasy VI. By that time developers were already moving away from D&D-derived tropes and formulas, and the "Hero vs. Evil Lord/Demon King" paradigm had retreated into the domain of tough-ass dungeon crawlers and, well...Dragon Quest.
If there's been one positive to come out of that obsession, it's that Dragon Quest's tropes have become so ingrained into the culture that they've become wide open to parody, subversion, and deconstruction. Maoyu is such a thing, and, I'm happy to say, one of the smartest, most charming of them yet.
It's no surprise that Maoyu's source material is a novel that first emerged from a popular 2ch discussion thread, for its approach to the Dragon Quest formula is the kind of thing that could only emerge from the warrens and crevices of nerd culture, from the threads and conversations that use up time and brainpower but only rarely lead to real-world payoff (Maoyu is one such thing).
And just as nerds are prone to applying real-world complexity to fantasy-world simplicity in vain attempts to "make sense" of it all, Maoyu runs the classic Hero/Evil Lord dichotomy through the wringer of geopolitics, diplomacy, and socioeconomic analysis.
Where most Dragon Quest homages stop at dressing a character up like the Dragon Quest III protagonist (sword, cape, shield, tiara) and referring to one character as the "Hero" and the other as the "Demon King/Evil Lord", Maoyu asks, "What if the Evil Lord/Demon King tried to negotiate with the Hero down instead of fighting him?" And that's exactly what happens for the whole first episode. Our nameless, buxom Demon King spends her twenty-four minutes talking down the poor tiara-wearing sap.
Unlike the typical pre-boss-fight bantering, the Demon King appeals not to emotions or the Hero's greed (the ancient records state that the latter approach never works after all), but to logic and realpolitik, effectively lecturing him on the big-picture benefits of a war economy.
Most of the argument can be likened to a rundown of the political-social-economic repercussions of the Crusades on western society. Political stability in the face of a perceived common enemy, profit and "buffer zone" security for mercantile nations (one of which seems to be the Hero's home), wartime aid and relief for countries on the front line, keeping soldiers out of the bandit trade, and (presumably) technological advancement resulting from increased production and consumption are all in the "plus" column.
Of course, this sort of rationalization tends to come from a rather pro-one-percent perspective, and isn't an argument everyone should immediately add to their personal worldview, not least because it handwaves the human cost of ongoing conflict, the natural un-sustainability of maintaining an eternal war footing, and a number of perfectly valid big-picture objections to war forward in episode 12 of Legend of the Galactic Heroes*.
Hell, you don't even need to look at other fiction to see some of the cracks Her Majesty's argument. If you're reading this from North America, chances are you're living or staying in a country that's maintained a war footing for almost the same amount of time that the human and demon worlds have been fighting. What is war good for? Probably less than the pretty redhead with the huge knockers is claiming.
And it doesn't help that some of the "consequences" of ending the war are phrased as insane slippery-slope doomsday scenarios. "Millions will starve!" "Nations will implode!" "That Kenyan-born anti-colonialist socialist Evil Lord will take away your guns!" A worldlier Hero would probably laugh in her face (and at her ridiculous boobs).
Sadly for Peace Party members, the sword-swinger is a tad too thick to put up much of a debate. Not a surprise, considering the poor idealist lacks of a basic understanding of macroeconomics and ecological impact. Methinks the demons may be the smarter civilization of the two. But hey, he's a Hero, not a lobbyist. Leave the scholarly stuff to his smarter party members – the ones he left behind in his haste to skip the sidequests.
Maoyu manages to keep what is essentially an episode-long lecture from falling down the pit of boredom. Rather than delivering the lesson straight-up, like the infamous Fate/Zero walking-in-circles moment, Maoyu shows as it tells through a combination of cutaways, magically assisted flashbacks, with the occasional breaks for boob physics or a hug-pillow gag.
If you're thinking that all this makes the show sound not a little bit like Spice & Wolf, you'd be right on the money. Maoyu stops just short of explicitly inviting the comparison, what with the whole "supernatural girl travels with normal boy" premise, the real-world-logic-applied-to-fantasy-medieval-setting hook, as well as casting Jun Fukuyama and Ami Koshimizu - who played Lawrence and Holo - in the lead roles.
That said, there are bound to be differences along the way. Spice & Wolf was a decidedly personal journey between two characters of little global importance (one a travelling merchant, the other an obscure deity). On the other hand, in most RPGs, there're no more significant figures in the entire world than Demon King and the Hero. Being important in that way, added to the fact that they're ostensibly getting hitched to end a currently ongoing war, brings a pressure to the story that will no doubt affect development.
Further still, Maoyu has more chances of growing a supporting cast (not that Spice & Wolf needed one, mind you), not least of all the kind of craziness that could result once the Hero meets up with his former party members and they find out he's hooked up with the final boss!
Just one episode in, Maoyu's got me hooked in the way only a sincere, intense nerd-out can manage. Like speculating on superhero physics or what life would be like "if [insert fictional sc-fi technology here] were real", it's the most fun sort of thought exercise. I wouldn't be surprised if the Blu-ray box somehow included Reccettear: An Item Shop's Tale as a pack-in.
*The episode where members of the Alliance council debate whether or not to invade the Empire. You should watch that show, too.
[Maoyu simulcasts on Crunchyroll!]