陸上防衛隊まおちゃん (Rikujou Boueitai Mao-chan)
AKAMATSU Ken (story), Ran (art)
Shounen – Comedy, fantasy, sci-fi, supernatural
2 Omnibuses (complete)
Aliens are invading Japan! No tourist icon or national treasure is safe with them around. But the aliens are too adorable, and officials can’t attack for fear of a public outcry! Against such cuteness, three little girls are Japan’s only hope. An eye for an eye, a cutie for a cutie — Mao and her friends will protect their homeland!
Cute. It’s a common word, but actually defining “cute” is tough. But in general, cuteness moves people. It’s why there are whole shows dedicated to cute animals or why there are cutest baby contests. And surely you or someone you know have used the line, “But they are/it’s so cute!!” to try to win an argument.
Well, in Japan, that issue has caused a divide. Extraterrestrial creatures have set their sights on obtaining Japanese landmarks and culturally-significant items. A crisis to be sure, but the public finds the aliens so cute that they don’t want to see them harmed! Well, in response, three high-ranking military officials have assembled a team to face these creatures — a team of adorable eight-year-olds!
And those generals would know cuteness; after all, these little warriors are their granddaughters! Totally not biased in any way, uh-uh. And soon everyone will know their granddaughter is the cutest — especially those other two men!
The three little girls are Mao of the Ground Defense Corps, Misora of the Air Defense Corps, and Sylvia (aka Sylvie) of the Marine Defense Corps. They each have a vehicle that can assist them and take them to their destination (Mao a tank, Misora a plane, Sylvia a sub). By pressing their clover badges, the girls “transform” (equip) into marching band gear with batons, and with the energy beams from the batons (or physically whacking their opponents), they can defeat the invaders.
Well, that’s the goal anyway. These are only eight-year-olds after all, and Mao in particular is clumsy. Very clumsy. She’s just not athletically inclined, but Mao tries her best anyway. And she often lucks out into a victory for the team.
That vexes Chinami, the student council secretary of the associated high school. She and the president, Yuriko, are half-alien spies trying to help the aliens. Except, well, Yuriko finds Mao so cute, and she doesn’t want to sabotage Mao’s mission!
In case it wasn’t clear, Mao-chan is a comedy. You’re either supposed to find each panel funny or adorable, maybe both as three elementary students take on oversized plushies while their grandfathers squabble and the rest of the world watches. This series definitely parodies magical girl titles with the transformations that doesn’t actually grant them any abilities, the “mascots” being (somewhat? fully?) sentient military vehicles while the actual cute creatures are the enemies, and Mao remaining a klutz even in battle.
For me, though, the real star is Yuriko. Chinami is the underling on the council, but she takes the lead when it comes to espionage. But Yuriko is a sensitive, lonely girl who admires Mao’s outgoing nature and bravery. Even though Chinami’s plans’ failures lead to Yuriko ending up in sticky situations, she’s never upset to be defeated. While Yuriko’s feeling like an outcast is one of the more heartfelt parts of the manga, Yuriko is also a constant source of comedy. She’s not very good at hiding her cat-ears, and various signs and posters around her tend to be… well, not conducive to hiding a secret identity (“Alien Spy Knowledge”).
On the other end of the spectrum, the grandfathers tend to be annoying with their squabbling. And one talks to a handpuppet, and no, don’t ask me why. Anyway, they do have a certain amount of respect for each other, more than they would like to admit. But the three granddads want to show off their adorable descendant and boost their branch of the military’s rep. All of this has led to tears or frustration for the girls since Mao and the others just want to get along. Rikushiro, Mao’s grandfather, takes more of an active role because he’s the army-equivalent general and related to the heroine, and Mao’s direct subordinate is Kagome, the girls’ teacher. Kagome is significantly younger than Rikushiro, but she’s in love with him. But her attempts to get his attention tend to fail.
As for the girls, Mao is the living embodiment of the usual mahou shoujo lead — incredibly klutzy but treasures her friends more than anything. Sylvia is more of a “my pace” type with her casual attitude, gluttonous rich-girl behavior, and somewhat off-beat thinking (like playing “Sylvielock Holmes” in a chapter). She transfers to Mao and Misora’s school, so she’s not quite as close to the two girls as they are to each other. But Misora I felt didn’t have a clearly defined personality and role in the story. She’s supposed to be mature/polite, smart/strategic, and also not athletically inclined, but most of the time, she’s just a sportier version of Mao. I mean, yes, most young girls are going to want to cling to their friends and be nice to people, but I wish she could have been more of an individual character. Like, Sylvia has her first crush (without realizing it) and, ironically, can’t swim. Mao feels a bit lonely since her parents aren’t around. Misora… doesn’t like fighting alone, which kind of goes against her supposedly being more mature. Her character just gets lost in the shuffle.
The first halves of the two omnibus releases tend to be more episodic while the latter halves feature longer/connected arcs. Sometimes the girls are just out living their lives when they are informed of an alien approaching. Sometimes Chinami decides (or on orders from her and Yuriko’s superior) to take advantage of an event. At other times the military is doing training or something. Either way, things tend to get side-tracked by the aliens, most of which are like stuffed animals. Some display more intelligence than others as they attempt to steal things, but it also depends on their abilities. Like, of course a bunny alien is going to be less effective than a flying pterodactyl. Usually — but not always! — the girls knock out the aliens, but they often have to wait from approval from above to engage or use their techniques. What happens afterward to the aliens is unclear.
From early on, though, there are obviously some mysteries running around. Obviously, the biggest is what is the aliens’ ultimate plan and why Japan is their target. We also know that Yuriko and Chinami are half-human, half-alien, so we know there’s a story there. Unfortunately, that one never gets answered. Boo! Mao mentioning her absent dad also rings plot alarm bells. Overall, though, this is a silly story about cute girls defending Japan — and there’s not much else to it. If you want a manga featuring a lot of a grade school student tearing up because she’s afraid she let people down, well, this definitely would suit your taste. The girls do share the spotlight with people like Yuriko and Kagome, and the manga introduces several one- or two-off characters as the girls travel around the neighborhood and Japan.
And, well, most of it is a read-it-and-move-on experience. It’s short and simple enough readers will likely remember more than they expect to of the story, but it’s not something most they will want to revisit over and over. That’s not to say the manga doesn’t have its bright spots — it does — but it’s a little too mature for younger readers, and older readers will probably want something that’s more laugh-out-loud funny. Mao’s falling down, for instance, can get a little repetitive even though her passion for her mission is adorable. The chapters are of good length, so it may be better to read just a chapter or two at a time. In Mao-chan‘s defense, as I mentioned before, not every battle plays out the same way. But this is a series that was originally only intended to be an anime, and the story tends to do whatever it wants. Things like the train alien even push the whole “cute aliens attacking” concept. As much as I like Yuriko (and yes, Mao), neither or both are enough to carry the story beyond its 21st century tech version of a magical girl manga.
In his author’s notes, Ran mentions he was told when hired he didn’t have to emulate Akamatsu’s style, but he did. At first, I thought maybe Ran was an assistant of Akamatsu’s since the art is very similar. The characters are obviously alike since Akamatsu designed them, but the actual expressions match Love Hina and Negima! with their shouting tears, dwah faces, and the blushing. Ran was a newbie with Mao-chan and mentions the difference having a schedule had on his art. Mao-chan doesn’t seem so much like an Akamatsu knock-off as something he could have made early in his career, like during A.I. Love You. The biggest difference, though, is the loli appeal, as all of Japan is supposed to find these girls adorable. The girls’ heads seem to be a little too large for their bodies, which was distracting.
Also, the manga’s organization can be very weak at times, and keeping up with the flow is sometimes a chore. You might have three different scenes happening at once (the Defense Force fighting, Chinami/Yuriko watching, and the grandpas observing), so the 20-or-so pages can go quickly. Ran hasn’t quite mastered Akamatsu’s tempo to help pack as much in a single panel to mitigate this. Otherwise, a lot of the awkwardness and off-model imagery (particularly with the young boys who show up or Mao’s huge twintails) can be attributed to Ran’s lack of experience and trying to imitate Akamatsu. Akamatsu’s art developed well over his career, and so it is unfair to expect Ran’s to be at that level as a relative newbie. The included one-shot done in Ran’s own style was pretty strong. Whether he should have brought a more unique flair though I’m sure was something even he struggled with, but Mao-chan is closer to Akamatsu’s visuals than some other official Akamatsu-inspired spin-offs.
Also, of course, there are ecchi moments, but not with the girls. The series does have some loli appeal with the three girls, but Mao-chan doesn’t push the envelope.
Honorifics are used. Western name order is used. “Teacher” is used in place of “sensei”. The girls are in the Ground/Air/Marine Defense Corps; in the anime’s translation, they’re in the Defense Forces. The manga tries to capture Misora’s -arimasu by using “don’tcha know” and “if you please”. The English version of the anime uses “I must say”. Sylvia’s Osaka accent is reflected with words like “yo” and “dudette”. Most adaptations go with a Southern accent, but this is more like surfer speech. Translation notes cover things like the meaning of the grandfathers’ names, school events, and items. Signs are usually replaced with English text including the girls’ nametags and calligraphy practice hanging on a back wall. 銀河大王, Ginga Daiou (lit. “Galaxy Emperor” or “Emperor of the Galaxy”) is adapted as Emperor Galactica.
There are errors like Yuriko’s family name misstated as “MIsora” when it should be “Ozora”. Speech sometimes tends to be awkward. Like Chinami scolds Yuriko about her ears by saying, “There is the one difference between humans and half human, half aliens like us! You’ve got to try and hide that, or else!” A more natural way would have been something like, “Ears are the only difference between humans and half human, half aliens like us! You’ve got to try and hide them, or else!” Sometimes I also suspect there was something misunderstood/slightly garbled in the translation. The manga doesn’t list an editor, and the translator/adapter seems to have background in dubbing/subtitling anime and doesn’t appear to have worked on any other manga. I wonder if those factors affected the manga’s sometimes stilted speech. I think there also could be instances of misunderstanding who’s talking, as there’s at least one case of swapped dialogue bubbles.
Mao-chan can be entertaining, but there are other cute girls and military-ish blends like Girls und Panzer or Sabagebu! Survival Game Club more readily available in anime form.
Del Rey partially published Ran’s Maid War Chronicles. He did the art for Dragonar Academy, available from Seven Seas. Kodansha Comics released Love Hina (originally available from Tokyopop), Negima!, and UQ Holder! Tokyopop published his A.I. Love You.
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