Plot junkies beware: not only does Hayate the Combat Butler! have an awesomely unnecessary exclamation mark in its title, its plot goes absolutely nowhere. After a teasing the viewers with a promising premise, the series forgoes character development or plot progression in favor of episodic meandering. Because of this, those hoping for an engaging overarching plot or satisfying character development will ultimately be disappointed.
If you’re still here, great! Anyone that doesn’t mind the prospect of watching 52 episodes of plot-free episodic comedy could do a lot worse than Hayate the Combat Butler! Moreover, even those normally adverse to “frozen in time” series may find this a welcome exception.
In many ways, this anime is a spiritual successor to Excel Saga. There are countless similarities; both series enthusiastically break the fourth wall, rely on outrageous non sequitur, and are filled with obscure references to Japanese pop culture. Indeed, Hayate the Combat Butler! borrows from the classic parody anime so heavily that Excel Saga’s very own Nabeshin makes a brief appearance in homage. Like Excel Saga, Hayate the Combat Butler!’s humor will appeal most to those with a wide knowledge of Japanese nerd-culture. The series parodies countless sources, from Dragon Quest to Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion to eroge. Although the sheer number and variety of references will prevent any mortal Westerner from understanding everything (at one point the series jokes about Haruo Minami, a 1950's enka singer!), a reasonable familiarity will be able to catch quite a few.
Fortunately, Hayate the Combat Butler! isn’t all obscure in-jokes. There are numerous additions to make the series more accessible: light romance subplots, slapstick, and a dash of cheerfully unnecessary fan-service. Furthermore, Hayate the Combat Butler!’s strong cast enables some raucously funny character-based comedy.
Unfortunately, the series lacks consistency, especially in the latter half. Because of the absence of any real storyline, the jokes need to be funny for the series to really work; when they miss, the show inevitably bogs down. Many episodes are hilarious, but others are almost complete wastes of time. Still other episodes are a curious mix of the two – dull, uneventful filler punctuated by gut-busting gags. As a whole, however, Hayate the Combat Butler! provides enough laughs to be worthwhile in spite of its dry patches, whether it’s making an obscure reference, poking fun at Hayate and company, or just being plain wacky. While some may balk at the prospect of sitting through 52 episodes of what is essentially the anime chasing its tail, the charming cast and often brilliant parody make the show an enjoyable journey in spite of its shortcomings.
The anime sports a clean, mainstream look, with bright backgrounds and bubblegum character designs. Even this feels a bit tongue-in-cheek, as the style belies the show’s subversive parody and helps to make the jokes that much weirder and less predictable. There is occasional fanservice (often accompanied by the narrator helpfully announcing, “Here’s some fanservice!”), but it’s good-natured enough to never be too distracting.
The music is subpar, with generic OP/EDs and even worse background music. In particular, an off-key trumpet piece was noticeably terrible and seemed to play every other episode. Voice acting as a whole is decent, but the narrator’s performance merits special praise. The seiyuu's bizarre, hammed up performance is side-splitting; at times he was able to get me to laugh even when the script hadn’t given him a joke.
The anime simply couldn’t work without Nagi and Hayate, the anime’s leads. Both characters are slight tweaks of existing archetypes, but are unique enough to still feel fresh and likable. Hayate gets plenty of laughs from being a mild-mannered guy with a “poor face” that also happens to be a shounen superhero, while Nagi is adorable as an introvert who hides embarrassment with bouts of rage. The interplay between the two provides plenty of humorous material, but also gets the audience personally invested in the show.
Not all of Hayate the Combat Butler!’s supporting cast is as enjoyable; characters like the spacey, Osaka-esque Isumi are priceless additions, but others seem to do little else besides make noise and swallow screen time. Fortunately, the sheer number of side-characters prevents any one of them from ever becoming too tiring.
Taken as a whole, the cast of Hayate the Combat Butler! is one of the main reasons that the series is able to stay entertaining in spite of its weak overarching plot.
Hayate the Combat Butler! is worthy of a recommendation: a conditional one, but a recommendation all the same. The lack of plot will prevent many from enjoying the series, but others – especially fans of parody – will eat it up for its fantastic characters and unusually funny comedy.
When Hayate was young, Santa appeared in a dream and told him that if he worked hard, he’d be rewarded. Thus, with an unbreakable will, the unfortunate Hayate has struggled through life holding onto that belief. In the present, his parents are lazy and unemployed, forcing Hayate to work several jobs to pay the bills. As if things couldn’t get worse, Hayate’s parents then run away, leaving him with an enormous debt and loan sharks on his tail! Naturally, the best solution to find money fast is… to kidnap someone?! A girl named Nagi is the target, but due to an unfortunate miscommunication, she believes Hayate has proposed to her and falls for him hard. After Nagi paid off his debt, Hayate must now work as her butler in order to repay her; but first, he must adapt to her wacky world!