Comically Uncanny: Deconstructing the Hero in The Devil Is a Part-Timer!

On the third day of anime, an animation studio gave to me…

…three impoverished demons.

The great demon lords- Alciel, Lucifer, and Satan- seduced by the power of the Internet.
The great demon lords- Alciel, Lucifer, and Satan- seduced by the power of the Internet.

But before we expound on the delight that is The Devil is a Part-Timer! (Hataraku Maou-sama!), here’s an excerpt from the introduction of Iain Thomson’s article”Deconstructing the Hero,” a lovely, short piece that analyzes hero deconstruction in the comic, Watchmen, in the context of modern philosophers, including Kierkegaard, Heidigger and Nietzsche.

Our identities as individuals and as groups are shaped, in ways both subtle and profound, by our heroes. If our enemies (and the other “villains” in our psychic narratives) help give us a sense of who we are notof what we stand against, then, conversely, our heroes help tell us who we are, what we stand for…[A hero is] an idealized image of [himself], an ideal concentrated and so given an almost superhuman form. What happens, then, when we shatter these mirrors? What does it mean when we seek not just to destroy our heroes–to gleefully expose their feet of clay, their human, all-too-human failings-but to deconstruct the very idea of the hero?” [1]

Given the gentle and over-the-top antics of the characters of Hataraku, you wouldn’t think that a deconstruction of the hero is taking place. Or if it is, it’s not to be taken seriously, like everything supernatural in the show. While I have my doubts that a full deconstruction is ever achieved, it is worth our time to look at how Hataraku plays and comments on the hero trope in humorous, yet also thought provoking ways, particularly in its treatment of Emilia Justina and her nemesis Dark Lord Satan.

I love how this show is so keenly aware of audience expectations. In the first episode, in merely five minutes we have the setting of a full-blown fantasy world set up where a Tolkien-epic war is explained and takes place. It’s a great way to set up the story as your expected high fantasy realm of heroes, evil warlords, and sick battle scenes.

The Hero, Emilia Justina
The Hero, Emilia Justina
Her opponent, the Dark Lord Satan.
Her opponent, the Dark Lord Satan.

Slick animation, dark hues, this anime’s got the makings of a war saga…

And then you stick said characters in 21st century Japan, discarding the original storyline almost entirely. You have two broke demons (a lord and his retainer) wandering the streets in full war regalia.

Two magic-less demon lords stranded in modern Tokyo
Two magic-less demon lords stranded in modern Tokyo

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Besides their fashion sense aesthetics being totally out of whack, they also have no magic  and must suffer the most terrifying enemy of them all- life in the adult world.

Alciel agonizes over the cheap diet of fast food. (Also, cleverly placed pop culture reference.)
Alciel agonizes over the cheap diet of fast food. (Also, cleverly placed pop culture reference.)

A clever trick of characterizing the villains (making them the protagonists) and introducing us to them early is that it guides us to empathize with them. All done with comedic effect, defanging our merry demon duo (both literally and metaphorically, since the demons must assume human guises due to Earth’s deficiency of magic to sustain them).

When the actual hero of mentioned fantasy world arrives to finish off the evil lord of darkness, this is what she finds him doing.

Satan's new undertaking. Conquering the world, one French fry at a time.
Satan’s new undertaking. Conquering the world, one French fry at a time.
How the mighty have fallen...
How the mighty have fallen…

In any other situation, the hero’s confrontation with her archenemy is a, well, heroically triumphant one. Instead, the circumstances of Earth make such an confrontation an impossibility. Instead, we have our intrepid hero threatening Satan with a knife bought from the local dollar store.

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There is so much good stuff going on in this scene. Emilia the Hero’s entrance comes off more as an intrusion than a daring quest. Rather than the hero coming to save the day, Emilia becomes the offender by attacking a “defenseless bystander.” The humorous juxtaposition of a hero resorting to mundane, “dirty” methods to defeat evil in a dark street at night creates a situational dissonance that trivializes the magnitude of her accomplishments.

"But Officer!"
“But Officer! You can’t arrest me- I’m the Hero!”

Emilia has no problem with stabbing Satan (even if it’s with nothing but a 100-yen knife) but her attempt at justice becomes misinterpreted as a typical couple squabble. Amusingly, her further, increasingly desperate attempts at completing her mission to finish off the demon lord are construed as “unheroic” in modern Japan.

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It’s an interesting contrast to see how much more troublesome it is for Emilia to adapt to Earthly life (though it’s no where nearly as difficult as Suzuno’s experience). It seems almost unfair that the demons (despite their money troubles) seem to have little difficulty going native–indeed, Satan is every McDonald’s MgRonald’s dream employee–but given the advantage the demons have for the time-skip and each other’s company to get by, compared to the lonely Emilia, it’s clear that they’re relatively better off.

In response to his retainer's report of the fridge's contents: a few cucumbers and konjac jelly.
In response to his retainer’s report of the fridge’s contents: a few cucumbers and konjac jelly.

Okay, maybe not that much better off.

One of my favorite scenes in the show (and there are many) is in Episode 4 after our intrepid hero, after exchanging some heated, hostile words with the avatar of all evil, beats a hasty retreat in a dignified huff. While making her exit, she falls down the stairs.

Give her some credit.
Give our girls some credit. Given the statistically significant frequency of characters falling, we can safely assume these stairs are a death trap.

Her discomfort, from the impractical shoes she’s wearing to the company she’s forced to keep, suggest the unraveling of her heroic status. She might be a hero on Ente Isla but she’s certainly not capable of the same heroic feats on Earth. Her heroic tendencies don’t line up perfectly with the life she’s carving out on Earth, not unlike a pair of ill-fitting shoes. The life of a civilian is barely tolerable, and the rules of the world and her place in it are still somewhat of a mystery to her.

To add insult to injury, the dark lord Satan questions her credibility of a hero (not an entirely unfair inquiry though, given Emilia’s enthusiasm for filleting her enemies with her sword.)

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The final breaking point for Emilia is when Satan casually invites her back into his apartment to treat her scrape with some good old antiseptic, prompting Emilia’s outburst.

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Emilia: You’re the Dark Lord! Work your evil in this world like a Dark Lord should!

Satan: Huh? What’s gotten into you?

Emilia: Don’t give me that! You’re poor and you cook for yourselves! They love you at your workplace! You got a high school girl to fall for you! I’ve never seen a Dark Lord who was happy to have a high school girl at his side!

Satan: You got that wrong.

Emilia: But I got most of it right, didn’t I?

Satan: I’ve never seen a hero who feel down the stairs and needed first aid from demons!

Emilia (looks away): Why are you so kind to me? To these people? To this world? How can you be so kind? If you’re capable of such kindness, why did you kill my dad? The Dark Lord I knew was ruthless and thought nothing of people’s lives! You’re supposed to delight in the world’s suffering and grief! I just…you burned our fields, you destroyed our castles with lightning, you flooded our cities and unleashed hordes of demons upon us! You’re Dark Lord Satan! I could never forgive you, not even in death! Dad’s fields…Dad’s house…Dad’s life…You took those carefree days away from me! I can never forgive you for that!

Satan: I never really thought of it like that. Anyway, sorry. I didn’t really understand people back then.

Satan’s response to Emilia’s voiced frustrations is not a particularly smooth or kind reply, but it’s an astonishingly human one.  This conversation is a moment of vulnerability and truly open dialogue between our hero and the demon lord, who find out that their antagonistic relationship isn’t as concretely defined as they thought. While Satan’s flexible morals grant him plenty of wiggle room over what is acceptable behavior (when you’re, well, Satan, you have virtually infinite license over what you can do) Emilia’s struggling a lot more. Which makes sense when you think about it. The archetypal hero(ine)’s identity is shaped by his/her archenemy and when you find your archenemy casually saving people (complete strangers, mind you) from being crushed by rubble, without expecting anything in return, your heroic quest to crush mentioned enemy suddenly becomes meaningless.

It’s a little hard to tell at first what’s making Emilia more upset–the fact that she has to rely on demon help or the fact that demon help is available in the first place. The former option suggests injury to her pride as a hero and of her insecurities of failing in that role while the latter implies an acknowledgment of incongruence in her moral perception. While both frustrations are present, I’d argue that the recognition of “nice and likable demons” is really what’s troubling Emilia.

Shifting from “We” to “I” and from “our” to “my” effectively shifts her argument from made on behalf of the people/humanity to herself. By doing so, Emilia acknowledges that while objectively, she can see that Satan and Alciel are outstanding, law-abiding citizens, personally accepting the fact would also mean forgiving them for killing her father, an action that Emilia sees as one that threatens to destroy the very core of her existence. What sort of hero ends up befriending her enemy? How do you reconcile a snarky, all-around good guy as being the same monster who ordered the death of hundreds?

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It’s a difficult question to answer and one that Emilia constantly is confronted with as she joins Satan (strictly for monitoring purposes, of course) and his madcap ventures to become the finest employee  McDonald’s MgRonald’s has ever seen. And though Emilia and Satan are never quite given the time for the same heart-to-heart session in the rest of the anime, there’s an implicit alliance between the two, so long as Satan does not stray from the hero’s path.

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Emilia’s solution to her existential crisis: There’s no reason why a world can’t have more than one hero. Though he’s just a part-timer.

[1] “Deconstructing the Hero,” in Jeff McLaughlin, ed., Comics as Philosophy (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), pp. 100-101. (TOTAL ARTICLE LENGTH, 100-129)

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2 thoughts on “Comically Uncanny: Deconstructing the Hero in The Devil Is a Part-Timer!

    1. Thank you! You’ve posted some awesome articles yourself on Fantastic Memes- I particularly enjoyed your commentary on fanfiction and how good fanfiction develops canon and the viewer’s experience. 🙂

      Like

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