Most 16-year-old boys would admit to having problems in their lives, but few would admit to having the same problems as Ayasaki Hayate. (WARNING for spoilers ahead — although we are only in episode 1 of the first season, for what it’s worth.) The title character of Hayate no Gotoku (“Hayate the Combat Butler”) has family issues, in the sense that his parents are irresponsible to the extreme. Not being content with gambling and frittering their own money away, Hayate’s parents do the same with their son’s hard-earned money as well, even as he tries to support himself in spite of them. And so, near the beginning of the first episode of Hayate no Gotoku, Hayate receives a most unwelcome Christmas present from his parents, who by now have disappeared. Again.
To say that a debt of some 1.6 million US dollars is unpayable from Hayate’s perspective hardly does justice to his plight. When the yakuza come to collect the debt (and by “the debt” they have in mind “some of Hayate’s favorite internal organs”), Hayate successfully escapes from them — at least for the moment. Having such dissolute parents and being forced to support oneself while still in high school tends to toughen one up, both mentally and physically.
But the title of this episode is “Unmei in English is ‘Destiny.'” And indeed, written with the characters for “carry” and “life,” unmei 運命 has more or less that very meaning. So when Hayate is at his lowest, sitting alone on a park bench on a cold Christmastime evening, maybe it is destiny that brings the old guy in a red suit along? Maybe good old Santa himself can encourage young Hayate? Well, not so much.
Before we can speculate upon the wisdom of punching Santa’s lights out, Hayate’s next destined encounter is with 13-year-old Sanzen’in Nagi. Heir to the wealthy Sanzen’in family, Nagi should know better than to wander around alone at night. Apparently she has never learned her lesson, in spite of repeatedly having been kidnapped in attempts to extort ransom money. Yet here we find her trying to buy a drink from a machine. Although it would seem from her failed attempts that Nagi has never seen a 100 yen coin.
Always the charitable sort, Hayate uses his last 100 yen to buy Nagi a drink. And in so doing, he comes up with an original plan: to kidnap Nagi in order to try to extort ransom money. Grateful for Hayate’s kindness, Nagi offers to pay him back with “anything at all” in return.
Fans of anime learn quickly that Japanese is almost made of puns. A language that isn’t tonal (or, as I like to say, “not very tonal”) and that has fewer than 100 possible syllables is bound to be full of homonyms. Add to this the possibility of different kanji being used to express different subtle shades of meaning, or sometimes entirely different meanings, and it becomes possible for even native speakers of Japanese to misunderstand each other sometimes. Perhaps Hayate should have thought it over before he used the verb tsukiau to ask Nagi to “accompany” him. Which tsukiau most certainly does mean. It is also the verb a boy might use to ask a girl to “go out with” him.
After Nagi bashfully agrees to Hayate’s sudden and audacious request, Hayate uses his last ten yen to phone Nagi’s family, with the intent to try to extort money. While thus engaged in an ultimately failed attempt (“Hello! My name is Ayasaki and …”), some thugs come along and, you guessed it, kidnap Nagi. Again.
I will leave out the details of the chase that follows, in which Hayate successfully catches a speeding car on a bicycle, suffers what ought to have been at least three or four deaths by vehicular homicide, and ultimately stops the crooks. After all, I did watch about a dozen episodes of Hayate no Gotoku when it first came out, before abandoning the series in favor of Reideen or something like that with lots of explosions. So along with the very many of you who continued on in Hayate no Gotoku, I am aware that Hayate winds up serving the Sanzen’in family as Nagi’s personal butler, in return for which he is given room and board while he works off his parents’ debt. I am also aware that the hijinks surrounding the misunderstanding about the verb tsukiau continue through the series.
But as we leave Hayate to a life that at least seems to be safer and more productive than the one he left behind, it’s tempting to dwell on the word unmei. We can easily dismiss the unbelievable and often madcap series of events into which Hayate falls — this is “just a cartoon,” after all. But with Christmas approaching, I find I cannot help thinking about my own unpayable debt to God, which Christ repaid in his own body. I admit that the connection may be more than a little bit of a stretch, but Hayate’s IOU with all those decimal places reminds me of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 whose debt was similarly unpayable. And while it would torture this connection even more to try to theorize about the role of forgiveness in Hayate’s life, there is no question that Christ’s words in Matthew are meant to remind me of the role of forgiveness toward others in my life. For any debts of others toward me, real or imagined, pale next to what God has forgiven me in Christ, more so than next to any given dollar amount.
But as for Hayate, and his immediate situation, I’m not sure we can learn too much else at the moment. Although maybe one thing comes to mind: if you see Santa in one of the malls this month, please don’t deck him. Whatever you may think of the guy, he certainly hasn’t done anything to you to deserve such treatment.
Besides, the man isn’t getting any younger.