Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid (TV)

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Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid is definitely one of the most memorable works to come from Kyoto Animation, and that's saying a lot. The studio responsible for the adaptations of K-ON! And Sound! Euphonium finally returned to their Nichijou-style comedic antics for this comedy manga animation, but also infused it with a surprising amount of heart and thought. The end result is a very strange show that tries to combine wacky humor with commentary on integrating into a new culture, family dynamics, and and lifestyle choices, not to mention some queer coding under the surface (both subtle and not-so-subtle).

The initial premise is that Kobayashi, a loner office drone, wakes up one day to find a dragon at her door, one that turns into a cute maid before her eyes and asks for room and board. This dragon is Tohru, whom Kobayashi promised could stay with her the previous night after a whole lot of drinking and wandering into the woods. Tohru promises to earn her keep by working as Kobayashi's maid, though, and it's not long before the two have adopted the child dragon Kanna. Along with all this, two of Tohru's friends and one enemy dragon come to the human world and start carving out lives on their own with the general populace, to varying degrees of success, and we learn more about Tohru's dark past and Kobayashi's numbing anxieties.

Maid Dragon is an animation spectacle in a lot of places, especially if you've been paying attention to the various directors KyoAni has on staff. Their little tells and all get thrown around, especially Yamada's in episode eight, where her love for expressing emotion through the movement of legs shines through. The flashiest moments always make full use of the effects on hand and expressive exaggeration, especially with Tohru. Whenever she shows a bit of her true dragon self in human mode, it's always a memorable visual that blends a bit of horror and comedic sensibilities. On top of this, the show's grounded but colorful pallet makes every setting feel alive and comfortable. It's a great show to watch if you need a break, despite some of the heavier subject matter, simply because of the art style. This goes especially with the detail on the dragons, who all have a little something strange in their designs that make them stick out, like Tohru's mysterious tail (seriously, where does that attach) and Lucoa's discolored eyes.

The most unexpected element is that the show takes the dragons' status as immigrants very seriously and make their adapting to Japanese society central to their arcs. This is shown most with Tohru, who's suffering from some mild PTSD due to the fights she got into back in her world. She's quick to violence early on and doesn't understand the ideas of compromise or unity, only dominance through force and asserting one's will. This is a big problem for much of the early episodes, as Japan itself is a society that values order and community in ways Tohru can't really understand. Even as the show goes along and she adapts to Japan's norms, she still shows some struggle with the oppressive, stuffy focus on norms. A shopping market sequence really shows this strongly, as Tohru over-exerts her power stopping a robber and it seems like the entire community is going to turn on her after some initial shock.

This focus on the suffocating nature of norms could be read as some queer coded commentary, with Tohru and Kobayashi both expressing frustration with Japanese society excluding whatever doesn't fit in with the desired norm and their shared attraction. The show is not subtle with the two being in an unspoken relationship, with Tohru being very open about her feelings from episode one and on. Kobayashi herself is a very closed off person who has trouble understanding how to respond to someone expressing that sort of interest in her, but she constantly shows that she appreciates Tohru's feelings and seems unsure how to return them. This is all pushed more with the two basically becoming Kanna's parents, with the last episode giving a glimpse at Kobayashi trying to be a single parent for a short bit. It's particularly why the show's dub from Funimation is so widely criticized, as some script changes result in a current of homophobia by coding Kobayashi as straight instead of queer, something that actually goes against the source material as well. All that's left is Tohru as the wacky, predatory lesbian, which left a bad taste in a lot of mouths.

The queer elements are unfortunately too downplayed to the point that many who watched the show subbed honestly didn't pick up on what should have been obvious tells. However, the immigration stuff is much more developed, especially with Fafnir and Elma. Fafnir expresses more old world prejudices and is actively annoyed by Tohru's ease at adapting, ending up rooming with an otaku and choosing to seclude himself and only interact with those he respects. He was already a shut-in back in the old world, but now he has an entire subculture that accepts him for that. Elma, on the other hand, is genuinely trying to understand this culture, though she needs guidance from Kobayashi at first and still struggles with the all too familiar problem of poverty. She doesn't really find a place outside the office, but finds comfort instead in good food and small moments of relaxation. Their stories are all about adaptation and each go through it in different ways, one blending with a subculture, and the other struggling with the more “normal” aspects of this society.

There are tons of heartfelt moments in the series with every dragon and their human counterpart (or in Elma's case, whoever won't antagonize her), but one pair falls flat. Lucoa and Shota feel completely out of place with all this thoughtful musing, as the entire joke between the two is that Lucoa constantly makes the poor kid feel sexually confused because of her boobs. It's an ongoing joke that's both gross and weird and acts as the show's most obvious shortcoming. It's a shame because both character are likable and funny in their own ways, especially when Lucoa is just hanging out with the adults, but the joke that binds them together is one of the worst I've seen in any anime within recent memory. Lucoa's more maternal qualities also get downplayed far too much for lame gags where she doesn't know how to dress properly in public, robbing her of any real positive impact in the series. It's not good when both characters are more entertaining when separate instead of together.

The main attraction, though, is not the social commentary, but the comedy. Maid Dragon has a great mixture of visual gags, absurdist segways, and down to Earth musings to have a joke for most everyone, outside the aforementioned Lucoa and Shota scenes. It's the right balance of the more fantastical elements and subdued slice of life energy that make the show stand out so much, equal parts comfy and hilarious. It says a lot to the character writing that just about every character can fit into any scenario and have something to add, especially Tohru and Kanna. Tohru's struggles with adapting to Japanese life and her little moments of letting out her true self really help make her not only likable, but also layered and even relatable. As a semi-closeted bi man, the convention episode really stuck out to me a good bit of describing how important outlets for one's sexuality or gender identity are. Kanna, on the other hand, is just your average child after her initial introduction, fitting well with daily life segments, but also adding a new energy to comedic scenes with her one tone voice and general innocence. The play episode late in the series is the best example of the show's comedy chops, using elements from every character and making them all work together for an incredible skit, even finding an actual funny gag with Lucoa.

Oddly, it's the moments where you see characters just living live that really stuck with me, especially as the series goes on. A good character can make any situation engaging, and the Kobayashi household do that constantly. The New Years episode has a pretty long segment that just has the three relaxing with a kotatsu and getting treats from neighbors, with no huge jokes beyond Tohru having to leave the kotatsu constantly, but it works. A good slice of life show can build a relationship between the audience and the characters, making the most mundane scenarios relatable. Maid Dragon may be the best example off this I've come across, thanks to Tohru's fantastic growth through the show in the small moments.

Maid Dragon is an interesting show because it may be the best way to introduce yourself to KyoAni and their particular quirks and interests. It has depth and introspective themes, laugh out loud comedy, and a lot of lovely little sequences where you just see characters living their normal lives, and it all works almost the entire time. It's not perfect by any means, especially with the misuse of Lucoa and Shota, but it's definitely one of the studio's most memorable shows and worth a watch if you haven't tried it yet. Just do be warned the dub is really insulting to the material, so sub is the way to go here.


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