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Josh Dunham (@Josh_Dunham)
“…the voice work flavors its already rich characters…”
I have been pigeonholed as someone who cares solely for the animation aspect of anime. Some even foolishly believe that I hold some sort of disdain for “plot or story”, though in all honesty, that sort of reading can be somewhat justified. Overarching story elements mean very little to Dragon Maid, as the show’s narrative structure favors characters as vehicles. On the note of animation, these characters do not exist unless they are drawn (or at least have some sort of visual representation). Their characterization (being the life-essence of what makes a character) is defined first and foremost by the way they look and the way they move – they are defined by how they are animated. 80 percent of all information we render is visual. Put simply, visuals will always be the backbone of a visual medium.
But let’s assume for a moment that visuals are not the most important part of anime.
The flavor of that characterization audible. We live in an world of sounds, where tone of voice can sometimes be more important than the words said. And while 80 percent of the information we receive is visual, the second largest factor after that is audio at 10 percent. The voice of a character breathes life into the animation, it is the soul that inhabits the body. Kyoto Animation understands this, and places the same amount of value carefully crafts their characters’ sound as they do their design (as I wrote about previously). To do this, KyoAni typically employs relatively new voice actresses in lead roles, essentially the opposite of the standard industry practice. Too often the name of a popular actor tends to define the characters they play rather than their voice. There are ‘Megumi Hayashibara characters’ and ‘Toru Furuya characters’ – but KyoAni’s method sidesteps all this completely, allowing Yuki Kuwahara and Maria Naganawa to define their roles with their performances.
Yuki Kuwahara’s Tohru always manages to sound upbeat and energetic, constantly coming off endearing and sincere. She tends to end her lines on a higher pitch when possible, which creates an elevating effect that perfectly reflects her ‘can do’ personality. Most of Tohru’s dialog is aimed at Kobayashi, and comes across as very doting and warm because of the tone that Kuwahara assumes. With Kobayashi’s deadpan responses, rapport between the two sounds candid and carries a weighted value instead of settling for zany throw-away comedy.
Kanna’s voice is cute without being saccharine, as Maria Naganawa approaches the character with soft, childlike tones that borderline on the lackadaisical side. Contrasting Kuwahara’s treble, Naganawa finishes her sentences in the mid-range in a way that I can only describe as ‘ending the melody on a flat note’. This works to great effect with the bouts of passive-aggressiveness that Kanna’s character is prone to.
While visuals may be the cornerstone of Dragon Maid, the voice work flavors its already rich characters and helps to further contextualize it. And while this episode may have been quieter overall, the cast carried the emotional note that the animation in episode 2 left off on. That fragmented nature of storytelling may not allow for a overarching grand narrative, but when it comes to the feel and mood of the show, it’s the tone that counts.
“Anyone who has ever shared a living space with other people can relate.”
Kobayashi and company move to a new apartment, meet their new neighbors, and invite a couple of new dragons to their housewarming party. There’s some nice observational humor, like when the characters get distracted by the household paraphernalia they’re trying to clean up, or the bit where an exhausted Kobayashi goes back to her old apartment by accident. The noisy neighbor gags are also solid, if fairly standard. Anyone who has ever shared a living space with other people can relate.
The episode wisely focuses most on Kobayashi’s and Tohru’s relationship. They have good chemistry, being near opposites in personality yet showing genuine affection for each other. Their growing familial bond is signified by their washing each others’ backs (a garden hose is required for Tohru). This scene underscores how silly the show’s premise is, yet KyoAni’s realistic approach wills it into being. The events and character interactions play out so naturally that we accept the most ridiculous ideas.
The visuals are good and functional, though there aren’t any wild action sequences or expansive environments this time around. Kobayashi gets some fun haggard expressions, and the backgrounds are warm and pleasing to the eye as always.
Fafnir and Quetzalcoatl felt a bit one-note to me, though it may be unfair to judge them based on their brief introduction. Kanna hasn’t gotten much to do yet either, consigned to eating bugs and acting more like a mascot than a character. However, it looks like the next episode will be centered on her, so maybe she’ll develop some more personality.
“I find myself at a low ebb once again with this show…”
Episode three of Dragon Maid returns to a mold more akin to the first episode than the second. The crew realizes that the current living arrangement in Kobayashi’s apartment is getting a bit cramped now that Kanna has moved in, and they set out to find new living arrangements. After finding a new apartment they move in and encounter some noisy neighbors, and wrap the episode with a housewarming party that includes new dragon invitees in Fafnir and Lucoa.
I find myself at a low ebb once again with this show, my hopes a bit dashed after the glimmers I saw in the last episode. More and more it is clear that it is patently not for me, and really does not fit my particular tastes. As I think I’ve hinted at, I very much enjoy world-building, narrative hooks, and significant challenges to characters (be they emotional/physical/etc). The pacing of Dragon Maid is far too slow for me, and without an overarching sense of drama to tie moments together a lot of the show falls flat for me. Many of its moments appear to me as disconnected vignettes, and I feel that they could be rearranged without impacting the show much at all. For someone like myself, that is not a positive quality.
But as always the show is not without merit, and it provides a handful of moments I really enjoyed. Tohru’s discussion of her constant flight from one makeshift home to another was a great example of efficient, exemplary storytelling intertwined with solid comedic beats (particularly the sleeping-while-flying gag). Kobayashi’s growing sense of paternal attachment to the dragons is excellently handled through simple scenes such as deciding on the last apartment due to its open-air roof, or watching Tohru and Kanna jump on the bed with gleeful abandon. The use of more stylized animation on Tohru’s dragon form during the bath sequence was a deft use of animation’s visual language to reinforce her feelings of relief and near-ecstatic joy.
By and large though I found myself wishing for emphasis on elements that are obviously not part of the creators’ storytelling vision. I suspect my opinion on this show is increasingly in the minority, as clearly it speaks to a large fandom, but it is apparent that this directed at an audience which I am not a part of.
“The show continues its hot streak of sound comedic timing and remains a pretty show…”
Kobayashi decides two dragons is a crowd and spends the episode moving into a larger apartment (more on that in a second). Meanwhile we learn a great deal about the cleaning habits of dragons and cap the episode by meeting two more eccentric beasts, the murderous, cave-dwelling Fafnir and the… curvy Lucoa, a former goddess. It will be interesting to see what they do to keep things fresh with the cast almost fully expanded.
It’s (thankfully) not really lingered on, but one of my favorite scenes in this episode is when Tohru comes into her and Kanna’s room and flops on to the bed. It’s a understated visual that conveys how happy she is that she’s found a real home and also a real family.
It seems each episode has had its own slight variation in comedic style so I’m looking forward to what else the show will have in store. Watching Fafnir play a Dark Souls knockoff made for an entertaining new gag, though I can’t imagine they’ll rely on something like that too often. The show continues its hot streak of sound comedic timing and remains a pretty show, though we don’t get any insane action scenes like last week. That said, I do enjoy the exterior background shots for their story book painting type effect. It’s a nice touch that reinforces the gentle slice of life core of this otherwise zany gag show. Now that we’re approximately one third into the show I wonder if we’ll see any larger plot threads begin to emerge, though I’m not holding my (dragon) breath.
CJ Hitchcock (@cjhitchcock)
“They’ve not only found a new apartment, but a new home in each other.”
For as loud and bombastic as this show gets, it’s the quiet images that stick with me the most. That’s not to say those explosive moments aren’t good or derail the show in anyway. but this show is more than just funny gags and charming characters to me, it represents a feeling. A feelings of love. Not specifically romantic love, or even sexual love, but just love. It’s about how this family pieced together by random, quirky parts can come together and form something wholesome. It’s about how people from all walks of life can come together for a meal and bond together. It’s about neighbors coming together and learning how to get along. The only term I can think of in the English language that covers all of those themes is a kooky little word called, “Love.”
Now with that being said, I can understand why people wouldn’t like this show. It’s not really focused on anything beside conveying that feeling. There’s no real conflict, no real plot, and the characters are pretty simple. While I would harp on other shows that have this problem, but the difference here is that Dragon Maid is able to draw out a genuine emotional response. I actually laughed when Tohru threatened to kill the neighbors for disturbing Kobayashi while she’s nursing a hangover. My heart melts seeing Tohru and Kanna’s excitement over having their own bed. The show isn’t trying to be some kinda of epic, genre-defining piece of art, it’s trying to make you feel warm fuzzies in your gullet. Some people will require more from their entertainment than that, but here it nails those emotions so well that I must admire the show for making my cold dead heart feel things I hadn’t in awhile.
While I do excuse the notion of dismissing this show entirely because it doesn’t clearly establish its background for the dragons and the rules they operate by, I don’t think it’s too big a deal. Where Tohru and the other dragons came from isn’t important. These are characters who live in the moment, and even though both Kobayashi and Tohru seem to have troubled and lonely pasts there is no need to focus on it. The past is behind them and they have moved on to better things. Each felt incomplete and lonesome, but now they have each other. I feel like this is the point of the show: it’s not to establish some time of conflict, or produce a few chuckles, it’s about how love can make us feel whole. No other moment proves my point more than Kanna trying to find a place to take a nap. She could sleep anywhere, but it’s not until she falls asleep on Tohru’s lap that she truly feels peaceful enough to do so. It’s that feeling of belonging and of being loved that soothes the mighty dragon to slumber. They’ve not only found a new apartment, but a new home in each other.
Jimmy Gnome (@jimmygnome9)
“…this show is extremely gay, and it’s wonderful.”
Breaking away from the frequent intensity of episode 2, this week’s Dragon Maid takes a slow-burn approach and gives off some pleasantly iyashikei vibes. Yasuhiro Takemoto returns to storyboard for the third episode in a row and this is perhaps his strongest outing so far. The content seems far removed from what was introduced at the beginning of the show, shifting away from the rote gags and focusing almost exclusively on the communal bonding of Kobayashi, Tohru, Kanna, and their friends.
I mentioned before that Dragon Maid uses a structure that focuses on the differences between the characters (such as Tohru and Kanna’s ‘playing around’ last week) before a moment that highlights their similarities (all three of them lays together in the field afterwards). This time it’s switched around since Tohru and Kanna have formed a strong enough bond with Kobayashi that they’re really no different from family, and we as an audience have grown familiar with their eccentricities as well. Instead this episode rarely uses their dragon qualities unless it’s a punchline to a joke, and even then the joke is always in contrast to the normality of their daily lives.
There are other, more subtle techniques that show how the series is integrating the dragons into everyday life. Besides doing very normal things like looking through old picture albums, there are often pillow shots that put an emphasis on nature. Not only do these serve to ground the show further in reality, but they also link the relationship that has developed between the three main characters as inherently natural. The delicate line art of the foreground in these shots combined with the soft, inviting backgrounds embodies the fleeting beauty of the life they’ve made with each other.
This sort of dedication to evoking the richness of the mundane would be fair and good in any other series, and it’s particularly a standard in well made iyashikei anime, but Dragon Maid adds something that makes it particularly notable. My colleagues have mostly skirted around it, but this show is extremely gay, and it’s wonderful. Applying what I said before about naturalizing relationships not only applies to the dragons and humans, but it particularly applies to Tohru and Kobayashi, which is possibly the most well executed aspect of the show at large. Their core relationship is at the center of everything, and the show takes every effort to make it feel real at every development. It is truly surprising how tasteful and inclusive the series has been so far.
This episode of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid may not have the animation highlights of last week’s, but it makes up for it with its careful attention to character and tone. This makes the episode just as valuable, if not more so, based on how it characterizes the themes of the show as a whole. While I’m sure the series will get back to delivering incredible bouts of action, I hope it never neglects its soul, continuing to build on the essential emotional foundation that makes it so compelling to watch.