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Josh Dunham (@Josh_Dunham)
“ If we are to understand Dragon Maid then we must understand the culture it emerges from.”
Last week, my fellow writer (and editor for this post!), Jimmy Gnome, wrote: “My colleagues have mostly skirted around it, but this show is extremely gay, and it’s wonderful.” And while I agree, it is wonderful, I also believe that this a reading that stems from Western sensibilities more than the actual intention of the work. It is not my goal to steal anyone’s personal interpretation, but rather to add a much needed and overlooked cultural context that is absent from the conversation. If we are to understand Dragon Maid then we must understand the culture it emerges from.
If you have even a cursory reading of Japanese culture then you have probably come across the proverb, “出る杭は打たれる” often translated to “The stake/nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” The phrase refers to the criticism that an individual receives when they stand out. The wording is powerful, not only drawing parallel that the weight of society is akin to a hammer, but insinuates that those who do not conform will eventually be forced to – that nail will be hammered down.
This is the central theme in the scene were Kobayashi, Tohru, and Kanna go to purchase her school uniform. As Kobayashi picks up a pair of shoes, Tohru comments on their sameness, to which Kobayashi responds, “That’s fine. Everyone should be wearing the same thing.” Tohru, ever curious, asks, “Why’s that?” After a quick thought, Kobayashi responds, “To reduce differences. Men, women, Japanese and foreigners are all the same. That’s important.” Tohru’s eyes widen and asks, ever so poignantly, “What happens when you’re different from everyone else?” The camera takes an overhead view to make the characters seems smaller under the weight of the truth, “Sometimes you’re eliminated.”
This “elimination” referred to by Kobayashi is the ostracization of those who don’t ‘fit in’ or upset the wa. Usually translated as ‘group harmony’, wa is governing concept in Japanese society, predicating the idea of harmonious existence by valuing the interests of the group over that of the individual. All Japanese power structures are founded on the principle of suppressing public disagreement and creating a cohesive social unit. BU as Tohru asked, “What happens when you’re different from everyone else?”
In Michael Zielenziger’s amazing text about the Hikikomori phenomenon Shutting out the Sun (a read I can not suggest enough for Japanese cultural context), he writes: “In a nation where children are raised from an early age to fit in, to readily meld themselves into harmonious, purposeful groups, bullying remains a distinctive and brutally effective means of ‘behavior modification.'” But this social bullying is not restricted to school children, it permeates throughout all layers of Japanese society. Zielenziger continues on page 53:
“Any disagreement with the ideas and beliefs of the larger group threatens it’s wa, or harmony. In his book Straightjacket Society, the psychiatrist Masao Miyamoto describes the various methods his colleagues used to hound and punish him for refusing to toe the group’s line when he worked in the Health Ministry. Bullying, he concludes, is actively condoned even in adult Japanese society as a means to modify behavior, “a tool for for forcing the individual to accept the logic of the group.””
It is within this context that Kobayashi says,”But everyone’s afraid of things that are different.” It’s a lot to think about, and as Tohru enters thought, it is not her relationship with Kobayashi she reflects on, but her freakish powers that were questioned at the onset of episode 2. What is at the forefront of the show is Tohru’s and Kanna’s dragon-ness, and how they fit into society. The character dynamics place Kobayshi in the role of mentor over the two dragons. Being an integrated member of society of the ‘salary man’ working class, she treats them both of them as children, helping them navigate a culture ripe with potential rejection. Any potential romance is played off as comedy. So while readings akin to that of Jimmy’s are understandable, they are predominately Western in thought, stripping out the bigger picture.
Perhaps this is most clear in that the focal point of the show is Kanna and her starting school, not the family dynamics. When the wa is disturbed as school, Kanna concedes to lying to make a friend, Tohru even comments on this (but that is a much bigger topic than the scope of this weekly). However, when conflict does arise and cannot be resolved, it is the uniqueness of the dragons, the ‘nail that stick out’, that saves the day. Ultimately, that is the message of Dragon Maid, that the futility of the hammer falling can be overcome by valuing the uniqueness of the individual.
“…animators seem to be showing some restraint on the character drawings…”
A fun, if fairly average episode by KyoAni standards. There are a few loose drawings, silly faces, and a brief action sequence towards the end, but the animation seems a bit milder compared to the first two episodes. However, the backgrounds are great as always, featuring some lovely shots of the neighborhood at sunset and a variety of stores that each have their own color schemes and moods. Compare the quaint hole-in-the-wall stationary store to the vibrant, lively shopping mall. The artists get the feeling and atmosphere of each place just right.
Kanna gets her wish to go to school, and we get a clearer picture of the dragon girl’s personality. There’s a nice moment during the shopping scenes where a keychain catches her eye, but she thoughtfully puts it back when she hears Kobayashi complaining about the other expenses. It’s adorable how she sleeps with her backpack still on, like a kid who really loved her first day of school. She seems to be more open-minded about humanity than Tohru, as she is genuinely curious about people and willing to take part in the classroom experience. On the other hand, she is not above using her superior dragon intellect and abilities to manipulate and overpower her fellow classmates. Or were those really fake tears? I’d like to think her motivations are left ambiguous.
Tohru spends much of the episode criticizing human behavior and societal institutions. This is mostly played for laughs, but there’s a few serious moments where she touches on the issues of conformity and racism. I’m not sure how seriously I can take social commentary from a dragon girl who removes her clothing in public, but I admire the show for having the audacity to try.
The dodgeball sequence is pretty awesome, as one would expect. It isn’t quite as good as the dragon battle in episode 2, but there’s plenty of cool smears, debris, and laser effects, plus some nutty stretch-and-squash distortion on the ball. However, the animators seem to be showing some restraint on the character drawings, perhaps to convey the smaller scale of the action. Even so, I miss the crazy poses from the earlier fight. Also, Quetzalcoatl’s “memory-tweak” ability is a little too convenient a plot device. Hopefully the show doesn’t rely on it too much.
“I really enjoyed this week’s episode of Dragon Maid.”
The fourth installment in Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid focuses on Kanna’s desire to go to school. After seeing some children on their way to learn one morning, she decides that she also wishes to go and the episode largely revolves around the various activities involved in her scholastic adventure. Nearly everything is covered – from shopping for school supplies to her first few days getting acquainted with the other children in her class, while the final portion of the episode transitions to a heated dodgeball match with some ‘older’ children that have been cruel to Kanna’s classmate.
I really enjoyed this week’s episode of Dragon Maid. When the cast is given some sort of motivation to hang the jokes and characters moments on, it resonates with me more so than the episodes which are less structured. While last week’s hook (“We have to find a new apartment”) was largely resolved in the opening minutes with little tension, the theme of this episode (“Kanna wants to go to school, but why?”) carried through for most of its runtime. Providing a meaningful backdrop for character interactions goes a long way to upping my enjoyment of Dragon Maid’s emotional and comedic beats. While ‘going to school’ is certainly not a novel trope the characters presented are unique enough that it gives the audience a point of reference to find out about them. Through the mundanity of school we discover how human relationships have already begun to shape the dragons in profound ways.
Of particular note this episode is Tohru’s characterization. Part of my issue with her up until now has been her willingness to simply shout her emotions at other cast members, particularly given how little they respond to such overtness. This episode takes a slightly different bent that remains consistent for her extraverted nature – she is jealous of the focus Kanna is receiving from Kobayashi. She expresses this through a series of childish Look at me!-style antics without resorting to yelling at Kobayashi about being jealous. For my money, this is one of the first times she has felt relatable, and it shows how even a dash of subtlety can make even an expressive character like Tohru that much more real.
The animation continues to delight with moments both small and great. The dodgeball sequence is rife with stunning effects from glowing energy to dynamic dust clouds – continuing the show’s penchant for tossing in one grand set piece in each episode. Even more impressive perhaps is the willingness to devote such time and effort into detailing the minutia of the world, from the varied look of the school supplies to the ornamentation of Kanna’s classroom (a location frequented by many anime and typically bereft of interesting details). A particularly delightful moment for me was the Ultraman reference when Kanna’s classmate shared a manga with her, clearly illustrating that even the slightest pandering to my love of tokusatsu is a surefire way to earn bonus points.
Much like after the second episode, I hope that this is the norm going forward. For all the problems and frustrations I have expressed with Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid throughout these reviews, there are characters here that I truly enjoy and want to see their continued growth.
“… I’m ready for Kanna to get her own spin off show where she deftly manages the power politics and odd human customs of wee people. ”
Full disclosure: the only reason I’m really doing a review this week is so I can gush the how adorableness of Japanese early childhood education. That said, Dragon Maid has fully cemented itself in my mind as the new Flying Witch. Despite the occasional high quality sakuga action set pieces (which I like, Sakuga People. Rest easy, I’m slowly becoming more like you!) the show has a calming and dare I say…restorative effect on me when I watch it. See how I avoided the ‘h’ word there? No, the other ‘h’ word. Unless you were thinking of that one to begin with, in which case you were right the first time. Oh. Right. So, yeah. It’s a good, easy going show. Beautiful in its usual form but especially so in spots like this week’s dodge ball extravaganza.
That should count for the critical analysis for this week, right? I can feel Jimmy sighing in exasperation so I should say something else. Ah!
One of the best things about the character interactions between our ever-more-family like house of ladies (more on that later) has to be the way Tohru and Kanna relate to the modern world through the alien intelligence of magical apex predators. To the draconian mind, a stapler resembles a dragon’s maw. Tohru especially sees the world in terms of a multiple hit die, several-age-categories-old great wyrm when she mistakes Kanna’s fascination with elementary school children for planning a holocaust. It’s a gag that should be past its expiration date, but somehow this show continues to find ways to keep it fresh and funny.
There, that should do it. Back to the adorable world of Japanese early childhood education.
As a retired eigo no kyoushi/mascot character/gaijin onii-san to hordes of bright, energetic, and cho kawaii Japanese elementary schoolers, I’m a sucker for good kid drama. Having seen this latest episode, I’m ready for Kanna to get her own spin off show where she deftly manages the power politics and odd human customs of wee people. But failing that, I’ll be content with seeing more of Kanna’s school antics amidst the backdrop of this endearing story about a interspecies lesbian couple and their adopted political mastermind daughter.
Jimmy Gnome (@jimmygnome9)
“It’s honestly surprising how straightforward it is…”
While last week’s episode of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid started to hint at a central theme of embracing individuality, this time the concept has been brought into the forefront as Kanna attempts to integrate into the lifestyle of a Japanese elementary school student. It’s honestly surprising how straightforward it is with this— about a third of the way through the episode the mood takes a sharp turn when the gang looks to picking up Kanna’s school uniform. When Tohru asks why they’re all the same, Kobayashi breaks down the reality of societal intolerance bluntly: “Sometimes you’re eliminated.”
Though the weight of this line implies an eventual conflict, Kanna is mostly successful debut on her first day as a student despite being rather conspicuous. The only instance that brings Kobayashi’s monologue to the foreground again comes from Saikawa, a bratty girl who challenges Kanna out of flustered dishonesty, but the situation is quickly diffused. Still this serves as another warning, much like the scene in the shopping district from episode 2, that breaking social norms leads to fear of societal rejection.
I’m curious to see whether or not it will escalate one of these conflicts, though. So far the series appears content with basking in the warmth of familial tones and cashing in tension for heartwarming moments or playful fun (consider how grim the aftermath of the dodgeball scene was before the context was explained). I’m fine with it that way. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid shows a wealth of love to both humanity and dragon-kind alike, and though it infrequently hints at more sinister aspects of the former it’s more concerned with portraying positivity and cooperation than strife.
That said, if serious drama does spring from this it could add some interesting depth to the cast and themes. This setup reminds me quite a lot of Yuri Kuma Arashi, actually, which shares the theme of lesbians being eliminated for breaking norms. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is a bit more broad, encompassing an unconventional family of women (and a few of their friends), but it seems very much in the same vein. Perhaps we won’t find out what comes of this until further down the line, but it’s surprising how much meaning is embedded in what seemed to be a standard-fare comedy series.