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“I’m personally not too keen on KyoAni’s super deformed style, but I’ll grant that Ueno does a better job than most.”
This episode looks great. There’s a wealth of interesting compositions and framing ideas that stand out from the already gorgeous art in the show. One nice shot has Kobayashi and the dragon girls placed within separate window panes, visually separating the different species. Another fun scene has Fafnir standing in front of a muddy-brown wall that fits his gloomy personality. We get some neat camera angles in the sequence where Tohru and Fafnir stroll through the city, but there’s also some effective flat staging that highlights the character acting and comedy. Even when two shots are essentially the same, KyoAni isn’t content to reuse backgrounds. There must be at least 3 or 4 drawings of Kobayashi’s kitchen from the same angle in this episode alone. As always, it’s astounding to see how much care and effort the studio pours into its settings.
The animation is also terrific thanks to Chiyoko Ueno’s energetic direction. She knows how to liven characters up with small details and motions that illuminate their personalities. For instance, Tohru carries herself with a goofy, carefree strut whereas Fafnir’s walk is measured and slightly haughty. There’s also lots of wacky/cute expressions, smears, stretch and squash, and the like. I’m personally not too keen on KyoAni’s super deformed style, but I’ll grant that Ueno does a better job than most. By and large, the character drawings are as silly and fun as they get.
One character is animated almost too well. Kobayashi’s jerk boss is seemingly meant to be a one-note throwaway character, but his acting is so forceful and vivid that he practically steals the show. Within a few brief scenes, he exudes rage, pain, embarrassment, and pathos. All his emotions boil on the surface, making him feel like a real, living, thinking being. By KyoAni standards his features are exaggerated and grotesque; he isn’t meant to be cute or appealing. However, the power and authenticity of his performance actually makes him more sympathetic than the protagonists, which I doubt the artists intended. I may be biased in that western animation favors vivid and immediate acting, but I found this guy more entertaining and compelling than any of the other characters. I was sorry to see him get the boot.
“I only wish I felt as strongly about the second half of the episode.”
Episode five of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid features a split narrative. The first half is a more reflective, somber outing where Tohru and Kobayashi explore their feelings on how things have changed since they have come into one another’s lives. The second half is largely about Tohru’s fascination with a spoon-bending technique she has seen on television. Stitching these two pieces together is a running thread with Riko’s continued infatuation with Kanna. Tohru also spends some time helping Fafnir find a place to stay, which ends up being with Kobayashi’s otaku coworker.
As hokey as it sounds, I am incredibly split this time around. The novelty for myself is that, unlike prior episodes, it does not fall into a strong like or dislike for once, and is instead a much more lukewarm offering. Simply put, the more focus this show has on its fiction or character development/exploration the more I am in tune with it. The first half of this episode was the strongest for me – I was interested in the ways in which Tohru and Kobayashi have become different, or at least their perceptions of those changes.
Fafnir’s comments near the crosswalk and Tohru’s response were a real standout moment. This is an exemplar moment for storytelling in the show, and illustrates how effective communication can say more than the word count might suggest. Fafnir’s question about whether Tohru’s budding affection for Kobayashi might hamper her ability to kill humans in their realm in the future suggests a number of fascinating hooks and tidbits: even though the other dragons are bubbly they clearly do not want to “go native,” there is a tacit assumption by the dragons (or Fafnir at least) that this was only a temporary arrangement, and the threats in the other world might spill over into the “real” world. This casts the dream-like nature of Tohru’s current living arrangement in a new light – it insinuates that this all seems cute and wonderful and perfect because Tohru is desperately wanting to keep it that way for as long as possible. Kobayashi’s save in episode one is no longer a convenient setup for “romance with a servile dragon” but instead temporary respite from an ongoing conflict that very well could come back to haunt the cast. Now, I find myself viewing the prior fight sequences with the dragons’ absurd combat prowess less as “throwaway visual flair” and more as “foreshadowing for the coming battle.”
To further underscore the importance of the scene, Tohru does not back down. She clearly draws a line in that sand that this is how she wants her life and world to be. If any of the aforementioned potential conflict comes to pass it will serve as a real turning point for the show, in my estimation.
I only wish I felt as strongly about the second half of the episode. Instead, Tohru tries to learn to bend spoons like humans do. Other than Tohru’s reaction when Kobayashi shows her the secret (the first actual laugh I have had with this show, it felt good), the segment as a whole did very little for me. I found myself checking the run time, wishing for the ending credits to start so that I could stop.
The other plot threads left me cold as well. Rika’s overreactions to Kanna’s activities did not endear me to either character nor elicit any laughter. Watching Fafnir and Makoto play video games equally failed to do anything for me. Not much else to say, really, since very little changed for any of these characters.
So as a singular unit, number five is a mixed bag for me. Half or more of the episode’s length did little to nothing for me as a viewer, which might normally condemn it outright. However, the early character exploration and build-up in background tension was outstanding. If any or all of what is being foreshadowed comes to pass, I will be incredibly pleased, and may end up completely reversing my opinion on the show from where I started at the first episode.
CJ Hitchcock (@cjhitchcock)
“At this point in the show I want them to let this backstory go.”
While I have been overwhelmingly positive of this show, even I have to admit this has been their weakest episode to date. While the scene of Tohru stalking Kobayashi at work is cute, the episode meanders along at a snail’s pace afterwords. The problem here is twofold. On one end, the episode is exploring an aspect of Tohru and Kobayashi’s personalities that we’ve already been exposed to: they are choosing to move forward with their lives together instead of looking back on their previous miseries. As I’ve stated stated in past writeups this is a great theme, but instead of following through on the message and having the characters focus on the here and now, other characters like Fafnir keep pestering Tohru about why she made the choices that she did. At this point in the show I want them to let this backstory go. They’ve practically stated that there is no point in dwelling on the past, so why is the show dwelling on the past? I want more wacky dragon family hijinks and Kanna being adorable, not a bunch of sad sacks trying to bog down the fun.
The other problem in this episode comes in the form of Tohru’s characterization being self-contradicting. She takes a moment halfway through the episode to talk to Fafnir about how she likes living amongst humans and being apart of their world, but spends the second half trying to prove dragons are superior to humans by mastering their magic tricks. By following up a segment where she goes into detail about how she loves the peaceful nature of humanity with a scene that reinforces her desire to reign dominance over them, the show undermines itself. While a part of Tohru’s charm comes from how overconfident she can be, she still wants to be a part of the human world. Instead of being open to learn new things, she builds a wall and separates herself from her end goal. Maybe if these two moments weren’t followed one after the other in the same episode it won’t be an issue, but their juxtaposition is too harsh to not comment on.
Jimmy Gnome (@jimmygnome9)
“…the most expressive episode of the series yet.”
This week’s Dragon Maid is broken apart into three mostly-discreet segments, each having its own unique appeal. The first does an excellent job of developing Tohru and Kobayashi’s romantic relationship, revealing a deeper connection between them than we’ve seen previously; the second highlights how Tohru’s relationship with humanity has been influenced by living in their world; and the final piece takes a simple gag regarding a simple misunderstanding of magic and builds it into a hilarious comedy session. It also manages to be the most expressive episode of the series yet.
That’s mostly because of the excellent staff working this episode, particularly the animation director Chiyoko Ueno. She tends to really let loose on projects that encourage looser, more goofy kinds of drawings (see her work in Nichijou, particularly episode 6, for reference) and it really comes through this time. Striking a nice balance between more detailed character acting and smeary silliness, the animation team employs the widest variety of drawing techniques we’ve yet seen.
Of course this is all supported by the work of Taichi Ogawa, this week’s director and storyboarder, though he’s given storyboard support by his mentor Taichi Ishidate (one of Kyoani’s best). As I mentioned that the beginning, the structure of the episode allows for several different approaches to the adaptation: occasionally romantic, infrequently serious, and consistently funny. His layouts may not be as strong as Takemoto’s but he’s still incredibly talented and uses some rather unique compositions. He has a tendency to use fast cutting which helps ramp up the comedic pace in the last segment, bringing out the inherent ridiculousness of Tohru and Kanna’s training montage.
Though the past few episodes have done a lot to embed some serious commentary into Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, it feels good to let loose for a week and indulge in the series’ main draw, its off-the-wall comedy. To me, cartoony expressionism is just as important to this series as extravagant action sequences that already get so much attention, so I’m glad to see Ueno and Ogawa doing such excellent work with the material. Hopefully we’ll see more in this style going forward.