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Jimmy Gnome (@jimmygnome9)
“…the perfect storm for this particular series.”
This episode is immediately notable as being Naoko Yamada and Futoshi Nishiya’s first follow-up collaboration after last year’s A Silent Voice, and though I still have yet to see that film (no American screenings) I can still appreciate the product of their immense talents combined. Dragon Maid 8 is brilliant to the point that you could probably package it as a standalone OVA to advertise the manga in a universe where the series was never produced. It sells its premise so effectively, assembling all the basic ingredients of the show into a refined dish that could be served to anyone, regardless of context.
There’s quite a lot that makes this episode work so well. First and foremost is the pacing. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid has had a good track record when it comes to gag timing, but this is on a different level. There’s notable forward momentum this time thanks to Yamada’s quick cutting and seemingly bottomless bag of visual tricks that add moment-to-moment variety to scenes. Furthermore, the momentum is conserved throughout the episode thanks to a more cohesive structure: the only separate ‘pieces’ of the episode are the cooking contest and the introduction of Elma, which are cleanly linked together. This gives a sense of flow that we haven’t seen the series prior.
Another notable improvement is through the cast. They all feel human, even if they’re dragons. Again, this is a characteristic of the series as a whole, but it’s elevated here. While there are discrete scenes in other episodes that go out of their way to give Tohru and company development, here they simply feel alive. Nishiya brings a level of nuance to character acting otherwise unseen in television animation and it goes a long way towards making the cast relatable. Kobayashi in particular is benefitted greatly since she usually inhabits a more static space than her outrageous guests.
Finally, while the narrative doesn’t allude to grander themes as we’ve seen before, it manages to encapsulate everything lovely and heartwarming about the show and distill it into a twenty-minute time block. Elma is fun, but the crux of things lies where it should: with Kobayashi and Tohru’s relationship. Kobayashi is forced to be more openly compassionate to her frustrated partner in the end, which is nice payoff after many weeks of her emotional distance. She mentions that she “can’t make it any clearer than this” as she pats Tohru’s head, acknowledging that she has difficulties expressing her love.
I honestly can’t imagine another episode topping this one. It’s the perfect storm for this particular series. If I had to nitpick a flaw it would be the short, repetitive boob jokes interspersed throughout, but they’re hardly an issue this time. I don’t know if Yamada is just so good that anything she touches is gold or if her style simply meshes well with Dragon Maid, but I’m thankful to be blessed by her excellent work.
CJ Hitchcock (@cjhitchcock)
“The show has this bizarre need to turn every other scene into a heartfelt moral.”
Am I the only one who’s starting to think this show is starting to take itself too seriously? I was enjoying the first stretch of the episode where Kobayashi and Tohru have a cooking competition, it’s silly a silly scene of two parents trying to best each other for their child’s affection that comes to a screeching halt when the other dragon characters start yammering on about equality between humans and dragons. Instead of letting these moments happen and drawing laughs from the situation, the show has this bizarre need to turn every other scene into a heartfelt moral. It also feels it needs to explain itself to the audience whenever these scenes do pop up. They plainly state how we should feel about the events as they unfold. Instead of just watching the two characters have a harmless lovers’ spat, the show has to tell us that this is all a harmless lovers’ spat. This is made more irritating when you consider that the plot isn’t all that difficult to grasp in the first place. Why the show feels the need to hold our hands through this simple love story is beyond me.
And then there’s Elma. She doesn’t add anything to this show. If anything her presence makes it feel bloated. Just like Kanna, Fafnir and Lucoa, Elma is yet another dragon who wants to leave her home and give the human world a chance. Her deal is that she’s an enemy of Tohru’s, but since they are on neutral territory their battle is reduced to giving each other nasty stares and occasionally sneaking in a beam attack. The only bit of information that she provides to us is that Tohru is a “Choas Dragon”, which are apparently seen as baddies in the realm that they original came from. This isn’t much of a surprise. Tohru and her friends talk about their superiority over the humans nonstop, and a majority of the magic powers they make use of are destructive in nature. So when Elma pops up and claims she’s from the light side of the force and Tohru is a member of the Sith, it comes across as meaningless information. After all, we’ve watched this character for eight episodes now, we kinda get what they’re about. Outside of stating the obvious, Elma’s just another rival character for Tohru.
At this point, I’m pretty frustrated with the show. I just want a silly, slice-of-life series, but every episode seems to be drowning in these heavily melodramatic moments that slow things down. What uninterrupted gags they do have are the pedophillic scenes between Shouta and Lucoa that make me want to recommend the show less and less. I’m only still watching for Kanna at this point. Every scene with her is adorable and I kinda wish the show was just about her various misadventures. I couldn’t care less about the adults at this point.
“Even without knowing it’s Yamada, one can sense a distinct personality and wit in the story and direction.”
This is a gorgeous episode, with the some of the most fun animation and direction yet. The plot consists of two parts, both of which involve conflict between Tohru and Kobayashi. The first part is a light-hearted competition over who can prepare Kanna the best lunch for her field trip. The second part introduces a new dragon, Elma, who serves as a (slightly) more serious threat to the protagonists’ relationship. I find the basic conflict setup a refreshing change of pace. Tohru and Kobayashi are just allowed to clash; there’s no need for introspective monologues or mushy conversations. A bit of superfluous dialogue creeps into a few scenes, but for the most part the episode prefers to show rather than tells.
Naoko Yamada storyboards and directs for the first time on the series. She isn’t known for this broad style of comedy, but her work here is absolutely top-notch. The whole episode is full of clever staging and action. One of my favorite shots has an outraged Tohru slamming her hands on the judges’ table—the force of her motion causing Fafnir and Lucoa’s hair, clothing, and mammaries (of the latter) to sway and flutter while the characters themselves remain unmoved. Though the gag itself isn’t novel, the brisk timing and understated execution adds to the overall humor of the scene. Such simple details go a long way, like Kobayashi adjusting her glasses after Elma crashes into her apartment, or Tohru damaging a building in her jealous rage. Towards the end, Yamada builds up suspense by not showing Tohru’s full face until Kobayashi finishes her speech. Then there’s that great shot where the camera zooms out to reveal the gaping hole in the door left by Elma, adding a layer of irony to the heartwarming scene. Even without knowing it’s Yamada, one can sense a distinct personality and wit in the story and direction. She has an eye for detail and understanding of character like few others currently in the business.
Animation director Futoshi Nishiya is no slouch either, bringing a constant stream of fun and creativity to both the character and effects animation. There’s some inventive uses of multiples—at one point Tohru leaves behind a trail of faded afterimages as a representation of speed. Another scene has Elma splitting into three versions of herself, with no effort made to hide the abstract effect. The poses and faces are consistently expressive, and there’s a lot of interesting and funny mouth shapes. Tohru’s vindictive cleaning comes to mind as a particular acting standout. On top of that there’s a generous amount of smears and rubbery doors, which are always a good thing.
The only real flaw here is the Shota and Lucoa scenes. They’re just a string of boob jokes (nowhere near as funny as the subtle visual gag earlier) that feel totally out of place with the rest of the story. Although they’re brief and relatively painless, the final one closes the episode on a sour note. I’m guessing Yamada had no control over the script but it’s still kind of a shame. Scenes like this make me question KyoAni’s choices in adaptations; it is clearly beneath their staff’s talent.
“…there is a great show for me somewhere in all this – if only I could get to it.”
In terms of my opinions on Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, this might be what I consider to be an archetypal episode of the show. It checks nearly all of my likes and dislikes about the series in one fell swoop.
The episode opens with Kanna needing to have a lunch prepared for school the next day, which instigates a competitive cook-off between Kobayashi and Tohru over who can prepare the best lunch. The contest is (naturally) judged by Kanna, Fafnir, and Luzoa, who offer colorful commentary on each of three courses to the meal. Partway through the runtime a new dragon appears – Elma. She challenges Tohru as it turns out she and the titular maid are on opposing factions in the other realm. It is revealed that Elma is part of the order faction and that in fact Tohru is a chaos dragon. The fight does not end up occurring, and Elma gets a job at Kobayashi’s business because she is trapped in this world. Tohru buys Elma a treat after work, then when Elma shows up at the apartment to return the favor Tohru’s jealousy causes her to react violently. Afterwards, Tohru and Kobayashi share a serious moment where they express some of their insecurities about themselves and their relationship.
Perhaps my greatest complaint with the show is the feeling the sense that for all that goes on, nothing really seems to happen. Describing the show involves going over a thousand minor scenes and vignettes, but these moments seldom feel connected or meaningful to me. I wonder if this show would not have been better served by ditching the standard twenty-two minute runtime and going with five or ten minute episodes to really leverage the fact that it does not seem concerned with longer narratives. This would make it easier to talk about the distinct “chunks” that the show comes in, because moment to moment the show shifts from parody to titillation to drama and back again, all with little regard for what happened even two minutes prior.
Many of this week’s character moments do not stick the landing, in my estimation. It has less to do with the scenes themselves, and more to do with what I feel is an insufficient amount of lead-in to give them the punch they ought to have. Take the standout moment of the episode: Kobayashi opening up to Tohru. Confronted with Tohru’s violent jealousy, Tohru admits that she really has never been desired before and is having trouble processing it. Having spent her life as unremarkable and largely ignored, she is unused to this attention, and is emotionally ill-equipped to properly handle Tohru’s affection. This is a moment that feels genuine and provides some emotional clarity for Kobayashi’s seeming indifference to Tohru. Sadly, it lacks much of the impact it could have had because Elma is the catalyst for the situation and she never feels like a real threat to Tohru/Kobayashi’s relationship. In terms of raw real estate for the viewer, Elma has only been on screen for, say, four minutes tops? Even in the context of the show the extent of her relationship with Tohru has been an exchange of food and finding out that they are coworkers (something Elma admits she did not realize when taking the job). This makes Kobayashi’s revelation lack a lot of the urgency it could have had if we had more time to see Kobayashi and Elma together, watching them become more entwined and straining Tohru’s patience, which would have validated Tohru’s aggression.
The rest of the cast feels particularly one note this week. Kanna sets up the cooking segment and little more, Fafnir Gendo-poses and acts flippant about the value of human life (odd, given what we have seen of him for the last two weeks), and the less said about Luzoa’s scenes the better. Elma, the latest addition, is still something of an unknown at this stage, and is only around long enough to convey a love of food and little else
My opinions on the show’s other qualities are well-known and largely unchanged. The animation moves from strength to strength, and Kyoani’s team is as comfortable with bombastic fight choreography as it is with subtle changes of expression. The backgrounds, set design, and varied locales give the world a sense of realism and texture, while the range of facial expressions and body movements do the same for the characters. Much of the comedy falls flat for me, but the animators have a knack for visual parody that feels endearing rather than hackneyed.
If there is one constant with Dragon Maid, it’s that I seldom find myself enjoying the show, but there is a great show for me somewhere in all this – if only I could get to it. Here’s hoping for episode nine…