Reaper's Reviews: 'Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid'
Production: Kyoto Animation
Format: 13 episodes + 1 OVA
Release: January 11, 2017 – April 6, 2017
For better and for worse, Kyoto Animation will always be my go-to studio to anything slice-of-life.
Despite a few rocky outings such as Lucky Star and K-On!, for the most part, KyoAni simply knows how to make these shows work. Sure, while the premises they write or the stories they adapt are not always top-notch, their visual and aural presentation is rivaled by very few studios.
I don’t consider myself a big fan of the slice of life genre, but I do enjoy immersing myself in one such show every once in a while. As much as I like dark, dramatic plotlines and exhilarating action sequences, even I need some rest with a nice and cozy series about mundane situations made cute.
Enter Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, a KyoAni comedy that ended up becoming one of the biggest and most acclaimed titles of 2017, which is no small fit considering how great 2017 was with titles such as Made in Abyss, Land of the Lustrous and Girls’ Last Tour. And that’s really just scratching the surface.
Dragon Maid has been on my radar for quite awhile, given that almost all of my anime friends have already watched it at the time. Each time I was planning to watch it, well, you know how it goes: new shows and movies pop up and I end up forgetting about that one specific show that I promised to myself I’d watch.
And it brings us to this moment. This time I am going to review the 2017 anime based on the manga written by Coolkyoushinja, directed by Yasuhiro Takemoto (director of The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya) and produced by studio Kyoto Animation: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid.
Story & Setting
As with most slice-of-life and comedy shows, Dragon Maid doesn’t really have a story, or at least some loosely tied overarching arc. Aside from the first and last episodes, the series is mostly composed of stand-alone adventures, though they do build upon their preceding episodes with the inclusion of new characters, jokes and themes.
Kobayashi is an office worker in modern-day Japan. Her days often remain the same, mostly juggling between her busy jobs hours and drinking night times with her co-worker and best friend, Takiya. While normally a calm and stoic person, Kobayashi becomes loud and overly confident when drunk.
On one occasion, a drunk Kobayashi encounters a dragon, and due to her intoxication manages to not only stand up to a creature that could kill her in a matter of seconds, but also invite the dragon, called Tohru, into her house to become her maid. And Tohru agrees, much to a sober Kobayashi’s shock and confusion. And thus begin the misadventures of Kobayashi and Tohru together.
Of course it’s not only Kobayashi and Tohru, and a relatively large cast (for a one-cour series) is built throughout the series’ course, most notably with the formal introduction of the young dragon Kanna in episode 2, but includes friends, associates and other dragons as well.
Frankly, I want to start with some negatives first before we move on to the good parts. I wouldn’t call this series bad by any means, but at the same time Dragon Maid is far from perfect, mostly with its sense of humor.
As has been said multiple times throughout the years, comedy is subjective; some might like one kind of humor, other will not, and personally I might fall to the latter category regarding Dragon Maid.
Dragon Maid features a very tame sense of humor for the most part, often focusing on either the dragon characters slowly learning more about the human world or how the human characters interact with them. It’s a mostly lighthearted affair that emphasizes cuteness rather than hilarity, although some moments of slapstick tend to ramp up the comedy once in a while.
The different scenarios played over the series are amusing and pure fun to watch, however, from the cast going to enjoy in a beach to a sports festival held in Kanna’s school. They rarely made me laugh, but they were highly entertaining to watch regardless.
One aspect where the comedy really falls flat whether it’s your cup of tea or not is the overreliance on running gags and punchlines, because these are present every episode, several times over. And while the first couple of these jokes were mildly amusing, by the time the series ends they have really overstayed their welcome.
Some subtler jokes such as Tohru’s attempts to feed Kobayashi her tail (it makes sense in context) or Fafnir becoming addicted to gaming culture are rather funny even near the end of the series due to their relatively spare usage or connection to the characters' development. But then you have Saikawa’s infuriating reactions every single time she makes physical contact with Kanna and the sexually suggestive interactions between the well-endowed Lucoa and the preadolescent mage Shouta.
Such running gags get old rather quickly. They never evolve into anything meaningful that builds upon what was shown and they even hamper the development and characterization of the involved characters, reducing them into little more than one-notes. Hell, even the running gags I did like were lucky because they weren’t repeated as often or as obnoxiously.
On that note, I also have to inform you, my dear readers, that the series also has its fair share of what can be described as shotacon and lolicon undertones. The shotacon stuff is pretty obvious with Lucoa and the aptly-named Shouta, but there is also episode 6 ramps it up alongside the - in my opinion - semi-sexualized portrayal of Kanna and Saikawa.
Granted, I wouldn’t say it’s as deal-breaking as I make it sound like, but it did make uncomfortable at times, and if you are easily disturbed by such content, then proceed with caution. Because in combination with the aforementioned jokes, it can get exhausting.
“But wait, Raziel! I thought you liked this series! Seems like most of the things you said so far were just negatives!”
Well, you’re right, voice in my head. While the comedy was more of a miss for me than a hit, the real meat of the series - at least for me - was (besides its characters in general, we’ll get to that) its take on family values and friendship, which made the show a lot more relatable than it should have been.
It’s not an uncommon trope in anime to present a family built from unrelated people who slowly grow to enjoy each other’s company; you have Bunny Drop which touches on the bond between a man who finds himself raising a girl unwanted by anyone else. But what sets Dragon Maid apart is its focus on a “complete” family as a whole.
You have Kobayashi as the laid-back and level-headed parent figure, Tohru who alters between a ditsy mother figure and a loving older sister, while Kanna serves as the young and innocent daughter. And I really loved this dynamic; the way Kobayashi begins to warm up to the idea of living with other people, or how Tohru and Kanna grow to trust humans due to Kobayashi’s influence were organic developments that helped you relate to them and cheer for their relationship.
One of my favorite segments in the entire series revolves around Kobayashi and Tohru shopping with Kanna to prepare her for school. At one point a cute key chain catches Kanna’s attention, but Kobayashi is too tight on money to afford buying that too, so Kanna quietly returns the key chain to its place.
And a bit later, Kobayashi gifts Kanna the same key chain to celebrate Kanna’s first day in school. It was a brief, little moment, but it meant so much for both characters and showed their attachment to each other.
And then you have the final episode, which aside from being an amazing season finale in general, was the touching culmination of Kobayashi finally realizing just how important Tohru became for her. And honestly, that alone was worth any and all criticisms I had against the show.
While the comedic aspects of the series are hit and miss, the world of Dragon Maid is populated by eccentric and colorful characters that eventually grow on you. From our main trio, to close friends and fellow dragons, to minor characters such as neighbors and other residents of the city.
Putting Kanna aside for a little while, Kobayashi and Tohru form the heart of Dragon Maid, and much of the series’ high points consist of how one develops the other and vice versa. In the beginning of the series, Kobayashi is a very dry person who’d rather prefer to go back to her old, normal life rather than put up with the wild shenanigans brought up by Tohru, Kanna and the other magical beings in the show.
It’s her interactions with Tohru - and eventually Kanna and the rest - that eventually help her grow as a person who for the very least enjoy the newfound energy in her daily routine. She doesn’t lose her sternness or down-to-earth personality, but she becomes fond of her new friends and family. This makes Kobayashi my favorite character in the series; she may not have the spice of the rest of the cast, but she’s very relatable with her development.
Tohru is Kobayashi’s complete opposite in terms of personality: she is childishly upbeat and over-enthusiastic, sometimes to the point of annoyance. But it’s her cheerfulness that helps mellow Kobayashi down, who in return begins to discard her previous racial views on humans as she becomes smitten with Kobayashi and fond of the human world.
Although make no mistake; if you don’t like Tohru’s personality that much, there is little for you to look for in Dragon Maid. It took me a few episodes to tolerate and enjoy Tohru as a character, but her personality can be a little too much for some.
Finally, you have Kanna. While she is not as prominent as her parent figures, it’s hard to dislike Kanna. For starters, she is a moe character done right. But it’s not her only defining characteristic, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s her bonding with Kobayashi that adds depth to her character, as well as focus on her school life. She is adorable, but is not just some shallow character with the sole purpose of being cute.
While those three form the core of Dragon Maid, I doubt the series would have been as good as it is without some zany and absurd supporting characters for them to interact with.
The most prominent supporting characters are Tohru’s fellow dragons Fafnir, Lucoa and Elma, and human friends that include Kobayashi’s co-worker Takiya, Kanna’s classmate Riko Saikawa and Lucoa’s… host, a young wizard by the name of Shouta.
Fafnir, Takiya and Elma are among my favorite characters in Dragon Maid. Takiya’s dual personality between a laid back worker to an enthusiastic otaku is always an amusing contrast, while Elma’s clumsy nature and appetite for human food makes her incredibly endearing. Fafnir’s extreme xenophobic attitude towards humans takes the cake, however, and his slow bond with Takiya draws parallels with Tohru and Kobayashi’s situation in an interesting manner.
Lucoa and Shouta on their own are fine characters. Lucoa’s chill nature and motherly treatment of younger characters is, for the most part, lovely. At the same time, Shouta’s shy and meek demeanor is adorable to watch. My only gripe with them is related to the sexually suggestive interactions between them, as I already said in the previous section.
Finally… You have Saikawa. Saikawa is very much a base-breaking character; you either like her, or you hate her. Personally, I fall into the second category as I cannot stand neither her obnoxious personality, nor her over-the-top attraction towards Kanna. Sure, it was amusing the first time around, but Saikawa is such a one-note joke that she ends up harming the show.
Now, I have to admit that the minor characters also deserve some mentioning here, especially because of how likable they can be while also being distinguished enough in both appearance and behavior to really stand out.
Characters like Saikawa’s older sister Georgie and Kobayashi’s neighbors bring a lot more life to the series despite only having a minimal impact on the main cast’s daily life. And then you have a couple of one-shot characters that still regain their own unique quirks and marks that help setting them apart from the rest, and it’s just something that you don’t normally see in anime, or television in general.
Animation & Art
If you have any passing knowledge about Kyoto Animation as a studio, you’ll know that they excel at two things: the slice of life genre and the moe art-style, both forming the backbone of Dragon Maid. And Kyoto Animation is normally known by their consistently high production values and visual storytelling. Dragon Maid is not Kyoto Animation’s best looking work, but it’s still a lovingly animated series.
Dragon Maid employs a softer and rounder art style akin to Lucky Star and Nichijou. The character designs are classic moe, but also retain a certain amount of polish and detail that hints at its prodigy. Their vibrant and recognizable figures give contrast to the more washed-out, almost hand-drawn looking backgrounds, which help emphasizing the former.
Animation itself is often pretty good with fluid movements and crisp artwork. For the most part it’s pretty standard fare for Kyoto Animation, but at certain times - especially the slapstick moments - the quality of the animation rises significantly. Some stand-out scenes include Tohru and Kanna “roughhousing” together to the point it looks like a battle straight out of Dragon Ball Z, and of course the dodgeball game between four of the dragons.
If I have anything negative to say about the animation department, then it would be the fanservice. I don’t have much of a problem with the fanservice myself, and for the most part Dragon Maid knows how to not exaggerate it or put it in disappropriate moments (some lolicon scenes aside), but if you plan on watching Dragon Maid, then just know it’s there.
That’s really Lucoa in a nutshell, as her outfit makes no attempt at hiding what she really is: the fanservice pack of the series. It's not something that "ruined" the series for me, but personally I would’ve wanted Lucoa to have a little more personality than the token top-heavy girl of the series. Even Elma - the second most prominent fanservice-y character - has more to offer than Lucoa at times.
Audio & Sound
There isn’t much for me to say about the soundtrack for Dragon Maid. It was composed by the brilliant Masumi Itō, who has worked on such works such as Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom and Scrapped Princess. Itō is a talented composer and Dragon Maid has a competent soundtrack that is tailor-made for slice-of-life shenanigans.
It’s lighthearted and upbeat with goofy violins and drums to accompany it. While I can’t think of one track that really stood out for me, the soundtrack as a whole is lovely to listen to; it never overshadows the scene, but gently compliment the generally silly yet cozy feeling of the series.
The same goes for the opening and ending themes of the series. “Aozora no Rhapsody” by the group Fhána is a jolly, fast-paced opener that will get stuck in your head for hours while also having an attractive animation. Meanwhile, the ending theme “Ishukan Communication” - sang by the actresses who voice the female dragons - is just a nice little song that is so amusingly nonsensical that it’s adorable.
When it comes to the voice acting, the English dub is superb. Leah Clark as Kobayashi gives her character a stoic facade that can quickly dissolve into her worried state, while Sarah Wiedenheft gives Tohru a playful and youthful voice that compliments the character’s design.
Joining the two are Jad Saxton with her adorable portrayal of Kanna, Jamie Marchi’s motherly yet mischievous role as Lucoa, Garret Storms as the deliciously vicious Fafnir, Rachel Glass’ clumsy yet adorable Elma, alongside additional voicework by folks such as Sara Ragsdale, Jeff Johnson and Alison Viktorin.
There has been some controversy with the dub from what I understand, specifically the change of a few lines in the English screenplay supposedly out of the scriptwriter’s political agenda. I only noticed this after reading about the changes, and personally I don’t find the changes too drastic or noticeable to break the English dub as a whole.
English dubs - and most dubs, anyways - have a history of changing lines and meanings to either fit with the lip syncing better or localize the series with their own cultural elements. In Dragon Maid, on a second viewing I did feel that the line in question - Lucoa explaining her change of clothing in episode 12 - didn’t make much sense with her character, but it’s not something that will ruin the dub if you enjoy them over the original Japanese audio.
However, if such changes do annoy you, then I suggest the original version over the English dub.
Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is the kind of anime that I watch every once in a while whenever I feel down and I just want something cute and heartwarming to watch. For the most part it’s nothing exceptional, but it’s this familiar warmth that makes Dragon Maid a fun watch. Sure, as a comedy Dragon Maid makes several critical mistakes with its humor and jokes, but where the series truly shines is when it delves into our main characters and the relationship they build throughout the series’ 13-episode run.
There are quite a few issues with some of the content presented, and they do keep Dragon Maid from being a truly great series. But even then, its message of familial values and birth of friendships and relationships is powerful and relatable. Dragon Maid has a lot of heart and some strong character moments amidst a relatively standard slice-of-life formula, and coupled with smooth, lovely animation and music, it’s a pretty fun series. It lacks some teeth, but anyone who enjoys Kyoto Animation’s works should check it out.
- Typical Kyoto Animation production values in a cute package.
- Touches on family and friendship themes in a unique set-up for anime.
- Fun, heartwarming characters.
- Humor is hit-and-miss with overreliance on running gags and subtle execution.
- Some loli- and shotacon undertones feel tasteless and out-of-place.
- If you don't like Tohru as a character then the series won't offer much to you.
& the Ugly:
- Dishes with Tohru's tail in them just look wrong.
Now, as far as alternate recommendations go, I have two good choices:
- The Devil is a Part-Timer - Produced by studio White Fox, The Devil is a Part-Timer is an amusing series that merges slice-of-life comedy with fantastic elements not unlike Dragon Maid, only in this series the supernatural creature is Satan. It's fun, pretty and not too long to watch.
- Nichijou - Nichijou is a premier example of Kyoto Animation's prodigy when it comes to slice-of-life and comedy. Words cannot describe this series' eccentric humor and outrageous scenarios. With smooth visuals and excellent comedic timing, Nichijou is a must-watch even if you didn't enjoy Dragon Maid.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Raziel Reaper