Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid strikes a confident and consistent tone that meets and exceeds the animation and story pedigree set by previous episodic Kyoto Animation shows.
It tells the story of shapeshifting dragon Tohru, (Yūki Kuwahara) and her sudden ambition to freeload in the apartment of Kobayashi (Mutsumi Tamura), a female programmer by day and occasional, maid-otaku drunkard by night.
Along the way, Tohru’s presence in the human world draws several of her dragon friends into the dimension, too. The underlying appeal of the anime springs from the dragons’ sense of arrogant wonder as they discover a new culture and acclimate to the human world of urban Japan — fighting off their combative urges so as not to disrupt the peaceful human world.
Most of the time the acclimation is hilarious. An example would be when Tohru and her little sister-like dragon companion Kanna (Maria Naganawa) use a playground see-saw to launch each other into the stratosphere with their magical strength. Other times, the friction in their adjustment is more sombre, like when Tohru tries to understand Kobayashi’s servile deference to her boss at work, even though she’s more skilled than him.
Even in these darker moments, Maid Dragon always takes a light-hearted tack, likely to make you smile involuntarily in every episode. And above all else, Maid Dragon always plays with your emotions. It generates warm fuzzies or elicits tears without stalling its story-progression in the unfortunate way so many other slice-of-life anime often do with empty, protracted episodes that are devoid of meaningful character interaction.
Whether it’s telling a 15-second running gag with one of the supporting dragons or a four-minute, character-developing confrontation between Tohru and Kobayashi, Maid Dragon charges every scene with palpable humanity that keeps you invested.
It’s here that another of Maid Dragon’s biggest strengths lies. For as much as the show is centered on telling Kobayashi and Tohru’s story of love and growth, it’s impossible to talk about this anime without lauding Kanna’s narrative interjections.
Kanna can be seen as a standalone attraction. In a double whammy of perfect voice work from Naganawa and impeccable timing in all of her animations, her character appeals to your basic parental human emotions, making her impossible not to love.
The dragon’s penchant for swallowing-whole anything that moves is continually one of the funniest things I’ve seen animated. Her understated, cherub-like character design combined with her childish tendencies is the perfect balance to the (slightly) more mature dynamic between her adult roommates.
One of the best things about Maid Dragon’s execution when jumping between comedy and drama is the extreme consistency with which it delivers on its style and theme in each episode. Not one of its 13 episodes feels like an unwanted detour from emotions the show’s audience cares about, and each one is excellently paced with clear, logical writing.
From the staggered introductory episodes for each unique supporting dragon, to the ensemble episodes that all-inclusively champion each of the characters’ idiosyncrasies, Maid Dragon’s empathetic consideration of its cast’s motivations is superb.
And with everything else that Maid Dragon gets right, it’s easy to overlook just how well it handles the homosexual relationship at its core. The romantic development is natural and normalized, in a way that’s refreshing. It doesn’t take a discerning eye to spot the romantic love between the interspecies pair, and their sexuality is never portrayed as a societal sticking point.
It’s a love that starts small, almost surprised into existence, and it blossoms from week to week as they become a bonafide family along with Kanna. The climactic conflict over whether or not their love can withstand the difference in their species’ lifespan, and whether or not their parents will consent to their coupling is as stellar as any romance plot you’ll find. It digs deep beneath superficial aspects of attraction and challenges the idea of what it means to be in love and living together.
This season of Maid Dragon runs neither too long nor too short to tell its story. This is especially true when every episode is filled with cuts of animation you’d expect from an animated film. The show finds ways to inject bombastic action into its scenarios. Whether that’s the dragons competing in an anything-goes game of dodgeball, (complete with explosions, magical beams, and earth fissures) or when the ensemble decides to put on a Christmas play with their own special effects, the moving parts on screen are always a treat.
Even more impressive than the show’s mid-slice-of-life action scenes is the emotive animations on its characters’ faces that are almost Ghibli-esque. Swelling emotions seem to ripple through every fibre of their being when they smile, bristle with anger or feel pain. Loving smiles and bulging veins are exaggerated at pivotal narrative moments, sucking you into the scenes even more that the great writing already has.
And in Maid Dragon’s finale, it dollops out this fluid animation so liberally that it’s impossible not to feel satisfied at its cathartic conclusion, filled with a diplomatic message of inclusion.
Maid Dragon is a masterpiece thanks to the progressive approach to personal differences that it delivers with genuine humour and compassion. An anime that can be watched by anyone without even the slightest fear of disappointment, it stands as Kyoto Animation’s best episodic work and certainly one of the best shows from this winter season.
(Featured Image: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, Kyoto Animation)
You can read more of Kevin Pennyfeather’s work including weekly episode reviews of streaming anime on KevinPennyfeather.com.