Review of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (2017)
Seen in 2018.
Imagine what would happen if the Pevensies closed the wardrobe, never went to Narnia and stayed at home eating snacks with adorable monsters.
A programmer, seen using Python on a web application, leads a solitary life with little to buffer her work-related stress and back pain. One night, as narrated in episode 12, she gets drunk at a bar after work, takes the wrong train and ends up in the countryside. There she bumps into a massive green dragon who reviles all human life. It has come there from a world of CRPG-style high fantasy to die, mortally wounded by an untouchable divine blade. The drunk programmer, an atheist, removes the blade. The dragon survives, regenerates, falls in love with its saviour and skips out of its eternal war with heaven to be a domestic servant.
Compare Azumanga Daioh (2002), the equivalent sitcom from 15 years earlier. Both shows are about cute girls doing cute things, with unrequited homosexual love played for laughs. Both serve primarily to make the audience unwind and relax. In Azumanga Daioh, there are no stakes. In The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006), by contrast, the stakes are cosmic. Dragon Maid, like Oh My Goddess (1993), finds a middle ground: There is a holy war between order and chaos, but this occurs in a secondary fantasy world with little bearing on the plot. The only real threat here is having to do what your parents tell you, and even that is only episode 13.
Compare also Mahoromatic: Automatic Maiden (2001), another show about a high-powered maid escaping an epic struggle. Mahoromatic doesn’t have the realistic stress. Its heroine is “retired”, its protagonist a normal kid. The nominal stakes in Dragon Maid, like the supernatural powers and the two- or three-tone hair styles that come with them, are a metaphor for learning how to deal with stress. Tohru not fighting the holy war is equivalent to Kobayashi not burning herself out at work.
By the same token, all of the superpowered characters ignore what they are naturally good at or expected to do. Kanna goes to elementary school instead of killing adventurers. Fafnir becomes a gaming geek who only eats mild junk food. Elma actually gets a job. Most jarringly, Quetzalcoatl is a passive-aggressive mock paedophile. When they use their powers, it’s a spectacle for visual flair or an absurd joke. Frequent references to killing people en masse bring in the grotesquerie of Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan (2005), albeit at a less toxic level, hardly comparable to The Saga of Tanya the Evil (2017). Though the premise is very similar to Golan the Insatiable (2013) with Kobayashi and Kanna both replacing Dylan, nobody actually dies in this one and nobody eats Tohru’s tail, no matter how often she cooks it and grows it back.
This is all transparently escapist. I dislike the in-your-face approach, and the systematic sexualization of children for comedic purposes (Saikawa, Shōta). Still, the craftsmanship is compelling. For instance, Kobayashi’s slave-driver boss is incompetent, so he’s fired. It hardly matters. Japanese workplace hierarchies are systemically terrible. In a 2018 poll by aggregator Shirabee, 27% of respondents said they had wanted to kill their boss at some point. Even so, both Kobayashi and Tohru take their jobs seriously and derive some satisfaction from them, which is healthy and realistic. In this way, the pure escapism co-exists with genuinely effective techniques for destressing—building trusting personal relationships, taking care of children etc.—and a work ethic. While much of the show is incoherent, its thematic heart is not.
A constructive, reformist approach would have been even better. The show’s progressiveness is limited to less political topics like love and lifestyle, a.k.a. “being yourself”. This cowardice is so conspicuous that it combines with the fetishism of Monster Musume (2015) to produce the incorrect conclusion that historical maids were subservient by choice. I would not be surprised if the Japanese had these bugs ironed out in another 15 years. Sadly, it will not happen by the hand of this show’s director, Takemoto Yasuhiro. He also made Hyouka (2012). Ironically, he was killed at work, in the tragic attack on Kyoto Animation’s headquarters in 2019.