Hello everyone, and welcome to Wrong Every Time. Today we’ll be checking out a new production, one I’ve been deliberately holding off on for a while now. My complicated feelings about this property and its circumstances have been hard to pin down, but I suppose brooding over it hasn’t resulted in any conclusions, so here we are. Writing is what I do, so let’s do some writing about my relationship with KyoAni and Kobayashi.
Kyoto Animation’s Chuunibyou was one of the shows that first got me writing about anime, back when I was just posting comments on reddit. Learning to appreciate their larger catalog served as a substantial portion of my “anime education,” as shows like K-On! taught me the power of animation in the abstract, while dramas like Hyouka embodied all of cinema’s highest callings. Even as I grew fatigued with the narrative limitations and audience-view assumptions of anime’s seasonal output, KyoAni’s productions continued to accelerate beyond such limits, resulting in masterpieces like Liz and the Blue Bird. Anime’s core audience would never grow up, but Kyoto Animation could, and with directors like Yamada and Takemoto at the helm, they might even herald animation’s critical reappraisal on the global stage.
Admittedly, my hopes were largely based on my own desires; I was tired of anime’s limitations, and hoped that my favorite creators were tired alongside me. But with the Kyoto Animation fire, any hopes of their future global output were transformed to hopes for their very survival, for swift recoveries and good health to all that had lived on. What does the precise nature of their output matter in the wake of that tragedy?
Since then, many creators have moved on from the studio. Others have moved on from the industry entirely. But Kyoto Animation survives, still maintaining their commitment to collective creation, still serving as a beacon of positive business practices in an incredibly exploitative industry. And here we are with their first full post-fire production, and I’m simply not sure how to handle it.
Kyoto Animation is a studio of master artists, but anime is not a field that consistently rewards such mastery. It harnesses that mastery to frequent ill purpose, tasking the best animators in the world with illustrating how a man in the body of a child might sexually harass a woman, or exactly how much blood a human-shaped blood bag could really contain. Anime’s visual achievements are matched only by its narrative handicaps, and in season two, I’ve been told that Dragon Maid will embrace significantly more of the things anime is damningly known for. The entire character of the new dragon seems like an embodiment of everything I dislike about anime, and the things I’ve heard about the story… the fact of it is, I just can’t separate form from content any more. And though the original Dragon Maid had plenty of great moments, it also had plenty of stuff that at this point would be a hard veto on my continued investment.
So that’s more or less the source of my trouble. I will always love Kyoto Animation, but I’m just plain fatigued with anime’s bullshit, and thus am prepped and ready for a somewhat bittersweet experience. With both my hopes and fears established, let’s explore the first episode of Miss Kobayashi’s Maid Dragon S!
We open on an establishing shot of Kobayashi’s apartment, portrayed in light pastels that look like colored pencils. KyoAni are always fairly particular about the texture of their background art; they employ some of the most ambitious post-processing effects in the business, but their productions also embody a love for the tactile nature of traditional drawing. The hand-drawn feeling of these irregular colors makes the overall composition feel that much more homey and inviting
Kobayashi immediately, unthinkingly cutting down Tohru’s “I’m the greatest maid, aren’t I” also serves as a fine reintroduction to this studio’s uniformly excellent comedic timing. Most jokes live or die based on their timing, and most directors lack the snappy sensibilities of KyoAni’s stable. Takemoto in particular was one of the best anime comedy directors ever
Gorgeous, personality-rich character acting as Tohru makes a general nuisance of herself. No studio has done more than KyoAni to inspire my appreciation for the pure joy of motion, and this production is already demonstrating why
The OP is an impressive mix of two tones: joyous, animation-driven goofiness reminiscent of Nichijou’s OPs, and pensive, layout/lighting-driven sequences of Tohru alone. I suppose that basically embodies the original series’ promise: lots of goofiness, but also some poignant reflections on loneliness and family
Tohru storms down to a local maid café, and is accidentally hired
Kobayashi’s terrible memories of retail work are conveyed through ominous cross-hatching surrounding the composition. KyoAni use lots of post-processing effects, but also understand and venerate the power of original drawings
I forgot just how adorable Kanna is. Even just her scooting onto the café seat is animated with so much charm; KyoAni really are incomparable
Another great use of distinct texture work to convey tone, this time embracing digital trickery to essentially create spinning paint splashes of fire around Tohru as she cooks. Less-defined blotches of color are then panned over the spinning wheels of red, creating an overall sense of a kitchen inferno
And her despair at not actually being a maid is conveyed through a take on The Scream. Good stuff
Just so much personality in their posture and movement, like with Tohru sliding back to point a finger at Kobayashi. Tohru’s generally deferential attitude towards Kobayashi might seem like a power imbalance in their relationship, if not for all the ways Tohru physically asserts herself (which makes sense, given she’s actually a dragon). The give-and-take of their relationship is expressed partially through character acting, something a lesser production couldn’t manage at all
Wonderful smears for Tohru skedaddling off to the kitchen. Joyful cartooning
And a gorgeous illustration of an exceedingly dumb gag as Tohru curses/blesses their omelet rice. A familiar Nichijou trick, elevating the stupid into the sublime through generosity of execution
In contrast, the final payoff evades our expectations through its subdued nature, with the comedy mostly contained in the quick shift from “let me make your food delicious” to the server’s eyes going completely white. You gotta vary up your punchlines, as surprise is the essence of comedy
As ever, KyoAni breakfasts look delicious
A massive chunk has been knocked out of the mountain where Kobayashi and Tohru first met, and so the gang proceeds to investigate all the other dragons, trying to find out who did it
Our reintroduction to Elma is another perfect demonstration of this team’s aesthetic flexibility, as well as directors like Takemoto’s clear understanding of how to best employ that power for comedic effect. We go through essentially “four panels” of a gag here – a medium shot of Elma blithely walking, a closeup of Tohru’s punch for impact, and then a dramatic shift to a low-angle shot staged from Tohru’s feet, demonstrating Elma flying away as if this were a high-octane action film. This shot is complex in perspective and depth, and yet it’s breezed over after a quick pause for impact, returning us to goofy and exaggerated closeups. The wholesale shift in cinematic genres for that one moment enhances the impact of the overall gag, underlining the silly exaggerations of all the other cuts
And of course, there’s the slight character-knowledge nod of Emma stuffing her face through this whole scenario
And Ilulu arrives, massively oversized boobs and all. Kyoto Animation have done an excellent job of spinning Dragon Maid’s best elements into a poignant family drama, but at its heart, the material they’re adapting is still largely designed to validate a variety of sexual fetishes. Great art obviously doesn’t avoid sexuality, or cloak it in any simplistic moral framework, but it’s also not designed purely as fetish material – it uses its every element to further some larger purpose, sexuality included. Anime like this doesn’t do that; there’s a portion of it that’s a very good family drama, and there’s a portion that’s designed to flatter certain audience member’s fetishes, and those two elements severely undercut each other’s efficacy
Anime will never grow as an art form without abandoning these concessions, but these concessions are also what make it financially viable. It’s a Catch 22 where the only solution is, well, what I’ve done: check in on the half dozen shows a year that aren’t fatally compromised, and otherwise don’t pay too much attention
Very neat tricks of perspective as we pan around the two fighting in the air. The seemingly cohesive hand-drawn background is actually composed of many layers of distinct buildings, all of which shift in relation as the angle of the camera changes
Elma claims she can’t interfere, but Kobayashi buys her off with sweets
The combinations of layers they’re using for these fire effects are remarkable. The guiding principle seems to be “fire is not a continuous object – it is an accumulation of layers of discord.” Thus there are multiple layers of both rough color splashes and frenetic linework, along with individual “sparks” likely created as an additional filter layer
This fight is beautifully realized, but as one of the only anime studios who’ve seemingly outgrown action movies, I feel impatient for KyoAni to get back to the domestic stuff
“For a moment I almost thought I could let everyone except Miss Kobayashi die.” Seems we’re setting up a new conflict for Tohru, as she grapples with her inhuman nature, and whether she is truly fit for human society. A rival who demands she return to being a chaos dragon seems like a fine way to facilitate that
For the moment, head pats seem enough to soothe her worries
Now Ilulu wants to know how Kobayashi has such power over dragons
Ilulu attempts to seduce Kobayashi with her megaboobs, a regrettable encounter for all involved
Kobayashi’s explanation for her relationship with Tohru is wonderful. “Respect turns to trust, and trust turns to love” is a great way to describe the enduring rewards of a long relationship
“Is that how humans think?” “No, that’s how I, Kobayashi, think. Don’t you distinguish between how you and other dragons think?” A key step on the road away from prejudice. I’ll always remember an exchange I read as a kid, where an alien says he grew up in a swamp, is asked by a human child “are you from a swamp planet,” and responds “are you from a swamp planet?” Fiction simplifies into categories, and so do our minds, but the world is never so simple
A brief flashback clues us in that Ilulu’s feelings are no general policy, they’re based in some injustice humans committed in her past
And of course, the episode stinger hints at the plot that basically everyone who’d read the source material was worried about: Kobayashi grows a penis
Man, that was quite the experience. On the one hand, this episode did feature some of the stuff I was already fearing from the source material, and Ilulu’s whole nature is such an irritant that it’s doubtful I’ll make it through the season. On the other hand, this episode was absolutely brimming with elements of Kyoto Animation goodness that I’d forgotten how much I loved, from its gorgeous mixture of traditional and digital photography, to the incredible vitality its animation brought to every character and gag. Watching this show, I am reminded that some creators actually can create animation so alluring and dramatically resonant that it carries the whole production, and that Kyoto Animation is still unparalleled in capturing the inherent joy of art in motion. Even without their two greatest directors, I feel significantly more optimistic about Kyoto Animation’s future now; the studio that stoked my love of anime is still dazzling to behold.
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