The following article contains spoilers for key plot points in Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid.
If you’ve been to any anime conventions in the past 4-5 months, no doubt, you’ve seen some of the characters from Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid running around. If you haven’t or aren’t even sure who these weirdos are … then we are about to learn you a thing. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is a curiosity of a show from Kyoto Animation that began airing in January of this year, based on the eponymous manga by Coolkyoushinja. It is an oddity situated somewhere between cutesy, romance shojo (literally “young girl”) anime and more mature, serious josei (literally “woman”) anime. And nowhere is it more of an oddity than in the way love is portrayed throughout its first season.
In romance or slice-of-life anime (most seasoned anime viewers will agree that Miss Kobayashi lands in the latter category) of either the shojo or josei variety, depictions of love tend to fall into two categories: chaste, emotional love and sexual, intimate love. In addition, the norm, rather than the exception, is for the story to focus entirely on the primary couple, whose struggles to come together or to stay together, form the dramatic backbone of the entire work. Not so with Miss Kobayashi. This story has more lofty and yet, strangely, simpler ambitions. Rather than going the route that many josei anime and manga do, with intense emotional and physical trauma, fantastic settings and characters (really, how many accidental marriages to nobility could one possibly experience?!), Miss Kobayashi takes a gentle, near-bucolic tone, introducing not only a central couple, but other kinds of relationships that explore to satisfying and sometimes tear-jerking depth what love of all kinds can look like.
Kobayashi and Tohru’s Relationship
The central couple of our story, the development of Kobayashi and Tohru’s relationship over the course of show offers the first and clearest thesis of the show’s message: love is exploration and transformation of the self, but also, a potential for loss.
In Kobayashi, we see something of a non-traditional lead character–stoic, non-emotive, uninterested in the usual expressions of femininity so endemic to female characters in romantic works. Though more gender-neutral, she is ultimately neither mannish nor womanish. She simply is. Early on in Episode 1, when going out drinking with Takiya, a coworker, she quips, “There are plenty of other girls you could ask…” to which Takiya simply replies, “You’re like one of the guys, though.” Given the superficially attractive appearance of this coworker (trust me, it’s a hell of a red herring), it’s easy to imagine what scenario would follow (he doesn’t think of her as a woman, she pines after him). Not so it turns out, when Kobayashi seems simply amused at his assertion. Despite her own discomforts at not being more womanly (the flat chest seems to be a particular point of contention), the Kobayashi we first meet has more or less accepted the circumstances of her life.
If Kobayashi’s initial flatness sets a quiet foundation for the story, Tohru is the logical extreme of both otherworldliness and every single romance character trope taken to the nth degree (at first). Her first appearance is, in fact, in her dragon form. It’s so terrifying that Kobayashi is convinced on their first meeting (that she remembers) it must all be a dream. When Tohru transforms into her human form, she is overtly feminine, eye-lash battingly charming, in possession of an adorable voice, and to cap it all off: wearing a cosplay maid outfit. It’s entirely outlandish, and cuts an intense contrast to the initial blandness of Kobayashi’s character. The more genre savvy among viewers will likely have caught on by now these characters’ destinies. Dragon-ness aside, Tohru’s key characterization early on is one of ignorance–ignorance of human emotion, ignorance of human conventions (such as basic hygiene and what purpose a seesaw serves), and ignorance of what it means when she begs Kobayashi to “take her on as a maid.”
Their relationship (and the story as a whole) begins as an immediate subversion of the “love at first sight” device. Rather, the opening of it is simply one of acceptance. En route to work on Tohru’s back (yes, she can fly), Kobayashi wonders silently, “Maybe it won’t be so bad to have someone around from now on.” Notice, nowhere is an overt confession of love so typical of the genre to be found (other than Tohru’s, which are played for comedy than drama). Their relationship stays that way for the whole of the current series. Instead, we are treated to a series of snapshots and tender moments where Kobayashi and Tohru slowly unfurl towards one another: Kobayashi admitting she doesn’t know what it’s like to be wanted, Tohru shedding the harsh beliefs from her own world (briefly hinted at by her comments on the weakness of humanity) and slowly developing appreciation of humanity through Kobayashi, and her ultimate acceptance that their happiness can only be temporary due to the differences in their lifespans (you know, May-December romance and all).
Some Western viewers have and likely will find the conclusion of the series (for now) unsatisfying. (“Why haven’t they said they’re in a relationship, man?!”). Given this is Japan, where homosexuality is still largely frowned upon, the show might as well have been screaming it from the rooftops by their standards, (they’re cohabiting and Kobayashi takes Tohru to visit her parents). By and large, the show benefits from the pulled punches, allowing the portrayal of domestic life to communicate their growing closeness instead.
Platonic Love Has Screentime Here Too
While the unconventional pairing in Kobayashi and Tohru gives the show its backbone, subsequent relationships developed between characters rounds out the show’s edges. Two in particular serve to explore the platonic side of love, one that is much less common in the vast romance genre.
The first is between Kobayashi and Kanna, a young dragon who arrives in pursuit of Tohru (or her beloved Tohru-sama, if you will). It soon comes to light that Kanna cannot return to her own world, having been banished for playing one trick too many. Unlike her initial hesitation with Tohru, where a curious guilt (and being late for work) forced her to accept Tohru’s offer, Kobayashi immediately opens her home to Kanna, without any of the attendant baggage of immediately having a “bond.” Instead, she merely reassures Kanna that *of course* she can’t immediately trust strangers in a strange new world, but that her offer is meant to be taken at face value. Kanna seemingly accepts this, and over the course of the show, revels in the parental love shown to her by Kobayashi. As with Tohru, Kanna’s experience gives us a very brief view into the world that the dragons come from–one seemingly harsh and unforgiving, even towards those as young as Kanna (she’s the dragon equivalent of a grade-schooler), where recognition is only earned through strength. In our world, Kanna and Tohru both find love and acceptance in Kobayashi–a far different, but more universal expression of love than the more usual romances.
The other relationship is between Takiya, Kobayashi’s coworker, and Fafnir, another dragon who later later also moves to the human world and becomes Takiya’s roommate. While platonic, Takiya and Fafnir’s relationship demonstrates the strength of bonding over similar passions. Mirror images of one another in outwardly normal and socially accepted appearances (the Japanese salaryman and the curse-propagating demonic dragon), the two nevertheless discover a hidden, mutual love of video games, manga, and various otaku-approved pursuits. Such is the relationship that they, too, settle into a domestic routine not unlike Kobayashi and Tohru’s (‘Tonight, we’re having curry.” “Mild?” “Of course”). The harmony of their home life (Takiya even asks Fafnir to beta-test a game he’s building in his free time) affirms again that “natural” differences observed between the dragon and human characters of the show are overcome by openness and acceptance.
Though billed and easily experienced as a comedy, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid nevertheless does not pull punches on springing random moments of emotional sincerity at the viewer, in times both appropriate and surprising. The show’s strength largely pulls from the above relationships as well as hints of a far larger world beyond the homes of our characters. It is really a show to be seen, rather than read about, if the emotional experience of it is what you’re after. Should you decide to, keep an eye out for the little details and quieter moments beyond the gags and one-liners, that’s where you’ll find Miss Kobayashi’s gems.
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