Apr 5, 2017
Veronin (All reviews)
Kyoto Animation has been something of a lost soul, struggling to find its identity in a post-Haruhi and K-ON world. It is through flipping back the dial and returning to their roots that their newest title, Maid Dragon, is able to find its footing. It feels like something that might have been animated once upon a time in 2005, and that is precisely what makes it so special in the modern climate of harem and superpower.

And unlike many of their more recent titles, it knows what it wishes to be and never compromises its vision in a futile attempt to appease everyone and anyone. It doesn't play around with drama, and it never centres on action and explosions despite its cast of malevolent dragons. It's silly. It's relaxing. And it can even be a bit heartwarming when it tries, too. Have I also mentioned that Tohru is cute as all hell?

Some may immediately wince and groan upon reading the series' synopsis. Maids plus dragons does not make for a very promising setting, nor does it seem like a combination that required much more than two or three seconds of thought. Everything that could possibly exist has, or inevitably will, receive some sort of series with cute girls indiscriminately slapped onto it. Modern anime has trained people to be cynical.

But to treat Maid Dragon as just another silly comedy with moe characters wouldn't be entirely fair, as there are a number of things it does quite differently. Kobayashi, the show's title character and languid protagonist, is a working adult rather than the conventional teenager. Whereas most anime of its nature would choose instead to play a teenager as some pseudo-adult ("my parents are conveniently away on a business trip, so, hey, I have this house and this maid lady all to myself"), Maid Dragon chooses instead to portray real adults with real issues. Kobayashi is so bored with the office-lady routine that she will choose to drink herself halfway to death after a long day's work. Such is life in much of Japan.

By portraying adult characters, the sense of family between Kobayashi, Tohru, and Kamui feels genuine. Kobayashi is the mother of the household, and she will snap back at her dragon friends whenever they do something unreasonable. She is strict, yet also caring, and tries her best to understand their difficulties with getting used to the human world. Even little things such as peeling oranges for the two on their kotatsu makes it clear that she appreciates their company, even if she may not always be clear and forthright about it. Maid Dragon is true slice-of-life.

Kobayashi being female also helps to keep the show away from any unnecessary sexual undertones. If she were male, the show would no doubt be a harem, and it would be all the worse for it. It is hard to care about a cast when the only thing characterising them is accidental breast fondling (yay) and walking in on (and screaming at) each other in the bathroom. Yawn. While Tohru's feelings for Kobayashi are humorously exaggerated as being romantic, that is not Tohru's actual intentions, and indeed, her reactions come more from gratitude and a desire to protect her guardian, rather than anything genuinely romantic or sexual. The one exception is that, yes, there is a compulsory beach scene, although I suppose I can't fault it too much as it was relatively short and harmless (and because Tohru's body is a lovely sight indeed).

Maid Dragon can occasionally be funny-- Tohru visiting Kobayashi's workplace and repeatedly tripping her crabby boss, or challenging one of the other dragons to a fight in another dimension only to close it on them-- but it isn't an anime that is particularly defined by laughs. It is meant more to be relaxing, and, undoubtedly thanks to Kamui's presence, cute, at times adorable. I just wish it didn't have to repeat the same joke about Tohru cooking her tail a million and one times over.

The anime is at its strongest when it focuses on these main three, which makes the scenes with the other three dragons and Kobayashi's otaku friend, Takiya, significantly less appealing. Takiya's split personality is so jarring and exaggerated that he is often more obnoxious than anything, and Quetzalcoatl is pretty much a non-character whose only defining traits are that her boobs are large and that she likes to dress in scantily-clad clothing. If they were taken out altogether, I don't think anyone would find much reason to complain. More time should instead have been spent developing Kobayashi's cynical worldview, and Tohru's newfound interest in human society, the show's two most compelling themes. It would be nice for Kamui to also have something else to her besides simply being cute and snugly, but then I suppose it would be difficult to develop a character who is essentially the equivalent of a six or seven-year-old child. I sure as heck did not have anything else defining me at that age besides a love for candy and temper tantrums.

Kyoto Animation's artwork is generally excellent, but it certainly stands out in Maid Dragon's case. While there are few scenes that draw particular attention for their animation, the cute and humorous expressions the characters make (notably Tohru and Kamui) make the anime a ripe for grabbin' screenshots. Tohru's eyes are especially detailed, and draw attention to her nature as a dragon while never seeming overtly inhuman. Bright colours and soft edges also do well to enhance the fluffy, relaxing atmosphere the anime strives for. Part of the problem I had with some of KyoAni's other titles, such as Hibike Euphonium, is that they just looked so bland and dreary all the time. It's always welcome to see them return to a more traditional style, as traditional, it seems, is the very thing that KyoAni is skilled at.

To label Maid Dragon as something stellar or ground-breaking may be giving it a bit too much credit, but there is little doubt that it is at least a return to form for a studio that has been losing its way for many a year. It is as well a fun time in its own right, an almost nostalgic recollection of what slice-of-life anime used to be, and could, can be once more.