Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid was the fan-favorite of the Winter 2017 anime season, and it’s not hard to see why after reading coolkyousinnjya’s original manga. The character designs and artwork are irresistibly adorable. The heads are big and round with simple faces that accentuate the eyes, often leaving the emotional reactions of the characters understandable through their eyes alone. The human character designs are simple and smooth with a very moe aesthetic in contrast to those of the dragons or other fantasy monsters, which are more detailed and frightening. What’s great about coolkyousinnjya’s art is how he can easily transition between different styles and still convey humor through a masterful array of facial expressions and body language. Oftentimes it’s the faces that sell the humor in the manga more than the jokes themselves. In general, the art has a soft, delicate feel to it that gives the world an appropriate fantasy-like character.
Part of the series’ appeal also has to do with its reverence of otaku culture and dragon mythologies. coolkyousinnjya name drops tons of dragon lore and in-jokes, ranging from Norse to biblical sources and beyond. He also makes frequent references to fantasy media ranging from Dragon Quest to Dungeons & Dragons. The characters themselves are major otakus. Kobayashi and her coworker Takiya frequently get into arguments about maids and butlers, argue the semantics of otaku terminology like “tsundere,” and an entire chapter is devoted to the characters visiting Comiket. Such indulgence in otaku culture is no surprise coming from the author of I Can’t Understand What My Husband is Saying, and it defines the character of the manga’s humor and worldview. This is a manga about an otaku lesbian dragon written by a man who loves otaku, lesbians, and dragons. It’s a perfect storm of tastes and interests to make for humorous scenarios, a wealth of in-jokes, and layers of meta-humor. So it’s easy to see how the series’ adorable character designs, reverence for dragon mythologies, and otaku-centric humor make Dragon Maid made it an instant hit among anime fans worldwide earlier this year.
But to explain what makes Dragon Maid so endearing at its heart, let’s talk about the elephant, or rather, the titular dragon in the room. Tohru is an absolute delight of a character in large part thanks to her fish-out-of-water misunderstandings of human social conventions. That she would think cooking her tail for Miss Kobayashi or wash her delicates with her saliva is cutely innocent juxtaposing the bizarre circumstances, eliciting laughs from the dichotomy of what Tohru says and what she does. Her matter of fact penchant for violence as a solution, like wanting to kill the robbers that break into Kobayashi’s house, also elicits laughs for the similar dichotomy between the violence she desires to commit and how cheerfully she talks about them.
A lot of what makes Tohru likable is her obsessive devotion to Miss Kobayashi. Her violent suggestions are always in service of what she thinks would help Kobayashi, and she genuinely wants to make her happy. Underlying that is of course her open romantic and sexual attraction to Kobayashi and her attempts to hook up with her. Her attempts to woo Kobayashi often tread classic romantic comedy clichés, like mixing love potion into chocolates or being jealous of a close coworker. Despite this, the way Tohru’s hyperactive imagination plays off of or gets shut down by the Kobayashi’s staid common sense often ends up twisting tropes on their head resulting in surprising punchlines. The heart of what makes Tohru a compelling character is not simply how she expresses her love to Kobayashi, but why she loves her. Kobayashi offered her kindness and was presumably among the first humans to not fear her, even inviting her into her home. Tohru’s infatuation with Miss Kobayashi comes from her non-discriminatory and benevolent nature beguiling her outwardly, world-weary personality. Tohru and Kobayashi’s relationship improves each other’s lives: Kobayashi gives Tohru a loving home and escape from fighting, while Tohru gives Kobayashi company and the family life she missed, especially after she adopts the loli dragon Kanna who becomes sort of a surrogate daughter for the two. By the end of the first volume, the reader comes to appreciate how deeply Tohru’s life changes for the happier thanks to being around Kobayashi, and similarly, Kobayashi has developed self-awareness of how much she enjoys having Tohru around, unable to imagine to living without her.
Consequently, Tohru’s character arc in these volumes primarily involves her fearing having to leave Kobayashi and return to her world. So after Tohru’s father shows up to take her back at the end of the second volume, it’s cathartic to see Kobayashi stand up to him and demand that Tohru be allowed to stay wherever she wants to. This moment powerfully reaffirms Kobayashi and Tohru’s relationship and satisfyingly resolves Tohru’s character arc of self-doubt. It’s no surprise that these chapters were chosen to comprise the finale of the anime, because it’s by far the most dramatic and emotionally resonant climax they could’ve chosen. Kobayashi and Tohru’s relationship is eminently endearing because of how much happier they make each other’s lives, transcending social and racial barriers and their own self-doubts in order to be with one another.
It’s particularly refreshing to see such a positive portrayal of a lesbian relationship without the characters ever being subjected to homophobic remarks or discrimination. Tohru’s sexuality is explicitly stated in the very first chapter, and while Kobayashi doesn’t outright identify as gay, she never shrugs off Tohru’s feelings for her with a “but we’re both girls” or “that’s weird” complaint. She’s not uncomfortable with Tohru’s sexuality, she’s just not interested in being in a relationship at the present moment. Nonetheless, she stays very mindful of how Tohru feels about her and makes efforts of affections whenever she can. Other characters don’t mind their relationship either. While Kanna does get upset that Kobayashi and Tohru are spending so much time together it’s not because she thinks two women having a relationship is wrong, but because she feels Kobayashi is taking Tohru away from her. Even Tohru’s father doesn’t say that the two being romantically involved is wrong so much as Tohru just doesn’t belong in the same world that humans live. The argument exists that stories where gay couples don’t face discrimination are perhaps more fantasy than actual fantasy stories, ignoring the social prejudices that gay people experience every day. Even so, I think it’s nonetheless valuable and cathartic to see a relationship like that between Tohru and Kobayashi develop without either of their feelings being portrayed or perceived as uncomfortable by the narrative or their world.
Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is great escapist entertainment with multi-faceted appeal. While the series is heavily invested in anime fan culture and dragon mythologies, the characters and narrative are plenty appealing on their own to warrant recommendation to any fans of light-hearted LGBT romances or cute slice-of-life comedies. I can’t speak to how the manga compares to the anime having not watched it yet, but I’m confident that if you loved the anime you will surely love the original manga just as much.