The Hidden Depths of Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maidby Gabriel Peralta,
Headcanons and theories in fiction are fan pastimes I've never fully understood. Yes, there's a certain allure in believing that Aladdin takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, or the Rugrats babies are figments of Angelica's imagination, or Super Saiyans are an allegory for whitewashing. But at the end of the day, I just can't get behind these theories outside of a simple “huh, how 'bout that” and moving on. Most of the time, these theories try so hard to shoehorn an outsider's opinion into pre-existing lore rather than making an inference that springs naturally from what's already been established about the story.
So when I say that Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid does an excellent job of exploring modern relationships, family dynamics, and even the immigrant's strife in a foreign world, I'm not just trying to spin a hot take. I think the story supports these ideas on more than a shallow, accidental level.
Starting with our titular character, Miss Kobayashi spends her workdays as a computer programmer. Her after-hours are spent drinking with co-workers, while time in her apartment is spent reading or playing videogames. Though somewhat odd, she's a relatively normal office worker, setting a firm foundation for the nonsense that the rest of the series delves into.
Once dragons Tohru and Kanna are introduced, we're given a new dynamic of Kobayashi, the one “normal” person, reacting to the oddities surrounding her. It's in this odd-couple relationship that the premise for the series is established—the trio's differing personalities in a shared space drive the core entertainment. Yes, it's a family sitcom format that has been repeated numerous times throughout various mediums, but it's the slight tweaks to formula that make this series feel fresh and fun to watch.
As can be inferred by the series title, Tohru serves as Kobayashi's maid. While Kobayashi works at her job, Tohru does the laundry, groceries, dinner, cleans—all the tasks associated with being a maid. Had the dynamic between the two stopped there, it would have made for a fairly standard moe show, but the series pushes further by delving into the relationship between Kobayashi and Tohru without coming off as pandering too directly or winking at the audience. They're a lesbian couple in the most mundane manner, but that's what makes it work.
It could have been so easy for Dragon Maid to treat Kobayashi and Tohru's relationship as a fanservice-laden romp with minimal plot and character progression. And yet with each new episode, we see Tohru's one-sided adoration of Kobayashi evolve into something that, while Kobayashi doesn't explicitly accept as romantic, is still incredibly reminiscent of a parenting dynamic over their new dragon daughter, Kanna.
Kobayashi herself acknowledges that she's become the husband to Tohru's wife, and it's when the two fall into these "ordinary" roles that the series begins to shine. The snippy back and forth between characters makes them feel not like fantastical creatures imposing on a computer programmer, but a family unit we can relate to and laugh alongside with. Kobayashi and Tohru acting like a married couple is treated so matter-of-factly because their relationship isn't the entire point of the show. Unlike other anime that either pin a romantic or sexual relationship as their central conflict or one-note gag, Dragon Maid treats this like every other mundane aspect that makes up its slice-of-life style. The show's strength comes from how it normalizes relationships and finds humor in their mundanity, especially considering that dragons are involved.
In this way, the series takes fantastical beings and immediately brings them down to Earth (literally and figuratively). You would initially think that Kanna serves as a foil to Kobayashi—her first scene involves her flat-out stating that Tohru has been swayed by Kobayashi's feminine wiles into staying on Earth. However, within that same episode, Kanna ends up falling into the role of resident child, as Kobayashi and Tohru take care of the younger dragon, going as far as enrolling her in school. Scenes of Kanna pining over bedazzled school supplies and the adults playing slave to her childish needs endear us to her character in a way that pages of fictional lore about the world Kanna and Tohru come from would be unable to do. This immediate breaking of expectations not only adds to the series' humor, but better fleshes out its cast as well.
On the topic of where the dragons hail from, early episodes do little to explain that world at all. This lack of backstory adds to the humor of the dragons coming and going between worlds in later episodes; the fact that the dragons are strangers to Earth and its customs add yet another layer to the series besides its familial slice-of-life moments, exploring the strife of an immigrant in a foreign land.
This is different from something like the “country girl in the big city” or "fish out of water" concepts, because the dragons have greater disadvantages. Tohru is so committed to Kobayashi now that she can't just return home if things get too tough for her. She has no home besides Kobayashi's now, so she must learn to integrate if she's to survive. As early as episode 2, we begin to see Tohru interact with the world outside of Kobayashi's apartment. Regardless of her (apparent) cosplay, she demonstrates that she's learned how to fit into society through gradually learning small-talk. Even with some slight hiccups in how she speaks, the locals brush it off as a simple quirk about her—a commonplace occurrence in conversations between foreigners and locals.
This brings up the concept of the “melting pot” versus the “salad bowl.”
The “melting pot” theory describes how people from different cultures come together and blend into a single society. The issue with this theory is that it suggests one must relinquish their roots to fit in. Furthermore, integration is not as simple as picking up on colloquialisms and attire—outward appearances will still remain. Taking this into account, the “salad bowl” theory takes on a more nuanced approach, stating that while society contains people of varying backgrounds, their cultures should remain intact—you can still taste every distinct part of the salad accordingly. Even with this updated theory, however, words like “integration” and “assimilation” are still used when discussing the topic of immigration for simplicity's sake, resulting in the topic becoming that much more difficult to pick apart.
Bringing this back to Dragon Maid, the concepts of “melting pot” versus “salad bowl” remain at odds with one another. While Tohru's human form does allow her to fit into society on Earth, aspects like her tail and horns cannot be hidden so easily. While most outsiders pay no heed to these minor changes, it's clear that Tohru herself is at least conscious of these unchangeable aspects of her appearance. In a later scene at the shopping district, Tohru ends up stopping a petty thief with ease thanks to her dragon abilities, but immediately reacts with fear that exposing her supernatural powers to mere mortals will result in her being shunned from society. Thankfully, the shopping denizens are appreciative of her heroic act, but this fear still remains close to Tohru's heart.
In a later episode, when Kobayashi and Tohru take Kanna shopping for school supplies, the topic comes up again when Tohru asks about school uniforms. At first, Kobayashi takes the question lightly, saying that homogenization in school and the work force promotes equality.
But as Tohru presses the issue further, it's clear that the school itself isn't her main concern. As Kobayashi delves deeper into how those who are different “are eliminated,” they conclude by stating how irrational human behavior can be, with Tohru seeking solace in their agreement on this point. By the conversation's end, Kanna is the one left feeling worried. She doesn't say anything within the scene itself, but the body language she emits—silently tugging at Kobayashi's sweater—is enough to get the message across. As touching and heavy as the scene is, it's interesting to note that the series' lighthearted background music still persists throughout. Nonetheless, the selection of tune actually allows the scene to breathe a lot better by normalizing subject matter that is usually either marginalized or spotlighted ad nauseum in anime.
Its consistent normalization allows Miss Kobayashi's Maid Dragon to successfully address topics like the modern family and immigration not with a laser focus, but in an approachable and casual manner that anyone can appreciate easily.
It's still very "anime" though, so think twice about watching it with your parents.
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