Reviewby Theron Martin,
Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan
Hisone Amakasu has always had a tendency to speak her mind without thinking, so it's been hard for her to make friends. After high school, she joins the Air Self Defense Force, where she discovers that aptitude tests have tagged her for an unusual and highly secretive duty: to pilot an OTF (Organic Transformed Flyer) – in other words, a dragon. She is accepted by F-15J, who she eventually calls Masotan and thus finds herself part of a long-standing tradition of hiding the existence of dragons; in the modern era, that means disguising them as military planes. As she fumbles her way through the process of becoming a Dragon Pilot, she encounters other OTFs and their pilots and starts to make friends for the first time. However, none of them are aware of the grander purpose that they are intended to serve.
Over the years, we've seen anime titles about dragon riders and ones about pilots of transforming aircraft, but this 12-episode original production by Studio Bones may be the first time that the two concepts have been welded together. In this case, the “transforming aircraft” are actual dragons outfitted with armor and components resembling advanced fighter, transport, and reconnaissance planes, which allow them the mind-boggling capability to fully pass themselves off as conventional airplanes from the outside. And those are just the first of many weird little gimmicks in this funny and charming little oddball of a series.
The more notable gimmick is that the female pilots don't control the dragons from the added-on cockpits; they actually control the dragons from the inside. Yep, the dragons swallow them whole and then vomit them out when they disembark, sometimes with the help of an emetic when the dragon isn't being cooperative. This novel approach results in all manner of potential for jokes that the series is quite willing to exploit, but on a more serious note it also requires a high degree of trust and acceptance in both directions to work; in other words, if the dragon doesn't choose you, then you can't be its pilot. Parallels to this can be seen in numerous mecha series over the years, often defined in terms of “synch ratios” or something like that, and serious problems arise when the pilot and machine fall out of synch. The most interesting variation on that idea in Dragon Pilot is the gradual reveal that having a deep affection for anyone other than your dragon can result in rejection, whether because the dragon is jealous or because the pilot's feelings are now divided. The commanders' rather harsh efforts to keep that from happening become major plot points later in the series.
Since the series has only limited action sequences and no real fight scenes beyond some snappy verbal exchanges, the entertainment value beyond the defining gimmicks rests mostly on the cast and their interactions. None of the dragons speak, but each has a distinct personality conveyed through body language and whale-like utterances, especially Masotan. The pilots are a colorful lot with their own major quirks; Hisone is hyper and basically doesn't have a verbal filter, El is the strict and demanding one who considers herself a pilot first and a D-Pai second, Liliko is a gloomy girl with shut-in tendencies, and Mayumi is a large young woman with strong maternal instincts, while reserve pilot Nao is comically hostile at first but gradually settles down into a more supportive role as she comes to appreciate Hisone's circumstances. They have to contend with a diverse array of other characters, including an oddball fashion designer, a mysterious old yogurt-selling lady, and hotshot male pilots who can be very sexist in their attitudes.
While the personalities are lively enough, the real appeal comes from two main aspects. One is the frequent infusion of comedy, especially early on in the series. Hisone gets some wacky notions in her head about the proper way to do things at times, which are often good for a few laughs; one great example is her habit of copying the way Masotan licks people as a greeting. (The irony of this joke is that the licking actually becomes useful information-gathering on more than one occasion.) The second aspect is the series' aesthetic charm, which is predicated on how adorable the dragons are but also shows in the interactions between pilot and dragon for both Hisone and El and in the fledgling romances that develop on the side. The storytelling isn't quite as engaging when it turns purely serious, as it does for the bulk of the show's last third, but these other appealing factors are enough to keep the series afloat to the end.
For all of the cute factor that the series exudes, it's not one of the more nicer-looking titles that Bones has produced. The artistry uses thick lines, simplified designs outside of the airplane machinery, and backgrounds that sometimes look like they are illustrated in crayon. Character designs stand out more for how simple they are, too. If the design of the series was aiming for an more classic or kid-oriented look, then that has been accomplished successfully, but it's not as exciting as many contemporary otaku-aimed productions. However, the weaker design elements are supported by a strong animation effort, especially in flight scenes and the depictions of dragons' insides. While the series does have a little fanservice, it's limited to brief shots in a couple of bath scenes and thus can easily be overlooked.
The musical score is also a significant plus. It remains lighthearted and chipper throughout as it cycles through a variety of different drum-based military themes and tuba or piano numbers, setting a fun overall tone. Opener “The Girl Crosses the Sky” is a grand melodic orchestral pieces that features some of the series' sharpest background visuals, while the closer sounds like a dance single from the late '60s and features the D-Pai all performing choreography that also hearkens to that era. It's an odd choice, but also fun.
The English dub is credited to VSI Group's Los Angeles branch. (There are also German, French, Spanish, and Portugese dubs from other studios.) Most of the voice work comes from actors who will be familiar from various Bang Zoom! Entertainment dubs, with Christine Marie Cabanos providing the dub's highlight in a suitably energetic rendition of Hisone. The rest of the dub cast is also solid, but the English script is more at odds with the subtitles than usual. In addition to the normal array of languages that Netflix offers, this one is also available in Turkish.
Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan is not a profound or especially memorable series, but if you're looking for relatively light and cute entertainment involving dragons and airplanes, then it should fit the bill for a weekend watch quite nicely.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : B-
Music : B+
+ Some neat concepts, significant cute factor, can be quite funny
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