Review

by Theron Martin,

Drifting Dragons

episodes 1-12 streaming

Synopsis:
Drifting Dragons
In Takita's world, dragons fly through the skies and a dwindling number of dirigible-style airships traverse the skies hunting them, calling no port their home. To be a crew member on such as ship is to be a “draker,” and Takita is the newest draker on the airship Quin Zaza. Over the course of several months and assorted adventures, she learns about what it means to hunt, kill, butcher, and eat the great beasts of the skies. She also comes to appreciate exactly what it means to live in the skies and why others, like her, might be drawn to such a life.
Review:

Take the technical aspects of Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick, apply them to the anime series Last Exile, and mix in a generous dose of your favorite anime foodie show and you have something akin to what this 12-episode manga adaptation turns out to be. It originally aired in Japan during the Winter 2020 season and is now available on Netflix, complete with the normal array of dubbing options, including an intact English dub. It is a series worth checking out, provided that you can be content with a “My Life as a Draker” kind of story and don't expect an involved overall plot.

Before getting into that, let's address what might be the most immediate concern: the look of the series. Drifting Dragons is animated by Polygon Pictures, a studio built on use of 3DCG animation. The studio hasn't exactly endeared itself to Western anime fans with the visual style used in titles like Ajin or Knights of Sidonia, but this is a far cry visually from those works. Animation quality has advanced considerably from the company's earlier projects. Modeling consistency is absolute – this is one of the tightest TV or streaming series that I have seen recently in that regard – and movements are both involved and almost completely free of the stiffness and awkwardness regularly seen in earlier productions, even when the viewpoint is soaring through elaborate 3D movement. Don't expect to see typical animation shortcuts, either. There are still some minor occasional problems with foreground animation not perfectly integrating with backgrounds (especially when the gyrocopter is involved), but those are not frequent or easily noticed. Pure CG vehicle, monster, and equipment constructions also have better texture than the standard anime CG production. As CG-heavy series go, this is one of the better ones in a technical sense.

The look of the series also holds its own appeal, and the change of director might have a lot to do with that. Tadahiro Yoshihira served in lesser roles on several of Polygon's previous productions but is making his directorial debut with this title, and I hope that it will not be his last at the helm. Under his guidance, emphasis on gritty details is reduced and the drab color scheme of previous projects is eliminated entirely in favor of a vibrant, colorful setting, one where there is a much more evident joy in being alive. This shows in details big and small, whether it be the scenic cloudscapes that the Quin Zaza flies over and through, the fantastically elaborate and widely-varied dragon designs, or even the emphasis placed on making the meat taken from the dragons look tasty. Character designs are appealing and do an excellent job of conveying hints about each character's personality, although I have a personal distaste for the jodhpur-style pants the Quin Zaza drakers wear; the way they flare out makes everyone's hips look oversized.

All of this combines to create a pervasive sense of awe and wonder. Some of that is the product of making relative newbie Takita the primary viewpoint character, but all of the characters get swept up in it at one point or another as whales - er, dragons soar into and out of clouds. The thrill of the hunt is definitely there as the drakers put their lives on the line in a number of exciting action sequences, or even in one scene where one draker winds up going toe-to-toe with a bunch of sky pirates. Episodes don't skimp on details involving the butchering of the dragons, either; like with hunting down the dragons, this is also heavily equated to whaling. The writing even brings up ambergris – a rare substance produced by sperm whales – as being present in some dragons. Several other scenes involving processing the dragons and their oil have direct parallels in (if they were not outright based on) whaling details described in Moby Dick, including one where Takita and another smaller-sized draker have to climb inside the body of a giant dragon that they are butchering. There are some other interesting cultural bits thrown into this as well, such as a tribal tent whose patterns all are made from pieces of dragon hide.

The gourmet element goes hand-in-hand with the “draking” details. Most episodes feature a detailed account of using dragon meat in some kind of recipe, which can vary from simple efforts like dragon cutlets or dragon stew to more elaborate ones, like a meal made from layering slices of dragon meat and cabbage to make a sort of wrap. Dragon meat gets marinated, sautéed, shish-kabobbed, or even eaten raw, and apparently each different type of dragon tastes different. The lead spearman on the crew is a veritable connoisseur of dragons, but many other characters (especially Takita) also delight in the taste of the food. This is the one aspect of the series which gets tiring after a while, however.

The foodie and dragon hunting elements are the series' main attractions, as the series has no overarching plot. The first half is entirely episodic, with topics ranging from essential whaling activities to dealing with pirates to a more frivolous episode involving trying to figure out who in the crew drew a high-quality picture of a fellow crew member. The second half consists of a pair of three-episode arcs, one involving a calamity erupting during shore leave in an important draking port and the other involving Takita getting knocked overboard during a hunt. The former arc implies that a girl that young crew member Griraud gets involved with (and they do make a cute couple!) is locked in to becoming a prostitute, but otherwise the content remains clean, if occasionally graphically violent in a whaling sense.

The entire cast is appreciable, whether it be enthusiastic newcomer Takita, the “hunt-and-eat”-obsessed spearman Mika, the serious-minded younger member Giraud, or the distant beauty Vannabelle. However, beyond those four, character development is sparse at best, and even Vannabelle's is mostly limited to one episode. For the rest of the Quin Zaza denizens, basic personalities mostly come through fine but hardly anything is revealed about them beyond that. Don't expect any romantic entanglements beyond Giraud's budding interest in the town girl, either. Despite four female crew members, everyone seems to treat fellow crew members as off-limits romantically.

Bringing all of this together is a strong musical score. Veteran Masaru Yokoyama uses a mix of orchestration and folk music sounds to vary between tense action and more wistful moods, in the process creating a sound that on many occasions is reminiscent of the soundtrack to Titanic. (I doubt that this is a coincidence, given all of the parallels that are drawn between skimming above clouds and skimming through ocean waters.) Opener “Gunjou” impresses more with its 3D first-person-perspective roaming around the ship than with its song, while closer “Aboslute Zero” is a stronger number backed by an alternate animation style.

The English dub by SDI Media (which has done dubs for a number of other Netflix titles) is a solid one across the board. Cassandra Morris gets Takita's pep and sense of wonder just right without going overboard, while Billy Kametz well-embodies the single-minded Mika. Kudos also go to Kayli Mills (the English voice of Alice in Sword Art Online: Alicization) for a more limited role as town girl Katja. None of the other performances, even down into the bit roles, will be found lacking, however.

Ultimately Drifting Dragons is a sufficiently entertaining series, although maybe not one as well-suited to Netflix's binge-watching format as some others. If you want a Netflix series where you can comfortably watch just 1-3 episodes at a time, this one should fit the bill just fine.

Grade:
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B+

+ Clever parallels drawn with whaling, likable cast, foodie elements (if you're into that sort of thing)
No overarching plot, a bit more setting development would have been welcomed

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Production Info:
Director: Tadahiro Yoshihira
Series Composition: Makoto Uezu
Script: Makoto Uezu
Storyboard: Iwao Teraoka
Episode Director: Naohiro Yoshihira
Music: Masaru Yokoyama
Original creator: Taku Kuwabara
Character Design: Kyoko Kotani
Art Director: Chihiro Omi
Sound Director: Yoshikazu Iwanami

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Drifting Dragons (TV)

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