This Week in Anime
Is Drifting Dragons Worth Watching?

by Michelle Liu & Steve Jones,

Drifting Dragons has it all: high-flying adventure, mouth-watering food, a likable cast, and very thinly veiled allusions to the highly controversial practice of commercial whaling. Steve and Micchy take a ride on the Quin Zaza to find out if Polygon Pictures managed to stick the landing.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @Liuwdere @A_Tasty_Sub @vestenet


Steve
Micchy, I know we usually start with a bad joke here, but this time I want to be honest. The first thing that came to my mind when I saw the title Drifting Dragons was a Fast And The Furious spinoff with Vin Diesel riding a wyvern and doing sick dragon stunts around the hills of fantasy Tokyo. And no anime in existence can live up to that, sadly.
Micchy
You'll have to settle for steampunk Moby Dick then! Which is still pretty dope, even if it would be improved by adding Vin Diesel.
Yep, thar indeed be dragons, and we've got a big blimp to hunt them with.
Yeah that's something we should get out of the way: this show is about whaling with a Z axis; "draking's" parallels with an ethically dubious real-life practice are too obvious to ignore. Like yadda yadda, dragons are dangerous, but look this is a show about a bunch of blimp sailors hunting flying whales for oil. Doesn't get much more blatant than that.
Yeah, the analogues are kinda hilariously obvious as early as the first minutes of the first episode. I mean they even talk about extracting "dragon oil" and using the organs as medicine, on top of everything else.

So given that Drifting Dragons is verrrrry upfront with its metaphors for whaling, we're left as an audience (and as two jerks doing an oft-irreverent anime column) to wrestle with how we approach a show that is very much "about" the once widely practiced and now highly controversial act of killing those big blubbery beasts beneath the sea.
I guess the thing Drifting Dragons has going for it is that the dragons show no sign of being hunted to near-extinction like whales were/are in real life. That plus the vaguely Prussian steampunk aesthetic makes it a little easier to divorce the show's sky whaling from what whaling represents in the modern world.
Oh yeah, throw in a little Nausicaä flavor with that, and it's certainly heavy on its fantastical elements.
Or Last Exile, but I'm the one nerd who still likes Last Exile in the year 2020.
And god bless you for that.
Even with all those differences, though, you could easily argue that dressing whaling up in fantasy clothes and focusing on the romanticism of The Hunt is little more than blatant propaganda for a commercial industry trying to worm (or should I say, wyrm) its way back into full swing. Personally, my read of the show isn't that cynical, but I also wouldn't blame anyone for being completely repulsed by it.

This is a touchy and tricky subject!
As these unknowable, unstoppable forces of nature the dragons in Drifting Dragons kind of occupy the same role as whales do in Moby Dick or sharks in Jaws. They're stand-ins for the terrifying things in the natural world that people have no control over. The problem with assigning an existing animal to that role is that it's all too easy for people to read the story as license to hunt the shit out of the animal in question. So I guess Dragons kind of sidesteps that by being about an animal that doesn't exist. It's still tricky territory though!
I think what also ends up helping Drifting Dragons is that it does at least attempt to wrestle with some of the grander philosophical complexities of hunting in general, as well as its role in the development of human society. Like, we kinda explore the various relationships the Quin Zaza crew members have with draking and what motivates them. For the most part there's a sense of respect for the dragons too, and that's really important if you're making a show primarily about killing them.
Most of the members of the Quin Zaza crew hunt dragons out of necessity - draking is the only thing they know how to do to earn money to survive. It's their job, and not even a glamorous one. And then there's Mika, who's just hungry all the time.
Mika literally wants one thing at all times and it's dragon meat in his gullet.
Boys only want one thing. Disgusting.
And to be fair to him, and to be honest with myself, the dragon meat in this show DOES look delish.

No joke, I paused in the middle of the first episode to make myself a sandwich because it just looked so appetizing. It's truly unfair of the sky whaling show to also be a cooking show. I feel so conflicted! And hey, sometimes Mika's appetite works for good, like when he accidentally thwarts an attempt at trafficking a rare species of dragon by just eating it. Like I think eating a rare dragon is slightly less sketch than attempting to profit off those people who keep exotic pets to flex on commoner rubes.
Not sure I'd be brave enough to put this baby Predator in my mouth but good for him?

And yeah, actually one really nice thing to see is the drakers making a point of using all parts of a dragon catch, whether for sustenance or for sale.
I mean, that is why subsistence whaling is still a thing - people gotta do what they gotta do to survive. The Quin Zaza folks go past simple subsistence for sure, but what they do is still a far cry from an equivalent to large-scale commercial whaling. That's worth something, I think.
That's another good subject the show sorta breaches. Despite the moratorium on commercial whaling, certain aboriginal peoples can still practice whaling because it has cultural importance. And that's a good thing! Drifting Dragons introduces a fictional but clearly analogous tribe with deep ties to draking.

And an important part of Takita's journey in this season is understanding that connection between these traditions and what she does on the Quin Zaza.
Hunting forms an important part of the human/nature relationship in history. As mankind progresses though, it's up to people to be responsible about it. Like even if Mika does recklessly hunt dragons for the hell of it he at least knows to avoid prolonging their suffering, even if it makes his life harder.


Not that the whole history thing really gets through to him though.
Drifting Dragons, in one of its less graceful narrative flourishes, introduces a rival gang of jock drakers who use stuff like poison because they just don't give a shit about the dragons. It's very on-the-nose, but it gives our heroes a chance to distinguish themselves from these more commercialized drakers.

Actually, given that ascot, maybe I should call them prep drakers.
That arc's a pretty transparent attempt at rationalizing our heroes' way of doing things, but it does also provide excuses to put the goodest boy Giraud in awkward social situations, so I can't fault it too much tbh.
Breaking news: total loser sits all alone by himself at party
Really, more than anything about the philosophy hunting (which is still interesting!), my favorite thing about this show is the cast of absolute dorks, from Gibbs the grumpy uncle to Gaga the secret artist to everyone's little sister Takita.
Meanwhile you KNOW I gotta stan good ol' "can drink everyone under the table and then some" Vannie.
Oh I am absolutely here for Vanabelle's stinkface. In other news, you and I are as predictable as yesterday's weather.
Drifting Dragons understands the surest way into my heart is to have a character win a drinking contest.

That's just good storytelling.
Actually I'm pretty sure the quickest way to your heart is through your ribcage, though I could be wrong.

Bonus points if your heart gives you flying powers!
Oh yeah the dragon hearts provide the magic needed to keep these fellas airborne, in addition to looking like a very macabre art project. Another thing I really like, actually, is how distinctive the dragon designs are. They're all very weird and alien but still readable as "dragons."

Yeah, the show's design work is top-notch. The dragons are both incredibly alien yet beautiful, these absolute mysteries of nature. And best of all, they have COLORS. Like that's what almost every previous Polygon Pictures project was missing - a color palette that isn't just different tones of gray.
Color palettes are seriously the bane of way too many CG anime. And to their credit, Polygon Pictures does CG anime better than most of their peers (and the stark desaturated look actually fit something like Knights of Sidonia really well), tho I still find myself wishing they'd learn to dial back the bloom.
Hey, better than the drabness of Human Lost or Knights of Sidonia. I'd much rather they lean into Atsuko Ishizuka mode than the alternative.
True that, and I do have to respect the audacity of Drifting Dragons trying to chomp on some of that new hot wet Gleipnir flavor.

A little yonic imagery never hurt anyone! Worry not though, there's also a suspiciously phallic dragonet for good measure.
Oh I love the baby Metroid dragon.
It has very exacting dietary preferences.
Not so exacting that it won't eat its own mother's dragon oil mixed with eggs, mind you, but nature is pretty wild. It did pick a pretty great foster mom tho! All things considered.
A family can be a girl and her cannibal sperm dragon baby.
So the final arc of the season has Takita wrestle with the whole Circle Of Life (I know this is a text-based column but imagine I sang that Lion King-style) thing in a way that challenges but ultimately affirms her belief that humans and dragons can exist together so long as we respect the sanctity of life as we both nurture and take it. And that's all well and good, but I'm also amused by how this dialogue, examined independent of context, makes her look like a sociopath.
Takita: refuses to kill a dragon because there's no value in doing so
Also Takita: "dragons are SO TASTY tho"
I mean you hang around Mika for so long, that's bound to happen.
Between her and an increasingly reckless post-dramatic haircut Giraud, Mika's influence has gone too damn far.
Anyway, while I do think it ends on a salient note about how the only acceptable hunting is that which goes out of its way to be sustainable and not predate species into extinction, I think the biggest flaw of Drifting Dragons for me is its failure to properly communicate the fundamental incompatibility of sustainable hunting with the forces of capitalism. And you might argue, rightly, that Drifting Dragons doesn't have an obligation to go that far, but I think when you're dealing with a real life analogue that's this close and this much of an issue, you should probably tread carefully, lest you be misunderstood.
That's fair! I happen to like its rather limited focus - it's not super concerned with either the past or the future, preferring instead to show how its characters navigate their lives in the present - but that's definitely a thread I'd be interested to see explored if the show were ever to look at how, say, the draking whaling industry looks like as a whole.
Also, if you divorce Drifting Dragons from real world concerns, it's a fine and fun series, and definitely among the better Netflix originals I've had to sit through. But unfortunately the real world does exist, and as in most other cases, that fact sucks the fun out of things.

On the bright side: no dragon Captain Ahab. Yet.
"Call me Giraud."

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