When the Kyoto Animation adaptation of Coolkyoushinja’s dragon-was announced, my little corner of anitwitter largely responded with a mix of bemusement, hesitation, and muted excitement. This decidedly strange little comic by an offbeat artist was an odd pick for an anime adaptation to begin with, much less a pickup by a titan of the animation industry like KyoAni. I’d been following the comic for a bit beforehand, and so was excited at the prospect of an adaptation, but I was apprehensive as well.
The time-frame between the announcement and the air-date was surprisingly narrow, coming at a time when a time when the studio was already devoting staff to this coming seasons’ Violet Evergarden – a recipe for a pinched production. I also remember feeling very uneasy about the promo material. I thought the announcement art didn’t really do a great job of capturing Coolkyoushinja’s cute-but-slightly-manic art-style, and the promo trailer left me feeling less than confident. While the comic itself was always a sex-comedy, its strengths in that regard were always more focussed on character interactions and solid back-and-forth banter. In the meantime, the promotional trailer that was released during production leaned heavily into more conventional fan-service scenes, featuring several bouncy clips of Tohru’s bust and pushing the “I’m a D-cup – D is for Dragon” joke (a single-panel throwaway gag in the comic) as one of the key character interactions in the promo. Operating on the assumption that what was being advertised was representative of what the final product was going to be like, I was prepared to be disappointed by a low-effort trudge that relied on fanservice in lieu of more substantive appeal.
But sometimes things work out for the best, and we wound up with something beautiful and delightful instead.
While it wasn’t without it’s blemishes and occasionally weaker episodes, almost every episode of Dragon Maid was a pleasant surprise. Realistically speaking, KyoAni knows their business, and so it doubts aside it would have been reasonable to expect a competent and workmanlike adaptation out of the studio – but given the circumstances there was no reason to expect such a stellar interpretation of the the source material, both in terms of the visual craft of the animation and the editorial decisions taken with the storytelling.
Visually, the folks at KyoAni of course know what they are doing, but Coolkyoushinja’s art has such a distinctive feel to it that it would have been sad to lose it. The anime managed to adopt several of the quirks of the character designs, while maintaining the very fluid and lively style of animation that KyoAni so excels at, and wound up with a fresh, beautiful take on the source material that doesn’t look quite like other KyoAni shows, and doesn’t quite look like the source comic, but is very cohesive and pleasant to see. During the occasional action-focussed segments when the animators really feel comfortable letting loose, it can go to being downright stunning.
Even more pleasingly, director Yasuhiro Takemoto and company made the wise decision to not hedge towards a strict/direct panel-to-panel interpretation of the comic (which really wouldn’t have worked in a half-hour format) and were comfortable adding quite a bit, and even changing the emphasis of the story itself to suit a different end. The manga is quite happy being as much a raunchy comedy as it is a story about finding family, but the anime adaptation goes full-tilt on the family angle, and shines the most when it’s emphasizing Kobayashi and Tohru as good gay parents to their dragon daughter, Kanna – it’s an effect created by careful framing and occasional expansion of scenes adapted from the manga, as well as inclusion of new scenes original to the anime – though these are so well integrated that they feel entirely natural. While the more meandering and varied pace of the comic is a good fit for it’s serialized format, this family-first focus makes the one-cour show feel solidly anchored, and the emotional payoff in the final episode hits it’s mark beautifully.
I’m not wanting to go fully in-depth on Dragon Maid’s strengths as an adaptation, although I consider it to be one of the best. Actually, I’m hoping to make that a later and more detailed post, probably to be made once Ancient Magus’ Bride wraps up, since I think there are some interesting comparisons to be made between the two in terms of how they approach the adaptation process. But for the time being, let’s just leave it at this: the sheer strength of what we ended up getting was a delight, and it was almost entirely unexpected.
(I’ll also direct folks’ attention to the more in-depth technical analysis for the fine folks at Sakugabooru – who you should support by the way. Notorious Sakuga Cartel honcho kViN wrote extensive production notes on all 13 episodes, calling out specific clips and giving thoughts on the series as a whole, and I found them very insightful. These assume familiarity with the material so they’re not what you’d want if you’re just discovering the series, but if you’ve already seen it this is the sort of deep and meaty analysis that can really boost your appreciation for a thing.)