“Slice of life with a sprinkling of the supernatural” has long been my favorite genre, though it’s harder to find than you might think. Most often fantasy authors choose to take things in an epic direction, flinging their protagonists out of their ordinary day-to-day existence into some sort of magic adventure, giving them high stakes to deal with. Granted, that’s generally what makes for an engaging fantasy story, but sometimes you’re looking for something that’s more relaxed and grounded in recognizable daily struggles. Sometimes you just want to see an all-powerful otherworldly monster do her grocery shopping without having to worry about a big scary epic background plot, you know?
If this is the case, you might want to take a gander at Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid. It’s cute, funny, follows the beats of a slice-of-life show to a T while managing to feel fresh, and while fantastical elements are interwoven inescapably into the plot, the main focus is not so much on magic but on interpersonal relationships and exploring the everyday domestic delights of a found family. Its sense of humor is sometimes incredibly skeezy (read: sexual harassment of minors played for laughs) and it may or may not be as gay as we all wanted (though it comes pretty damned close) but overall it’s quite a sweet and pleasant viewing experience. And there are dragons!
Spoilers (and content warning for said sexual harassment of minors) under the cut.
The eponymous Kobayashi is an office worker who stumbles drunk into the forest one night, where she finds a wounded dragon (as you do). While normally introverted, Kobayashi is the kind sort, and quite confident when she’s been drinking, so she saves the dragon and invites it to come stay with her anytime it likes. The dragon takes her up on this offer the next morning, leading to a very hungover and confused Kobayashi opening her apartment door to a building-sized winged reptile. The dragon shapeshifts into a human girl, introduces herself as Tohru, and declares that she’s in love with Kobayashi and wants to repay her debt.
Bewildered, Kobayashi eventually works out an arrangement with Tohru: Tohru can come live with her as long as she helps around the house and doesn’t use any excessive dragon-y magic (Kobayashi tries riding on Tohru’s dragon back to get to work on time, but declares this experience too terrifying to repeat even if it was helpful) and doesn’t do anything weird. Tohru, naturally, proceeds to get into a bunch of comedic mishaps involving dragon-y magic and weird behavior based on not understanding human customs. Shenanigans ensue.
She also attracts a colorful cast of dragon friends, including a baby dragon named Kanna who’s been banished by her parents, and so comes to be basically adopted by Tohru and Kobayashi. Kobayashi’s quiet, dedicated shut-in life is gradually turned more and more upside down, but Kobayashi, to her surprise, finds she’s actually quite enjoying it. There’s a running theme of belonging, finding your place, and finding your own family, which culminates in an emotional finale that genuinely tugs on the heartstrings.
Because the universe is fickle, some aspects of this show I absolutely love, and some aspects make me grimace and want to throw the series in the trash. There’s plenty in here that will make you shake your head and mutter “anime was a mistake”, from lovingly animated boob-bounce to characters forcing each other to strip when they get drunk. The biggest problem, unfortunately, rests with the otherwise potentially interesting characters of Lucoa and Shouta. Lucoa is one of Tohru’s dragon buddies, who is quite literally introduced to us cleavage first, and Shouta is the twelve-year-old son of a family of mages hiding out in the city (you can probably already tell where this is going). When trying to summon a demon, he summons Lucoa instead because she felt like saying hello, and from there the two of them are inextricably linked. If Shouta’s onscreen, Lucoa won’t be far away, and there’s a very good chance she’ll have her boobs in his face.
As with Tohru, the humor here is meant to be that the dragons don’t understand the human world—Lucoa is concerned that Shouta is afraid of her, so she tries to reassure him and get him used to her by… joining him in the bath and cuddling up with him in bed. Against his will, of course, but Shouta’s red-faced protests are just played for laughs, the underlying joke being that Lucoa is a bit of a ditz and just wants to help, and doesn’t realize she’s giving the kid a sexual awakening that he’s having a hard time dealing with. There’s a lot of icky nonsense here, tying into that particularly charming double standard that when an older woman forces herself on a boy he’s “lucky” rather than a victim of sexual harassment. Shouta’s discomfort is a point of comedy in the show—he literally has nightmares about being surrounded by Lucoa, but it’s meant to be funny because in the nightmare he’s being suffocated in her boobs. Slapstick!
One of Kanna’s classmates (the baby dragon eventually goes to human school, leading to an adorable episode about buying stationery) also has what can only be described as a big gay crush on her. While the concept of “puppy love” personally creeps me out (let’s not be so quick to impose romantic feelings on small children, guys), there are plenty of ways this could have been handled that made it cute rather than gross. While Kanna and the young girls in the show aren’t particularly sexualized and are actually, mercifully, allowed to look and act like children rather than designed to be appealing to the “loli” type, there’s a couple of scenes between the classmates that are weirdly, disgustingly infused with sexual tension.
This series could definitely be worse in terms of fan service and bad messages—you only need to look as far as the source manga to see that Kyoto Animation took a lot of problematic material out when they adapted it for the screen. But you have to ask yourself, then, why couldn’t they take all of it out? And once you do, you find yourself realizing that if they took away Lucoa and Shouta’s boob-in-face relationship and Kanna’s classmate’s crush, these characters would have basically nothing else to do in the story. Kobayashi, Tohru and Kanna are the emotional core of the series, and this becomes a weakness when it turns out that unfortunately most of the supporting cast are… well, one-trick dragons. Lucoa has a large bust; this is her one joke. Fafnir is a cursed monster who discovers he loves video games and becomes a geek; this is his one joke. Elma loves the snack food the human world has to offer; this is her one joke.
While you can’t expect every side character to get developed, this can be quite frustrating, especially when it becomes apparent that the only purpose Lucoa has been given is to exhibit jiggle physics. The concept of mages existing in our world (and not just the fantasy realm the dragons come from) is a fascinating thing just dropped in there, and instead of building this further the show diverts to jokes about sexual harassment. While it does add to the nonsense, this is simply a feature of the way Dragon Maid handles its magic, though, which might frustrate the hell out of you or might float your boat: the supernatural elements are very much accepted and presented as mundane. You could even say this show is an example of magical realism, with the dragons-from-another-world aspect simply a backdrop and occasional addition to the slice of life storylines that the show follows.
I personally love this: it gives the show a distinct and quirky flavor, with one foot in high fantasy and one foot in daily shenanigans. It’s funny, relaxing and whimsical, letting you enjoy the fact that magic exists without needing you to stress over an overarching plot about defeating evil or restoring balance to the world or whatever. It ensures everyone has much more personal and mundane motivations, and lets the focus rest on Kobayashi as she learns to have fun and form meaningful connections with people. Kobayashi’s character development is gradual and quiet but sweet overall, and you can see her becoming a more confident, expressive person as she accepts the love of her weird new adoptive dragon family.
Alas… as with Izetta: The Last Witch and Flip Flappers we get so, so close to a genuine and sweet wlw romance but it’s never quite confirmed. We know that Tohru loves Kobayashi, but to what extent Kobayashi returns these feelings remains a touch ambiguous. Part of this is of course the cultural difference in how affection is expressed in Japanese versus Western media, which is something we always have to consider when we start staring at these kinds of shows demanding to know if it was Actually Gay™. Lacking the usual Hollywood signifiers of romantic love like a kiss scene or the actual spoken words “I love you”, we’re left with an ending that could be read into very easily but could also be dismissed by those who felt so inclined.
There’s no doubt by the end that Kobayashi considers Tohru and Kanna her family and loves having them in her life—to the point where she takes them both home to meet her biological relatives!—but whether or not her feelings for Tohru are explicitly romantic or just a deep familial affection remains to be decided by the viewer. Personally, I think it’s pretty hard to argue how much the three of them are set up to look like two wives and their daughter, but it could just as easily be read as a non-romantic found family story. Which is nice too, of course—whichever way you see it your heartstrings will be tugged.
Admittedly, one of the things that first drew me to Dragon Maid was that it seemed to promise the usual zany Magical Girlfriend shenanigans, but with a woman for a protagonist rather than the traditional teenaged or college student boy. Kobayashi’s even an otaku, which makes her the ideal audience stand-in, the point of relatable normalcy that can observe all the out-of-this-world shenanigans with similar reactions to what the viewer would have. And indeed, why should it always be (presumed) straight young men who attract magical cute girls and the associated comedy shenanigans? Kobayashi and Tohru explicitly ending up together would have been the icing on this trope-bending cake, but alas. Still, Kobayashi makes for a refreshing protagonist, the same way that the series’ gentle or not-so-gentle tugs and jabs at slice-of-life tropes make it fresh.
Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is a sweet and funny blend of domestic character-based antics and magical mayhem that, whether or not it is a gay love story, tells the story of one woman building her own chosen family, surrounding herself with love and laughter, and ultimately becoming a happier person in a character arc that’s delightful to watch. Aside from the admittedly massive caveat of the sexualized minors and non-consensual boobs-in-face jokes, and some awkward and pointless background characters that pad out the narrative, the show was enjoyable. I’m not going to give it a cookie for not being as terrible as it could have been, but I am going to admit that I liked it, and as long as it promised more heartwarming family growth and less fan service nonsense, I would probably leap to watch a second season.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this, it’s that maybe what the slice-of-life genre needs is more dragons.
Read more from Alex at her blog, The Afictionado!