I wouldn't have planned on covering this one if not for the fact that it too will be getting an anime adaptation this winter, and by Kyoto Animation no less. It seemed an odd choice of a property for them, so I wanted to find out myself if this was another Nichijou in the making or just another Phantom World?
As with most things, the truth is a bit more complicated.
MISS KOBAYASHI'S DRAGON MAID (Kobayashi-san Chi no Meidoragon), by coolkyoushinja. First published in 2013 and first published in North America in 2016.
Kobayashi wasn't looking for a roommate. She just happened to drunkenly wander her way up a mountain and bond with an equally distressed dragon named Tohru. How was she to know that Tohru would end up at her door the next day in human form, offering to be Kobayashi's maid, protector, and one true love. Now on top of her everyday job, she has to help Tohru acclimate to the human world.
Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid is fairly slight as far as comedies go, but it's not entirely without its charms. You just have to dig under the lame gags and inconstant yuri-baiting to find it.
Most of the lame gags come from Tohru trying to behave like a maid. They're not terribly complex and they're not terribly funny. If you've seen one moe maid show, you've likely seen variations on the same jokes before. Tohru's other dragon friends aren't much better. Their names are neat references to other mythologies such as Aztec and Norse, but their human forms are the same old stereotypes we've seen before. There's the overly clingy little sister, the busty American (which is weird, because it's the form taken by a Mexican serpent god), the stoic butler type, and so on. They don't show up until close to the end of the volume, and most of them are only good for a single gag apiece. As frantic (and sometimes annoying) as Tohru can be, she does at least have more going on for her than just a bunch of dumb comedy. She's allowed moments where she can be genuinely helpful or understanding, and it's these quieter, sweeter moments that gave her a bit more depth than her appearance would suggest.
For me, though, the real scene-stealer was Kobayashi herself. First of all, can I say how refreshing it is that the protagonist is a goddamn adult for once? That alone distinguishes her from the zillions of otherwise ordinary high school kids that normally populate these sorts of books. She's also an IT worker instead of yet another office lady, which is not only another refreshing difference but also a bit more progressive than what we normally see in manga. Kobayashi plays straighman (er, woman) to all the nonsense around her, but she's gifted with enough deadpan snark and common sense that she's not constantly overwhelmed by the weirdness around her. She's also a hoot when she and her coworker get drunk and start arguing about types of maids.
What was truly unexpected is that there's more than a bit of romantic subtext between Kobayashi and Tohru, but it's hard to tell at this point whether the mangaka is taking it seriously or not. Sometimes they play up Tohru's possessiveness for the sake of a joke, but other times it seems to be trying to set up some sort of genuine connection between her and Kobayashi. If the mangaka could focus more on those moments and the more Kobayashi-heavy comedy bits and less on dragon mythos and Tohru acting like a stalker, they might just have something kind of special here.
The characters shouldn't work as well as they do here. They've got squashed mochi heads, spindly bodies and eyes that threaten to swallow their faces whole. Let's not even talk about the ridiculousness of the costumes on the dragons' human forms. Yet it totally works here, mostly because the mangaka is great at getting so much out of those squashy faces. He goes wild with the faces and they go a long way towards selling the humor. Even Kobayashi, who is rather beady-eyed and stoic, gets some lovely expressions of shock and skepticism.
He also clearly loves drawing the dragons. We only see a couple in their true form, but they clearly decided to mix and match both Western and Eastern dragon characteristics and it makes for a interesting mix. Still, it's the little things he adds to them that makes them fun, like how rotund Tohru is in her dragon form or how much emotion and big takes he's able to get out of them even in dragon form. He's also pretty wild with the panels, filling them up with big close-ups and lots of motion to keep up the high energy of the humor. Because of that, the backgrounds suffer for it, but when they do show up they are surprisingly substantial with plenty of nice hatching to give them some real dimension. I'll be curious to see if KyoAni sticks closely to this artstyle in the same way they did with Nichijou because I think the humor would lose something without it.
Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid can be wild and zany, verging on annoying at times, but it's the quieter moments and the lively art that puts this seemingly random concept a step above.
This series is published by Seven Seas. This series is ongoing with 4 volumes available. 1 volume has been released and is currently in print.
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