A sentiment I see expressed increasingly often in discussions on “slice-of-life” anime is a general disdain for the tropes and trends that have become commonplace for the genre, and it’s one that I can hardly judge. Before delving into the anime medium, my misconception of it as being full of obnoxious tropes was one of the things that kept me from experiencing what it had to offer for the longest time. In light of this, it makes sense that some of the most loved and critically acclaimed slice-of-life/drama shows within anime fandom are the ones that avoid these tropes entirely, or attempt to subvert or deconstruct them in a fresh and original way, which is why I’m surprised, intrigued and oddly pleased by the fact that Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid has become one of the most popular shows of the Winter season.
Of course, perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. This is Kyoto Animation we’re talking about, a studio with a successful track record of creating satisfying and critically acclaimed shows within anime fandom with the exception of only a precious few. However, especially after watching the trailers, one could hardly be blamed for not taking it seriously. After all, they made it clear that Dragon Maid was going to be as trope-y and stereotypical as your average run-of-the-mill slice-of-life. However, what I found interesting after watching a few episodes was that the show didn’t just include the tropes and cliches associated with the genre, it practically embraced them. Except that it wasn’t your run-of-the-mill slice-of-life show. It was good. Even with all of the tropes of the genre that a plethora of anime fans would look down upon in derision, it became one of the seasonal favorites with “casual” and “hardcore” fans alike.
Perhaps the best answer to this peculiar phenomenon can best be explained by the concept that “the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Dragon Maid does have its fair share of fanservice and cliches, but they alone are not what define the show. However, it is neither defined by its strong characters and world building. It is these multiple elements married together in paradoxical matrimony that make Dragon Maid so unique. When I see tropes and cliches like those in Dragon Maid elsewhere within the anime medium, the impression I’m often left with is that these scenes and cheap gags are efforts by the creators to make up for what the series lacks elsewhere, which is how we end up with shows such as Sword Art Online, The Asterisk War, Izetta: The Last Witch and the plethora of seasonal throw-away shows that the community silently and unanimously decides not to talk about. However, Dragon Maid doesn’t have any incentives to implement such mediocre attempts at compensation. It’s characterization is genius and its world building is splendid. None of the characters are defined by their stereotypes despite the show’s blatant self awareness that they are, in fact, stereotypes.
When Kobayashi’s colleague meets Kanna for the first time his comment is something along the lines of “I like the loli goth thing.” The show recognizes in the dialogue that Kanna’s character design is, in fact, a common archetype. However, she is not a loli goth character. Despite her stereotypical appearance, as we see in her actions throughout the show, Kanna is just an ordinary little girl with the same needs of validation, acceptance and individuality that all humans experience. Likewise, Fafnir is the goth butler who hates humanity, but over the course of the show slowly assimilates into human life and attempts to come to an understanding of their nature. Tohru is introduced in the trailer making a pun about the size of her breasts and also serves as the token lesbian character pining for the unattainable affection of the individual she’s infatuated with, an archetype that has become prominent in “cute girls doing cute things” shows. However, we learn later that Tohru is still dealing with a traumatizing past and has as much to learn from her time with Kobayashi as Kobayashi does from her. Speaking of Kobayashi, her characterization and personal development as she begins to allow more people into her life and see them as members of her family, despite her ambivalent and apathetic relationship with her immediate family, has made her one of my favorite characters of the season. The family dynamic between all of these characters is handled with such care that it feels like a welcome breath of fresh air.
Suffice it to say that Dragon Maid didn’t need tropes and cliches in order to appeal to a broad audience. I haven’t even begun to touch on it’s subtle world building or gorgeous animation. It has plenty going for it. So what’s with the inclusion of these stereotypes?
Many anime fans are quick to criticize shows of this kind for their inclusion of such redundant cliches that I can’t help but wonder if the creative minds behind the show didn’t take it as a challenge, this show being their way of saying “We’re going to make a show with all the tropes you say you hate, but we’re going to make you like it.” If that was their intention then they certainly succeeded, a huge number of anime fans having fallen into their trap. I believe that it is this duality and the sum of its whole that makes Dragon Maid and it’s stunning popularity so interesting and unique. The concept of cliches and substance working so well together is one that normally exists only in the imagination and is rarely found within the medium, yet Dragon Maid pulls it off extremely well.
Now, I can’t say with certainty that I’d enjoy the show more without some of these gags and cliches, and despite how good they work within the show there are still a handful that I find tasteless and unhelpful. However, I can’t help but appreciate their place in making this series so self aware and intriguing. Surprisingly, even while being full of tropes, Dragon Maid ended up being a more heartwarming and pleasant viewing experience this season than Interviews With Monster Girls, a show that avoids these stereotypes entirely, which leads me to wonder if the general sentiment that “tropes equal mediocrity” is a deeply flawed one.
And that concludes my current train of thought.