Have you ever had one of those experiences with an artist where you just feel like they’re on the same wavelength as you, in a way that no other artist seems to be? That’s how I feel about Cool Kyoushinja, the manga artist who created both Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, and I Can’t Understand What My Husband Is Saying. It’s not that Cool-Kyou is necessarily an impressive manga artist or writer, or even that we have very similar aesthetic sensibilities. (He seems to like drawing his girls with either utterly massive tits, or none at all, for instance, which leaves me out in the cold a bit.) No, it’s more of a similarity in taste and worldview. The things that he likes in people personality-wise, (or at least that he likes to portray), are things which really resonate with me. So many of his characters either remind me of myself, or are the kinds of people that I want in my life–and the thematic ideas which he likes to explore speak to me in a kind of personal way that’s difficult to explain. This is helped as well by both of the aforementioned manga having received excellent anime adaptations–at least one of which expands on the source material significantly and adds whole new dimensions to it which only enrich my bond with it.
Back in 2014, I had a difficult time articulating what was so appealing about I Can’t Understand What My Husband Is Saying beyond simply listing off all of the things about it that I connected with about it. When it comes to Maidragon, I feel compelled to do the same; but I hope to make it a bit more inviting this time by explaining in some detail exactly what it is about these themes and characterizations that makes them so exciting and relatable to me. Hopefully in doing so, even if you can’t bring yourself to feel the same way about this show that I do, you’ll at least be able to appreciate what made this my favorite experience watching anime since Shirobako in 2015.
We’ll start with the part that surprises no one, which is how I relate to Kobayashi’s need to drink. Alcohol plays a fairly important role in Maidragon, as Kobayashi was drunk when she first encountered Tohru and invited her to come be her maid, and she often uses alcohol as a way to relieve stress after work, or simply as a way to open herself up to more fun and emotional conversations. As a fairly emotionally stoic and very hard-working person, Kobayashi operates sort of mechanically in her day-to-day life, making decisions based on quick but careful analysis and always keeping her cool–so drinking for her is mostly a way to cut loose.
People who don’t drink seem to have a difficult time understanding the appeal of drinking, seeing it as something which transforms the drinker into someone else whom they don’t seem to have full control over. Drinking can obviously cause all kinds of problems if it becomes a liability, but as a casual drinker, I think the appeal is not that it makes you someone else, but that it gives you an avenue to let another side of yourself which is always there have time to breath. It sort of cuts off the part of your brain which is constantly paranoid about doing anything that doesn’t have an immediate benefit to you and your future, and allows a more open, honest side of yourself to come forward. In Kobayashi’s case, it’s the side of her which is a hardcore maid otaku, whose real passion lies in discussing this incredibly niche interest. It also brings her more empathetic and emotional side to the forefront, which, as we’ll discuss in a bit, is always quietly audible in her dialog and actions, but really explodes out when she lets her emotional guard down–which, by the end of the show, we’ll see accomplished through other means than just inebriation.
I think Kobayashi’s drinking could easily be misconstrued as an avenue of escape from the stress of her daily life; but really, I think that Kobayashi is exceedingly well-built to handle the kind of lifestyle that she has, and that even her drinking fulfills a very logically thought-out place within it. A big part of what makes Kobayashi cool is that she’s capable of making fast, logical decisions and formulating her life in such a way that everything functions efficiently. I don’t think it’s remotely an accident that a character who thinks this way has a job writing code as a programmer, or that she tends to view things in terms of creating systems and compromises. We can see this early on when she decides to hire Tohru almost immediately after realizing a practical application for having her around; and we’ll see it most prominently in episode four when she creates a system for each of her noisy neighbors to be able to do their things without bothering one-another by keeping a shared schedule.
This mindset isn’t only helpful in terms of maintaining a quietly efficient lifestyle, but also in managing her relationships and the emotions of her friends. Kobayashi always keeps a level head and gives clear, helpful advice, and can often recognize the underlying reasons for a friend’s emotional state. Unlike so many oblivious anime characters, when she notices that a friend is acting strange, she will quietly sit them down, ask them what’s going on, and then attempt to reason with them to bring them down to a functional emotional state of mind. And the best part of all this from a storytelling standpoint, is that it’s never explained to the audience outright. There’s not a single sequence of Kobayashi applying her knowledge of code to her interpersonal relationships or some corny shit like that–it’s just that all of these things happen to fall under the umbrella of her nature.
And for that matter, it’s very important and dear to me that Kobayashi’s nature is that of an adult; not just an adult, but, by my estimation, probably in her late twenties–old enough that she’s been living this way for long enough to have fully systematized and come to terms with her lifestyle. Whereas even the characters in Shirobako in their early 20s spend a lot of time realizing how rough the working world can be, Kobayashi is used to it already. She doesn’t even complain, because she’s already found as many work-arounds as she can, and has settled into a clear formula. Her weaknesses are such as that her job has given her lower back problems–something that I would be on the fast track to myself had I not gone out and bought the nicest desk chair I could find; and I wonder if she would have one too if the company allowed it. There’s no shortage of reasons that Kobayashi should be unsatisfied with her job, but at this point she seems to be so numb to those, or at least has found such an easy escape in the form of alcohol, that they hardly even register anymore.
And yet, as things begin to change in her environment, Kobayashi adapts almost naturally. She simply deals with each new thing as it comes, never getting overwhelmed; and her definition of what is normal slowly shifts along with it. One of my favorite lines in episode three is when she expresses that, “a life like this is acceptable, too.” Even though things have ostensibly completely changed in her life, she has dealt with this change so handily and normalized and systematized it so effectively that it already feels as natural as her life had felt before–just in a different way, and bringing along a different set of emotions and daily concerns.
It really means alot to me that this series is one of the few, if not the only time that I’ve ever seen anime characters move into a new apartment in the middle of a series. Kobayashi decides that her apartment doesn’t have enough space now that she’s got a maid and (basically) a daughter, so they move into a bigger place; and it kind of means the world to me that instead of Kobayashi having pointlessly lived in a giant house that her parents left behind or some other bullshit, we just crossed that bridge when we came to it.
Why am I so hung up on this? Maybe because I’ve lived in 18 different houses in my life; and my family was constantly taking in cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmas, friends, and other people who needed a place–so space management and the different reasons that a family would have to move are extremely familiar to me. Moving has been a huge part of my life, and it’s something I’m about to do again after almost nine years of having taken root in one place for what to me seems to me like an absolutely absurd amount of time–so seeing it represented accurately in anime for like the first time ever was pretty exciting.
Also because moving means something very different to adults from what it does to kids. Most of the time that moving is presented in stories, it is right at the beginning–the characters are arriving in a new place, and are about to get a fresh start. The actual reasons for the move are mere plot contrivance–what’s important is how the move affects the children emotionally, or how it changes their lives for good or ill. That’s all fine and accurate in itself, believe me–I moved so often growing up that I couldn’t even relate to a lot of stories about characters who just moved, because I never had the experience of having lived in one place my whole life and then having been upended.
But now that I’m grown up, my understanding of moving is completely different. Now it’s purely about logic, and who can fit where, and how much you need versus how much you can afford, and what the property is worth, et cetera. Do the kids need their own bedrooms? Am I going to have to dump half of my crap at goodwill if the new place doesn’t have enough storage? –And the logic changes considerably depending on how many people are involved or how much money you’ve got to toss around.
Maidragon doesn’t dig too deeply into these concerns; Kobayashi is able to upgrade her house without even seemingly thinking about the cost, which is fascinating in its own way. It means that Kobayashi was probably living significantly under her means, while putting a lot of money into savings; because, why not? If she spends most of her time working and doesn’t have particularly expensive tastes, then it’s not like she needed to be spending more than she was–this new place is probably just cutting into some of that margin. But anyways, I’m getting way too into talking about this, so let’s move along!
My favorite thing about Kobayashi is her general worldview of cynical optimism. For the longest time, I’ve been living with the motto, “high hopes, low expectations,” and I feel like Kobayashi follows this mantra perfectly. Whenever pressed to consider the possibilities of a situation, she will identify and explain the worst case scenario–but then follow that up with hopefulness that things are going to come out okay, and that it’s worth the risk to go through with living anyways.
The series itself follows this kind of logic as well, often reminding us of how things could possibly go wrong, but then allowing things to go right; and reminding us that for all of the ways that people and situations can be shit, they can also be cool, too. This is most clearly displayed in episode two, when Tohru uses an unnatural show of force to take down a purse snatcher. There’s a moment of panic when both she and Kobayashi are concerned over how the surrounding onlookers are going to respond to the situation. Fearing the worst, Kobayashi rushes to Tohru’s side, only for it to turn out that, yeah, of course everyone loves and celebrates a badass, and they all rush to praise Tohru for her deed.
Sure, things don’t always go this way; but things do go this way sometimes–and it’s just as important to remember that as it is to remember the opposite. This scene comes up again as a flashback in moments when the characters remember that sense of panic over whether things are going to turn out okay or not; but at the same time, there is a comfort in knowing that they did. This line is constantly being walked by the series, as Kobayashi and Tohru never forget the possibility that whatever they’re doing could be a bad idea, but continually decide to go through with it anyways and hope for the best, right up through the emotional climax of the series.
It’s this acknowledgement of the potential wrongs of society which makes the happiness of the series that much more potent. Kobayashi reminds us how Kanna could potentially be ostracized when entering kindergarten, but she lets her go anyways–and it turns out that everyone loves her and she makes friends easily. We are constantly reminded that any of the dragon characters could invoke ragnarok or eat all the humans around them if they decided that this world wasn’t good enough; but Kobayashi approaches each of them anyways–not without reservation, but while recognizing that life wouldn’t be worth living if situations didn’t turn out okay every now and then, or if you couldn’t have any faith in the goodness of others’ hearts.
But that isn’t even the whole of what makes Kobayashi such a great friend and mother figure; so much of that has to do with the depth of her empathy, and willingness to almost step outside of herself to understand someone else. In episode two, after that scene in the market, even though things turned out okay, she goes on holding Tohru’s hand for a while as they walk away, to comfort the rushing nerves that both of them are still experiencing after that moment of panic. Later, we will see her decide to compliment Tohru on her cooking, or to hide her more analytical and abrasive opinions, just to make Tohru happy. Later, she becomes self-sacrificing to the point of giving herself extra work so that she’ll be able to make time to come to Kanna’s field day, just so as not to disappoint her. But perhaps my favorite moment of Kobayashi’s perceptiveness is when, a minute after her apartment is utterly wrecked by the arrival of an unfamiliar dragon, she processes the situation and how it might play out, stays calm, and compliments Kanna on having said something clever. Even in the face of total chaos, her natural response is to remain motherly towards her surrogate daughter.
And, hey, whaddya know, that brings me to another thing that I’m totally into as a thematic subject: parenting! Particularly this stage of it, when you’re out of the nonstop-screaming-crying-shitting baby stage, and into the shaping the heart and mind of an impressionable youth stage. Aside from the biological act of creating a child, or the physical act of keeping them alive until they’re old enough to do so themselves, the most important thing that a parent does for a child is to develop their worldview. So much of what a person becomes is the result of the environment that they grew up in and who their parents were, (going beyond, perhaps, what many would like to admit), and if there’s one thing I would treasure the opportunity to do, it would be to throw my hat into the ring of trying to get it right. At that, Kobayashi represents a lot of what I think I’d try to do.
Of course, Kobayashi is lucky that Kanna is basically self-sufficient already–I mean, she’s a fucking dragon, and only even a child in dragon terms in the first place. I’m not going to pretend that this series is a serious attempt at exploring parenthood or anything; really, the conceit of the series allows us to sidestep most of the serious aspects and potential consequences of parenthood, and to just focus on the more inviting implications.
I mean, Kanna herself is fucking adorable and perfect and the best kid you could ask for. Kobayashi is coasting on easy mode with a kid as understanding and worldly as this one. Still, it’s the way that Kobayashi is always assessing what Kanna will understand and guiding her towards making good decisions and growing into a more empathetic and intelligent child that makes her such a great mother figure. She gives Kanna the space to do her own thing–(if largely out of necessity)–but makes sure to be there for her as a guiding influence, and to make sure that she’s satisfied with her home life, even at the potential cost of increasing her own stress. After all, that stress has a bigger payoff now, when she gets to see her daughter happy, and to know that she’s working towards something; that each ounce of effort has a tangible benefit in someone’s life.
In the last episode of the series, while we are pushed into a somewhat contrived scenario in order to get to a big, emotional climax, my favorite part is how with Tohru not around, we see a montage of what single-mother life would actually be for Kobayashi. Nothing about her intentionality changes at all–but her capabilities change massively. She can’t actually manage her time well enough to keep her house clean, or to give Kanna a good meal every day, or to have someone to look after her when she needs to work late. This is where we really get into how life affects parenthood in a more directly physical sense. It’s not that Kobayashi has become any worse of a parent–really, she hasn’t changed at all. We just see how much harder it would be for her to be herself without anyone around to help, and how this means concessions in Kanna’s standard of living, which could very well change her mindset towards what life is like in the future. Knowing how good a kid Kanna is, though, it would probably only make her stronger.
While we’re talking about that final episode, let’s also deliver on what I promised earlier, and get into the scene wherein Kobayashi gets emotional without the use of alcohol. As mentioned before, Kobayashi is always one to chose her words and actions carefully, based on what the situation seems to call for. We can often see her taking time to process her situation, or to reconsider how she thinks about something. In episode ten, she is told something about herself, to which she responds, “really? … Yeah, I guess so,” indicating how she’s assessed the information and concluded that it was true. It’s this calculating nature of hers that allows her to pull out so many nuggets of wisdom and to keep situations under control.
It’s because of this nature that Kobayashi so rarely gets passionately emotional without the influence of alcohol; and in this final scene, she takes a lot of time to process the situation with Tohru and her father before preparing to speak in her usual methodical way–but the second she opens her mouth, Tohru’s father very nearly murders her, and assures her that if she says the wrong thing, then he will do just that. Finally thrust into a chaotic panic beyond any that she’s experienced so far, Kobayashi isn’t able to process the situation in her usual manner, and so she flies by the seat of her pants with an emotional outburst that lacks any compromise, cost-benefit analysis or careful wording–she states what she wants in clear terms and lays down the law, ready to deal with the consequences of that, whatever they may be. And, as is befitting the attitude of the series as a whole, it eventually pays off.
I feel like I could go on about how much I love and connect with Kobayashi all day. I love how she can have fun by just vicariously observing Kanna and Tohru duking it out in episode two, while she lays back and relaxes on the sidelines–and how at one point, someone refers to her as acting like a “retiree,” to which she concedes. She is indeed a retiree, but only from this kind of rambunctious young-person fun that she just lacks the energy for. I love her line about how, “most people don’t become adults, they just can’t be kids anymore,” which is wholly accurate. For that matter, in the same episode she comments on how Tohru has matured by developing her own set of values apart from those instilled by her parents. Then there’s the part where she’s asked if she believes that she and Tohru are equals, and she responds that she does, insofar as her and Tohru both see things that way, and that’s all that really matters; and goddamn this girl has so many nuggets of wisdom that it’s amazing how they’re all slipped into the series so nonchalantly.
I’ve also gotta give a shout out to the scenes wherein Kobayashi doesn’t know the right thing to say, or how to deal with a situation–at least not immediately. All throughout the series, the biggest source of tension between Kobayashi and Tohru is their different levels of attachment, with Tohru being forthrightly sexually interested in Kobayashi, whereas Kobayashi tries to keep her at arm’s length (at least physically). This finally comes to a head in episode eight, when Kobayashi admits that she isn’t used to being wanted by someone, and simply doesn’t know how to deal with those emotions. It’s the one area in which she needs Tohru to be able to compromise and to make a concession to allow her to be the way that she is, as opposed to the other way around.
I’ve literally still got pages of notes about this show that I haven’t even gotten to; all I’ve done is rant about how cool Kobayashi is all this time–so I’m gonna have to split this video into parts. Stick around on my channel for the next part, and share this video with anyone whom you think it would interest. Check out my vlogging and podcast channels for more frequent uploads, and support me on patreon if you’d like to help my videos to get made. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!