Hey all, and welcome back to Why It Works. I’ve been very much enjoying this season’s Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, even though I wasn’t necessarily expecting to at the start. The first episode was goofy and propulsive enough, but it lacked something to really make me care about the story. Comedies don’t necessarily need to make you care, but for comedies like Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, which embraces heavy slice of life instincts and wants you to like its characters, finding an emotional center is very important. The subsequent episodes have done an excellent job of making me care about Kobayashi and Tohru on their own terms, but the second episode in particular introduced an ingredient that pretty much sold me immediately: Tohru’s dragon friend Kanna.
Kanna initially arrives with hopes of dragging Tohru back to fantasy-land, but she soon ends up joining the family. The show doesn’t really beat around the bush with its family unit shenanigans; it’s basically established from the start that she’s the daughter of the family, and acts as such. Demanding time to play, expressing honest curiosity at all the marvels of the human world, and taking frequent naps are all characteristic of what Kanna brings to the table.
Kanna may actually be a dragon, but the show’s ability to sell her as a believable daughter for the two other leads contributes greatly to its emotional success. Much of what makes Kanna an important addition is incidental, like how she’ll busy herself with silly games whenever the adults are doing something that bores her. Incidental details of character acting and strong animation contribute greatly to her sense of presence, and the contrast between her goofy appearance and draconic nature results in some natural comedy as well. Kanna is a charming and believable child in a cozy family environment, interacting differently with each of her “moms” but coming across as inquisitive, needy, and generally full of life at all times.
In short, Kanna is great. But Kanna’s greatness is reflective of what’s become one of my favorite subgenres in recent anime: the regularly rewarding What Am I Going To Do With This Child genre. And so today I figured I’d take a look back for anyone who’s enjoying Kanna’s antics, and highlight some of the other greats in this inherently charming field.
First off, the generally accepted critical darling of the genre remains Usagi Drop. Sticking together the thirty-year-old single man Daikichi and his six-year-old, uh, aunt (it’s complicated) Rin, Usagi Drop presents a story of mutual discovery and the many perils of parenting. Rin is a charming kid, but a great deal of Usagi Drop’s strength comes down to its very grounded approach to the genre. Forced to learn everything about child-rearing all at once, Daikichi stumbles through a series of mundane problems that lend life to both him and his adopted daughter. From its soft color palette and graceful linework to its tender character writing, Usagi Drop is a gem.
Secondly, my own favorite entry in the genre remains the reliable Nichijou. Nichijou is unavailable streaming at the moment, but fortunately Funimation recently picked up its license, so it’ll be available in just a few days. Brought to you by the same studio behind Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, Nichijou is a madcap comedy that actually includes a lot more than a parent-child narrative, but the relationship between child genius Professor Shinonome and her robot parental figure Nano is the show’s emotional heart. Featuring much of the same believable childishness and terrific character acting that makes Kanna so endearing, it’s full of sequences that embody the odd mysteries of childhood, and the honest warmth of a found family.
Moving back to the father-daughter territory, last year’s sweetness & lightning introduced us to Kouhei and his daughter Tsumugi. Resigned to feeding his daughter on packaged meals ever since the death of his wife, Kouhei finds an unexpected way to connect with her when his student Kotori makes them a home-cooked meal. sweetness & lightning proceeds as a series of episodic recipes, as a new meal cooked by the three of them ends up shedding light on either his anxieties or Tsumugi’s own troubles. This show’s greatest trick is likely the degree of respect it lends Tsumugi’s feelings, as well as the ways it occasionally gestures towards the lingering sadness of her mother’s absence. But in general, the title says it all: energetic and fluffy, sweetness & lightning is a generally lovely time.
Finally, my last pick for the genre would be 2014’s Barakamon. Barakamon centers on a young, talented calligrapher named Handa, who suffers something of a mental break in response to criticism of his art. Sent off to the country to cool his head, he runs into the impetuous young girl Naru, and so begins a series of lackadaisical adventures. Like Sweetness & Lightning, Barakamon is lifted by the fact that its central child character is voiced by an actual child actress, whose naturalistic voice acting is itself buoyed by some beautiful character acting. Naru’s energy is infectious, and Barakamon also manages to fit in a number of reflections on the artist life through Handa’s trials. It’s a rewarding and often thoughtful production.
So that’s it for my list of cartoon daughters that I would die for. If you’re enjoying Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, I’d definitely encourage you to give some of the others a look, and also to pick up Nichijou once it arrives. These charming children deserve our love!