FEATURE: Why It Works: Dragon Maid's Yamada Touch, Part One

Today we'll begin a two-parter exploring the talented director who made Dragon Maid's eighth episode so special!

Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is an undeniably pretty show. The studio behind it, Kyoto Animation, are renowned for their consistently top-tier direction and animation, and Dragon Maid has provided a unique template for their talented staff. The same skills that make shows like Sound! Euphonium or Hyouka such singular character dramas can be applied with equal tenacity to something like Dragon Maid’s gag comedy, letting the show gleefully jump between entire aesthetic styles for the sake of one offhand gag, or pull off action scenes as impressive as any in the business. The talents that once made Nichijou a work of such insane genius are all fully accounted for here in their latest production.


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Dragon Maid’s “average episode” is a strong mix of that brilliantly articulated comedy and scattered moments of genuine emotional warmth. I’ve talked before about how the true heart of Dragon Maid lies in its ability to precisely articulate the small emotional truths of its characters’ lives, but even given that expectation, the show’s eighth episode was a uniquely poignant emotional stunner. And the fact of that becomes almost obvious when you look at the team for this one - episode director Naoko Yamada and her animation collaborator on A Silent Voice, Futoshi Nishiya. Today I’ll be offering the first half of a two-parter exploring what made this episode work, starting with Yamada herself and eventually getting around to breaking down… well, maybe about three minutes of animation.


Naoko Yamada may well be the fastest-rising star in the current anime industry. After working as a key animator and then episode director on Air and Clannad, she first handled her own show with 2009’s blockbuster hit K-On! K-On!’s first season brought an unparalleled level of atmosphere and intimate observation to its fairly ordinary slice of life material, and its success led Yamada to instill the double-length sequel with even more of her understanding of body language, framing, and intimacy. From there, Yamada’s career has only continued to blossom, as she directed works as varied and impressive as Tamako Love Story, Sound! Euphonium, and the recent A Silent Voice.


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Yamada excels in finding the humanity in our smallest gestures through both choices of animation and shot framing, and Dragon Maid’s eighth episode was a firm demonstration of her talents. The episode’s likely most “Yamada-style” scene (and my personal favorite) came near the end, when Tohru was finally confronted about her suspicious behavior towards Kobayashi. It turned out that Tohru was feeling jealous of Kobayashi’s friendship with new dragon Elma, and wanted to be consoled about the importance of her own bond with Kobayashi. And so both Tohru and Kobayashi did their best to articulate their feelings, in a scene that demonstrated the power of animation by itself to convey our emotional truths.


The scene begins with Kobayashi learning Tohru was trying to get her to eat her tail again, in a goofy sequence enlivened by silly faces and dorky musical embellishments. But then the tone is sharply reset, as the show takes several seconds to watch Kobayashi retreat across the room and sit on the edge of the couch. In terms of both pacing and action, this cut establishes a mood of reflection and exasperation, like Tohru is about to be lectured. The mundane but carefully animated nature of Kobayashi's motion switches our expectations from that of over-the-top farce to grounded personal drama. The overall collection of choices put us in Tohru’s headspace, which is appropriate, as Tohru's feelings are the dramatic focus here.

 

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Tohru’s framing here is also important. As Kobayashi asks her what’s wrong, both Tohru’s expressions and overall body language seem very defensive - hands tucked in, eyes turned away from Kobayashi. When Tohru responds with “you can’t tell?”, we see her speak from over her shoulder, emphasizing both her defensiveness and Kobayashi’s inability to connect with her. The scene’s first moment of emotional vulnerability arrives with Kobayashi further articulating her uncertain thoughts, which allows for their eyes to actually meet for the first time. There is an entire tiny narrative told across these exchanges, articulated not through actual dialogue, but through the specific visual framing of each of their perspectives.


Their conversation is then interrupted by the doorbell, which turns out to be Elma, once again prodding at Tohru’s insecurities by giving Kobayashi a gift. Tohru’s response here finally gives Kobayashi a clue to what’s going on, before Elma is sent on her way in spectacular fashion. Even the effectiveness of this slapstick sequence can be framed in terms of specific directorial and animation choices - and you know what, there’s a lot more to cover with this scene, so let’s end today’s article by breaking down one slapstick gag.

 

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Humor is built on a variety of craft building blocks, but several of the key pillars relevant to this gag are: timing, betrayals of expectations, and absurd juxtaposition. The sequence opens with Tohru responding to a slight, very human emotional betrayal by firing a giant laser beam at her target. That in itself echoes one of Dragon Maid’s most reliable humor mines: the juxtaposition of human problems and dragon solutions, with the relatable mundanity of the first amplifying the silliness of the second. The timing here is also key - the sequence first builds through several seconds of Tohru taking a breath, which together imply a sense of dramatic import that will predictably result in dramatic consequences. But then, when the actual impact arrives, it’s a silly orange beam that travels in a completely unrealistic manner and resolves itself within roughly one full second.


Dragon Maid’s fluid visual style also amplifies the impact of this gag. Tohru’s buildup is presented in the show’s most florid, fantastical style, with visual exaggeration and vivid fire animation presenting a sense of actual danger. This buildup is then undercut by both goofy character animation and shots designed to emphasize how mundane everything else is - a shot from above that reminds us we’re in Kobayashi’s apartment entryway, and a shot from the side that presents Kobayashi’s extremely underwhelming physical reaction. Finally, the sequence ends on pure Looney Tunes pratfall, putting us in a third genre space for a final kicker. Even a ten second gag can be made brilliant through the application of smart direction and beautiful, diverse animation.

 

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Alright, that’s a whole lot of words to break down not all that much screentime. But that’s what happens when a show is made with as much care as Dragon Maid, and a director as talented as Yamada brings all her abilities to bear. That’s all I’ve got for now, but I hope you all come back next week, as I explore the true heart of this very special episode!

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Nick Creamer has been writing about cartoons for too many years now, and is always ready to cry about Madoka. You can find more of his work at his blog Wrong Every Time, or follow him on Twitter.

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