Sakuga & Cinema: A Breakdown of "Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid" Episode 8
Episode 8 of Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid was a considerable improvement over the dredge of the prior two episodes. I didn't find the theme to be nearly as endearing, nor the animation quite the spectacle of episode 2 that enthralled me so. It's a bit of a rough place to be smack-dab in the middle of the season and already peaked six weeks back. Naturally (and unfortunately), the analytical mind is predisposed to compare and contrast everything that comes after and label it as either a progression, regression, or worse yet, stagnation. This practice is not an absolute quantification of value, more a relative one, but to me, Maid Dragon is clearly in regression. That isn't to say there weren't some great animation highlights though.
I've mentioned numerous times on Wave Motion Cannon how difficult/labor intensive it is to depict movement into depth in hand-drawn animation. It is one of the defining characteristics of anime (western cartoons usually staying quite flat), and this episode decides to open with a circular motion that conveys the tension between Kobayashi and Tohru. But the camera not only revolves around this scene of tension, but oscillates the distance from it's tethered axis, building the dramatic tension. The effects animation on the smoke and wind are a nice touch, but pale in comparison of the next scene.
The smoke around Fafnir is textured, or rather, the manner in which the smoke is depicted gives the illusion of texture. Everything from the shading to the shape and movement is full of tiny details that communicate real life equivalents to our brain. The smoke is ripe with malevolence, unnaturally thick like something did not burn properly and is spewing noxious fumes. This is complimented by the secondary action of the hair flowing in perfect rhythm with the tempo of a passing breeze. The understood and relatable movement of the hair defines the somewhat more ambiguous nature of smoke.
A beautiful ghosting effect was used to show a sense of speed later on in the episode. Tohru darts back and forth, effortlessly covering distance with great speed. It reminded me ever so slightly of Alucard's movements from Symphony of the Night! Joking aside, the opaque, lingering key frames were an excellent touch that did not overstay its welcome, but was the right effect to employ in the scene, given our dragon maid a sense of urgency.
The beam shot is not quite as impressive as it could (or should) have been, and instead relied on camera tricks like push-ins (a perfectly viable method of filmmaking), instead of straightforward drawing which would have been more impactful. The transformation of Tohru's face at the start of the clip was most impressive, as was the curve on the beam at the end. That said, strip the camera movement (such as the push in as Tohru inhales) and the scene feels flat. The only exception to this is the beam curvature towards the end and Kanada flame arcs on the fireball as Tohru forms it in her mouth.
But not all sakugas (TM) are flashy effect animation.There was a treasure to behold if you payid attention to Kobayshi's slight and rhythmic movements during her heart-to-heart with Tohru.Her movements are very human and candid, the framing of individual aspects allows us to focus on parts of her humanity and savor the details of brilliant character animation. A picture is worth 1000 words, and this one moves; Kobayshi's body language does all the talking.
Framing this episode was key for the character animation to give a warm and charming performance. As in the above frames, both Kobayashi and Tohru suffer crippling defeat (if only for a moment), but experience it differently based on framing. Kobayashi's feels fairly naturalistic, as her placement is on the right rabatment of the frame, her shadow guided by the lower third - it's a very organic right angle that feels right. So even though Kobayashi has lost, she confronts the loss with reason and logical thought. Compare that to Tohru, whose placement struggles to adhere to thirds, her stance is just a tad off, reflective of her emotional state that fails to see eye-to-eye with logos. This use of cinematic language is sprinkled throughout the episode.
Closeups were equally rewarding with expressions that stole the show. The abandonment of any form of symmetry lends Fafnir's face all the unholy power of the uncanny valley. The single wide-eye with a fully dilated pupil is the stuff of nightmares, the abundance of excess lines build tension that pieces your very soul. Meanwhile, Elma takes the opposite approach, her character model rounding to display a euphoric softness. What jagged lines there are (her mouth and eyebrows) are broken under the stress of holding back her gushing joy. Wisely, her countenance stays simplistic with no excess lines, leaving her feelings bare and exposed.
So while this episode was not episode 2 redux, it had merit that warrants attention. Active viewership is extremely rewarding in these situations, and I would encourage you all to engage with the art you take the time to view. There is a richness that comes from digging in and spending thought and time on the images that flash before our eyes week after week. Savor the subtle intricacies that harbor the artist's’ love for the craft. The dragon is in the details.