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

Today we conclude our dive into one of Dragon Maid's most powerful episodes!

Hey all, and welcome back to Why It Works. Last week I spent a whole bunch of time establishing the beauty of Dragon Maid’s unique strengths, and talking up Naoko Yamada’s ability to sell a scene. That was all well and good, but we didn’t actually find time to get to the true heart of the episode, or the sequence that most felt Yamada as heck to me. So today we’ll be polishing off this Dragon Maid reverie, as we return to the scene of Kobayashi and Tohru hashing out their strange relationship.


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Where I last left off, Tohru had just sent new dragon Elma flying in a fit of jealousy. This act finally gave Kobayashi a clue as to what was bothering her dragon, and as the scene continues, the mood shifts abruptly back from slapstick comedy to vulnerable character drama. As with the transition out of Tohru offering Kobayashi dragon-meat sandwiches, Dragon Maid offers a buffer here, where a slow-paced transition shifts the tone while cluing both the audience and characters into the dramatic importance of what follows.


We start off with Kobayashi inspecting her ruined door, which is interrupted by Tohru stating “Miss Kobayashi” in an even, restrained voice. This shot is framed essentially from Kobayashi’s perspective, which is important - like before, this puts us in Kobayashi’s headspace, our inability to see Tohru reflecting our uncertainty about what she’s feeling. Before the conversation continues, we get another pair of silent shots, as Kobayashi turns and Tohru walks closer. The overall effect is further emphasis of the intimacy here, and the understanding that Tohru is about to reveal something personal and important.

 

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“I’m selfish,” Tohru says, the camera once again hiding her eyes. This sequence’s consistent emphasis on avoiding eyes reflects the fact that eyes are often too easy - eyes are a clear window to the soul, and even if we can’t immediately understand what someone is feeling by looking in their eyes, they still offer far more connection than the alternative. In a more general sense, sequences like this also reflect how not just eyes, but even dialogue can offer “too much” information.


Shows that aren’t blessed with beautiful animation and thoughtful direction are legitimately limited in the kinds of emotional situations they can effectively construct, because characters who fully articulate themselves through dialogue are already “saying more” than their actual words convey. A character who directly articulates their problems isn’t just conveying that specific information, they are defining themselves as someone with the confidence and emotional intelligence to say the things they are saying. In contrast, a show that’s able to rely heavily on body language and framing can effectively convey far more nuance in its characterization without using a word.


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Our feelings are often clear in our body language even without words, and for many characters, an inability to vocally articulate their feelings is an important character trait that shouldn't limit what we can learn about them. On top of that, body language can also make a character’s emotions “felt” in a way that spoken words cannot - the audience effect of a character saying “I’m sad and insecure” is very different from the effect of watching a character huddle in upon themselves on a couch, their eyes wavering between a silent phone and the cold world outside.


The final minutes of Dragon Maid’s eighth episode demonstrate all the power of this visually-focused approach to characterization and drama. Kobayashi’s uncertainty at Tohru’s words is presented not through dialogue, but through her slight, defensive turn as Tohru continues to speak. Tohru’s vulnerability isn’t directly articulated, but is clear in the ways her fingers clench as she forces herself to be more honest. As Tohru finally states her emotional needs, the camera hovers above and behind her head, reflecting how far she’s pushing herself outside her comfort zone. Avoiding the eyes can actually be a way of conveying intimacy, as it will naturally reflect that a character doesn’t want to be seen, or isn’t comfortable in their current behavior.

 

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Kobayashi’s response is full of its own small emotional tells. Like every stage of this conversation, her words are preceded by a lengthy silent sequence, emphasizing the importance of the moment while clearly giving her a moment to collect her thoughts. Yamada’s work often focuses on legs at key emotional moments, seemingly favoring them as more “honest” than our overt expressions. Here, Kobayashi’s overall body tells a story of moving from uncomfortable tension, to natural defensiveness, to a kind of looseness born of wanting to meet Tohru’s honesty. And when she speaks, her words are just as vulnerable, just as true.


As with Tohru, Kobayashi’s location within the frame tells a great deal of the story. As she says that she’s “never been wanted before,” we see just her huddled, defensive back, along with the animation of her moving into an even more concentrated ball. As she ponders human relations, the frame expands in front of her, emphasizing the size of her bewilderment. But by pulling the shot out, Dragon Maid also places this family’s three umbrellas in view, perhaps offering a counterpoint through the idea that Kobayashi really has discovered the essence of human contact.

 

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The finale of the scene offers a merging of their perspectives in both dialogue and visual focus. As Kobayashi’s confidence in her speech grows, she rises to meet Tohru, and we see Tohru’s eyes for the first time. Kobayashi and Tohru finally meet in intimate shots that pull them even closer together, and so even when Kobayashi turns away, it’s clear that they’ve finally reconnected. At the scene’s end, the two are framed together through their broken door, further cementing their bond while creating one last comic contrast in the reminder of Tohru’s powers.


I think that’s all we’ve got time for today! Honestly, this episode was an absolute buffet of wonderful tiny moments, all of them demonstrating the unique power of animation and framing to create a specific emotional effect. Naoko Yamada’s works are full of such moments, sequences that demonstrate how storytelling, character growth, and personal connection entail far more than simply writing snappy dialogue and solid character arcs. We reveal our humanity in our every motion, and the pursuit of capturing those motions is part of what animation is all about. Shows that can truly evoke our human complexity through framing and animation are a very special thing, and I hope Yamada and the rest of Kyoto Animation’s talented staff continue to offer such gifts for many years to come.

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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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