A look at Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid's unique humor built on running jokes and recurring themes
With anime like Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju and March comes in like a lion throwing around some seriously heavy subject matter each week, it's nice to know we have some softer shows to lighten the mood after our hearts have been dragged through the dirt. Fortunately, it's a rare season that finds itself short on comedies. This winter, in particular, has a number of great comedies which each offer a different flavor of humor. Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid is a standout not only for its gorgeous animation courtesy of Kyoto Animation, but its excellent use of running gags and the recurring themes.
Although running gags are often used as a comedic crutch, finding new and fresh ways to present the same joke is an artform all its own and contributes a new depth to a story. Hit American sitcoms like Arrested Development and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia were both immensely popular, in part, due to their mastery of the running gag, to the point that there are sites dedicated to tracking the recurrence of jokes across the series. In a genre where characters personalities are often made mutable to accommodate whatever comical situation the episode demands, writing jokes based off consistent characterization provides laughs while reinforcing our perceptions of those characters are making them seem more real. The joke of Tohru's odd obsession with getting Kobayashi to consume her tail meat can take as many forms as Tohru finds ways to sneak it into her cuisine, but no matter how she does it, the joke is rooted in her affection for her favorite human.
This is dynamic has been particularly true for Kanna. Despite having less screen time that Tohru, Kanna rapidly became a member of the primary cast every bit as charming because of the consistency of her character. Where we can trust Tohru's mind to go to the steamiest depths given the smallest opportunity, Kanna's childlike behaviors present themselves often and we can see past experience, sometimes from previous episodes, which color her perception of the world and influence her future behaviors. The greatest example of this effect are the landmarks of Kanna's tour of the human world with Tohru in episode 2. Kanna's desire to to ride in one of the magical human cars is fulfilled in the next episode and we get to see her excitement. A small aside in which Kanna overhears a passing teenager saying "that's wicked" becomes the neologism that Kanna spreads among her classmates two episodes later.
Repetition also turns one-off jokes not only into running gags but consistent parts of characterization. A small aside in which Kanna has Goldilocks-like trouble finding a comfortable place to nap before finally falling asleep in Tohru's lap, later scenes reveal that it might not have been a problem her pillow so much as the company. Several times later she appears fast asleep on the same couch and pillow, but each time with Kobayashi and Tohru nearby. After the initial joke, it never appears again as a joke, but we recall the earlier event every time we see her sleeping. Then there’s some worrying behaviors she hopefully grows out of...
Even events that don't first appear as a joke can become humorous when they are revisited. Tohru's distaste for the shopping mall becomes a short gag when she's forced to choose between being abandoned by Kobayashi and Kanna outside or confronting her fear of the castle-like structure. In a brilliant but of comedic writing, the same passing teenager becomes the origin of two running gags. While his phrase itself is passed onto a class of elementary schoolers, Tohru's whimsical, perhaps too accurate observation, that they are magical words used to survive a conversation, becomes an entirely separate running joke as when Takiya describes a formal Japanese business greeting as magic words for shy people to introduce themselves.
Even outside of humor, Dragon Maid shows some serious dedication to revisiting earlier ideas and maintaining a consistent world. Little events that are implied to have occurred in media res create a sense of chronological order to the often unrelated asides that occur throughout Dragon Maid. The appearance of a wooden gorilla on the table in Kobayashi's new apartment after she saved her neighbors from an untimely death at Tohru's hands indicates further interactions with the craftsman and an amicable relationship after Kobayashi repaired their bad first impressions. The world has grown much richer without an extra scene or a single spoken line of dialogue.
I've previously written about exposition and the importance of the philosophy of "show, don't tell" and even here Dragon Maid's style of storytelling shows merit. While wooden gorillas admirably accomplish just this feat, we can see how revisiting older events can help build a story. Several times, we see Tohru glowing green(er) while in flight in her dragon form without explanation. It's only when Kanna wants to fly to Kobayashi's work that it's explained that the glow is what keeps people from seeing her. Although a minor point, the explanation clears up incongruity while waiting for an opportune moment to provide it without making it seemed forced. As with several story points, Dragon Maid is taking its time, revisiting them to return them to our awareness or capitalize on their humor before it's the right time for further development.
This isn't to say a well-crafted single-use joke can't be every bit as funny as some creatively structure recurring humor, but Dragon Maid displays an excellent memory and creativity in constantly revisiting and building upon its past events to flesh out its story. The manner in which old jokes are made new and a single event can be either be used for both humor and exposition is impressive. Not only does this add a ton of value to a rewatch but it rewards both the casual and analytical viewer. Aside from some more reflective moments, nothing about Dragon Maid is particularly difficult to understand, but the story structure makes sure to reward anyone taking a closer look.