Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid anime, especially Episode 9.
For a mightily questionable premise of “the adventures of a bespectacled Victorian maid-obsessed salarywoman and the busty live-in dragonoid maid that wants to lovey-dovey to quite-erotic things with her”, Kyoto Animation’s anime adaptation of the manga series is surprisingly thoughtful. Now… I wouldn’t call it entirely wholesome. The adaptation doesn’t completely excise all its questionably horny gags: a dragon woman’s lack of boundary respect for a middle school boy, a middle school girl’s less-than-prurient feelings for dragon girl classmate. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (henceforth just Dragon Maid) is nevertheless thoughtful where it talks about family and community. Rather than their dynamic being solely defined by comedy that exploits their bizarre situation, Kobayashi and Tohru’s queer relationship is nurtured numerous moments of appreciation and intimacy. By the end of the first season, a Kobayashi that invited Tohru in during a drunken stupor has become a Kobayashi that she misses her dearly while fully sober: not just because Tohru’s the maid she’s always wanted (she’s not Victorian), but because she feels rent without Tohru in her life.
Much like how Kobayashi, Tohru, and later Kanna eventually live together under the same roof as strangers-turned-family, Japanese society reproduces and reinforces familial and communal values in the people that comprise it. Kobayashi begins the show as nerdy workaholic loner, not necessarily opposed to socializing, but mainly focused on personal interests: day job and maid hobbies (the real Victorian shit). By the end of the show, Kobayashi lives in a family sized apartment with Tohru, spending money and making time for Kanna’s school supplies and functions.
From the family side of things, her atypical depiction in anime and Japanese media in general as a rather unfeminine looking-computer programming-salaryperson slaving-maid otaku raving-ultimately queer woman doesn’t prevent her from forming a happy family complete with a child. Japanese society promotes making families for the sake of raising children for Japan’s future. Dragon Maid deviates but doesn’t fully depart from that goal. If you can be open-minded about her lesbian relationship with a rather motherly Tohru and the non-blooded connection to her still effective daughter Kanna, Kobayashi’s character slots rather snugly in that customary role of father. Kobayashi is the stoic tie-and-slacks breadwinner.
From the community side of things, Kobayashi’s desire to provide for Tohru and Kanna, make them happy, and keep her world welcoming to them puts her into situations that require her to engage with society more broadly than she previously had. Nothing better illustrates this change in Kobayashi more than Sports Day. But… what is Sports Day exactly? What’s so special about it? As a person currently in Japan teaching kids there for a living, I’ve had the opportunity to spectate and even participate in Sports Days. I studied the games and activities whilst cheering for my students. Somewhere, I realized a educative purpose to it all that doesn’t have to do with athletic fitness.
Undoukai, Athletic Meets, Sports Festivals, Sports Days… whatever name you call them by, these events serve a dual educative purpose. The first is rather obvious: they promote athletic fitness. The second is less so: they promote communal values. These communal values, alongside close family ones, are highly prized in Japan.
My vague recollections of my own American PE classes tended to be individually conducted exercises and different sports activities. We stretched by ourselves and performed laps at their own pace. We did some some team sport afterwards, though rarely with any exhortation from our track-suited supervisors about working as a team. Everyone performed their role according to their ability and motivation, leading to notable all-stars people wanted on their team or feared to play against, and others on the team who weren’t interested in exercising couldn’t be bothered to contribute much. It was a non-competitve environment for a class that we students ordinarily couldn’t get out of, so the expectation wasn’t really there to give your ad hoc team “your all” in the way playing for a sports team exerts social pressure. And at least for my school, we didn’t bookend our PE classes with a mandatory Sports Day. Nothing we did in PE built up to any big athletic event.
I haven’t had the opportunity to observe Japanese PE classes myself, but I have been to a couple Sports Days in Japan on invitation. The only activity that seemed to lack much teamwork were the individual short-distance sprints, where individual students from one team competed with individual students from others. Then again, the results of these sprint activities translated into points for the teams the students represented, those teams being comprised of the students of each homeroom.
The rest of the activities were group-based activities like long distance hand-off relays, multi-legged human centipede races, lengthy roped tugs-of-war, moving-coiling human-made bridges, scavenger hunts, and this one activity called Heavy Rotation where groups of students holding onto a long pole have run at and then orient themselves around a safety cone as quickly as possible while AKB48 music is playing on the loudspeakers.
Sports Day in Japan is ultimately more about cooperation than competition. The whole thing may be fun on a personal level, and the winning class may have their day in the sun. An inordinate amount of trouble goes into planning complicated group activities. A good amount of time is also spent on students marching and standing together in formation. Hell, at least in my school, the trophies awarded are only given to the winning students on loan by the school to sit in their homerooms. These very old-looking trophies are given back and have to be won again during the next Sports Days, as the students aren’t allowed to take the winning tin home for keeps. For the losing homeroom teams, the ability to come together and pull-off these somewhat complex and ridiculous maneuvers is an achievement in-and-of itself, even without the win. Homeroom teachers take an active role in coordinating with their students, and there’s greater pressure on those students to make sure they don’t let each other down.
More than just athletic fitness, Sports Days promote communal values. With cooperation taking the fore during these events over education, students are encouraged to develop closer bonds with their fellow classmates in order to accomplish team-centric feats.
The origins of Sports Day can be traced back to the Meiji era, where the government adopted policies and practices from the West aimed at promoting nationalized identity and military-style discipline among ordinary Japanese. Even while Japan has renounced war and has become a largely pacifist country, Sports Days still feature exaggerated marching and formations and flag-bearing and John Phillip Sousa music. While those days of aggressive nationalization have long since passed, those former military practices, combined with team-based activities, are still useful as tools at promoting a general sense of harmonious community. Communal values are highly prized in Japan, if not longer due to a vision of national destiny, then at least because of how densely packed Japanese cities are. The vast majority of Japanese live in cities, and the vast majority of them need to know how to get along with each other as neighbors.
Sports Day not only brings homeroom students together. As Dragon Maid demonstrates, Sports Days also bring the community closer by drawing in parents. Sports Days are blown up to be big events where children perform, parents watch and cheer, and families celebrates in the end with an elaborate bento box or party platter feast. Kanna had enrolled in elementary school hoping it would be fun, and she’s approached with information about the upcoming Sports Day by her classmate Riko. Being a literal dragon, the physical feats she’s capable of far surpass those of even the strongest and fastest human being, but the event’s festive atmosphere at least interests Kanna. Shes especially drawn in by the part about parents visiting, and she later asks Kobayashi to come to her Sports Day as a parent surrogate. Tohru ends up being free to go without needing to be asked, but Kobayashi has work scheduled during then and apologizes for missing it.
Kanna is upset by the rejection and sulks for a good while, and Kobayashi muses what the big deal is when her parents never came to her Sports Days when she was a kid. The usually stoic Kobayashi had long accepted her parents absence during those events as a matter of practicality. They were busy with important job-things, which led her to dismiss the social importance of Sports Days. With Kanna though, she was a child whose biological dragon parents have long rejected and neglected her emotional needs in an effort to make her tough. Its therefore natural that shes hurt that another parental figure wont give her the normal displays of familial affection shes always craved. From what Kannas heard, Sports Day is one such normal opportunity among humans.
Kanna comes around from her tantrum when she spies on Kobayashi while she’s at her job. Kanna sees how hard Kobayashi works and how much her coworkers rely on her. Kanna resolves to play tough like she’s always been expected to so she doesnt trouble Kobayashi, and Kobayashi gradually begins to notice and feel more compelled to come. Tohru describes Kannas complicated parental situation to Kobayashi. Kanna becomes entranced by a backpack charm, but holds off asking Kobayashi to buy it for her when she realizes all of Kobayashi’s purchases for Kanna cost her. Kobayashi becomes increasingly compelled to go to Kanna’s Sports Day, and agrees to working overtime to get the necessary days off. Kobayashi breaks the news that she can go, and a Kanna whos been trying so hard to be a big girl to her side. She squeezes Kobayashi tightly, overjoyed, knowing its really okay to.
One particularly standout moment during the actual Sports Day itself is Kannas actual participation in the activities. Kannas been careful not to dramatically outshine the other students, both to keep her dragon identity a secret and to keep the other students from feeling bad. Riko, who is utterly infatuated with Kanna, tries to do her best for Kanna and her team, but stumbles along the way during the long distance hand-off relay. Kanna, who considers Riko a good friend, picks up Riko’s slack after seeing how determined and frustrated Riko is in herself. Modulating her speed so as to just barely outstrip the leading runner, she’s able to win the relay for her homeroom team, validating Riko’s and the rest of her classmates’ efforts in the process. Kobayashi, whos been watching the entire time, congratulates Kanna on her win. Kobayashi finds strange enjoyment being drawn to a big social event that shes never thought much of previously.
Thats, again, not to say that Kobayashis anti-social, but before Kanna and Tohru came into her life, she mainly kept to herself, her work, and her hobbies. Now, because of her newfound and irregular family, shes steadily coaxed into connecting with more people and the larger community. This change of pace is not a bad thing for her all, and when Tohru is abducted and absent from Kobayashi’s life, she gradually drops her stoic face when she realizes how much Tohru means to her.
The Sports Day episode in Dragon Maid helps lay the groundwork for Kobayashi to evolve.
Like w/ the occasional group project in school, Sports Days are organized the way they are to condition kids as they mature into adults how to live and work together as both explicit teams and larger bodies. Events like Sports Day also reinforces Japanese society’s relatively high standards for social-cohesion. A lot of people in Japan often live packed together in cities, making all the more important the need to teach people how to get along.