Photo by author/Just Jen Cosplay
It would be a gross understatement to say that I do not enjoy Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid. The viral winter anime turns my stomach with its nauseating mix of saccharine anime tropes and raunchy fan service. And, on top of that, somebody who is both dear to me and on my apartment's lease will not shut up about it. So, to really level with him, I took my housemate to a Dragon Maid-themed maid cafe in New Jersey.
Each Wednesday for 13 weeks, the anime streaming service Crunchyroll aired another Dragon Maid episode about an office worker who one day opened her door to a large, fiery dragon. Miraculously, the dragon transforms into a busty maid, whom the woman houses with some mixture of reluctance and curiosity. More of the dragon maid's sexy-cute dragon-girl clan join them over time. It's as if some Japanese ad agency engineered an entire show out of trending search terms on anime sites.
"They're size D, for Dragon!!!" the dragon Tohru exclaims in episode one after Miss Kobayashi gifts her a new shirt.
I despise Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid, but it's been impossible to avoid. Anime blogs and forums glommed onto it. Throughout winter, screenshots of Tohru filled my Twitter feed. And, no, my home was not immune. Every Wednesday I would return from work to find my housemate sprawled out on the couch, eagerly absorbing that week's iteration of human-dragon fan service. For thirty minutes, infantilizing, breathy anime voices and my housemate's excited giggles penetrated our thin walls. Dragon Maid has been a curse upon my apartment.
"Joe," I'd say, "I do not understand. The dragon maid has her own custom boob-bouncing sound." It didn't faze him. "It's about family," he enthused. "It's about accepting other people and accepting yourself."
We'd fight. In my weaker moments, I'd emerge from my room to watch with him and scowl at the television. Once, he showed me an episode in which another dragon, this time with breasts the size of her torso, comes over for a dinner party. He explained that the episode was about experiencing the slower moments of human life through dragon eyes, but all I saw was lazy anime trope after lazy anime trope. Sometimes he'd wait until right after I got home to put it on. He desperately wanted me to see Dragon Maid's deeper themes through its thick smokescreen of fan service.
Dragon Maid became a point of contention. I wanted Joe to see the show as I saw it: as a cringy, alienating anime that wraps empty sexiness around an empty plot. So, when he told me about the pop-up Moe Mahou's Dragon Maid Cafe, a Dragon Maid-themed maid cafe in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, I figured that it was my chance. My best friend, who watches no anime, came along as a referee. There, in the minefield of Dragon Maid fandom, he would surely understand where I was coming from.
We purchased the tickets online. The cafe's Facebook description read, "With a flick of a wand, anyone who enters this castle transforms into royalty and is served the most delectable treats alongside wonderful performances ... we are opening our doors this time to celebrate the land where Dragons co-exist in harmony with humans! ! Bring your loved ones and enjoy an afternoon tea filled with dragons & magic!" That land, for one day, would exist in an innocuous Italian restaurant in New Jersey.
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On the bus to the cafe, I shot Joe some questions. Yes, he had been to a maid cafe before. Of course he was looking forward to this. As for what he saw in the show: "The theme of family and finding out your identity," he said. He went on, again, about loving people despite and because of their differences. "It's quality anime. There's something really charming about it." My friend, who had only seen glimpses of Dragon Maid at my apartment, was nonplussed. Like me, the show's raunchiness made her uncomfortable.
It was a grey Saturday. Buildings lining Ridgefield Park's main street were a bleak mud colour, and the restaurant was no different. Inside the small room, a half dozen tables were set. Women in full-skirted maid costumes, a few butlers and one android, all in anime-styled wigs or outfits, roved around with trays. Tables in the back offered fan-made chibi pins and buttons displaying the show's protagonists.
Moments after we sat down, the android offered to play Let's Go Fishin', the children's board game, with the table. The prize for most fish caught was a plastic dragon. Somebody served us a bowl of cherry tomatoes. We drank water. I was, a little vindictively, excited for Joe to confront what I saw the show for.
Photo by author/Just Jen Cosplay
It was easy to discern that folks in the room were ardent Dragon Maid fans. It wasn't just clear from their cosplay — several showed up in cosplay from other anime, too — it was a vibe. The energy in the room was unabashedly enthusiastic, with a sort of starry-eyed "I'm just happy to be here" attitude.
Tohru, the dragon maid herself, was the conduit for it. Dressed in a pink, frilly dress, a blonde wig and dragon horns, she eagerly called out winners of the drawing contest, danced while singing the Dragon Maid theme in Japanese and teased the upcoming dessert, a cake shaped like her dragon tail. Her smile, I admit, was infectious. She was lovely and charming, mirroring who many fans interpret Tohru to be.
Fuck, I thought. This is too earnest. Instead of being the Google search-optimised Frankenstein of anime protagonists I saw her for, this Tohru embodied the spirit that Joe loved the character for.
In between one maid singing Sailor Moon covers, another casting a spell on my food ("moe moe kyuuun") and my begrudging, slow acceptance of what was happening, I tried to hang on to the things about Dragon Maid I found irredeemable. In the show, each dragon girl has her own plucky boob-bouncing sound. In one episode, two children have a borderline sexual encounter. A bikini in what is literally called "The Fan Service Episode" was so over-the-top that a lifeguard in the show hauled the character away.
But the cafe, on the other hand, was completely innocent — a distillation of what the show could have been if not for its obsession with dragon breasts. Joe, whose heart is simply too big, was charmed by the Dragon Maid fandom's enjoyment of the cafe.
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One fan found the lack of fan service unacceptable. While the maids were announcing winners of a drawing contest, a man in Naruto cosplay catcalled a maid: "You would be better if you were drunk!"
Everything was silent for a moment. It was painfully awkward. I can, vaguely, understand why somebody might expect adult themes at a Dragon Maid maid cafe — large breasts are a punchline basically every episode. The fans, however, didn't share his feelings. He was immediately pulled aside, and patrons and staff calmly explained why his outburst was inappropriate. It was then I recognised that these so earnest fans were doing what my housemate did: sweeping aside, or good-humoredly laughing at, the strange raunchiness of a show that they truly believed was about family.
After a meal of hamburgers, on which maids drew ketchup hearts, we said our goodbyes and walked over to a Dunkin Doughnuts to debrief. I had cycled through a lot of emotions. Yes, the cafe was cringy. It was over-earnest. But, with the show's sex appeal an afterthought, it was easier to see how the fandom understood Dragon Maid.
While I admit that the show was more than I'd given it credit for, I still didn't like the gross cuteness of the the "accepting yourself" and "family is whoever you want it to be" themes. Undoubtedly, they meant a lot to others.
Still, I asked Joe, how could everyone just brush the show's fan service aside? What do you see in this?
"For sure, Dragon Maid has some glaring flaws, like the fan service," he said. "But that's just part of the industry as a whole, what the market demands. . . I don't think that's its fandom." Later, when I asked about the one fan's catcall in the cafe, he added, "The show always felt like more of a story with isolated moments of fan service rather than fan service with a story. . . I think the dude's outburst wasn't linked to the stuff in Dragon Maid.
It wasn't referencing anything from the show in particular. It's more symptomatic of fan service as an institution, especially given how explicit it is in other shows. . . Finding the balance here is where people can derive enjoyment or criticism of this show."
If you asked me today whether going to a Dragon Maid-themed maid cafe changed my opinion of Dragon Maid, I'd say, Absolutely not. Do not ever make me watch that show. But at the cafe, I had the rare chance to viscerally understand something that, previously, I only understood theoretically: Anime fans all make their own calculations about fan service.
For me, I'll watch Kill La Kill because its story and art direction outweigh moments that use sexuality in ways I find distracting or upsetting. For some fans, Dragon Maid is a lot more than absurdly large, bouncing dragon breasts. Then, there's Keijo.
Criticising Dragon Maid is fine, and if you're doing it, I am right there with you. The cafe helped me recognise that fans all metabolise fan service, which is so ubiquitous today, in completely different ways.
It's good to question questionable media. It's also good to give its fans the benefit of the doubt.