If you’ve been in the anime fandom for long enough, you’ve probably heard of Mari Okada.
She’s been one of the most prolific writers in the anime industry for more than a decade now, writing many hit anime and underlooked classics such as Simoun, Aria The Natural, Vampire Knight, Black Butler, Anohana, The Pet Girl of Sakurasou…wow this woman’s resume is long even if we ignore the absolute garbage like Kodomo no Jikan, isn’t it? And of course, we can’t forget Toradora. Because everyone loves Toradora don’t they? It’s still considered one of the best romantic dramas in the anime world to this day, and many Okada fans will tell you that that one is their favorite.
I don’t think she’s a bad writer necessarily, but I can’t say I’m all that enthused whenever she’s assigned to work on something. The fact that she works on way too many anime series at once to the point that a lot of them suffer in quality is an automatic strike against the way the industry handles her. But even disregarding that, there’s a reason why none of her anime ever touch my favorites list or even get more than a half-way decent score from me. She has a lot of passion in her stuff for the most part, but she can also be very predictable. She can put a lot of crazy into her characters, but it comes off as the visual equivalent of an Internet troll trying way too hard to get attention.
But my biggest problem with her is the way she treats human emotions like it’s the only thing that defines someone. And by only thing, I really do mean “only thing”. Apparently, humans aren’t allowed to have any logic when their emotions guide them. And the emotions she showcases are always so basic like baby’s first teenage melodrama.
Let me put it this way, when I watch an emotionally-driven story, I want said emotions to tell me something interesting behind them. Don’t just say “teenagers have angst” and just call it a day. Because of course teenagers have angst. Of course they have emotions. Of course they have empathy. Everyone in the world knows this. They definitely don’t need to watch an anime to remind them that they can be emotional pricks, especially when there are real-life high schools to stake out.
And unfortunately, even when the setting isn’t a high school drama, this mode of storytelling seems to seep into everything she touches. Generally, the fans can look past this when there’s other stuff going on, but it’s always such a main part of her writing that I find it difficult to overlook. Her last two anime series, Kiznaiver and The Lost Village, were absolutely horrible with this to the point that her fanbase disliked both shows. So when she took a break from the business to focus on making her directorial debut for P.A. Works while handling live-action on the side, I was not sad to see her go.
If anything, her absence made me excited for when she’d actually return. Amazing what a little restraint can do for my opinion of a high-profile creator, right? And if I’m being honest, I was curious to see how she’d function as a director. With a bigger budget and more time to work on a project, would she be able to channel her strengths into something special whilst lessening the usual faults that creep into her work like that horrible uncle who shows up to every family reunion?
Granted, Maquia wasn’t a big money-maker, but it was a critical darling with quite a few prolific anime directors and the parts of the fandom who actually watched it. And for good reason, as it was a good movie with powerful emotional storytelling and visual splendor (with some very noticeable CG, but to be fair, when does a P.A. Works anime not have that?). Okay, it some really predictable directorial decisions and the character arcs were a bit start and stop, but the amount of originality contained within that film more than made up for it. The well-realized and surprisingly unique medieval lore actually fit well within the story without halting the pacing, and the characters always made sense even if they annoyed you with how emo they could be at times.
Basically, the complete opposite of the other recent Mari Okada anime I’m reviewing instead, which…ugh. Yeah, I bet you guys wished I was reviewing the Okada anime I actually liked, right? But Maquia is a movie, so it’d be going in the “Movie Madness” section. And unfortunately, “Movie Madness” is only for films that are legally available in the United States, with nary a blu-ray release date for it in sight.
And can I just say before we begin that while I didn’t go into this series expecting to like it, I was really looking forward to Mari Okada’s return to writing anime series when I saw the promos? This time, she was reuniting with her Kiznaiver colleagues to bring us a Bones original anime about dragons that can turn into fighter planes. And I had to admit, I was looking forward to watching this show solely based on what I saw of the art.
If you guys have ever seen the promos for Dragon Pilot: Hisone & Masotan (which I’ll just be referring to as Dragon Pilot from here on out), you’d know that it has a very unique style that just goes to show why I’ve grown to respect Bones as of late. Granted, the no-nose moe style on the characters is kinda stupid, but at least it’s expressive. The dragons on the other hand are a goddamn miracle in this day and age. They’re all drawn in 2-D and their movement is incredibly fluid whether they’re flying or when they’re transforming into jet planes. Even Maquia had to resort to CG for its dragons and they looked somewhat out of place, especially when they moved at fifteen frames per second. Additionally, their designs are very unique in a deceptively cute kind of way, which makes it easy to fall in love with them whilst taking them seriously either as weapons of war or as fuel for vore fanfiction.
Why vore you ask? Well how the dragons work is that they swallow their pilots, and then said pilot has to bond with them inside their stomach in order to use them as a war machine. It’s not something that makes a lot of sense, but to be fair, these are dragons we’re talking about here.
The premise of the anime is pretty unique too to a degree in that it’s hard to summarize without spoiling anything major. To put it shortly, it’s about five women in the military, which is somewhat new ground for these sorts of cartoons. Generally when cute girls and military are involved, it’s generally in low-stakes comedic affairs like Girls Und Panzer or whatever the hell that Kancolle show was trying to be. But the girls in those shows are not actually part of the military. They’re part of a themed high school that just happens to do military activities. So having a series that drops the pretense is welcome.
And in case you guys are wondering, yes there are quite a few flying scenes in this series and they are done beautifully. There’s a certain charm to watching these women bond with their dragons before flying them into the sunset without transforming them into CG monstrosities. Like I said, while I’m sure computers were involved, these dragons all look like they were hand-drawn within every frame, which leads to very visually stunning set pieces that showcase why Bones is still one of the most creatively talented production companies in the anime world. And I could use some of Bones on their A-game, because the latest season of My Hero Academia has been slacking at points on the visual front, most likely due to the movie being in production around the same time (at least I think it was). Haven’t actually seen said movie as of this time of writing, but from what I’ve heard, the animation doesn’t look much different from the show either. Sure hope Mob Psycho 100 delivers when it comes back next year.
So yeah, if you just watch an anime for the visual creativity, Dragon Pilot will most likely satisfy you. Unfortunately, if you want anything else, the rest of this review is going to drastically lower your expectations. Because everything I’ve said just now is just buttering up the anime on a superficial level before we get to the core of the series, and quite frankly I’m a lot less positive on that end because of how it undermines everything else the series has going for it.
To put it succinctly, the writing for this show is absolutely retarded. And I mean absolutely retarded. It has no direction for one thing. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the show wasn’t going to be using its unique aesthetics and female soldiers for anything other than having the characters go through very situational angst that doesn’t develop them beyond “well maybe I’ll be a little friendlier when I can be assed”. And whatever story you can get out of the show always boils down to is an agonizingly large number of uninspired cliches from “I must protect those I cherish” to “love is a powerful emotion that has no place in the military”. Did I mention that the people who made Kiznaiver made this show? Yeah, they did not get it right on the second go-around.
Let me ask, if you looked at Dragon Pilot’s art style, would you peg it for a comedy or a drama? Well it doesn’t matter if 90% of the human population would have pegged it for the anime version of a Dreamworks movie, because the show tries to have it both ways, but forgot that blending the two genres requires characters we can take seriously in either mode. But the show never gives Hisone – the lead character mind you – much of a personality besides “speaking her mind” and getting flustered when confronted, and she’s the only character I can really remember because everyone else is as reactionary as can be. Of the five main girls on the promo art, I remember that one of them was jealous of Hisone but immediately became unimportant after getting over it due to not being able to fly. I remember one of them angsts over having to pilot a dragon because being a soldier is what she strives for and soldiers should fly real machines, which is completely nonsensical. The other two are…the other two. They don’t contribute to the story, their dragons are pretty much window-dressing, and their personalities are pretty much “what you see is what you get”.
In other words, there are no character arcs for me to latch onto. And if none of the characters are going to experience any significant growth or change, then why the hell would I want to follow them? Why do so many anime writers conflate “using comedy to ease you into the drama” with “giving characters a one-note comedic personality we’re not supposed to take seriously”? Because the latter is not going to help when the drama actually hits you know. It’d be like watching A Goofy Movie if you removed Goofy’s desire to raise his son right, which is something he always focused on in that film even when he was being, y’know, Goofy.
Speaking of the drama, it’s incredibly bare-bones when it’s not being nonsensical. Apparently, dragon pilots are not allowed to fall in love because it will throw off the synchronization of the dragon and the pilot to the point that the former will eat the latter. The fact that only love and no other human emotion like depression or other complex emotions will negatively affect the dragon is stupid in of itself because it’s basically the anime yelling out with a megaphone “these characters will fall in love and cause conflict in later episodes”! But it would have helped Dragon Pilot’s case if the romance had been any good. If the chemistry had more to it than “I went to a movie with him and he’s voiced by Yuuki Kaji/Bryce Papenbrook. He’s obviously my chosen one!” and didn’t involve a character who barely has any presence when the show bothers to give him screen time. They even throw in a third wheel to spice things up, and all she does is act like a bitch and fawn over the dude because they grew up together without any input on the guy’s end.
It all reeks of artificiality and a failure of the imagination from people who have never experienced real human drama in their lives. I mean this is an anime about female soldiers working in a primarily male-dominated field, and yet they act like they’re in middle-school. Even their superiors act like they’re in middle-school with their unfunny sexual harassment and military strategies that would get you killed in Command & Conquer. They don’t even tell you why dragon pilots exist in the first place until 2/3 of the way through the show where it’s revealed that a giant dragon comes out of hiding every few years in order to be appeased by shrine maidens and other dragons. To give you an idea of how arbitrary this reveal is, if I replaced said giant dragon with a flying mecha Tyrannosaurus-Rex, there would have been no significant change to the story. You’d be questioning why robot T-rexes exist in this universe and can fly, but if the only thing that’s affected is your suspension of disbelief, then that just goes to show how little impact this plot point has.
Also, robot T-rexes don’t need a reason to exist. They’re that fucking awesome.
For such a visually imaginative anime with a unique concept, Dragon Pilot feels very uninspired. When it’s not just being Kiznaiver again or being something for vore fans to jack off to, the show becomes indistinguishable from a lot of Bones’ other high-concept disappointments that have potentially good ideas with not enough thought put into them. Dragons who can turn into fighter planes are fascinating because they’re a new kind of weapon with a mind of their own. How does that affect war or strategy? We don’t know, because the show never bothers to look at that aspect. Apparently only females can pilot dragons because they’re the equivalent of unicorns in the military. Why is that the case? Show doesn’t bother to clarify beyond “because we want our main cast to be all female”. But then that raises the question why did you want them to be female? The show briefly points out at times that being a female in the military is tough, but they don’t expand on that in any way.
And just like said Bones disappointments, and Kiznaiver had the same problem too come to think of it, the ending is a load of impenetrable nonsense with pretty visuals and rushed logic before tying everything up happily ever after. But instead of feeling warmth towards the characters when the show concluded, all I got was a confused look in my face that was pondering what exactly was accomplished. Why did I watch twelve episodes of contrived drama and jaunty tunes to see these characters move on from a journey they never felt like they were actually on or in control of? In Okada’s Maquia film, it made some sense that the characters were never in control of their journey because the point of that story was how you can’t fight the passage of time. Dragon Pilot does not have that context because the point of its story was less “one focused thing” and more “a bunch of subplots trying desperately to cook up something meaty with subpar ingredients and the temperature set too high”.
In short, the best way to enjoy this anime is to mute the volume, turn off the subtitles, and just enjoy the visuals. Or if you don’t understand Japanese, turning off the subtitles will be enough, but you’ll probably want to mute it whenever the characters start crying. And don’t get me wrong, despite the negative reception that tearjerking scenes tend to have in anime, crying can actually be an effective storytelling tool. I mean I gave praise to A Place Further Than The Universe, and we all know about the crying scenes in that now don’t we? However, even that series had one moment when the crying came off as iffy. I’m specifically referring to the angst that was felt when one of the characters lost her passport, only to discover it was with them the entire time, ending that arc on a comedic tone where the comedy was lost on me.
And I wasn’t even on board with that scene before the reveal because it felt kind of arbitrary. Like the drama was put in to meet a quota rather than feeling like a natural extension of the story. And that’s really the best way to sum up why nothing just seems to work in this series: because it feels like they came up with the set pieces first and then strung the plot around them. Even the good animation feels more like an afterthought after a while; like the creators came up with a nice-looking tech demo that they didn’t know how to extend into a full-length series. Actually, now that I think about it, that sums up the majority of Netflix’s anime selection doesn’t it? Granted, Dragon Pilot wasn’t made for Netflix, but that streaming service sure loves to pick up and produce a lot of anime that come off more like proofs-of-concept. I’m not even sure what the intention was when the people behind this anime imagined a moe-style drama with fighter dragons. But whatever it was, they failed to make it clear to me.
I guess if you just want to have a chill time and not worry about plot or the like, you’ll enjoy Dragon Pilot. I never watched this show dubbed, but the English VAs for this show were really passionate about it on their Twitter feed, and they liked what they saw for the most part. Although keep in mind, Kyle Hebert also gave a mildly positive reception to Last Hope, and I am not giving that anime any of my time. Have you seen the reviews for it? Have you seen the team? It’s a miracle that Kawamori even gets work anymore considering all the damage that Escaflowne did to his psyche.
On a final note, if this is series is an indication of what we can expect from Mari Okada from here on out, then that just proves she has learned nothing from her experiences working as a movie director as well as a writer for live-action series. Because looking at my review in abstract, if you changed the details a little, you wouldn’t just get Kiznaiver. You’d get the majority of this woman’s resume. And if there’s anything that’s less exciting than a proficient member of the anime industry continually tanking their career like Shin Oonuma has been doing with a surprising amount of consistency, it’s a proficient member whose skills have flat-out stalled. I mean that’s why we’ve stopped caring about Kawamori right? And Gen Urobuchi for the most part?
On the bright side, I have noticed that Okada doesn’t seem to have any future projects lined up at the moment according to the Wikipedia page I linked near the start of this review, so at least the woman has learned the meaning of restraint during her absence. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to miss her again when she inevitably comes back.
- Dragon Pilot: Hisone & Masotan can be streamed on Netflix.
- On a brighter note, Gundam Unicorn is now on Netflix if you want to see a mecha anime with actual critical acclaim. Because I have a sinking feeling that Gridman SSSS isn’t going to break that curse.
- Yes I’m aware Okada’s role on The Lost Village is “script supervisor”, but does that really change the fact that said show had a lot of her cliches in it?
- Still unclear on what the appeal of vore is supposed to be.