Drifting Dragons – Episode 1

By: Caitlin Moore May 4, 20200 Comments
A group of people sitting at a table with baskets of food in front of them

What’s it about? Armed with harpoons and riding in great airships, drakers travel through the sky hunting dragons. These great creatures are full of resources for humankind: fat to be rendered into fuel, organs to be broken down into medicines; and of course, flesh to be cooked and eaten! Takita is new to draking, but with the help of her shipmates, she’s learning a lot about the art of hunting dragons.

Content Warning: Discussion/screenshots of animal corpses, blood, the whaling industry.

Drifting Dragons is a strange series to review. It’s a Polygon Pictures production, the first one that actually uses bright colors instead of a pallet roughly similar to wet concrete and mud. It was just released from Netflix jail, so it’s now entirely available streaming. But the most unusual thing about it is how adding layers of context change the viewing experience.

Takita holding a harpoon gun and looking into the distance

This is normal, to an extent—every piece of media exists within political, social, and artistic contexts. It’s why if you’ve read a book before seeing a movie based on it, you’ll experience it differently than someone going in completely fresh. But contextualizing Drifting Dragons doesn’t subtly change the experience, or build on references you may miss otherwise; rather, it makes for an increasingly awkward experience.

Taken solely as a text, it’s not a bad show. The cel-shaded animation is an improvement over most, though it still has yet to match studio orange’s achievements with Beastars and Land of the Lustrous. It’s bright and bubbly, almost Ghibli-esque, and the dragons are unlike anything you’ve heard called “dragon” before. Rather, they look like great flying sea creatures, all tentacles and teeth and terrifying ethereality.

a harpoon hitting a dragon

Our heroine, Takita, is a pretty standard anime heroine. She’s inexperienced but curious and eager to learn. She’s energetic and bright but clumsy. She gets along with her coworkers, although there’s one that is a bit harder to understand than others. She is, in other words, Standard Anime Girl Archetype #2A, and not an especially compelling heroine. Luckily, this seems to be an ensemble show, and the characters play off each other nicely.

Mika really needs to stop sniffing Takita, though. I’m pretty sure that qualifies as sexual harassment.

But then you get a look at the manga, with all its glorious grit and detail, and suddenly the CG doesn’t look so hot anymore. The characters almost look like balloon animals compared to the lovely organic lines of the manga art. And you realize that their uniforms, which just look baggy and practical in the manga, are too smoothed out in the anime, and it kind of looks like everyone has really fat butts. There’s nothing wrong with fat butts, but in this case, it looks strange.

Mika pulling back from a dragon, mouth wide open with an exhilarated expression

And you look closer at the uniforms, and you realize just how strongly they resemble Nausicaa’s iconic blue flight suit. Takita is even a redhead like Nausicaa. And those dragons? They’d be right at home in the Sea of Corruption.

But thematically, Drifting Dragons is the opposite of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. While Nausicaa was about living in harmony with even the scariest parts of nature, about treating the huge alien creatures with kindness and respect, Drifting Dragons is about killing them.

Listen. I eat meat, regularly and with great relish. I’m under no illusions about where my food comes from, and I support hunting for food and as population control. But there’s a difference between that understanding of reality, and the positive relish with which Drifting Dragons presents hunting dragons. It’s not a necessity for life; it’s cool and exciting and romantic!

Mika eating dragon meat

And then you realize that it’s all a thinly-veiled metaphor for Japan’s controversial whaling industry. Their weapons, the way they break down and use the carcass…heck even the dragons’ appearances echoes whaling, all far too much for it to be coincidence or accident. When the connection to real-life is so blatant, it’s nearly impossible to take the text purely on its own terms, because the metaphor is part of the text’s terms.

I’m not an expert on the whaling debate; I know little about it, beyond that it exists and some of the most basic arguments in favor and against. However, the first episode of Drifting Dragons doesn’t give much indication of nuance, but rather seems to come down to “Hunting dragons [whales] is dangerous and cool and gives you lots of delicious meat!” in a way that drifts a bit too closely to pro-whaling propaganda. The show has some merit, but doubtless it’ll make much of its potential audience at least as uncomfortable as it made me.

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