The Western anime fandom can be rather reductive in how they consider ‘otaku’. Whenever they’re a point of discussion, the ‘otaku’ is usually figured by the community as male, casually perverted and distinctly out-of-touch with the world around them. Most of all, they’re billed as a pretty elitist group. As accurate as this may be in some cases, it’s overall inconsiderate in the picture it paints, as much as anime frequently reinforces that image. This season has seen something fresh come to our screens and streams, however: Kobayashi san Chi no Maid Dragon has been a bizarre and sometimes overwhelmingly adorable indulgence in the kind of ideal isekai otaku disconnect themselves into living within.
‘Cute girls doing cute things’ shows are known for their presentation of virtual, idealistic, accessible and fundamentally comforting worlds. Yet, Dragon Maid presents deviations from even the norms of this ‘genre’, depicting a mature Japanese salarywomen alongside a cast of widely varying age. Between Kanna’s elementary school and Kobayashi’s workplace, the high school which moe centers its sense of nostalgic escapism upon is missing. Episode titles are undercut by their subtitles, and over-exposure in the explicitly signified ‘fanservice’ episode is shunned rather than lauded. On the surface, these aspects of Dragon Maid promote a closer look at what kind of ‘world’ the show is drawing upon and modelling for its viewers. It’s not keeping in step with the trend of otaku-centered stories (thank God, there’s no light-novel MC), and it looks at itself with a sideways glance too. A closer comparison of what Dragon Maid presents against a wider idea of how otaku view and consume their media should therefore be productive.
I want to propose a framework for looking at anime like Dragon Maid, and use Dragon Maid as an example of how that lens works in a wider sense: what it can suggest about how we can interpret some anime about otaku and how they consume things. Drawing upon theories of otaku culture and ‘new media’ consumption in Japan, I believe the heart-warming story of Kobayashi and Tohru makes a wider statement about the positive potential of the otaku world. Hardcore fans of anime, manga and their associated media are often criticized for being elitist and alienating, but Dragon Maid draws otaku attitudes into its comedy to suggest how inclusive and beneficial their unique way of seeing things can be.
Art is not only the artifact; it’s produced between what we see and how we see it. To best appreciate Dragon Maid, and the relationship between Kobayashi and Tohru, we need to expand our idea of ‘reality’, and ‘virtual reality’, and think about what it’s really like to be in an otaku world – a virtual world. We need to consider the ‘dissociative imagination’.
Dissociative Thinking (And Why People Are Weird Online)
In his discussion of the ‘Online Disinhibition Effect’’ J Suler proposes that a dissociative imagination is one of six key factors that leads to interaction and communication in virtual places being distinct from real-world social behaviour:
“Consciously or unconsciously, people may feel that the imaginary characters they ‘created’ exist in a different space, that one’s online persona along with the online others live in a make-believe dimension, separate and apart from the demands and responsibilities of the real world. They split or dissociate online fiction from offline fact.” (Suler 323)
The dissociative is the opposite of the associative: rather than associate their teammate with the idea of a real person behind their keyboard and mouse, a toxic League of Legends player telling the Yasuo on their team with zero kills and nine deaths to “go kys” has dissociated the Yasuo player in-game from the ‘player’ somewhere with a laggy connection in Sussex. They do not literally want other people to commit suicide; they have dissociated their expressions in game from real-world consequences. This exemplifies what Suler terms ‘toxic disinhibition’ (Suler 321): but dissociative thinking is not limited to negative consequences. Exaggerated friendliness, beyond what a player may be willing to display in real-life situations, could result from the Yasuo-player stomping his opponents: this is ‘benign disinhibition’ (Suler 321), as rare as it may be in MOBAs. However well they perform at the game they’re in, characters in the online worlds of massive multiplayer video games are commonly dissociated from their puppeteers. Players themselves often dissociate their performance in-game from their real ‘Self’ reading their own toxicity or benignity as separate to who they really are.
The dissociative is not limited to the separation of the person from their performance, however: often we dissociate images in media from real-life counterparts, and media is often made to facilitate this process. In anime, a key example of this is the Japanese notion of mukokuseki, or ‘statelessness’, which explains why anime characters are frequently much ‘whiter’ than Japanese people in real life. Anime characters share both Japanese and Western traits to the point that definite race becomes erased, with the image of many shows tending towards the post-ethnic. Oshii Mamoru, whose adaptation of Ghost in the Shell fosters discussion of mukokuseki with the Major’s artificial and ambiguous ethnicity, believes the statelessness of anime is in part because, in the wake of national defeat and the downfall of tradition and their economy, many Japanese consumers have a desire to escape their own faces in media (Napier 25).
The anime aesthetic is thus in a broad sense dissociative. It frequently cultivates an escape into an alternative world with, as scholar Ōtsuka Eiji asserts, its own alternative realism: manga anime teki riarizumu (‘manga/anime-like realism’) as opposed to shizenshugi teki riarizumu (‘naturalism-like realism’) (Ōtsuka 24). The mukokuseki of anime encourages room in otaku media for deviations from shizenshugi teki riarizumu in fields other than ethnicity; gender and age are also blurred and exploited in a dissociative sense.
These ideas not only form a scholarly perspective; otaku themselves have terminology for dissociating their media from other fans’ interactions with theirs. In terms of fantasy play, otaku frequenting maid cafes in Japan – including the ‘maids’ who work there – are known to use the term junsui na fantajī, meaning ‘pure fantasy’, to distinguish their mindset from one that views media as reaching towards reality (Galbraith, para 1). ‘Pure fantasy’ is “accessed and actualised via ritual consumption” (Galbraith, para 36), and emphasises a difference between otaku ‘play’ and normal fantasy ‘play’ in other media; a junsui na shōhisha (‘pure consumer’) separates their obsession from all ‘normal’ aspects of life – “shut away in pleasure rooms and disconnected from social and political concerns” (Galbraith, para 7). In fiction, we traditionally consider ‘suspension of disbelief’ as vital for engagement and immersion; but for junsui na fantajī, an otaku’s affinity to kyokō no kontekusuto (‘fictional contexts’) (Saito 227) is what’s essential, and media is consumed and desired because it feels fictional, rather than in spite of that fact. Disbelief is sustained rather than suspended, for the concentrated love of the sense of something being virtual.
The boundaries of junsui na fantajī are also rather strict. As Patrick W Galbraith describes in his study of maid cafes, for one patron, crossing the line of acceptable, systematic conduct and asking a maid for their phone number led to being ostracized by staff and regulars (Galbraith, para 29).
Dissociation is not just an attitude of otaku consuming their media, though; as art imitates life, and media reflects culture, anime often portrays characters who embody a dissociative lens. Uchimaki Subaru in Kono Bijutsubu ni wa Mondai ga Aru! is an embodiment of the ‘I only like 2D girls’ perspective, demonstrating a distinction made between the virtual plane and the real world; without dissociation, he would only find 2D girls a surrogate for ‘the real thing’. The dissociative can be tragic as well as comic: in Re:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu, self-identified otaku Natsuki Subaruis initially only able to see Emilia through his lens of plot conventions. Treating her as an object of supposedly inevitable narrative progression, he displays the dissociation otaku have when it comes to distinguishing artificial characters from real people, though he lacks the maturity Saito Temaki claims otaku have in distinguishing the two (Saito 227). Subaru is not only out of touch with the world he’s transported to; he faults the practice of junsui na fantajī by projecting his fantasy play onto what is actually a ‘real’ fantasy world. He fails as a hero and an otaku.
As Susan Napier describes, “the animated space, with its potential for free-form creation, is in many ways a realm that exists in counterpoint to the world of modern Japan” (Napier 26). While Dragon Maid’s aesthetic strongly embodies this sense of alternate media-enclosed reality, figuring all faces as childish and having Kobayashi’s first conscious reaction to the world of dragons shot like two juxtaposed manga panels, characters’ relationships also suggest how they appreciate each other as being in a virtual, disconnected space. Crucial here is what Napier considers one of anime’s ‘modes’, the matsuri (‘festival’) (Napier 13). Like the Bakhtinian notion of ‘carnival’, the matsuri is a virtual world wherein social alternatives are explored and exploited, embracing “the joyful relativity of all structure and order, of all authority and all (hierarchical) position” (Bahktin 124). In addition to the suspension of human heteronormativity and the nuclear family, the dragons’ interactions with humans disrupt their own sense of order in terms of how they figure humankind. Such experiments with social order in Dragon Maid are made possible precisely because the show operates through dissociative thinking. Else, we would take Tohru’s love of Kobayashi as literal, as bestiality, and be distracted constantly by the ramifications of cohabitation with a woman who is, essentially, an illegal immigrant.
A dissociative imagination is the mindset many of us are naturally – consciously or unconsciously – consuming a lot of anime with, especially comedies. There is pleasure taken, and ideological room made, in shows like Dragon Maid specifically because the media and characters are perceived as unreal, as virtual, as dissociated from ideas of a ‘real’ person. The show also draws these attitudes into its own characters, and presents how they see each other in a virtual sense. There is also a difference between perceptions of what otaku are consuming: the differences between associative and dissociating thinking, and Eiji’s two types of realism, correlate to the difference between ‘narrative’ and ‘database’ consumption, a distinction demonstrated by Dragon Maid’s visit to a certain festival.
Comiket: The Database Paradise (And It’s All a Lie!)
In all Dragon Maid’s light-heartedness, one downbeat fact pervades Tohru’s presence: she has to hide her real self. In episode two, she can show off her strength to people in the mall, but they celebrate her success at catching a criminal while remaining unable to accept her as a dragon. But there is one place Tohru manages to find acceptance, albeit in a virtual and dissociative sense: she is at once accepted for who she really is, and not who she really is, at Comiket.
This famous market is “where numerous copies circulate and a great number of professional authors get their start, formed the nucleus of otaku culture both quantitatively and qualitatively” (Azuma 25). Dragon Maid helps exhibit how this Mecca of otaku media centralizes dissociative attitudes even in real-life social scenarios. Tohru realises she is able to take out her tail because her environment is seeing her in a different way to the rest of society. She is considered a maid-dragon cosplayer; under the assumption that everything is performative, otaku around her show no interest in penetrating to any kind of ‘depth’ of her character or self. Her identity is an arrangement of ideas and images dissociated from any single narrative context: she need not even try to reference what maid-dragon she is cosplaying, because she embodies at once every maid and every dragon. As Hiroki Azuma notes, otaku are known for how they “consume the original and parody with equal vigour” (Azuma 26).
Their attitudes towards Tohru is a great example of the potential of ‘database consumption’ that Azuma believes is defining of current otaku practices and identities:
“[…] our world image is experiencing a sea change, from one sustained by a narrative-like, cinematic perspective on the entire world to one read-up by search engines, characterized by databases and interfaces. Amid this change, the Japanese otaku […] learned simply to desire the database […]” (Azuma 54)
Differences between ‘database’ and ‘narrative’ are explained well by ‘new media’ scholar Lev Manovich:
“As a cultural form, database represents the world as a list of items and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies” (Manovich 199)
Performances of ‘Self’ at Comiket are read as reflective of a database rather than a narrative; though there is a history of maid otaku that can be traced, Tohru’s maid-ness is read against nothing but the simulacrum of every maid outfit. The causality of her dress is non-existent in the eyes of otaku; her clothes are nonnarrative. While the attire of a character from a Victorian romantic novel might clue us into a character’s status, motivations and identity, there is no such link between maid-ness/dragon-ness and an idea of Tohru’s inner ‘Self’ by Comiket’s visitors. Tohru can act like a dragon because people think she’s role-playing, just as Fafnir’s sincerity of dragon-ness is received as a performance online in the MMO he plays. Hence her real ‘Self’ is ironically accepted, but only as something beyond herself. She is welcomed through the sense of junsui na fantajī she appears to be participating in. She is a ‘real’ maid-dragon in Comiket because she is not a real maid-dragon outside of the otaku lifeworld.
As a festival to otaku culture, Comiket is also a matsuri in the sense that order is made to be arbitrary. Tohru is a servant in costume, the kind that would render one invisible outside of duties while in the household, but attention is ironically ‘served’ to her by the community. While this is all a state of comedic illusion, it also presents a strangely idyllic social sphere where what society would place as the Other and rejects is instead made to feel welcome. Everything is acceptable as long as it is accepted as artificial and performative. Dragon Maid therefore proposes how otaku approach their own community at events like Comiket with a ‘dissociative imagination’: Tohru, as dragon and maid, is accepted not because people know her background or personality in depth, but because her image conforms to a selection of ideas from the database of otaku images, which suggest she is as much a ritual consumer of them as anyone else.
It’s also striking how this disassociation from ‘narrative’ identity does not lead to the toxic disinhibition Suler observes the dissociative anonymity of the virtual as potentializing (Suler 322). Disinhibition is evidently benign in the politeness with which Tohru has requests for photos. From personal observation with virtual communities, their patience for a picture reminds me of the players of The Division: despite being an MMO, the game failed to enable them to all speak to the same in-game laptop at the same time upon launch. To solve the problem, they could have ignored each other and herded around the laptop, ready to leap the moment it was free again. Instead, they formed a queue.
Comiket’s adoration of Tohru is fantastically benign, and forms Dragon Maid’s anchor of an ideal database-consuming community. The relationship between Kobayashi and Tohru however stands in contrast to this ideal at many points, for better and worse.
Kobayashi’s Really Unreal (But Also Real!) Relationship
While Tohru is read by Comiket’s otaku in a nonnarrative sense, there is clear narrative progression when it comes to Kobayashi’s initial and growing acceptance of the dragon. Her first impression of Tohru is assumed to be a dream; when the veil is lifted, despite being a maid otaku, she refuses Tohru’s offer to be her maid. Images of maids line her wall, in the centers of her calendars, signifying that the world of maids has some pertinence to her everyday life. Yet, the offer to have a real maid is initially denied; this suggests how firmly Kobayashi’s line of junsui na fantajī is drawn, and solidifies her as a junsui na shōhisha that keeps her obsession shut away from ‘real life’ even though that obsession is at the center of her life. It is both an aspect of the everyday and separate from it.
Tohru is eventually welcomed, however, because Kobayashi dwells upon a sense of guilt she feels, and upon the notion that she is not dreaming. In terms of how she’s reading the situation, here she demonstrates an affinity to narrative rather than database. Whereas Tohru was accepted virtually by Comiket for appearing to conform to their collective virtual consumption, Kobayashi’s mind here appears strongly associative rather than dissociative. Dissociation and her love for the maid-database made her extend the offer to Tohru, drunk, in the first place. But once sober, she chooses to welcome Tohru because of an extrapolation of narrative arising from the opportunity Tohru presents. Already she has begun to leave database consumption. This however disrupts the discipline of junsui na fantajī, which doesn’t turn out well when she starts drinking again.
Her initial sober inclusivity goes away in the bar with co-worker Takiya. In stark contrast to Comiket’s later adoration of her as a supposed cosplayer, Tohru is shunned for her ‘cosplay-level maid’ performance by two drunk otaku. Takiya relates her to “those foreigners pretending to be ninja or samurai”, and Kobayashi widens her faults as a maid to broader issues of different worlds of fashion colliding. While displaying toxic disinhibition, Kobayashi and Takiya remain in the dissociative. Though they attack Tohru for failing to demonstrate authenticity as a maid, their idea of authenticity itself is as much of a simulacrum of fashion trends and behavioral tropes as ‘cosplay-level maid’ performances are; she is assessed against a character sheet, against a database of ‘correct’ images. Even though Kobayashi separates herself somewhat from Comiket’s inclusivity towards cosplayers, and from the kind of maid otaku that are satisfied by cosplay, Dragon Maid figures her as dissociative as they are.
One crucial action demonstrates dissociation better than everything else in this scene: in a bizarre climax to their drunken ranting, Kobayashi strips Tohru of her costume. While wildly inappropriate, given the shape of the narrative and Kobayashi’s subconscious agency under intoxication, it is hard to perceive this as anything but a symbolic action. Our story began when Kobayashi, while drunk, effectively stuffed Tohru into a maid outfit by projecting her desires of having a maid onto her when they met. Now Kobayashi forcibly removes that image from her – but even once Tohru is naked, Kobayashi continues to treat Tohru as only a thing while finding the realisation of her fantasy unsatisfying. This early scene in Kobayashi and Tohru’s relationship presents some dangers of the dissociative; if real people are treated like the canvases of cartoons, things can get inappropriate fast.
There’s a remarkable difference between their relationship here and in episode eight. By this time Kobayashi has not only grown accustomed to Tohru; by competing over cooking – which Quetzalcoatl notes is unusual – there’s a sense of equality between them, as different as their approaches are. Kobayashi has evidently chosen to see Tohru as human rather than house-pet, and a real person rather than the fungible doll she is treated as in episode one (as Kobayashi ends the scene asking for ‘more maids’). The introduction of Elma then leads Tohru to be more confrontational about her feelings for Kobayashi. The idea of leaving heteronormativity was initially shunned by Kobayashi, as she responded to Tohru’s love in episode one by flatly stating her gender. But as episode 8 ends, Tohru’s desire towards Kobayashi is further unpacked, and Kobayashi responds by stating, “I’m not used to being wanted”. Putting distance between herself and others is normal for her; but after she says this, she accepts Tohru’s request to pet her head.
It’s fitting that Naoko Yamada directed this episode, given her specialty for body language; her trademark attention to legs repeatedly has our perspective shift from a character’s eyes to a scopophilic attention to their movement and place. As she notes of her own style in an interview on Koe no Katachi:
“I’ve always wanted to create characters that yes, are animated, but I want the audience to think they are real people – how they look at things, or small, subtle movements, and the physicality and weight of the characters.”
Her own distinction between ‘animated’ and ‘real’ people keys in directly to Kobayashi’s acceptance of Tohru as more than just an animation of fantasies. As Kobayashi gives Tohru her headpat, Kobayashi herself is initially excluded from the shot. The whole of Kobayashi’s character is reduced to her action; we feel the ‘weight’ of her worries – figured by placing Kobayashi in the corner before the empty corridor of her distance to the outside world – lifted through her acceptance of Tohru.
There’s rich irony here: a headpat could be considered an action of the database. You can follow Twitter accounts dedicated to filling your feed with them, with virtual girls all equally sharing in a gesture of virtual and animalizing affection. Kobayashi’s headpat works with that database – it’s how she welcomed Kanna into her house in episode two, but in an animalistic sense, evidenced by how she ‘domesticates’ her with food in the following scene. But here the headpat also has a great sense of narrative action to it; a narrative specific to her and Tohru. Kobayashi began her relationship by redefining boundaries of junsui na fantajī; here she consolidates it by disrupting delineations between human and abhuman. An animalizing and typically virtualizing action is what affirms Tohru to be human in Kobayashi’s eyes.
Though viewers would (I assume) shun bestiality in real-life practice, the idea of a human-dragon relationship in Dragon Maid is accepted because Tohru performs humanity successfully, and Kobayashi accepts their cohabitation for the same reason. Their relationship shows how fully real, human, associative bonds can emerge from virtual, dissociative beginnings.
Conclusion (And Things Not Concluded)
Comparing otaku attitudes to media – dissociation, database consumption and junsui na fantajī – against Dragon Maid’s depiction of relationships between fantasies and their consumers draws out a positive message from the show’s comedy. Two kinds of inclusivity arise from the dissociative imagination portrayed. At Comiket, personal identities and narratives are erased, and fans are united under mutual, ritual consumption signified by their outfits and behaviour. With Kobayashi, however, Tohru develops from an object of databasification and dissociation into a companion perceived as human. She is comfortable by Kobayashi’s side in an associative and natural sense, but also comfortable in the dissociative, virtual world of otaku Comiket represents. The concept of junsui na fantajī commonly distinguishes between an otaku life and a ‘real’ life of school or work, but Dragon Maid figures Tohru’s life shared between dissociative (otaku public inclusivity) and associative (Kobayashi’s private inclusivity) worlds that both emerged from the dissociative imagination.
This is why I think considering the ‘dissociative imagination’ is incredibly productive when it comes to evaluating modern otaku media. If our concept of ‘character’ is limited to the idea of associative interactions – between us and the character, or between characters in the story – we’ll miss out on what’s being said about those who apply dissociative mindsets. Discussions of the dissociative in Dragon Maid aren’t limited to Tohru either: Fafnir finding Takiya a ‘hit’, Saikawa’s exaggerated love of Kanna (which, in her bedroom, becomes her undoing), and Shouta’s pre-adolescent plight at the sexuality of Quetzalcoatl, all play upon tropes of the otaku world (hikikomori/lolicon/shotacon respectively) which could be understood better by thinking about differences between database and narrative consumption, and associative and dissociative thinking, too.
- Azuma, Hiroki, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, trans. Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009)
- Bakhtin, Mikhail, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1984)
- Galbraith, Patrick W., Maid in Japan: ‘An Ethnographic Account of Alternative Intimacy’ in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, Issue 25 [February 2011]
- Manovich, Lev, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2001)
- Napier, Susan J, Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle (New York: Palgrave, 2005)
- Ōtsuka, Eiji, Kyarakutā shōsetsu no tsukurikata [How to Make Character Novels] (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2003)
- Saitō, Tamaki, Sentō bishōjo no seishin bunseki [Psychoanalysis of Armored Cuties] (Tokyo: Ōta Shuppan, 2000)
- Suler, John, ‘The Online Disinhibition Effect’ in Cyberpsychology & Behavior Vol. 7, No. 3 
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