Fans of both How to Train Your Dragon and anime, rejoice—Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan has arrived. The show, which Netflix released for international streaming last month, marries the former’s catlike dragon-rider relationship and search for purpose with a modern Japanese setting, anime-style character drama, and Shinto concepts. It’s a match made in heaven, making Dragon Pilot a joyful romp through the skies with enough thematic heft to keep more analytical audiences interested.
As the subtitle would suggest, Dragon Pilot focuses on two characters: Hisone and Masotan. Hisone, a young woman, joined the Air Self Defense Force in search of something only she can do; Masotan is a dragon in search of a pilot. For hundreds of years, the Japanese military has concealed and protected dragons by disguising them as flying objects, most recently as military aircraft. They call them Organic Transformed Flyers, or OTF. These dragons cannot fly on their own; they can only take to the air with the guidance of a young woman in their belly.
How do the women get in and out of the dragons? The dragons eat them and vomit them back up later. If seeing someone eaten, covered in gastric juices, and/or regurgitated makes you uncomfortable in any way, avoid this show.
If you can live with the bizarre premise, though, Dragon Pilot is great fun. Bones, the studio behind smash hits like My Hero Academia and Fullmetal Alchemist, went in a decidedly different visual direction than is typical for them on this series. The cute, simplified designs, with their clean lines, bright colors, and exaggerated features, create a fluidity of motion and expressiveness. The dragons, especially Masotan, are cute and cuddly enough that I’m hoping to find a plushy or two next convention season, and the flying scenes communicate the joy and exhilaration of flight in a way visual media rarely achieves.
The first half of the show works as a slice-of-life, fantastical workplace drama. Masotan isn’t the easiest creature to bond with, let alone learn to pilot from the inside. On top of an intimidating new job and an uncooperative partner, Hisone also struggles with her comrades. Women who become Dragon Pilots tend to stick out socially; Hisone has little filter and a big mouth. Her fellow cadet Nao, rejected by Masotan, has a huge chip on her shoulder and lacks social maturity.
The dragon pilots also have to deal with the gross antics of their male cohorts. The men in their squad see them as romantic prospects, sex objects, and inconveniences, but rarely comrades worthy of respect. They make inappropriate jokes about their looks, hit on them relentlessly, and make rude, gender essentialist remarks. It reflects the way men often treat women in male-dominated spaces, but unfortunately, the show misses an opportunity to make a strong statement on the issue.
The relaxed pacing of the season’s first half gives way to a more plot-driven second half, wherein Dragon Pilot posits that young women can only bond with their dragons if they have something lacking in their lives. Were these women to fall in love, the holes in their hearts would be filled and they would no longer be able to bond with their dragons. This idea coincides with the introduction of Mutatsu-sama, a giant OTF who awakens every 74 years and must be escorted to a new resting place, lest he spread catastrophe across Japan. His journey comes to an end through a Shinto ceremony, in which a Key Girl is chosen from a group of priestesses, designed to keep him at rest until the time comes for him to move again.
The season’s latter half has higher highs and lower lows than the first. It fails to confront some of the characters’ sexist, creepy behavior in the first half, and certain suspect attitudes go unexamined and undisputed. This contradicts the story’s conclusion that traditions and the assumptions behind them should be questioned. Still, the show’s emotional centers—the pilots’ relationships with their dragons and Hisone’s burgeoning relationship with Okonogi, a member of Masotan’s maintenance team—hold strong. Dragon Pilot, like its heroine, is deeply flawed and doesn’t always think through everything it says, but is ultimately charming and likable.
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