I’ve worked with Kobayashi-san

Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon: Kobayashi-san at work

I’ve worked with Kobayashi-san. Not literally of course, but with women like her, testers and developers in an overwhelmingly male workplace, often the only woman in a department or team, sometimes pioneers. In the almost twenty years I’ve been working in IT I’ve seen a fair few of them and while the numbers of women in IT has crept up, my current team of fourteen still only has two female developers. Sometimes it seems IT has actually regressed in this regards, software development becoming more male dominated rather than less.

Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon: our typical IT workplace

As we’ve seen throughout the series so far is that Kobayashi-san doesn’t dress very girly, shall we say. At home she wears comfortable, somewhat slobby clothes, jeans and sweaters. At work she dresses like her male colleagues, shirt and tie, not overly formal, but good enough for IT work. She gives the impression of not overtly caring about how she looks, other than being neat enough for the office. It stands in sharp contrast to the usual office lady we see in anime, dressed in a work uniform or at the very least in skirt and blouse; Kobayashi-san must be deliberately dressing as one of the boys, to not stand out or perhaps to not be mistaken for a secretary. You wonder what her co-workers make of her behind her back.

Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon: being asked for advice

In episode five Tohru goes to visit Kobayashi-san in her workplace, giving us the first extended look at her work life. What struck me immediately was that she seemed slightly older and more experienced than her co-workers. She’s acknowledged as such too by the people she works with. Takiya ask her for help with his own projects and a little bit later we see her advicing two other co-workers, not to mention that she has to take over the project of a co-worker off sick in order to solve a problem that cropped up in production. Her expertise is at least unquestioned, but at the same time her nominal boss sees her as an easy target, expecting her to do his work, demeaning and belittling her and blind to the more important work she’s already doing. Not that Kobayashi is defenceless: we later find out that somebody dobbed her boss in with his superiors about his work ethics, getting him fired…

Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon: bullied by the boss

The mangaka behind the original manga apparantly drew inspiration from his own work experience in IT, which tells me some experiences are universal, because everything I mentioned above I’ve seen with female co-workers of mine. AsI said, I’ve worked with a fair few of slightly older, much more experienced and knowledgable, tough as nails women like Kobayashi-san. Not always appreciated them, but still.

Another reason to prefer subs

Sometimes a small, seemingly insignificant change can make you lose all trust in an adaptation. Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon recently got an English dub courtesy of Funimation, but when the first episode aired it turned out a small, but important line was altered.

In the original Japanese dub (and English subtitles) Kobayashi-san says, in answer to Tohru’s declaration of love: “But I’m a woman though”. Which, as MayaScientist demonstrates on Twitter, is an old, old Yuri cliche, when a woman is first confronted with another woman’s love for her. in context, what with Tohru’s unfamiliarity with modern life and Kobayashi’s overall appearance, it also makes sense for her to say something like that, to drive the point home to both herself and Tohru.

The dub changes this line to “I’m not into women or dragons”. Which is an outright rejection of Tohru, rather than a gentle confirmation that Tohru knows what she’s doing. Worse, it turns Tohru’s displays of affection from amusingly over the top to downright creepy.

In the original manga and the anime series so far, though Kobayashi never states it outright, it’s clear she accepts Tohru and her love at some level, that it is more than just friendship. The entire series is as much about Kobayashi coming out of her shell as it is about funny dragon antics, as Andrea Reventon argues in the series of Tweets linked to above. Yet you cannot get there if you start with her outright rejecting the possibility of being lesbian, of falling in love with another woman. That’s why this is such a bad change and such an important one, as it means that Funimation will probably change more things in the anime, erasing the queer (sub)text of it.

First impression: Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon

A drunken sysadmin stumbles over a dragon one evening, pulls the sword from her back and gets the shock of her life when the dragon shows up the next morning to become her new maid.

This is the least KyoAni-esque Kyoto Animation series since Nichijou. Kobayashi-san is a working woman, an IT professional who is some years removed from the usual perky, cute KyoAni high school girls, as her complaints about an aching back and upset stomach make emphatically clear. Nor is there the usual romantic pussyfooting here. Tohru loves Kobayashi-san –“I mean sexually” — and is not shy to show it. Kobayashi-san herself is somewhat less enthusiastic about the whole idea, but allows Tohru to stay with her nevertheless.

Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon: the thirst is real

The first episode then was all about Tohru’s thirst for Kobayashi-san and the latter’s reactions to it. It’s amusing, especially when Kobayashi and a coworker go out for drinks after work, a jealous Tohru joins them which prompts Kobayashi to start ranting about maids and how Tohru is just cosplaying. Which indeed she was, having based her uniform on two girls advertising a maid cafe. There’s also the recurring theme of Tohru wanting Kobayashi-san to eat her tail, which is not symbolic of anything whatsoever.

What’s also fun is seeing small asides from the manga being animated and given life. Like Tohru happily and messily eating her own tail, which is much more scary animated than as one small panel in the manga. Had the second episode followed along the lines of the first however it would’ve been disappointing, as Tohru lusting after Kobayashi-san while the latter remains stoic was wearing thin already.

Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon: startng a family

Luckily the second episode kicked things up a notch. First, there was the scene in which Tohru stops a thief when they went shopping at the local shopping centre, with Kobayashi getting a bit paniced at Tohru perhaps exposing herself as not human, leading her away holding her hand and when Tohru notices, gripping her firmer. Subtly done but such a great way of showing how far their relationship had progressed already. But the heart of the episode is when a second dragon shows up, in the form of a little girl called Kanna, who went looking for Tohru when she went missing and is now stuck on Earth. Kobayashi offers her a place in her home, which Kanna is reluctant to take as she doesn’t trust humans. The way in which she breaks down as Kobayashi tells her she doesn’t have to be friends with her to let her stay and especially that final shot of the three pair of shoes lined up at the front door made me choke up.

The subject matter may be slightly outside KyoAni’s usual range, with the animation style taking its cue from the original manga, but that doesn’t mean the usual care and attention the studio is known for isn’t taken. Most of it is fairly subtle, focusing on characterisation and character interaction, but there are several scenes in the first two episodes like the one above, where the animators get to cut loose. It makes you wonder what a good KyoAni action series would be like (as opposed to tripe like Musaigen no Phantom World).