“Maybe there isn’t normal at all. Maybe there’s just us.”
How to Train Your Dragon meets Top Gun!
Hisone Amakasu doesn’t know how she wants to spend her life, so she applies for a job with the Japanese Air Force. But when Hisone discovers the dragon Masotan hidden inside the air base, the creature selects her as his new pilot! The Japanese military is in possession of several dragons, all of which need to fly periodically in order to release their natural body heat, and Hisone’s job is to guide Masotan through the air from inside his body.
Throughout her journey to become a “d-pi,” Hisone struggles to overcome her own blunt personality and difficulty empathizing with others. She must do so to befriend her fellow pilots: the jealous Nao, whose mission in life is to make Hisone miserable; the obsessively driven Elle, who sees dragons as tools on her path to success; the shut-in Lilikos, who lacks motivation for everything but manga; and the kind-hearted Mayumi, who just wants her dragon to be happy and well-fed. As if that weren’t enough, there are plenty of other challenges in store for Hisone—perfecting Masotan’s flight for an air show, convincing Elle to bond with her dragon, receiving yogurt from a sketchy old lady, and deciphering her feelings for the maintenance guy Haruto. All the while, Undersecretary Iboshi puts plans in motion for a cryptic and mysterious ritual that will push the d-pilots to their limits.
Our Take (Spoilers!)
I have a love-hate relationship with this show. On the one hand, there’s an engaging, original storyline with a cast of well-developed characters and adorable dragons. Watching them soar through the skies is certainly fun, and the girls’ emotional growth is rewarding, allowing me to really get invested in their success. It’s rare to see an action-oriented anime—not to mention one about the military—starring only women, so that’s a refreshing change in and of itself.
But this show would be a lot more successful if it stopped obsessing over the fact that these pilots are women. Instead of an exciting shonen-style tale about pilots who just happen to be female, storylines get bogged down by attempting to dictate who and what women should be. Male pilots spend their time evaluating the female pilots’ attractiveness, focusing only on their potential sexual appeal. When Nao is caught in an attempt to sabotage Hisone, a male air base commander exclaims, “This is why having all the d-pis be women was a bad idea. They’re always acting on their feelings!” Seeing that Hisone is eating spicy ramen for lunch, Natsume asks her, “So you’ve completely given up on being a woman?” (What does that even mean???)
Perhaps even more unsettling, Iboshi concocts a ridiculous plan to turn the di-pis off romance due to his belief that “love blinds young girls.” In order to force them to date boys—so that those boys can break their hearts and induce “trauma” that will make the girls dependent on their dragons—Iboshi calls in a military romance specialist, who announces, “We’re women before we are SDF members. Love is a lady’s primary objective.” Look, I signed up for a show about women piloting dragons. Why do you think I want to hear about how a woman’s only purpose is to fall in love with a man?!
At times, Dragon Pilot is surprisingly progressive. Characters give immense respect to seasoned female pilot Sada Hinomoto, whose backstory includes a touching, heartbreaking lesbian love story. There are several plus-sized women in the cast who are talented and desirable. But while the show does a good job of pointing out the misogyny that real-life women face in the armed forces, it fails to question this double standard in any meaningful way. Elle’s mission to become the first female F2 pilot is nuanced and sympathetic—and timely, considering Japan hired its first female fighter pilot in August 2018—but this thoughtful story is undermined by a scene dedicated to Elle forgetting her bra in the changing room. The show simultaneously punishes its sexist characters (Yutaka believes that it’s imperative to “break down” strong women, so Elle rejects and slaps him, only developing feelings for him once he’s learned to see her as a fellow pilot and human) and perpetuates that same sexualization of women (i.e. Ikushima’s blatant workplace sexual harassment, which is largely brushed over and played for comedy). It’s exhausting. I just wanted to watch a silly dragon show.
But when it’s not dwelling on outdated ideas of the female condition, Dragon Pilot is exciting and uplifting. Although I initially had my suspicions about pilots navigating from inside a dragon’s stomach (vore: the anime), by the series’ end, this construct seems perfectly natural. The art is consistently adorable, with expressive characters, charming dragons, and beautiful, sweeping backgrounds. The ending song is super catchy (and in French!). Hisone’s word vomit issues are hilarious and relatable, and it’s inspiring to watch her social skills grow as the series goes on. The plot is a little slow until episode four, but when the other di-pis arrive, Elle, Lilikos, and Mayumi round out the cast with their quirkiness and ensure that things aren’t dull from then on out. The dragons, too, serve as important secondary characters with their own unique personalities and emotions (and a shared passion for devouring flip phones).
And yeah, this show has some pretty good messages. Hisone’s arc is about proving that jealousy is often unfounded because it’s possible for someone to care about many different things. Big-hearted people like Hisone have more than enough love to go around, so there’s no reason she can’t devote herself to her crush, friends, a beloved pet, and career all at the same time. She also becomes aware that selflessness, while it seems like a virtue, can often hurt the people around her more than caring for herself would have. Nao struggles with the knowledge that she’s not the best d-pi out there, discovering that supporting her friends from behind the scenes is as important as being in the limelight (although at the beginning of the series, she’s so aggressive she sometimes feels more like a tsundere stereotype than a real person, and it’s even less believable that Hisone mistakes her attempts at sabotage for kindness). Elle learns that it’s okay to rely on others, that doing so doesn’t make you weak. Haruto realizes that there are no rules about how a person should live their life—it’s okay to break rules, to find out-of-the-box solutions, to make your own path even if one has been decided for you. Yutaka learns that women are people, although I would hope most people know that already (plus, his story, no matter how cute it is, feeds into the trope that continuing to pester a woman even after she’s said no will win you a date, which is a little troubling). And while Lilikos and Mayumi aren’t all that deep as characters, their social awkwardness makes for constant, welcome comic relief, and I grew to care about them deeply as well.
I’m impressed with the dub work, too. Frequently, I forgot I was watching an anime dub and assumed Dragon Pilot must be original in English, because of this version extraordinarily well-cast and well-acted. Christine Marie Cabanos nails a “high-pitched anime girl” voice without sound like a chipmunk, perfectly portraying Hisone’s signature blend of awkward and charismatic. Katelyn Gault’s emotional delivery allows me to empathize with Elle, and Xanthe Huynh and Erika Harlacher’s comedic timing makes Mayumi and Lilikos even funnier.
Essentially, Dragon Pilot has a compelling premise, but the smaller storylines within its world are often cliché and unsuccessful. So much time is wasted on a love triangle among Haruto, Hisone, and Haruto’s childhood friend Natsume, even though Natsume is a literal child. She’s in high school, whereas Haruto and Hisone are old enough to drink booze and enlist in the military. We see scenes of child Haruto—who can’t be younger than, like, eight—holding Natsume as a literal baby. Why is anyone even considering Natsume an option here? I don’t know about you, but I’m in my twenties and I’m sure, not interested in dating kids.
But god, the ritual is exciting. I had to pause and collect myself after watching Hisone launch herself off a bridge on a motorcycle and take a flying leap into Masotan’s mouth. Shocking twists abound, and the inclusion of Shinto spirituality lends the whole thing even more gravitas. The last two episodes are stunningly well-executed. At the same time, a huge mystery is left 100% unanswered; it feels like a massive cop-out, put in because the writers just didn’t want to figure out how Hisone could have survived. Plus, the show never explains why all the dragon pilots are female in the first place. They make it clear that only women can be di-pis, but… why? And, uh, why, exactly, is Masotan’s true name… written inside his belly? What? Who wrote that there?
Despite these minor plot holes, Dragon Pilot crafts an engaging and satisfying story that I thoroughly enjoyed. Although it’s frustrating to watch male characters face no consequences for constantly sexualizing and underestimating the female di-pis, these five women are funny, weird, moving, and memorable—and their dragons are, too.