Drifting Dragons, a new anime on Netflix, might be the most unusual animated series I’ve sampled in a long time.
The series is the latest from the team of digital animators at Polygon Pictures; Netflix subscribers may recognize them for previous work on Knights of Sidonia, a sprawling epic that blends deep space mecha combat with weird alien kaiju, along with their work on Transformers: Prime, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and Star Wars: Resistance. But this new series is different than just about everything mentioned above.
Drifting Dragons isn’t science fiction. The setting, based on books written and illustrated by Taku Kuwabara, is more steampunk than anything else, taking place in a vaguely feudal world where massive airships keep up the trade lines between far-flung human settlements. The main characters are the crew of the Quin Zaza, an independent draking ship — a fictional stand-in for a real-world whaling vessel. They spend their days hunting for shadows in the sky, killing the massive creatures with explosive harpoons, and then butchering them to sell for parts.
The whaling conceit initially turned my stomach. Centuries of overfishing by the real-world whaling industry has driven many real-world species close to extinction, and continues to threaten others to this day. But Drifting Dragons uses that taboo subject to explore the intersection of humanity with the unknown. These dragons are ephemeral creatures, each one seemingly unique. The largest of them are formidable foes, dwarfing even the largest ships that show up to hunt them. Far from endangered, Drifting Dragons makes these creatures seem both powerful and plentiful.
They’re also delicious. Nearly every episode lingers on a beautiful meal that someone has made, from dragon cutlet to aged dragon charcuterie. All the while the show’s writers never quite nail down what dragon meat actually tastes like. Like the world building itself, that mystery only serves to make the show more enticing.
Drifting Dragons suffers from a large ensemble cast, with many characters revolving around cookie-cutter tropes common to the genre. A tall, skilled hunter named Mika stands apart, a sort of Manic Pixie Dream Whaler whose sole purpose is to show the rest of the crew the beauty and mystery of the dragons they hunt. His work mentoring the ship’s newest crew member, Takita, is the through-line that fuels the entire first season.
Mika is, first and foremost, an excellent and impetuous “draker,” as those who hunt dragons are called. The first episode shows him leaping from the safety of the Qinn Zaza’s deck directly onto a dragon in flight to deliver the killing blow. But he’s also an excellent cook. Several episodes show him teaching the ship’s chef, Yoshi, a thing or two about preparing dragon.
Mika reveals his spiritual connection with the dragons in later episodes. His love for them goes deeper than a fat paycheck and a full belly. He worships these creatures, in his own way, and the mysteries of Drifting Dragons’ strange fantasy world begin to take shape through his eyes.
Everything is made much more digestible thanks to the series’ excellent subtitles. It also has a great cast for its English voiceover, which has made the series much easier to watch with my kids.
The entire season has wonderful pacing. Not every episode follows the same format, but they all seem to be made up of similar ingredients. Each one focuses on one or two characters. There’s a delicious dragon dish to cook up and enjoy, and there’s a big battle to look forward to — usually, but not always, against a glorious dragon.
Unlike other cartoons that rely on computer animation, those battle sequences are seamlessly mixed with the more mundane, work-a-day scenes of life aboard the Quin Zaza. It never feels like a separate team worked on those climaxes, only to splice them in later.
If I have any complaints, it’s that the other characters almost seem to get in the way. The first season often feels bloated, like a 12-episode pilot searching to find its way. Here’s hoping that season 2 comes to Netflix when it’s ready. Polygon Pictures has a hero in Mika, and I can’t wait to learn more about him.
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