How many of you have read Moby Dick? I mean actually read it, not just that you can sorta-kinda half-remember the “blood and thunder” speech… AHAH! Gotcha! That’s not even in the book, it’s the lyrics to one of the songs in Mastodon’s concept album Leviathan. You Cliff Notes frauds are busted!
Let’s be honest, for most people Moby Dick amounts to just “Call me Ishmael”, then Ahab clops around with his peg-leg and shouts a lot, things go a bit stormy, then the white whale smashes up the ship, Ahab goes down together with the sea beast blah blah futility of revenge rhubarb rhubarb and that’s my book report, Miss. For anyone who’s done more than skim the Key Stage 3 study guide though you’ll remember that really only a fraction of Moby Dick is dedicated to the hunt for the notorious white whale in question: most of the book is a fairly dry and straightforward, even anthropological, sketch of working life on board a whaler. There’s even a chapter that’s outright called “Cetology” where call-me-Ishmael recounts his own taxonomy of whale species and discusses the contemporary state of scholarship on whales. It might sound dull and dreary on the face of it – whaling historian Philip Hoare in a Guardian article once charitably called Moby Dick “digressive” – but in our modern age where perceptions of whales are more defined by Free Willy than Children of the Light it really makes the book an invaluable historical insight into the last jetsam of a vanished world fast sinking beneath the waves of myth.
It’s that urge to preserve certainty and define actuality out of the fog of myth that Drifting Dragons draws inspiration and imagination from, bringing manga readers – who it’s fair to say that as a class are probably well-separated from the struggles of survival on the sea – into a better understanding of the world of whaling via the more familiar medium of a fantasy adventure. I truly admire the high concept of Drifting Dragons which is so scintillatingly brilliant in its elegant simplicity I’m astonished that no-one seems to have done it before – instead of hunting for whales on the sea in a sailboat and blasted by the harsh salty spray, you’re hunting for dragons in the sky with an airship and are swept by the fresh clear air.
The original manga of Drifting Dragons has been on our shelves for a while now, and the first volume was reviewed by Dan Barnett right here on the UK Anime Network in 2018. The English-language version of the manga is still going strong two years later – volume eight will be released just next month in August – so even though Dan was concerned about the uncomfortable reality of whaling intruding in on the story it has clearly found an enthusiastic and untroubled audience that’s not been held back in any way – confidence in the novel appeal of its unique theme is clearly also felt by the anime producers, as following its original broadcast on Fuji TV earlier this year it was immediately followed up just a month later by a simultaneous worldwide Netflix release. In fact, the manga’s so successful it even seems to have gone in for another printing – I only bought volume 1 earlier this year but my copy is new enough that it promotes “the new Netflix Original anime” below the blurb on the back cover. The lack of cross-promotion between related media is something I’ve criticised in past reviews such as for Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit, so it’s good to see a bit of effort being made for different publishers to support each other today. With all this buzz, considering that Drifting Dragons is actually the debut serial manga of mangaka Taku Kuwabara it’s a striking opening and an impressive dramatic achievement. The Drifting Dragons manga combines its journey of discovery into a largely unknown chapter of history with beguiling storybook art, expressive characters, and a Deliah-load of sumptuous recipes for fantasy dishes that immediately make it a counterpart for Delicious in Dungeon and look good enough to eat on the page. In the real world, Japan is one of only a small handful of countries to still practice commercial whaling but there are reports that whale meat is getting less popular in Japan – if Kuwabara has been marketing it to get domestic diners munching again he’s definitely earned his commission.
In the world of Drifting Dragons airborne creatures of massive sizes make their stately course through the seas of the skies. Roving the clouds with them are “drakers”, airships which hunt the dragons for meat and a huge variety of useful byproducts which can feed and clothe a hungry society. One of these draking ships is the Quin Zaza, and Takita is a young woman who’s just signed on as the newest rating on board. We follow the route of the Quin Zaza as it jobs around the world with the sales of each butchered dragon just about keeping their finances going to the next town. As it does so we see the crew's work through Takita’s eyes as she learns the craft of draking, makes friends among her quirky airshipmates, tries not to take too many lessons to heart from the food-obsessed Mika who lives to chow down on dragon meat, and discovers what she herself set out to find beyond the endless horizon and the heartbeat sweep of dragons’ wings.
In terms of story content, the Drifting Dragons anime is a fairly straight run through volumes 1 and 2 of the manga plus the first half of volume 3 up to Chapter 17, only cutting out the encounter with the artist’s airship which made a cliffhanger of the end of that chapter so that the final episode of the anime instead reaches a more conclusive break. The only real difference of note is that the order of some events is rearranged: for instance, an episode where the crew are trying to work out who is secretly drawing pictures of them which doesn’t occur until volume 3 in the manga is brought forward to an earlier part of the anime, a good decision which helps to better-establish the characters of the crew when we are still being introduced to them. By and large though the Drifting Dragons anime is a note-for-note adaptation.
If it’s such a conservative adaptation of the manga, is there really any reason for manga readers to watch the anime? I would say yes, because the anime does bring a few new things to the table with good presentation. Now, I have to admit that I need to expend effort to stifle a groan whenever I see Polygon Pictures on the production credits of anime: Polygon’s 3D anime have become a byword for “cheapskate” but to be fair to them they seem to have recognised that they have been assigned a prestige title here and they have pulled their socks up with a lot more effort than usual in the presentation. While the character models do still have a bit of that slow, too-precise mechanical animation they have been given a lot more range of movement in their rigs, which is necessary for this anime with the leaping through the air and the sliding down harpoon cables which defines it. The sky-blue uniforms with ridged helmets and glass goggles worn by the drakers are also strongly reminiscent of the outfit worn by Princess Nausicaa, of Hayao Miyazaki fame, so it certainly knows how to get you to lift off into the wonderful dreamland of the great sunny blue yonder. I mentioned in my review for Granblue Fantasy: The Animation that I’m a sucker for airship adventures and Drifting Dragons is another show that knows exactly how to spin my propeller. A confession: when the Sky Pirates episode came on, I paused the playback and literally capered a jig around the lounge. There was a rational part of my brain telling me that if Drifting Dragons was properly committed to its authentic verité premise of day-to-day working lives of sailors then what should have happened is the Quin Zaza crew to have locked themselves in the engine room, let the pirates loot what they could carry and buzz off, then trundle back into port and filed an insurance claim, but the rest of me was just making dakka-dakka-dakka noises, dancing to the Crimson Skies soundtrack, and wondering if there was enough leather in the settee to stitch together a flight jacket.
Anyway, I am digressing like Herman Melville himself. What does give manga readers a reason to double-dip on the anime version of Drifting Dragons is a great use of colour. It does not replace the excellent manga art but complements it with a new style. There are gorgeous and sumptuous richly-coloured backdrops throughout the series, and a number of scenes come across better than they do in the manga – for example, the blaze on the antagonistic trade-union airship is much more dramatic and impactful: in the manga it flares out in a couple of panels as though it’s little more than a matchstick, whereas the anime consumes it with a proper Hindenburg-style conflagration. The visit to the native tanner is also a lot more profound and Takita’s amazement is much more resonant with the kaleidoscope that bedecks the dome around her in the anime. Although the anime doesn’t go into as deep a detail into the making of its dragon dishes as the manga, they still look genuinely appetising on the screen so Mika’s slavering obsession with gorging himself on every plate feels believable. The dragons themselves also look spectacular. While they’re very obviously CGI, seeing them in motion imparts with them awesome grace and their multi-coloured hides also give them a stature and presence which perhaps isn’t very obvious in the confines of a manga panel’s gutters, particularly in the struggle at Quom. Despite their name they are also not just scaly heraldic animals, and the huge variety of shapes and sizes they come in leaves promise for all sorts of strange encounters in future episodes. I’m reminded a little of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle short story “Horror of the Heights”, a seminal tale of aviators where an aerial explorer breaks the flight ceiling to discover skyborne jungles teeming with strange and dangerous life not unlike the shapes of the drifting dragons themselves.
It’s solid work all round, but there are a few limitations. The slice-of-life adventures of the Quin Zaza’s crew are entirely episodic and while it’s actually good to take a steadier pace through an anime without any overly-portentous plot – an early scene where these workin’ joes eat a pygmy dragon which they don’t realise is a rare escaped pet that’s worth a fortune sets a more light-hearted consequence-free tone – it sometimes can get teeth-rottingly twee. Takita’s rescue in the final episode, which features her joyously announcing that she’s going to be friends forever while dangling from a rope above a bottomless chasm, is agonisingly schmaltzy. Scenes where the crew assemble before a dragon cadaver and happily proclaim “let’s have a great butchery today!” as if it’s all fun and games instead of the reeking drudgery of paying the bills are Epsilon-Minus levels of moronically earnest, and when Giraud undergoes a “character development” haircut at the end of the Quom arc the narrative formula is being wrangled painfully rigidly.
Although Netflix rates the anime a 15, I think the rating’s too steep for what is ultimately entirely moderate content. There’s cursing and sex references but nothing especially strong – no deaths of characters and not even injuries beyond cuts and bruises, and while the crew do visit a brothel you don’t see anything and a fight breaks out before things get racy. It’s a Netflix dub, so unambitiously middle-of-the-road: the English-language track is basically competent but you’re not going to be brought to tears by anyone’s soulful performance. While the dragon hunts are decent, Polygon’s 3D renderers do also reach their computing limitations during more of the crowd scenes – one scene that the manga definitely does better is the tavern brawl, which is barely a couple of swung punches in the anime but a proper bar-smashing ruck in the manga.
Nonetheless, these do feel a lot like quibbles. Drifting Dragons is confident in its concept and explores it thoroughly. I’d be happy to get a second season as Drifting Dragons is fantasy in the best sense of the word, charged with imagination to take off into a boundless sky with vision of adventure and endeavour.