February 27, 2020

Dragon Pilot

Based on the manga created by Toshinao Aoki and Studio Bones, the animation in Dragon Pilot brings to mind the comic strip art of Bill Watterson. The premise of Dragon Pilot as well is the crazy kind of gross but hilarious and yet clever idea that Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes would come up with.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the world (and most Japanese), a select few of Japan's military aircraft, including an F-15J and an F-2 (Mitsubishi's made-in-Japan version of the F-16), are dragons disguised to look like fighter jets.

Hisone Amakasu is a rookie airman at the Japan Air Self-Defense Force Gifu Air Base. One day out of the blue she learns she has passed a "qualification" (she wasn't aware of) and is summarily transferred to a huge hanger way off in the corner of the base that no one seems to know about—except for an odd old woman who pushes a food cart around the base.

When Hisone finally finds the hanger, she walks in and is confronted by a huge dragon (she later names "Masotan") that promptly eats her.

The ground crew is delighted. It's been a while since a pilot passed muster with this particular OTF (an "Organic Transformed Flyer," as the military labels them). You see, the pilot doesn't ride atop the dragon like a horse. The dragon swallows the pilot, who "flies" the dragon from its guts. And when the flight is over, regurgitates her back out.

And, yes, the pilots have to wear special flight suits to keep from getting digested.

Needless to say, the dragon has a lot of discretion about who gets swallowed, and some, like Masotan, can get picky. The dragons are perceptive about the personalities of their pilots. They can even pick up mechanical issues with the real F-15Js they fly with (via the heads-up display in the helmets the pilots wear). But they don't talk.

It's eat or don't eat. Once they've formed an attachment, the one thing that really gives a dragon an upset stomach is his pilot forming a romantic relationship with another human being (which reminds me a similar plot device in My Zhime). No surprise, then, that the girls who make the best "D-Pilots" are not very socially adept.

For all its inherent silliness, Dragon Pilot raises fascinating questions about choice and free will. Hisone got something she didn't know she wanted. Nao wants something she can't get. Elle got what she didn't want instead of what she did. Moriyama gave up what she wanted and walked away to happily make another life for herself.

As Hisone tells Okonogi, a member of her ground crew and also, by family lineage (not something he had a lot of choice about either), a Shinto priest, "It's always best when the things you like and the things decided for you are in agreement."

That religious angle is no small matter. One of the old gods of Japan is a whale-sized monster, literally the size of a small island. It briefly comes out of hibernation every seventy-four years. The job of the dragon pilots is to escort it to a new resting place before it goes all Godzilla on Japan, and put it to bed with an ancient Shinto ritual.

The old school ritual required one of the miko attendants to stay behind in the "belly of the whale," so to speak. As far as Hisone is concerned, that is very much not okay. As it turns out, the food cart lady is the last living member of her squadron from the last time, when her reaction was the same as Hisone's.

In Calvin and Hobbes style, Hisone figures out an unlikely solution. It's a credit to the writing that the series manages to take these serious turns—and turn back again—without spoiling the comedic mood created earlier or making light of the dramatic decisions that Hisone faces (but be sure to stick through the final closing credits).

Masotan ultimately gets a character arc too, which suggests that perhaps the dragons will figure out how to compromise on the whole personal boundaries thing, and not force their pilots into the kind of all-or-nothing choice that Moriyama was left with. We have every reason to hope that the dragons will mature alongside their pilots.

Dragon Pilot can be streamed on Netflix.

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