Dragon Maid is a story about unorthodox families, but it goes much deeper than that. Unorthodox familes are a dime a dozen in anime, and while Dragon Maid does a good job at portraying them, I wouldn’t say it does a better job than, say, The Eccentric Family. What makes Dragon Maid stand out is how it focuses on the family’s effect on the main character. Dragon Maid is ultimately the tale of an introvert, someone who’s used to minimal interaction, and how her newfound family helps her to open up and become more comfortable around others.
Kobayashi is extremely introverted, to the extent that she rarely interacts with anyone outside of work. She never comes across as particularly socially awkward, but she definitely sticks to herself whenever possible, not even visiting her parents for many years. She only has one friend at work, and the extent of their interaction seems to be sympathetic conversations at the office and occasional drunken conversations about otaku interests.
There’s a real sense that this isn’t how Kobayashi has always been. She’s clear to state that she was always more interested in playing games than in playing sports, but you get the sense that things really only got the way they did after years of living on her own with little free time. She has become a person who is unsure of how to deal with attention from others, even if she’s perfectly capable of carrying on a conversation or making small talk while shopping.
This mode of life is part of what makes Tohru’s appearance so shocking to her. For the first time since school she’s living with another person, and furthermore, it’s a person who loves her and shows her constant affection. This is hard for Kobayashi to deal with, because she just doesn’t know how to react to being loved. What’s important to note though, is that she doesn’t reject Tohru outright. To some extent it feels like Kobayashi blames herself and her introversion for not being able to reciprocate, as she feels somewhat guilty for not knowing how to respond to Tohru’s affections. Fortunately Tohru is fairly patient with Kobayashi, but this situation makes it clear that Kobayashi’s introversion and lack of contact with others is hurting her, something she’s all too aware of.
It’s only after Kanna’s arrival that Kobayashi actually begins to open up, and slowly but surely, Kobayashi begins to slip into a routine with Kanna and Tohru. She begins to find more comfort in living with others, opening up to the idea of spending significant amounts of time with people. She starts to feel love for them as well, and she becomes more relaxed among Tohru’s many dragon friends and their associates, frequently spending time with them where she otherwise wouldn’t. She becomes far more happy during her interactions. We can see this in both the Christmas episode as well as in the Sports Festival episodes. The amount she’s willing to do for Kanna shows a care for others that you wouldn’t expect from the Kobayashi we saw at the start of the series, and that’s a good thing.
And then, the final episode shatters everything. The dynamic that’s been helping Kobayashi so much is broken, and as much as she tries, she can’t return things to normal. She has no idea what to do, as seen in this excellent cut that uses body language to show her confused panic. She’s grown so accustomed to having others around that when Tohru disappears she can barely manage. Kanna has to take care of herself to some extent, spending some nights with Saikawa, while Kobayashi is forced to buy their food from convenience stores. It’s clear that they would definitely get by, but it’s equally clear that without Tohru, their lives are notably worse, both materially and emotionally.
And so, Kobayashi does the most daring thing she’s done in the series, ensuring that Tohru stays with her. This can’t have been easy for her, between the fear of death and the fear of sticking her nose somewhere it doesn’t belong, but she challenges Tohru’s dad anyway, and it pays off. This might not technically be a statement of reciprocation for Tohru’s love, but it’s close enough. She never would have shown this level of care for Tohru at the start, and I know she’s happy that she’s able to do so by the end.
This experience is powerful enough that it finally drives Kobayashi to visit her parents, with her current family in tow. Kobayashi’s developed to the point where she won’t take family for granted, and her love for family now goes far beyond passive appreciation, and into the realm of active longing to have them around. This is an important step, and it’s one that could only have been made in the trying situation she was put in.
Kobayashi remains an introvert by the end of the series. She still likes to spend time alone on the weekends, and she’s hardly all over Tohru even after the experience with her dad. But she really does love Kanna and Tohru, and with their help she’s been able to begin interacting with others for fun again. Introverts might prefer time on their own, but they don’t need to be totally separate from society, and by the end, Kobayashi isn’t. She has a family now, and for someone who was all on her own, that’s invaluable.