Many anime use cherry blossoms for lingering shots, full of deep longing or the ephemeral Heian mono no aware. Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters Per Second immediately comes to mind, as do the more recent series Your Lie in April or Amanchu!, both of which frame principal relationships with blooming cherry trees.
Yet, only one other anime series came to mind when I saw this shot from the third episode of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid. Another quirky comedy animated by Kyoto Animation — Nichijou, or My Ordinary Life.
The above shot from Nichijou is the opening punch line of the series, blossoms blooming from buds with a pop after Yuuko Aioi is roused from her ennui by the simple encouragement of Mio Naganohara. This is followed by scene where the two sit, drinking tea, as a short line is read: I wish I could be a simpleton. The joke is that Yuuko is an idiot.
In the next scene, cherry blossom petals fall over Shinonome Laboratory, transitioning the viewer from Yuuko’s idiocy to Nano Shinonome’s domesticity. A giant wind-up key in her back stands out as the only visible thing out of place in an otherwise tranquil morning.
Nichijou deftly switches gears from scene-to-scene, juxtaposing belly laughs, quirky visual gags, poignant bits of characterization, and genuine emotional moments. Cuts to scenery, like the budding cherry tree popping into bloom after Yuuko’s yelling, are often used for transitions in between skits — breaking them up into smaller chunks while tying them together in the same universe.
Additionally, the series uses pillow shots — seemingly unrelated shots of scenery that are inserted between segments, to add a dash of non sequitur absurdity. The differences between an establishing shot and a pillow shot — as defined by critic Noel Burch when studying the works of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu — are slight, and the two often blend together. If you think of an entire scene as a sentence, a pillow shot is an off beat, or a slight syllable of nonsense that disrupts an expected rhythm. Pillow shots cut away to random scenery without an obvious narrative tie-in and hold that image for approximately five seconds.
The pillow shot above is taken from Nichijou Episode 24. It shows three birds of prey circling a power line set against the setting sun on the mountains and appears after a scene where Mio believes she has grown closer to her crush, Koujirou Sasahara. Nichijou‘s next episode features an extended — somewhat famous — running sequence with Mio after she sees Misato Tachibana and Sasahara arm in arm. Her dreams of being with Sasahara are crushed.
On their own, the birds of Episode 24 are circling unknown prey. Coupled with Mio’s thoughts in Episode 24 and what happens in Episode 25, they become harbingers of doom for her potential romance with Sasahara. It’s not overt symbolism per se, more of a story beat that can be recontextualized with additional scenes in the series. Nichijou also uses these cuts to show passage of time within an episode. Earlier in Episode 24, the same scene is shown that morning, with a flock of birds on the power lines taking off.
Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid uses similar scenes for transitions, but leans on the side of establishing shots rather than their more non-sequitur cousin, the pillow shot — an overview of the city, followed by a two-to-three-second shot of an egret in the river shallows. In that same episode, the shot of a construction site sets up the noise Miss Kobayashi and her dragon companions have to deal with in their new apartment.
Maidragon Director Yasuhiro Takemoto worked under Tatsuya Ishihara on Nichijou, and it’s not surprising to see him use comparable visuals in a somewhat similar comedy. Nichijou is far more absurd and almost surrealist at times, but Maidragon also has its own absurdities, focused around the fish-out-of-water story of Tohru the dragon who became a maid in the modern world.
Takemoto borrows most from Ishihara when he uses establishing shots several times throughout an episode to show the passage of time, both within an episode and in a more general sense. In Maidragon‘s second episode, Miss Kobayashi takes in another dragon, Kanna.
An establishing shot of her apartment complex in this episode first shows a small cat, asleep. The cat is a tiny dot in a larger shot, and is given a closeup moments afterwards.
Later in the episode, another establishing shot features a group of cats asleep under the same stairwell. The cats have multiplied, as has Miss Kobayashi’s makeshift family of dragons. It’s a more overt usage of establishing shots that can’t technically qualify as pillow shots — especially with such obvious narrative tie-ins — but still mimics Nichijou‘s rhythm, adding a transient quality to the series as a whole.