If Anime Mirai never accomplished anything else, its existence would still be a boon for anime because it produced Death Billiards – which of course gave birth to Death Parade, one of the finest TV anime of the decade (it did other good too, of course, producing occasional brilliant one-offs like Harmonie) and launched the career of Tachikawa Yuzuru. It’s tempting to look at Anno Hideaki’s “Japan Animator Expo” as a similar project – an opportunity to give anime a more diverse voice in a time of increasing homogeneity. The details and focus are different, but there’s something of the same mindset behind the two projects I think (though Anno’s is more directly a response to a perceived creative death spiral for the medium).
The Dragon Dentist is interesting for any number of reasons. It was the first of the Animator Expo shorts and as far as I know, it’s the first to be fleshed out into a more long-form project – will this be a trend? It’s also Studio Khara’s first foray into full-length non-cinema anime as a lead production studio. And given that I’m a huge Gainax fanboy who’s been almost uniformly disappointed in Studio Trigger’s work, the notion that Khara might become a force in TV animation is a tantalizing one. And Khara has some of Gainax’ best talent – not only Anno himself, but the redoubtable Tsurumaki Kazuya, creator and director of IMHO Gainax’ finest work (and the second-best series anime ever) FLCL, and Enokido Yoji, who likewise worked on FLCL and has done much significant work at both Gainax and Bones.
Both Tsurumaki and Enokido are involved in this two-part TV special, as director and co-writer respectively (the other co-writer is the creator/director of the original ONA, Maijo Otaro – and Anno is working as Sound Director). Tsurumaki has been co-directing the Evangelion films, and I assume he worked on Dragon Dentist during Anno’s hiatus for Godzilla (he’s not directly involved in Production I.G.’s almost-certainly unwise FLCL sequel). Once the NGE films are done (admittedly, with Anno it’s folly to try and guess when) Khara will have to turn to other projects if they intend to remain a viable studio, and with names like Anno and Tsurumaki involved, I sincerely hope they focus at least in part on a TV anime industry that desperately needs all the help it can get. And in Dragon Dentist, they’re off to a pretty good start.
In case you missed the ONA (which means you blinked – it was 8 minutes) the basic idea here is that in a world vaguely reminiscent of Laputa or Last Exile, two nations are at war. One of them uses dragons as their weapon of choice – but these are not dragons as you’ve commonly seen them. They’re huge and vaguely mechanical in a steampunk sort of way, and they’re indestructible apart from cavities in their triple-layer of massive teeth. That means the “dragon dentists” whose job it is to keep those choppers healthy are far more important to the struggle than the soldiers themselves – and The Dragon Dentist is their story.
As fleshed out here, the main focus is on young girl Nonoko (Shimizu Fumika), the newest recruit on the team. She’s quickly joined by Bell (Okamoto Nobuhiko), a boy officer from the enemy who dies and emerges from inside the dragon’s teeth. Also on-board is squadron leader Godou-san (the always wonderful Yamadera Kouichi) and Nonoko’s mentor Shibana (Hayashibara Megumi – insert Rakugo references here). The first episode is a combination of fairly boilerplate “new recruit” material and action, giving way to a rather more conventionally dramatic twist in the B-part.
There are a lot of really nice things in The Dragon Dentist. The special is an interesting mix of art styles and while obviously not done on a huge budget, practically screams vintage Gainax creativity. The metaphysical elements of the story are interesting – “Dragons cry with their teeth” being central to it. These young dentists must see their own death and accept it before they’re accepted by the dragons, and somehow it seems as if the dragons’ teeth are a gateway between this world and the next. Indeed, the way it deals with death is one of the more interesting elements in this first episode.
As compared to Death Billiards though, it doesn’t feel as if there was an entire massive story crafted in this universe, just waiting to be unleashed – Dragon Dentist by contrast seems rather unfinished. There are a lot of interesting ideas here but they’re not especially well put-together as a cohesive whole, and if there’s a central theme holding the story together I don’t find it to be apparent. But as a one-off (well – two-off) I think it brings plenty to the table, and the visuals alone are well worth the price of admission. The Dragon Dentist is more an amalgam of fascinating concepts than an actual story, but if the aim was to create something that breaks the increasingly predictable mold of production committee anime, I think the mission is mostly accomplished.