We’re on the cusp of the avalanche of new material that is an anime spring season. And while most of it won’t be very good (that’s a given in pretty much any season) it’s going to take a while to sort out what it and what isn’t (and what might be, but it’s too early to tell). Premiere weeks are exhausting, so I figured if I was going to get Ryuu no Haisha covered, it was going to have to be right now. And while far from a masterpiece, it’s certainly both significant and worthwhile, and deserves to be discussed.
It’s funny – The Dragon Dentist is an anime I find myself wanting to love, but not quite being able to. It’s as close to a Gainax anime as we’re going to get these days, and it has the FLCL team of Tsurumaki Kazuya and Enokido Youji handling the major creative roles. And it’s quite a spectacle, full of the iconic imagery classic Gainax was rightfully renowned for and built around a very interesting premise. But I still feel now as I did after the first episode – The Dragon Dentist is a fascinating and sometimes beautiful mess, but still a mess. It’s more a collection of interesting semi-related ideas than a cohesive story.
Is there enough here for a Ryuu no Haisha series? Absolutely, and I’ve love to see it – if for no other reason than to see Khara dip their toe into the series TV pool. But I’d want that series to get the concepts and back story better organized and more elegantly presented. There are a ton of questions posed by the specials that aren’t answered, that’s for sure. The prologue to this episode suggests a tie-in with our world – that sure as hell looked like a modern airliner. But the combat on the ground looks more like WW II-era than anything else, and obviously the existence of the dragons is a huge unexplained wildcard.
Many questions are posed by the presence of Salvatore Bianco (Matsuo Suzuki, another FLCL connection). He’s a soldier from Bell’s country – the one who killed him in a mutiny, in fact. He seems to know an awful lot about dragons – more than the dentists themselves – and for some reason seems to be immune to gunfire and other sundry weapons of destruction. He leads us to the high temple of dragon worship, where the “Wisdom Tooth” is kept – the one tooth that can be extracted without causing the dragons pain (that’s a clever bit of symbolism wrapped in a pun). That tooth is the key to the “pact” between Nonoko’s country and the dragons – fair enough, but how does Bianco know that? And why can’t he die by any conventional means? There are no answers forthcoming – not yet anyway.
There’s a lot of rather grand and memorable stuff interspersed through all this – big set pieces involving cavity mushi and Indiana Jones-style chase and fight scenes and lots and lots of death, all presented in a fashion that’s a testament to how a sense of style can transcend a lack of budget. And there’s a ton of Buddhist philosophy woven into the premise as well – musing on the nature of life, death and rebirth and the meaning of all of them. It’s a heady mix, to be sure, but even now I’m not sure what it all adds up to.
In the final analysis The Dragon Dentist stands way, way above your average TV anime. It’s certainly not formulaic, and apart from Nonoko being pretty much a generic spunky female lead it’s not overly weighed down by tropes. In Tsurmaki-sensei’s hands it displays tremendous visual flair and near-perfect pacing. It’s both good and noteworthy, but there’s a Cliff’s Notes quality to it – as if it’s presenting only the highlights of the narrative rather than the entire thing. I like it a lot, I love having Tsurumaki and Enokido back in action, and I hope it signals the start of Khara’s evolution beyond “The Eva studio”. But it would be wrong to say I found it to be fully satisfying in its own right. One way or another, perhaps The Dragon Dentist is most important as a precursor to something bigger and better – just as the original short was.