The coolest trip to the dentist ever
Animator Expo, the 2014 series of eclectic creator-driven animated shorts from Hideaki Anno’s Studio Khara (Rebuild of Evangelion), is chock full of succinct, brilliant ideas for animated projects. And though the Expo is over, its tendrils are still spreading. “Endless Night,” Sayo Yamamoto’s male figure skating short, became the international smash hit Yuri on Ice. Trigger’s Akira Amemiya is working a follow-up to his “Gridman” short. Now the first Animator Expo short, Kazuya Tsurumaki’s “The Dragon Dentist,” has a two-episode TV special!
Clocking in at just 90 minutes between two 45-minute episodes, The Dragon Dentist is delightfully concise, which should come as no surprise to fans of Tsurumaki’s most famous work, the six-episode OVA FLCL. In an alternate retelling of World War II (presumably, though the war and the nations involved are never explicitly called out), Japan uses giant flying dragons to support its troops in battle. But the dragons’ teeth are their greatest weakness, so the military works with “dragon dentists” who keep the creatures healthy. Spunky teenage girl Nonoko works as a dentist, scurrying around a dragon’s massive teeth and fighting off bug-like monsters called “cavity mushi” that plague them. But there’s more to it than simple cleaning—the teeth also serve as mysterious portals to the underworld. An enemy soldier named Bell emerges from the teeth one day, seemingly resurrected by the dragon, and joins Nonoko as a dentist.
There’s an unexpectedly heavy story hiding beneath the seemingly whimsical premise of The Dragon Dentist, but what it will surely be remembered for is its stellar art direction and animation. The conflict between the violence of war and the spirituality of the dentists finds visual expression in the costume and prop design: the traditional garb and religious rituals of the dentists vs. the buttoned-up rigidity of the military. Where the militaries both use guns as weapons, the dentists fight mushi with red staffs that they transmute into scythes, spears, and more, not unlike the blood-based magic of Kyoto Animation’s Beyond the Boundary. The character designs bear more than a passing resemblance to the bright, cartoony characters of FLCL as well. Tying it all together is the excellent color design of Akemi Nagao (responsible for Trigger’s “Gridman” and “Sex & Violence with Machspeed” entries in Animator Expo), who steeps the series in muted earth tones, throwing in occasional flashes of bright red.
But it’s when the characters move that The Dragon Dentist gets really fun. Like Trigger, Khara is made up of ex-Gainaxers, and the animation in the series—both in action scenes and elsewhere—is every bit as exuberant as you’d expect from their old studio. The teeth and the dentists’ weapons provide ample opportunities for inventive, high-flying fight choreography as characters and monsters slide down the sides of teeth and hop between the upper and lower rows.
Much of this animation is created using traditional 2D animation, but Khara also happens to be the home of some of the best 3D animators in the business. Hiroyasu Kobayashi, director of the CG-animated “Cassette Girl” (one of the highlights of Animator Expo), serves as CG supervisor, and the snappy, ambitious CG animation looks so close to the 2D that at times it’s tough to tell the difference. The opening naval battle is particularly impressive, as is a horseback chase sequence full of springy 3D character animation.
Narratively The Dragon Dentist has a lot of cool ideas and some memorable characters, but it’s a little unfocused. The bad guys’ motivations are never quite clear and there are a few too many unanswered questions by the end, but thankfully Tsurumaki’s brisk pacing and knack for comedic timing keep it all moving even when it doesn’t make a ton of sense. The lore surrounding the dragons is agonizingly vague, but it also lends the story a certain sense of melancholy and mystique. Though nobody mentions it in the dialogue, it can feel like the dentists are simultaneously doctors and cemetery caretakers, shuffling between rows of white stones that house the spirits of the dead.
I’m a little disappointed that we’re only getting 90 minutes of The Dragon Dentist, since it sets up a rich world that begs to be explored in more detail. If we’re lucky it could get the Little Witch Academia TV treatment (it certainly seems like a Netflix-friendly show), but for now we’ll have to settle for two highly enjoyable, beautifully animated TV specials. Recommended.
Studio/company: Sentai Filmworks