In an alternate reality where an enormous dragon surfs the sky above a war-torn Japan a plucky girl named Nonoko (voiced by Fumika Shimizu) lives on its back as part of a community of 'Dragon Dentists.' Their job is to protect their guardian from tooth-cavity bacteria before it turns into deadly demonic beasts called Mushi. One day, as the war on the ground grows increasingly fierce, Nonoko finds in the dragon's tooth an unconscious boy soldier from the enemy country. His name is Bell (Nobuhiko Okamoto) and he has been resurrected inside the tooth by the dragon, a supernatural phenomenon that, according to legend, occurs before a major disaster. Despite this Nonoko takes a shine to Bell. Adopted as her partner, Bell works with the team and learns the finer points of dragon dentistry while pondering his uncertain future. When an unexpected betrayal plunges the world into chaos, Nonoko and Bell must team up to save both the dragon and all of humanity.
The latest offering from fan-boy favorites Studio Gainax achieves the remarkable feat of turning dentistry into a potent metaphor for the karmic cycle of life, death and rebirth. On the surface The Dragon Dentist is a rip-roaring fantasy adventure with a great concept: a co-dependent civilization living on top of a dragon. As designed by Gainax stalwart Shinji Higuchi - visual effects specialist on the Gamera trilogy and latterly director behind Hidden Fortress - The Last Princess (2008) and Attack on Titan: The Movie - Part 1 (2015) - the dragon is an awe-inspiring, unearthly presence. Yet The Dragon Dentist is less interested in huge flying monsters than human beings with relatable dreams and anxieties.
On one level the plot reaffirms the traditional Japanese notion that duty endows people with a sense of purpose. Something that stands in contrast to how most westerners reject the idea that our jobs defines who we are as people. Yet what drives the story is a clash of two equally flawed ideological standpoints: those that blindly accept fate as predetermined for the greater good and those that place their emotional needs above those of others'. While the dragon dentists are trained to accept death as an inescapable part of existence, Nonoko's mentor Shibana (Megumi Hayashibara, Japan's most popular anime voice-actress) is driven to wreck the system for the sake of avenging a lost love. The story deftly interweaves some heady philosophical ideas about life and death, love and war and the importance of compassion as well as striving to improve as human beings. It combines the wonder and adventure of a Steven Spielberg film with the mind-bending conceptual SF of Stanley Kubrick, right down to a trippy 2001: A Space Odyssey-like sequence where one character dives into the dragon's tooth. On the downside the ambitious, deliberately fragmented storytelling occasionally renders its many ideas too slippery to grasp on first viewing.
Epic in scale, The Dragon Dentist exhibits a level of imaginative world-building more often found in a feature film. Yet in fact it premiered on Japan's NHK network via two brisk forty-five minute episodes. Such is its scope and ambition one would not be surprised if Gainax were to expand this into a movie at some later date. In fact it is based on an eight-minute short directed by Otaro Maijo who here takes a screenwriting credit and hands directing duties over to Kazuya Tsurumaki, the genius behind FLCL (2000). Like many a Gainax production, The Dragon Dentist constructs an elaborate mythology with admirable economy, cramming illusions to ancient folklore, existential philosophy, pop culture and history. Aspects recall the studio's groundbreaking classic The Wings of Honneamise (1987), in particular setting this fantasy yarn against the backdrop of an alternate reality war. In this instance seemingly part-inspired by the Russo-Japanese conflict of 1904-05. Chief protagonist Nanako is a gutsy yet graceful and appealing warrior maiden in the tradition of Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), a key touchstone for Gainax staffers, while the conflicted, introspective Bell is reminiscent of Shinji Ikari, male lead of Gainax's seminal franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). Its chief architect, Hideaki Anno is here credited as 'sound director.' On a technical level The Dragon Dentist artfully combines computer graphics with traditional animation. The results are routinely breathtaking, in particular the inventive, often tremendously visceral and exciting battles between badass dragon dentists and the shape-shifting ninja-like parasites. You will never look at tooth decay quite the same way again.