Shelf Life The Dragon Dentist
by Paul Jensen, Gabriella Ekens,
You know the overused comedy scene where a character sprints at full tilt toward a bus stop or train station, only to watch helplessly as their chosen form of transportation rolls away without them? That actually happened to me a couple days ago. I probably would've shouted a dramatic line about cursing the gods of public transit, but I was completely out of breath at the time. Commuting is fun. Welcome to Shelf Life.
Jump to this week's review:
The Dragon Dentist
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Shelf Life Reviews
The Dragon Dentist combines a unique premise with some serious creative talent, but is the end result any good? Gabriella finds out in this week's review.
The Dragon Dentist appears to be the brainchild of one Otaro Maijo, a prolific novelist who's also worked in illustration and filmmaking. This guy seems to be a pretty big deal, but few of his written works have been translated into English, unfortunately. The most famous thing he's done is probably JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Jorge Joestar, a JJBA spinoff novel infamous for its sheer lunacy, even by that series' bombastic standards. He seems to like going high-concept with his fiction, which is totally evident throughout The Dragon Dentist. This premise could have easily fallen apart, but an easy sense of humor alongside strong visual worldbuilding does a lot to establish this as a cohesive world right away. This aspect of the work is impressive, and it also succeeds more than the actual plot, which is bogged down by pacing and exposition issues.
Basically, the story is just a little too ambitious for what it could accomplish in a 90-minute runtime. This film (it's basically a movie split in half to air as two episodes on TV) functions as an expanded version of an ONA short and suffers from the sorts of problems that I tend to see in these transitions. (Looking at you, Kyousougiga.) That is to say it's a bunch of good ideas handled by folks who don't quite know how to convey everything that they came up with. Unlike a lot of similar cases, at least the plot does make sense and the whole thing doesn't completely fall apart at the end. It's a little loosey-goosey and does start to lose itself in the requisite Crazy Anime Climax, but I don't think it's badly put together, all things considered.
Of course, it turns out that this thing was also co-scripted by Yoji Enokido. As far as Enokido goes, he's written some great stuff (FLCL, Diebuster, Revolutionary Girl Utena), but he's been on a serious downward slump lately. I hope that this script's overall competence is indicative of a return to form for him. (His last work, Captain Earth, was pretty damn incomprehensible.) The story at least comes together thematically. It's very Buddhist in its conception of death and preoccupations with the danger of unhealthy attachment. Due to their magical initiation, dentists know how they're going to die beforehand. The male protagonist, fledgling dentist Bell, struggles with the idea of living alongside knowledge of his final fate, a trait he shares with the film's villain. Its ending is extremely Evangelion, with the characters learning that it's a bad idea to try and mess with gods in an attempt to avoid the inevitability of death and loss. Dentistry – with its metaphors for corruption and hidden infestation within a healthy organism – turns out to be a pretty good metaphor for the festering psychological issues that this film (and coincidentally, Evangelion) are about.
This is appropriate, since the film was made by Hideaki Anno's own studio, Studio Khara. On this front, the production showcases some of its best talent, and it's nice to see apply themselves to imagery that isn't already iconic. Director Kazuya Tsurumaki co-directed the original Neon Genesis Evangelion, the remakes, and FLCL as a whole. While Anno overshadows him in terms of credit on the production, these credentials are enough to make him a legend in his own right. The skills gained from several decades in this environment are fully on display throughout this film. The design work is sharp, the direction evocative, and the action thrilling. As per usual, the whole thing ends in a big dramatic orgy of crazy monster stuff. Unfortunately, the latter half begins to rely pretty heavily on CG, which drags the action down somewhat. The storyboarding and choreography remain excellent, though. If you're interested in the sheer artistry of Japanese animated filmmaking, then this is a worthwhile film.
Sentai's release is barren for extras. It comes with a dub, which is functional though not particularly impressive. I found Xanthe Huynh to be somewhat stilted as main girl Nonoko, while Xander Mobus was solid as leading man Bell.
Overall, my main takeaway from The Dragon Dentist is that it was a good way to catch up with a number of talented anime creators. Some great people worked on this, and I'd like to see how they'd approach a more comprehensive work. As a standalone film, however, The Dragon Dentist gets bogged down by production limitations and pacing issues in the second half, though it does remain generally enjoyable throughout. I look forward to seeing more from these guys – that is, if they ever get out of the purgatory that is pre-production on that fourth Rebuild of Evangelion film.
That wraps up the review section for this week. Thanks for reading!
I didn't get any Shelf Obsessed submissions in time to run in this week's column, so we don't have any lovely anime collections to marvel at this time around. If you'd like to show off your own collection, send me your photos at [email protected]!
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