TW/DISCLAIMERS: This piece is mostly centered around The Dragon Dentist’s discourse on death and refers to suicide. Some of the image links contain war imagery as well. Use your best judgment if you think either of these things will affect you.
Obviously this also contains spoilers for The Dragon Dentist, so if you haven’t seen it yet, consider spending your next 90 minutes doing that, then coming back to this. And of course, this is my (Yatahaze’s) own personal reflection on the series and not necessarily reflective of everyone else here at For Great Justice.
“The ocean breathes salty / Won’t you carry it in? / In your head, in your mouth, in your soul / And maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll both grow old / Well, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know / I hope so.”
– Modest Mouse, “Ocean Breathes Salty”
It’s been a good year for anime so far. Immediately upon finishing The Dragon Dentist, I was left awestruck and lost for words, and that’s not the first time that’s happened to me with this medium in 2017. But unlike say, Your Name. or Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu’s second season, The Dragon Dentist was far from something I’d consider “perfect.” It had slippery direction, loose exposition, and seemed unrepentant in its effort to tell a story that branched out in multiple directions without specifically focusing on one.
And yet I felt just as affected by it as I did those other works, and I haven’t seen much talk about it, so I want to take this chance to advertise it to people who may not have seen it as well as express why I feel like it’s got more soul than may first be apparent. As I started to process my thoughts, the aforementioned verse from Modest Mouse’s 2004 single “Ocean Breathes Salty” sprang to mind. Some of the similarities are obvious; here we have a series all about death and rebirth, topics which the song also revolves around. The tortured optimism of Studio Khara head and The Dragon Dentist executive producer Hideaki Anno doesn’t feel all that different from the cynical apathy of Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock either. And somewhere in this messy comparison (which I may or may not be stretching to fulfill my own desire to see more musical references in the anime community) lies what I eventually concluded to be the heart of The Dragon Dentist: a cathartic refusal to accept fate, and whatever consequences that carries in tow.
Only it’s not really advocating disregarding fate, which is weird when you think about how common that sort of individualist, carpe diem perspective is in a lot of empowering art. What makes The Dragon Dentist such a unique, fascinating watch is that despite how it occupies a much more dreary, helpless tone than its themes or controversial, unresolved ending would suggest, it’s still ultimately an empowering story.
That said, it also isn’t the most straightforward one when it comes to worldbuilding, and I’m gonna have to reiterate some key points before I really dive headfirst into my takeaway from it. Thankfully, only three of its more whimsical details are absolutely necessary for context in this piece. First, as far as I can tell, the dragons are revered, deified figures who can never be fully understood, capable of both devastating destruction and otherworldly grace. Second, the dragon’s teeth can both take life and give it away. From them come leftover spoils of war, ranging from material possessions to abstracted experiences to whole reborn bodies. To keep the dragon’s mouth clean, those who have been chosen by it become “dentists,” scrubbing away the muck and standing guard should some nastier “cavities” start wreaking havoc. Like monks at a monastery, the dentists’ daily lives are structured around their piety to the dragons, and only the pure of heart are accepted in; in fact, candidates who resist the dragons’ “fate” during their test never come back out. They’re “brave,” in dentist captain Godou’s words, but attempting to blur the line between divine will and choice. Which brings us to the third hook of the show: that these dentists are “reborn” with the knowledge of how they’ll die and expected to never discuss it.
I emphasize that last bit especially because for a show set in any other world, the cruel embrace of death can be swift and horrible in part because there’s no way to tell when it will arrive. In The Dragon Dentist, this is not true for the dentists, but they nonetheless refuse to divulge the circumstances of their impending doom with anyone else in the group. Part of these peoples’ way of life is the presumption that when someone among them passes, their time was predestined and nothing could have changed the outcome. To us, similar responses can be found in the comfort of religion. “It was their time,” is uttered verbatim in The Dragon Dentist the same way it is as words of well-intended sympathy by religious people everywhere. It’s a way to cope because nothing can verify or deny the faith held in that statement as truth or falsity. But for the dentists, with the knowledge of death comes the idea that you can evade it, and two figures central to the story challenge their group’s casual acceptance of the end.
One is Shibana, one of the eldest dentists, who for twelve years has internally mourned the death of her crush Takemoto, a stoic man who brutally met his demise in an incident that nearly wiped out the entire dentist crew. Ever since then, she’s been slowly breaking away from their passive philosophy, nurturing a cavity in the dragon’s gums which eventually turns her into a “monster” herself. She sides as an agent with the dentists’ enemies with the goal of eventually rushing back into the dragon’s teeth in a twisted, cavity-like form just to see her long lost crush again. Shibana essentially refuses to move on from her trauma, wishing not only to die but also to take out the rest of the dentists with her instead of living out the remainder of her empty life, waiting for the day when she can be re-united with her love.
And through sheer willpower, she gets there, but it doesn’t exactly go as planned.
Turning the attention back to “Ocean Breathes Salty,” it’s worth a clarification that the song is – by most people’s interpretation – an atheist’s take on the futility of suicide. The bridge, quoted above, contains some of my favorite lyrics ever, and they’re a perfect representation of the duality behind The Dragon Dentist’s approach to fate. In Shibana’s case, she returns to the teeth not as a denial of the life she had been granted, but as a longing for that life to feel revitalized. She’s making a conscious decision to part with the world that can only be understood through a lens of something more hopeful being there on the other side. And while she does relive a moment with Takemoto again, she also can’t simply forget his absence.
She certainly tries, but the world inside the teeth refuses to let her. If the teeth are to be taken as symbolic of the origins of life, Shibana plunging into their depths with the hope of reviving Takemoto was an impossible act from the start. As Godou tries explaining to her; “he’s gone, but your memories of him will live on. You can love like that too.” The heartbreak may follow Shibana around forever, but will throwing away her remaining life actually reunite her with the thing she desires? From the looks of it, the answer is no, and without getting too preachy, I think it’s safe to say that while The Dragon Dentist doesn’t go out of its way to humanize her, it also doesn’t belittle her for this misguided attempt. With her own suicide of sorts a failure, Shibana declares she’ll keep trying to destroy this way of life until she succeeds. Will she? Who’s to say? I just hope she finds some peace.
Which brings us to Bell, the other main character who attempts to defy the dentists’ ideology. He isn’t a dentist, but a yomigaeri, or “bad omen,” a weak-willed soldier from the enemy side who died making a stand when his squadron abandoned their captain. He was murdered as his own men turned on him, but he had the chance to pull the trigger first and couldn’t work up the nerve to. When he’s first revived on the dragon, he’s confused and frustrated with himself, bemoaning his own existence. The dentists remind him that nobody asks to be born in the first place, and wasting his rebirth seems as foolish as wasting his first life.
Timid and hesitant, Bell doesn’t accept his own second chance very easily; he’s shown early on lacking the resolve to speak or even feed himself, all while carrying a knife under his uniform like the manifestation of a way out that he’s too nervous to follow through on. Although he’s otherwise treated like a dentist and performs the same caretaking roles as the others, Bell doesn’t know how he’ll die like they do, and everyone else’s lackadaisical attitude towards this astonishes him. For much of his character arc, he remains a meek figure, dragged along by his much more stubborn, energetic companion Nonoko. Through working alongside the dentists, he starts seeing fleeting happiness in small moments; daily chores, strangers suggesting that he and Nonoko look like a couple, all hints of a future life where he can sustain these morsels of fulfillment he’s discovered.
But the struggle never leaves him; unlike Shibana, who wanted to end her life to regain bliss, Bell never knew such a thing, and he’s bewildered by those who don’t view death as just another menacing aspect of life to be dreaded. It’s an obstacle he can’t overcome easily, especially as his rebirth has given him a life he actually wants to embrace. At one point, fearful of getting swept back into the war, he leaves Nonoko’s company on their search to reboard the dragon, his actions dictated by a lack of confidence and sustained dissonance with the dentists’ way of life. And while he does grow a bit on this adventure and finds his way back to the dragon after all, by series’ end, he still can’t harbor any murderous intent, even when threatened by the same man who killed him before. He was once scoffed at for not being violent, but on the dragon he found a place where (if not explicitly loved) he wasn’t hated.
Bell never accepts “fate,” but he is able to internalize the vastly different circumstances of his first and second lives and come to some sense of peace with that disparity. Ironically, he’s one of the few named characters (so not counting the swathes of armymen) who dies in The Dragon Dentist, but not before he starts to realize he can live. In sacrificing himself to summon the dragon’s wrath lies implicit his own acknowledgement that he even contained a life to abandon in the first place.
One of the few consistent complaints I have seen leveled against The Dragon Dentist regards the third and final character I want to touch on in-depth: Blanco, the man who killed Bell. Best characterized by his utter fearlessness in the face of danger and a knowledge about the dragons that rivals those currently on board the one we see throughout the series, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assume that he was a dentist himself at one point. Such a past would explain how informed he is as well as why he doesn’t cower when threatened by gunfire or, you know, his plane crashing. He knows how he will pass, and if the harrowing situation he finds himself in doesn’t align with his vision, then he has nothing to worry about, since he’ll live to see another day. But instead of Shibana’s personal motive for disrupting the dentists’ lives, his is one of hardline secularity; he sees how the country’s pact with the dragons has perpetuated the unbalanced odds of the war, and he knows that by removing its wisdom teeth – vestigial connections to a past it wouldn’t miss – the dentists and their allies can be stripped of their upper hand…and their beliefs.
And it’s vital to note that those allied with the dragons have troops of their own – one particularly loaded exchange early in the first episode shows Godou sparring with the military commander Okawa over whether or not they should interrogate Bell. “It’ll save lives on our side,” Okawa tries guilt-tripping the dentist, but he doesn’t fall for it. In his response, we can imply that his view on the matter is in line with the “Dragon Code.” Such a thing isn’t mentioned again throughout the series, but it can be inferred that this philosophy, be it in scripture or ethics, stresses the sanctity of life to be able to live to its fullest, which is also why the dragon lashes out with unfettered accuracy at those with the resolve to kill later in the series, sparing battlefield medics and Bell himself during the final showdown. Like pretty much all world religions, its adherents can act violently or peacefully on its behalf, but only the compassionate reap any rewards.
Though he scorns the continuation of this war, Blanco himself is fine with doing the killing. His “death” – if that is indeed what happens during that ambiguous final sequence – seems intended to leave a sour taste in the mouth; Blanco spent the better part of his life looking for a way to dissolve other people’s faith, and while much of The Dragon Dentist posits the idea that religion is a crutch, it also doesn’t grant him any glory as a martyr trying to bring about its downfall, especially against a group who practice non-violence.
Does he achieve his cause? Well, in the aftermath of this whole fiasco, Shibana proclaims that she won’t give up on her rebellion, Bell’s unfired gun reappears among the teeth’s rubble, and Nonoko, whose death we vicariously witness earlier in the film, doesn’t come to pass before the series ends. The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems. But an in medias res snippet of a future world opens the second episode, and based off that, we can see there is eventually a time when the war is resolved under treaty and the dragons become prohibited from militaristic use. The culture of both parties hasn’t changed, and it’s entirely possible that strife will erupt once again, but in this chronological end of the series, tenuous coexistence is as optimistic a glimpse as we get.
As I’ve mentioned, The Dragon Dentist has seen its fair share of criticism online and I wouldn’t argue that all of it is unjustified. Beyond the occasional sketchy CG scenes, many of these themes and overt plot points I’ve touched on are open-ended, a side effect of the series mostly sticking to total immersion worldbuilding. That may play to your tastes or it may not, but understand that it seems to know what it wants to leave the viewer with when all is said and done: a visceral gut-punch and the pointed suggestion that throwing away your life is the worst thing you can do, even if you feel you have nothing to live for. Maintaining that optimism is easier said than done in a world at war, and the world of The Dragon Dentist isn’t exactly brightened by humor or leisure. Its characters just have to hold on and press through. The series doesn’t punctuate this point; it just kind of…ends, and with an unspoken resoluteness in its message that practically borders on insensitivity. Sometimes people can’t just float on okay, but there’s something refreshing and cathartic in that idealism, especially in the face of a world which doesn’t merit that sort of positive outlook.
Perhaps that’s what I found so powerful about The Dragon Dentist and why I strongly recommend it to anyone who’s overlooked it. We’re all human. We’ll all live. We’ll all die. And while you could abruptly mess with your expiration date, there’s no guarantee the alternative to the life you have now will be any better. Maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll all live again, but I don’t know.
I hope so too, but like Isaac Brock, I’m not holding my breath for something beyond the point where ocean meets sky.