Kazuya Tsurumaki on his film.
Kazuya Tsurumaki is known for FLCL, Gunbuster 2, and the Rebuild of Evangelion series, among others. He got involved with The Dragon Dentist (streaming now on All4) after meeting the original writer Otaro Maijo on Japan Animator Expo in 2014. Using the short pilot film screened at that time, this new 90-minute feature was created with additional stories and characters. Many people must have been surprised by the fantastic world of the dragon and the depiction of the dentists. We asked Mr Tsurumaki about the world of the production behind the scenes, and the must-see elements that lead into the second half of the film, which was originally broadcast in two sections.
The Dragon Dentist released within Japan Animator Expo was a short film of about seven minutes, hinted at an amazing backstory that had the potential of a full-length feature. Did you already see the possibility of making a 90-minute film in the future?
Mr Maijo might have been planning it, but at the time of the Expo collection, I didn’t know anything about it. The short film in the anthology was all there was. I didn’t even know simple things like what it was that dragon dentists actually did. Those things show up in the feature-length anime, but the original short merely showed a glimpse of a single day in the life of a dragon dentist.
Mr Maijo came up with the story that slotted before and after the original film, and then I found out for the first time the background. That there was a giant dragon, with a power beyond human understanding, which protects the nation. The only weak point for the dragon is the strange-shaped creatures called Cavity Worms. And to protect the dragon’s teeth, the dragon dentists fight an endless battle against the Cavity Worms! Then I was convinced, although also a bit surprised… so… that’s what the dragon dentists are doing!
Although Nonoko and Godo appeared (in the original short), many new characters have been added, such as senior dentists Shibana, Sotatsu and Shuzo, Bell the ‘revenant’, and Branco who appears at the end.
Yes, I thought we would change the design and everything else, and their personalities started to come through when turning it into a longer anime. There are some young female dentists such as Nonoko, but watching it again, I found myself thinking that there are many middle-aged men! Young animators are used to drawing cute girls and cool boys and good at drawing them, but they might have struggled to draw many middle-aged men.
Regarding the dentists’ work and life, every element is interesting, even down to the place where they eat and the kind of tools they use.
The building where the dragon dentists live hangs under the dragon’s jaw. That was Mr Maijo’s idea. There’s a massive building on the dragon’s back, so I thought at first that they slept there. It looks like the deck of a ship, so situating a building there is easy. So I said: sorry, but please put them on the back. But then I thought about it a bit more, and thought it might actually be more interesting to put it under the jaw. I took my idea to an architect I know, and asked him if he thought it was possible. He said: “Well, that’s interesting…” He didn’t say it was “possible”, though! So I thought I would try.
So we’ve got all these individual foundation units made with hanging wooden trusses, and each has a hut on it. They have flexible links just like the connections between the carriages on a train. Even when the dragon moves and swings, everything copes with the stresses by moving along with it. I designed them with the idea that such buildings could be habitable, even under a dragon’s jaw.
I had trouble coming up with a way to depict the Cavity Worms. As for the dentistry tools, I could use human orthodontics as a reference, but… Well, the Cavity Worms were difficult to fit. It was too broad a concept. Some are like plants, and others like animals, and some are simply bacteria. Some are even like something out of this world, and I wondered how I could explain their movements to the animators.
And there’s even a comical one like the Kaburi-mushi that rubbed against Bell.
I wanted to put some cute elements in it, so I explained to the staff that ‘basically, they are yokai [Japanese spirits].’ There are many different yokai and some of them are cute, aren’t they? Pill bugs are insects, not yokai, but they are gross to some people, even though they also have some cuteness about them. I wanted to express that. It’s important to have a grossness or an icky feel, but at the same time, can we express some cuteness? That’s how I talked about it with the designers and the animators.
This is a piece with life and death as its theme. For example, there’s a character killed in battle who comes back from the dead, and Nonoko and the other dentists know through “Kitarukiwa”, the moment of their death. There is a sense in the background of being suspended in a limbo between life and death.
The “pale background”, either in the depiction of the sky or on the dragon teeth, was done deliberately considering the story. For example, Khara’s Rebuild of Evangelion series has all kinds of fine details drawn in the background. This time, I wanted to do a style that wouldn’t have been possible in Eva. I love that kind of art, too, but it was a challenge.
It has many blank spaces, so people who are used to watching recent anime with lots of fine details might find it unsatisfactory, but animation is nothing but pictures, so it’s important for us to make choices about what we focus on and what we leave out. That’s an art style that you don’t see a lot these days, but I thought it would work in combination with modern pictures.
In the first half, the opening is a powerful sea battle, which surprised audiences. It was an unexpected direction with no dragons or dentists.
I feel attached to the pre-title scene. It’s one of the things I’ve wanted to do for a long time – a scene of rival battleships in combat. Ever since I was a child I’ve liked war stories, and after Space Cruiser Yamato went big, I used to draw these perspective diagrams of a battleship, pointing out where the captain slept and where the crew’s cabins were! I love things like that, and it’s really how I got into drawing, so I wanted to do it someday.
The second half has surprises, too. The beginning of the second half was not included in Mr Maijo’s script, but I thought the scene would expand the worldview of The Dragon Dentist. I am looking forward to the viewers’ reactions.
Dragon Dentist is streaming in the UK on Channel 4’s All4 streaming service.