It's not everyday that I get to revisit a show that impacted me years ago. Occasionally I'll go back and watch a full series to complete a partial review. But other than that, it's always a matter of moving forward. I rarely get to revist my favorites unless I get to show them to my kids -- and thankfully, my oldest son is quickly developing a taste for shows like Kiki's Delivery Service. But Dragon's Century is different. I had the opportunity in the early 1990's to get an unsubtitled copy of the first of the two OVAs that make up the story. While it wasn't the easiest thing to understand, I found myself fascinated with a unique tale of dragons in the modern world. Coming around nearly 15 years later, I finally found a translated copy of the complete show. (While it was released by U.S. Renditions in 1996, it seemed to disappear almost immediately, as the lack of reviews on the Internet attests.) While it isn't an incredibly strong title -- each episode is simply too short to give the material enough narrative depth -- it still strikes me as an exciting experiment the likes of which we rarely see.
In episode 1, "God Chapter," it's 1990. Dragons mysteriously start appearing around the world and are blamed for a number of deaths. The Japanese armed forces, nervous about the creatures and their intent, have taken on a "kill 'em all" approach to the scaly beasts. Enter Riko. She's a lonely teenage redhead who's deeply troubled. In her youthful depression, she describes life like something out of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes...everything is meaningless. If only her school and city and world would go away...
As she's walking in downtown Tokyo one day, a dragon is shot out of the sky and drops to the pavement below. Out of the dragon's arms falls an egg, which hatches as its dying mother watches. While the militia takes down the beast, Riko escapes with the youngling. She raises it and names it Carmine. She takes care of it for a short while until the leader of the anti-dragon unit notices her in a videotape of the incident. As it turns out, though, the dragons are the least of Earth's worries. The dragons are actually the only defense humanity has against a huge demon invasion. When Carmine finds his voice, he explains this to Riko, and she eventually must join him in a battle against the evil sprites that will determine Tokyo's fate.
Skip to the second episode, "Devil Chapter," set in RC297. It appears we are on Earth, but if so, it's a far-flung post-apocalyptic wasteland. In this era, dragons are still everywhere, but they have settled far away from humanity. But sometimes, a human can gain control of a dragon by cutting off its horn; by dragon law, if you own the horn, the dragon must obey you. Most dragons caught this way wind up in gladitorial combat with their owners. This is where Rulishia comes in. She's a hotheaded warrior who wants to avenge her father's death at the hands of a murderous black dragon and his keeper. She finally gains the horn of the ancient Vermillion, and they start rising up the charts in their cage-match combat. But when an ancient foe returns, retribution will fall to the wayside as mysteries are revealed and survival becomes paramount.
Dragon's Century looks like a title you could easily pass up on the surface, and it appears many people did just that (assuming US Renditions actually got this out into stores). The animation wasn't great, even for its time; while it has surprising fluidity at moments, the character designs don't stand out and the muted colors aren't striking. The dragon designs are impressive, but the humans look pretty darn generic. They don't look bad, but they do look like every other second-tier '80s OVA you've ever seen.
What really makes this title worthwhile, especially the first episode, is its commitment to story, character, and concept. The chief selling point to me was always the unique "what if" concept of dragons in modern day society, and it's made more interesting by the dragons being the good guys. The show also has the guts to place a deeply depressed girl at its core and challenge her point of view. Angsty anime teens are all the rage now, but it's rare to see that perspective torn down rather than exalted, and it's even rarer in this particular era of pre-Evangelion anime. Both episodes stay focused on "a girl and her dragon," as it were, and that keeps the show focused. Dragon's Century takes no detours, which makes it an exciting watch. To top it all off, neither episode ends the way you'd expect, which is a plus in my book.
The show's breakneck pace is, however, a problem. Neither episode breaks the 25 minute mark (not including the credits). That means that some things simply happen too quickly. Carmine's ability to speak Japanese at just the right time is credibility-stretching to say the least; he says he "remembered how," but how can a newly born dragon remember what he's never learned? Reincarnation, perhaps? In the second episode, it means that the final showdown is over far too quickly and feels tacked on. There is something to be said for the show being so jam-packed, as it makes it feel like a fully-realized world beyond what we are seeing, but there's a certain sense of "is that all?" that I felt as each episode concluded.
To be honest, I was a little disappointed in "Devil Chapter" for a few reasons. The setting is more like a fantasy world than even a post-apocalyptic, which removes the real-world conceit I liked so much from the first OVA. Rulishia is a simpler, more cliched heroine. And maybe it's me, but dragons in cage matches really don't interest me all that much. What makes the second episode worth viewing are its links to the first, which give it gravitas it doesn't really earn on its own. It lives a bit too much on anime conventions for my taste.
That said, what still strikes me is just how unique an anime this is. It feels like two animated chapters from a much larger saga we just aren't privy to. On one hand, it makes for disappointment since we get to see only a tiny snippet of this war raging between the demons and dragons. On the other hand, I am surprised by the ambition behind this show. It takes risks. Not all of them work. There are things that aren't really necessary, like the excessive graphic violence, and the radical change between the two eras doesn't really fly. But if you have the opportunity to catch this show on YouTube or an ancient videotape someday, I'd say it's worth the effort. I wouldn't pay the $35 that some folks on Amazon are asking for the American VHS release, but I was entertained by this messy and intriguing piece of long-forgotten anime history.
P.S. If you'd like to read the original review on this material to see how my view changed, if at all, you can find it here. A minor amount of the description carried over to this review, but it is unique otherwise.
Dragon's Century -- graphic violence -- B+