Dororo: Dark Fantasy Done Right

It is difficult to take an old piece of art and make it relevant to younger generations. To make Troy, they had to turn the Trojan War from a clash of demigods and kings into Orlando Bloom having a spot of romantic issues. I could argue the original Iliad is more interesting than the movie, but I’ll only have a chance once they finally make an anime about Achilles that doesn’t start with the word Fate.

When trying to update a story, you usually wind up with a lookalike (some might say ripoff) that fails to capture the spirit of the original. However, Dororo (2019) is certainly not that, and I have to specify 2019, as the series had a previous anime adaptation 50 years prior. The anime, coming from MAPPA, one of my personal favorite studios, had a heap of work in front of it if the series was going to be serviceable in the 21st century.

The manga, which ended in 1968, came from that strange period of manga where everything just looks like Astroboy. The series was pretty much defined by this whacky art style that couldn’t ever blend with the story of body horror and supernatural peril. The author kind of just mixes in a bizarre amount of cartoon hijinks to what would otherwise be a daunting dark fantasy. I really can’t recommend the manga, as it feels much too kid-friendly for the subject matter it is trying to portray, but that changes with the anime.

[the following contains moderate spoilers for Dororo (2019)]

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Hyakkimaru, what you get when you combine Tanjiro’s aesthetic, Edward Elric’s medical condition, and Ram’s deadpan.

Dororo, both the manga and anime, are about the cast-off firstborn son of a warlord in Japan’s Sengoku period (late 1400s to early 1600s, for those without a historical inclination). The warlord, Daigo, makes a pact with 12 demons (48 in the manga) to end famine in his land, and trades his son’s body in exchange for the demons’ protection. The child, Hyakkimaru, is cast down the river to die without his skin or sensory organs.

Despite this, he is found and taken in by a prosthetist who crafts a new body for him, as well as blades hidden beneath his detachable arms. Now a young man, Hyakkimaru sets off to find the demons who took his body from him, and slay them one by one, claiming a new piece of himself with each battle. Along the way, he is joined by a young thief named Dororo, who often acts as the swordsman’s eyes before he gets them back.

Now, getting your body back is hardly the most original concept in shonen anime, but you have to give them some slack since it was actually kind of novel when the manga was written. Besides, it doesn’t feel too similar to something like Fullmetal Alchemist, as getting his body back is less of an end goal and more of a gradual journey with frequent milestones. Hyakkimaru gets a new body part back with each demon slain, so it’s cathartic to watch him regain his senses or even his nervous system.

A majority of the series is dedicated to Hyakkimaru and Dororo traveling to a new town or settlement, finding the local demon, and reclaiming one of his lost pieces. The fights are all unique from one another, and the simple process of discovering the local demon is an investigative maneuver. There’s also a decent amount of character moments that helps develop the bond between the two leads, and it leads to them having a genuine relationship that drives the show, even when they’re separated.

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I don’t know why every anime leaves me with two more idiot children in need of protection, but here we are.

The monster-of-the-week formula might get old ordinarily, but the character drama and backstories have almost equal representation on the stage. The regular battles spice up the slow character development, and allows Hyakkimaru to display his specialized style of fighting. I mean, I know this is the third reference to Fullmetal Alchemist in a short period of time, but not a ton of protagonists fight with swords protruding from their arms, so excuse me for not having a large frame of reference. However, I sure have a lot more to say about how Dororo handles its worldbuilding and story structure.

Dororo takes place in a real time period of Japan, with the added elements of demons who both terrorize the country, and protect Daigo’s territory. However, the series dedicates itself to putting the viewer in the world that it dares to construct with its music, architectures, and locales. The Sengoku Period was one of near constant strife and conflict between petty warlords, and the show manages to slip in some sly social commentary in, along with building a believable representation of one of the harshest eras in Japanese history.

One of Dororo’s most powerful moments comes after Hyakkimaru regains his hearing and meets Mio, a girl who looks after disabled children who have been orphaned by the war. Mio works as a prostitute in the various army camps, but the children wish to start a rice paddy so as to support themselves. Hyakkimaru meets Mio by hearing her singing, and it is one of the most beautiful things he’s ever heard (not that there is a lot of competition). From that moment, Hyakkimaru and Dororo stay with the orphans and offer to help them by slaying the demon that blocks access to a nearby rice paddy.

However, this blissful yet meager existence is brought to a horrific end when the nearby army believes that Mio is working as a spy. Their full force comes down on the orphan camp while Hyakkimaru is away fighting the demon, and the deaths of so many innocents is a simple but effective way of conveying the utter brutality of the time. It’s not given as much time as it should have been, but it serves as a strong fortification of Hyakkimaru’s motivation to enact change in the world, and will later bolster the opposing side.

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But that comes in a little bit. The atmosphere is barren and desolate, and it is baked into Dororo on a structural level. It is as powerful as it is suffocating, and it can make the series a bit of a hard binge watch. However, the payoff for that emotional struggle results in an immersive experience that is challenging to replicate.

But that atmosphere would be nothing if it was not crafted to complement a story that can embrace that terrible era and build something meaningful out of it. The story of Dororo does that by evoking the classic Greek tragedies, specifically in how Hyakkimaru’s fate is determined by the sins of his father, and this creates an inevitable clash between he and his brother, Tahomaru. This fight against a predetermined end is common in most Greek tales, but the one that most closely resembles Dororo is that of Oedipus.

Oedipus Rex is the tragedy of the king of Thebes who was exiled as a newborn, prophesied to murder his father and marry his mother, and yet he unwittingly commits both of those crimes. A plague is brought unto his city as a result, and in penance he blinds himself and wanders the wilderness until his death. It’s a dreadful story likely intended to reinforce the narrative that the needs of the majority supersede that of the individual. Dororo, however, dares to defy that ideal.

As Hyakkimaru’s father traded his land’s prosperity in exchange for the boy’s body, it also means that the good fortune that has favored them for so long will disappear when Hyakkimaru’s body is restored. The famine and war that ravage the rest of Japan will soon come to their door if Hyakkimaru completes his work, and this fuels the motivation of his brother Tahomaru. As the heir to their father’s position, he has to seek out the best outcome for all their people, even if that means dooming his brother in the process.

This creates a complex motivation for the primary antagonist of the series, as well as one for their father. In the original manga, Daigo was more of a power-hungry lunatic who tortured his son out of pure lust for status. The story of the anime is changed so that he does it to subvert the famine in their land, it makes him far more empathetic. Despite that, the story clearly sides with Hyakkimaru, and that prosperity rooted in the oppression of others is a sham.

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Tahomaru’s eyebrows are the secret thirteenth demon.

Dororo manages to take a classic manga and convert it into an accessible narrative that otherwise would have driven away the modern anime viewer. It does this phenomenally through weaving together a bleak world and populating it with rich and complex characters. In addition, the series has a large amount of positives that I’ve skimmed over in favor of the most attractive features.

For one, Dororo’s presentation is stunning. The character designs, while all grounded, are each unique and endearing. The demons are creative and their fights are well-choreographed, as Hyakkimaru’s particular fighting style does demand alternate ways of slaying the big bad of this episode. And I haven’t even mentioned the relationship between Dororo and Hyakkimaru, which is arguably better than dumb stuff like ‘tone’ or ‘thematic development’.

The upbeat Dororo and constant deadpan Hyakkimaru have a playful chemistry that makes their interactions a delight. The series also takes the time to cut out moments between fights so that the leads can forge a more organic friendship. I have been trying to avoid spoilers for the show, as the finale is perhaps the best part, but that’s just because they hone in on the series’ themes, and expand the narrative of the story’s scope.

It must have been incredibly difficult to redesign a manga from the ‘60s and repurpose this broad cast of characters and story. One of the manga’s primary faults is that it has a wildly inconsistent tone, so that it becomes one of the anime’s strengths is even more surprising. I would never recommend that anyone pirate anime, as I generally hold that there are so many cheap ways to watch it, but I also know that Dororo is only available on Amazon Prime’s streaming platform, so I’ll just drop that I know that all of it is available on Youtube (albeit in shoddy quality) and say I wasn’t looking at what any of you guys did after you finished reading.

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