Vengeance and Mercy: A Review of "Dororo"
Continuing my plan to catch up on anime I missed out on while in Japan (due to subtitles being unavailable and geography blocks), I found Dororo totally at random on Amazon Prime. I've been going through all the streaming channels we subscribe to and adding anime to my queues, and added Dororo based on a thirty-second preview. I had no idea what this series was about, other than it was historical. I was delighted to find this was historical fantasy, dealing with an enigmatic swordsman, a precocious child, and...demons!
It also turns out this is a remake of the 1969 anime and came from the mind of Osamu Tezuka, called the "Godfather of Manga" (and famously known for works such as Astro Boy). I had no idea about any of this until after I watched the anime. But I'm sure this accounts for why this series was excellent.
During the Warring States period, the young thief Dororo encounters Hyakkimaru, a strange, sightless boy who wields fearsome prosthetics in place of his missing limbs. Parts of Hyakkimaru’s body were traded to a group of 12 demons by his father in exchange for power, but thanks to a kindly medicine man, Hyakkimaru survived his horrifying ordeal. Now he roams the land in search of his missing body, and together he and Dororo will fight to survive in an unforgiving, demon-plagued world.
The Story: Dororo takes place during a devastating part of Japanese history, where samurai fought each other as well as the people, and everyone was dying due to wars, famine, plague, and drought. Daigo Kagemitsu, the Lord of Ishikawa, is driven to desperation as his land and his people have suffered terribly. He heads to the Buddhist temple known as the Hall of Hell and makes a pact with the demons there, agreeing to sacrifice anything in order for his land to thrive. On the night of his first son's birth, lightning flashes, and a statue of Kannon is decapitated...and the baby is born without skin, eyes, a nose, ears, or limbs, having been consumed by the demons in the Hall.
Daigo orders the midwife to dispose of the baby and she, touched by the baby's will to live, sets him down the river and into the hands of Jukai, a healer and maker of prosthetics. Jukai raises the baby and gives him prosthetics for his missing limbs and a mask to wear to hide his features, and names the child Hyakkimaru. The rest of the series involves Hyakkimaru, teamed up with the child Dororo in destroying each of the demons from the Hall and recovering his missing body.
This story, revealed to me little by little in an episodic fashion, was right up my alley. There's the main plot--boy fights to recovers what was stolen from him--but there are multiple conflicts and much at stake. First of all, Hyakkimaru's sacrifice ensured Daigo's people to live--so is one life more important than the lives of many? Who determines who lives and dies? And then, Hyakkimaru is so focused on recovering his body that he kills everyone in his path--how is he different than a demon? The show asks all these questions and more, and makes for a moving story.
Characters: The show mostly tells the story through different episodes, with each one titled "The Tale of _______," which means we're getting new characters or occasional recurring characters practically every episode. I'm only going to focus on the protagonists and antagonists of the show.
The titular character of the series, Dororo (played by Rio Suzuki) is a spunky child who latches onto Hyakkimaru after being saved by him from a demon in the river. Dororo gets into trouble selling stolen goods, and when he tags along with Hyakkimaru, often acts like the business manager, insisting the two get paid for Hyakkimaru's demon-slaying. Dororo also acts as Hyakkimaru's moral voice, not being afraid to call him out when his killing gets out of hand, or to express sympathy and sadness at the misfortunes of the people they come across. Dororo's story is a sad one--son of a leader of brigands who fight against the samurai, his father is killed and his mother dies of starvation, leaving Dororo alone to fend for himself. And...Dororo turns out to be a girl, living as a boy to ensure her survival. This isn't revealed until later in the show, and while it looks like people on the internet guessed this before I did, I didn't know, and the reveal surprised me! Anyway, Dororo is a charming character and absolutely devoted to Hyakkimaru. I enjoyed watching the two together.
I really feel like, despite the show being named after Dororo, that this is Hyakkimaru's story. After all, it's about Hyakkimaru (voiced by Hiroki Suzuki) trying to recover the body that was stolen from him as he reunites with the family he never knew and battles the demons plaguing the land. He's an enigmatic character. His prosthetic arms are swords and he fights impeccably, thanks to being trained by Jukai, but also due to his special sight--Hyakkimaru can see the souls of things in front of him, and demon souls are always red. That's how he's able to move so well when he fights, or is able to sense the people around him.
One of the things I like about how Hyakkimaru is handled is that whenever he recovers a missing part of himself, he doesn't react to it like he's had it all along. When he gets his ears and is able to hear, he experiences sensory overload. When he recovers a leg, he wobbles on it when he first walks. When he gets his voice, he shrieks, and has trouble making words at first. We experience the struggles along with Hyakkimaru, and we can't help but root for him as he tries to take back what was stolen. He was an innocent baby--he didn't deserve to suffer as he did, and yet...his sacrifice has ensured the prosperity of Daigo's people, and as he regains himself, the people start to experience hardship. This makes for such a struggle with his character--is he doing the right thing? He is frequently asked why he wants his body back, and he always responds fiercely, "Because it is mine."
I found him to be such a fascinating character and he had me glued to the TV.
Daigo (played by Naoya Uchida) is the main villain of the series. He is Hyakkimaru's father and sacrificed him to the demons in the Hall of Hell in order for his land to thrive. He is single-minded in his pursuits, not only wanting the land and its people to survive, but for he himself to grow more powerful and successful as a leader. So, there's a bit of selfishness there to his wishes, despite for the most part, wishing for others. But he's pretty heartless when it comes to his firstborn, Hyakkimaru, and because he is relentless, he's a steady antagonist in the show.
I felt like we didn't see much of his inner workings; more like his dogged pursuit of Hyakkimaru. I couldn't sympathize with him very much even though his goals are sympathetic. But I think he makes a fair antagonist, because you hope that someday he will come to love his son, but sees him only as an enemy and monster.
This is a secondary antagonist--Hyakkimaru's brother and Daigo's second-born son. Tahomaru (voiced by Shoya Chiba) grew up with privilege and learning, but also a bit of neglect due to his mother praying and mourning the loss of Hyakkimaru all the time, and his father being stern and aloof. I have a lot of sympathy for Tahomaru--he has tough decisions to make when it comes to Hyakkimaru, and he genuinely believes it's for the good of his people, as future leader, to sacrifice his brother to ensure their survival. I was very sad when he died, although there was somewhat of a resolution between him and Hyakkimaru. It's just hard seeing someone with the potential for good (and instances where he proves himself to be such) to go down the wrong path.
Animation: The main characters are well-drawn and the backgrounds in the show are lovely. I would say that there are some awkward moments where faces disappear (including the leads') and background characters get strange animations, where lines are more loopy and facial features are a little on the sloppy side. It didn't happen enough for it to bother me, though, and I think overall the animation is good, including the fights.
Voice Acting: I think the voice acting cast is excellent. The VA for Dororo is wonderful, capturing so many different emotions with a great deal of energy, and then Hyakkimaru has a thoughtful, stoic sort of voice as he learns to use it and express himself. Dororo and Hyakkimaru are the standouts of the cast, but everyone did a thoroughly excellent job.
Low points of the series: Honestly, I thought the ending was a little bit abrupt because there was so much riding on everything, but despite its fast-paced tempo, it was still a satisfactory close overall.
High points of the series: I really liked how Hyakkimaru's fights played out with his cool arm-swords. I thought moments where Hyakkimaru reunited with his family and with Jukai, the man who raised him, were emotional and well-done. And the whole scene with Mio, the prostitute who sings for Hyakkimaru, was tragic. On the whole this series is definitely going to be one of my keepers.
Final thoughts: An enthralling story with gray morality, Dororo is a highly bingeable anime that is worth your time to watch. The main conceit, which is Hyakkimaru pursuing the body that was stolen from him, is compelling. After I finished this series, I honestly felt bereft and wasn't sure what to watch after it, it was so good. I wanted to savor its aftertaste. I highly recommend this series!