A Review of Dororo

More and more lately I find shows and films that I call “pseudo-nostalgic.” They are stories that fill me with a sense of yearning for the days of older trends in storytelling, even if the subject matter is not something which was known to me when I was younger. Are these films and shows which I attribute this label just banking on nostalgia? I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. I believe revisiting an old formula in a new time can feel just as refreshing and an older story adapted for the now can be made to fit in rather nicely. Today, I’m reviewing an adaptation a long time in the making… 52 years to be exact. This is Studio MAPPA’s Dororo.

Dororo was written in 1967 by Osamu Tezuka, the same author as Astro Boy. Don’t let that fact fool you, however, as this is one of Tezuka’s darkest stories, a fact which is readily apparent in this adaptation. Taking place in the Sengoku, era, it begins with the story of Daigo Kagemitsu and a deal with demons.

As his land is plagued with disease and drought, Daigo makes a deal that sacrifices the body of his newborn child. His land is saved, but his son is cast aside, meant to be killed, but instead set adrift on the river by the wet nurse. Without any limbs, he shouldn’t have survived, but he does. He is saved by a man who raises him, fits him with prosthetics and teaches him to survive with only his supernatural sixth sense guiding him. His name is Hyakkimaru.

Hyakkimaru meets a young orphan named Dororo and the two travel together helping people along their wayward journey. But with each demon that Hyakkimaru kills, a part of his body is given back to him, be it a sense or a limb. So now, even after Daigo’s land has prospered and his wife has born another son, the family is destined to reunite.

As I eluded to at the start, this show feels like a story out of time. From the character-focused, episodic format to the diluted color palette, and even the setting, this show takes me back to the early 2000s. It’s the kind of moderately paced adventure show that would have fit right in during the time of Samurai Champloo. The fact that it has been met with warm reception now is a testament to how comfortable such a formula is.

This dark fantasy’s rather morbid narrative invites some very cathartic character growth through Hyakkimaru’s slow evolution. Every new limb comes with new discoveries. Despite being older than Dororo, he oftentimes more childish in thinking and reacts to new stimuli with charming curiosity. The fact that these developments come after such brutal work is all the more fascinating. It’s a win-win.

Dororo, on the other hand, is sly and precocious, constantly craving adventure and palling around with Hyakkimaru initially for the fun of it. Their bond becomes familial through their many hardships. They fit perfectly without having any real narrative ties together. There was never a twist or revelation which drew connections between the two. They aren’t related and Dororo has no emotional investment in Hyakkimaru’s family besides their feelings for Hyakkimaru himself later on.

They are simply put together through circumstance. Early on, I wondered what Dororo’s “role” was in the grand scheme of things. He doesn’t really need one though. They just needed to have good chemistry and a relationship that made their well-being important to the other when shit hit the fan.

To that end, they are quite the iconic duo. Hyakkimaru is voiced by Hiroki Suzuki, while Dororo is voiced by Rio Suzuki. Based on their surnames I’m tempted to suppose that they may be related but I could be very wrong. If they were, then it is perfect casting. If not, it is no less fantastic as both of them have rather limited prior experience in anime voice acting according to MyAnimeList.net. They have excellent chemistry and Dororo being voiced by an actual kid (and a talented one at that) added a lot to the character.

The supporting cast all left some big impact on the narrative in some way. Characters like Jukai, though scarce in appearance, have strong backstories and compelling bonds with the main characters explored effectively in the dialog. Others are more recurring like Biwamaru, a personal favorite of mine. He’s kinda like the mentor character in a video game. He sorta shows up wherever he is needed and always does something cool or dispenses some wisdom.

On the opposing side, Hyakkimaru’s family is complicated and oddly sympathetic. Tahomaru is the second son of Daigo whose righteous attitude towards justice and governing make him rather heroic. His loyal servants Hyoga and Mutsu are loyal supports guiding him when necessary. If Dororo and Hyakkimaru are an iconic duo, then this is certainly one hell of a trio to match it.

Tahomaru’s mother still finds herself trapped in the past and mourns for Hyakkimaru, which makes him feel unnoticed. His father is an inspiration and is a good leader, but his past choices and the situation which pushed him to evil are coming back to haunt him. They aren’t completely unlikable and that’s what makes the conflict so interesting upon review. It’s also what makes the ending so much more engaging. I actually like these characters.

Hyakkimaru is completely justified in wanting his body back from the demons, but it puts him directly in opposition to his family. Worse yet, his quest arguably sends the country back into the state of war and drought which caused men like Daigo to turn to evil in the first place.

The subtext poses all kinds of queries. Is the peace built on sacrifice worth the pain? If not, is the bloodshed to make amends worth it. Constantly Hyakkimaru’s soul is brought into question and whether it is his body that makes him human or his soul. This is a show about sin, revenge, and the extent to which our crusades are justified.

A lot of the above-mentioned subtext is most notably found in the latter half. Matters of the soul and becoming a monster are present throughout, however. There are plenty of fun and simple side-stories that explore humans and sometimes even humanize the monsters. While not every step in the journey was memorable, the characters throughout stood out plenty.

The final third of the show is where Dororo justifies every step. The complex family feud compounds further, producing some of the best-animated sword fights I’ve seen in years. This is action that makes you wince not just for the weight and brutality, but because even if you end up rooting for Hyakkimaru, you might not want some characters to die.

Animation by Keiichiro Watanabe

It is clear that a lot of attention was put into the final act of the series, but that doesn’t mean animation wasn’t good throughout. It was rather consistent in fact, never too far from a new sword fight or some fun character animation. Dororo‘s color scheme brings to mind Sword of the Stranger which is good even if I prefer more vibrant color palettes.

The music was atmospheric and diffused, intensifying during the action. This isn’t my favorite of composer Yoshihiro Ike, whose works include the Project Itoh trilogy, Ergo Proxy, and even Kuroko no Basuke. Not many tracks stood out individually, but similar to his work on Proxy, it fits the tone and setting well. Plus, it’s at least better than his soundtrack for B: The Beginning.

Having never read the manga, I won’t presume to call this a fitting adaptation, but for such a storied manga to be finally put to motion is still pretty awesome. It having been received well despite its change of style was nice to see. Dororo may have been dark and dreary, but it was a bright spot among other anime, even in a year with so many great shows.

Dororo is available for legal streaming through Amazon Prime Video.

What are your thoughts on Dororo? Leave a comment below and tell me what else I need to watch before the year ends. Thanks for reading and as always, see you next week!!!

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