Season Premiered: Winter 2019
Number of episodes: 24
Genres: Action, Adventure, Historical,Supernatural
Thoughts: Dororo is one of the truly brilliant pieces of work I have had the pleasure of watching. A major factor that contributed to my enjoyment is that it avoids the familiar tropes that a bulk of the anime seem to feature today. Tezuka Productions and MAPPA worked together to create the second adaptation of the manga that was released in the late 1960s. Dororo is a dark supernatural fantasy that mixes contemporary and ancient elements in a unique way.
The story is set in the Sengoku-era of Japan where war and poverty is rife. An ambitious and self-centred samurai leader barters away his baby’s body to demons in exchange for prosperity in his land. Talk about extreme measures! The deformed child is a hollow skeletal structure miraculously holding on to life.The baby is abandoned on a boat in the river to die but as fate would have it, the child survives and grows up to become Hyakkimaru.
Hyakki is fearsome in combat after gaining a handy mannequin body with swords for limbs from the prosthetist who rescued him. He fights to reclaim his various body parts back from the demons. Hyakki comes across a kid named Dororo – a mischievous and chatty pickpocket, and shortly after the chance encounter this unlikely pair start travelling across Japan together in pursuit of Hyakkimaru’s goal.
At the heart of Dororo is character development and relationship building. There are questions we are forced to confront: What besides our physical traits makes us human? How is our sense of identity formed and influenced? It’s interesting to see how Dororo and Hyakkimaru interact without speaking or using any consistent sign language when communication is core to the bonding experience. What then is the substance of attachment between individuals? And what effect do the people we love have on our choices? Dororo answers these questions in slow layers. Every episode builds on our understanding of the main characters’ background and their conflicts. The pacing is consistent as we progress toward a finale that will determine Dororo and Hyakkimaru’s fate.
Hyakkimaru was unable to experience the world through the five senses for a large part of his life. He does however possess a sixth sense which allows him to differentiate between humans and demons. In the original version, Hyakki was telepathic but I’m glad they took the risk to cut it out from this adaptation.The silence and mystery behind Hyakki makes his character enigmatic. It also gives an insight into how unique Dororo and Hyakkimaru’s relationship is. Although the conversations are largely one sided, the duo enjoy hanging with each other. Of course there are advantages of travelling together: Hyakki keeps Dororo safe and on the flip side, friendly Dororo is Hyakki’s connection to other humans. But it’s clear that there are no conditions, no ulterior motives, just pure companionship between two souls.
Hyakkimaru transforms internally and externally with every episode after he defeats demons and begins to regain his senses. The fight sequences are done well and the animation is fluid as it hones in on Hyakki’s agile and decisive moves. As his personality begins to manifest, it’s obvious that he isn’t as cold or dull as it’s first insinuated. Instead, he is emphatically affectionate. Hyakki’s surprisingly warm nature is what drew me to him even more. Our sensory organs are crucial in the human experience, especially when it comes to love and compassion. But Hyakki wasn’t able to see, smell, taste, touch or hear anything! It would’ve been easy to understand if he’d been cold and callous, or even mentally unstable. Instead, he embodies the better characteristics of humans. However, if Dororo wasn’t present, things may have turned out differently. Hyakkimaru would not have had anyone to form a consistent connection with. Dororo is the only one who has a grounding effect on Hyakki, it’s as though he tethers him to our mortal world by being the voice of conscience.
Dororo’s POV dominates the first half of the show whereas the second half explores Hyakki’s psychology. Whilst Dororo’s playfulness is refreshing, underneath the surface is a child wiser than his years. A child who lost his innocence too soon. Dororo’s backstory is testament to the dark realities of the time period where no one, except perhaps the elite, are exempt from terror and injustice. In this cruel world, survival of the fittest and having power, whether it be having influence or being rich, is reality. Despite this, Dororo brings a healthy dose of humour and lightness amidst the grim themes of the story. There is definitely something inspiring about rolling with the punches. I couldn’t help but notice how little either of our protagonists complained. They were all about facing adversities as they went and finding joy in between.
Dororo crafts relationships with a lot of thought behind them. Even interactions with minor characters has purpose that does more than serve the overarching plot. The relationship between the antagonist, Tahomaru, and Hyakkimaru is complicated by the fact that they are brothers. But there is an understanding between them which is significant. It is through Tahomaru we are able to comprehend the decision to sacrifice Hyakkimaru; not condone it but grasp that the intention was for the greater good. This is another ethical dilemma:is Tahomaru more human than his brother even after affirming the sacrifice of one life to help the many? Worse still, what about Daigo, their father, who made the initial decision?
Tahomaru’s backstory reveals that he was a lonely child who craved his mother’s attention and his father’s approval. The only authentic relationship he appeared to have was with his bodyguards and confidants, Hyogo and Mutsu. Hyakki wonders why Tahomaru turned out a tragedy when he had everything Hyakki was denied. In the midst of fighting, he alludes to his brother missing something, likely his heart. Why is it that people who go through similar injustices react differently? How are some more compassionate whilst others turn to crime? Tahomaru shows us that privileges including money, comfort or a namesake family doesn’t necessarily create good character. In the nature versus nurture debate, I think Hyakki’s nature was kinder than his brother’s. We see that when he decides to spare Tahomaru’s life, and also in the way he confronts his father. It’s clear by the final episode that a lot of Hyakkimaru’s kind and wise decisions were a result of Dororo’s influence. The conclusion was simultaneously saddening and hopeful. I remember feeling a strange sense of peace even though some questions remained unanswered.
Despite my largely positive review, the anime does have its limitations. I felt the narration was unnecessary and frankly kind of annoying. Viewers can easily interpret the story without it. The supporting characters could have been explored more instead of the filler episode 19, which whilst mildly comedic, was unnecessary. Additionally, the second half of the anime completely sidelines Dororo. He is mostly chasing Hyakki to make sure his “brother” doesn’t lose himself and break bad. The viewer’s experience would have been enriched if there was a more balanced perspective towards the end. The watercolour art takes time to get used to but eventually the faded out look becomes a reflection of the older time period. The animation was better in some places than others but I’m not sure it matters because Dororo more than makes up for it in other areas. I personally loved the opening by Ziyoou-vachi and would highly recommend a listen.
Dororo is a complex show with several layers that could be explored and discussed for a long time. Overall, it’s good storytelling. There is an opportunity to reflect on big questions about our origin, our inherent value and the dynamics of relationships. The high amount of emotion behind this narrative that will keep you wanting more.
Voice Acting: 7
FINAL SCORE: 75