Review: Dororo Complete Series (Blu-Ray)

Developed by the Tezuka Productions and MAPPA animation studios, Dororo (2019) is an adaptation of the 1969 Dororo anime, based on the manga of the same name by the prolific “father of Manga”, Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, Black Jack). However, the series goes beyond simply adapting the original story and adding updated visuals, with Tezuka Productions and MAPPA’s re-imagining of the original 1960s manga and anime series providing an excellent example of revitalizing an older concept for a modern audience.

During the Sengoku Period in Japan, a feudal lord enters into a pact with 12 demons and demands power and prosperity, offering anything the demons want in exchange. The price of the bargain turns out to be the lord’s newborn son, resulting in a child born without arms, legs, skin, or senses – each claimed by a demon. Years later, Hyakkimaru travels the land wielding swords concealed in his prosthetic arms, searching for the 12 demons that carved up his body so he can defeat them and reclaim what was taken. Hyakkimaru’s travels place him in the path of Dororo, a young orphan thief who he rescues from a terrifying demon. Though Hyakkimaru is unable to see, touch, hear or speak with Dororo, the two find ways of understanding one another and begin a friendship, searching for the remaining demons in order to restore Hyakkimaru’s body and senses. But the more demons the pair slay, the more it becomes apparent that their actions are having a negative effect on a once prosperous land, as piece by piece, the bargain struck many years ago becomes undone.

Dororo is a masterclass in reimagining a series for a modern audience, taking the concept of Tezuka’s original manga and anime and reframing Hyakkimaru and Dororo’s journeys to explore aspects of the story that were previously not in focus, but were full of narrative potential. While Hyakkimaru’s journey to defeat the demons and reclaim his body is a key focus of both the original and 2019 series, in the 1960s version Hyakkimaru has defeated a number of demons before meeting Dororo and already has many of his senses, or has abilities that act as substitutes for them. In the 2019 series, Tezuka Productions and MAPPA made the decision to start the story from the very beginning, and introduces the audience to a Hyakkimaru who has not slain his first demon – a young man with prosthetic limbs and a mask who is deaf, blind, mute and has no sense of smell or touch. This reframing elevates the narrative and characters of Dororo, as the series becomes not just a story about Hyakkimaru’s journey to reclaim his body and senses but a story about exploring Hyakkimaru’s experiences as he reclaims back his bodily autonomy, developing sensations and experiences for the first time.

As a result of this, the character dynamic between Hyakkimaru and Dororo is fascinating and ever evolving. It begins with Dororo seeking company in Hyakkimaru out of a sense of preservation as the kid desires to travel with someone strong, slowly developing into a camaraderie as they learn how to communicate with each other and evolving into a deep friendship as Dororo helps Hyakkimaru adjust to his new senses and how to use them to navigate the world. This focus on Hyakkimaru and Dororo’s journey being one of discovery based on reclamation results in a lot of beautiful and detailed moments throughout the anime. Some of my favourite examples of this include a quiet moment where Dororo teaches Hyakkimaru about the seasons, and another where Hyakkimaru regains his sense of touch but still has prosthetic arms so greets people by rubbing his forehead against theirs. It’s a really neat detail, and when he does it to Dororo the first time it feels really significant, as until that point, Hyakkimaru had never actually felt Dororo. As a result, each demon slain in the series is a significant milestone, and one with a lasting impact on Hyakkimaru and those around him as he grows and changes with each part of him that is restored.

Given its feudal Japanese setting, protagonists travelling from place to place and focus on demons, Dororo feels like a grittier, more violent version of Mushi-Shi Next Passage at times. Like Mushi-Shi Next Passage, the series approaches the impact of demons on the world in a nuanced way, contrasting between demons who seek destruction and those that have more complex motivations, such as a spider demon who develops affection for a human and a shape shifter seeking to complete a statue. However, what sets Dororo apart from a series like Mushi-Shi Next Passage is its tone and focus on Hyakkimaru and Dororo’s overarching goals which is made-up of and sustained by a series of experiences rather than being an anthology like Mushi-Shi. The result is a series set in a world feels extensive and lived in, with a number of characters (both recurring and one-off) who have lasting and meaningful impacts on Hyakkimaru and Dororo’s journey. It also ties back to and supports the moral quandary of the series – the more Hyakkimaru and Dororo reclaim from the 12 demons, the more the pact Hyakkimaru’s father made becomes undone and the people and the land suffer. The audience gets to experience the world change alongside Hyakkimaru and Dororo, as characters they meet experience hardship, famine and instability all while Hyakkimaru gains the ability to speak, to sense, to smell, and engage with the world in ways that were previously lost to him. It calls into question the morality of peace achieved through another’s loss while also acknowledging the broader ramifications of undoing a bargain that should not have been struck in the first place. The result is a mature and nuanced series that doesn’t flinch from discussing complex emotional and moral ideas, and weaves these themes throughout its episodes.

I’ve spent this review waxing lyrical about how impressive of an adaptation Dororo is, and the nuance and attention to detail it affords its characters, their experiences, and the moral quandary at the heart of Hyakkimaru and Dororo’s journey. Rest assured though, the series has tons of nail biting and bloody fights to sink your teeth into, with impressive and often visceral visuals supported by gorgeous watercolour-esque backgrounds. Tezuka Productions and MAPPA have made something special, bursting to the brim with demons, swordfights, and a nuanced story of reclamation, you will be hard pressed to find a series more deserving of your attention than Dororo.

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A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.

 Dororo ©Tezuka Productions/TWIN ENGINE Inc.