Anime Review: Dororo (2019)

TL;DR – A supernatural period drama showing the brutality during medieval Japan. Little thief Dororo meets Hyakkimaru, a rōnin whose body is made up of prosthetic limbs. Together they go on a journey to uncover the origins of Hyakkimaru, which will lead them to discovering demons and humans who have given themselves over to hell. Will their own souls remain beacons of light, or will they be overcome by the darkness?

Review (warning: spoilers)

Dororo has an interesting history. The manga was created by Osamu Tezuka way back in 1967, subsequently cancelled by Weekly Shonen Sunday magazine in mid-1968 and then was able to conclude in Akita Shoten’s Bōken’ō magazine in 1969. In that same year, a black and white anime version of the manga was released and had additional content and original stories added that were not in the manga.

I did a bit of digging and found the manga online and examined the art. There was something distinctly familiar with the way the characters were portrayed, almost old-school Disney cute in some respects, yet the manga does not shy away from violence as the story is set during the Sengoku period when civil war was constant and samurai and rōnin spilled blood over Japan. It was quite a contrast seeing these almost lovable comic characters erupt into ferocious battles with monsters, demons and other samurai.

It was then it hit me. The character art reminded me of arguably one of the greatest animes that was ever created and became a worldwide phenomenon that reached English speaking shores.

That anime was Astro Boy.

The connection piqued my interest even more, so when I discovered that the 1969 anime version of Dororo had been remade and released in 2019, I was keen to check it out. From my research, it should be noted that the 2019 remake has distinct differences from the source manga. This being an anime review, I have not read the entire manga series and am basing my thoughts solely on the 2019 anime.

I discovered that Dororo falls into a very rare category for me when it comes to giving it a review score out of ten. For those who read my reviews, I place a significant amount of weight in the writing and the story. An anime that does not have an interesting layered plot is one that I will struggle to get through and score highly. There are exceptions to this rule, and they generally apply to slice-of-life animes that are layered in their simplicity and do not rely on a complex plot.

So, does Dororo have a weak plot? Absolutely not. The initial episodes open to a feudal lord, Kagemitsu Daigo, who makes a pact with twelve demon gods in a temple known as the ‘Hall of Hell’. The land he rules has suffered from famine, pestilence and disease, and he promises to give anything to the demons in exchange for power and fortune. The deal is struck and Kagemitsu’s lands become rich and fertile. When his wife gives birth to their first child, they discover the baby is without limbs, skin and eyes; the demon gods have exacted their price. Kagemitsu wishes to kill the baby against his wife’s protests and a midwife steals the child away and abandons the baby in a boat to sail down the river.

The baby is found by Jukai, a surgeon and alchemist who is adept at making prosthetic limbs. He saves the child using healing magic and creates artificial limbs and special swords that can be unsheathed when he removes his arms. The child grows up to be a rōnin named Hyakkimaru, capable of seeing demons and slaying them with superhuman skill.

We are then introduced to Dororo, a little girl thief who insists she is a boy. She teams up with Hyakkimaru and seeks to help him. The dynamic between the pair is key to the story and evokes wonderful empathy that makes you invest in their journey. Dororo learns that as Hyakkimaru kills certain demons he slowly starts acquiring bits of his body again. This includes ears so he can hear, a voice so he can speak, and legs so he can walk. At the same time, the statues of the demons in the Hall of Hell temple begin to crack.

This leads to Kagemitsu’s pact with the demons slowly breaking, and his lands begin to experience the struggles of famine and pestilence once more. Kagemitsu’s second son, Tahomaru (perfectly healthy with no limbs missing), initially struggles with what his father has done but chooses the people and their land over his older brother and pledges to kill Hyakkimaru in order to reinstate the demon pact.

So, if the plot is solid, what is this ‘very rare category’ that I am talking about? The category is an anime where I feel let down by the animation. Normally, if the anime has a good enough story then I can overlook any shortfalls in the animation. But the style of animation used in Dororo did not grab me. The animators have definitely made the characters more ‘modern’ and do not follow the ‘Astro boy’ style of character design used by Osamu Tezuka. But even with this modern flourish, it didn’t engage me.

Action sequences, which are critical in this series, look clunky as if shortcuts have been made. When it comes to sword fighting whether it be between rōnin/samurai and monsters, or between rōnin/samurai and other rōnin/samurai, the animation lacks the level of fluidity and realism that gets the adrenalin pumping.

I confess to being spoiled because I have compared the action in Dororo with other great period animes such Samurai Champloo (the sword fights are exquisite) and Kingdom (battle scenes are epic). Given Dororo is a period drama set in the Sengoku period and has the added twist of dark fantasy in the form of grotesque demons, it had the potential to be mind blowing in the art department. Perhaps, my mind wandered to the sword fights and battle scenes in Attack on Titan and found Dororo fell way short. Dororo sadly delivers demons and monsters that look silly (like Pokemon on steroids), and the physics of the fight scenes appear to go downhill the more you get into the series.

I still place substance over style and in terms of story there is plenty of substance. But in this rare instance, I found myself wanting more style to match the substance. Had it done that, this series would have easily hit a perfect score.

7 out of 10

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