Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 27th 2012
Years ago, a bloodthirsty samurai made a pact with forty-eight demons to sacrifice his child in exchange for military power. Out of this unholy deal came Hyakkimaru, a young man born without eyes, ears, limbs, and various other body parts—a total of forty-eight in all. Now equipped with prosthetics (and a number of hidden weapons), Hyakkimaru roams the country, slaying the demons that will give him his body back. He is joined on his quest by Dororo, a orphan child and self-proclaimed thief whose past is as tragic as Hyakkimaru's. Wherever they go, Hyakkimaru and Dororo use their skills to defeat possessed beasts, cursed statues, and other manifestations of evil. However, Dororo is hiding some secrets that will take them on an unexpected path ... and Hyakkimaru's father, possessed by a power-hungry demon of his own, will someday have to confront his forgotten son.
Ask any fan to name the greatest Osamu Tezuka characters of all time, and Dororo and Hyakkimaru may not crack the top ten, much less the top five. After all, it's hard beating out larger-than-life figures like a heroic boy robot, the world's greatest doctor, a gender-bending knight, and the Buddha himself. But as a work, Dororo has earned its place in manga history—if not for what it is, then for everything that came before and after. These 800-plus pages look to the past, bringing together disparate genres of the time: horror stories, historical accounts, and boyish tales of adventure. Then it lays the foundation for future decades: the bloody battles of samurai-themed gekiga, the fight-of-the-week format that dominates today's shonen action genre, and all the teenage heroes and heroines who inevitably have encounters with the spirit world.
However, if this omnibus is the great research lab that spawned dozens of manga innovations, then it also has its share of failed experiments. Despite the title, Dororo never really fits into the lead role, but is just a wily kid who happens to be Hyakkimaru's travel partner. A 50-page flashback about Dororo's parents tries to rectify that, but it only ends up being a distraction from what really drives the series—Hyakkimaru's quest to regain his body. And therein lies another flaw: the predictable formula where Hyakkimaru and Dororo pass through a village, uncover a mystery, and slay a demon. At least Tezuka makes some attempts to vary this structure, with multiple-chapter storylines or plot points that connect to Dororo's and Hyakkimaru's respective pasts.
It's in the last couple of hundred pages, though, where this series falls the hardest: after a personal turning point for Dororo, the storyline suddenly reverts to stand-alone filler chapters, playing for time until Hyakkimaru faces his parents in a brief, anticlimactic showdown. Thus, the ending feels more like a middle, while the middle contains a really great ending.
Despite these structural flaws, Dororo still shines as a wellspring of ideas. The demons themselves are a testament to Tezuka's creative mind: Japanese folklore and original ideas coming together to form a new challenge in each chapter. There are also echoes of the author's personal politics, with themes of common folk rising up against the moneyed class, or (more bluntly) an allegorical tale that comments on the division of the two Koreas. Yet amidst these displays of cleverness, there is still that raw, human element to every story: personal tragedies and triumphs, goodness and evil, sometimes within just pages of each other.
The artwork in Dororo is also a showcase of creativity and skill; the series' take on Japanese folklore is something much more easily seen than spoken of. At times, the demons seem to have walked straight out of centuries-old paintings, but the cartoony stretch and squish of Tezuka's style gives them a living, breathing presence unlike their ancient counterparts. (However, some might say that this visual style also makes them too cuddly to be truly threatening.) Hyakkimaru himself is also a masterpiece of character design: built like a standard feudal swordsman, but equipped with prosthetic limbs and weaponry in a way that readers will never forget. Of course, his talents are best witnessed in battle, where speedlines, exaggerated anatomy, and panels of different sizes capture the exhilaration of the fight—if at the cost of realism. Yet there is also room for subtlety here, as proven by the richly detailed backgrounds that set the scene every chapter or so, as well as surreal textures and lighting when mysticism is deep at work.
With artistry that speaks for itself, and a story driven mostly by physical action, there's almost no need for dialogue—which is probably why a lot of it is so simple. Not that there's anything wrong with simplicity, but at times it's as if the characters only open their mouths to state the obvious, explain a plot point, or yell at each other. The straightforward translation makes it all go down smoothly, at least, and occasional footnotes at the bottom of the page are a great help in clarifying various puns as well as cultural tidbits. Japanese sound effects are left as-is, while smaller translations placed next to them fit neatly into the flow of the artwork. But the greatest accomplishment of this English-language edition is simply the act of making an 800-page omnibus manageable—the book is miraculously light enough to hold in one hand, the pages turn and open out easily (even right in the middle), and the covers and binding are sturdy enough to make this a lasting collector's item.
It may be a landmark shonen series, and it may be an epic 800 pages, but anyone who says that Dororo is a completely flawless masterpiece is probably trying to oversell it. This saga has its shortcomings: a title character who seems to be just tagging along for the ride, storylines rooted in the repetitive monster-of-the-week formula, and a poorly-placed finale that fails to match the emotional highs of several chapters earlier. But as a milestone in manga history, Dororo is unmatched: in a single massive volume, you not only see the popular shonen genres of the time come together, but also where the popular shonen genres of today come from. So what if Dororo isn't Tezuka's greatest, most iconic work? Its true greatness lives on in everything else.
Overall : B-
Story : C
Art : B
+ Multiple genres meet in an adventure full of breathtaking sword fights, dynamic visuals, human drama, and sometimes even social commentary.
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