The History Behind Osamu Tezuka's Dororo

by Marco Oliveros,

The blood of a cleric coats a sanctum's interior like mud. The broken neck of an idol resembles a tree wrenched crudely from its stump. Dororo begins not with the adventures of its mischievous and eponymous protagonist, but with the bloodshed and sacrilege behind his future friend Hyakkimaru's birth. Dororo takes place during the Sengoku Jidai era, a time when warfare was rampant and religiosity ran deep in Japan. Confronting its viewers with the religious and political violence of the era, this show lets its audience know up-front that the history of Sengoku Jidai is a history of war and faith.

People can enjoy Dororo without knowing the history of its setting. The show's direction is compelling on its own, the animation is stunning, and the heroes are equal parts sympathetic and badass. Anything by the renowned "godfather of manga" Osamu Tezuka is worth a look, and his reputation precedes him in this story of a wandering swordsman and his plucky companion. However, the layers Tezuka wove into Dororo's story produce a depth that draws its power and inspiration from real history.

Japanese History and Sengoku Jidai


The world of Hyakkimaru and Dororo is the era of Sengoku Jidai. Known alternatively as Japan's Warring States period (spanning the mid-to-late 15th century to arguably the beginning of the 17th century), Sengoku Jidai is often imagined as a time of incessant strife, when warriors constantly put each other and numerous commoners in the countryside to the sword. Prior to Sengoku Jidai, a warrior class known as samurai rose to social and political prominence. They obtained so much status and power that the Japanese Emperor (at the end of their pointy swords) offered the privilege and responsibility of managing the Japanese Empire to a clan of them. And so the centralized institution of the shogunate, a hereditary military government, was born of the Imperial Court's reluctant blessing. The samurai clan at the head of the shogunate arguably changed twice before Sengoku Jidai. The Kamakura shogunate -- with its Minamoto founder, Hojo regents, and location in Kamakura town -- gave way to the Muromachi shogunate -- with its usurping Ashikaga, a redirected Imperial blessing, and power base in Kyoto's Muromachi district. For a while, the Ashikaga shoguns reigned supreme. When that time ended, the Onin War happened.

The Onin War is generally agreed-upon by historians as the beginning of the Sengoku Jidai, when two samurai clans, both Ashikaga vassals, slashed and stabbed each other daily in the Kyoto streets for a decade, ostensibly to resolve a shogun succession dispute. The resulting violence leveled most of Kyoto with fire, laying bare the inability of the Ashikaga to halt the fighting despite their obvious wishes to end it. This revealed to the other samurai clans who were formerly abiding the Ashikaga status quo that their shogun overlords were weak. The Ashikaga shogunate would have little power to prevent the more ambitious samurai clans from attacking their neighbors, because the various local warlord daimyo held all the real power. These daimyo then waged war with each other to settle who would next dominate Japan. Older established samurai leaders and clans were overthrown by newer and more ambitious ones in a process known as gekokujo. Belligerent losers saw their lands taken by the winners, who became stronger as they captured more resources and manpower. The face of battle changed, as the warrior bands of old transitioned into armies marching in the tens of thousands.

War touched many parts of Japan during Sengoku Jidai, and both purposeful and collateral carnage was visited on soldiers and civilians alike. It wasn't all doom and gloom though, as army needs and power vacuums brought with them freedom and opportunities for many. Major coastal towns flourished, offering their trade goods and services to the warring daimyo while remaining wealthy enough to basically be self-governing. Feeding soldiers in the tens of thousands required growing more food, and the more successful daimyo cleared more tracts for agriculture than their peers and employed more efficient farming techniques to boost food productivity. However, one of the benefits of powerful central government is security and relief insurance in the event of disaster. Even a powerful shogunate could not only stop regional conflicts from spiraling out of control. They could levy grain from vassals, store it for times of famile, and disburse it as food aid to poor regions. Unfortunately, Dororo doesn't take place during the Tokugawa era, when such practices had developed. In the previous Sengoku Jidai era, daimyo acted more on their own, discounting the company of their ambitious warlord neighbors.

Japanese Buddhism and Mappo


At the beginning of Dororo, we follow one such daimyo, Daigo Kagemitsu. He begins this tale burdened by one of the worst scenarios that a daimyo can face during Sengoku Jidai: famines and plagues are affecting his lands, and his neighbors want to take them for their own. With his political position so insecure, we witness him visit him a temple one rainy night. It appears at first that he's there to consult with the monk, perhaps to ask for the favor of the buddhas and their bodhisattva servants. Buddhism has a long history in Japan, dating back to at least the 6th century CE. Traders, missionaries, and settlers from Korea brought Buddhism with them in their dealings with the Japanese. Eventually, Buddhism won the sponsorship of an influential family of Japanese aristocrats, and after a bloody spat between this aristocratic family and rival traditionalists, Buddhism was welcomed officially into Japan, and its beliefs were even adopted by the Emperor. Patronage of Buddhist activities flowed lavishly from aristocrats and emperors, provided that such activities served the interests of the realm. Japanese lords petitioned the buddhas and boddhisattva for favor, and when it was perceived to be granted, these lords showered temples with high prestige, financial support, maybe even a new temple or annex. Oft-requested favors at the temple included military success and ends to famines and plagues.

Even with the patronage of aristocrats and emperors, Buddhism wouldn't become become popular with ordinary Japanese citizens until around the end of the 12th century. Early Japanese Buddhist worship was highly esoteric, scholastic, ritualistic, and elitist. Japanese commoners neither had the time nor station to learn or practice Buddhism. That changed with the introduction of new forms of Buddhism that were simple enough for ordinary people to practice (and quite relatable to the uncertainties those everyday people encountered, like plagues, famines, and bandit attacks). Even if they didn't provide any tangible solutions to these issues, newer forms of Buddhism did provide comfort to believers without taking valuable time away from their ability to make a living. So these newer forms of Buddhism skyrocketed in popularity during times of crisis and hardship.

The most popular of these newer Buddhist forms was Pure Land Buddhism. In Pure Land Buddhism (or Jodo-shu) and offshoot sects like True Pure Land Buddhism (or Jodo-shinshu), every good man and woman was eligible to be reincarnated into the Pure Land. In this vision of gold sands and precious stones, people have a far easier time attaining nirvana, or enlightenment. While the historical Buddha realized enlightenment on his time on Earth, ordinary men and women were seen in Pure Land Buddhism as needing extra help to arrive at that state. Part-and-parcel to the Pure Land was mappo. Like the cycle of samsara, that endless cycle of reincarnation and suffering for all beings, it was thought in Buddhism that the universe itself was subject to a cycle of order and chaos. In the midst of the abundant sufferings of eras like Sengoku Jidai, many Buddhists believed that the world was in the latter stage of this cycle, the Buddhist equivalent of the End Times. The Japanese called it mappo, a time when adherence to Buddhist teachings was in decline and the potential for enlightenment on Earth became extremely difficult, if not impossible. Hence, Pure Land Buddhists theorized the existence of a Pure Land that circumvents the conditions of mappo.

Japanese Syncretism and Yokai


Taking into perspective everything that's been discussed so far, things look really bad for the daimyo in Dororo. His domain's been riddled with disease and starvation. His neighbors want his lands. His soldiers are probably demoralized and weakened. His people are undoubtedly suffering. It's Sengoku Jidai and the Buddhist End Times, so what more can man do now but appeal to higher powers? That may be what humbler men do, but Daigo is not a humble man. Daigo Kagemitsu is an ambitious daimyo who craves power and control. As if to demonstrate how far he's willing to sink, the warlord cuts the monk down despite the old man's words of warning. His blood stains the interior bright crimson, and one of two lights in the room goes out. In light and shadow, the warlord opens his arms wide in the center of the temple, ready to strike a bargain, and the other candle flame illuminating the room, a symbol of Buddhist enlightenment, is finally extinguished. Invisible yokai lick their chops in anticipation.

Similar but not exclusive to the concept of demons, yokai are the supernatural oddities of Japanese folk religions, many of which were thought to have been absorbed into a belief system later known as Shinto. (And while it's certainly more complicated than that, for simplicity's sake I'll be referring to these Japanese folk traditions henceforth as Shinto.) Much like the faeries of European folklore, yokai are what many Japanese blamed when faced with seemingly inexplicable events of good luck or ill fortune. Yokai can be benevolent to humans or indifferent, and sometimes they can meddle in mankind's affairs in more malevolent ways. The idea of yokai predated the arrival of Buddhism into Japan, but like how later Japanese Emperors were both high Shinto priests and devoted Buddhist practitioners, belief in yokai and adherence to the buddhas were never mutually exclusive. Eventually, some yokai legends came to be seen as inseparable from Buddhism. How was this fusion of beliefs from different religious traditions possible?

For one thing, Buddhism is highly syncretist. On the whole, Buddhist missionary work has been less interested in demanding submission to a particular god, and more concerned with the spreading of its prescriptions for how people should live their lives. As a result, cults to Ganesh, an Indian deity, are found in both Hinduism and Buddhism with little conflict. In Japan, devotion to Hachiman, a Japanese kami, can be observed in the Japanese practice of both Buddhism and Shinto. The early Buddhist missionaries to Japan employed a significant degree of doctrinal flexibility in their approaches to converting the native Shinto-ists. They incorporated significant aspects of Shinto into their religious rhetoric and canon, making the jump from believing in Shinto to believing in Buddhism an easier endeavor. This approach endeared them to those more curious Shinto-ists who might still harbor wariness against a hostile takeover of their familiar traditions.

For another thing, Shinto lacked a large and organized clergy. Shinto priests existed before Buddhism made waves in Japan, but their numbers were few compared to the sheer amount of standing shrines at the time. Some priests were singularly dedicated to a major shrine, while others were itinerants who shuffled from one shrine to another when religious duties called. The decentralized nature of Shinto at the time led to many different priests practicing significantly different things from each other. There were no officially mandated schools that all Shinto priests had to be ordained from. Attempts by the Imperial Court to enforce doctrinal discipline centering around an Emperor-centric Shinto ended up being uneven and largely ineffectual. By contrast, Buddhist monks were produced in steady numbers from monasteries like machines. They established themselves more firmly in communities compared to their Shinto counterparts, and they spoke with more authority about their convictions. They not only built Buddhist temples with Shinto alcoves for their growing syncretic followings, they also took over many unmanned Shinto shrines and turned them into institutions that also supported Buddhism.

The combination of Buddhism's syncretist nature and its large and organized clergy allowed Japanese Buddhism to effectively reinterpret significant aspects of Shinto into being friendly to Buddhist causes. Japanese kami like Hachiman were no longer proud and independent Shinto entities, but rather great yet humble servants to the buddhas and boddhisattva. Yokai were likewise affected by Buddhism, with new yokai narratives being created in reference to values promoted or condemned by Buddhist doctrine. Older legends were revised so as to pit yokai into being supportive or antagonistic toward Buddhist practitioners. One of the foremost examples of this change to yokai is the tengu. Wrathful and demonic, the avian creature tricked and assaulted Buddhist clerics and civilians alike, becoming characterized as the sworn enemy of Buddhism. The apparent hostility of these yokai to Buddhism makes their dark deals with Dororo's Daigo an unsurprising turn of events for the Sengoku Jidai era.

We see doubt and rejection of Buddhism at the beginning of Dororo in favor of its yokai enemies, for how can buddhas and boddhisattva, if they are even real, claim to help the suffering of others when that suffering has only gotten worse around them? Of course, the premise for that argument is misleading, because Buddhist divinities do not seek to establish paradise on Earth. They only seek for people to realize enlightenment, a step that people must bridge themselves regardless of the hardships of their world. In the prevailing Japanese Buddhist traditions, the extent of their intercession is to provide assistance.

Not in deals with demons, but in this personal struggle is the Pure Land to circumvent mappo. There is the Boddhisattva Kannon, the headless idol and Buddhist saint of compassion, who channels its presence into the midwife and saves baby Hyakkimaru from death.

There is also the Boddhisattva Jizo, the bald-man marker and Buddhist patron of children, who channels its presence into a passerby that raises Hyakkimaru into adulthood.

It's war that curses Hyakkimaru and faith that saves him. But the gray area between these extremes (and the full context of its history) is where the story of Dororo finds its power.


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