Reviewby Casey Brienza,
GN 1-3 (Complete Series)
He has no eyes, no ears, no nose, no voice, no limbs. Yet he can walk, talk, and interact with the wartime world of feudal Japan around him. His name is Hyakkimaru, and his father traded forty-eight of his body parts to forty-eight demons prior to his birth in exchange for power. Raised by a genius doctor who has accoutered him with numerous prosthetics—many of them with combat properties—he now wanders the land, accompanied by the diminutive petty thief Dororo, hunting down the forty-eight elite demons who possess pieces of him. Destroying them one after another in order will restore his own body, one piece at a time. In the process, Hyakkimaru also comes to grips with the parents who sold and abandoned him to his fate.
According to Vertical, Osamu Tezuka's Dororo is “a subtle allegory of the individual and society's struggle for wholeness in a world ruled by chaos.” Sounds promising, doesn't it? Too bad that it's the same as calling Naruto “a gripping narrative of man's struggle construct and maintain a complex civilization in the face of his entropic, bestial nature.” In other words, it's like trying to convince the world that an episodic shounen manga, relatively unremarkable even in the context of history, let alone in its original cultural context, is in fact of work of Great Literature. Sorry, but no dice. The emperor has no clothes.
In fact, Dororo was originally serialized in Weekly Shounen Sunday, competitor magazine of such mainstreamest-of-mainsteam shounen standards as Weekly Shounen Jump and latter day home of Inuyasha and Kekkaishi, just to name two well-known recent manga series. And although it was published way back in the late 1960s, many of the narrative features intimately familiar to shounen manga readers today are present in Dororo as well. For example, it is basically a prototype of the sort of tournament manga Akira Toriyama perfected with Dragon Ball; Hyakkimaru is missing forty-eight body parts (thirty-two when the story first begins), and the recovery of each body part is a battle against a different bad guy, one self-contained, episodic story that runs over the course of several weekly installments.
And as in similar, “Gotta Get 'Em All!”-type storylines such as Tsubasa (Sakura's feathers) or Inuyasha (Shikon jewel shards), getting 'em all could take a long, long time. Presumably long enough for the series to cease to be popular—and in fact, the series ceased to be popular before Hyakkimaru manages to find all of his missing pieces: Weekly Shounen Sunday apparently canceled it abruptly, and Tezuka managed to get a few more proverbial strikes of the storyteller's hammer in at another competitor magazine (now defunct) titled, Bōken Ō. Suffice it to say that if you're looking for conclusive endings, you should resign yourself to looking elsewhere.
Still, this is a reasonable choice for a bit of lightweight, sequential art entertainment, and perhaps the most interesting draw is the way in which its story premises and plot devices seem to foreshadow those in more prominent works by Tezuka himself as well as other, later mangaka. There are strains of Astro Boy (albeit in feudal Japan) in Hyakkimaru's augmented, militarized body, and bits of Berserk in the way that he attracts malevolent spirits wherever he goes. As for Dororo, well, not to give too much away but suffice it to say that there are characters just like this petty thief in stories the world over, not just in manga.
Overall, though, the plot trajectory is a bit of mixed bag. Basically you have Hyakkimaru wandering around the place looking for demons to slay, while Dororo tags along because he wants one of Hyakkimaru's swords. Many of the stories themselves feel rushed and episodic in all of the wrong ways, and it is not too much of a spoiler to say that Hyakkimaru's body is not fully restored by the end of the series' run. High points, such as they are, in Dororo inevitably involve some aspect of the two companions' pasts: Dororo's parents were Robin Hood-like freedom fighters who meet a bad end, but rumor has it that they had socked away a veritable fortune somewhere. The map to said fortune is drawn on Dororo's back—which leads to an adventure of decidedly anti-climatic consequences. Hyakkimaru, for his part, encounters his birth parents on numerous occasions, always within the context of some larger plot conflict. Of the standalone stories, the one involving a horse and its foal was enjoyable especially because the horses were so cute.
Speaking of cute, the richly described and detailed artwork is almost too cute for the sort of super-violent storyline that it is. The body count, both villains and “collateral damage,” is tremendous, and yet battles have about as much affective impact as watching Tom and Jerry bop each other over the heads with cartoon mallets. The artwork also reveals a certain carelessness on Tezuka's part: for example, shirtless characters somehow miraculously regain their clothing in the next panel, and the super-duper spikes on a horse's hooves are hammered on in one panel and disappear in the next. Also, one wonders how Hyakkimaru is able to bend his prosthetic arms when he has steel blades inside them. Right-o. Don't take Dororo too seriously.
Yet even with that good advice foremost in mind, it's hard not to be vaguely irritated by the predictable plot and stereotyped characters—particularly female characters. (They're either maidens, mothers, or monsters; this is typical Tezuka.) Even the ostensible heroes are yawn-inducing. The exquisite Vertical production values and handsome cover design by Peter Mendelsund lead you to believe that you're getting something smart. (Though watch out for extreme pixilation of every page in the first and second volumes, a la the Vertical release of Andromeda Stories.) But instead, what you're really getting is something that would have been lost to the sands of time…if it hadn't happened to have penned by the Dearly Departed God of Manga.
Overall : B-
Story : C+
Art : A-
+ Reasonably entertaining shounen story that works a half-century later.
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