Dororo (2007)
Nicholas Driscoll
March 18, 2009
Note: review may contain spoilers

Osamu Tezuka is often heralded as the “father of manga” because of his early, immense popularity and influence with such titles as Astro Boy and Black Jack. He remains greatly beloved long after his death, and cartoon series, video animations, and movies continue to be made based on his work. Despite his enormous influence in Japan, in the United States he remains relatively unpopular—to the extent that Disney could make a bastardized version of his classic Kimba the White Lion story and claim it as an “original” tale in 1994's The Lion King with little comment. These days, in the U.S. most fans probably recognize his name connected with the animated Metropolis (2001) movie or the ubiquitous Astro Boy and its instantly recognizable style, but Tezuka created a wide variety of stories in his graphic novels—including the gruesome supernatural samurai tale, Dororo, which was made into a live-action feature in 2007.

As the story goes, brutal warlord Kagemitsu Daigo (Kiichi Nakai, Onmyoji II) is having a hard time ravaging the countryside and is, like many brutal warlords would be, more than a little peeved about his lack of progress in world domination. Daigo happens to take refuge in a temple devoted to 48 demons. Those demons are the talkative sort, and soon communicate with him through a dead rat, promising him world domination in exchange for his son—each demon taking a part of the boy's body in order to manifest themselves in the land of the living. Daigo agrees, and his body is imbued with demonic energy via a scar on his forehead ala Harry Potter.

Fast forward to the future, and it turns out Daigo's son miraculously survived, traveling the land as a single minded demon hunter by the name of Hyakkimaru (Satoshi Tsumabuki, Water Boys). Hyakkimaru is no ordinary human being, however; his body was reconstructed by a kind doctor and is now immortal, and he has swords imbedded deep inside his arms. Basically, his forearms are now used as sheaths; whenever he wants to use his swords, he has to cut off his own arms. Then, after bisecting any demon scum that dares face him, he just reattaches his arms again and goes on his way. After each demon is killed, however, some original body part re-grows painfully into his body, replacing one of his unnaturally immortal organs—at one point he vomits up a lung, for example, as his natural lung grows in its place. Hyakkimaru is joined on his quest by Dororo (Kou Shibasaki, One Missed Call), an itinerant thief with a vendetta against Hyakkimaru's father. Together they face an army of demons and a bloodthirsty king who will stop at nothing to spread his hegemony throughout the world—and with each demon Hyakkimaru kills, he grows weaker as his immortal body is weakened with very mortal flesh…

Obviously the story is very dark, but it wears its manga origins well, presenting ludicrous event after ludicrous event in a fast-moving kinetic narrative that never becomes boring. Hyakkimaru faces off against a long series of demon-creatures in stylized, over-the-top combat, and the dark elements are always offset by more comedic moments usually centered around the hapless Dororo. It's kind of like a supernatural version of Azumi without the relentlessly dark tone and a lot more monsters. For those who like Japanese fantasy films with lots of beasties, Dororo really delivers.

As to be expected in a movie of this sort, character development is not exactly the focus of the story, although Hyakkimaru and Dororo do grow in their relationship, and both of them have definite character arcs that culminate in the climax. Unfortunately, some very crucial character changes seem undermotivated by the story, which weakens the effectiveness of the story.

That being said, there is a lot to enjoy. Tsumabuki plays Hyakkimaru initially as a nigh-emotionless killing machine who slowly grows a heart, so to speak. I'm not a big fan of Tsumabuki's work, but he pulls a great deal of sympathy out of the stoic Hyakkimaru character and manages to be fairly intimidating occasionally even with his baby face. Kou Shibasaki, in my opinion, is a lot of fun as Dororo, basically taking on the movements and vocal intonations of a modern-day Japanese gangster. Her performance is kind of like a riff off of Anna Tsuchiya's Ichiko character from Kamikaze Girls (2004). (Incidentally, Tsuchiya makes a guest appearance in Dororo as a butterfly demon presiding over a brood of baby-eating caterpillars. No joke.) Shibasaki can occasionally get a little shrill, but she lends some much-needed humanity and cheer to the often grotesque storytelling.

Kiichi Nakai as the evil warlord Daigo, on the other hand, proves to be suitably evil and merciless, but because of the way the story is structured, he goes missing from the narrative for a very long stretch as Hyakkimaru hacks up a legion of demons. Daigo simply doesn't do much in the film, although it doesn't matter too much because the story moves so fast with plenty of flash and bang.

Speaking of the special effects, they are definitely mixed in this offering, with the general trend being towards “awful.” Lots of lens filters cast an unearthly feel over the entire movie, which is kind of neat, but then the monsters show up. A lot of sub-Sci-Fi Channel CGI work is used to create the blurry, fast-moving demon creatures; when it's not bad CGI, it's equally poor suitmation beasts. The monster suits are rubbery and awful—and therefore terribly endearing to a kaiju-loving dork like me. Make no mistake, the effects are never particularly special, but they are a lot of fun for monster lovers, and any thick-skinned kaiju fan should get plenty of enjoyment from the proceedings.

Music is completely unmemorable. For some reason, much of the music is very low key, providing little more than a backbeat to the action. Some of the cues are inappropriate, sometimes bordering on electronica, and one particularly long combat montage is put to a monotonous tribal chant that adds no tension to the action but rather becomes somewhat annoying after a while.

Dororo is an unapologetically goofy fantasy-horror-samurai film. Despite the excessive gory elements, somehow the film never equals the sheer brutality of some of Ryunosuke Kitamura's similar work. I'm not a big fan of gory flicks with demonic themes, but this one is nevertheless surprisingly charming, even with a spotty and weak story. Dororo is a guilty pleasure for sure—if you have the guts to stomach it.