Dororo: The AniTAY Review

When Dororo wrapped up its first half, it was a runaway favorite with many fans. However, it was hard to ignore some production dips in the second half. Despite this, there were still plenty of fans who believed the series was well worth finishing. Today, we have our thoughts on this series. I am DilKokoro and I’m thrilled to be joined by AniTAY writers TGRIP, ShadowHaken, Doctorkev, TheMamaLuigi and Nanttene, who all have their own reflections on this action anime.

Where to Watch: Amazon Prime Video

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DilKokoro

Without mincing words, I can emphatically say that Dororo represents both the shine and the grime that accompanies anime. It has an incredible story that stays enthralling through the whole journey. The animation borders on jaw-dropping at moments in the first half of the series. Unfortunately, there is a plummet in production quality through a majority of the second half of its run that serves as a reminder of just how large of an impact production (and, in this case, the lack of quality) can have on an anime.

Into the intricacies, Dororo dares to take a premise that might be considered overdone in demon hunting and turns it into a thrilling adventure. For as brief as they typically are, the scale of some of the fights are incredibly creative as demons take to the skies and Hyakkimaru relentlessly pursues. The action early on alone shows technical savvy and every movement in the midst of swordplay looks incredibly detailed and calculated. Indeed, the swordplay here is some of the very best I have seen in anime, and the highs definitely outweigh the second acts’ lackluster battles that suffer from the aforementioned shortcomings.

When loud-mouthed little kids are introduced in anime, I usually hold my breath. For whatever reason, I usually feel like shows don’t know how to utilize their bantering kids at the right moments and it ends up either destroying momentum or being outright annoying. Dororo, the titular character, is anything but that description. There is considerable growth in this youngster as they travel along with the rounin Hyakkimaru. I actually felt that the story hit its’ best notes as young Dororo was learning of the trials and tribulations of the impoverished people of war-torn Japan. These small windows of time are capitalized by a phenomenal lead character like Dororo.

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Finally, it is worth taking a bit more time to address the production issues. If I were to count the number of episodes that are glaringly impacted by the budget dip, I would place it at around six. After a few ugly decisions to cut corners draining all credibility for most, the anime actually regathers its composure and finishes the run well. Granted the fights don’t shine quite the same as they did earlier, but they were inoffensive. The storytelling is still a wonderful time and well worth the brief sour taste that audiences were so bothered by.

TL;DR Dororo is a phenomenal action anime with a ton of heart in action and storytelling and is well worth enduring some rough patches that serve as a reminder that quality anime can cost an arm and a leg.

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TGRIP

It’s funny; of the many styles of shows out there, Dororo reminds me most of an old Gainax show (no, not that one). Sure, it’s a reimagining of a half-century old classic anime (itself based on pre-existing source material), and its visual style does evoke the style of OVAs we used to get back in the 90s, but for its overall feel, Gainax springs to mind for two key reasons. First, you can tell exactly when studio MAPPA saved its budget in various scenes, and when they splurged to make Dororo look as incredible as a Mad House show. And second, beneath the blood, guts, and slayed demons, is a very human show; in a literal sense, it’s about Hyakkimaru’s quest to get his physical body back, and in a thematic sense, it’s about him and many of the show’s characters directly realizing what humanity means. Imbedded within Dororo’s unmistakable (if albeit noticeably imperfect at times) style, is an honest, at times heartbreaking substance of what it means to live with one’s self, and reclaim both your body and soul.

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Which is precisely why the show isn’t called “Hyakkimaru”, but “Dororo” instead. The one character who has never lost their humanity, and thus the perfect foil for the main protagonist. Talkative, terrible in a fight, willing to hear out different people and opposing sides, at times even reserved; they might be a child, but Dororo is a great counter to the silent, determined badass that is Hyakkimaru. Also, they’re one of the very few unforsaken characters in the whole show. Not to say that Dororo hasn’t experienced personal tragedy (they are after all an orphan who witnessed their parents die a prolonged death), but unlike most of the other recurring characters in the show, Dororo hasn’t sinned. Sure, Dororo’s a bit of an asshole sometimes (they’re ten years old, what do you expect?), but they still have a firm, uncompromised moral compass. Which is why they’re a perfect companion for Hyakkimaru, who not only has to slay a dozen demons throughout the course of the show, but has to reckon with the fact that just because what he’s killing are demons, Hyakkimaru isn’t absolved of his actions.

Reckoning is what every character on this show has to do: Hyakkimaru’s biological parents for forsaking him to bring prosperity to their land, his adoptive dad for teaching him how to kill demons, his brother for enjoying the life that was built upon Hyakkimaru’s unwilling sacrifice. And everyone else Hyakkimaru and Dororo meet on their journey, from demons killing scores of humans, to humans helping out said demons in their slaughter, and of course people inflicting horrors on one another. And through it all, Dororo is there to be Hyakkimaru’s hypeman and moral compass; it’s kind of staggering how amoral Hyakkimaru is when the show starts, and it takes nearly twenty episodes for him to find a good reason as to why he should get his body back, apart from just “it’s mine.” But by the climax, Dororo achieves what is one of the best endings I’ve seen in an anime in a long time, where not only is everything resolved, but every character comes full circle too, and if you think I’m being vague about the how of all this, that’s how much I like this show. There’s no way I’ll spoil this anime’s ending; that’s how good it is.

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If you’re wondering why I haven’t talked too much about this show’s animation, that is because it’s really the one true weakness Dororo does have, that and a soundtrack that could’ve used a more audacious person behind the scenes to give it truly memorable music outside of the show’s outstanding Ops and Eds. Like I said, this is a series that evokes Gainax in both senses of the word, with a few scenes in particular looking like they were done by Studio DEEN. But when the show needs to go full throttle for its action scenes, it doesn’t hold back in either its graphic nature or its detail in sword fighting and monster killing. And yes, the pacing can slow the show down at times, but this is surprisingly not only a show with surprisingly little filler, but even its filler episodes are fun to watch (the one outright comedy episode where Dororo and Hyakkimaru go to reforge a pair of swords brings some much needed laughs). But even so, when I finished Dororo, the destination was absolutely worth the long, tough journey that preceded it, and while I do think this show deserved a bigger budget, I’m more than content knowing that the writing and direction wasn’t something Studio MAPPA skimped out on.

TL;DR

Imperfectly animated and scored, but more than makes up for it with its themes, characters, and overall story that asks “how does one truly reclaim lost humanity?” Has one of the best climaxes of any anime in recent memory, and definitely on the shortlist for one of 2019’s best shows.

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ShadowHaken

The remake of one of the most obscure Tezuka series is one that, instead of being a loyal adaptation to the 1960's manga and anime, decides to be its own thing by presenting its own take on the journey of Hyakkimaru and Dororo and their quest defeating demons while at the same time they get to discover what it is to be human.

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The first 12 episodes of the series are basically pure gold, despite having some “Monster of the week” vibes. This wasn’t anything bad since the main story was extremely good (even if it was detoured by little bits here and there) and well delivered to hook you. Further, it adds to this winning story a main character who does not speak and who is very good at sword fighting and good production values that give you something that will hook you every week and will keep you at the edge of your seat excited for what it will come next.

The later half, composed of 12 episodes, is where the overall series falls a little due to budget issues for some of the episodes. Also, instead of focusing on what would be the main story, the focus shifts towards other side stories or characters that help us understand a little bit more about the world that Dororo and Hyakkimaru live in (instead of their own personal journey and what would be the main story). This is not bad by per see, but it is different from what we were used to, making a not-so welcomed change of pace compared to what we were expecting in the first half. Still, when we finally get back to the main story, things speed up and it reminds us why Dororo is so good on the first place.

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Finally, and as I said above, one of the focal points in the story is to remember what it means to be human, what makes the difference between a ghoul or a supernatural being and a human one. The answer is found in our own possibility to do good. Even when our nature, our desires, or objectives might lead us towards a dark path, there is always the option to stop, rethink, and change the route you are taking (even if it means backpedaling). The opportunity to make things right will always be there, and that its a good lesson that might stay in any viewer of this new take on the classic Tezuka story.

TL;DR This is an excellent first half that is followed by a second half that loses some luster, yet still good enough to watch until the end for the story alone.

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Doctorkev

Osamu Tezuka’s manga is something of an acquired taste. I have no doubt the man was a genius of graphic literature – he practically single-handedly kickstarted the manga industry and invented several genres. His work has not dated well though, and I say this as an avid collector of his (translated) books. The term “tonal whiplash” could have been coined to describe the experience of reading many of his works, especially the more adult-targeted stories. One scene could be horrendous violence, the next light-hearted slapstick with bug-eyed characters goofing around. Tezuka’s character designs were heavily influenced by early Disney – cartoonish and rounded, and this can work against the sometimes serious topics he tries to explore.

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Dororo the manga was released in 3 volumes in the 1960s then cancelled. Tezuka was forced to hastily end his manga with a conclusion that was anything but. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the original 26-episode black and white anime adaptation, which for the first half hews very close to the manga (including barely altered character designs) before veering off into mostly original stories. You can see various episodes on Youtube. It has aged even less well than the manga. 2004 brought a harder-edged, “adult” version of the story to PS2 as the game Blood Will Tell, a fairly decent third-person hack’n’slash game with character designs far removed from the manga.

2019’s MAPPA-produced anime adaptation is an interesting combination of both earlier releases. While Tezuka’s childish cartoon-faces are gone – replaced with a far more modern aesthetic – the characters do remain recognisable. Even the major story beats are preserved, only with some significant changes involving the fate of Tahomaru, brother of lead character Hyakkimaru. Much like the 1969 series, the second half contains a large proportion of anime-original material, for good and bad – a somewhat misjudged comedy episode is entertaining but feels very out of place. The conclusion is far more satisfying than the manga’s though, even if it does keep one of the more frustrating plot developments.

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Aesthetically, Dororo (2019) towers far above the original anime in terms of design, animation proficiency and plot propulsion. It usually looks good, and even in some episodes when obvious cost-saving measures are employed it never approaches the cheapness of 1960s B+W anime. Titular character Dororo is far less annoying than their manga counterpart and Hyakkimaru’s character development is far better conceived and realised than in Tezuka’s original. Dororo does not skimp on violence either – it evokes well the sense of horror that ordinary people must have experienced when living through the real warring states period. I’d recommend this as a good watch to anyone – even those unfamiliar with the original – this anime surpasses it in every meaningful way.

TL;DR: Engaging and violent modern interpretation of an over-half-century-old Tezuka Manga. Don’t let that pedigree put you off.

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TheMamaLuigi

Dororo was a strange watch for me. It came out of the gate incredibly strong, grabbing me with its original premise and its pedigree as a modern adaptation of a lesser-known Tezuka manga. The narrative hook of Hyakkimaru searching for his body through slaying various demons, on its own, makes for an engaging watch augmented by its engaging animation, art direction, and character writing.

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So, where’s the strangeness? Dororo’s second half is, mostly, a disappointing follow-up to the first’s greatness mostly due to the extremely jarring drop in animation quality. The fluidity and gracefulness of the first half is replaced with subpar, off-model, stiff animation that directly works against the movement required by the generally complex and involved battles in which Hyakkimaru finds himself. Though the fights remain entertaining by merit of their purpose within the larger story, actually watching them had me yearning for the early episodes’ stunning and captivating movement. Casting a majority of the show in fairly realistic tones of muted greens, greys, and beiges was an interesting artistic choice at first — and the show understood this — but when the action on screen isn’t entertaining, that artistic choice views as bland and entirely uninteresting to watch.

That isn’t to say the second half is without its great points, however. The final narrative arc is riveting, casting Hyakkimaru in a role that, though the series foreshadowed right from episode one, remained nonetheless thematically potent and generally well-written. Dororo herself remains a treat throughout the series, serving as both friend and foil to Hyakkimaru, comedic relief and surrogate for the audience. Though the body-less swordsman is the main character, titling the work after Dororo is a smart, narratively consistent choice.

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The series’ central question of what makes a human and what makes us human is eternally culturally and socially relevant, and the series does a satisfactory job exploring its various aspects. Is being human merely having a human body? Is it caring for your fellow human? Is it understanding the unsustainability of savagery? Dororo offers answers to these questions that, though they tend to eschew nuance or alternative viewpoints, are nonetheless powerful and befitting the series’ tone.

Returning to that strangeness mentioned earlier, I think it arises from the fact that I enjoyed Dororo, but at many points, I did not enjoy physically watching Dororo. The severe drop in animation quality and resulting, disappointing the fights hampered much of my enjoyment of the second half’s episodes. Though, it managed to stick the landing one of 2019’s better shows. Not the best, and certainly not anime of the year, but one that resonated and reverberated both for its rivetingly high highs and disappointingly low lows.

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TL;DR: Distractingly ridiculous drop in art and animation quality aside, Dororo is a smart adaptation of Tezuka’s classic manga that raises interesting and potent questions around humanity, savagery, and the fight to hold onto what makes us who we are.

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Nanttene

Tezuka. I’d heard the name. Of course I had. He’s the veritable god of Manga, at once Walt Disney and Will Eisner. I’d heard of with his works, but I’d never taken the time to get familiar them, and so amid buzz about 2019's re-envisioning of Dororo, I figured now was as good a time as any. It’s plain to see from the visual design that the series is a departure from Tezuka’s, yet an old adage holds true: the more things change, the more they stay the same, and Dororo is once again haunted by turbulence in production.

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We open with the titular Dororo, a street-smart rapscallion who’s bitten off a little more than they can chew, and is about to take an extended class in the school of hard knocks... or they would have, were it not for the assault of a wandering demon. In a flash, Dororo is saved by Hyakkimaru, a mysterious swordsman hellbent on slaying demons in a quest to regain his body, sacrificed as an infant for the sake of a kingdom. Hyakkimaru lives up to the ferocity of his namesake (which means “1,000 demons”), swiftly dispatching the assailant. Dororo, sensing an opportunity, tags along on his quest.

Hyakkimaru doesn’t talk much; he can’t, mind you, but you get the impression he wouldn’t have much to say even if he could. Despite his human form, or perhaps because of it, there’s something distinctly distant and alien about him: he can’t see, hear, or even feel, and you’re never quite sure where ‘human’ begins or ends with him. Dororo, conversely, is lively, talkative, clever, and a bit of a con, thief, and scamp, but is nonetheless good natured. The two play off each other well, with Dororo bringing much a needed humanity to Hyakkimaru’s single-minded pursuit.

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But enough about characters, let’s talk themes. The through line of Dororo is sacrifice, how far you are willing to take your means to meet your ends. Is sacrificing a newborn to the underworld justifiable in order to save a kingdom? Vagrants, to save your children? Are the lives of strangers null and void if it means you can have a family? Are you really any different in regaining what you lost if it means the indirect deaths of innocent hundreds? As a series, Dororo is sympathetic, but not permissive. It hints that a sacrifice that is taken, not freely given, bears a heavier price than it appears, that what we do says no less about us than why we do it. It’s thoughtful, charming, and sometimes moving, which is why it’s all the more of a shame that it loses its heart halfway through. It’ rather remarkable how the text of the story loses its luster in the absence of tight editing and direction; it leaves the impression that the series was handed off to an impartial third party, to the degree that it’s difficult to recommend the show’s second half to all but the most ardent viewer. It’s fantastic for a spell there, though.

TL;DR: Desperate times call for desperate measures, but what becomes of the soul? Dororo asks this of us and its characters, and ironically, or perhaps aptly, illustrates it in its own production: the tale is finished, but at what cost?

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