Director: Akihiko Shiota
From an Original Manga by Osamu Tezuka
Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Ko Shibasaki, Kiichi Nakai, Yoshio Harada, Eita
Here’s our nutshell premise—in a fantasy version of Japan, the warlord Kagemitsu Daigo is on the losing, soon to be annihilated side of a clan war. To save his clan and gain revenge, he makes a deal with 48 trapped demons—he will let each one claim a part of his infant son in return for the power to defeat his enemies. The part could be an arm, a leg, a liver, a heart, whatever. Possession of this bit of humanity will allow them to free themselves from the temple where they are trapped. They agree and do, the Daimyo does, and from there embarks on a campaign of conquest to bring the rest of the country under his twisted, evil rule, setting free the 48 demons in the process.
Now, here’s where it gets weird–the child doesn’t die. After the demons get through with it, what’s left of the child is merely placed in a basket like Moses and sent down a river.
Right. No arms, no legs, no heart, no major organs. Just an empty torso and a head, kept alive apparently by rage and the sheer will to live. That’s a lot to swallow, maybe more so for a Western audience without the cultural appreciation for that kind of spiritual strength. In other words, this kind of suspension of belief requires a derrick at the least. Which is too bad, since it really doesn’t matter. I’m serious. Just take it on faith that the child lived and get on with it, because you’ll miss the rest of the movie otherwise, and it would be your loss. Dororo is by turns horrifying, hysterical, suspenseful, playful, serious, and fun. How it manages to be all those things, often in the same scene, is a marvel in itself.
Back to the kid in the basket, who is discovered by a hermit/alchemist/magician who creates artificial body parts for the boy from the bodies of children killed in the war, including a special arm which contains a demon-destroying sword. To use it, the boy simply has to pull off the top part of his arm like a sheathe to expose the blade. He lives and trains with the man he thinks of as his father, but the time will come when he must go out into the world, since the only way he can be fully human again is to track down and destroy all 48 demons and retrieve his missing parts. When the magician dies, it is time.
When next we meet the young man called Hyakkimaru, he is in a strange town on the trail of a demon. He uses his magic sword to clear out a nest of spider-demons hiding in a bar/brothel and retrieves one of his parts in the process. The sword in his arm brings him to the attention of a young thief, who is very obviously a young woman dressed and living as a man. She’s not fooling anyone, but then again anyone who points this out to her is likely to get the crap beaten out of him, so it usually doesn’t happen. She is an orphan who lost her parents due to Hyakkimaru’s father, Kagemitsu Daigo, and she wants Hyakkimaru’s sword so that she can take her revenge. When she asks Hyakkimaru’s name, he claims he doesn’t have one, and then gives a few options, one of which is Dororo, which means “forest” but is close to another word that means “thief.” The girl likes the name and—being a thief–decides to steal it from him, so from then on she insists her name is Dororo. Much to Hyakkimaru’s annoyance, she decides that she will accompany him, plainly stating her intention that, when he finally kills the right demon, the sword in his arm will detach itself so she can steal it. Hyakkimaru, for his part, doesn’t really care about the sword once he’s done with it, and so off they go. At first Dororo is merely following him to be ready to steal the sword, but after a time they become partners in demon killing, after a fashion.
We have several scenes of Hyakkimaru and Dororo fighting demons together and, one by one, reclaiming parts of Hyakkimaru, but to Dororo’s annoyance, none of them being Hyakkimaru’s missing arm. As we go on, we get a little more of Dororo’s backstory, including the admonition from her dying mother to disguise herself and live as a man until the time when she meets the man who can make her cry, at which point she can stop pretending to be a man and get married. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound like a great incentive, but the idea is that the man who can make her cry is the man who reawakens her gentler side. We do not see a great deal of Dororo’s gentler side in this movie. She has a habit of kneeing Hyakkimaru in the nether parts when she is pissed off, which happens a lot.
As the number of demons starts to dwindle and Hyakkimaru’s reputation grows, he meets a man who turns out to be his younger brother, now the heir to the clan, and Hyakkimaru joins his service and in turn meets his father and mother. As you can guess, it’s not too long before everyone figures out who everyone else is, leading to the inevitable final confrontation. And possible redemption from unexpected sources? Ain’t saying. I will say some things are settled, some not. Does Hyakkimaru kill the last of the demons? Does Dororo get her revenge? Does she meet the man who can make her cry? Does she beat the crap out of him?
No more spoilers, and besides, any good movie is like any good book, in the sense that what happens isn’t necessarily what it’s about. I won’t tell you what happened. Watch it and make up your own mind what it’s about.