Sometimes it's not about a storyline, or a character, or even a theme. Sometimes it's about an attitude, a unifying point of view about the elements in a work. Dorohedoro gives us a grotty, crumbling urban hellscape, beseiged by arrogant magic-wielders who turn people into monsters for fun, and yet the dominant mood of the story is a crooked grin. This shouldn't work, but it does. Dorohedoro is hilarious, disgusting, bizarre, cockeyed, visionary, and at times even rather sweet, and somehow none of those things steps on the toes of the other.
Down in the Hole
Dorohedoro, adapted from Q Hayashida's long-running manga series, is set in a schizoid world. One half is "The Hole", the wretched hellscape that our world has turned into, where all the buildings are graffiti-splattered wrecks, a deformed populace limps through the streets, and the skies are perpetually smoggy with magic smoke. All this is no thanks to the Sorcerers, the magic-wielding superhumans who live in a higher dimension and occasionally pop through magic doors to visit the Hole and perform magical experiments on hapless victims. And yet life goes on there in some form, even as both human and Sorcerer corpses pile up in alleys and doorways.
Among the humans are a sort-of couple: Caiman, the quarterback-sized dude who dresses in gimp-fetish gear and has a lizard's head; and Nikaido, the perky woman who runs the Hungry Bug Restaurant and keeps Caiman fed with her signature gyoza. They hunt sorcerers, the better to find the one that turned Caiman's head into a lizard's and erased his memory. Right in the opening scene we're treated to how they operate: the first shots of the series are from inside Caiman's mouth, as he closes his jaws around the face of a hapless Sorcerer and exposes him to a humanlike apparition that seems to live in the back of his throat. "You're not it," this being grumbles — meaning, whoever was unlucky enough to end up in Caiman's jaws isn't the one responsible for his transformation. This is not even one of the weirder things that happens in this story.
Between and around the weirdness, a story takes shape. Two Sorcerers, the hapless Fujita and his giggly partner Ebisu, barely escape with their lives from Caiman and Nikaido. They manage to make it back to their boss, the mysterious and arrogant En, whose mushroom-centric magic powers have caused untold havoc in the past. En sends two of his "Cleaners" — the clawhammer-wielding Shin and the muscular Noi — to find Caiman and Nikaido, and do away with them.
Meanwhile, Caiman tries to use his new job as a medical assistant to gather what clues might be had about the Sorcerer who transmuted him. His grouchy new boss Vaux doesn't have anything he can offer right away, just the possibility that clues will turn up by way of one of the corpses that come through their doors. Then Shin and Noi come calling, and it's Caiman and Nikaido's turn to barely escape with their lives. And the only way they do this is by way of Nikaido's power. She is a Sorcerer herself, concealing her power from others during her time in the human world — especially from Caiman, for who knows what he might do if he found out his best friend and trusted companion was part of the very thing that had ruined him.
Even Sorcerers have friends
How a story plays out sometimes has little to do with how it's constructed. Dorohedoro's components come from baskets labeled "horror" and "fantasy" and "martial arts", but the way they've been bolted together better deserves the label "slice-of-life". Much of the story over the course of the first three or four episodes plays out in a way that's more about the flavor of life in the Hole, and in the Sorcerer's realm, than about the story that accrues. And even after the plot kicks into higher gear, the storytelling is still more easygoing and less rigorously coupled to the plotting. One episode has both Sorcerers and humans in a baseball game, the kind of funny one-off you'd expect to see confined to the show's promo art. It mainly exists to add humor and atmosphere — a way to show how yes, even in the wretchedness of the Hole, life goes on — but it's actually woven into the rest of the goings-on as well.
The grubby, lovable quality of the material translates into affection for its characters, or at the very least respect. Caiman is something of a dolt, an overgrown kid with a favorite-food fetish, but that makes him far more likable than if he were some moody, cloak-hugging loner. The same goes for Nikaido: her cheer and enthusiasm are infectious, and it's also nice to see a female character with autonomy that actually means something in the story, and isn't just cosmetic. I was not happy with how the last couple of episodes essentially involve her being brainwashed and kidnapped so Caiman could go rescue her, but even that hoary old cliché is dealt with intelligently. Even En, Noi and Shin get equal time for audience empathy. We learn of their histories in flashbacks (in En's case, by way of a hilariously self-important industrial film he created about himself), and in Noi and Shin's case we find the bond between them is as strong and as sincere as the one between Caiman and Nikaido.
Fantasy and science fiction stories always run the risk of being absurd in a bad way. Fantasy, and horror, are doubly susceptible, because the rules of their stories tend to be loosey-goosier than SF. But if you care about the people involved, you forgive more liberties taken with the worldbuilding. Caiman and Nikaido (and, yes, Noi and Shin and Fujita and Ebisu) capture our attention at least as much as the world they inhabit, so you don't mind overlooking things about the world that don't make much sense. Example: the "night of the living dead" festival in one episode, where Caiman and the others hunt zombies that rise from the grave one night a year. That made me wonder: if the inhabitants of the Hole know that the dead rise from their graves as zombies once a year, why don't they just cremate everyone who dies? But it's the kind of detail that wouldn't materially change the story if altered anyway; it comments on and illuminates the goings-on, but it's not by itself pivotal.
I was lucky enough to read several volumes of Q Hayashida's original manga when copies turned up in my local library system, and I had to ask myself: what kind of adaptation could come from this? Obviously a costly one, since they'd need a lavish animation budget to do justice to the grimy, detailed artwork. But it was the writing and direction that I saw being the biggest hurdles; you needed to stay true to the original humor, both goofy and jet-black. (The original Blade Of The Immortal anime fell down for me because it didn't reproduce the darkly funny attitude of its source.)
Having Netflix as a production partner for Dorohedoro solved the first problem: the show's animation budget and production values (courtesy of Studio MAPPA) are top-notch. The even bigger surprise, though, was how well the cheeky-dark tone of the original material came through. Some of this is the way the writers and showrunners stuck with the slice-of-life pacing of the original story; some of it is by way of the blizzard of loopy individual details. At one point characters are freed from captivity by a lockpicking cockroach. When Caiman hatches a plan to break into En's castle and rescue Nikaido, it's by way of distracting En and his minions by selling them meat pies as part of a competition. (It plays out even dippier than it sounds.) And I mentioned the baseball episode, which accomplishes the neat trick of poking fun at both the show it's in and other sports anime without wrecking the show's own momentum.
In my review of Beastars, I mentioned how invigorating that show was, how it reminded me of all the ways anime still can have enormous untapped possibilities. I fully expected that to be the one and only time this year I encountered anything on that level. Here we are again.