Warning: This article contains major spoilers.
A different version of this essay originally appeared at Genji Press in three parts [1, 2, 3].

Among the many reasons Osamu Tezuka's work has been so canonized with manga readers is its revisitability. Some of his titles have not aged as well (Swallowing The Earth's sexual politics are, ahem, iffy), but many more remain perennials because they have something new to offer every generation that encounters them: Black Jack, Astro-Boy, Buddha, Message To Adolf, Ode To Kirihito. It helps when the story is either decoupled from the moment or outright timeless. Dororo has the timelessness of a fable and the rousing immediacy of a fantasy action film, and in the space between those two it grows something that draws on the best of both story modes. I sat down with it once more, as preparation for the new TV anime adaptation airing as I write this, and while I found it more of a jumble than I remember (especially its hasty conclusion), it's also a showcase for all the ways Tezuka still distinguished himself as a storyteller.

If you want to be immortal, you need something to trade in

Ages ago in ancient Japan, ambitious Lord Daigo promised to give the Forty-Eight Demon Gods anything they wanted in exchange for being absolute ruler of Japan. The price was Daigo's as-yet-unborn son—or, rather, forty-eight body parts from the boy. When Daigo’s son is indeed born horribly deformed, Daigo browbeats the boy’s mother into abandoning him, Moses-like, in a basket sent downstream.

Years go by. The boy is found by a doctor, taken in as his own son, and over the years the child develops telepathic abilities to compensate for his lack of sensory organs or limbs. The doctor builds an artificial body for the boy (shades of Pinoco in Black Jack), and trains him diligently to walk, speak and intermingle freely with humanity. But demons are drawn to the boy, making life difficult in the doctor’s house (to say the least). Finally, after equipping the boy with a pair of swords concealed in his fake arms, the doctor christens him Hyakkimaru—"Hundred-Demon Boy"—and urges him to travel and find a place where he can be accepted for what he is.

It doesn’t take Hyakkimaru long to find out why he’s being haunted. The demons that chase him number forty-eight, one for each missing body part. As he vanquishes each one, another part of his body manifests for real: an eye here, a finger there. But whenever he has tried to find a place to be, circumstance conspires against him. When he falls in love with a woman who lives with a gang of orphans, bandits kill her and burn his house down; he slaughters them all in retribution. A life on the road just seems more reasonable than looking for false hope.

One lone swordsman, one lone thief

One day Hyakkimaru saves a much younger boy, a thief named Dororo, from a beating at the hands of a rival gang of thieves. Dororo tags after Hyakkimaru with a mind to separate him from his weapons, but over time the two form an uneasy alliance, and adventures ensue.

At one point Hyakkimaru and Dororo are held captive in a village that’s presided over by the magnanimous Lady Bandai, they sense far more going on than meets the eye. Lady Bandai, as it turns out, is one of the forty-eight demons herself — but after doing away with her, Hyakkimaru incurs not gratitude but resentment from the villagers. Without Lady Bandai to guide them, evil as she might have been, they’re now entirely on their own; what seemed to them like freedom at first has become a new burden.

In time Dororo reveals his own story—how he was the son of a bandit chieftain, Hibukuro, and how rebellion within the ranks forced Dororo and his family to become scavengers in a land blighted with famine. Hibukuro’s pride refused to let him accept charity, and it became his downfall when he attacked a noblewoman and her retainers rather than be allowed to eat some of her food. Not long after that Dororo’s mother died as well, freezing to death in a snowstorm while trying to keep him warm. Hyakkimaru and Dororo are alike more than either want to admit or face, and that ambivalence causes them to shove each other way again and again, only to be drawn back together.

It’s then that another revelation, this time on Dororo’s part, emerges to secure the bond between them once and for all. Frustrated by Dororo’s reluctance to bathe, Hyakkimaru drags the urchin into the water and discover’s the boy’s back has a treasure map tattooed onto it—and not just any treasure map, either, but money Dororo’s own bandit-king father hoarded for the sake of the peasants he was hoping to make into his own army.

Restoring what's missing

Most of the story is divided into sub-adventures that either advance Hyakkimaru and Dororo's story in some way, or let their examples inspire others. In one such adventure, the pair stumble across what’s left of a wall—a wall that divided a village during wartime, much as Berlin or Panmunjeom were parceled up. Both Dororo and Hyakkimaru make discoveries about the true nature of the place in their own way, but it’s Hyakkimaru that has to face a particularly shattering revelation in the process. An arrogant young swordsman, Tahomaru, clashes violently with Hyakkimaru when the former prepares to lead the execution of peasant “spies” (whose worst crime was being caught on the wrong side of that wall).

Only after Hyakkimaru kills the other man does he discover he has just slain his younger brother. Worse, the magistrate who profits by keeping the townspeople literally divided against themselves is his own biological father—the same man who sacrificed Hyakkimaru’s arms and legs and all the rest of it for the sake of a little worldly power. Horrified as Hyakkimaru is, he has to continue, both for his own sake and Dororo’s. In that spirit, he goes after the nine-tailed fox demon that has tormented him with these revelations. It doesn’t help that despite the “border” being torn down and the two halves of the village unified, he and Dororo have no opportunity to stay and be revered as heroes—not with Hyakkimaru’s father after both of their heads, and Hyakkimaru himself despondent that the only possible connection he has to his family has been destroyed.

At another point, two heroes are separated, with Dororo finding something like refuge with a woman who encourages him to call her “Mother” (even though, as you can imagine, Dororo’s not having any of that mushy stuff at first). She lives near a waterfall where various mountain monks and ascetics come to discipline themselves under the freezing downpour, but her real intentions are sinister: she kills them, gives their faces to a demon, and abandons the now-faceless corpses in a nearby cave. But even in the short time she has been caring for Dororo, she has come to think of him as her son, not just another sacrifice, and re-enacts the self-sacrificial behavior of Dororo’s own real mother without ever having known about it. Her selflessness also gives Hyakkimaru a chance to dive in and save his friend—but again, in one of the ongoing ironies of the story, they’re barely back together for five minutes before each is vowing up and down to go their separate ways.

Another half made whole

One thing Tezuka was always skilled at was taking a stock situation and turning it upside down to discover how it could be put to different ends. Near the end, Hyakkimaru and Dororo end up in the company of a gang of thieves, whose sights are set on a massive buried treasure out on a distant island cape. They trust themselves to an oarsman, Shiranui, who turns out to be far more dangerous than any of the bandits themselves. Shiranui has two pet sharks (!) that he has raised like sons, who follow his every command and almost make a meal out of Dororo and the other bandits. Hyakkimaru manages to intervene, but the intervening struggle leaves one shark dead, their raft wrecked, and the bunch of them trapped on the island.

But instead of having the situation on the island degenerate into mutual suspicion and violence (an easy way to generate drama), Tezuka allows everyone—Shiranui, especially—to speak from their hearts. For Shiranui, his sharks are all that he knows of companionship and family. Other people are alien to him; small wonder he’s able to feed them to his sharks without a second thought. The way Hyakkimaru deals with him is to attack his “children” since without them he’s nothing—but all the same, he gives Shiranui the dignity of a burial with his “son”. Everybody loves somebody.

The way this is further developed over each story in the final volume is woven in so quietly that at first we don’t even notice it. But it becomes impossible to ignore. Hyakkimaru’s loneliness becomes all the more profound when he becomes emotionally attached to Oyone, a young girl widely believed to be a madwoman, but whose lunacy is more playful than actually dangerous. Her father has been exploiting her behavior (in a way that’s best discovered by reading the book itself), and when she sacrifices herself to keep Hyakkimaru from dying at the hands of a ronin bent on revenge, Hyakkimaru takes it all the more harshly. He has to find someone he can love back without fear of losing them, too, and this life is not going to be the way to do it.

The finale involves Hyakkimaru’s reunion with his biological mother and father, and—more importantly in some ways—his parting with Dororo. There is another plot that has been developing all this time involving Dororo, one I will not spoil, but which further convinces Hyakkimaru that the two of them must stand alone before they can become truly whole. And again, the way Tezuka handles Hyakkimaru’s meeting with his parents is not what we expect: there is bitterness and recrimination and some degree of revenge, but Hyakkimaru realizes that he has to show mercy of his own even if others don’t, for the sake of being that much less like them and having a chance to walk his own path. Not that he was ever like them at all in the first place, of course.

The odd couple

Tezuka could have set Dororo in any manner of setting; the live-action movie version of the story revamped it into a kind of post-apocalytic Mad Max thing (a move I wasn't fond of). But he chose Japan’s early feudal years. roughly the same time period Kenji Mizoguchi used for Sansho the Bailiff, and I think Tezuka did this to underscore the way imperious cruelty and oppression were the order of the day. Superstition, too—kind of hard to avoid that when demons go a-sporting across the pages—but Tezuka brings in those things in ways that are subtle as well as cinematic. It’s probably no coincidence that after killing the fox, Hyakkimaru regains his real nose. A common folk believe in Japan is that the spirit enters (and leaves) the body through the nostrils; by confronting this painful piece of personal history, he’s regained that much more of his soul. It’s also no mistake that each of Hyakkimaru’s regained body parts comes at the price of great personal suffering—not just the pain of having a new limb or organ grow in, but the conflict and the trauma that comes with each battle. Talk about your personal demons—here, they’re all too literal.

Stories about odd couples tend to follow a pattern. Each is devoted to the other, but that devotion comes out more as squabbling than collaboration. Time and again Hyakkimaru and Dororo are torn apart and brought back together, because each makes impossible demands on the other, but who else could stand them? This pattern is less developed through the course of the story than simply repeated, and that is in part what makes the ending not as satisfying as it could be — the day when Hyakkimaru realizes they must walk separate paths before either one of them can become truly whole. Yes, they complete each other in some sense, but not in a way that allows either one to stand alone properly—and since Dororo’s so headstrong in his own way, it’s inevitable that they will be pulled apart time and again. Eventually for keeps.

If I have issues with Dororo, they stem mostly from this sudden ending, the sort of thing that feels like someone told Tezuka to wrap it up without being given time to resolve dangling threads. It provides closure more for Hyakkimaru than Dororo, so it's also rather one-sided--and it's not even all that much closure, since by that point we have seen how Hyakkimaru's need to know where he came from eventually became subsumed by the much larger need to know where he was eventually going. It's the sort of defect that I look to the upcoming TV anime adaptation to nod towards and potentially correct, but also not the kind that should keep you from reading and savoring all that's good about this. Even weaker Tezuka is still Tezuka, and the vast majority of Dororo is him being anything but weaker.

Note: This product was provided by the creator or publisher as a promotional item for the sake of a review.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.