Osamu Tezuka was an extraordinarily prolific and influential creator of manga and anime. So far, only a small fraction of his total output has been released in English. Out of those, one of my personal favorites is his short manga series Dororo. With yokai, an accursed swordsman, and the inclusion of historical elements, I can’t help but like Dororo. Although eventually releasing an omnibus containing the entire series, initially Vertical published Dororo in three separate volumes which earned an Eisner Award in 2009. Dororo, Volume 3, released in 2008, contains the portion of the series that was originally serialized in Japan between 1968 and 1969. It was also during that time period that Dororo went on hiatus. Tezuka abandoned the manga for a year, leaving it without an ending, before returning to it when the Dororo anime series began. The manga was then given a proper conclusion, albeit a much shorter one than was first envisioned. The finale admittedly ended up being a bit rushed, but I love Dororo anyway.
Chased by demons and in turn chasing them down, Hyakkimaru is slowly regaining his forty-eight missing body parts one at a time; each demon he defeats brings him closer to becoming whole. Often it’s not the terrifying supernatural beings that Hyakkimaru must really worry about, though. Humans–with all of their failings, greed, and lust for power–can be just as dangerous as any monster. Hyakkimaru’s father, who selfishly sacrificed his own son’s body in exchange for demonic aid, has become an oppressive warlord. Hyakkimaru isn’t the only one suffering because of his father’s ambitions. The country is being torn apart by war and it’s the farmers and commoners who are being forced to support and fight for leaders they didn’t choose. Dororo, Hyakkimaru’s young traveling companion, also has a family legacy left to deal with. The diminutive thief’s late father was a bandit who amassed a significant amount of wealth. The map to the location of his treasure was tattooed upon his child’s back and now Dororo is pursued by those who want the riches for their own corrupt purposes.
Dororo is one of Tezuka’s transitional works as he began to develop more mature, adult-oriented stories in contrast to his more lighthearted manga generally intended for younger audiences. Dororo addresses serious issues like war and discrimination, but it also incorporates charm, humor, and bittersweet joy. One particular bright spot to balance the darker elements of the series is the titular Dororo. The small thief has led a hard life and can empathize with others and their misfortunes, becoming an exuberant and enthusiastic champion for their causes, while somehow remaining optimistic and cheerful in the face of all the unfairness and tragedy. Hyakkimaru, on the other hand, has an even more dire past than Dororo and has grown weary of the injustices in the world. But the time Hyakkimaru has spent with Dororo as they travel across Japan has changed him. Dororo’s positivity has rubbed off on Hyakkimaru and he has come to care for the youngster immensely. Whether Hyakkimaru realizes it or not, he desperately needed someone like Dororo in his otherwise bleak life.
The relationship that develops between Hyakkimaru and Dororo is only one component of many that makes me appreciate what Tezuka is doing with the series, even if it did end up being truncated. I was initially drawn to Dororo because of Hyakkimaru’s horrifying origin story and his fight to regain what he lost, searching for somewhere to belong and wanting nothing more than to live in peace. His specific situation may be unique, but that desire to be accepted by others is nearly universal. I also liked the supernatural elements in Dororo and how Tezuka slowly shifts the focus of the series to issues more firmly based in reality. The demons and monsters never completely disappear from Dororo, but as the manga progresses the historical influences and more realistic aspects of the manga become increasingly prominent. Among other things, Tezuka’s artwork and storytelling in Dororo takes inspiration from traditional legends and tales, samurai films, and events from Japan’s Warring States period, but he also incorporates his own touches and imagination and pulls it all together in a way that only Tezuka can.