If I were to sum up this excellent 2019 adaptation of Osamu Tezuki’s manga in one sentence, I would say it is “mystery play of the right brain, by the right brain, for the right brain.” It is not really a modern drama for audience to process the plot using left brain logic – instead, it speaks to audience in symbolic imagery, in colours and in subtle staging.
The aesthetics of calligraphic episode titles
The first thing that struck me about this show is that it has been over a decade since I was last impressed with the calligraphy of episode titles in an anime series. To me, the last show with such beautiful calligraphy was Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohaniheto (2006), which hired the female calligrapher Masumi Narita [成田眞澄]. The episodic titles of Dororo are the work of another female calligrapher named Bisen Aoyagi [青柳美扇]. I think the calligraphic style – which conveys masculinity, strength and courage – is a fine and subtle contrast to the new slender-figured character design of Hyakkimaru.
Character design and the colour palette of the Five Elements
The new character design of Hyakkimaru is strikingly beautiful to look at, and the colours he is associated with – black, white and red – is a combination that traditionally delivers a dramatic visual effect by highlighting darkness, light and blood. It is simply a colour combination that grabs your eyeballs in spite of yourself. I know a lot of anime character designers these days put a lot effort into making elaborate and complicated costumes/uniforms/armours/hairstyles and what-have-you. But the iconic minimalism of Hyakkimaru’s appearance – from his ponytail to the pictorial pattern on his kimono – is simply classic, in the sense that you cannot possibly confuse him with some other character whose name you cannot even exactly recall.
In the 2019-05 issue of Animage, the character designer Hiroki Osada [浅田弘幸] explained in an interview that Hyakkimaru’s slender body frame (as opposed to the macho physique in the original manga) is a deliberate effort to accentuate the image of him being a “ball-joined doll”. Moreover, Hyakkimaru’s slender eyebrows (as opposed to the thick eyebrows in the original manga) are also deliberate:
“Eyebrows are a body part that expresses feelings of happiness, anger, sadness and joy. Thick eyebrows would not fit the puppet-like image of Hyakkimaru. Instead, slender eyebrows would be more aligned to a ephemeral, fragile quality.”
The show also drops subtle hints of affinity between characters by giving them the same colour. The most notable example is probably Dororo, Nui-no-kata and the colour green, which symbolizes compassion and salvation in Hyakkimaru’s soul vision. The prosthetic limbs given to him by Jukai also appear as green in his vision, as is the headless Bodhisattva statue.
If you add the gold/yellow embodied in Mio’s seeds, it would make a complete palette of the Five Elements: Hyakkimaru’s black/white/red for Water/Metal/Fire, plus Dororo’s green for Wood and Mio’s seeds for Earth. The colour scheme is really that well thought-out.
The soul vision of five colours and the end of childhood
Interestingly, the colours of the Five Elements (black, white, red, yellow and green) are the only colours detectable by the soul vision of Hyakkimaru and, presumably, Biwamaru.
According to eastern occult thought, most things in this world can be categorized under one of these Five Elements. This soul vision, as explained in Episode 2, can see through deceitful appearances and into a creature’s true essence. Hyakkimaru has had it since childhood, while Biwamaru has gained in maturity – an allusion to the belief that children and the wise speak the truth.
The drawback is that it is an uncompromising vision. It stands for a purity of perception that is not distracted by contradictions. In Episode 20, Dororo explains to Hyakkimaru that the redness of autumn leaves are beautiful to behold and not a sign of danger. In a way, when Hyakkimaru obtains normal human sight in Episode 24, it marks his graduation from child-like purity into the multi-nuanced complexities of adulthood.
Less is more: an anime series that makes one look for what is missing
In an interview dated 1 July 2019 at Dengeki Online, Director Kazuhiro Furuhashi made this crucial remark:
My style is to not make excessive explanations. I stick to hints that enable imagination of the flow and changes of the characters’ feelings; sometimes the hints are spread across several episodes apart.
For example, in Episode 13, we staged Okaka’s past with a scene of Okaka gently caressing Dororo (hinting that she also had a child in her past life). In Episode 18, we staged the scene at the treasure trove where Hyakkimaru holds out his hand for Dororo to take. Dororo is about to take his hand, but suddenly stops and returns to the treasure. Then Hyakkimaru puts his hand down and goes his own way. This is an expression of Dororo prioritizing what she must achieve, and Hyakkimaru sensing this instinctively. We expressed this through their normal daily interactions. This is also linked to the last episode when Hyakkimaru leaves Dororo.
In light of the above, one must say the bone is buried very deep indeed. Yet this series thrives on this sort of subtle composition – always dispensed with great restraint and economy, and never a futile stroke. This is capable of achieving much more powerful effects than, say, another series this season. I am thinking of Sarazanmai.
Sarazanmai comes with the prestige of Director Kunihiko Ikuhara of Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum fame. Even if you take into account his trademark over-the-top style, Sarazanmai still struck me as a work of excess – too many visual signals that made me wonder if they serve any purpose at all, because the emotional punch is just not there. To draw an analogy: it is said that a skilled acupuncturist can cure a patient by placing a single needle in the right energy point, whereas a mediocre acupuncturist uses many needles all over the patient’s body out of cluelessness.
As the Russian writer Anton Chekhov once said, “one must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it”. But Dororo – or perhaps Japan’s aesthetics in general – goes even beyond that. It forces you to pay attention to not only what is there, but also the absence of what ought to be there.
Always pay attention to a samurai’s sword for hints in a period drama
At the Noh theatre, every single actor inevitably appears with a fan. Moreover, the gestures made with the fan all have well-defined meanings – sometimes they are meant to express emotions, sometimes they are meant to act as substitutes for objects like a pen, sometimes they are meant to portray forces of nature like rain or wind.
Likewise, in any self-respecting period drama, what a samurai does his sword when he walks, eats, sleeps or sits are all expressions of his personality, social standing and relationships with other characters. These signals are especially pronounced when a samurai enters into an interior space.
Dororo does not have many scenes taking place in an interior space. Neither do we often see Hyakkimaru actually using the sword he carries on his left (as opposed to his sword arms). The Sabame storyarc in Episodes 14-15 is the only exception. The storyarc, which sees a conflict between Sabame and the conglomerate of dead children souls, is a variation of the conflict between the Lord of Daigo and Hyakkimaru (see later on in the post for detail). Not only does he actually uses the sword in battle (as a foreshadow to the final episode where he uses a sword to thrust into his father’s helmet), he also positions his sword in revealing ways in two meal scenes.
The first one is the dinner feast where he places his sword to his right. This is a sign of friendliness and is in keeping with social etiquette (which grew out of the intuitive assumption that placing the sword to the right makes it hard to launch a sudden attack). At the same, he also did not eat anything at the meal – a sign of alert caution.
The second is the morning breakfast after the previous night’s battle. He places his sword to his left – doing away with social niceties. However, he does eat at this meal, having decided to stay put Sabame’s mansion for further investigations.
On an interesting side note, Japanese culture also dictates the exact spot that one should occupy, whether it is in a room or an elevator, in accordance to your seniority in relation to everyone else present. The Sabame storyarc is also the only chance for Dororo and Hyakkimaru to appear in a formal setting that demands social graces. Ironically, Dororo sits in the position for the guest of honour, in spite of her younger age. This may also reflect how the duo perceive themselves, and call out to the fact the series is entitled Dororo.
Magical trance and Hyakkimaru’s sword
When watching a period drama, one of my personal quirks is to listen for the sound a sheathed sword makes against other objects. For example, tapping the sword against the floor – be it a gentle or forceful tap – can be revealing.
A signal that Episode 13 is also a storyarc for paying attention to Hyakkimaru’s sword comes in the loud, swirling sound when he takes it out, after Dororo leaves the house. He then rests with the sword placed on the left, between him and the wall.
When Okaka is preparing the meal, the sword is still placed near the wall. Then after he has been drugged, the sword is gone; the same screen also shows that he has supposedly emptied the bowl.
However, after Okaka is finished drugging Dororo too (also caressing Dororo’s face for longer than necessary for the job – see director comment above), there is a deliberate cut to show that Hyakkimaru’s bowl is not empty when Okaka rises from her sitting position. I do not think it is a bug, but a visual hint that, so to speak, abruptly “breaks the spell” of Okaka’s enchanting powers and signals a return to reality. We then also see a deliberate cut to Hyakkimaru’s sword laying fallen on the dirt floor (usually a sword is placed in some place of honour within a house).
I am interested in any comments the production team will make about this scene in the Blueray boxset. Perhaps the magical illusion of Okaka’s disguise as Dororo’s dead mother is so overpowering, that Dororo did not notice any commotion on Hyakkimaru’s part when he fell?
A gnostic view of Bodhisattvas and demons?
The subtly of the show is also expressed in the appearance of Bodhisattva statues at the turning points of Hyakkimaru’s life. The first one is Avalokitesvara (who stands for “mercy”) at his mother’s altar – which is said to have taken the blow from one of the twelve demons devouring baby Hyakkimaru’s body. The second is Ksitigarbha (who stands for “salvation from hell”) by the side of the river, where Jukai made a careless slip and fell to the river bank to find baby Hyakkimaru there.
Then comes Maitreya (who stands for “the future”) at the temple and hot spring where Dororo’s map to her father’s hidden treasure is revealed. It is also in the hall where the statue of Maitreya is worshipped, that Biwamaru advises Hyakkimaru and Dororo that the hidden treasure may open up a new possibility before them – a new path other than hunting demons.
An interesting touch comes in Episode 18, when Hyakkimaru’s swords are getting repaired and being blessed at the altar of Vaisravana (a Hindu deity associated with “military strength”). Everyone prayed respectfully at the altar, except for Hyakkimaru.
But the most interesting touch of all has to be the symbolic association of Hyakkimaru with Acala (also known as Fudou Myouou [不動明王] in Japan), who embodies “righteous wrath” and is invoked in rituals to slay evil spirits. In Episode 13, the sculptor who has been sacrificing humans to give the most perfect face to the demon-possessed Acala statue said that Hyakkimaru has the most perfect face ever seen. Then in Episode 22, Hyakkimaru rises from the pit which has a giant statue of Acala, and goes a mad rampage to take back his remaining body parts and Dororo – slaughtering anyone who stands in his way. This symbolic association with Acala/Fudou Myouou may well be a hint that the “right way” does not have to be passive acceptance of suffering, but can also be righteous wrath against injustice and wrong-doing.
The show appears to take a gnostic view that demons probably have a greater sway over human destinies in this world than the forces of good. In fact, the word kishin [鬼神] actually means “demon-gods,” implying that they have non-dualistic qualities of divinity within them, and embodying a kind of moral ambiguity that does not draw the line so straightly between “good” and “evil”.
The Mother-Child Complex and Christianity
Hyakkimaru’s foster father Jukai persecuted Christians brutally in the past. Ironically, he ended up playing a Joseph-like figure, opposite Nui-no-Kata’s Mary-like figure – with the implication that Hyakkimaru is meant to play a Christ-like role. Towards the end, even his father the Lord of Daigo acknowledges had Hyakkimaru – who possessed inner strength so great that the demon-gods wanted him as sacrifice and nothing else – been raised properly as a heir of the domain, the land might have been saved anyway.
The Mother Motif, though obvious, is a tricky one in this show. I know this is probably a bad analogy of how it works: Suppose a man falls deeply in love with a woman, who leaves him; he then chases one woman after another, or several at the same time, because each of them reminds him of a small fragment of her – as if by gluing these small fragments together, he could rebuild a complete presence of her in his life.
The same way Dororo bursts uncontrollably to call just about any random woman who has shown her kindness “mom,” Hyakkimaru likewise finds fragments of “mother” in people who has shown him warmth. For one thing, he calls Jukai “mom” in all honesty. I suspect that his interaction with Mio is also along similar lines – he likes the song she sings, and his first words were “Mio” – the same way that a baby listens to its mother singing a lullaby and learns to say “mama” as its first words. In that sense, Dororo – who does things like cooking and washing his blood-soiled clothes – is also a bit of a “mother” to him.
The youkai which is a conglomerate of dead child souls in Episodes 14 and 15 struck me as a somewhat tragic parody of Hyakkimaru. This youkai runs after Dororo calling her “mama, mama”. If you i) break down Hyakkimaru’s name – it means “hundred,” “ghosts” plus the -maru ending, (which was typically given to boys of the samurai class as their childhood names); ii) how the culprit Sabame reminds Hyakkimaru of his own father; and iii) consider all the images of children who have lost their body parts or lives in all the ongoing wars, you may come to this conclusion: Hyakkimaru embodies all children who have their futures stolen from them. The sad note is that while he can fight the demon-gods to get his body parts back, to whom can all the other children go in order to undo their tragedies?
The physical appearance of female characters and their ways of coping with a merciless world
In the 2019-04 issue of Animage, it is revealed that it had been Director Kazuhiro Furuhachi’s policy from the start that the show would take a minimalist approach on dialogue. Interestingly, this leads to more effort into visual representation – things like scenes of natural landscape or still-life objects – to express what would have been conveyed verbally in another show. An example of this would be the physical appearance of female characters – how they look tells the stories of their lives. The finest contrast is between Osushi in Episode 4, followed immediately by Mio in Episodes 5-6. One of the first things to be noticed about Osushi is that, in spite of her seeming poverty, she wears proper shoes as a travelling merchant (in contrast to Hyakkimaru and Dororo, who both go barefoot). Her brief exchange with Dororo reveals two things in one stroke: i) Osushi’s way of speech indicates she must have had a fine upbringing; and ii) Dororo can tell what people with fine upbringing speak like (in spite of spending most of her life with thieves). Then in a flashback, it is revealed that Osushi indeed came from a samurai household. Although it is not spelled out in words, it is also suggested that she must have sold her hair for money at some point in the past. Then comes Mio, whose almost excessively voluminous hair is contrasted starkly with her being barefoot – a dramatic shift from what Osushi represents. It is a subtle suggestion that, for whatever reason, she never went through selling her hair before selling her body. Moreover, the moral ambiguity of her work is expressed through her conversation with Dororo under the shades of trees, which colour them in patches of light and darkness – a subtle implication there is no clear-cut “right” and “wrong”. Out of all the female characters in the show, Mutsu is the only one who has trained professionally to handle weaponry – or hard power, if you will. In contrast, Dororo survives by street-wise wit and cunning, or soft power. They both “cross-dress” and are easily mistaken for being male. The only ever so subtle hint to Mutsu’s femininity lies her choice of weaponry, namely archery – which demands more powers of concentration than brute muscle strength. As for Dororo – according to the interview with Hiroki Osada – the red choker on her neck is meant to be “girly” thing.
The wealth and prosperity of the domain of Daigo, and its empty, burning castle
In the original manga, the demons did not even seem to deliver much their part of the bargain. But in this anime adaptation, the domain of Daigo does appear to be the richest place that Hyakkimaru and Dororo ever travel through. Not only is food available in plenty, the people even have the leisure to go to the theatre. However, what is staged is a propagandist play that fashions the Lord of Daigo fictitiously as a slayer of demons (a role which, as Dororo points out, is carried out by Hyakkimaru in reality). This implies that in spite of the kingdom’s wealth, a type of thought control is in place to strangle artistic creativity and truth. A comparison of the interior decor of the Daigo family castle with Sabame’s mansion is also revealing. Although Sabame’s domain is nowhere as prosperous, his mansion does possess artistic flourishes that say something about its owner. By contrast, the Daigo family castle displays a kind of stony silence, or lack of joy and loving care – as though no one really lives there. This point is further emphasized in the final battle between Hyakkimaru and his younger Tahomaru. There is a strange irony between how Tahomaru desperately tries to one-up Hyakkimaru by saying how this place has been so full of memories, when all the rooms they duel in are plain empty. Finally, when the Daigo castle burns, there is a strange irony knowing that even though it looks grand from the outside and its fall looks like a tragedy, there is “nothing within” to begin with. This lack of substance indicates everything had been mirage all along.
The leitmotif of emergence from darkness, and the three-headed foe
Dororo is like a Wagnerian opera with melodies of recurring leitmotif. Whatever happens is a variation of something else that has already happened before.
Even the final episode, where Hyakkimaru and Dororo emerge from a hidden passage/well with Biwamaru’s help, is something that has already happened before. It took place in Episode 2, in their first-ever adventure together. If you watch carefully, when Hyakkimaru enters the secret passage, his sword is still with him; but when he emerges from it, the sword is no longer there. In the meantime, Dororo cries, saying that she is afraid of the darkness of the passage. Later on, we see her carrying his sword around.
All of the above in Episode 2 foreshadows the finale, where he sets out to travel without his sword, presumably leaving it to Dororo as a memento (see below for detail). This, again, is revealed by studying what is missing.
Some fans may complain that the series ended in a bit of a rush. The way I see it – the future has already happened in the past. The story of Dororo is like a melody that is played in different scales – now in C Major, now in F minor, and so forth. The suicides of Jukai and Nui-n0-kata, past and present, are an example of this.
Another leitmotif is the image of the three-headed foe. What Hyakkimaru takes one series to get to, Dororo has already experienced within the first episode. (In that sense, she is his senpai.)
In Episode 1, Dororo steals goods from the three guys, who beat her up in retaliation, following which Dororo blinds the right eye of one of them. The three guys fight for what ought to “rightfully” belong to them.
Later on in the series, Hyakkimaru blinds his younger brother Tahomaru’s right eye. Moreover, he cuts off the arms of Tahomaru’s servants Hyogo and Mutsu. Tahomaru, too, fights for what ought to “rightfully” belong to him.
The last three-headed demon, possessing Hyakkimaru’s eyes and arms, ends up being incarnated in Tahomaru, Hyogo and Mutsu. This demon, too, fight for what ought to “rightfully” belong to it by virtue of the contract with the Lord of Daigo.
After the three-headed demon is vanquished, Dororo enlists the help of three guys from the village to execute her dream. Those three guys are no random dudes – in a symbolic sense, they are a “reincarnation” of the three guys who beat her up in Episode 1.
This reverberates with the eternal plot in shounen anime/manga, where the defeated antagonist becomes the protagonist’s loyal friend and protector – kind of similar to how (in Chrétien de Troyes version of the Grail legend) Perceval, having defeated the Red Knight, ends up wearing the Red Knight’s armour and comes to be known as the Red Knight himself.
The Father – the eternal antagonist in shounen anime/manga
Speaking of recurring themes – true to the Uranus-Cronus-Zeus myth, the son must defeat the father in order to be, so to speak, “truly born”. The name of the Lord of Daigo, Kagemitsu, is actually a hidden wordplay on kishin or “demon-god”: kage for “shadow,” and mitsu for “light”. Even though in the finale, Hyakkimaru did not get into a duel with his father, he has been fighting nothing except manifestations of his father all along.
The set up of Hyakkimaru’s final confrontation with his father is a curious one. We see Kagemitsu sitting in the same position as the priest he murdered in Episode 1. One sword stuck upright in front of Kagemitsu and another stuck upright behind. This would imply that is he is not looking for a duel, but possibly seppuku – he will cut his own stomach while expecting Hyakkimaru to behead him from behind.
Kagemitsu does not appear to repent much and says he hopes to become a kishin himself in the afterlife to protect the land. This may indirectly answer Biwamaru’s question earlier in the series as to why the Daigo domain possesses so many kishin – the same drama has probably undergone endless cycles in the past already.
The way Hyakkimaru breaks the cycle is also subtle. He comes unarmed, thrusts one of swords lying around into Kagemitsu’s helmet, and makes a gift of the Bodhisattva statue he received from Jukai. The statue, which looks so much like his mother, passes from his foster father to his biological father – both great sinners, through him.
Biwamaru – a ‘slash’ career?
Biwamaru, a wise grandfather figure in the show, straddles across not only the priestly class and the samurai class, but also across youth and old age. As mentioned above, boys of the samurai class tend to be given childhood names ending with -maru, before they are given more refined sounding names in adulthood. Yet Biwamaru goes by a childhood name in spite of his advanced age. He probably has a lot of life story behind him.
Biwamaru also straddles across the earthly and spiritual world, in the sense that although he is known as a Buddhist priest, he takes on no Buddhist religious name and continues to go by his childhood name. Historically, it may suggest that he is a “self-proclaimed monk” [私度僧], therefore without a government-accredited master-priest to bestow a new religious name on him.
The most interesting staging that involves Biwamaru is the conversation in the hall of Maitreya. When viewed from the hall, he sits furthest from the statue of Maitreya and in the sunlight, while Dororo is the middle, leaving Hyakkimaru furthest inside in the dark but closest to the Maitreya. When viewed from the entrance, Dororo appears to be closest to Maitreya, and Biwamaru is the middle but in the light, while Hyakkimaru is furthest away from both Maitreya and the light. It is a most impressive way of accentuating that what each character asserts as “right” or “good” depends on relative perspective.
Biwamaru comes and goes as he pleases. The way he slips in and out of scene may be seen as foreshadow that Hyakkimaru, who leaves Dororo without a farewell, has the potential to end up being a vagrant priest like Biwamaru.
Biwamaru and Hyakkimaru – a juxtaposition of the old and young warrior
The two are the only characters in the show to slay demons with success. In Episode 1, when Biwamaru fights a battle with the sword hidden with his biwa, the way he bites the biwa’s plectrum (symbolically, an extension of the human hand) in the mouth is a foreshadowing touch to indicate that he shares an affinity with Hyakkimaru (who often fights while biting at his prosthetic arm).
In addition, Biwamaru’s blindness in old age is an unsettling clue that alludes to a return to blindness for Hyakkimaru in the future – quite in spite of the story climaxing with the latter regaining his organic eyes. The human body – or, even life at large – is fleeting and transient. What is gained today can be lost tomorrow.
On a technical note, Biwamaru’s battle style thrives on economy – a single strike gets the job done. This may indicate the strength of experience compensating for a decline in physical stamina, in contrast to Hyakkimaru’s abundant physical strength compensating for his relative inexperience.
The last scene with Dororo
I have a feeling that the last scene has probably been mulled over by the production team countless times to achieve this sort of artistic perfection. It is just the sort of ending that possesses your mind to no end.
When Hyakkimaru reaches a hilltop, he takes out the amulet bearing the Daigo family emblem and Mio’s seeds, and casts a glance backward to some distance where Dororo must be, before he walks on with a sad smile. My own guess of what he is thinking: after all this time spent with Dororo, he actually does not possess any memento that would remind him of her. This, again, calls for attention of what is missing.
However, if you look carefully, he is travelling without his sword (which he still had with him when he emerged from the hidden passage with Dororo). This implies that sword must be left behind with Dororo. This is a fine echo of the original manga, which portrays Dororo as a incorrigible thief who has been looking to steal Hyakkimaru’s sword from beginning to end. In the manga’s last scene, Hyakkimaru gives her his sword by way of farewell.
To return to the anime adaptation – a closer look at the backdrop shows that there are red flowers to his right and a stone structure to his left. Unlike just about any other flower in the show, which are inevitably drawn with high fidelity to their real counterparts (ex. the hydrangea in Episode 4, the higanbana associated with Dororo’s mother etc), these red flowers stand out in contrast by being unidentifiable – perhaps as an echo of the nameless “red flowers” in the lyrics of Mio’s song. In a sense, these red flowers are not “real”. The fact that they also appear in the backdrop of Dororo may suggest that she is one of few living persons to have memories of Mio’s song (ie. besides Hyakkimaru and – if he cares to remember – Biwamaru). Meanwhile, the stone structure (unlike just about any other Boddhisatva statue in the show) is likewise impossible to identify – maybe implying Hyakkimaru’s path is yet unknown.
Then Hyakkimaru heads for the mountains while Dororo heads for water, which brings to mind a Confucian saying:
The clever-minded prefer life near water, while the generous-minded prefer life in the mountains. The clever-minded prefer action, while the generous-minded prefer stillness. The clever-minded have joy, while the generous-minded live long.
Dororo is a bright girl whose life motto is probably – as Bruce Lee would say – “be like water, my friend”. Moreover, water probably indicates that Dororo is executing her mercantile dream by trading via waterways. We then see Dororo running along the pier/bridge, and growing up into a young woman. She runs towards a figure who slowly turns around – Hyakkimaru.
If you recall, Hyakkimaru and Dororo first met on a bridge in Episode 1. Then in Episode 13 – the midpoint of the series, they came to a bridge again, where Dororo tried to trick him into going to the hot spring. So it seems fitting to hint that they will reunite on a bridge.
At the same time, there is a disturbing note about this scene. To begin with, the two characters are never shown in the same frame – in spite countless frames earlier in the series showing them side by side. Moreover, the yellow sea of matured grain has only ever appeared in the imagination throughout the series. Additionally, Hyakkimaru is shown in a kimono that is not the one he wore when he left (it had been repaired in the back by Dororo in Episode 15), but the kimono as it looked on day one when they first met. All these hints seem to combine to say that this reunion scene exists only in Dororo’s imagination.
To me, a more compelling evidence that they will meet again actually does not lie in this scene. Rather, it is when Dororo recounts that Hyakkimaru said to her that he will be back “soon”. I don’t think he would tell this sort of lie.
The rare shounen male lead whose character development pivots around growing weaker and weaker
As a genre, anime has a tendency to suggest that the convergence of man and machine is an enhancement – perhaps the next logical stage of human evolution. In contrast, Hyakkimaru “devolves” from machine to human form. As Jukai suggests, Hyakkimaru was invincible in his doll-like form because he did not feel any physical pain himself, so he would not have known that striking his sword would causing physical pain to other beings. As the story progresses, the closer Hyakkimaru is to an organic human being, the “weaker” he becomes. This develops into the climax where he turns around to face Dororo in the very last shoot of the series. Whether it is only Dororo’s wilful imagination or not, his face is no face of the wrathful manifestation of Acala/Fudou Myouou. Instead, it is a face that conveys some kind of gentle resignation, perhaps a kind of tender acceptance of the travails of mundane human life, which is reinforced with inner stillness and resolve. Interestingly, “stillness” is a recall to the non-wrathful manifestation of Acala/Fudou Myouou.
(On a side note, this face reminds me somewhat of the face of Seibei in Yoji Yamada’s film The Twilight Samurai (2002). In the story, when Seibei – being famed for his prowess – is ordered to go on dangerous assassination mission, he explains that he cannot go into killing mode straight away, because his strength to duel with ferocity and without regard for his own life has slipped away in day-to-day care for his family, which consisted of his two young daughters and an elderly mother with dementia.)
In an interview in the 2019-06 issue of Animage, Akio Otsuka, who voice-acted Jukai, made an interesting observation about Episode 5, where Hyakkimaru lost his good leg on the right:
It was a sad scene, as in “why did it have to be his organic leg that was chewed away?” It was his only good leg after all. Maybe in another anime series, they would have made it his prosthetic leg being taken, and made him grow back a good leg there. I think it is very much in style of this adaptation of Dororo – that it just has to be his good leg being chewed away.
Getting back his body parts may not be an end in itself. The human body is (as explained above) transient and fleeting – here today and gone tomorrow. In fact, when I was still guessing about how this series would end, I had thought of two possibilities.
The first one was that he would stop short at retrieving the very last remaining body part, and let Dororo be his eyes, for instance. This would have been aligned with a very Japanese aesthetic idea, where the moon just short of the full moon is appreciated for its beauty in its own right, because it leaves room for imagining what the full moon will be like.
The second possibility I had guessed was some kind of ascension where he ceases physical existence but lives on in the spirit – maybe something along the lines of, say, Jiro Hitoyoshi in Concrete Revolutio (2015). Admittedly, this would been a trite ending that fantasy anime typically falls for, especially when the male lead is positioned as a saviour figure. True to the story of Christ, saviour figures are obligated to disappear, with a promise of a second coming.
In light of the above, Hyakkimaru leaving Dororo without a word is a halfway compromise from that. He still disappears from sight, leaving a hole to be filled with, presumably, Pivix.
The political dimension of Merchant, Soldier and Sage
As I said in the beginning, Dororo has the quality of a miracle play. In the spirit of a miracle play, it is not so much about whether a character is doing (to borrow a phrase from English common law) what a “reasonable person” would have done. Instead, abstract ideas are manifested in the characters through his or her actions to create a moral drama.
Although I also said that the show is best enjoyed for its imagery with right brain, I also have to confess that a left brain interpretation in the context of the Real World is also never far away from my mind. In particular, I am reminded of David Priestland’s Merchant, Soldier, Sage, which is a historical analysis of how these three social classes shape human history. All three classes embody values which have all their light and shadow sides. When one of these classes becomes too dominant, chaos usually ensues, leading to it being overthrown by another. Moreover, history shows that sometimes one class allies with another in order to overcome the remaining one.
According to the book:
If landed aristocrats valued blood-lines, generosity and military valour, sages could not have been more different. For them, command of ideas, symbols and culture, not weapons, land and wealth, conferred status. In many early societies, sages had essentially two tasks : a moral one – ensuring obedience to the laws of the gods; and a technical one – the conduct of elaborate sacrifices and rituals in precise accordance with recondite rules.
The fall of the nobility in the domain of Daigo and its religious corruption
In Episode 1, the colour of purple is shown being worn by the Lord of Daigo and baby Hyakkimaru, who could have been his heir.
Purple is the colour of nobility and is the highest colour in terms of social ranking in feudal Japan. It is never shown again as being worn by anyone throughout the series, signalling an absence of the positive attributes of the warrior class throughout the land.
The only other time where the colour purple comes to the foreground is in Episode 4, which portrays the fall of a lower-ranking samurai family. Tanosuke, the young master of the house, is traumatized by all the needless killing demanded by his military superiors and becomes possessed by a blood-thirsty sword. Osushi, the young lady of the house, slips down the social ladder to the merchant class. The purple in Episode 4 – in the form of hydrangea flowers – is only shown in flashback, indicating that it is a thing of the past.
Meanwhile, the Buddhist priest in Episode 1 longs for death before he is overtaken by doubt of his religion. The Lord of Daigo sends him to his death, and then proceeds to make a deal with the demon-gods, while stressing that it is a deal and not a prayer.
Ironically, the make-belief theatre play portrays the Lord of Daigo as possessing the blessing and allegiance of the priestly class. Moreover, the make-belief priest wears the same red as the make-belief demon, while holding a make-belief Boddhisatva statue which does not have any halo.
The merchant ethos of Dororo and the agrarian values of Mio
The warrior sees the whole world as his potential subjects, the sage his potential converts, while the merchant sees the whole world as his potential customers. Although merchant values (embodied in Dororo) is portrayed as a new, energetic force to regenerate society, we – who live in predominately capitalist societies – know it is not so simple. As David Priestland said of the emergence of capitalism in the US:
Underpinning it was an unstated contract: in return for swallowing the harsh discipline of the production line and ditching socialism and costly artisanship, the worker would be paid enough to buy himself the status lost at work. And if his wages weren’t quite enough, the newly important banks and consumer credit industry would cover the deficit. […]
The solution to the great riddle was Ford’s mass consumerism. Employees would, employers hoped, lose interest in questions of class and differences between managers and labour, because they could at least aspire to have a similar lifestyle to their bosses – even if they would never achieve it. Anybody (apart from African-Americans) could gain social acceptance and climb the status ladder by buying the right kind of consumer goods. They were not held back by aristocratic heredity or sagely cultural achievements which took at least a couple of generations to acquire.
In Episode 1, Dororo marketing a piece of kimono as “having been worn by a real noble lady in the capital” is a hint towards this consumerism as a shortcut of obtaining “social standing”.
At the same time, the way of the merchant is not necessarily all bad. In Episode 2, Dororo said to Hyakkimaru that salt is a good thing when she is grilling the fishes for him. Salt is a commodity of trade that is crucial to health. She also exhibits the positive attributes of the merchant:
They prized tolerance, friendliness and politeness, which gave them the easy-going affability needed to trade with anybody, whatever their culture or religion.
How about the agrarian values of peasants? The same way that Osushi once knew the colour purple in an earlier time of her life, Mio has seen what a bountiful land of matured grain looked like (unlike the younger orphans who have seen nothing but devastated land).
In a nutshell – wealth in the form of farmland and livestock requires continuous engagement with the natural environment and living creatures as well as the help of other people. Wealth in the form of gold coins can only be realized through trade with strangers from faraway places. They are two very different ways of life.
This, again, may contribute to the separation of Hyakkimaru and Dororo. Much as he adores Dororo, I think he is – undecided about his future as he may be in the finale – more attracted at heart to the embrace of nature, as embodied in Mio’s seeds. Recall that before he began to attract demons, he was always enjoying himself in the woods and exhibiting curiosity about the creatures there.
And he may well be “right” for feeling that way. The series is constantly contrasting scenes of devastated landscapes with scenes of nature’s beauty, as though saying that nature has tremendous power to recover from destruction and to renew itself, in spite of mankind’s deeds.
It has been years since I last enjoyed an anime series this much. It is also a rare case where the anime adaption surpasses the manga original. In spite of its low-key art direction and remarkable lack of visual gimmicks, there is always something new to be discovered with every rewatch. Furthermore, it is full of well-choreographed sequences tempting one to replay again and again. I think the last time I was this impressed with the storyboarding was that 2-minute cherry-blossom shower scene towards the end of Episode 2 of Joker Game (2016).
This show has truly rekindled my love for anime.
[UPDATED ON 14 JULy 2019 BELOW]
Sound direction and the art of subtraction
In the 2019-08 issue of Animage, the series’ sound director, Kisuke Koizumi, said in an interview:
A key characteristic of Dororo is that is has very few pieces of background music. In recent years, an anime series running for two cours would have around 50 backgroound music composed. But Dororo makes do with just 30 pieces even though it runs for two cours. This is because we would like to express the feelings of characters with dialogue and facial expressions as much as possible. On the other hand, the music itself is epic-sounding as befitting a period drama. […] We have made a lot of effort in sound effects for little things like – for example, the tiny movement when a character is about take a step forward. Tiny things like that. I think you will enjoy the show more if you listen for sounds other than the dialogue.
I have to say with satisfaction, that I feel avenged reading that. Listening for the sound a sheathed sword makes against other objects (see above) was not in vain after all.
Music-wise, Dororo has an unobtrusive soundtrack. Even for its battle scenes, the music is never too distracting. However, when the music does come to the foreground, it solicits a powerful reaction. A fine example would be the choral piece in Episode 20, when quiet still-lives of truncated limbs of kishin are shown as Dororo arrives at the battle scene. There, the evocative music is contrasted with the quietness of a site that must have seen a deadly duel just moments ago. This is a very different style from, say, shows where they always have full-on battle music during battle action. Another example would be the music in Episode 3, during the time skip when Hyakkimaru grows from a boy into a young man.
The same melody is used again only once – in Episode 24, during the time skip when Dororo grows from a girl into a young woman. The only difference is that the former is instrumental while the latter is choral. In another series, that melody (whatever it is entitled – I am looking forward to find out when the soundtrack is released) would have been The Theme Song that is composed in different variations to suit different moods, and scattered across scenes throughout the series. But not Dororo. Here it is used sparingly, and only for scenes when the two protagonists grow from childhood to early adulthood. This is the economy of style that endears me to this series.
More art of subtraction and the character of Hyakkimaru
One interesting point that is revealed in the same Animage issue is that Director Kazuhiro Furuhashi repeatedly said to the voice-actor for Hyakkimaru, Hiroki Suzuki, that “this sounds too ikemen [hot guy]” and asked him to tone it down. When asked about this, Kisuke Koizumi commented:
It would not be Hyakkimaru-like if he tries to turn on the charm. For example, when he says to Dororo “I have come for you” in Episode 18 – he was not saying it to sound cool.
This comment echoes with an interview in the same issue with Masaki Tsuji, who wrote a (now out-of-print) novel adaptation of Dororo. In the original manga, Hyakkimaru used telepathy to communicate with other people, and even to read their minds. When asked about the decision to take away this power in the current anime adaptation, Masaki Tsuji said:
It was a decision that surprised me greatly. If I were to asked to pen the script for this remake of Dororo and come up with whatever I like, I would have kept his telepathic powers and slapped on some SF-sounding explanation for that. It would have been about “a cyborg in a period drama”. But this adaptation did without his telepathic powers without much ceremony. That’s a very feminine approach to script writing. It is also the correct thing to do upon examining the themes of the manga original. If a staff meeting were comprised of men only, the discussion would have swayed into talk of “how to make use his telepathic powers to full strength”.
In other words, efforts were made to subtract away qualities that, in the conventional sense, would have made a male lead character popular to a male audience and attractive to a female audience. The shounen formula pivots on a male lead who is heroic, powerful and always “becoming stronger”. The shoujo formula pivots on a male lead who is appealing in a romantic sense. When you unpack the implications of this (commercially or otherwise), you would see the boldness in these decisions.
From lullaby, to human talk, to listening for the lamentations of sentient beings
Given the importance of sounds in this series, it may be worth turning to how the power of hearing acts as a barometer of growth in the story. In keeping with the depressing mood of this series, every sensory power regained by Hyakkimaru exposes him to a first imprint that is representative of the sufferings of the world. When he first regained his hearing in Episode 4, the first thing he heard was Osushi crying at the grief of her brother’s death.
Then he spent some time adjusting to hearing, while discovering that Mio’s song brings him comfort. I think the point here is that he finds comfort in not just anyone making music – the song has to be sung by an adult female voice that is reminiscent of “mother”. So Dororo would be no help even if she wanted to sing for him, as is Biwamaru with his biwa, or all the other children at the abandoned temple. That was the first occasion he expressed, out of his own volition, that he wanted to hear more of something – childlike request that it was. Speaking of the abandoned temple – although it is not expressly apparent, because the image of Mio overlaps with that of a “mother”, I venture to guess that the temple is dedicated to Avalokitesvara, whom Nui-no-kata also worships at her altar.
The second occasion was in Episode 20, when he says to Dororo that he wants her to tell him more about the world – graduating from infantile clinging to intellectual curiosity. Most people have their growth stalled at this stage. But I think the series hints at another, higher level of hearing, as embodied in Avalokitesvara, whose name literally means one who “beholds sounds” – in particular the lamentations of sentient beings. A full circle back to Osushi weeping grievously for her brother in Episode 4. The magnificence of the human hand, and the accumulation of karmic deeds
In Episodes 22-24, the focus is shifted to the human hand. In my mind, the last anime series to take the human hand this seriously was Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997). In Utena, the human hand is not only drawn with very beautiful, refined-looking fingers, it is also a “second face” of the characters. Often, instead of showing the facial expression, a character’s hand is shown instead. Moreover, the hand has a kind of ceremonial or ritualistic significance in Utena – so much so that “mudra” rather than “hand gesture” is probably a better word to describe what it tries to achieve. To return to Dororo, there is a wonderful transition of scenes in Episode 22, where a close-up of Tahomaru’s fist is shown, in the scene where he would like to enter Mutsu’s room but cannot. This is immediately followed by a close-up of Dororo’s hands as she tries to tinker with a lock to get out of a prison cell but cannot. It is a small, but thoughtful, stroke of direction. But the most magnificent touch has to be the depiction of Hyakkimaru regaining his human hands. As in keeping with the dark undertone of this show, no sooner does he feel a sense of awe and triumph, he immediately hurts himself by holding the blades of his old arm-swords out of habit (instead of using the sword he carries on his left). The scene seems to imply that one’s karma is bound up in habits that one accumulates, unconsciously and unnoticeably, over the course of everyday life. It is a very Buddhist point, and a significant one if you ponder upon it. In fact, it is not enough to comprehend it in the head intellectually, but to learn it through first-hand experience in your life. It is not for no good reason, that the word 業 (“karmic deeds”) is used in words like 事業 (“business”) or 生業 (“livelihood”) in Japanese. The priest and priestess, and the symbolic significance of water
One of the best insights from Japanese fandom I came across was an observation that twice Hyakkimaru was powerless to help Dororo (hat tip):
Perhaps the theme for the first half of the new Dororo is “getting back emotions” while the second half is “suppressing/controlling emotions”?
Both Episodes 9 and 20 are about Dororo and Saburouta “remembering the death of the mother,” which makes the comparison all the more obvious.
In both episodes, Hyakkimaru is powerless to help the suffering Dororo, without the help of others (the nun and Biwamaru).
In Episode 9, the nun who helps Dororo is probably symbolic of femininity and feelings. If you don’t have feelings, you would not be able to feel compassion and love for others. At this point, Hyakkimaru still has not got back his feelings sufficiently, therefore he is unable to help Dororo by himself.
In Episode 20, Biwamaru who helps Dororo is probably symbolic of masculinity and will. If you do not suppress or control your feelings, you would not be able make judgement calmly, and choose the right action to take. At this point, Hyakkimaru is still not able to control his feelings sufficiently, therefore he is unable to help Dororo by himself.
In Episode 9, the nun asks Hyakkimaru to fetch some water from a well. Water is symbolic of feelings. Water has to be fetched because there is not enough of it; in other words, he does not have enough feelings.
In Episode 20, Dororo drowns in water, which is symbolic of Hyakkimaru not being to control his feelings.
In Episode 9, Hyakkimaru, on his return from fetching water from a well, stops before a floor divider without proceeding the other part of the room, where Dororo sleeps under the watch of the nun. This may indicate that he is not able to enter the mental space of listening to someone else’s sufferings, as the nun appears to be doing. Interestingly, the nun recites a prayer associated with the Amitabha Buddha. The prayer is an excerpt from the Longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra – the part where the Amitabha Buddha (when he was still known as Dharmakara Boddhisatva) was making a vow to save all sentient beings.
In Episode 20, both Hyakkimaru and Biwamaru are blind, and both of them carry swords. However, Biwamaru is able to save Dororo with one strike of his sword (always using force with such economy). This may imply the problem is not so much about having organic eyes and arms. But then Hyakkimaru does not have Biwamaru’s maturity. This again highlights Biwamaru is a role model for Hyakkimaru to learn from.
Dororo, the little dog, and giving while asking for nothing in return
In the 1969 anime adaptation, Dororo has a pet dog called Nota, which stays with her through to the end.
In the 2019 anime adaptation, this dog is recreated as one of black and white colours (Hyakkimaru’s colours…), and appears briefly in Episode 1. Dororo, out of pity, is about to feed it with a fish, but stops and lectures the dog that there is no free lunch in the world and one must learn to catch fish by oneself. This dog sets up expectations of Dororo’s initial relationship with Hyakkimaru. In Episode 2, Hyakkimaru catches three fishes with his sword. Dororo grills them, gives two to him while keeping one for her labour as a cook.
In the first half of the series, Dororo is always short of money. She markets Hyakkimaru’s demon-slaying skills as a “service” that should be paid for. (In contrast, Biwamaru appears to do it out of his own volition, and asks for nothing in return.)
In the second half of the series, Dororo has more money than she knows what to do with. Her lesson is to learn to give, without expecting anything in return.
The world of grown men: kings and artisans
In spite of the overall success of the series, I have to say that its major shortfall is in the depiction of father figures in the form of Kagemitsu and Hibukuro. Both men bear crosses on their faces – a sort of “mark of Cain” – suggesting that they have a certain affinity. However, I do not think, on the whole, that the story is good at portraying grown men with commanding positions.
Actually, it is common weakness in the genre of anime, or even across fiction as a whole. It is easier to tell stories set in, say, a high school setting, because high school is a common denominator experience. A creator working in a studio may have access to people from most walks of life to draw observations and inspirations from, but the mental workings of men in power – unless you inhabit their inner circle of confidants – are another ballgame. Simply put, the artistic type usually does not cross path with men of power.
That is why I usually set my expectations low. Even when it comes to real-action dramas, I usually get disappointed when I look at actors purporting to play such-and-such king or emperor or general in history, because the airs they exhibit is so unconvincing.
Not surprisingly, Dororo is more successful at depicting men in the artisan class. The sculptor in Episode 13 wants to create an Acala/Fudou Myouou statue with a magnificent face, and is aware that the zeitgeist demands a protective deity with a face of might rather than compassion. Munetsuna, the swordsmith in Episode 19, wants to create a sword so mighty-looking that it acts as a deterrent to fighting (ie. the enemy would give up just looking at the sword). Neither character gets much screen time. Nonetheless, they come to life with brief, simple lines where they speak about their art. The same impact is, unfortunately, never quite achieved in the case of Kagemitsu and Hibukuro.
The artwork of Dororo
Speaking of art, the series often takes pain to making a supposedly boring scene not boring with creative viewing angles and visual arrangement. This appears in little things like:
- the way Hyakkimaru’s belt is artfully arranged on a tree branch
- the way a diagonal line from above is formed when Mio sits together with Hyakkimaru and Dororo
- the way perpendicular frames are constructed when Dororo sees Hyakkimaru and Biwamaru off
- how the face of Kagemitsu is depicted in a water reflection instead of directly
The examples are endless. Even the battle scenes are invested with thoughtful choreography and fluidity of action. (I can tell, because I usually get bored with battle scenes and skip over them.)
I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that the great Naoyuki Onda participated in the original drawings for Episodes 6 and 24. A one-liner description of this artist would be: “he draws beautiful men”. Usually, characteristics of his work can be spotted in two things: the tail end of the eye and the lips. However, given the overall aesthetic tone of this series, I would not be surprised if he, like Hiroki Suzuki, has been told by the director to tone down on the “hot guy” thing.
Another fun fact is that when Hiroyuki Asada was commissioned on the below official artwork for the soundtrack CD, the request was for the two protagonists to “look happy”. This again, is the power of understatement at work: Hyakkimaru’s face is expressionless, while Dororo’s face conveys apprehension. Neither of them is smiling or laughing. However, a source of light is emitting from where their foreheads touch. This, together, is a picture of “happiness”. This, to me, is another level altogether from Noriko’s iconic bitter smile in Yasujiro Ozu’s film Tokyo Story (1953) (I wrote about it here). Namely, happiness can be expressed, too, with the absence of any visual indication of happiness.
My favourite moment in Dororo
On a final note, if asked to choose my favourite moment, I would say it is when Hyakkimaru refutes to Jukai that he is not all alone in the world. He puts out his hand at around Dororo’s height, pauses for a long moment, before he puts his hand back. Even though he has become reasonably fluent in oral speech by then, he does not say to Jukai that he has a friend called Dororo and all the peripheral facts – how they met, what Dororo is like, what they have been through together etc. It is a very different reaction from – “No, that’s not true for reasons X, Y, Z” – as you may expect when a teenage boy refutes his parent. The weight of his hand gesture and his silence is very evocative and telling.
(By the way, please tell me your favourite scene in the comment section.)
This 2019 remake of Dororo has already exceeded its predecessor and the manga original to become a masterpiece in itself. Many corners of fandom have voiced out that this series deserves an OVA, if not a second series. Speaking for myself, I am actually looking forward to the next remake of Dororo, maybe in 50 years from now. After all, it has been exactly 50 years since the first anime adaptation in 1969.
A while ago, I was watching Tatsushi Omori’s film Every Day a Good Day (2018). In the film, the characters are discussing a set of twelve tea ceremony bowls that are used only for New Year gathering, and the Chinese zodiac animal on each bowl. One of the characters remarks: “Then it means we will only get to use the same bowl only for a few times in our lives.”
This business with remakes, if you think about it, is kind of like that…