Manga Friday: Osamu Tezuka’s ‘Dororo’
Dororo, Vol. 1
by Osamu Tezuka
Vertical, 2008, $13.95
Vertical continues to reprint some of Tezuka’s most interesting and idiosyncratic manga with this first volume of his 1967-68 serial Dororo – the other two volumes will follow a little later this year.
Dororo is, I guess, Tezuka’s take on a samurai manga – it’s set in pre-modern Japan and the main character runs around cutting people with a sword.
But let me back up a bit. Dororo opens with Lord Daigo, the typical nasty, ambitious nobleman so beloved in genre fiction around the world. He spends the night in the “Hall of Hell” – a shrine or pavilion filled with statues of forty-eight evil gods. Daigo wants to rule all of Japan, and wants to make a deal with the demons, so he offers up his about-to-be-born son. For the power he wants, he asks each of the evil gods to take one thing from that child…
The next section opens some years later, following a teenaged boy named Hyakkimaru, whose prosthetic arms hide swords. After he saves boy thief Dororo – the typical Tezuka cute, spunky kid – he tells the youngster his life story. He is Daigo’s son, though he doesn’t know that. He was raised by a doctor, who found him abandoned in a basket on a river. Hyakkimaru has “no arms or legs, nor eyes or ears, but holes in the face where they eyes, nose, and mouth should have been.” As he grew, he learned to read minds in place of seeing and hearing, and to speak using his stomach. The doctor carved him prosthetic arms and legs – the former concealing the sword.
The demons drove him away from the doctor’s home when he was still young, but Hyakkimaru fell in with a blind monk and then settled in a ruined village with a group of war orphans and the older girl, Mio, who cared for them. But soldiers came and burned the village, killing everyone there but Hyakkimaru, who then killed them.
Dororo, far too spunky for his own good, refuses to leave Hyakkimaru, who believes that, if he can kill all forty-eight demons, he might regain a normal human body. And, in fact, every time he vanquishes one of the demons, a part of his body does grow back.
The demons seek out Hyakkimaru, and he searches for them as well, and Dororo insists on staying with the older boy. (He claims to only be waiting to steal Hyakkimaru’s sword, and not to be motivated by any softer emotions.) So there are some more battles with demons, and we learn the story of Dororo’s childhood as well. The story isn’t over at the end of this volume – even without that “volume one,” that would be clear, since we haven’t gotten back to Lord Daigo yet.
This is an earlier work than the other Vertical Tezuka graphic novels, and it has more substantial generic elements than books like Ode to Kirhito and MW do. There’s quite a lot of very cartoony minor characters mugging for the camera, asides to the reader, and similar goofiness, which can seem out of place in a story about a demon-haunted swordsman. (I know some people like to claim that Tezuka was perfect in every way, but I’ve never agreed with that – no artist is perfect, no matter what his medium.) Dororo has some serious issues of tone, and doesn’t quite feel unified. But Tezuka’s drawing is as powerful and assured as ever – that cartooniness is one of his great strengths, after all – and the serious moments of the story have real power. (The funny stuff I didn’t find as successful, mostly because it came so quickly on the heels of the serious scenes, but I imagine they were much funnier to their original audience.)
The mixing of high drama and low humor might make Dororo more interesting to the general American manga audience – it’s a lot more like most of what’s out there than his more individual works like Kirihito. This isn’t my favorite Tezuka work, but it’s still well worth reading – he was a master entertainer, and Dororo is nothing if not entertaining.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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