Length: 24 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: History, drama, action, supernatural
Year of release: 2019
Despite being an adaption of a 50 year old manga, Dororo is the kind of well-captured, bleak period piece that can still light up imaginations today. I think it has a poignant message to tell, too, but other than setting up the means to make that message, the show never really does more than tell its overly simple story with a weakly developed conflict.
Still, Dororo is an engaging story. Dororo is also the titular character, but is surprisingly not the dual-sword wielder that makes up most of the promotional art – that’s Hyakkimaru, who’s disfigured body is the result of a deal with the demons that goes wrong and results in him only being left with his soul. Dororo is the swindling, boisterous little kid who takes an immediate likening to Hyakkimaru’s skills and tries to use his demon slaying powers to make a quick buck in the trying times. Both characters make gigantic leaps into older, more mature characters across the story, though it’s not necessarily the most rewarding.
As Hyakkimaru episodically fights demons, he gets parts of his body back for winning, such as his legs or a sense. Along the way, it becomes a bit muddied who the real demon is, with a lot of shade being put onto the warring samurai groups and the broken people affected by the war. Occasionally, as Dororo and Hyakkimaru confront the evil that war does, the show manages some extremely intense stories that forces them to reevaluate their views. Dororo, for example, tries to find peaceful solutions to the many conflicts, which is a far cry from the swindler they start out the series as. Hyakkimaru, as he gets his tongue and thus voice back, has to understand that his quest will result in the downfall of the nation his soul was sold for. Most of his development is learning to use his body and interact with the world with his newly developed senses and limbs, but the A-To-B nature of his developments feel a little tokenised rather than truly earned.
The problem is that Dororo presents conflicts, and then fails to do much with them. It’s a very difficult situation for all involved with no real way out. Sadly, the show fails to be convincing in finding a solution other than ‘just because’. Yes, war is indeed bad, but Dororo does not go insofar as presenting peace as a good alternative or how to achieve peace from war, and the refraining from political messages really holds the show back from having any message at all – and in turn, any meaning.
That’s a problem for Dororo, because as a story without a greater point, it’s not quite good enough. MAPPA and Tezuka Productions generally put on a good show (barring a couple of moments and that one specific episode), with exciting, creative fight choreographies (particularly in samurai versus samurai action near the climaxes) and a very strong eye for storyboarding them. But, barring some very strong efforts like The Story of Jukai or The Story of Moriko’s Song, the dour episodics are just a little too disconnected in meaning, and some of the less memorable episodes feel relatively pointless – and when the storytelling actually begins, it’s unclear if you’re supposed to perk up.
Those actual storytelling components of Dororo are generally the strongest moments, yes, but they could honestly use some sprucing up, too. The titular character’s backstory takes up an episode and clumsily throws ideas together – one of which is a shocker that feels completely irrelevant. The set-piece scenes of desperation such as Dororo’s mother cradling soup were unintentionally hilarious in how overboard they were. And it’s sad to see the show reduced to such juvenile shock moments, when it has segments that utilise the quiet tone and contrasting visuals to tell really powerful stories of redemption or loss.
With no greater themes to connect the story all together, and scant or meaningless developments for its characters, the majority of Dororo’s runtime runs the line between decently entertaining and aggravatingly inconsequential. Because of that, the time where storytelling actually happens can feel like more meaningless exercises until the big point it was trying to make has finally been made. Dororo has great spectacle and many notable moments, but its poorly handled conflict has little to say.