After the psychological / mythological head-rush of Apollo’s Song, the strange and compelling Ode to Kirihito, the gut-wrenching nihilism of MW, and the epic Buddha, what could Vertical, Inc. possibly be bringing us next from Osamu Tezuka? When you’re dealing with a guy whose worst work was still better than most other people’s best, anything they cull from his encyclopedic back catalog is likely to be fascinating.
And so now Vertical has brought us Dororo, a story that at first doesn’t seem to have a lot in common with the other Tezuka works listed here, if only because on first glimpse it looks almost light-hearted in comparison. It’s a rollicking adventure in ancient Japan, abounding with denizens of the supernatural and feats of the superhuman — in short, a story that seems to have a lot more in common with your average Shonen Jump action title than anything with Tezuka’s name on it. Look closer, though, and you’ll quickly realize that the adventure and action is just a wrapper for all the big things Tezuka addressed in all of his stories, big and small.
The story: Once, ages ago in ancient Japan, the 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 his 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 he begins to develop telepathic abilities to compensate for his lack of sensory organs or limbs. The doctor builds an artificial body for the boy (shades of Tezuka’s later series Black Jack, also licensed by Vertical for release later this year), and trains him diligently to walk, speak and intermingle freely with humanity. But the boy’s suffering has barely started. Demons are drawn to him, and make 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 — that’s right, 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 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 Haykkimaru with a mind to separate him from his weapons, and over time the two form an uneasy alliance. When they’re 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 refuses to let him accept charity, and it becomes his downfall when he attacks a noblewoman and her retainers rather than be allowed to eat some of her food. Not long after that Dororo’s mother dies as well, freezing to death in a snowstorm while trying to keep him warm. The whole story makes Hyakkimaru realize they’re a lot more alike than he wanted to believe.
The first volume closes off with an encounter with another demon — a sword that possesses its owner and leads him to become a bloodthirsty, battle-seeking monster. It’s one thing to defeat the wielder of a weapon, but what about the weapon itself? Worse, what to do about the loved ones of one of the people it has cast its spell over, who (once again) look at Hyakkimaru and see not a savior but a destroyer of life? The latter is made all the more ironic by the fact that the loved one in question is the sister of the sword-wielder — the first girl Hyakkimaru is able to see with his own eyes. That’s, again, the Tezuka touch: the way he takes every story he tells and transforms it into something so broad and deep that it seems a shame it’s only all been in Japanese until now.
Art: Tezuka was quite plain about the debt he owed to Walt Disney throughout his career. The influence waxed and waned depending on what title he was working on — it’s a lot more prevalent here than it was in his more experimental work like MW orApollo’s Song. This isn’t a reflection on its quality, mind you: Tezuka’s art only looked simple because he didn’t put anything on the page that didn’t really need to be there, and because he knew how to pull out the stops and modulate his style for striking dramatic effect. He also used blocking and framing like the best of filmmakers — there’s a sequence in this volume which consists of several extremely wide, Panavision-like panels in a row, and I was reminded of how directors like David Lean and, yes, Akira Kurosawa did the same things with the broad gauge of a movie screen.
Translation: Vertical’s manga typically haven’t had as much fan-oriented material as, say, the Del Rey titles — not much in the way of bonus material or other goodies. The translations themselves, this one included, are typically excellent, though — colloquial and easy to read, and generally presented with minimal retouching. Some of the Tezuka books have been presented left-to-right (apparently at the insistence of the Tezuka estate, for the sake of wider marketability), but Dororo is in its original right-to-left format and features effects annotated on the page as well as the occasional bit of cultural marginalia.
The Bottom Line: Dororo actually serves as a fine introduction to Tezuka’s work as a whole, come to think of it. Start here, and if you like what you see, go dig up his more challenging and adult material as well. The more you see of what he’s done, the more you realize a manga collection of any size without Tezuka is inherently incomplete.