When you open what you know to be the last volume of a manga series, you tend to go in with preconceptions or second guesses about how everything’s going to turn out. With Dororo, I thought I had all the cards face-up on the table after the first two books: the hero, Hyakkimaru, was going to win back all of the missing body parts demons had stolen from him; and Hyakkimaru’s impish sidekick Dororo was going to earn Hyakkimaru’s sword for himself at last.
It doesn’t quite work out that way, for reasons that seem at least as much due to Tezuka’s production schedule as the mechanics of the story he was telling. Dororo’s final volume wraps things up with a little too much haste for my own comfort — but at the same time, it doesn’t feel thematically wrong. Everyone gets what they have had coming for a long time. That and what might come off as middling (or rushed, or clumsy) for Tezuka is still outstanding by anyone else’s yardstick — and really, the whole of Dororo is more than worth the cash and the effort. “Nobody is born whole,” reads the blurb on the back cover, and now that I’m done with the series it makes sense as more than just ad copy.
In the opening story, “The Two Sharks,” Hyakkimaru and Dororo end up in the company of a gang of thieves, whose sights are set on a massive buried treasure out on a distant island cape. They trust themselves to an oarsman, Shiranui, who turns out to be far more dangerous than any of the bandits themselves. Shiranui has two pet sharks (!) that he has raised like sons, who follow his every command and almost make a meal out of Dororo and the other bandits. Hyakkimaru manages to intervene, but the intervening struggle leaves one shark dead, their raft wrecked, and the bunch of them trapped on the island.
What happens next is a classic example of Tezuka at his best. Instead of having the situation on the island degenerate into mutual suspicion and violence (an easy way to generate drama), Tezuka allows everyone — Shiranui, especially — to speak from their hearts. For Shiranui, his sharks are all that he knows of companionship and family. Other people are alien to him; small wonder he’s able to feed them to his sharks without a second thought. The way Hyakkimaru deals with him is to attack his “children” since without them he’s nothing — but all the same, he gives Shiranui the dignity of a burial with his “son”. Everybody loves somebody.
It’s the same with Hyakkimaru and Dororo, actually. They are devoted to each other, but the peculiar nature of their connection means that love is expressed in the strangest ways. When the two of them are split up at one point, Hyakkimaru realizes he misses the little guy terribly — although as soon as they’re back together, the first words out of his mouth are “Why are you so reckless? You little fool!”. Time and again their very natures tear them apart and bring them back together, until Hyakkimaru realizes they must walk separate paths before either one of them can become truly whole. Yes, they complete each other in some sense, but not in a way that allows either one to stand alone properly — and since Dororo’s so headstrong in his own way, it’s inevitable that they will be pulled apart time and again. Eventually for keeps.
The way this is developed over each story in the final volume is woven in so quietly that at first we don’t even notice it. But it becomes impossible to ignore. Hyakkimaru’s loneliness becomes all the more profound when he becomes emotionally attached to Oyone, a young girl widely believed to be a madwoman, but whose lunacy is more playful than actually dangerous. Her father has been exploiting her behavior (in a way that’s best discovered by reading the book itself), and when she sacrifices herself to keep Hyakkimaru from dying at the hands of a ronin bent on revenge, Hyakkimaru takes it all the more harshly. He has to find someone he can love back without fear of losing them, too, and this life is not going to be the way to do it.
The finale involves Hyakkimaru’s reunion with his biological mother and father, and — more importantly in some ways — his parting with Dororo. There is another plot that has been developing all this time involving Dororo, one I will not spoil, but which further convinces Hyakkimaru that the two of them must stand alone before they can become truly whole. And again, the way Tezuka handles Hyakkimaru’s meeting with his parents is not what we expect: there is bitterness and recrimination and some degree of revenge, but Hyakkimaru realizes that he has to show mercy of his own even if others don’t, for the sake of being that much less like them. Not that he was ever like them at all in the first place, of course.
Despite what feels like a rushed conclusion, Dororo’s been a platinum-level effort all the way through. It’s one of the more audience-friendly ways to introduce yourself to someone of Tezuka’s stature — and at $14 a volume, it’ll be some of the best $42 you’ve spent all year.