Manga review, Halloween 2019 edition: Dororo

Only one manga this time, but it’s a long one…

Hyakkimaru (p. 399)

Dororo (どろろ)
Language: English (translated from Japanese)
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Vertical (originally Shōgakukan / Akita Shoten)
Year: 2012 (original run 1967-1969)
Number of volumes: 1
Pages: 844
Price: US-$ 24.95
ISBN: 978-1-935654-32-2

The character named Dororo is actually only the sidekick of the real protagonist, Hyakkimaru. In medieval Japan, Lord Daigo strikes a deal with 48 demons: in exchange for one body part of his unborn child for each of the demons, Daigo wants the power to become ruler of all of Japan. And indeed, when Daigo’s son Hyakkimaru is born, he has “no arms or legs, nor eyes or ears, but holes in the face where the eyes, nose and mouth should have been” (p. 60). Daigo and his wife abandon Hyakkimaru, but he is found by a doctor who raises him.

The doctor equips Hyakkimaru with artificial limbs that work just as fine as natural ones – if not better, for when teenage Hyakkimaru sets out to leave his foster father to travel the world, the doctor upgrades the prostheses with gimmicks such as hidden blades, acid jets, and explosives. Furthermore, Hyakkimaru has somehow developed the supernatural ability to communicate telepathically – actively and passively across any distance – as well as read people’s minds. And despite having glass eyes, he can ‘sense’ his surroundings and even detect demons that are invisible to other people. One can easily see the ‘Daredevil problem’ at work here – a disability that doesn’t affect the character at all.

Still, Hyakkimaru is bothered about his condition. “I can’t see, hear, speak, or smell, and lack arms and legs… nothing works” (p. 94). So in order to change that, he becomes a demon slayer, for with each demon he kills he regains a body part. Luckily for him, he only needs half a page (p. 98) of training to become the deadliest swordfighter alive, effortlessly defeating any human opponent (and most non-human ones, for that matter) he encounters. In a way, this is even more boring than shōnen manga nowadays, in which there is at least some development – in One Piece and what have you, the enemies become stronger and stronger, and so does the hero. In Dororo, the hero becomes weaker, if at all.

Thankfully, however, Dororo doesn’t fall into the ‘monster of the week’ trap. There are standalone episodes in which Hyakkimaru and Dororo enter a village where strange things are happening, then they find the demon that’s behind it all, which they then defeat. Most episodes advance an overarching plot though, which eventually reunites Hyakkimaru with his biological parents, and you can bet that this is an awkward meeting.

Despite all this drama and mystery, Dororo is rather light-hearted in tone with lots of visual and textual gags (some of which probably get lost in translation, but the Vertical edition does a good job by providing explanatory footnotes at some points). Published shortly before Kirihito, Dororo is still – expertly – drawn in Tezuka’s idiosyncratic cartoonish style in which all male characters have big legs and no nipples etc., and this style is well suited for a humorous manga. Which isn’t to say that Dororo is kids’ stuff; there is a lot of blood and death shown here.

This is where Dororo excels. It is a no-holds-barred depiction of a grim Japanese ‘Dark Age’ in which samurai mercilessly exploit their peasant serfs and sometimes kill them without a second thought. The peasants are often not much better though: each time Hyakkimaru and Dororo rescue a village from a demon, the villagers chase them away as outcasts and freaks. Rather than giving an accurate account of a historical period, Tezuka gives a powerful reflection about human nature that transcends time and space.

In the end, Dororo is perhaps a typical manga of its time that tries to be many different things and to appeal to many different audiences at once. From the perspective of today, in which we’re used to having our manga genres neatly compartmentalised, such a humor/action/supernatural/drama/history hybrid might be hard to stomach.

Scariest moment: the horror in Dororo is not based on shock but rather on disgust. The countless demons come in all sorts of horrid shapes, some of which are contrasted with disguises as beautiful women. The most hideous of them might be the one in the ‘Bandai’ chapter (pp. 143-176).

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Find the previous Halloween blogposts here: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

Dororo and some demons (p. 549)

Manga reviews, Halloween edition: Limit, Sidonia, Kirihito

I don’t like horror comics. But to get into the Halloween spirit, here are some short reviews of more or less recent mystery/thriller manga:

panel detail from Limit by Keiko SuenobuLimit (リミット / Rimitto)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Keiko Suenobu
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2012-2013 (original run 2009-2011)
Number of volumes: 6
Volumes reviewed: 1-3

Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 6.50
ISBN: 9783-7704-7875-0

Contrary to popular belief, Japan isn’t actually overpopulated. The Japanese population is just very unevenly distributed: outside of the crowded metropolitan areas, there are vast wildernesses. This fact is what makes the story of Limit credible. On its way to a summer camp, a bus with schoolchildren crashes in a forest. Only a handful of them survives the crash, and now they have to endure until help arrives. Which takes days.

In this Lord of the Flies scenario, the greatest challenge for the schoolchildren is not to survive in the wilderness, but to get along with each other. One of the girls in particular who was always bullied in school before now sees the opportunity to take revenge. Through occasional flashbacks to their lives before the bus accident, all of the survivors are well characterised, making for a suspenseful read.

Scariest moment in vol. 3: when they find the dead body of one the girls. Somehow I hadn’t seen this coming.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

panel detail from Knights of Sidonia by Tsutomu NiheiKnights of Sidonia (シドニアの騎士 / Shidonia no kishi)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Tsutomu Nihei
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2010-today (original run 2009-2015)
Number of volumes: 12 so far (14 in Japan)
Volumes reviewed: 1-12

Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 7.50
ISBN: 9783-7704-8556-7

Knights of Sidonia, which I’ve mentioned before here, is a weird mix of genres: mecha sci-fi action, harem slapstick comedy… and also space horror and body horror.  It takes some time to get used to this, particularly if you’re familiar with Tsutomu Nihei’s earlier, more homogeneous manga, but now, as the series approaches its end, it’s beginning to make sense.

The story revolves around humans in mechas and spaceships fighting against an alien race called gauna. At first, both sides look very different: humans with their angular high-tech machinery on the one hand, the biomorphic gauna on the other. But the lines become blurred when humans build mecha/gauna hybrids and the shapeshifting gauna start imitating mecha pilots.

Scariest moment in vol. 12: when a gauna engulfs an entire mecha – apparently without killing the pilot…

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

panel from Kirihito by Osamu TezukaKirihito (きりひと讃歌 / Kirihito sanka)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Shōgakukan)
Years: 2009-2010 (original run 1970-1971)
Number of volumes: 3
Volumes reviewed: 1

Pages per volume: ~270
Price per volume: € 16.90
ISBN: 978-3-551-79180-1

This one is a bit older, but it has only relatively recently been published in English (2006) and German (2009). Kirihito is a medical thriller about a mysterious disease that turns people into dog-like creatures. A young doctor, the eponymous Kirihito, is sent to a remote village where this disease has broken out in order to investigate and find a cure – or so he thinks. He soon learns the hard way that the disease is infectious indeed.

The pacing is off, the story has its issues (e.g. the problematic portrayal of women) and drags on for too long (even though this is only the first of three volumes) – but the art is vastly superior to that of most living mangaka. Although you could argue that his cartoonish style would be more suitable for a humorous story, the sheer amount of Tezuka’s daring design ideas is astonishing.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: towards the end of the volume when Izumi, Kirihito’s fiancée, finds out that her own parents are not quite free from blame for Kirihito’s disappearance.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○