It is fair to say I am watching Dororo (2019) with absolutely no knowledge of the original 1969 TV anime or 1967 Osamu Tezuka manga. As a result I cannot comment on how good an adaptation it is, in any useful sense; my understanding from secondary reading is it is making some plot changes, but beyond that I do not know anything. So, that reservation in mind, would I recommend Dororo (2019)? Yes. It’s a series which has in its first three episodes generally presented a praiseworthy attention to detail, some good action and a straightforward plot which hits some generally tough moral beats with the uncompromising didacticism that I grew to like about series like Harlock SSX.
Note: This article discusses the plot details of episodes 1-3 of Dororo (2019) including the way it handles the narrative depiction of suicide in episode 3.
The forthrightness of some anime I have seen in taking a quite absolutist stance about morality and exploring its limitations is, I feel, something of a virtue when done well; to return to Harlock, there is a very straightforward thread through its first half, at least, that integrity is not taking the easy option to avoid personal suffering when that easy option causes others to suffer. This is then tested, and explored, and eventually a conclusion is reached in the series’ climax. So what morality does Dororo explore? Well, I think the simple answer, particularly from episode 3, is a similar one; complicity in evil and the capacity to reform. This is set in contrast to the revenge story of the main plot, because what is being set up is a story where revenge is not all that bad a thing because it is motivated by a higher, more selfless cause.
Ultimately it is not an unfair reading to say Hyakkimaru’s quest to get his body parts back by killing the demons his father summoned is a revenge quest. He has been personally wronged, and is taking steps, as violent as necessary, to address that wrong. But the wrongs his father perpetuated go beyond just maiming the infant Hyakkimaru; they were done in service to summoning demons to acquire great evil power and become a tyrant. And the vengeance is carried out through the act of killing demons, which in turn are creatures of evil that are doing wrongs upon the innocent. Hyakkimaru is no Edmond Dantes, to find a comparable avenger; his actions are carried out out of a general (it seems, so far) hatred of evil rather than a specific vendetta against the man who harmed him. Perhaps this is the fundamental difference between an avenger and a more virtuous kind of person; one does whatever necessary to redress the wrong against them, the other pursues redress for that wrong by putting an end to evil.
Of course, it is very difficult to get any kind of sense of why he is doing anything because he is so far mute, and lacking various other parts. He may have the ability to sense evil (according to the monk who accompanies the adventuring-party), but he certainly cannot communicate easily. Perhaps, and it is often dangerous ground to try and ascribe metatextual inspirations directly, the best comparison to Hyakkimaru is Kamen Rider. The original Kamen Rider was a man taken by an evil organisation and turned into a mechanically enhanced monster, who escaped and started doing good by taking on the villains who made him. There are similarities, and they are interesting ones in discussing the moralities at play here. A machine-man creature made what he is by evil decides to pursue goodness (and perhaps humanity) by fighting evil. The allegory in Dororo is made all the stronger by Hyakkimaru physically regaining his humanity with each victory.
Each fight restores some aspect of him, and the most interesting thing is that some of these are in any objective terms weaknesses. At first he is a mechanical man who senses evil with supernatural power and feels no pain. A silent masked avenger who cuts down demons with his arm-swords. And yet each kill takes some aspect of his mechanical parts and his inhuman efficiency away. By episode three he can feel pain, after a life of perceived invicibility. How about that – a hero with a reverse power curve, who rather than gaining powers and mastering the ones that have, gradually loses them and becomes like everyone else by the end. I don’t know how Dororo will end but the fact the more evil Hyakkimaru has to fight the more mortal fallibilities he gains is a very interesting sword of Damocles to hang over our hero.
There’s more that’s interesting, too; episode three is a flashback about Hyakkimaru’s childhood, so to speak, about the doctor who made him into the mechanical avenger. The doctor is an interesting, compromised character; he is initially depicted as an enforcer of the villain responsible for killing and torturing his enemies, who has a change of heart when his wife is killed and tries to commit suicide. He fails, and attempts instead to make amends for his crimes by becoming a doctor who makes prosthetics for victims of the war. However, he cannot escape his past and his apprentice – and former patient – turns out to be the son of someone he killed, who tries to seek vengeance. There is something quite effective about how the doctor faces his crimes; he says he does not mind dying as long as he is allowed to finish his work first. Instead, his apprentice is unable to get his vengeance, but does reject his mentor and runs off. Thus the doctor finds the maimed infant Hyakkimaru, makes him an artificial body, and sees his quest to defeat the demons begin.
Really there is not a lot innovative about this backstory – a former villain trying to make amends for their crimes being confronted by a relative of one of their victims is extremely common, and the part where someone is saved from suicide and finds a reason to live is equally ordinary plotting. But in the broad-strokes, vitriolic world of Dororo, it fits well and sets up the idea that trying to reform is never easy, and some people will not – and should not be expected to – accept apologies or compensation or even current good deeds. The expectation is that a reformed villain is reformed. There is something human about how even though someone is now doing good, they have not actually made specific amends for a specific crime, and it is impossible to move on. The fact the doctor is not killed in pursuit of vengeance equally shows the power of humanity (which I think is the key theme of Dororo); the victim of a villain cannot, should not be expected to face the person who wronged them and simply “move on” easily. But at the same time killing one specific, tired, penitent man is not the answer. Pursuing a greater goal – a vengeance of a sort – against the man who made this slide into evil happen is going to be the path of the hero.