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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Dororo (& Hyakkimaru): A Litany of Anime History

Anime with great historical value isn't something that tends to get released here in North America on any sort of basis, at least in the sense that it's historical nature is completely established by the time it is picked up; normally, a title becomes historical after it's already been brought over (i.e. titles like Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, Sailor Moon, etc.). Even more rare to ever see released over here is black & white/B&W anime, which is pretty obvious to see why. Most anime fans are young & interested in the here & now, with older fans only being so interested in titles from the 60s, which is when B&W anime was still being produced. That's what makes the subject of this review so interesting & important, though... This is a B&W anime being released in the year 2016 because enough people were interested in it, & it's historical significance is absolutely through the roof. In fact, it's so important in the history of anime that it being adapted from a manga by Osamu Tezuka seems kind of blasé.


Dororo originally debuted in the pages of Weekly Shonen Sunday back in mid-1967, but it only lasted a year before Tezuka had to cancel it, though that certainly didn't stop it from winner an Eisner Award in 2009 once Vertical published it in North America. Anyway, Tezuka's original anime studio, Mushi Productions, was interested in adapting the manga to anime in 1969, after making a pilot film in 1968 that caught the interest of Fuji TV. As the story goes, though, Fuji was leery about Mushi's use of blood, which resulted in Mushi having to produce the TV anime in B&W; Fuji also mandated the inclusion of a puppy to follow the leads. By 1969, though, anime was well into the age of color, which meant that the Dororo anime wound up becoming the last anime to ever be completely produced in B&W. While anime since it has used B&W in varying ways for artistic purposes, this was the last one made without color because of the very time it was made in.

Also, half-way into the show's airing, the anime changed names slightly, going from Dororo to Dororo & Hyakkimaru, due to how the latter was technically the main character. Come episode 20 would be a new sponsor, Calpis Co. Ltd. (which makes the soft drink of the same name), with the idea being that Calpis would sponsor each & every anime that would air in the time slot that Dororo ran in for the time being; after Dororo finished the slot changed to airing anime based on classic children's literature. Ten years after the creation of Calpis Manga Theater, though, Calpis would stop sponsoring, though the slot itself would stay the same; House Foods would later be the sponsor at times. In short, Dororo was the very first entry in the venerated World Masterpiece Theater franchise, which produced anime like Heidi, Girl of the Alps, Anne of Green Gables, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, & A Dog of Flanders, many of which became international classics of anime. It's also the first entry in the anime staple to not be based on a piece of classic literature, with only 1994's Tico of the Seven Seas doing the same by being an original story. Only an anime based on an Osamu Tezuka manga could be both the end of one era & the start of another, & yet there's still more historical significance to Dororo.

That last bit is housed within the staff list for this anime, but we'll get to that when appropriate. For the moment, let's finally get the show itself, which finally saw a DVD release by Discotek Media earlier this year.


Daigo Kagemitsu is a general during the Sengoku period of Japan. With hopes of ruling the country himself, Daigo enters a building called the Hall of Hell, which houses 48 demonic statues made by a sculptor who killed himself shortly after completion. There, Daigo prays to the 48 demons that are seemingly housed within, saying that they can take claim to his soon-to-be son, who will be born the next day, if they can guarantee him control of Japan. When his son is born, the baby is horribly deformed, missing 48 body parts (legs, arms, mouth, nose, eyes, ears, etc.), & he condemns the newborn to float down a river to its death. Unbeknownst to him, though, the baby is picked up by a doctor named Jukai, who manages to give the newborn prosthetic limbs; Jukai also notices that the child has psychic sensory. Now, 15 years later, the boy named Hyakkimaru finds out about the truth behind his missing limbs & heads out to kill all 48 demons & regain his humanity. He is quickly joined by Dororo, a child thief who wants to claim Hyakkimaru's limb-encased swords for profit.

Without a doubt, what's most interesting about the Dororo anime is what was considered okay to show on traditional TV time slots back in the 60s, especially when it's produced in B&W. Again, part of the reason why Fuji TV mandated that the anime be produced in monochrome instead of the already-standard color was because of Mushi Pro's use of blood, and that's blatantly obvious from episode 1. Make no mistake, whenever anyone (human or demon) suffers some sort of major blow there is almost always a notable blood splash, with the amount of blood spraying sometimes being fairly more than judicious. For example, in episode 16 a demon-possessed horse named Midoro outright gnashes on her former master's throat, resulting in a massive blood spray out of the throat that wouldn't look out of place in an OVA from the 80s. The fact that it's a night shot hides the black blood for the most part, but you can easily tell how violent the spray is. Not just that, but there was seemingly no restriction as to what could be shown when it came to showing death. Men are cut in two, women are killed on-screen, children are (rarely) murdered without putting it off-screen, & even dogs are decapitated fairly often, regardless of whether they were demons or not. While there is no doubt that, compared to the hyper-violent content that came about during the 80s & 90s, Dororo is really damn tame, it does often surprise me how much violent (for its time) content was deemed appropriate for what was essentially family programming back then, as long as it wasn't in color. Also, I'd imagine that Dororo still got away with stuff that you couldn't get away with nowadays, even at late-night, like on-screen child killing & dog decapitation.


The other interesting part of Dororo is just how somber it is on a relatively normal basis. Almost nothing ever happens with an iota of complete happiness, and even at it's most hopeful the show tends to be nothing more than bittersweet. The simple fact of the matter is that Japan during the Sengoku period was more or less a hellish environment in some places, stuck in constant war or famine for the general populace. Hyakkimaru's journey to regain his body parts generally leads him to people who are simply trying to live peaceful lives, but are almost always affected by demons in one way or another. For example, early on the two leads wind up in a town that's secretly being manipulated by a demon in order to keep the town constantly on the verge of being self-servient before screwing it over & forcing its people to rebuild. Hyakkimaru winds up saving the town while recovering a body part, but the fact that the people were more or less content with the lives they were living (it wasn't ideal, but still...), not to mention the fact that a normal person doesn't regrow limbs after killing demons, immediately make them leery of Hyakkimaru & his young friend, forcing them to leave right then & there. Essentially, any time there is a glimmer of hope & happiness in the world of Dororo, you can be sure that something terrible or, at least, sad will happen almost immediately afterwards. If not that, then victory is always achieved with a strong loss or inability to save everyone. Quite honestly, the monochromatic aesthetic fits the world of this anime perfectly.

In terms of the actual content itself, the anime does stay mostly accurate to Tezuka's original manga for a good, fair amount. The Dororo half of the show is made up entirely of multi-episode stories that are all from the manga & in the same exact order that they originally happened. To be fair, these aren't 1-to-1 accurate adaptations, as some minor scenes were removed, Hyakkimaru regains body parts in a different order (likely to keep him with two sword-arms as long as possible, because it's an always cool & iconic image), & the young dog Nota had to be inserted in ways that made sense, but they are all still accurate where it really counts; this covers half of the manga story, too. Osamu Tezuka's original manga was a constantly somber piece with moments of bittersweet joy, & the anime adapted that perfectly.

That changes a fair bit after episode 13, however.


The Dororo & Hyakkimaru half, on the other hand, is made up entirely of one-shots, with only two episodes early on being actual adaptations of the manga (both taken from near the end), while the rest are anime-original stories. In fact, the anime didn't even seem to credit any scriptwriters until the second half, though I can't tell why; maybe Mushi Pro was silently honoring Tezuka as the original writer for those. Also, the somber mood lightens up on the whole. It depends on the story being told, but Dororo is given more screentime, with Hyakkimaru mainly being used for battles at the end, & a there's a bit more comedy to be found, though it generally still feels accurate to Tezuka's kind of humor. The general mood of the original stores is also much more upbeat, though there is the occasional one that follows the first half's lead to an extent; Hyakkimaru is generally more welcomed & celebrated for his actions, though. Also, the bloodletting is reduced to an extent, though it's still notably bloody; the Calips-sponsored episodes try to stay less bloody to an extent. While that all sounds worrying, I can reassure that the stories themselves remain very solid & enjoyable in their own rights. Whether it's everyone getting stuck in a ghost town because a demon summons violent animals if they try to escape, dealing with a demonic dog that hates the fact that the local town holds dog fighting festivals (insert you own Michael Vick joke here), or staying at a lord's dwelling for a short while because his wife may actually be a demon, among others, all of the second half stories manage to maintain the overall quality that came before it. Sure, it's not as somber & bittersweet, but it's still really damn good.

Mushi Productions was known for being the place where many future-legends of the anime industry got their starts, but Dororo may be the only Mushi title that featured such a packed staff that would go on to greatness. Leading everyone was series director Gisaburo Sugii, who was 29 at the time & would later direct beloved classics like Night on the Galactic Railroad, the Street Fighter II Movie, & the Touch movies & TV specials. Sugii's direction for Dororo was completely perfect, delivering an excellent somber mood for the first half, & keeping a fine balance between more upbeat & downtrodden for the second half. The writing for the original stories was headed up by Yoshitake Suzuki (co-creator of Zambot 3, Brave Raideen), with help from Toru Sawaki (Star of the Giants), Shuji Hirami, & Taku Sugiyama (director of Wonder 3); all experienced men for their time. The music was composed by the late Isao Tomita (Jungle Emperor Leo, Princess Knight), the first Japanese person to be nominated for a Grammy, who often worked with Mushi Pro & just passed away earlier this year. Tomita's soundtrack for Dororo varies about as much as the show itself does between halves. In the first half the music was used sparingly & generally went for a bit of a horror-ish ambiance, but in the second half Tomita created some more tracks that lent a more playful feel to match the Dororo character in general; the original music was still used when appropriate, though.

Yeah, Dororo, you tell off Discotek for not making any extras!

If you own Discotek's DVD set for this show (which you should) & look at the back cover, you wouldn't see too many notable names, aside from Sugii & Tomita, but where Dororo's legend-packed staff comes in is via roles that aren't normally listed on a back cover. Namely, the list of episode directors reads a fair bit like a who's who of iconic anime industry figures, plus a couple that you may have also heard of, depending on if you saw specific shows. Quite frankly, it's easiest to simply list these people, & how young they were at the time, because it's a fair amount of names. Mixed in with Mushi Pro stalwarts are the late Osamu Dezaki (26), Yoshiyuki Tomino (28), the late Noburo Ishiguro (31), Ryousuke Takahashi (26), & Seiji Okuda (26), who together directed 14 episodes of the anime. Takahashi himself directed the most out of anyone with five, while Tomino also apparently handled storyboards. The men behind anime like Ashita no Joe, Mobile Suit Gundam, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Armored Trooper VOTOMS, & Dancougar all learned the ropes with this show, giving Dororo a sort of pedigree that almost no other anime can match. Hell, there was apparently even a 19 year old Yoshiaki Kawajiri doing in-between animation for the show! Sadly, Discotek's release features no liner notes or educational commentary whatsoever, making this info not as widely known as it really should be.

The opening sequence for Dororo was an example of how Fuji TV tried to lessen the violence & sadness that the show focused on. In fact, Isao Tomita wound up creating two different theme songs, but the first, an instrumental known only as "M-6", was deemed too scary for children by Fuji & never used; the animation that went with "M-6" was used for the first eight episodes before being replaced. To be fair, though, the song that wound up being used, "Dororo no Uta" by Toshiko Fujita, is such an infectious earworm that is both catchy yet also just somber enough in sound to still fit the anime perfectly. Also, just to add to the list of notable anime figures, Toshiko Fujita (who was only 19 at the time) would go on to be a popular voice actor, with roles like Taichi Yagami in Digimon Adventure, Dai in Dragon Quest: Dai no Daibouken, & Rally Cheyenne in Silent Möbius. The major cast is small, with Dororo & Hyakkimaru being voiced by Minori Matsushita (Meat in Kinnikuman, Candy in Candy Candy) & the late Nachi Nozawa (Cobra in Space Adventure Cobra, Anderson in Hellsing TV), respectively. Matsushita does an excellent job as Dororo, giving the young thief the perfect mix of sarcasm, ego, & honest caring for the downtrodden. Nozawa, in his first lead role, absolutely nailed Hyakkimaru by generally being no nonsense when it came to demons, but otherwise showing a real sense of warming up to humanity by being with Dororo for so long. The rest of the cast includes the likes of the late Junpei Takiguchi (Biwa the Wandering Monk), the late Goro Naya (Daigo Kagemitsu, the Narrator, & Tanosuke), & Masako Nozawa (Sukeroku), among others.


Finally, what about the 1968 full-color pilot that started all of this? It is included in Discotek's DVD set as an extra, along with a video of the (very well drawn) storyboards for the final episode, so it's only fair to mention that quickly. It's a ~15 minute "digest" that quickly covers Hyakkimaru's introduction, his origin story, his first meeting with Dororo, & their battle against Bandai; in fact, some of the footage was greyscaled & used in the TV anime early on. It has much of the same staff behind it (Sugii directing, Suzuki writing, Tomita composing, etc.), but has some notable differences. First of all, the character designs stay much more accurate to Osamu Tezuka's general drawing style, resulting in our two leads looking much more visibly younger than in the TV anime (Hyakkimaru more than Dororo). Also, while Nozawa still voiced Hyakkimaru (though now his deep voice clashes somewhat with the younger-faced design), Dororo was originally voiced by Hiroko Suzuki. She does a fine performance, but after 26 episodes of Matsushita, it is odd to hear Suzuki's take on the character. Daigo & Bandai have the same voices as they do in the TV anime, as well.


Much like Matchless Raijin-Oh, the 1969 Dororo TV anime was something that I've wanted to watch for a good while, but accepted that I will likely never be able to, only to be absolutely dumbfounded when the opportunity actually comes by. For Dororo, it was first given a chance when Anime Sols tried to stream it via crowdfunding. It was one of Sols' last success stories, with the first half being fully funded for streaming. When Sols went out of business, Discotek saw the successful funding as a sign that it might be worth bringing over completely on DVD, and now here we are. While I do wish that Discotek gave it just a little more than a barebones release (I'm sure there's some sort of English-speaking Tezuka expert out there that could have produced some liner notes, at least), just the simple fact that I now own the Dororo anime on DVD, let alone finally had to opportunity to watch it, pleases me more than enough. This anime is simply excellent, with outstanding ambiance, a perfect use of the B&W motif (making great use of an enforced restriction), superb performance from all of the voice actors, & both great adaptations of Osamu Tezuka's original manga as well as very good original stories. In fact, the finale here is leagues better than Tezuka's original non-ending, & I think it may be better than the ending that the PS2 video game adaptation Blood Will Tell made up.

Really, don't be afraid of the fact that it's all in B&W, because Dororo is not just a truly importance piece of anime history (for various reasons). It's also an extremely good anime in its own right, more than holding up 47 years later. If you're still hesitant about blind-buying a DVD set, though, I'm sure Discotek will eventually get this show up on CrunchyRoll; you'll have no excuses at that point, though.

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