Osamu Tezuka's catalog is no stranger to live-action, both before & after his death in 1989. Astro Boy was a live-action TV series in 1959 before it ever became an anime in 1963 (something which Tezuka quickly regretted ever having been made), the 1966-1967 live-action TV adaptation of Ambassador Magma was the first ever color tokusatsu series, & even as recently as 2009 saw a live-action movie based on Tezuka's MW ("Mu"), which was a response to the gekiga movement of the 70s. What I'll be covering here, though, is the 2007 live-action movie based off of Dororo. Released during the 40th Anniversary of the manga's debut in Shonen Sunday, the movie was (supposedly) originally planned to be the first in a trilogy, but wound up being only a single film; granted, it wound up being a 139-minute film. Directed by Akihiko Shiota (Yomigaeri, Dakishimetai: Shinjitsu no Monogatari/I Just Wanna Hug You), the movie was the eight top-grossing Japanese film of 2007. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, which was releasing the occasional foreign film at the time, brought the movie over to North America via sub-only DVD in 2008, coming out just after Vertical finished releasing the manga.
If you didn't notice, I refrained from calling the Dororo movie an "adaptation", because it isn't exactly one. Does that mean I'm condemning the movie? Not exactly...
It is the year 3084 & the world has become a seemingly post-apocalyptic, war-torn land. Barely surviving a battle, complete with arrows still stuck in his back, Daigo Kagemitsu visits a building called the Hall of Hell, which houses 48 statues that were carved by a sculptor who went crazy shortly afterwards. Hoping to keep his clan from being completely eradicated by war, Daigo asks what he can offer in order to allow him to one day rule the world. The demons request his soon-to-be-born son, & Daigo agrees, letting them take 48 body parts as payment. After birth, the utterly disfigured newborn is sent down a river to die, only to be eventually picked up by a shaman named Jukai, who uses the body parts of slain children to alchemize body parts for the young child. Twenty years later, Jukai has trained his surrogate son to wield swords hidden within his missing arms & the man found out that he can regain his body parts by killing the 48 demons that stole from him. During his travels he comes across a female thief who claims to be nameless, but takes a shining to "Dororo", which is one of the names the man has been called; Dororo, in turn, names the man Hyakkimaru, after the demon-killing blade hidden in his left arm.
If you couldn't tell from that synopsis, the Dororo movie differs a fair bit from Tezuka's original manga. An apparent post-apocalyptic world in place of Sengoku-era Japan, Hyakkimaru being more of a Frankenstein's Monster due to the use of actual human body parts to rebuild him, & aging our lead from a teenager to a young man are only a small portion of the changes made. Probably the biggest one is with Dororo, who has always been a young child with a purposefully ambiguous gender until near the end. Here, though, Dororo is now about the same age as Hyakkimaru, if only a couple of years younger, & is a blatant woman, though she dresses & behaves like a man due to her own backstory. Also, the movie decided to alter Dororo's backstory so that Daigo was the man who killed her father, giving her more of a revenge story than anything. Also, Daigo himself has been humanized compared to how he was originally designed. In the manga, Daigo willingly sacrificed his unborn son & was nothing more than a control-hungry warlord. In the movie, it's the demons who suggest the child, while Daigo's reason for making such a deal is more to protect the Daigo lineage, with world conquest being more of a means to an end. It's a neat touch, especially since Daigo does get more focus in the second half of the movie.
That's not to say that there is absolutely no adapting to be found... It's just that it's bits & pieces. Usually when there's actual adaptation happening, though, it's with a lot of changes. Hyakkimaru's origin story? It's there, but Jukai is a "shaman" instead of a doctor to explain how his body is now essentially immortal while regaining his humanity. Dororo's backstory? Well, her dad was killed by samurai & her mom died in the snow, like in the manga, but that's it. The giant "Banmon" wall that leads to Hyakkimaru meeting Daigo & his family for the first time? It's the entire second half of the movie, but there's no opposing village on the other side, as Daigo already devastated it, which removes the entire subplot for that story. Without a doubt, this movie is best described not as an adaptation, but rather as a reimagining. It uses the the story of Dororo enough to still feel like Tezuka's original work to an extent, but overall it's its own beast in the end. If you're going into this movie expecting a true, live-action adaptation of the manga then you're going to be rather disappointed, simply because so much of has been changed in the long run. Therefore, I'm going to judge this movie on its own merit, but is it still any good in that regard?
Luckily, the Dororo movie, when taken as a reimagining rather than an adaptation, is still a rather good movie, though there is one pretty noticeable flaw. For its rather long runtime, the movie is much better paced than I had expected it to be. Technically, the story feels more like two different arcs combined together, with the first half being about introducing Hyakkimaru, Dororo, & Biwa the traveling musician (who's given a much larger presence here than what Tezuka originally gave him), an adaptation of the Moth Mother story from the manga (though it still differs in some notable ways), & a very enjoyable montage featuring three more demon fights. The second half, on the other hand, is the semi-adaptation of the Banmon story, with various alterations to make it work for the movie's story. It does give the first half a slightly unfocused feel, but the execution isn't boring by any means, while the second half is definitely the highlight of the movie, putting the Hyakkimaru/Daigo conflict at the forefront & telling a neat alternate take from the manga. Compared to the manga & anime adaptation, though, which were more somber in feel for the most part, the movie is definitely a much more hopeful story. The Moth Mother story here ends with a bit of a publicly spiritual finale (it's the best way to describe it without spoiling), while the Daigo storyline ends with a real sense of redemption & acceptance for Hyakkimaru; a little bittersweet in some ways, but overall happy. Also, the movie ends with an on-screen message indicating that only half of the demons have been killed, showing some proof for that whole trilogy idea that was apparently nixed.
While I appreciated the somber feel of the manga & anime, I was fine with the movie's more upbeat style for a couple of reasons. First, it can be a rather beautiful movie. While this was a Japanese production, the filming took place in New Zealand, a country now known for featuring simply beautiful vistas. Akihiko Shiota & his crew definitely took advantage of the land, resulting in a ton of excellent looking environments that Hyakkimaru & Dororo wind up in. Whether it's riverside for Jukai's house, in a rocky crevice while fighting a flying demon, or an open field for the climactic final battles, the outdoor environments in this movie can be downright gorgeous, if not simply impressive. The sets themselves for indoor environments & cities look good, too, utilizing a sort of "Neo-Medieval" look that has the style & décor of long ago, in this case Sengoku-era Japan, but the aesthetic still feels relatively modern in terms of color & the like. The practical effects that are used are also welcome, with the occasional use of it for demons lending a nice feeling of reality, even if the outfits definitely have that tokusatsu/suitmation feel to them. The fight choreography is also well done, with a mix of fun sword fighting & some obvious "wire-fu" for effect. Sadly, Hyakkimaru doesn't look to have any of his other limb-hidden weapons, so it's only sword arms, but at least the fighting is fast & fun.
|Yeah, this looks pretty damn "not really there", doesn't it?|
That being said, though, the major flaw of the movie shows itself whenever CG animation is used. To be frank, the CG in this movie is pretty bad. Mainly used for demons that require lots of fast motion, it's sadly just too fake looking & always feels completely out of place; you never get the feeling that the demons are truly there when CG is used in this movie. When it's used more subtly, like when Hyakkimaru is growing back a limb or the like, the CG works out well enough, but that's really it. Luckily, the use of CG drops significantly during the demon fighting montage (the first demon is all CG, but the other two are mostly practical), & aside from two demon dogs & one last use during the climax, it's more or less nonexistent in the second half. Seriously, I'm not the kind of person to care that much when it comes to stuff like CG in a live-action movie, but what's used in Dororo is so terrible that it just can't be ignored. It doesn't exactly ruin the movie, partly because of its lack of use in the second half, but it's easily the biggest problem with the film.
Thankfully, the first half still manages to be enjoyable on the whole, if only because of the cast. Hyakkimaru is performed by Satoshi Tsumabuki (Teru Aoki in Dragon Head, Saru Saito in Ikebukuro West Gate Park), who does a good job, I'd say. Though his iconic anchor-laden kimono is hidden under a movie-original cloth, he does fit the look well & was very believable whenever he regained a body part. This reimagined Dororo is played by Ko Shibasaki (Mitsuko Souma in Battle Royale, Reina in the True Century Legend Fist of the North Star anime movies), and while she is a bit over-the-top, her performance stays generally true to the original child character. This does seem like what Dororo would act like had the character gotten older without ever having met Hyakkimaru as a child. Kiichi Nakai (Barefoot Gen, Takeda Shingen) plays Daigo Kagemitsu, and manages to mix together desperation with an air of regality & an honest feel that he wants his lineage to live on. Biwa is performed by Katsuo Nakamura (Yukimura in Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke/Magic Boy, Lloyd Steam in Steamboy), who looks to have had a fun time playing the wise & reliable blind musician. Overall a very solid cast.
Live-action movie adaptations of anime & manga have generally had a bad reputation to them, & when taken in that regard then Akihiko Shiota's Dororo doesn't really tarnish that reputation (I guess in a good way, since it's not a positive one). As an "adaptation" of Osamu Tezuka's 60s manga the movie kind of falters, simply because it alters just enough to not exactly feel like the original material, but at the same time there's enough there to know that it's Dororo; it's stuck in a sort of in-between limbo. If you take this as a "reimagining" & as its own movie, though, then Shiota's film comes off much better. The plot is enjoyable, the locations stunning, the action quick, the pacing much better than you'd expect for a 2+ hour movie, & the actors all pull off very good performances. Yes, the CG work is pretty terrible, but it's the only really major flaw in an otherwise enjoyable film. In fact, it probably works best for those who are unfamiliar with the original manga, its anime adaptation, or even the Sega-developed PS2 game. At the very least, it gives enough of the original material that those who watch may be enticed to check out the series proper, which is only a good thing.