This review has been a long time coming. Personally, this anime is still a contender for anime of the season for winter 2019, and likely will take a spot in my top 5 for the entire year. This anime leads you on two separate journeys: a physical one and an emotional one. By the end, you feel both drained and fulfilled; it wasn’t a perfect journey from a faultless hero, but that makes it all the more beautiful. Spoilers ahead.
The premise is simple: the life of a an infant named Hyakkimaru has been sacrificed to a host of demon lords (I think 48 in total) in exchange for power, peace and prosperity for his domain. Each demon gains a body part. However, Hyakkimaru’s mother interferes with her own prayers, and as a result, Hyakkimaru isn’t killed completely; he retains his life, but he’s missing most of his body. In order for Hyakkimaru to regain what was stolen from him, he must kill the physical manifestations of these demons one by one.
After the initial opening sequence where all of that is introduced, we time skip to many years later and see the fateful meaning between Hyakkimaru and a child named Dororo. It is from there that our journey begins.
Dororo (2019) takes the monster of the week formula and twists it. Rather than making each week about the monster itself and what it will take to overcome it, the story instead focuses on how the monster affects those around it. Hyakkimaru has to kill these monsters to get his body back, but as I said, this journey is just as much an emotional one as it is a physical one, if not more so; it’s a look at the lives of the people in the nation, not just a quest to kill and move on.
There are several pillar meetings that happen along the way for Hyakkimaru. As he has always been an outcast without much of his body, his life is slowly transformed as he regains his ability to feel, see, hear and speak. It’s a flood of sensations that cripple him almost as much as they help him. Even something as simple as hearing the singing of a beautiful woman helps mold him emotionally.
Those emotions aren’t always positive. He learns what it means to desire revenge and possess hatred as well. Hyakkimaru is a man who has been wronged, so bitterness naturally follows and amplifies these new emotions. But it’s a two sided coin.
The demons held up their end of the bargain, and the domain that Hyakkimaru’s father had created was indeed prosperous and powerful. Gone were the times of famine and starvation, leaving them open as prey for stronger nations. They were a force to be reckoned with. As Hyakkimaru continued his quest and slayed the demons, that began to slowly change; his actions were beginning to affect that prosperous nation negatively.
This is one of the anime’s biggest moral problems that it presents: is the life and justice of one man more important that the lives of thousands? In other words, do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or in this case, the one)? Did Hyakkimaru have a right to make so many suffer?
Knee-jerk reaction is, of course, to defend the weak. Hyakkimaru had been violated when he had zero say in the situation. How could he possibly emotionally accept a position of self sacrifice for a nation that had rejected him from the moment he was born? On the surface, it seems like too much to ask of one outcast.
But as I said before, the anime tells the story of everyone around Hyakkimaru as well. You see the effects that his demon slaying is having on the land. While he is helping those immediately in the demons circle of influence, you see everything begin to fall apart for everyone else. Wars are more brutal and many citizens lives change for the worse. Can we really ignore all of their suffering in favor of one man?
Dororo (2019) all takes place in what appears to be a beautifully filmed historical documentary. A lot of attention to detail went into everything from the art style to the choice of music. Even some of the Japanese dialogue pays homage to a bygone era. This is an update to a classic anime, and they really made sure they got it right.
Seeing these struggles play out before you really makes you feel conflicted. You always want to root for the protagonist, but they make it clear that this isn’t the easy road to take; doing the right thing rarely is. Choosing the livelihood and happiness of one man does lead to the suffering of hundreds, if not thousands, of others. While you want to lay all the blame on Hyakkimaru’s family for choosing this in the first place, it’s hard to fault a lord for wanting the best for his people, even if that prosperity is only a secondary side effect of his desire for power. Sure, if Hyakkimaru had never been sacrificed, they wouldn’t know what they’re missing; perhaps they even could have found a better way. But is that really a solid argument to make when we’re talking about such a dramatic quality of life improvement?
Dororo (2019)‘s moral challenge is the heart of what makes it such a strong anime. Rather than simply painting the world as black and white, it shows life as it truly is, with multifaceted choices and outcomes. Your decisions can have negative and positive impacts on both yourself and those around you. When is it OK to be selfish and when should you put the needs of others ahead of yourself? While the anime does eventually pick an outcome, it does leave that question ever lingering in your mind.