Dynamically Grimm: Dororo as Tezuka’s Illusively Moving Fairy Tale

Posted by on January 25th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Osamu Tezuka; 312, 288 and 272 pp. $13.95; Vertical Inc.; B&W, Softcover ISBNS: 9781934287163, 9781934287170 and 9781934287187

Osamu Tezuka’s manga do not look like manga. He presents narratives as a series of dynamic fragments that mirror his characters’ restless momentum. Almost every collective action is purposefully arranged via montage juxtaposition, piecing together slivers of motion rather than using their various parts to form a singular cogent image. That’s not unusual for the medium, but what’s so remarkable about it in the case of Dororo is how consistently Tezuka’s breakdowns feel like freeze frames of cel animation, more than likely a product of the influence Disney cartoons had on his work. Panels break down into component images, like a storyboard or a flipbook expressively but fastidiously rearranged to fit all on one page. As a result, Tezuka’s obsessively detailed draftsmanship overwhelms the reader with its unswerving dedication to abstracted motion.

Undoubtedly, that kind of dynamic storytelling is mostly due to the two main genres Dororo combines, “chanbara” and “yokai,” or swordplay melodramas and folkloric ghost stories. The highly visual demands of the two, especially the former, requires a fanatic attention to action that Tezuka excels at. His hyperactive sense of composition spills over from duel and gross-out scenes into segues and transitions. Painstakingly polished larger and exhaustively meticulous smaller panels are, as celebrated Tezuka translator and scholar Frederic L. Schodt wrote in his introduction to Adolf, reminiscent of “close-ups, pans and wide angle shots.” They elicit an unreal kind of movement without diverting too much attention to their artifice.

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What’s even more impressive is that Tezuka’s aesthetic perfectly complements Dororo’s fairy tale themes of man’s fragility and inconstancy as confirmed by its protagonist’s grotesque origins. Sacrificed by his father for the sake of a Faustian deal, Hyakkimaru has no real body parts, no eyes, nose, ears, arms, legs, etc. Guided only by his “inner eye,” he travels the medieval countryside with swords on his stumps and glass eyes in his sockets to kill the 48 demons that stole his assorted bits and pieces.

The theme, like that of any of Tezuka’s moral tales, is, however, only compelling in small bursts. He makes his point regarding man’s inhumanity to man much more tolerable and certainly more eye-catching when that intolerance is parsed through supernatural imagery rather than staid scenes of mundane barbarity. That people only want an excuse to shun or actively beat Hyakkimaru and Dororo, his cherubic “kid thief” companion, is evident after one or two encounters. Making that point over the span of the three Vertical volumes of reprinted Tezuka material is the worst kind of overkill.

If Dororo is one of the more unwieldy of Tezuka’s stories that Vertical has recently translated and released, that’s undoubtedly because it’s one of the more simplistic. As a shonen title intended for a decidedly younger audience, its lessons, like the story’s structure, are fairly rudimentary and unpolished. Neither the series’ epic scope nor its intended audience makes a vast difference in terms of the bluntness of Tezuka’s message. While he breezes through short episodes of medical melodrama in Black Jack, a slightly more grotesque adult-oriented series Vertical released just after Dororo, he similarly imbues it with pleas for tolerance that places hard work and compassion above all else. In this light, Dororo’s tagline of “nobody is born whole” fits lock-step with the rest of his manga.

What separates Dororo’s high-handed meaning from a series like Buddha, his markedly longer version of Siddhartha Gautama’s ascendancy to godhood, is its nature as an action adventure. Being dazzled when Hyakkimaru casually assaults a lion-headed demon cloud-thing is only natural because, in that scene, there’s nothing but Tezuka’s deft technique to admire. Style trumps substance and while that might otherwise be an insult, here it feels right. The reader is dragged back to earth however as soon as a self-important local official brings the action back to the episode’s plot by fruitlessly attempting to enlist Hyakkimaru’s services.

Likewise, Dororo’s blisteringly simple morality may have been conceived with children in mind but the series itself isn’t strictly kid-friendly. The epic fantasy has an omnipresent sense of macabre humor that is as reliant on goofy skeletons as it is on gouts of black-and-white arterial splatter. Within the first few pages of Volume One, Hyakkimaru hacks and slashes his way through a garbage monster, a demon dog and a bewitched pair of sandals all with appropriately excessive amounts of blood.

Tezuka infrequently exploits that kind of gore to manipulatively create martyrs for his characters to come to the rescue of, like a mare that, after being separated from her foal, drags her arrow-riddled carcass to a quiet spot where she can become a beatific carcass. These shows of senseless violence are undermined by earlier instances when blood and guts are rightly sensationalized, as when a killer shark does a swan dive over the course of two pages and the sight of his blood is met with cheers from his murderers. Obviously if violence is to be used in an action-adventure/fairy tale, its ambitions to disdain bloodshed have to be taken with several dollops of salt.

The same could just as easily be argued in defense of Dororo, a series that prematurely ends for what looks like a serious want of narrative ideas. To say that it lost steam would ignore the fact that the series was always a choppy narrative that relied heavily on its episodic structure. The story ends with no less urgency than it began with, ending without any real reason as to why Dororo is the title character instead of Hyakkimaru save that both are somehow “incomplete” in their own ways and Dororo’s kindness teaches Hyakkimaru a lesson that we’ll never be able to appreciate.

Dororo as a series is clearly one whose legs were cut out from underneath it before it could really develop into anything substantial. Anyone reading Dororo as part of the thankfully ever-expanding canon of Tezuka’s translated work, which in its original Japanese spans 400 volumes, will find better examples of his work readily available, especially either Black Jack or Ode to Kirihito, a more “adult”-oriented series that comes very close to achieving Tezuka’s goal of compassionate cartoon humanism. Still, in Dororo, Tezuka’s frequently startling craft tirelessly dazzles the reader with deftly crafted optical illusions. If only they weren’t so fleeting.

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One Response to “Dynamically Grimm: Dororo as Tezuka’s Illusively Moving Fairy Tale”

  1. Sean Robinson says:

    I find much to agree with here. However, I wish you would have mentioned the terrible interior printing on the first two volumes, with broken-up, pixellated line work. Fortunately they fixed it by the third volume and it hasn’t reappeared in their titles since. But really. Bad printing in this day and age? On a professional offset-printed book?