Manga adaptations have been hitting Japanese screens en masse in recent years, though fantasy sword epic “Dororo” does at least have an impeccable pedigree to set it out from the crowd, being based upon a long running series from the 1960s by the masterful Osamu Tezuka (who also created the much loved iconic “Astro Boy”). Having already been transformed into an anime, the comic made the leap to cinemas in 2007 at the hands of director Akihiko Shiota, previously responsible for the likes of “Canary” and “Harmful Insect”. The film was a massive hit on its original release, setting a domestic box office record by holding onto the top spot for an unprecedented six consecutive weeks, and is now finally available on region 2 DVD via MVM, coming with a featurette and deleted scenes.
Although it ostensibly takes place in the future, the film basically has a period setting, and begins as a samurai warlord called Kagemitsu Daigo (Kiichi Nakai) takes refuge in a demonic temple. Fearing that his clan is about to be wiped out, he makes a deal with the 48 evil souls lurking there – success in battle in exchange for the body of his unborn son. After the child is born without limbs, eyes or ears, he and his wife send it down the river in a basket, leaving it to its fate. Far from dying, the child is found by a kindly healer, who creates artificial body parts and organs and nurses him to manhood, calling him Hyakkimaru (Satoshi Tsumabuki, also in “Memories of Matsuko” and “Battle Royale”). Needless to say, he also trains him in swordplay, and sets him off on a quest to reclaim his missing parts by slaying the 48 demons who stole them from him, hoping that this will make him fully human. On his travels, he encounters a feisty female thief who decides to call herself Dororo (played by popular actress singer Kou Shibasaki, recently in “Suspect X” and “Shaolin Girl”) and to join him in his adventures.
Although essentially daft, “Dororo” is engaging, with an interesting mythology and back story. Unsurprisingly, given the sprawling source material, the plot is meandering, and basically boils down to a series of encounters with different demons, linked by a standard revenge tale which takes precedence during the final act. This approach works well enough, and the film has a loosely epic feel, though it does sag somewhat during the middle after a fun first hour, and at over two hours it does go on a little too long before coming to its amusingly philosophical climax. The conceit of Hyakkimaru’s re-growing body parts is an eccentric one, and the film as a whole is quite offbeat, going for a sense of fun rather than the usual melancholy samurai antics, helped along by a bouncy soundtrack. This helps raise it above many other Japanese sword films in which the protagonists look as if they would rather be fixing their hair than cutting their way through their enemies.
The film also benefits from likeable leads, with Satoshi Tsumabuki having the decency not to spend the entire running time sulking and pouting, and Kou Shibasaki managing to turn a thinly written, loudmouth sidekick role into something somewhat less annoying than it might have been. Their relationship builds slowly, thankfully without blossoming into unnecessary romance, showing hints of growing feelings rather than an ill-fitting declaration of love.
As might be expected from a director more known for his independent features, Akihiko Shiota goes for a half gritty look, aiming for dirt and dust rather than bright greens, and this helps to ground the fantasy aspects quite nicely. There are lots of special effects, and though these are of variable quality, with some shoddy CGI really standing out, they are employed creatively. The film features a plethora of demons and monsters of all shapes and sizes, which are sure to keep genre fans more than happy. The action choreography, from Hong Kong legend Ching Siu Tung (“A Chinese Ghost Story”, “Hero”) isn’t his finest work, but is lively and energetic enough, with plenty of jumping around and dynamic swordplay. The fight scenes do come thick and fast, especially during the early stages, and the film is surprisingly violent throughout, with lots of blood, flying limbs and dismemberments. Again, all of this is played for fun rather than any nastiness, with recurring gags revolving around Kou Shibasaki getting blood splattered all over her face.
It’s this kind of silliness which really sums up “Dororo”, and as a popcorn fantasy film it succeeds well enough. Benefitting from a sense of humour and some imaginative touches, although undemanding and unfocused, it should be enjoyed by all fans of the form, and is certainly preferable to other similarly themed though far more po-faced efforts.
Akihiko Shiota (director) / Osamu Tezuka, Masa Nakamura, Akihiko Shiota (screenplay)
CAST: Satoshi Tsumabuki … Hyakkimaru
Kou Shibasaki … Dororo
Eita … Tahomaru
Mieko Harada … Yuri
Yoshio Harada … Jukai