After reading a fair number of IMDb comments over the last few years, I get the impression that comic fans, understandably, are the most demanding regarding a movie's adherence to the original work. I start therefore by stating that I the first time I heard about the Dororo manga series was when I heard about this movie.
Although specific year and dynasty are mentioned at the start of the movie, the story of "Dororo" in spirit happens "a long time ago, (in a galaxy) far, far away", in other words, in an undefined time and space in the author's imagination. Incidentally, I'll come back to "Star Wars" as there is a very interesting connection.
The start of the movie, however, looks very much like a continuation of "300" a battlefield with dead bodies strewn as far as the eyes can see. Fortunately, this somber mood does not carry into the rest of the movie. The prologue, however, is quite ominous. Defeated leader Kagemitsu Diago, seeking refuge in a desolate temple, ends up killing his host the monk and striking a bizarre deal with 48 demons (represented by 48 macabre statues in the temple). In exchange for the power to rise again, in victory, he promises 48 "body parts" (from limbs to internal organs) of his unborn son, on to each of the demons. This is the fascinating premise on which the story is constructed.
I wouldn't go into details of how the story, now starting with "20 years later", is told with some flashbacks but generally in a simple, easy-to-follow linear narration. The story is essentially about the quest of this unfortunate son's quest to "reclaim" his 48 body parts from the demons. Let me first reassure the general audiences that there is no gory or revolting scene like those you see (or try not to see) in "Hannibal rising" or "300". The deprived baby looks more like what you see in the first stage of a doll's assembly line, the head and body before the eyes, ears, mouth and limbs are assembled. When we see him as a 20-year-old, he has already been fitted with "temporary" body parts by the kindly wise man who discovered him. During the "reclamation" process, there are scenes when Hyakkimaru re-grows a limb or coughs out an internal organ that has been replaced but these are all done in an innocent comic-book fashion.
But who is Dororo anyway? I claim in the summary line that this movie has everything you want from an adventure action movie, and Dororo is the key reason, providing both romance and comedy. In the original manga, Dororo is a little boy, a petty thief who aspires to be the greatest thief in Japan. He is Hyakkimaru's loyal buddy that sticks with him through the dangerous quest. In the movie adaptation, the profession and the aspiration are kept intact but the character becomes a girl, for obvious reasons. While Hyakkimaru is a man who doesn't have much feelings (he does not even have a heart at the beginning), Dororo had a rough childhood as an orphan, and grew up as a boy. Veteran movie fans will of course recognize right away that this "odd couple" situation provides great opportunities for both romance and comedy. Both are tackled in a sensitive and tasteful way: without the movie taking any particular pain to point out, we note that she is the only person who can make him smile while he is the only person who can make her cry.
In the fantasy and action department, there's imagination that rivals what you see in Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited away". Whatever lacking in special effect technique, compared with Hollywood mega-budget productions, is more than compensated for by this breathtaking imagination and artistic execution.
And there's more. In true Kurosawa tradition, "Dororo" has a heart for the "little people", telling their stories with sincerity but without preaching.
I mentioned "Star wars". As gradual revelation finally brings Hyakkimaru to a final confrontation with his father who sacrificed an unborn son for personal power and glory, those of us "Star War" devotees will see at the back of our mind another confrontation, long ago and far, far away, between Luke Sykwalker and Darth Vader. As one report goes, George Lucas is such a fan of Asian fantasies that he might have been inspired by the "Dororo" manga.
I have not seen any other movie of Satoshi Tsumabuki, who plays Hyakkimaru, but he certainly makes the character likable in this movie, which is very important. Playing Dororo is Kou Shibasaki whom I have seen in two entirely different roles a heartbreakingly melancholic lover in "Crying out love in the centre of the world" and a heroic firefighter with also a tender side in "The sinking of Japan". Dororo is an entirely different persona, which she portrays equally convincingly. And I must not leave out Kiichi Nakai whose commanding screen presence well qualifies him to play the father. I have seen him in a little noticed but excellent movie called "Tian di ying xiong" (2003).
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