It’s possibly shameful to admit – I’m only familiar with Tezuka Osamu’s Dororo thanks to the people at Sony. It was a game, you see, and pretty kick ass too, if a little weird. In the game, forty-eight demons strike a bargain with a man; rule the world for the price of his firstborn son. However, in a macabre twist more suited to a Miike or Nakata film perhaps, these demons aren’t that greedy. They don’t want the child’s soul (who knows, maybe souls are really hard to divvy up?); what they want is his body, or one part each, to be precise.
The parents, suitably aghast, argue about killing it as soon as it’s born, and eventually decide to abandon it to die. They probably should have read a few Greek myths or something though, because as everyone knows orphaned heroes are the ones you really need to worry about. The child is found by an old shaman whose skills in resurrecting the dead conveniently help the boy to survive to adulthood, complete with an alchemically enhanced body, hidden weapons that would freak your average airport security right out, and a deadly and well-honed sense of revenge. Cue mission to hunt down those demons, kill them, and get his bits back. And oh, those level bosses were hard!
But games are a little more flexible with the rules of physics than live action, so how Hyakkimaru the whirling dervish of destruction was going to work in a live action situation was an interesting question, one that the crew on this film chose to answer with a combination of wire stunts and CG, giving perhaps a more honest rendition of the idea of ‘live action version’. Sure, a lot of belief has to be suspended, and the special effects aren’t exactly what one would call slick, but the scenery is gorgeous (a large part of the film was shot in some of the more remote parts of New Zealand) and the acting – from the leads right down to the five-line extras – is surprisingly solid.
Satoshi Tsumabuki, playing the accessibility-challenged hero, is first and foremost in that category, and manages to pull off the emotional distance required for the character without sacrificing the necessary warmth – humanity if you will – when the time comes. He’s totally believable, and that’s really saying something for a guy with swords for arms.
Kou Shibasaki as Dororo is also similarly worthy of praise; in a lot of ways, this story rides on the appeal of this character, and Shibasaki hits all the right notes – rough and ready with just a hint of vulnerability, resourceful yet desperate, a shell-shocked victim of war surviving the only way she knows how. Perhaps she’s a little old for the original Dororo, but it’s still within the realms of the acceptable and does introduce a slight, not unwelcome hint of romance that I’m not sure was ever in Tezuka’s original material (which is currently being published in English by Vertical, by the way).
The film is also a little bloodier than one would have expected, and some of the fight sequences – particularly the climatic battle between Hyakkimaru and his nemesis – are surprisingly impressive. All in all, while it’s not precisely award winning material, what Dororo lacks in modern big-budget spectacle, it more than makes up for in an engaging, believable and adventurous tale that is just unusual enough and has just enough heart to do what it set out to do – entertain.