Dororo (2019)

There are a few gaps when it comes to my knowledge of Osamu Tezuka’s works beyond Astro Boy, which is something I’ve been wanting to fix for a long while.

Being well-aware of his other stories but only having having seen a few or just bits and pieces over the years has been kind of frustrating, especially when it comes to finding a copy of Phoenix 2772 🙂

However, when I started Dororo I didn’t realise that the anime was the second adaptation of Tezuka’s manga, so that was a fun surprise! And even through the grimmer, more splatter-filled 2019 series probably doesn’t look like it on the surface, I think there are both character design and story-telling aspects that reveal the source material.

Dororo is a classic underdog story, with both Dororo and Hyakkimaru up against a harsh, unforgiving world – and that’s just the humans. The demons are bad news too, but the duo prove to be a match for the things they face. And while what they face can be, at times, a monster of the week, Hyakkimaru’s quest to restore himself provides a narrative link looking forward, while Dororo’s past offers a similar thread of consistency.

Perhaps the injustice Hyakkimaru must face, and one that certainly had me onside with him right away, was the nature of his birth. After all, not only does his father sacrifice his organs and senses, almost his entire body, in exchange for prosperity, but nearly everyone around Hyakkimaru chooses to overlook the father’s cowardice, instead turning their blame on a more convenient target.

Part of why I watched 4 or 5 episodes each night (more than I’d planned :D) was that injustice, but knowing Osamu Tezuka’s storytelling, there’s no simple answer. There is a cost to Hyakkimaru’s restoration, so Dororo has more than one good moral dilemma.

Reading up on the reception, I see that one criticism aimed at this modern adaptation is that compared to the manga, ronin Hyakkimaru has so little dialogue that it is harder to connect with him as a character. I half agree. On one hand, it meant that the ending had a little extra impact, on the other, it meant that I missed out on hints of how he was dealing with everything.

To compensate, we learn a lot about Dororo throughout – so I was happy with the trade off, myself. In terms of the ‘modern’ violence, I did take a quick look at the manga in an attempt to compare and maybe it’s partially colour, movement and sound that makes the show feel more violent?

But getting back to the anime, I wanted to quickly share a few favourite aspects – one being the pre-Jaws moments but I also really enjoyed what felt like a nod to the ‘hidden Ainu treasure’ trope, along with Izume or Jukai as characters. ‘The Story of the Jorogumo Silk Spider’ was another favourite; it had a few twists and a non-typical ending perhaps.

I suppose that in some moments, the character design might bring to mind that late 1960s look, especially with Mio and the golden horse to give two examples, and I wondered whether they ‘fit’ the grimmer aesthetic of things elsewhere, but I can’t really complain since I liked it all.

Oh, and when folks joke about Hyakkimaru being the original ‘demon slayer’ there will be aspects that appeal to fans of both shows, at minimum the historical setting and the slicing up of monsters, however the two are obviously different in a lot of ways.

Really enjoyed Dororo and I’m keen to find the first anime one day too.

4 Stars

Review count: 151 (Dororo was the ‘runner up’ in the little vote I had for the 150th review)

The Dagger of Kamui (Kamui no Ken)

The Dagger of Kamui (Kamui no Ken) 1985

Sometimes I feel like society’s tendency toward hyperbole in language dilutes words a little – and sure, language is always changing and that’s exciting… and maybe I have my own inclinations toward exaggeration at times but I reckon The Dagger of Kamui really is an ‘epic’ film.

Superficially, it is over two hours long but I was thinking about the other elements – geographically it features Japan, Russia and America and the storyline is essentially inter-generational; more, there’s training and trekking through the seasons, duels and battles, a treasure hunt, a promise of revenge and finally toward the end, the backdrop of war as Japan’s final Shogunate collapses.

Personally, the revenge story is focused around young ‘foundling’ Jiro who has been misled by a corrupt monk, the blocky, even stone-like and formidable Tenkai.

During Jiro’s search for not only the truth about his family (and who was responsible for their deaths) he goes through a lot of the classic coming-of-age aspects you’d expect to see but that doesn’t mean The Dagger of Kamui was predictable, precisely. There are plenty of twists (though one in particular seemed to push the bounds of coincidence or design) and our hero’s kinda mournful face makes up for his taciturn nature in some ways.

Part of what I really enjoyed was the way the film (and obviously the novels too no doubt) really think big – and I also wonder what sort of research both writers undertook? Because historical figures are littered throughout (even Mark Twain when Jiro reaches the USA!) and it seems like there were deliberate parallels drawn between the Ainu and the Native American tribe Jiro visits – I can’t figure out exactly which tribe they’re meant to represent but the French girl is an odd inclusion.

Related to this, I can’t decide whether the portrayal of Sam is a bit tone-deaf and/or whether it just takes the film a while to get around to calling out slavery for the bullshit that it is.

So who’s this one for?

Well, it’s pretty violent at times but more often than not it’s done in a heavily stylised way with coloured flashes and almost ‘floating’ fight-scenes that perhaps approximate slow-motion I think, along with some great bright colours. Having said that, the DVD I have is not remastered or restored etc so you won’t quite see that brightness in my screen caps.

But otherwise, if you like samurai or ninja* films and big epics, I think you’d enjoy The Dagger of Kamui, as Rintaro and Madhouse made something striking, I reckon – right down to the OST, which is almost a throwback to 1970s rock but it also features Balinese kecak vocals – which here are percussive chants that become quite menacing in the context of the film.

A classic for sure but maybe a classic to action-epic fans more so.

5 Stars

* I found it interesting that shinobi were shown as both villainous and heroic – in contrast to a lot of Western portrayals perhaps, but I also didn’t necessarily notice much disdain of shinobi that I would have thought samurai characters would show. Maybe I just missed it 🙂

Thanks to the Classic Anime Museum for reminding me of this film too – check out Josh’s review here.

Sword of the Stranger (Sutorenjia Mukōhadan, Stranger Mukōhadan)

Sword of the Stranger (Sutorenjia Mukōhadan, Stranger Mukōhadan) 2007

As I’ve probably made clear here on the blog before, I’m most likely going to automatically warm to a series or film if it’s set in a historical period. That does blunt my capacity for critical review of course, but I hope I can still at least outline what I enjoyed about Sword of the Stranger without presuming to claim that it is the best thing ever.

Even though it is quite good 😀

So, Sword of the Stranger has Feudal Japan as its setting and all the fighting and costuming that goes with it, so I was already happy upon learning that for one. It also features a wandering Ronin/quiet hero protecting others, beautiful scenery and a little bit of mysticism too AND Unshō Ishizuka in a supporting role, so once again, the film ticks a lot of boxes for me.

There’s a plenty of action in the film but enough in the way of breaks for character introspection or to build up tension and intrigue again, especially in regard to the servants of the Ming Dynasty who find themselves searching Japan for our hero’s charge, the plucky Kotaro.

No-name (the wandering Ronin) has a typically troubled past and the themes around obedience and honour from that past do spill into the main storyline at times, but I didn’t find the film heavy-handed in that respect. To some extent, the fantastic sword fights and action sequences are probably the stars before the storyline itself, though that aspect of the film was by no means deficient.

And while there are only few characters that act with honour in the film, this fact really sells the desperation of the time period, I reckon. Even the large cast of villains are memorable, along with a lot of the scenery and settings that they battle throughout. Despite a really big finish too, I actually found the duel used to introduce No-Name’s skills to be my favourite – hopefully I can find a clip to paste at the bottom of the review.

Part of what I think I enjoyed so much was that here, Bones worked once more on an original story – and by ‘original’ I mean that the story isn’t an adaptation of an existing manga, as opposed to a samurai film that is completely groundbreaking. Now, I know that a studio will want to mitigate risk by going with trusted works, but sometimes I find myself craving more totally new stuff as a viewer.

That’s probably a bit of a side note though, so I’ll instead finish by saying that I really enjoyed Sword of the Stranger and have no hesitation in recommending it to fans of the genre.

4 Stars