Film Review - 'Dororo'

4 stars for 'Dororo'

This live-action adaptation of a Japanese manga series from the 60s presents a world that has the look and feel of feudal Japan - but, actually isn't. A single line reference in the opening narration makes it clear that this is actually the distant future - meaning that what we are watching is actually the story of a world where civilization has collapsed, regressing to a more primitive level of technology and struggling to survive.

This far future setting is barely relevant to the story itself, though. In fact, the setting for the original manga series on which this film is based actually was feudal Japan - meaning that the shift into the future was a decision made just for this film. Why? Perhaps to make elements of the story a little easier for the audience to accept? Or, to break the story away from the actual history of Japan? Honestly, it feels like an odd change to make - especially given how little relevance it has to the story. It is also one that has very little impact on a viewer's ability to enjoy the film itself, though - being little more than a piece of trivia that isn't really worth getting hung-up on (despite the fact that I clearly have).

Anyway, a wounded lord, Kagamitsu Daigo, stumbles into a temple after surviving a battle in which most of his own forces were slaughtered. In the temple, he finds 48 statues said to hold the souls of 48 trapped demons. Despite the warnings of an elderly priest, Daigo makes a deal with these 48 demons for the power to destroy his enemies, and to unite the world under his rule. In exchange, the demons demand the body of his unborn son - the lord accepts this offer, informing the demons that they are free to each claim a piece of the child's body for themselves. They do so - and, when the child is born, the parents find that he is missing all of his limbs, and all of his internal organs. Implausibly, though, they also find that the child is still alive. How? Well, magic, I suppose. Either some magic of the demon's or some other benevolent force working on the child's behalf. It's never really explained.

Daigo refuses to raise a deformed son, though, so the boy is abandoned. He is eventually found by a kindly man who just so happens to be a sorcerer. Using what appears to be a combination of magic and technology, the man is able to make artificial limbs and organs for the child, to replace the ones stolen by the demons. He then raises the child as his own son.

Oh, also, the boy develops psychic powers at some point, which allow him to 'see' and 'hear', and to communicate. How? Well, magic, I suppose.

Honestly, this will probably be the first major sticking point of the film for many viewers. If you can bring yourself to just accept the bizarre fate of this poor child, and run with the story to see where it takes you, then you have a fair chance of enjoying Dororo. If not, then this may not be the film for you.

Buried beneath this layer of absurdity, we have what is essentially a straight-forward action film. As it happens, with the death of each of the 48 demons, the body part that it stole is magically restored. So, 20 years after being abandoned, the young man sets out on a quest to do just that - armed with a magic sword that had been given to him as a child, and equipped with a full set of artificial limbs crafted for him by his foster-father. And, his psychic powers - we can't forget those.

On his quest to slay the 48 demons, the young man encounters a young thief who has an interest in getting her hands on his magic sword, for reasons of her own. The woman, who insists that she is actually a young man despite clearly being female, refuses to give her real name. Instead, she takes a liking to one of the names attributed to our mysterious young hero and claims it for her own - calling herself 'Dororo'. Even learning that the name essentially means 'little monster', and was given to our hero as an insult, does not dissuade her - since, as she claims, a true thief wouldn't ever return something they have stolen. The young man is left with the name Hyakkimaru - which is also the name engraved on the blade of his demon-slaying sword.

Dororo is quite honest about the fact that she is only interested in getting her hands on the sword - but, she also feels some sympathy for Hyakkimaru. So, when Hyakkimaru tells her that she is free to take the sword once he is done with it, it seems inevitable that the two would join forces. Of course, her reason for wanting the sword is to get revenge on the one responsible for her parent's deaths - who just so happens to be Kagamitsu Daigo.

Given the basic premise of the film, it is probably fair to go into this film expecting some impressive action sequences, featuring some creative creature design. And, that is what the film clearly tries to offer. The overall quality of these sequences tend to vary a great deal, though. The CGI spider-demon that opens the film is actually quite impressive - but, some of those that come later are are not quite so successful. They range from shakier, and more conspicuous, CGI work to crude puppet work - or, even just straight-out bizarre creature design. These creatures are, after all, drawn from Japanese mythology and folklore, some being lifted directly out of particular stories and others being unique creatures inspired by them - and, even with the cursory knowledge of Japanese folklore and mythology that I have, I know that there are some incredibly bizarre creatures lurking in there. The bizarre design of some of the creatures is something that you will just have to get used to - it is, after all, a part of the story. But, at the same time, it is a shame that they are still occasionally let down by the film's budget.

On the other hand, the film is well-served by some impressive performances, particularly from Satoshi Tsumabuki as Hyakkimaru and Kou Shibasaki as Dororo, which helps to sell some of the more blatantly unusual aspects of the film. And, the film is even able to draw some genuine tension and drama out of the whole idea. Also, Dororo was filmed in New Zealand - and, that particular country's ability to offer up some fantastic locations for filming should be well-known by now.

Dororo was a film that I enjoyed much more than I thought I would. Personally, I had no real trouble just accepting the unusual premise. But, at the same time, I can see how it might be a bit much for some members of the audience. If you managed to read this review without sniggering, rolling your eyes, and making some comment about 'those crazy Japanese' then Dororo would probably be worth your time. Even if you didn't, and you just want to see how crazy it all gets, it might still be worth checking out. Either way, Dororo is a genuinely entertaining film.

© 2013 Dallas Matier

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