DIRECTED BY: Akihiko Shiota
FEATURING: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Kou Shibasaki, Kiichi Nakai
PLOT: A pickpocket follows a mysterious man on his quest to kill 48 demons—each of who
owns one of his body parts.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an oft-enthralling adventure with a fairy tale flavor, but it’s not strange enough for the List. Much of what, to the Western viewer, seems “weird” in Dororo is simply culture shock from seeing unfamiliar Japanese folkloric creatures (yōkai) on screen.
COMMENTS: Despite being picked up by Universal for home video distribution, Japan’s Dororo has been slow to find an audience in the West; this is a shame, as this picaresque demon-hunting epic should be counted among the upper ranks of 21st century fantasy adventures. Adapted from a series by manga god Osamu Tezuka, the mythic setup involves a ruthless daimyo who offers forty-eight demons the body parts of his unborn child in exchange for victory over his enemies. After the spirits have extracted their pounds of flesh, the child—a limbless, eyeless torso—is set adrift on a river in a basket and is eventually discovered by a sympathetic herbalist. À la Dr. Frankenstein, the shaman builds the boy a new body out of parts he scavenges from corpses; à la Mr. Miyagi, he then trains him in the arts of combat. Once this fairy tale-style prologue is finished, the film settles into a new groove, as wandering warrior Hyakkimaru sets out to reclaim his stolen body parts from the scattered demons. Tagging along is Dororo, the self-proclaimed best thief in the world (even her name is stolen); she’s waiting to grab Hyakkimaru’s demon-slaying sword the moment he’s slain his last enemy. Many battles with creatively designed but questionably CG-ed creatures follow (how does the one that’s half walking tree, half cherry-blossom-spitting doll’s head grab you?), until the pair of travelers stumble across the evil daimyo, against whom both have sworn revenge. With shape-shifting spirits, crossed loyalties, and samurai duels, Dororo contains just about everything you would want in an Asian fantasy adventure. The New Zealand locations provide beautiful, timeless landscapes for the actors to play against. Some clunky SyFy-level CGI aside, Dororo features thrilling action scenes and fight choreography that makes restrained use of wire-fu. But it’s the Platonic chemistry between the stoic hero and his comic relief, hand-drum beating sidekick—and their obsessive devotion to complex notions of honor, and to each other—that makes the movie touch the heart as much as it milks the adrenal glands. It doesn’t hurt that the fantastic premise accommodates exotic set pieces, including a talking mouse corpse, fetus-like flying goblins hovering around a tank containing a boy’s submerged body, and a giant spirit baby composed of the restless souls of slaughtered orphans. Dororo may not be Weird with a capital “W”, but it’s offbeat enough to catch your eye, and lovely enough to keep it trained on the screen. And hey, in what other movie can you watch a samurai kill a winged demon while flamenco music plays?
With many of the demons Hyakkimaru needed to kill to regain his original body still left undefeated at the end of Dororo, the end credits promised sequels; unfortunately, nothing has materialized to date. One feature of Dororo (at least in the movie’s Netflix streaming incarnation) that is wholly unsuccessful is its experimental subtitles. Instead than appearing in the expected location at the bottom of the screen, they show up in the left part of the frame—and, even worse, they’re extremely tiny. If you don’t believe me, then look at the still accompanying this review: it contains subtitles. Can you find them?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The ‘48 body parts taken by demons, 48 fights to win them back’ tagline may appear an introduction to little more than absurd sequential ultra-violence, but Dororo takes the time to effectively establish its premise, ensuring a surprisingly solid verisimilitude to the world it inhabits and the proceedings therein.”–Joe Green, Total Sci-Fi Online (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Cthulhu.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)