Written by Jonathan Wojcik
Reviewing Dororo Demons!
Hey, wanna see the most badass anime intro of the year? Maybe even one of the most badass of all time? Dororo was originally a 1968 manga by the legendary Osamu Tezuka, but legendary though he may be, I honestly don't feel like the more lighthearted, more dialog-heavy manga or 1969 anime adaptation ever quite "works." The 2019 anime is a darker, grimmer, more serious remake, but this is one of the few cases in which I think that was the better decision - especially given just how dark and grim its storyline was to begin with.
Dororo centers around Hyakkimaru (Hundred Demons), who like the mythological Hiruko, was originally born without any limbs and set adrift in a river. Unlike Hiruko, Hyakkimaru was also born without eyes, ears, a nose, skin, a voice box or an ability to feel pain, but was somehow able to see the souls or energy of living things as a faint light, and miraculously learned to get by with an artificial, mannequin-like body built by an adoptive father figure, including concealed sword arms!
Hyakkimaru's entire state is the fault of his own father, a ruler who promised the body of his first child to demons in exchange for the prosperity of his land. In the original manga, this was 48 demons, but in the 2019 series, it's a more manageable twelve, each having taken a different part of Hyakkimaru for itself, and there we have our adventure hook: even though it will bring ruin to a thriving country, Hyakkimaru is absolutely determined to hunt down every last demon and take back every last part of himself that was given away without his consent, which, personally, I think is fair. More on that and a bit more on the story later, but let's talk about those demons! Obviously this will contain some SPOILERS, but honestly, the execution of this anime is so good I'm not sure if spoilers can ever possibly detract from the experience.
The first demon we ever see in either the original or latest series is delightfully enough a classic muck monster, or as it's actually named here, a Mud Demon; a big blob of dirt and garbage that dissolves and absorbs any living thing it comes into contact with. It's the simplest, most generic design a sludge creature typically gets, but a sludge creature is just kind of inherently fun on some level, and it's certainly animated with some lovely gloppiness, isn't it? I especially like the way it's first seen floating down a river as a nondescript clump of filth, which is an excellent hunting strategy, and I like to think that's typical of it.
DEIKI - Has Hyakkimaru's Skin
The battle with Deiki is how Hyakkimaru actually meets the title character, Dororo, a thieving orphan who latches on to Hyakkimaru as an adopted older brother and serves as a very effective emotional link between the audience and the seemingly cold, unreadable Hyakkimaru. As Deiki is the one who took Hyakkimaru's skin, this first encounter includes the lovely moment at which Hyakkimaru's mask falls off and his flesh regrows.
The second demon usually takes the form of an older but beautiful human woman who threatens an entire village into serving her, posing as their healer to entrap and devour travelers. TYPICAL Bandai! Digimon is only barely worth putting up with those shenanigans!
BANDAI - Sense of Touch
I mean, the name actually just means "Ten Thousand Generations," but I'm not sure exactly why this one is called that, exactly. Its true form is supposed to be a giant, demonic salamander, but its humanlike elements and slimy mane of ambulatory tendrils make it look more like an amphibian lion, which is a pretty unique and interesting combination! What's also interesting about this design is that when Bandai transforms, her human form morphs into the tail, so apparently she's functioning "backwards" when disguised.
On finally defeating Bandai, Hyakkimaru regains his ability to physically feel, including pain. Seems like kind of a raw deal to get so soon, though. Maybe should have saved this one for last.
This one's not a demon! Dororo mistakes "Bell Kid" for an enemy, but he's really the ghost of an innocent traveler who was brutally slaughtered by Bandai. He now attempts to warn others of the monster, and his presence is announced first by a ringing bell.
It's a shame we only ever see a couple of ghosts in this series, because they're designs are always excellent. I am a big fan of ghosts looking only somewhat like they did in life, and Kanekozou's enormous head gives him a pretty eerie, yet kind of friendly appearance. It's kind of that E.T. feel. He's monstrous, but it's a "kindly" kind of monstrous.
Not all demons encountered by Hyakkimaru have any of his body parts. Some are even simply attracted to his supernatural aura, raring for a fight. Among these is this huge Kamaitachi, a well known youkai - the basis for the Pokemon Sneasel, in fact! - whose name means "sickle weasel." Kamaitachi are known for not only their long claws, but speed and invisibility, or in some cases invisibility due to their speed. The design of this one is a little more wolf-like than weasel like, but it does have the elongated neck and body, and a weirdly long wolf with even weirdlier long claws is a pretty frightening image, I gotta say.
KAMAITCAHI - Nothing!
Technically the first demon Hyakkimaru defeated, but in the series we only see this in flashback. Though wiki just calls it a "lizard," it's much more interesting than that implies, having a wonderfully grisly, alien set of jaws more like some sort of predatory worm! It also has, uh, crotch hair and nipples, so it's not really a full reptile.
LIZARD DEMON - Right Leg
The best part of any "set" or "series" of something are the ones that break away from the norm, and only the third demon encountered in the series takes the form of a cursed sword instead of a living thing. That's cool! I might have liked to see it take on a weirder form, sure, but I appreciate a demon just being an ordinary looking object with a malevolent will. Naturally, anyone who picks up Nihiru is driven to "feed" it blood. This is possibly why the sword is named nihiru, which apparently means "leech-like!"
NIHIRU - Ears
Hyakkimaru regains his ears and sense of hearing on destroying the sword, and he is not a fan. He can barely sleep now that he can hear the din of the world's ambient noise, and human voices in particular seem to downright unsettle him.
So, I misremembered this one entirely, and the fan wiki mistakenly said it was carrying Hyakkimaru's sense of hearing. In fact there is nothing at all important or memorable about poor Youcho...it's just a big bird!
YOUCHO - Nothing!
Some of these demons have pretty lazy names, huh? That's if you know that this is literally just the Japanese term for "antlion," though funny enough, it means ant hell.
ARIJIGOKU - Voice
Except for its body shape, Arijigoku is only loosely accurate to the real thing, which is typical of anime antlions. It at least has the right proportions, however, and a reasonably charming little bug-monster face with lovely porthole-like eyes! I do wish more of these demons actually exhibited or utilized what they took from Hyakkimaru in some way; it's not like this one uses scream attacks or can even talk.
Still getting over this "hearing sound" thing anyway, Hyakkimaru seems disgusted by his own voice, and still spends most of the remainder of the series completely silent, speaking in a few awkward, stilted words only when truly necessary. I really like this creative choice, which not only feels natural but preserves Hyakkimaru's mysterious air. It's a jarring difference from the manga, for sure, in which Hyakkimaru was a constantly monologuing chatterbox, and canonically had learned to speak by "releasing air from his stomach," in other words burp talking. Oh, Tezuka...
You CANNOT do a Japanese youkai or "demon" series without a spider monster. They're practically on par with dragons in cultural importance, and the Jorogumo is an especially famous example.
JOROGUMO - Nothing!
Her design here is a good one. We've all seen spiders with naked lady torsos on them, which is only appropriate for a yokai whose name means "prostitute spider" and subsists on a diet of seduced human men, but they didn't skimp on any ghoulishness in the process, almost reminding me of the giant spider boss from Parasite Eve!
GET THIS, though, and this is a FULL SPOILER FOR THIS PARTICULAR EPISODE, but this totally terrifying demon? This totally terrifying SPIDER demon? Also happens to be the one and only "good" demon in the entire series...and they even let her have a happy ending. Even though she feeds on human lifeforce to sustain herself, Hyakkimaru's soul-o-vision eventually ceases to recognize her as an enemy.
As it turns out, the human male this Jorogumo seemingly "seduced" is under no such influence, genuinely loving her long after knowing her true nature and even true appearance. She's also capable of sustaining herself without actually killing a human, shortening their lifespan just a little, like all good parasites, and regarding human life as a "precious resource" to be utilized as sustainably as she can.
It's an exception to the usual dark, tragic brutality of this series and the usual treatment of spiders, especially monster spiders, especially lady monster spiders, that I never would have seen coming. We never see or hear from her again, but Hyakkimaru, a guy who has more reason to hate demons than Regan MacNeil, still helps this misunderstood monster escape to safety with her faithful boyfriend to parts unknown. Did they have an adventure of their own? Did they eventually settle down somewhere? Did they have freaky spiderbabies? We may never know, but we can all hope.
From a surprisingly sympathetic bug monster to one played a little more straight, you do have to love how badass centipedes are in Japanese culture. They do, after all, have some pretty large species there with a nasty as heck bite, so of course they'd be surrounded by some scary tales. In fact, the most famous centipede monster in youkai mythology was more powerful than the mightiest dragons, and Nokosaregumo gives Hyakkimaru an appropriately intense fight!
NOKOSAREGUMO - Smell
The demon's design is a somewhat ordinary scary-faced centipede, but its behavior is more unusual: it can actually fly, and it resides inside an enormous, black cloud that also seems to be an extension of its demonic form. AWESOME! Its name even basically means "The Cloud that was Left Behind." Ominous.
As you might imagine, Hyakkimaru adjusts even worse to the wide world of odor than he does to sound, but he's still not perturbed. No matter how unpleasant, no matter if it even makes him technically weaker, and no matter any other repurcussions, he just wants what was stolen from him.
You might have heard the myth of Japanese spider crabs having human-like faces on their shells, rumored to be the souls of drowned samurai, or something like that. Episode 10 of Dororo features a positively colossal example, the "Ghost Crab", but it's another demon that was never originally involved with Hyakkimaru. Instead, it menaces another set of characters entirely, and occupies an enormous lake where it generates deadly whirlpools.
BAKEMONOGANI - Nothing!
I really like how vague the "face" is in these chitinous lumps, until of course that monstrous, sucking mouth opens up and really sells the illusion. I also like how the crab's real head is such a simplified, perhaps vestigial little nubbin on top. It's just lovely!!
Of course we get a nine-tailed fox in there, but this is a slightly cooler one than usual, formed out of ghostly blue flame and accompanied by swarms of smaller phantasmal fox heads...or maybe Kyubi splits apart into them? It's hard to tell. Despite having Hyakkimaru's right arm, or at least the spirit of his right arm, he does not gain it back. That'd be a spoiler!
KYUBI - Right Arm
This nasty little goblin man is the antagonist of the series' one and only full comic relief episode, as it curses an entire village to only ever speak the opposite of what they really mean, an effect that gets us some out-of-character moments from Dororo and Hyakkimaru.
AMANOJAKU - Nothing!
It's not otherwise a very interesting design for this show, but it does have an interesting enough mythological background: the Amanojaku are small oni who enjoy perverting humans to evil in a manner much like Western devils. The most famous story of an Amanojaku has one murdering a bride-to-be, turning her into a skin suit, and attempting to marry her fiancee in her stead! It's surprising a series as grisly as this one didn't see fit to reference any of that.
Yep, Hyakkimaru's been spineless this whole time, actually surgically fitted with one made of wooden segments and wire. The prosthetic one charmingly bursts out of his back when the new one pops into place, too!
MAIMAI-ONBA - Spine
Maimai-Onba is another demon with a human form, and another with influence over a human village, taking its corrupt landlord as her lover and agent of her whims. In her true form, she's a giant, fluffy silk moth with an unsettlingly quasi-human head! The name comes from maimai ga, or "snail moth," which is the Japanese term for what we unfortunately refer to as "gypsy moths" in the states. It is however the moth part of the name they swap out for onba, a term for a nursing mother, so this moth demon's name is sort of... Snail Babymama?
The moth demon's biggest concern is for her children, and she is one of the only demons we see that has reproduced. These start off as giant, hairy silk caterpillars with human arms, but we can assume they're supposed to mature into moth demons as powerful as their mother.
Another FANTASTIC looking human ghost! Absolutely love that elongated neck, unnerving face and weird hair tassles! It's actually the ghost of a foreign nun who ran an orphanage, until she caught on to Maima Onba's secret and was killed by arson. Falsely blamed for her own death and for child abuse that never happened, she still haunts the site of the orphanage, waiting to be avenged...
EVEN MORE fantastic! This is unfortunately it for the ghosts we see in this series, but this is such a good one, almost reminiscent of Hideshi Hino's sad, buggy-eyed fetuses. Ironically much larger than a grown adult, the spirit has the innocent, playful personality of a big, sleepy toddler and sticks close with the ghostly nun.
What's particularly fascinating about this ghost is that it doesn't represent a dead child, but all of the children killed by the same fire, merging together into a single bizarre youkai!
The holders of Hyakkimaru's other leg are actually a pair of giant sharks, Jiromaru and Saburomaru, who also have a deep bond with a somewhat twisted human who found them starving, fed them his own right arm, and subsequently continued to feed them human flesh by any means necessary.
THE SHARK DEMONS - Left Leg
The sharks are marvelously ghoulish in their true forms, lumpy and spiny and almost more maggot-like in appearance, with clawed flippers that allow them to crawl onto land! Sharks are some of the cutest, most lovable killing machines in nature, but there's still something a little uncanny about them that can be brought out beautifully by the right design.
this is actually one of my favorites; what seems to be the demon here is a sort of blind, leaping bat-monkey with gliding membranes, but the creatures are really nothing but the offspring of the true Ayakashigi, a demonic fruit tree! It looks like any ordinary tree, but its huge fruits split open like alien egg pods to unleash these nasty little bastards! This one's name is pronounced "ghost tree," but it's written "corpse tree!" The "ayakashi" part is also the name of the traditional noh mask representing the dead, and also specifically used for the ghosts of drowning victims. Consequently it is ALSO the name Japan gives to remora fish.
AYAKASHIGI - Nothing!
The Nue is the Japanese youkai equivalent to a Chimera or Manticore; an animal with the head of a monkey, a body often interpreted as tiger or tanuki-like, and a snake for a tail. In Dororo, it turns out this is just because the Nue can absorb and incorporate other creatures, at one point even acquiring wings during its battle with Hyakkimaru!
NUE - Left Arm
The Nue also ends up absorbing a samurai who had been feeding people to it, a weird relationship that began with the Nue killing his mother and leaving him permanently scarred. By devouring him, the Nue uses him to patch up the portion of its head chopped off by Hyakkimaru, but he seems to retain a little bit of his consciousness in this grotesque state before the pair are finally killed.
The final and ultimate demon in the series turns out to have been lurking beneath Daigo castle - the domain of Hyakkimaru's family - all along, the mastermind behind the original deal and various other demons in the series. Battling entirely through its many pawns, the final confrontation is between Hyakkimaru and his archest human enemy under Asura's influence, with the demon itself only exposed by an ensuing fire...and destroyed with a single blow to the crystal that serves as its heart.
ASURA - Eyes and Arms
The huge, motionless knot of twisted tissue, forming multiple ghostly petrified faces, is obviously awesome imagery, and the whole idea that the most evil and powerful demon had an immobile, totally defenseless physical form is a great twist. It's a twist I've seen before, but it's one that never ever seems to bore me.
I've kept my monster review as free of spoilers as I could within reason, but spoiled or not, this is a series worth checking out if you've liked anything you've seen or heard here. Besides a cool as hell plot and some beautiful action sequences, the interactions between a sometimes merciless, largely unreadable demon slayer and a sweeter, more emotional child range from funny to sincerely touching, and while the ending didn't feel to me like it really lived up to the rest...endings never really do. It's still a great journey, either way, and personally, I appreciate the complicated morality it ends up displaying.
Good and evil aren't as clear-cut in Dororo as they might at first seem. Hyakkimaru's goal to regain his body is destined to cause misery and death for the thousands of people who have prospered under the protection of Asura...but it's still his body. It's completely understandable that some would try to stop him to protect their homes and families, but it's also understandable that he wants what was supposed to be his.
Intentionally or not, and honestly, probably not, this is a great representation of the principle of bodily autonomy; that by default, you deserve the right to decide how your body is used by ANY other living thing. If it's your flesh and blood, then it should be your say alone whether anyone or anything else employs that flesh and blood to go on living, no matter the consequences. Maybe some people disagree, but even at the potential extermination of an entire community, Hyakkimaru deserves his damn eyeballs back. Even his ability to feel pain or smell a fart back, if that's actually what he wants.
Whether and how he succeeds is just up to whether you give it a watch.
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