Blood Will Tell
In Sengoku-era Japan, a local daimyo makes a hellish bargain with 48 demons — he'll trade them 48 body parts from his unborn son if they will allow him to rule Japan. The resulting child is horribly deformed — little more than a torso with a vestigial head — and is set adrift in a basin. The abandoned child is taken in by a kindly doctor, who builds him a prosthetic body filled with secret weapons, names him Hyakkimaru ("hundred demon boy"), and sends him off to slay the 48 demons and win back his body parts. He soon finds himself teamed with an unlikely partner — a young thief named Dororo — and the two of them stumble through war-torn Japan looking for demons and treasure.
That's the beginning of Dororo, part of Vertical's line of Osamu Tezuka's translations, and it's a great set-up with lots of potential for conflict. There are supernatural plot hooks in addition to the usual Sengoku-era plot hook. Hyakkimaru and Dororo don't always see eye-to-eye. As Hyakkimaru slays demons he becomes more human, but the loss of his prosthetic weapons also makes him weaker and less likely to succeed in his quest. Additionally, each demon he slays weakens the kingdom of his biological father, who is torn between his megalomania and a small vestige of paternal feeling.
So it's a bit disappointing that Dororo turns out to be one of Tezuka's lesser works, fun to read but hardly innovative or essential. None of the plot threads ever really pay off or build to anything, the characters are poorly-developed stock personalities, and the ending abrupt and unsatisfying. It's purely an episodic adventure manga, pitting Hyakkimaru and Dororo against the monster-of-the week Tezuka's reputation is all this comic really has going for it. But he's nicknamed the "God of Manga" for a reason — a disappointing Tezuka comic is still better than 50% of the manga out there.
Thumbs in the middle for this one — an intriguing premise, and some fun chapters, but ultimately it doesn't really make much of a lasting impression.
I've always maintained thought that simple drawings were every bit as hard to pull off as detailed drawings, but with a greater potential upside. That's one of the reasons I admire Tezuka — he is a master of simplicity.
One advantage of simplicity is that you can achieve tremendous variety without actually changing all that much. For instance, the story "The Fair Fudo" features a demon who can change her face to lure in prey. Over the course of the story she alternates between two faces, but the only significant difference between her "motherly" and "malevolent" faces is that her pupils are different — round and dark for the former, skinny and open for the latter.
Other women in Tezuka stories get the same treatment — structurally, their faces and bodies are all similar, but Tezuka is able to make them feel different by altering tiny details. An off-the-shoulder kimono? She's slutty if it's artfully arranged, simple if it's haphazard. Dirty cheeks? She's poor. Long hair? Womanly. Short hair? Tomboyish. Wavy hair? Lower-class. Straight hair? Upper-class. Poofy hair? Beautiful. Big dark eyes? Innocent. Eyes flattened on one side? Sinister.
To some extent, Tezuka's "star system"1 is taking advantage of this simplicity by consolidating specific personality traits into a single character design. That way, he can throw a character right into the middle of the action without having to spend a lot of time establishing their personality or motivation.
Simplicity also allows Tezuka to incorporate more adult elements without shocking or scandalizing his audience. By any measure the above sequence is horrendously violent — men are getting chopped into pieces in every panel. But the general lack of detail keeps the reader from focusing on the shattered bones, spurting blood and jumbled innards such a scene would feature in real life. It's a great way to incorporate some terrible, violent action while still keeping it clean for the kiddies.2,3
Of course, the downside of simplicity is that when something is off, it looks really off. Dororo's mother (pictured above) is a great example — she goes from being a stereotypical Tezuka-esque woman to weasel-faced weirdo, just because he made her face a bit too long and her nose a bit to seere.
The 48 demon status from the opening chapter are purportedly the work of Unga, one of the sons of the famous Kamakura-era sculptor Unkei. Unkei and his sons are best known for throwing out the standard canon of proprtions that had dominated for two centuries and striving for both realism and dynamism in their work.
Unga is a great choice for an obscure historical reference — none of his work has survived to the present day, though he may have assisted Unkei in sculpting the statuary at Kokufuji Temple in Nara.
At the beginning of Dororo, the deformed infant Hyakkimaru is put into a basin and set adrift on a river. Most Western readers are instantly going to be thinking of Moses — but the Japanese will be thinking of someone very different — Hiruko.
In Japanese mythology, Hiruko ("leech-child") is the first-born child of the creator deities Izanagi and Izanami. However, because of some "improprieties" surrounding his conception4 he was born deformed — either boneless or limbless, depending on the source. His parents eventually put him in a boat of reeds and set him adrift in the sea, and then went on to create everything else.
In some versions of the myth, Hiruko washes up on the shores of Hokkaido, regenerates his missing body parts, and grows up to become Ebisu, one of the Seven Gods of Fortune (the fat one with big earlobes carrying a fishing rod). Years later, he one-ups his parents by becoming the first kami to get his own brand of premium lager.
Blood Will Tell
Blood Will Tell is a 2004 Playstation 2 game based on Dororo, with character designs by Hiroaki Samura of Blade of the Immortal fame. I only mention this because I can't thank of any other way to point you to the scanlation of Samura's disturbing "Bradherly's Coach" over at Kotonoha. Go read now.
And now you know... the rest of the story.
- Where he reuses character designs to give someone an instantaneous characterization. For instance, Ham Egg — the guy who looks like an extra from a Betty Boop cartoon — makes an appearance as "Itachi" in Dororo. Of course, the star system occasionally backfires taking you out of the story when you go "Hey look, it's Acetylene Lamp!"
- Though whether that's advisable is a matter for debate.
- Tezuka is sanitizing his work in other ways as well. Hyakkimaru's first love insists that she's "not pure" because she does horrible debasing things for soliders in order to feed the children she cares for. It sounds pretty edgy for a children's comic but this "debasement" turns out to involve getting slapped by soldiers and splattered with tomatoes. Which is debasing, I suppose, but weird. It makes you wonder why Tezuka even brought it up.
- The "impropriety" is that his mother was the sexual aggressor. It's probably one of the most pointlessly sexist myths I've ever seen.