Originally an anime by Osamu Tezuka, Dororo has been re-envisioned as a big-budget samurai fantasy. And quite magnificent it is too. Opening on the aftermath of a bloody war, bodies lie strewn along the battlefield. Fleeing the scene, Kagemitsu Daigo (Kiichi Nakai) hides inside an isolated temple inhabited by forty-eight demons who answer his unholy prayer. In exchange for power to rule the world, Daigo promises forty-eight human organs belonging to his newborn son. Cast out by his parents, the freaky foetus is adopted by a kindly samurai-scientist (veteran samurai star Yoshio Harada), who grows him a new body thanks to some steampunk pseudo-science. Tezuka had a medical background that imbues the story with a Frankenstein aspect. Also a touch of Edward Scissorhands (1990), as the samurai boy gains swords for limbs and sharpens supernatural senses via martial arts, before his dying foster-father shares a secret.
Years later, handsome Hyakkimaru (Satoshi Tsubamuki) meets gutsy girl thief Dororo (Kou Shibasaki), whilst they battle a tavern-haunting spider-crab monster. A wandering minstrel tells Dororo the story behind the wandering demon-slayer: for every monster he kills, Hyakkimaru regains a missing body part. Dororo latches onto Hyakkimaru, hiding nascent romantic feelings behind a tomboyish swagger, and proves herself a fearless ally. Gravity-defying fight choreography from Ching Siu Tung propels their acrobatic encounters with cartoon horrors drawn straight from the manga: a white-haired butterfly witch with eyes on her wings; a giant tree demon with a kabuki mask face that morphs into a mass of murderous red ribbons; a rubbery lizard-man with a killer tongue; and red and purple talking hellhounds.
Not all of these yokai (Japanese spirits) are bad guys. The dynamic duo meet a huge demon baby made up of souls from children killed in a forest fire. Later they encounter a lone samurai who tragically tries to protect his demon wife and their six, identical little daughters - even though they’re really flesh-eating maggots! However, the real trouble starts when Hyakkimaru discovers his long-lost brother Tahomaru (Eita) and mother Yuri (acclaimed actress Mieko Harada, from Ran (1985)), whereupon Dororo discovers her precious pal was spawned by the warlord who killed her parents.
This was a surprise project for indie filmmaker Akihiko Shiota, who had previously made the offbeat sadomasochistic love story Moonlight Whispers (1999). Although Shiota delivers the swashbuckling action and eye-popping special effects one expects from a manga movie, it is the richly layered subtext and dramatic punch that makes Dororo truly stand out. At times its sweep and levels of near-Shakespearean tragedy evoke the samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa. Like other samurai manga of the 1960s, Osamu Tezuka wove socialist ideals and Buddhist philosophy into a fantasy-action-horror that also carries a strong pacifist message. Just as Lord Daigo sells his son to the demons, so too - as the manga argues - did Japan sell its soul for capitalist gain.
Shiota crams many of Tezuka’s original stories into a narrative that, while episodic, still flows quite beautifully with moments of poignancy, horror and laugh-out loud humour. Count how many times Dororo gets splattered by monster entrails. The title character is our eyes and ears, learning life lessons along the way as she ponders the existential question: what is right and wrong in a godless world? The forward-thinking Tezuka marries this with an additional question: what does it mean to be human in the age of genetic engineering.
Although his performance risks being one-note, Tsubamuki’s brooding, pretty-boy looks perfectly embody his character and he grows more animated the more human Hyakkimaru becomes. The real joy is in watching J-pop princess Kou Shibasaki go all-out, delivering a rowdy, raucous firecracker performance. I kid you not, she swaggers and struts like a young Toshirô Mifune, as Dororo slowly discovers the futility of revenge. Little wonder the heart-melting Shibasaki is Japan’s biggest multimedia star. There is a spaghetti western flavour to the finale that captures the warm, humanistic message in Tezuka’s manga. Sequels are set to follow.