The first samurai manga: Dororo

Jan 07 2009

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I recently finished reading something special.

Dororo is a 3-volume manga by the “God of Manga,” Osamu Tezuka. It’s essentially the invention of the modern samurai adventure genre.

Man, is it dark. The story opens with a young father who promises his unborn son’s body parts to 48 demons, in return for land and power. As a result, his son Hyakkimaru is born as basically a mewling blob of flesh and bone, which his father casts away. Hyakkimaru is taken in by a sympathetic inventor who, as the boy grows, invents makeshift prosthetic limbs for him.

The young man trains as a samurai, and soon heads off in search of the 48 demons; for each one he kills, he will regain a piece of his own natural body.

This leads to an interesting irony. Hyakkimaru’s prosthetic limbs are in many ways more powerful than normal ones: they hide weapons and can surprise enemies when he removes them. But he is profoundly grateful every time he loses one as a regular one takes place. He deeply values normal limbs, as opposed to the super-charged false ones.

And then he meets a young punk thief, Dororo, who decides to tag along with him (ostensibly to steal Hyakkimaru’s katana when he isn’t looking).

So it turns into an adventure series, in a way: Hyakkimaru and Dororo wandering, searching for demons, and stumbling upon many human tragedies along the way. There’s plenty of supernatural horror and weird creatures, plus Tezuka’s trademark musings on humanity’s foibles and little triumphs.

Which makes it sound depressing. It isn’t, really; Hyakkimaru may be grim at times, and he lives in a dark time, but it’s ultimately an uplifting story of a young man triumphing over great adversity. Well worth the time, if you’re willing to be challenged by a different kind of comic.

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