One of the pioneering manga authors of the last century has been serialized in America fairly sporadically. In the last two years a lot of his big-books have come out, and while I wouldn’t rank this one in my top half it’s still pretty cool.
This is from Tezuka’s middle-period (roughly) and mixes both his characteristic slap-stick routine with his more sophisticated humanist touches. It’s the story of a young boy who has his limbs sacrificed to demon Gods and must learn to live without limbs. Sound kooky? It’s firmly rooted in the more horror-oriented aspects of 60’s manga. In this first volume he hunts around the Japanese countryside for demons who, once killed, will restore his 48 limbs one at at time.
The boy, Hyakkimaru, also gains a sidekick in the form of Dororo (a childish pronunciation of the word thief). Dororo is a young bandit who joins forces with Hyakkimaru in hopes of capturing a rare sword. As the two venture through the land they decide to share their childhood stories (Hyakkimaru is an orphan with prosthetic body parts, Dororo is the child of a noble bandit). They also kill a few demons, including a sword-demon and a shape-shifter, to get back some of Hyakkimaru’s limbs. That informs the plot pretty well. There’s some backstories set up, but mostly it seems like it’ll be the story (hopefully not too much of a tower-quest) of a young man regaining his body and discovering a sense of self in a world of demons and monsters.
As a piece of art there’s not thing really wrong with Dororo per-se, but it has certain tendencies I don’t favor. For instance, the tendency towards slap-stick is higher here than in his later work, and the artwork is closer to messy and frantic than the more thoroughly drawn later epics. I’m not a huge fan of the horror genre (though there’s some Junji Ito and Kazuo Umezu I enjoy) so I’m probably not the ideal fan. That said, I have to love Tezuka’s tendency to insert himself into the art and make contemporary references (to cyborg manga, for instance) as they keep things light and fresh. They can also make things feel a little too light (again, why I don’t care for his slapstick) but the stylish mix of humanity and Japanese folk-creatures is pretty sweet. The handful of page-length panels are also lovely, proving Tezuka could pull off sophisticated work (and here it’s monsters – especially cool) long before his auteur works.
Finally, I think this makes an interesting statement about disability, Japanese identity, and robots. One, that you have a boy composed of parts (cheekily, Tezuka references it with his own dialogue) who is both shunned by his peers and manages to overcome his own limitations with equally useful and powerful abilities of his own. He is, almost to a tee, the definition of an empowered hero and the mix of technology (here the limitations of a medical doctor) that would later become the assembled robot/cyborg. Yes, the ultimate goal is for him to return to his body, but it’s the unique powers and skills he attains through his harsh childhood that allow him to vanquish his demons and regain his humanity. And in a post-war setting, with images of cannibalism and war-torn villages just a short two decades after WW2, I think this is a keen reminder of the war-stained psychology very much in effect at the time. It’s not always my cup of tea, but here renowned master Osamu Tezuka leaves his yearning, human mark on the land of ghouls.