Dororo is a minor work that Osamu Tezuka never got around to finishing. Neither as long-lived as the hugely popular ATOM or Black Jack, nor as ambitious as Adolf or Buddha. But even lesser Tezuka proves to be a very potent read. This was a man brimming with many mad ideas. Dororo may be formulaic entertainment. But it's very well executed formulaic entertainment.
Set during the chaotic Sengoku period, an ambitious warlord makes a faustian bargain with 48 demons to sacrifice his unborn first child in return for greater political power. The baby boy is born with 48 missing body parts. He is left to die from exposure, but is adopted by a kindly surgeon, who later equips him with various prosthetic substitutes (Not bad for a 15th century physician). The child, named Hyakkimaru, grows into an effective demon hunter hoping to kill the demons who stole his body parts, and restore his body. Early on he meets an orphaned street-smart kid named Dororo. They quickly establish an uneasy but friendly rapport, and he joins Hyakkimaru is his quest because he covets the sword blades he carries.
It's truly astonishing how much Tezuka can get away with. The book is filled with so much violence, gore, and nasty supernatural elements, yet feels so thoroughly upbeat. This is in part because Tezuka's art is just so awesome. His monsters and demons are both frightening enough to scare kids while weirdly eccentric enough to amuse older readers. The disfigured baby Hyakkimaru evokes both horror and sympathy for his condition. The adult version makes for a dynamic heroic figure - slashing enemies left and right with katanas hidden inside his prosthetic arms. Tezuka's virtuoso cartooning alone is worth paying the price for this book. Everything from the atmospheric backgrounds to the creature designs are drawn with the confidence of a master comfortable with his craft.
Hyakkimaru and Dororo are easy enough to empathize with. Both are victims of the violent era they live in, and both are looking for ways to rise above their humble beginnings and find personal redemption through hard work. In certain ways they're the template for many shonen heroes that would come afterward. The author's voice clearly sides with the commoners against the samurai class, who are treated as the root of all misery in the world. The protagonists themselves have a lot or reason to be resentful to the samurai class, while enjoying the freedom that comes from their rootless lifestyle.
The parts of the volume that don't deal with the characters back-story focus on episodic action-adventure. The first involves a frog monster/faced-shape tumor that has enslaved an entire village. The second is about a warrior forced to kill by a cursed sword. Tezuka doesn't shy away from presenting the carnage. In fact this book is a useful example of how he mixes serious drama with slapstick comedy, oftentimes in the same panel. By this time Tezuka had already developed an array of quirky comic techniques: characters breaking the fourth wall, cartoon self-portraits, anachronistic asides, and cameos by characters from other comics. Thankfully these gimmicks don't distract too much from the main story.
This isn't Osamu Tezuka at his greatest, but it works very well for what it is. Kudos to Vertical for the beautiful paperback packaging. I eagerly await for the rest of the series.