Judge Joel Pearce had to reclaim his left pinky finger from a demon.
The quest of a samurai warrior.
I have to admit, I tossed Dororo into the player expecting very little. The cover art makes the film look like one of those cheesy, campy Japanese fantasies that come along from time to time, full of imagination but sorely lacking in purpose. Fortunately, I ended up being pleasantly surprised this time, discovering a film with a delightful blend of pulp, cheese, and epic mythology.
Facts of the Case
War has ravaged the land for as long as anyone can remember. Exhausted and frustrated beyond reason, Daigo Kagemitsu (Kiichi Nakai, Warriors of Heaven and Earth) makes a pact with 48 demons to receive the power to dominate Japan. The price? The body of his newborn son. As a result, Hyakkimaru (Satoshi Tsumabuki, Dragon Head) grows up with artificial body parts. He learns that he can restore his body, but only by defeating the demons in combat. Along this journey, he meets a young thief named Dororo (Kou Shibasaki, Battle Royale), who chooses to join him on her quest, as she also seeks vengeance for the death of her family at the hands of Daigo Kagemitsu.
If you look at each part of Dororo individually, it isn't all that terribly impressive. It's full of mediocre performances, cheesy CGI sequences, and self-important scripting. The premise is cobbled together from all manner of other fantasy films, using archetypes that have probably long since seen their best examples.
None of this, of course, accounts for how much fun it is to watch. When all of these individual elements come together, it all just fits somehow, and works much better than it deserves to. This isn't the stuff of great fantasy, but it has enough manufactured mythology to create for itself an illusion of importance. At its best moments, Dororo even reminded me of Conan the Barbarian. It's full of the same mythic self-importance, driving forward through campiness and over-the top violence. In fact, the first half of the film almost never slows down for a second. It is full of flashing swords, wild cinematography, and exploding CGI demons. With 48 to be killed in all, there's hardly even enough time for basic exposition.
These fights with the demons are endlessly inventive and gleefully graphic. Each one of the demons is completely different, so we never feel like we're watching the same fight. I think we've finally reached the point where cheap CGI can look as good as stop-motion or rubber suits looked in low budget movies 30 years ago. There's no mistaking the demons for real, of course, but they seem to fit in this absurd, bloody world. None of the actors are especially capable at swordplay, which is painfully obvious in the climactic scenes, but enough creativity is put into the initial battles that you can almost pretend that you're watching a real samurai film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, some of this excitement drains away in the second half of the film. As soon as Hyakkimaru figures out who he is, the narrative pushes towards the final conflict but also slows down significantly. The focus shifts to the relationship between him and Dororo, contemplating the value of revenge and lining up the dominoes for the ultimate conflict at the end. While nothing in the second half lives up to the promise of the first, the end is surprisingly poignant and symbolic. The whole production has the feel of an epic manga (it was based on a series by legendary Tezuka Osamu), and it has a clear respect for its own lineage. I can't promise that fans of the series will be totally satisfied, but fans of manga and anime will be pleased with how well the aesthetic has been ported over to live action film.
Unfortunately, the general quality of the dialogue is also drawn directly from classic manga. None of the performances have the nuances required to make up for the shallowness and shrillness of the script—it works much better visually than it does intellectually. While this won't bother many viewers, it prevents Dororo from becoming a must-see film.
Universal has done a fine job with this barebones release. A few years ago, there's no way Dororo would have been released without significant cuts and a terrible English dub. Thankfully, the North American edition weighs in at almost two and a half hours, has a rip-roaring Japanese 5.1 track, and well-translated subtitles. The video quality is good as well, likely pulled from the same transfer that was used for the Japanese DVD. While the broad use of color filtering isn't always consistent, I noticed no transfer flaws. There aren't any extras on the disc, but I'm glad to see the release of a less-than-highly-anticipated Japanese film a year after its original release on American DVD.
I can only really recommend Dororo to people who really like this kind of thing. I've seen quite a few Japanese fantasy adventures over the past few years, and this is probably one of the most successful. That said, it has enough camp and bold assaults on the senses to appeal to a wide audience. Still, for those that love the anime aesthetic and overall storytelling approach, Dororo is as much silly fun as you can shake a katana at. Just don't expect your mom to watch it with you.
Not guilty, though I won't be seen with it in public.
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