Four-Eyed Stranger #17: “Nobody Is Born Whole”

Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo begins like so many myths, fables and fairy tales: with devils, curses and a baby in a basket sent floating down the river.

One stormy night in feudal-era Japan, Lord Daigo travels to the infamous Hall of Hell, which houses statues of 48 demons (and it is said that the sculptor went mad after their creation). In exchange for political and military power, he pledges his soon-to-be-born child to the demons, one part of the child for each of them.

The next day, when the baby is born, he has no arms or legs, and only holes in his head where his sense organs should be. Fearing that Lord Daigo will kill him, the baby’s mother sets the child adrift on the river. Later in the story, we learn that he comes into the care of a doctor, who soon discovers that the “pitiable” creature has extraordinary powers, such as telepathy, as well as an indomitable will to survive.

Almost immediately, various demons and evil creatures seek out and attack the child, drawn to the “air of death” that surrounds him. Naming him Hyakkimaru, the doctor raises the child, and in a variation on Pinocchio, outfits the boy with prosthetic limbs (which also contain weapons). When he is a teenager, Hyakkimaru sets out to hunt the demons who have taken possession of his body parts.

With each demon he kills, another body part returns (painfully). His artificial body parts are in many ways superior (they are impervious to injury, for example), and his senses and abilities have been heightened to a supernatural degree.

“Even if I can’t see, I’ve got my inner eye,” Hyakkimaru explains. “After fourteen years, I see no differently from others.” Despite these apparent gifts (which he views as a curse), he becomes obsessed with transforming himself into a “real” human being.

Like Frankenstein in reverse, Hyakkimaru is reconstructing himself, exchanging his artificial body parts for human limbs and organs. There could also be echoes here of Aristophanes’s speech from Plato’s Symposium, particularly the statement that “human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.”

On his travels, he meets a child thief named Dororo, who wants to steal the sword that’s hidden in Hyakkimaru’s arm (actually, it is his arm). The two become travel companions, and even though they frequently argue, it becomes clear that these two characters feel like siblings to each other. Dororo calls Hyakkimaru “bro” and whenever they’re apart (often hurting each other’s feelings in the process), they soon long to be reunited.

Following its serialization in Weekly Shonen Sunday magazine from 1967 to 1968, an animated version of Dororo ran on Japanese TV in 1969. The series also inspired the 2004 Playstation 2 video game Blood Will Tell and a live-action film in 2007. Vertical published a three-volume, Eisner-winning English translation in 2008.

Reading Dororo today, there’s a striking sense of timelessness. That quality, as well as the story’s flexibility across various media, seems to stem from its richness, depth and psychological complexity. The story is laden with metaphors that cover such themes as overcoming personal demons (as well the the demons passed onto children by their parents) and the quest for every human being to become psychologically “whole” or complete.

“[Tezuka] had an ability to look beyond the superficial actions of people and to view them in their totality, to assess them in the context of their environment, history, and even (occasionally) their karma,” writes Frederik L. Schodt in Dreamland Japan. “As a result, Tezuka’s heroes were not two-dimensional but complex and flawed: sometimes they did the wrong, not right, thing; sometimes they died…And because of the destruction he witnessed first hand in World War II, Tezuka was also a passionate believer in peace.”

Often surprisingly violent and heartbreaking, Dororo also dedicates much its story to exploring the ways children respond to life during wartime. Early on, Hyakkimaru tells a blind monk: “Old man, I’m hopeless. I’m missing forty-eight body parts and I’m haunted by demons. I can’t do anything.” In response, the monk takes him to a home for children injured in the war.

“These kids are the village survivors,” he tells Hyakkimaru. “Some have no arms, legs, or eyes. Others are badly burned. These kids are pitiable. No one cares for them. But see how hard they try to survive.”

This mysterious blind man reappears throughout the series whenever Hyakkimaru is in his moments of deepest despair.

“Hyakkimaru, happiness is having a reason for living,” he tells him. “You vanquish demons to get back your arms, legs and eyes, and someday you’ll be a normal human being. Then what?”

This psychological complexity resonates with Tezuka’s description of his work, from his autobiography (quoted in Schodt’s Manga! Manga!): “I also believed that comics were capable of more than just making people laugh,” he writes. “So in my themes I incorporated tears, grief, anger, and hate, and I created stories where the ending was not always ‘happy.'”

Issues of abandonment run throughout Dororo. The title character and Hyakkimaru were both abandoned and left to fend for themselves. Hyakkimaru could also be thought of as having been abandoned by his body parts. There are also recurring examples of hypocrisy and betrayal, and a constant undercurrent of intense anger at abuses of power and at the brutality of the mob mentality.

That’s not to say that this comic is a downer. Despite these powerful themes, Dororo aims to entertain. There’s slapstick aplenty, and fight scenes to rival any samurai epic. Hyakkimaru’s weaponized prosthetics bring to mind the armed baby stroller in the film version of Lone Wolf and Cub, and the dissections, amputations and prosthetics resonate with Tezuka’s training as a doctor.

“His heart was not in medicine, and when he eventually abandoned his scalpel to become a professional artist he brought to the medium of children’s comics the cultivated mind of an intellectual, a fertile imagination, and the desire to experiment,” writes Frederik L. Schodt in Manga! Manga!

That sense of experimentation runs throughout Dororo. The title character breaks the “fourth wall” several times, addressing the reader directly. There are occasional, deliberate anachronisms, such as modern references. At one point, Dororo mentions a historical figure, then corrects himself, saying that person hasn’t been born yet.

It’s not just the character of Dororo who draws attention to the fact that this a comic. The artwork occasionally does so, as well. In one scene, Dororo is thrown “through” three panels, the border breaking (with sound effects) as he passes through them.

The title of the series also presents an intriguing situation: On first impression, the titular character doesn’t appear to be the story’s central character. Dororo is his sidekick. Perhaps Tezuka is suggesting that the story is not primarily about the hero’s quest to regain his stolen body.

Instead, the “god of comics” might be drawing attention to the story of Doror, the orphaned child who was stolen by a band of thieves (who also murdered his parents). Together with his wife, the leader of the band raised Dororo, and the boy considered them to be his true parents. Heaping tragedy upon tragedy, Dororo loses them to betrayal and sacrifice.

Perhaps the comic’s title is an indication that the story actually follows the growth of Dororo as he overcomes his own demons and secrets, and attempts to become “whole.” Dororo might not rank at the top of Tezuka’s immense body of work, but details like these demonstrate why Dororo can linger in the mind and remain fresh after more than forty years.


Dororo on Osamu Tezuka’s official site


Appearing every other week, Four-Eyed Stranger looks at classic manga and unusual modern work by Asian artists.