Frankenstein Chambara: a new look at Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo

Poster for Dororo roadshow, © Toho/TBS

Poster for Dororo roadshow, © Toho/TBS

Seeing Anna Tsuchiya’s debut in Kamikaze Girls triggered a vague memory. It took a while to recall where I’d seen her before. It turned out to be after – three years after Kamikaze Girls, in 2007, she played a demon in the live-action theatrical version of Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo. I saw it on the big screen at the Barbican Cinema in January 2009, part of a season celebrating the legacy of the original creator, who died on 9 February 1989.

Akihiko Shiota’s movie is an interesting case study in how a director with no previous affiliations to Tezuka, manga or anime handles his material. Shiota is a veteran of intense relationship movies like Moonlight Whispers (Gekko no Sasayaki), Harmful Insect (Gaichu), and Canary (Kanaria). Like Tezuka, he’s concerned with the lives and minds of children and teenagers, and his visual and emotional vocabulary overlaps beautifully with that of the manga.

He drops many of its climactic scenes, but keeps the core of Tezuka’s story intact. His filmic influences are used to good effect. Hero Hyakkimaru’s mad scientist foster-father inhabits a modern fantasy of a feudal Japanese cottage, but Shiota lights and shoots it as if it were Frankenstein’s castle in James Whale’s 1931 movie. He delights in throwing in steampunk elements, while the monsters and demons, redesigned from Tezuka’s originals, pay homage to the yokai movies of Daimajin sfx ace turned director Yoshiyuki Kuroda. True, the CGI is uneven and the monsters are sometimes reminsicent of the much loved ‘men-in-rubber-suits’ school of SFX, but these occasional hiccups don’t detract from the beauty and visual inventiveness of the film.

The colour design and lighting is simply superb, creating an atmospheric backdrop for stunning central performances from Satoshi Tsumabuki as Hyakkimaru and Kou Shibasaki, of Battle Royale,  as irrepressible urchin Dororo. Her casting destroys the twist that Tezuka spent most of the manga setting up, but it’s a small price to pay for her performance. In any case, the script provides a more than acceptable, if sentimental, rationale to replace Tezuka’s twist. Tony Siu-Tung Ching, who worked on Curse of the Golden Flower, Shaolin Soccer and House of Flying Daggers, contributes some fine action setpieces.

Dororo was financed by Toho and shot on location in New Zealand, which stands in beautifully for early Japan, a liminal place between myth and  history.  It was a sound investment: Dororo was the eighth highest grosser at the Japanese box office in its release year of 2007, taking $32 million dollars/3.45 billion yen, or almost twice what it cost to produce. It won a clutch of awards, mostly for technical excellence, and was aired on TV in January 2009 with a respectable 12.1% audience share –ahead of every anime aired the same week except Sazae-san at 16.9, but behind the second live-action Death Note movie The Last Name which topped the anime/manga based ratings at 18.7. That in itself indicates that Tezuka still occupies an important place in Japan’s popular culture.

Tezuka looms over the postwar history of Japanese comics and animation like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film he was invited to work on by Stanley Kubrick.) His work has been in and out of fashion, rejected and even reviled, and he’s been dead for twenty years,  yet his most passionate opponents still can’t ignore him.  Hayao Miyazaki read Tezuka as a child, and later spoke of him as an older brother whose influence his younger self had to consciously throw off. The Dororo manga, available in English in three volumes from Vertical Inc., shows what Miyazaki saw in Tezuka. It presents many of the themes and ideas modern critics think of as ‘Miyazaki-esque’, especially its refusal to make villains simply guys in black hats and its insistence on three-dimensional characters with lives and agendas beyond the panel borders. Dororo is a book full of anger, rejection and rage at the injustice of life, but also full of the unexpected joy of survival.

The ups and downs of Tezuka‘s professional life allowed plenty of room for all those emotions. He was a seminal influence on Japanese comics and animation, the pathfinder for the postwar manga revival. He made his debut  as a teenager in 1946, and created comics with long, involving stories that developed out of complex characters responding to challenging situations. Yet when he wrote Dororo in 1967-8, it was partly in response to the movement away from his classic ‘story manga’ towards gekiga, or drama pictures – darker, more fractured comics that often abandoned conventional art and story principles in an effort to reflect the reality of Japan’s street life.

The gekiga/manga split is often presented as the Japanese version of the comics/graphic novels division, but it could also be likened to the rupture of punk from glam rock: young fans grew up, wanted something different, and started to make it in their own way. Tezuka turned forty in 1968. He had been a comics professional for more than twenty years. From being the teenage superstar his readers dreamed of emulating, he’d become a father figure – a really cool dad, but dad nonetheless. Someone like Shigeru Mizuki – a one-armed combat vet who drew darkly spooky satires on postwar corruption alongside true tales of combat terror –was infinitely more alluring to the new young wannabes rushing down the trail Tezuka had blazed.

Mizuki’s classic Hakaba no Kitaro – Graveyard Kitaro, or GeGeGe no Kitaro as its pre-watershed animated version was renamed – undoubtedly influenced Dororo. So did the chambara movies that filled post-Occupation screens with images of Japanese heroes doing what a man’s gotta do to survive. But Dororo also revisits many of the themes Tezuka had been exploring throughout his career: lost fathers, abandoned children, mad scientists, fighting females, conflicted genders, artificial bodies, the inevitability of death, a profound belief that what goes around comes around, and a passionate condemnation of war.

A 26-episode anime version of Dororo was made by Mushi Productions, Tezuka’s first anime company, for broadcast on Fuji TV in 1969. Storyboarded by Yoshiyuki Gundam Tomino and directed by Gisaburo Street Fighter II Sugii, the series was shot in black and white to save money. Although colour TV broadcasts started on five commercial stations in Japan in 1960, making it the third nation in the world to have colour TV, after the USA and Cuba, colour didn’t replace black-and-white as the dominant means of reception until 1972, so the series did reasonably well in Japan, but the rapid spread of colour TV kept it in the domestic market. With the manga untranslated into French until 2006 and English until 2008, Tezuka’s story was little known outside Japan at the time Shiota’s film hit the screens. It deserves a wider audience.

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