As we witness the smoky aftermath of a battle, a field awash with bloodied corpses, onscreen text tells us that war has been raging through Japan for years.
Cut to Daigo (Kiichi Nakai), a powerful samurai who is tired of the endless fighting, having already lost his two brothers in battles. He retires to a temple known as the "Room of Demons" one rainy evening. Inside the temple are forty-eight statues of demons which, legend has it, are capable of honouring your deepest desires.
Daigo wants more than anything to defeat his opponents in future wars. A female demon's voice grants him this wish, but at a terrible price - Daigo's first born son must lose forty eight body parts, each of which will be retained by the demons as payment for granting the wish.
Many years later, a young man by the name of Hyakkimaru (Satoshi Tsumabuki) enters a tavern and picks a fight with the in-bar entertainment. A duel ensues between Hyakkimaru and the opponent, who transforms into a gigantic tarantula sporting a human head.
Hyakkimaru emerges as the victor, despite taking what looks like should have been a fatal stab through the heart. He retrieves a human hand from his slain foe and places it on the stump on his left arm. Watching in a darkened corner of the bar is Dororo (Kou Shibasaki), a pretty pickpocket who only entered the building to hide from her latest victim. She's witnessed the whole thing and is quickly smitten with the unassuming-looking Hyakkimaru.
Taking time out to sit with an aged drinker, Dororo learns that Hyakkimaru is Daigo's ill-fated son. Via flashback, the old man explains how Hyakkimaru was abandoned at birth by his father and taken in by a shaman. The shaman had the gift of healing powers and used these - along with a cauldron filled with dead children's limbs - to conjure up self-regenerating parts to fulfil Hyakkimaru's incomplete torso.
We watch in retrospect as over the years Hyakkimaru grew from a sickly baby and into a strong young man under the shaman's watchful eye, training daily with his sword and learning the healing arts for himself. But when the shaman died, Hyakkimaru was forced to face the outside world alone - with the final warning from his mentor being never to use the healing powers, as they may fall into the wrong hands ...
Drawn to the temple where events began, Hyakkimaru is dismayed to find it has burned to the ground. However, a voice in the air tells him the demons that once resided there are now divided across the land. The voice goes on to inform Hyakkimaru that he must seek out the demons and slay each of them with his own sword. By doing this, his missing body parts will magically grow back - and the truth of why he was born with such afflictions will become clear to him ...
With that lengthy flashback over, the audience and Dororo are now up to speed. Which means the film is free to resume 'present tense' storytelling (actually, the action is set in the year 3048) and pair our two protagonists together. Reasoning that teaming up with Hyakkimaru would be "interesting", Dororo follows him from the tavern and imposes herself upon him.
At first Hyakkimaru is unwilling to walk with Dororo (a name she adopts upon his suggestion, incidentally) but predictably the pair warm to one another as events unfurl. Those events are essentially a host of increasingly wacky battles with demons and goblins, interspersed with much bickering and wandering through Japanese countryside by our heroic double-act.
DORORO is based on a 1960s Manga novel of the same name by the late Osamu Tezuka, who also gave the world "Astro Boy" (also the name of a really cool Dwarves song) and the "Black Jack" tomes the latter of which was brought to the screen in anime form in 1996 by Osamu Dezaki. The first in a series, apparently parts 2 and 3 of "Dororo" have been shot and will be released sometime within the next year.
This 2007 effort does a good job of establishing the scene and it's protagonists.
Dororo is a goofy but amiable "professional thief" who can hold her own when it comes to scrapping, but reveals a childlike neediness when around Hyakkimaru. Her character is perhaps a little too slapstick to fit in with the action comfortably, but Shibasaki ensures she's easy to warm to regardless.
Funnily enough though, the character of Dororo is not the main focus here: this is very much Hyakkimaru's story. It is with him that our interests lie, it is him that we meet first and it is his revenge that propels the storyline on. Tsumabuki is a strong lead who pulls off his role well, both physically and in terms of the laidback charisma he exudes.
The storyline is mental, of course, but director Akihiko Shiota (DON'T LOOK BACK; CANARY) must be applauded for controlling the pace and keeping Masa Nakamura's comic book-faithful screenplay comprehensible. Nakamura, of course, went on to co-write SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO with Takashi Miike.
The art design of this film - framing, colour schemes, costumes and sets - is wonderful. It's all immensely stylish and looks much larger scale than it surely was. Also, Shiota makes good use of some stunning exterior locations, soaking in the attractive sunny Japanese countryside on frequent occasions.
While the look of the film is often stunning, the leads engaging and the plot rather involving, the real deciding factor for many contemplating DORORO is whether or not it delivers in terms of action. It does, but with limitations.
For instance, there are many superbly choreographed fight sequences and some choice moments of outlandish gore. But for every impressive sequence there are more that resort to family-friendly bloodless bouts and some really, really poor CGI effects. Even worse, a couple of the monsters are literally men in rubber suits (look out for a dinosaur-beast-thing midway through that looks like it came straight from the dressing room of "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers").
I suppose it could be argued that concessions should be made for a film that's based on a comic book - it shouldn't have to strive so much for realism. But the effect these transgressions have is that the tone of the film often veers between excitement and being just plain silly.
Still, taken in the right humour the bottom line is that DORORO is enjoyable. It never bores during its 132-minute running time and I look forward to catching the next instalment.
The film is presented uncut on this Region 2 disc from MVM Entertainment. The transfer presents the film in a warm and crisp anamorphic 1.78:1 offering. Colours are washed out occasionally in a manner quite common with Japanese cinema, suggesting this is a stylistic approach rather than a flaw in the disc mastering. Detail is fine while texture remains smooth throughout.
The Japanese audio is proffered in 5.1 and 5.1 DTS mixes. Both provide a healthy balanced mix between channels, ensuring a consistent approach to the separation of music, dialogue and additional sound effects. Clean, clear and rousing throughout, these are healthy audio propositions. Optional English subtitles are easily readable and well written.
The disc opens with a vivid animated main menu page. From there, a static scene-selection menu allows access to the film via 12 chapters.
This release trumps 2008's Region 1 DVD from Universal by offering some decent extras, porting across the bonus features (and front cover) from Madman's Australian release.
The ball gets rolling with "Road To Dororo", a breathless 35-minute Making Of documentary. Cast members are present to speak about their characters' motivations while some interesting behind-the-scenes footage engages elsewhere. Film clips are interspersed throughout while a male narration sounds like he's racing the clock. The latter half of this energetic and admittedly self-congratulatory featurette focuses on the marketing of the film after it's inception, taking in shot-on-video accounts of press conferences and early screenings. Presented in Japanese 2.0 with optional English subtitles.
Several deleted scenes follow, offering extended versions of scenes that made the final cut. Running for an extra 8 minutes in total, there's nothing of must-see relevance herein. Although perfectly watchable, this extra footage is noticeably inferior in quality to the main feature presentation.
A stills gallery is colourful but meagre, offering only 15 stills.
Three original trailers and a 30-second television spot round things off, along with a trailer for CUTIE HONEY (starring Eriko Sato - "Japan's top swimsuit model" ...).
While DORORO may not be strong enough to rank as truly memorable, it is nevertheless a fun and often expertly choreographed film that passes two hours quickly. MVM Entertainment's disc is a good showcase for the film.
For more information, visit www.mvm-films.com.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Mvm|
|Region 2 - PAL|
|see main review|