*Given the nature of the series itself, it’s hard for me to discuss it without at least mentioning mild spoilers. Also, there’s a RWBY spoiler in here. Proceed with caution.*
With the exception of One Punch Man Season 2, Dororo is probably the most deflating anime I’ve seen so far in 2019. That’s honestly a real shame cuz on top of being a popular retelling of an anime from the ’60s, it's a 2000s samurai anime displaced in time. Furthermore, one of the main protagonists fights demons and samurai with swords for limbs! That sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? Then halfway through the show, you realize the cool moments are rendered moot and surrounded by mediocrity. Even worse, the show lost a lot of stream after peaking early on, causing the second half to become especially bothersome given the lackluster writing that permeates it.
If nothing else, Dororo makes for a generally well-produced spectacle of samurai battles and bloodbaths. Even outside of the fight scenes, there are some incredibly well-animated sequences, like whenever demonic lightning would flash or when people or demons were burnt to ashes. At their best, the battles are crisp, fluid, and decently choreographed, with lots of sakuga moments where characters clash blades and get hacked to pieces. At their worst, they’re short, barely animated, and often replaced by animation shortcuts like static character portraits flashing in one after another, or slash marks on a black screen being followed up by a lack of anything satisfying, juicy, or vivid. The production values also worsen throughout the third quarter of the show in general, with bad CGI water, unriveting choreography and barely-animated fight scenes, several awkward shots and animation cuts, and overall inferior character models and animation throughout. None of this is horrible, not even the infamous episode 15 barring a few terrible sequences, but it does show that the production is a tad uneven. As for the character designs, at least for most of the main duo, they’re fairly attractive and mostly on-model barring a few stylistic changes throughout episodes and fight scenes (which are as hit or miss as the episodes themselves). Most of the secondary and tertiary characters are not very distinct or interesting and suffer from off-model syndrome a tad more, but it’s never anything heinous. As for the designs of the demons that are slain throughout the show, the only interesting ones were the ghost foxes that appeared halfway into the show, as well as a possessed horse near the end of the show. I also like the monochrome aesthetic, as it complements the atmosphere and designs of the show, especially when the animation kicks into high gear. It’s probably one of MAPPA’s more well-produced titles, even if nothing here is especially exciting.
That’s where most of the compliments end, as the writing leaves a lot to be desired. I like the idea they were going with. It would have been interesting to see how the episodic stories impact Dororo and especially Hyakkimaru in their journey to slay demons and regain the latter’s humanity and body parts, which were robbed from him at birth. Having their escapades intertwine with the story of a falling kingdom and a family whose secrets unravel as specific members learn of Hyakkimaru’s survival could have been exciting. An overarching narrative where the characters often deal with episodic occurrences is certainly nothing bad, nor anything groundbreaking. One-off episodes are a great way of allowing for action spectacles and powerful moments that could impact character arcs tremendously. They also allow for more diverse narratives and world-building. Series such as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and Moribito are excellent examples of this. Dororo fails in all regards here, as most of the stories follow the exact same narrative beats and character archetypes, causing the side stories to lose any identity and worth by the second half. The show has a disconcerting number of one-off femme fatales, ridiculous psychopaths working with demons, and rambunctious kids wandering around to find a mother or sister figure they care about, both in the main story and the one-off episodes and arcs. If the one-off characters were more interesting and varied, or if the protagonists were more engaging, this wouldn’t be a big deal.
Another major issue is how none of the side stories leave any real impact on our main duo. The only thing of note in most of these is how Hyakkimaru gets his body parts back. They did have an arc where Hyakkimaru had to deal with the shock of having ears again, forcing him to slowly and painfully adjust to the act of hearing. Had the series explored that concept with his other body parts and spaced them out better to allow for said exploration, I likely would have cared about Hyakkimaru a lot more. Sadly, at most, we get one-off lines about the differences in what he can do with his swords, only for him to still do the same things he always did, but with one less sword limb or with longer reach. Even worse, most of his developments after that point feel less gradual or tactile, and more “start and stop”. The worst examples are when in between episodes 12 and 13, he goes from barely uttering words to forming a complete sentence, or when in episode 20, he flips out due to a demon not granting him a body part back (an occurrence that has happened a few times by this point) and becomes a raging beast who wants his body and Dororo back during the final arc of the show before arbitrarily becoming more level-headed again in the finale.
Backtracking to the non-impact issue, in the fifth episode, Hyakkimaru finds himself being taken care of by someone who he ends up having an affection towards. Meanwhile, Dororo interacts with her and the kids she’s taking care of, all while giving Hyakkimaru time to recover. At the end of episode 6, everyone who took care of them there dies, and Hyakkimaru goes on a rampage, killing almost everyone who murdered them. You’d think such an event would leave an impact on both of them, especially Hyakkimaru who finally found someone else he cared about that could help him. Apart from minor flashbacks in the middle of Dororo getting angry at someone, and a scene of another secondary character comforting Dororo, it means absolutely nothing and doesn’t get referenced in any meaningful way. I’m left with flashbacks to RWBY, when in Volume 3 Ruby watches Roman Torchwick get eaten after beating her up and challenging her heroic idealism with talk of how cold and nihilistic reality is. This scene comes between the death of two of her friends for an added gut punch. This is prime real estate for her to develop as a character (the main one at that) before Volume 4 completely has her going nowhere with this outside of two scenes of her feeling scared and horrible for what happened, causing her to completely abandon this idea outside of one scene in Volume 5 where she brings up the deaths of her friends. Hell, even that had more of an impact than what happened in this arc, which is still the most emotionally resonant arc in the series!
None of this would matter too much if the characters were dynamic and colorful, cuz that would make it so even if an episode is only there for variety, it’s still engaging. Unfortunately, Dororo’s characters barely go beyond their character archetypes, and the ones who aren’t stock characters often leave a lot to be desired. I already discussed how poorly they handled Hyakkimaru’s development, which is a real shame since there are moments where he comes off as fun, even adorable with how he has to learn to really socialize with others on a level beyond that of a toddler. Dororo, by contrast, is far more lighthearted, sometimes even naive regarding “right and wrong”, as she’s a child. She’s an orphan that has watched her parents die and seen villages burn, and that completely clashes with how naive she is and how horrifying such violence seems to her in the first leg of the show, but she’s still a child. Speaking of clashing, her character trait of being a street rat who regularly attempts to swindle people or make a quick buck makes some of her more gullible actions in later episodes (15) seem entirely out of place. She has two sides to her that are fundamentally at odds with one another at times, resulting in a character that feels weak, on top of feeling shallow. That shallowness is compounded by the lack of development, a trait which only Hyakkimaru and one of the antagonists have any kind of access to (as dodgy as their development is). I know that a lack of character development is one of the tackiest, most misused complaints thrown at an anime, but when the characters are this shallow, and none of the side stories leave any kind of impact on a pair of characters consisting of a child and a person slowly gaining back and developing his humanity, I'm left begging for something, anything to change before completely checking out by episode 18.
I’m barely gonna touch on the side characters, even Hyakkimaru’s family and the people that serve them, as they’re mostly just boring character archetypes like the suffering mom, the warlord who cares about his nation almost as much as he does his reign over them, and the edgy, jealous younger brother who constantly tries to prove himself in order to not feel overshadowed. There’s also the wise, badass old man with some sense of humor. To be fair, the show does a fine enough job not screwing these characters up with dumb decision-making or erratic personality shifts, at least for the most part. It’s just that it’s hard to care about characters who are on autopilot, just as it’s hard to care about our main characters. There is one exception to the lack of character shifts, that being when in episode 12 Hyakkimaru’s brother suddenly goes from someone torn on the moral quandary of his brother’s life vs the nation that thrived off his unwilling sacrifice, to someone hell-bent on killing him after failing to end a deal between the demons who cursed Hyakkimaru, and his father who made a pact with them for the sake of power and a prosperous nation. Apart from that moment, you can predict every character’s archetype and actions the moment you see them. The only recurring character with anything to him is the guy that took care of Hyakkimaru for most of his life: Jukai. He has a genuinely horrific backstory that informs his somber nature and constant need to seek out ways for his craft to be used in ways that compliment life, something he feels he’s stuck with due to not having the right to die like everyone around him does.
At this point, I’ll just list a few other issues with the writing. The characters arbitrarily doing stupid things for the sake of the plot in the second half, such as Dororo randomly falling for a trap door in a seemingly abandoned shack in episode 15 despite her being a trickster character who would never be this gullible, or Hyakkimaru not even thinking to chisel the rock trapping Dororo’s arm to free her as she’s drowning in episode 20. The old man conveniently shows up as a deus ex machina, and his first instinct is to chisel the rock and that lets Dororo get out of there, making this problem all the more aggravating. In the second half of the show, Hyakkimaru somehow knows where an important character is and tracks them down offscreen, not once, but twice despite there being nothing presented to the audience or to Hyakkimaru himself that could feasibly allow him to track them down. In episode 15, a village is consumed by fire and it’s blamed on an underground oil spill reacting to a moth demon randomly crashing onto a watch tower with a torch which subsequently exploded, except there’s no way it could have affected the oil in order to cause the fire to consume the village. The show also constantly beats you over the head regarding how tragic things are, and it often has the narrator or character reiterating what they’re doing. Apart from one spoiler-heavy moment a bunch of characters could have easily avoided if they had any sense of urgency, these are the only real big issues I can think of regarding issues with bad writing. The episodic narratives are generally fine enough on their own. It’s just that most of them feel rather samey and end up not mattering. The overarching narrative, despite being on autopilot, isn’t necessarily badly written either. It’s just unengaging thanks to the main character arc that drives the plot not being handled well and the characters being on autopilot.
That just leaves the music, which is somehow my least favorite part of the show. The background OST has decent tone-setting tracks, but nothing memorable. Half the time, I didn’t even know there was a soundtrack. Then we have the OPs and EDs. I hate them all to varying degrees. The vocals in all of them are unbelievably grating, especially the first OP, which is probably one of my most hated anime songs of all time, let alone this year. The second OP is probably the most disappointing, as it starts off with a kickass grunge-like guitar solo for about 6 seconds before completely shifting gears and eventually succumbing to the problem of bad vocals. Unlike the EDs, the OPs stick, but it’s not out of me finding any appeal in them.
I expected Dororo would lose steam eventually given what I had heard, but I wasn’t prepared for how the show ultimately became less than the sum of its parts. Apart from a few specific complaints, both the overarching narrative and the episodic and bi-episodic narratives are fine. It’s just that anything potentially interesting or emotionally resonant is completely undermined by a lack of cohesion between these two elements and how little impact anything seems to have. The characters certainly don’t help, as those that aren’t shallow archetypes aren’t handled with enough care for their plights to matter. The inconsistent spectacles aren’t enough to carry a show that feels so bog-standard and at-odds with itself. As a result, I largely stopped caring after a while, and that’s one of the worst feelings a promising show can inflict. There are moments where it picks up and the spectacle and emotions speak for themselves, but by the second half, I was usually either bored or on autopilot. I may not hate or dislike the show, nor do I think it’s terrible, but I’m left wondering why I bothered before asking myself what could have been.
Written and edited by: CodeBlazeFate
Proofread by: Peregrine