July 2008

Blythe Boyer

fiction

Dororo, Volume 1 by Osamu Tezuka

Osamu Tezuka has been called the father of manga, and he left some big shoes for his children to fill. His collected works fill 400 volumes and cover 150,000 pages of comic books. His style has been emulated by generations of comics writers. One element that has been most co-opted is the round-eyed, innocent look of his characters, which he in turn derived from the cartoons of Walt Disney. Say what you will about the behemoth that the Mouse House has become; without its founder, the world of comics would be much less vibrant today.

The other person we have to thank for the breadth of Tezuka’s oeuvre is his mother. Tezuka drew his first manga when he was a medical student in Osaka University in the 1940s. After completing his degree, he asked his mother which career he should follow. Luckily for comics-lovers worldwide, she encouraged him to follow the path he liked best, though she knew that an artist’s paycheck was meager.

Dororo was first serialized in Japan in 1967-68. Vertical Press is publishing the first English translation in three volumes, with the third volume due out in August 2008. I have to say, I felt that the story was just getting into swing when the first volume ends. Vertical knows how to keep you coming back for more. The volume is wonderful though, with colorful cover art and the pages “unflipped,” meaning that they appear just as Tezuka intended them to, rather than left to right as English readers are accustomed to. When you’re reading in translation, the fewer levels of manipulation that take place, the closer the text will be to the original. Even after getting a little jumbled through the first few pages, I appreciated that adherence to Tezuka’s art.

Many of Tezuka’s favorite themes are central to the story and appearance of Dororo. Living through World War II enhanced Tezuka’s respect for all living things, along with his desire to explore concepts like humanity and oppression. The story opens as a Japanese feudal lord named Daigo Kagemitsu makes a deal with a series of devils: he exchanges forty-eight of his unborn son’s body parts for power and dominion over Japan. His son is born with no legs, arms, eyes, or ears; he is simply a torso and a head with sockets. Daigo forces his wife to set the baby adrift in the river, saying, “Now he’s a shell of a human being, his humanity sucked by the devils!” Tezuka poses the question: Who has really lost his humanity, father or son?

After the first chapter, the father drops out of the story for the remainder of the first volume. The baby is found and adopted by a doctor who names him Hyakkimaru and creates prosthetic body parts for him, nurturing the child until he can see and hear using his third eye and extra-sensory perception. Though Lord Daigo disappears for the rest of this story, you know that these two characters, father and son, are tethered to one another. The father figured his child would die, and the child has no idea why he was born missing so many body parts that he could hardly be called human. But the reader can see their fateful meeting in each demon that Hyakkimaru vanquishes.

The whimsical demonology and mythology of Japan also delight Tezuka’s imagination. Various spirits and demons haunt Hyakkimaru from the time he is a small child -- fall-out, perhaps, from his father’s curse. Each time Hyakkimaru defeats a major demon he grows one of his body parts back. My favorite was a slimy demon with only a face. After pouring some poison in its mouth, Hyakkimaru explains, “I’ve vanquished a similar tumor ghoul before. It’s called a face tumor. Once it grew on a girl’s knee. The tumor would ooze and then morph into a face that started talking and eating.” He holds up the melted demon. “Look, all. This is its true form.” One of the men nearby replies, “Looks like tofu.” The other demons that Hyakkimaru encounters are by turns frightening, pathetic, or funny, but they are all vivid characters rendered lovingly by the artist.

Tezuka has a soft spot for the fringes of society. The title character, Dororo, is a feisty young thief who teams up with Hyakkimaru on his quest, ostensibly so that he can steal Hyakkimaru’s sword but with a more emotional agenda as well. Tezuka often presents the downtrodden and oppressed as possessing a dignity born of their struggles; nevertheless, these characters are also prey to the same greed that Lord Daigo succumbed to, and must be vigilant to protect their humanity.

Throughout Dororo, and many of his other works, Tezuka displays a wonderful ability to tell a moral story in a visually and intellectually stimulating way, and without ever losing his sense of humor. This skill helps him add depth to a medium that is often seen as superficial, and it is for this reason that his work has been so enduring. If you haven’t yet read any of Tezuka’s work, I definitely recommend Dororo as an endearing introduction to the father of manga.

Dororo by Osamu Tezuka
Vertical Press
ISBN: 978-193428716-3
309 Pages