I wanted to search for a less challenging film to review the last two I covered. Something that would actually have flaws I could get my teeth into. Something that wouldn’t carry with it the weight of years of academic praise and deconstructions. I believe I found that film. The live action adaptation of the Osamu Tezuka Manga, that wasn’t called Astro Boy or Black Jack, Dororo. Here’s a story with an incredibly silly/convoluted premise that has so much promise for great visuals and something of a unique style. Did I get all of those things with this film? Click the link to find out.
Here’s that premise I was talking of. It’s important that I explain the film’s back story because it causes what is possibly the films largest stumbling block. The story of Dororo (who, by the way, isn’t the lead character) starts in the future-past year of 3048. it’s one of those futures where everything looks like feudal Japan, hence my future-past descriptor. A war has been waging for some time and army leader Daigo’s (Kiichi Nakai) forces are losing. He takes shelter, injured and desperate, in a small temple holding within it the statues of 48 demons. Daigo makes a deal with these demon statue’s recently sliced in half rat representative to allow them each to claim a piece of his unborn child’s body so that they might walk the land causing all sorts of mischief in exchange for his increased power to wage his war. Sometime later a shamen discovers a basket floating down a river containing a baby, which he later names Hyakkimaru (Satoshi Tsumabuki) that is severely lacking in body parts. The baby has just a near featureless head on a torso and is somehow alive despite not having his internal organs. I’m guessing that because those organs exist somewhere with the demons then the baby lives because magic. The shamen is skilled in the art of magical healing, specialising in limb replacement. Handy that. He gives the baby a body of it’s own, using the body parts of children killed in wars. He also, somewhat irresponsibly for a parent figure, grafts swords onto the child’s arms where his hands should be. Luckily for the child’s face the shamen uses his magic to graft arms to act as sheaths. Years later the shamen has died and the now adult Hyakkimaru has learned that if he defeats the demons possessing his body parts he will claim them back. And so begins his journey.
I actually skipped a few elements there, and the set up that leads into this flashback sequence. One of a number of flashbacks by the way. The problem here is that we get a neat little opening sequence where Daigo makes his deal, we see the adult Hyakkimaru dispatch of a demon and then we’re made to sit through about 25 minutes of exposition and padding. The whole origin of Hyakkimaru would have been better handled in occasional dialogue. Make his past a mystery to give the viewers something to wonder about and something for Hyakkimaru’s new travelling companion Dororo (Ko Shibasaki) to discover along the way. That way your audience isn’t being asked to take in a very silly and hard to swallow premise before the film has gotten under-way. Especially not in such a pacing destroying manner. The film feels as though it has ground to halt because of that. Around an hour in things really pick up and the second half moves along at a much more fluid pace than the first, but by then many viewers will have likely lost interest.
The problem lies in the adaptation. Manga comics and anime series have the benefit of being able to tell a story over the course of many weeks. They can spend an issue/episode or two explaining back-story because those sequences will be presented in bite sized chunks. The back-story becomes that individual issues full story. In a film you need to give your audience the information they need early on or save it to serve as a mystery for later revelations. Either way you don’t spend half the film telling the audience the information needed for the characters journey to actually begin. It’s an issue I find with Japanese storytelling often these days. Lots of dragged out and inefficient story telling in place of just getting on with it. The old phrase “brevity is the soul of wit” applies again.
As mentioned, once that first hour is out of the way the film becomes quite a fun little adventure film as we move towards the films real dramatic crux. Right from the start we know that the film needs to move towards Hyakkimaru finding out who his real father is, why he condemned him to this life and how he will reconcile these conflicts. Those scenes are the film’s strongest elements and, to be fair, the last 30 minutes is actually pretty damn good because of this. Although even then there’s a few extended scenes of melodrama to work through. I swear no-one in Japan has ever watched a Yasujiro Ozu film.
The film has a very cheap looking feel to it which is kind of odd when placed against the New Zealand locations used for the shooting and the fairly good costume design. The sets are generally small and basic whilst the special effects rely too much on, what appears to be, 1996 CGI. When there are practical effects you get some very strange sights such as the not entirely convincing sight of a 8ft tall baby which looks very sub-Power Rangers in costume build quality. The film even appears to be shot on a basic digital video format giving everything a very flat look with a poor lighting and colour range. Considering this was made in 2007 when digital cameras such as the Genesis and CineAlta were in use the lower end quality of the cameras used for this film is an odd choice. If it was in fact shot on film then who knows what went wrong. It basically looks like late 90s made for TV movies.
It feels a little harsh to criticise the film for looking so cheap when a lot of Japanese cinema is made on a tight budget, but, when about 40 minutes of the film is wasted on inefficiency you wonder if maybe they could have saved some pennies and put it into other areas where the film needed help. Dororo runs just shy of 2 hours and 20 minutes long so it wasn’t as if it couldn’t have had a few edits here and there. Maybe then some money could have been spent improving the giant baby suit; such as buying a blow torch. In the end Dororo is a poorly adapted and produced film that fails to really get going until nearly an hour has passed, and even then it doesn’t get actually good until the last half hour. It’s not like I was expecting the most stunning action scenes ever coupled with a deep story but there was potential for both of those things. Instead the action looks like an actor swinging digital arm swords at nothing while the story fails to cash in on the Pinocchio parallels it shared with Tezkua’s most well known work, Astro Boy.