Reviews of Dorohedoro (2020) and related work

Dorohedoro (2020Moving picture, 5.0 hours)

Seen in 2022.

A race of sorcerers inhabit a realm of beauty. They practice their powers on humans in another world, called the Hole: A city of filth, more deeply corrupted by the dust of black magic.

Violence pervades the worlds. In the Hole, a knife-wielding muscle man and his diner-chef buddy are killing sorcerers, hoping to find the same one who left the man cursed with a reptile head like a caiman’s.

A seinen action comedy, and a strongly representative one at that.

The name Dorohedoro means roughly “mud-sludge”. This is not a term used in the setting itself, nor is mud a subject. The title is there to suggest a theme: Transferably dirty, organic, chaotic, and barely able to hold shape. From the look of the TV series, I guess the original comic was similarly built from a theme, as opposed to worldbuilding, plot, characters or even visuals. Mappa, the animation studio that produced this adaptation of the comic, reinforced that choice with whimsical, even psychedelic imagery in the opening and ending credits sequences, including a Doom parody which, like Kujibiki Unbalance (2004), runs on a theme of mushrooms.

I guess the basic themes came first, the grungy environments and striking character designs came second, and everything else gradually fell into place later. This would be why the main character can’t remember who he is: A classic device in an improvised, mystery-box plot. As a result, Dorohedoro has a lot of the dynamics of a board-driven US cartoon, but it doesn’t have all of them. The comic, which started in 2000, ran for 18 years, thus finishing before the adaptation began. Mappa had all the parameters in hand and used them to structure an overarching narrative for the animation. This excellent choice provides some of the best of both worlds in terms of driving the animation.

Like Blame (1997), Dorohedoro is always focused on its themes and its visuals, but always ready to work on other levels too. The ductwork on the buildings is as surreal and inexplicable as Brazil (1985). A lot of characters wear masks for no real reason, as in Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba (2019). The ducts and the masks are really there for visual interest, and although nobody explains what function that stuff is supposed to serve in the setting, there is a general handwaving explanation for the warped architecture as a consequence of magical pollution, and there is conventional worldbuilding elsewhere. The characters each get some backstory and one of those stories explains how, ten years earlier, the Hole lost its protection and became a frequent victim of magical exercises. This has affected the place deeply, but other characters can still change the setting again, and actually do. It is a loose but serialized narrative, not an episodic one.

The main theme of Dorohedoro is a comic “Toxic Discourse” (1998). The magic of the sorcerers is not figurative “smoke and mirrors” but literally smoke: A fine black dust that pours out of their fingers, through special vessels in their bodies, from some internal organ of the race. The people who protected the Hole from sorcerers wore hazmat suits, implying that physically stopping the smoke stops the magic. Despite the organ and the heritability of being a sorcerer, it is implied that the race ultimately derives its abilities from a transactional relationship with devils, so that sorcerers as a group are morally polluted. Indeed, the model of sorcery is pop-Christian. Named devils include Moloch from Leviticus (ca. 500–400 BCE) (he appears in the 2020 spin-off OVA), Mastema from Jubilees (ca. 160–150 BCE), and in episode 12, Satan from Job (ca. 550–200 BCE), the big guy in modern Christianity. There are plenty of crosses, including upright Latin ones and the Cross of Saint Peter (or inverted Latin cross) used to symbolize Satanism, but there are also symmetric Greek crosses, though they are called jūjiro and not jūjika, over the eyes of Caiman, the amnesiac protagonist. Christianity’s nicer gods are absent. I assume that, as in Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), there is no Christian intent; the Western religious emblems just link pollution to moral failure and provide a nice heavy-metal backdrop.

Caiman gets a job at the local hospital. He calls it a part-time job, a baito, and doesn’t take it seriously. Later, he gets another temporary job baking pies, and he’s not serious about that either, but then again, he’s not very serious even about the quest to discover his own identity. Rather than a superhero, he’s a freeter, another Japanese word derived, like baito, from the German Arbeit. Caiman and his buddy are part of the working class. The magical experiments of the sorcerers in the Hole represent the oppression of the working class, and especially so-called environmental oppression: The people in the Hole cannot afford to escape the magical waste of their tormentors, or the medical problems that are a more direct result of the experiments and correspond symbolically to work-related injuries. By symbolic extension, the relationship between the Hole and the more glamorous world of the sorcerers is an economic relationship, a model of class struggle. This further dimension of the narrative reaches a bizarre, ecocritically interesting level in the food.

Despite gross ultraviolence worthy of Ichi the Killer (2001), Dorohedoro is, at times, an iyashi-kei cooking show. Caiman is constantly eating ōba gyōza (steamed dumplings with shiso) with a healthy appetite. Conspicuously, nobody ever expresses concern for the possibility that the black dust in the Hole might be bio-accumulating or otherwise polluting the population through its food, yet it could hardly be otherwise. It is the same in the sorcerers’ world, where the characters gladly tuck into a buffet served in a room that is thick with flies from all the rotting corpses hanging from the ceiling. When one sorcerer describes how to make an inverted voodoo doll, it’s basically a recipe for a roast, and the listeners all think it sounds delicious. Nowhere, in either world, is the food ever bad, though in one case its attractiveness is enhanced by magic. Compare “Pocketful of Dharma” (1999) where street food in a dirty SF slum is attractive to a hungry stree urchin, but not pornographic.

Food porn is common in highly commercial Japanese animation, though absent from Blame. Its presence in Dorohedoro is a paradox. The extreme hazard of physical and moral pollution, which is already linked to an economic, environmental oppression, must have some relationship with it. I think this relationship is that of the opening scene in “The Price” (1989). It is implied, but never stated, that the all-pervading risks and filth of the setting just make the food better by association: Symbolically more thrilling, more organic, because disease, death and Hell are just around the corner. There is, of course, a simpler explanatory model available: The food is good for the same reason that Caiman and his partner Nikaido are extremely good at fighting, and that reason is a narcissistic fantasy. The magical doors that transport the characters between worlds are straight out of Doraemon (1969).

Besides the food porn, this series also offers fun characters, good comic relief and lots of gruesome seinen action, with refreshingly little T&A for the genre. The biggest flaw of the production is that much of the character animation is done with cel-shaded 3D models, not drawings. Competent direction works around that wherever possible, but the perfunctory rigging and shading degrades some of the character designs, especially Nikaido, who is always looking blocky. Caiman’s voice actor, Takagi Wataru, brings a peculiar sensibility to his role that reminds me of Will Arnett on BoJack Horseman (2014); he handles a lot of the necessary tonal control work. Nikaido’s relationship with Caiman is part of that tonal control, and a perfect mirror of the relationship between their two counterparts, Shin and Noi. In both cases, it’s love, but nobody is aware of it and much less able to articulate it. I suppose that’s part of the same moratorium-/freeter-generation thing as the part-time jobs, the free gyōza and the ability to find joy in the world despite the humble circumstances and the constant build-up of pollution.

moving picture Japanese production animation fiction series

“Dorohedoro: Ma no omake” (2020Moving picture, 26 minutes)

Seen in 2022.

Minor side stories.

The animation is extra cheap, but there is a small detail in this OVA addendum that I find interesting. One scene shows Shin in a gym, working out. That is the only indication up to this point, aside from Noi’s early training in armour, that any of the heavily muscled characters of the franchise got that way through exercise. I don’t think the original artist worried about it, but simply drew big men to his heart’s content, often in military-style gear and masks or theriomorphic magical mutations, because that’s what he wanted to do as an artist.

moving picture Japanese production animation fiction