Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Film Review - 'Dororo'





This live-action adaptation of a 1960's Japanese manga series may present a world that has the look and feel of feudal Japan - but, oddly enough, it is actually something very different. A single line reference (which might be easily missed, if you're not paying attention) makes it clear that this is actually the distant future. So, despite appearances, what we are actually watching is a story set in a world where modern civilisation has, apparently, collapsed entirely - one that is slowly being rebuilt, as people recover from an unknown cataclysm.

This far future setting is actually barely relevant to the story being told, though. In fact, the setting of the original manga actually was feudal Japan - meaning that the current setting was a change made just for the film. Why, though? Well, perhaps to make the more outlandish elements of the film a little easier to accept? Or, to break the story away from the actual history of Japan? Honestly, it feels like an odd change to make - given how little relevance it seems to have. Of course, it's also really little more than an interesting bit of trivia, in the end - one that wont actually impact your ability to enjoy the film, in any meaningful way. So, it probably isn't worth getting hung up on this point (despite the fact that I obviously have).

Anyway, on to the film, itself. A wounded lord, Kagamitsu Daigo, stumbles into a temple after surviving a battles in which most of his own forces were slaughtered. In this temple, he finds 48 statues said to hold the souls of 48 trapped demons. We aren't given any back story on how and why these demons came to be trapped in this temple, of course - just as we aren't given any real context for the future setting. Both are just elements of the plot that we need to accept.

Ignoring the dire warnings of an elderly priest, Daigo makes a deal with this trapped creatures - demanding the power to destroy his enemies, and to unite the world under his own rule. The demons are willing to make this deal, of course - but, they want much more than just their own freedom as payment. In exchange, the creatures also demand the body of Daigo's unborn son - with each demon demanding the right to claim a piece of the child as their own. Daigo accepts this offer - and, when the child is born, his parents are horrified to discover that he is missing all of his limbs and organs. Somehow, though, the child is also still very much alive. How? Well, magic, I suppose. Either some magic of the demon's - or, some benevolent force working on the child's behalf. It's never really explained.

Daigo refuses to raise a deformed son, though - so, the boy is quickly abandoned. He is eventually found by a kindly man who just so happens to be a sorcerer, though - and, using what appears to be a combination of magic and technology, this man is able to make artificial limbs and organs to replace those that there stolen. He then raises the child as his own.

Oh, also, the boy develops psychic abilities, at some point, too - which allow him to be 'see' and 'hear', and to communicate with people around him. How? Well, magic, I suppose.

Honestly, this is going to be the main sticking point, for many viewers. Dororo is a strange film, based on a strange premise - and, if you just can't bring yourself to accept the bizarre fate of this poor child, then you probably aren't going to get very much out of the film. If you can, though, then you might find yourself genuinely surprised by how entertaining Dororo actually is.

Buried beneath this layer of absurdity, we have what is, essentially, a fairly straight-forward action/adventure film. As it happens, with the death of each of these demons, the body part that was stolen from the child will be magically restored - and so, twenty years after being abandoned, the young man sets out on a quest to do just that. Armed with a magic sword given to his by his adopted father, the young man leaves his adopted home - determined to hunt down the demons freed by his biological father, and reclaims what was stolen from him.

On his quest to slay the demons, though, the young man also encounters a young thief who has her own reasons for wanting to get her hands on his sword. The young woman (who insists that she is actually a man, despite putting absolutely no effort into any sort of disguise) refuses to give her own name - instead, stealing one of the names given to our mysterious young hero, and calling herself 'Dororo'. Even learning that the name basically means 'little monster', and was given to the young man as an insult, isn't enough to dissuade her - and so, she becomes 'Dororo' for the rest of the film. The young man, meanwhile, seems content with the name 'Hyakkimaru' - which is also the name engraved on the blade of his sword.

Dororo is quite honest about the fact that she is only interested in getting her hands on the sword - but, she also feels some obvious sympathy for Hyakkimaru. So, when the young man tells her that she is free to take it once he is done with it, it seems that this is enough to convince her to abandon any plans to steal the sword and, instead, enter into a genuine partnership.

But, of course, there are inevitably going to be further complications for the pair. As we soon learn, her reason for wanting the sword is to get revenge on the one responsible for the death of her own parents - who, of course, just so happens to be Kagamitsu Daigo.

Given the basic premise of this film, it would probably be fair to go in expecting some impressive action sequences, featuring some creative creature design. This is certainly something that the film attempts to offer, at least - though, the results do tend to be a bit mixed. An action-sequence featuring a impressive CGI spider-demon, which opens the film, is very entertaining - with the great CGI work blending very well with some well-staged choreography. But, some of those that come later are not quite as successful. In some cases, this might be the result of slightly shakier CGI work - while, in others, it could be the fault of somewhat crude puppet-work. In other cases, it could come done to some truly bizarre creature design, which just don't seem to translate very well into live action. Whatever the reason, there are many moments, during the course of the film, where it seems as though the film's budget just didn't allow for the film's creative action sequences to be properly brought to life - and, where it seems as though the film-makers might have bit off a bit more than they could chew.

This is disappointing, sure - but, on the other hand, Dororo is also a film that is well-served by some great performances from its cast. Satoshi Tsumabuki, as Hyakkimaru, and Kou Shibasaki, as Dororo, each do a fantastic job of selling some of the more blatantly unusual aspects of the film's plot - and, the film is able to make good use of their performances, as it manages to draw moments of genuine tension and drama out of the whole idea. Kagamitsu Daigo may have some across as a fairly one-dimensional villain, for the film's opening moments and its final act - but, Kiichi Nikai still managed to do an impressive job of making into a genuinely intimidating figure. On top of that, the simple fact that Dororo was filmed in New Zealand (a country well known for its ability to offer up some truly fantastic locations for filming) proves to be another of the film's strengths.

In the end, Dororo was a film that I enjoyed much more than I thought I would. Personally, I had no real issue with just accepting the film's unusual premise - but, at the same time, I can understand that the same might not be true for everyone. I suppose a simple test would be to take a moment to consider your own response to the film's premise, as I've outlined it above. If the film's premise has you snickering, rolling your eyes, and making comments about 'Japanese weirdness', then it might not be the film for you. If, on the other hand, you found yourself genuinely intrigued about how any of this could actually work, then you might find Dororo to be a genuinely entertaining, if somewhat flawed, film that is well worth your time.

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