Big-budget period dramas, often set a millennium or more ago and based on a famous legend or historical incident, are the coin of the Asian coproduction realm.
Major regional players put money in these films because they represent sure bets; everybody in the target territories knows the characters and story. But once the serious money comes in, or national pride is as stake, the fun usually goes out and grandiosity sets in, even if the source material is the stuff of kiddy cartoons.
“Dororo,” acclaimed indie filmmaker Akihito Shiota’s first venture into the period-fantasy genre, may have serious money behind it, from the TBS network among others, but it is not another solemn-faced epic. It is deep enough in some of its themes, including the meaning of what it is to be human in an age of human engineering, but it also deserves adjectives that used to be rolled out for old Errol Flynn movies: dashing, swashbuckling, rollicking.
Is it also cool, too, in the post-post modern sense? Thankfully, not at all. Instead, it is cool in the 10-year-old fan sense, which may not seem strange since it is based on a classic comic by Osama Tezuka, but given all the comic book adaptations that strain to be for adults — and fall into wretched excess — it is a refreshing change of genre pace.
The setting is a fantasy land that culturally resembles old Japan but is visually the wilder parts of New Zealand. This is an inspired choice, since it frees Shiota and his collaborators from the dead hand of “period authenticity” that would require them to dress up the South Island as the Japan Alps — and probably fail miserably.
The hero, Hyakkimaru (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a wandering “demon hunter” whose extra body parts — 48 to be exact — were grafted onto his head and trunk by a herb doctor (Yoshio Harada) who discovered him as an infant, in a process that echoes “Frankenstein” and “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” His warlord father (Kiichi Nakai) gave the originals to 48 demons in exchange for power. When Hyakkimaru kills a demon, he wins back a body part.
He is spotted in one of these battles, with a giant spider demon, by Dororo (Kou Shibasaki), a scrappy female thief who is fascinated by not only Hyakkimaru’s prowess with the sword blade poking out of his arm but the new leg he grows after dicing his opponent. Is he a man — or a monster? After hearing his story from an old minstrel, she decides to join him on his travels and find out for herself.
Dororo dresses, talks and swaggers like a guy, but she obviously has more than a matey interest in this strange, fearsome but good-looking bionic warrior. It is an interest that she hides with a bluster that makes the grim-visaged Hyakkimaru smile. What really bonds them, however, are their various battles with demons. Dororo proves herself a fearless ally — if one inclined to get into trouble at awkward moments. But Hyakkimaru decides he must go it alone when he finally encounters his most relentless enemy, his own father. Meanwhile, Dororo realizes that her pal is the son of the man who killed her father and left her an orphan. Is this end of a beautiful friendship?
These complications, including Hyakkimaru’s vexed relationship with his long-lost brother (Eita) and mother (Mieko Harada), could have easily plunged “Dororo”‘ into the melodramatic muck (though the title is a dialect word meaning “little monster,” not a play on “doro doro” [muddy]). Shiota, however, keeps the focus on core emotions, in an austere-but-powerful manner more reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa in one of his Shakespearean films than the usual Asian period epic.
The action choreography, by Hong Kong master Siu-Tung Ching, is beautifully acrobatic, and the CG marvels are made with wit and panache, but it is the film’s smaller, human moments that are most charged and alive.
Its livest wire, though, is Kou Shibasaki, who delivers a gutsy, sassy, all-out performance as the thief. Who would have thought that Toshiro Mifune’s true heir in the life-force-hero line would be a former idol and star of drippy jun’ai (“pure love”) dramas? But funny things happen in this world, including a popcorn movie kids will love and Dad will respect — though he may have a sneaking desire to see Ms. Shibasaki with the mud off her face.