Head, shoulders, knees and toes

I’m really excited about the upcoming arrival of Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack from Vertical, but I shouldn’t let that excitement lead me to neglect Dororo, another Tezuka title currently in release. I know it’s not Tezuka’s masterwork; it’s not even close. But there are a lot of things I really love about it that became even clearer as I read the second volume.

First (though not foremost) is Tezuka’s ability to render graphic violence in a way that’s exactly to my taste. When something horrible happens, which is fairly often, it’s undeniably horrible, but it isn’t exploitatively so. It’s like Tezuka’s tone dispenser is perfectly calibrated. (By “tone” I mean mood, not weird hexagonal eyeball screens.) Adventurous moments, ones featuring protagonist Hyakkimaru dishing out pointy, sharp-edged justice, are allowed to look cool. A group of hapless villagers being murdered is rendered with the appropriate tonal effects in mind – shock, disgust and sadness.

But that’s just a smaller reflection of the thing I really love about Tezuka – his ability to shift his highly stylized approach in illustration to suit a wide range of narrative beats but to still keep the visual feel of the book coherent. There’s the aforementioned violence and adventure, but there’s also low comedy, unspeakable cruelty, tense secrets, immense sadness, lush landscapes, and even moments of peace. There’s great visual variety, but it all fits together.

It’s not just in the visuals that seemingly incompatible elements can cohere. In Dororo, Tezuka hops back and forth between lively quest adventure and dysfunction and sorrow. Loss pervades the whole thing, and it isn’t trivialized. But it’s side by side with moments that are undeniably fun and exciting. And they fit.

I’m a little sad that there’s only one more volume. There’s a twist in the second volume that begs to be rendered at leisure, even in addition to the book’s basic premise. For those who have forgotten, Hyakkimaru is hunting the demons who claimed various parts of his body at birth. A supporting character suggests that limb recovery is all well and good, but it doesn’t really constitute a life’s purpose so much as a project. I was just amazed when I read that sequence, because it seems really audacious. A lot of shônen protagonists have essentially selfish motives, and to see one called on that in the midst of a perfectly sound shônen character arc was perfectly Tezuka to me.

(Comments based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)

3 Responses to Head, shoulders, knees and toes

  1. jun says:

    Thanks for this review! I totally agree with what you say about his art style. It certainly took some getting used to for me (Dororo is the first Tezuka series I’ve read) but it turns out to be very versatile. As some who absolutely loves bittersweet and sad moments, I thought this volume was especially good—the whole thing with the demon in the waterfall was great.

    I am very, very excited for Black Jack. I hope my local comic shop manages to get the hardcover editions for me.

  2. Huff says:

    I think that this has been the most fulfilling Tezuka manga I’ve read since early/middle Phoenix. Most certainly a minor work when compared to something like Kirihito his other masterworks, but the lack of preachyness is refreshing. It’s nice to see him get down and dirty on a story, not to mention far more entertaining than the ambitious but flawed MW.
    That said, if my memory serves me Black Jack completely blows it out of the water.

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