CONTENT WARNING for discussion of ableism, gory screenshots; SPOILERS for Dororo.
Dororo is a complicated work to parse from a disability studies perspective. The story is set somewhere in the early- to mid-fifteenth century, was written by “godfather of manga” Osamu Tezuka from 1967-1968, has been told in multiple mediums in the ensuing decades, and was recently adapted into an anime for the second time in 2019. These disparate time periods have created a jumble of disability representation that ranges between accurate, inaccurate, and downright confounding.
The basic premise of the series goes something like this: Lord Daigo makes a deal with demons in return for the prosperity of his land. As their end of the bargain, the demons take most of the body parts of Daigo’s newborn son. The bulk of the show then consists of this son, Hyakkimaru, traveling the country with the titular Dororo. Hyakkimaru has been heavily outfitted with prosthetics that he uses to slay the demons and get his body back, piece by piece.
When looking at the series as a whole, its handling of disability breaks down into three main narrative elements: the anachronistic setting; the ableism baked into the premise (and the story’s clumsy attempts to challenge that premise); and the way it presents its disabled characters. These pieces come together to form an inconsistent story that ultimately isn’t so much about disabled characters as it is about using disability as a narrative shorthand for other ideas.
From Medieval to Mid-Century: Historical realities in and out of fiction
Dororo takes place in a fictional Japan shortly before the Sengoku (or Warring States) Period—so, likely somewhere between 1400 and 1467. This time frame sets the piece firmly before any kind of modern disability rights movements, which sets the stage for depictions of the ways older societies have treated disability.
The first episode relies on this depiction heavily in two ways. The first is the use of mysticism to explain disability. The concept that Hyakkirmaru’s condition is caused by his father Daigo committing a pact with demons adheres to the moral model of disability, which had a lot of prominence in older cultures where medical science had very little ability to explain disabled bodies. Therefore the moral model, undefined at the time, was used to explain disability as a punishment for sin or the result of bargains struck with dark forces.
Showing how disability was treated historically isn’t inherently negative representation, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t parse this information through a more modern lens. For instance, in this case, the idea that a condition would be wrought as punishment is an ableist premise that suggests that being disabled is equivalent to being lesser. As a modern writer, there are ways to highlight that these views are harmful even when they’re accurate to the time period, using framing choices that focus on the disabled character’s experience rather than observing them as outsiders. By doing so, a work can begin to avoid the subconscious dissemination of these harmful stereotypes.
Giving ahistorical mentalities to sympathetic characters can also help. On the subject of the infanticide of disabled infants, a midwife says “I should be used to this kind of thing by now,” as she prepares to drown Hyakkimaru in the river. The very fact that the midwife is contemplating the deed she has been sent to do shows signs of thought patterns that are after her time.
Even in response to the birth of a baby with no skin, eyes, nose, ears, limbs, etc., Daigo, a relatively callous man, says “he wouldn’t survive anyway.” His wife Oku tells him “then let him pass away in my arms.” Though one of the midwives at the house is repulsed and terrified of the baby, a more likely reaction for the period, the main characters have a much more nuanced response: not one of fear or disgust, but rather disregard and practicality. They acknowledge, as most of the people who encounter baby Hyakkimaru do, that he will not live long.
These reactions are almost certainly more reflective of late-1960s Osamu Tezuka’s more sympathetic writing than accuracy to the historical period. Indeed, there was an increase in awareness of disability issues post World War II and precursors to modern disability rights legislation were on the horizon as Dororo was being written.
In some ways the disconnect between the time period and the behavior of the characters is a necessity. If everyone Hyakkimaru encountered had a period-accurate response to meeting him, it would make for a harder viewing experience. But in other ways, this disconnect is jarring and undermines the story’s ability to show what a person with a disability in that era might have actually faced. This portrayal ends up being a bit of a double-edged sword, allowing for more relatability for a modern audience at the cost of an accurate portrait of ableist prejudice.
The second anachronistic feature of Dororo is Jukai’s prosthetics, which rival what is possible in the 21st century. Based on my research, knowledge of prostheses and orthoses was not documented in Japan until they encountered Europeans in 1543. While there may have been prosthetics before then, it’s highly unlikely the marvelous prosthetics of Dororo existed at the time—though interestingly enough, a man named Joseph Hico who was shipwrecked in 1850 and rescued by Americans went on to study prostheses in America before returning to Japan.
These prosthetics quite simply don’t belong in the time period Dororo is set in, but Hyakkimaru’s very existence is dependent on the fact that they are available. While this is historically inaccurate, I wouldn’t say it’s harmful representation; rather, it’s a conscious decision Tezuka made when writing Dororo that leads into some negative representation.
Curses and Choices: Dororo’s struggle against its ableist premise
The entire premise of hunting down demons to get parts of your body back is an inherently ableist idea. The belief that the only reasonable thing a person with disabilities would do is pursue being non-disabled is a harmful stereotype that unfortunately is still prevalent in the 21st century. Compounded with the fact that every time Hyakkimaru gets one of his body parts back he adapts incredibly quickly, this leads to some problematic representation.
There are a few nice moments where Hyakkimaru is exploring his new senses, or when he reunites with Jukai and Hyakkimaru stops him from blowing on his food because he can feel hot and cold now. The 2019 anime also seems more thoughtful to the realities of Hyakkimaru’s situation, as he is nonverbal for much of the series and gets sensory overload as he develops new senses, whereas in the manga he has a fully formed inner monologue throughout. But these are largely small, incidental moments that sometimes run amok themselves.
To Tezuka’s credit, he does frame this quest as a conscious decision by Hyakkimaru. Even as he learns more about the potential consequences of pursuing his body parts, he continues to make the choice to go on for himself. When he reunites with Jukai and they get trapped in the cave, the series explicitly addresses this:
Jukai: You have something other people don’t. A human body may only become a burden to you. And you still want one?
Hyakkimaru: I do.
Hyakkimaru: Because it’s mine.
Jukai: You’re right. Your body is yours. You don’t need a reason to want to get it back.
Later on, in his fight with Tahomaru, he is conflicted about what he is doing. “Human? What is human?” he says. “I’m… a curse upon this land. No, it’s mine! I’m getting it back! What’s so wrong about that?”
Hyakkimaru is shown as an autonomous individual (comments about this being “fate” aside), and, as an individual with disabilities, is making the personal decision to pursue something akin to a cure for himself. Tezuka is taking an ableist premise and manages to make it less ableist by injecting agency. He even expresses some of the idea that remaining disabled is a perfectly acceptable option through Jukai and Dororo’s reassurances.
Granted, these ideas are chock full of dialogue choices that greatly undermine the ability for these themes to come across—while Dororo might say it’s fine for Hyakkimaru to remain disabled in one scene, other dialogue will be full of ableist language. But there’s the sense that, if written today, Tezuka might be able to use the narrative to craft more explicitly positive and considerate disability representation. The ideas and the care is there, but the age of the piece is working too hard against itself.
The Good, the Bad, and the Tropey: Disability representation through character writing
The next step in our journey is the broader disability community presented in the show. For this topic, there are some more clear-cut pieces of positive and negative representation.
On the positive side, Dororo has a lot of characters that have disabilities, even including shots with multiple people with disabilities in the same frame. That might sound a bit sarcastic, but it really is a big deal.
It’s rare to find representation that isn’t tokenism, but rather incidental characters that exist throughout the world. It’s important for people with disabilities to see themselves represented as a diverse and widespread community. Even when pieces of media show multiple people with disabilities, it is usually in the context of institutions. The relatively nonchalant way that Dororo presents these characters has little to no precedence in the mainstream and should be commended.
The catch, unfortunately, is that excluding the blind priest, Hyakkimaru, and (briefly) Tahomaru, all of the other characters, as far as I noticed, were men who had gone through an amputation of limbs. Given the time period and the historical context, it makes sense to some degree that certain disabilities would be more prevalent. But that doesn’t prevent this from cheapening the strength of the community’s portrayal. Instead of embracing disability as a diverse experience, Tezuka shows it as something uniform: a visual shorthand for the atrocities of war.
More troublingly, the Moriko Song arc introduces a group of orphans living with a woman who engages in survival sex work in order to take care of them. After developing these characters’ hopes for starting a new life, they are brutally murdered in front of the audience’s eyes. The whole arc is seemingly formulated to be as appalling as possible, using the disability of some of the children to increase the pathos.
Children losing limbs due to war is horrendous, but using their disability to further emphasize the tragedy is a negative trope that promotes the Tragedy Model of disability. Their experiences are only objects shown to make the perceived non-disabled viewer feel sad.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into detail about all of the examples of negative representation, but here are a few examples and some supplemental reading for those interested:
- The blind priest falls under the superpowered disability trope.
- Shiranui feeds his arm to sharks and becomes evil, which is a villain trope.
- Tahomaru gets one of his eyes cut, and the scar and disability are used as physical indication of mental change towards villainy as well.
While most of the examples of singular character representation are negative, I do think Jukai’s assistant Kaname is a notable exception. When Kaname discovers Jukai’s violent past and leaves without his prosthetic, it feels empowering.
For some people, not using a certain device is a life-or-death decision, but for Kaname to be able to reject something Jukai made him even though it improves his quality of life, because accepting help from Jukai violates his morals, is just amazing. It shows strength, and it shows autonomy. It’s some damn good representation.
So if one-off character Kaname is good representation, where does our main character Hyakkimaru land? To start off, he is a blatant example of the superpowered disability trope. Pretty much all of his disabilities are completely negated: his modern-quality prosthetics negate the effects of missing limbs; his “spirit sight” negates his blindness; and the demonic superpowers the narrator tells us about negates just about everything else.
The show uses disability visualization to show us what he sees from a first-person perspective, and his sight not only functions, but is also enhanced by his ability to see things other people can’t. Even the priest uses a cane to get around, but Hyakkimaru needs no assistive devices at all.
His struggles to communicate are about the only thing that persists for much of the show. Sometimes his disability will become important for moments of drama, such as when he can’t get Dororo’s arm out from underneath a boulder because of his prosthetics, but otherwise his disabilities rarely feel like lived experiences.
The Full (Flawed) Picture: Disability as a narrative device
At the end of the day, Dororo’s main problem is that the narrative gets too muddy thanks to the convoluted demon-related premise. The idea of Hyakkimaru becoming less human emotionally the less disabled he becomes physically is a potentially interesting one, but it’s mostly just changing one trope for another and leads to dehumanizing comparisons of Hyakkimaru to a beast in a cave.
The closer to the end of the show we get, the more people start behaving as though Hyakkimaru is a demon himself. There would be more to comment on in a disability sense, if not for the fact that this behavior is used exclusively towards Hyakkimaru rather than the disabled populace in general. His othering feels much more tied to religious symbolism than disability, but its implications still leave a bad taste.
Given the complexity and lack of clarity of the disability-related themes, I am inclined to say that Dororo isn’t really a story about disability, but rather a story that uses disability as a mechanism to talk about other things—themes like what it means to be human, the horrors of war, and the rights of the individual versus the greater communal benefit. It’s a thoroughly mixed bag with a lot of room for interpretation, and your mileage will probably vary.
I enjoyed the show, overly dark and brutal as it was. Unfortunately, the premise and mysticism made Hyakkimaru’s disability so completely unrelatable that I didn’t identify with the show on the personal level I had hoped for.