With the recent broadcast of a new Dororo series, a retrospective of the original anime would be pertinent – this series, which ran in 1969, was the first entry in what would become known as World Masterpiece Theater, an anthology series focused on adaptations of works of literature. By this point in anime history, television had become a new medium for animated work, and Osamu Tezuka founded Mushi Production in the early years of the 1960s (following the expiration of his Toei contract in 1961) – Tezuka already established himself in anime with adaptations of his works, including the 1963 Astro Boy (the first televised anime with a regular weekly schedule), and his Dororo manga came out during a time when supernatural manga such as GeGeGe no Kitaro achieved success. The work centers on Hyakkimaru, the son of a corrupt, evil lord named Daigo Kagemitsu, who promises to submit various parts of his son to 48 demons in exchange for control of Japan; the opening scene depicts Daigo consorting with the demons, setting up a contract with them where he would become the ruler of the entire country at the expense of his own offspring. This scene demonstrates the depths Daigo will go to achieve his selfish ambitions – he considers his son disposable, something to be discarded and exchanged for political gain. When his wife gives birth the following day, the demons already claimed their reward; marked from birth, Hyakkimaru is sent adrift on a nearby river, the unfortunate son of a man who regards his own motivations more highly than his own child. The wife bears this burden along with her son; she laments having to surrender Hyakkimaru to the elements, as her husband capitulated with demons without consideration of her emotional well-being. Daigo’s cross-shaped scar acts as a signature to a contract – he must carry this physical reminder of his agreement with him at all times, much like how Hyakkimaru must carry his disfigurements (which he received at birth), but he does not show any compassion or mercy in his actions. The ambitious lord who will sacrifice anything for his goals naturally is callous and cruel – the show presents him as someone shrouded in darkness and surrounded by pain and suffering, inconsiderate to the vagaries of conflict and oppression that overtook the country.
His son, Hyakkimaru, inherits this corrupt world, and works hard within the confines of a harsh reality to simply survive; he did not have any say in the matter, and thus must show himself to be strong and willing to get his hands dirty in a country torn apart by war and internecine strife. He makes no excuses for his behavior – he simply achieves what he can to survive, even if he comes across as indifferent. The world itself is seemingly indifferent to the plights of civilians who suffer in the midst of this chaos; one scene shows an adherent to Buddhism die of starvation while praying for protection from Buddha, demonstrating the human cost of conflict. Dororo, the titular protagonist, steals food to survive; he makes justifications for himself where he can, but he recognizes the moral dilemma of theft in a world where warriors and bandits regularly exhibit more atrocious behavior. His justifications for theft exist because Dororo realizes compassion and empathy are difficult to come by – he grew up in an environment ravaged by conflict, where warriors kill each other for their own personal gain, and one must establish a personal moral boundary to avoid continuing that dilemma. He attempts to feed the adherent by stealing some bread, but he is too late – this shows him to be a compassionate person at heart, willing to place himself in danger to help others in need. Such a display of gentleness in a world of strife shows he has not compromised his ideals, even if he externally tries to present himself as someone as hard-edged as the various samurai whom Hyakkimaru killed in a previous scene.
The rather violent scene of the battle between Hyakkimaru and the samurai, as well as the scene of the bandit leader being boiled alive by a malevolent spirit emerging from the water, show how ubiquitous the corruption became in the Japan of the show – the desire for survival in a wartorn environment made some men desperate in their actions, and they would attack each other out of both fear and anger. The first of these scenes, the Hyakkimaru battle, takes place on a battlefield; we can tell a battle took place because of the presence of discarded armor and weapons within the scene, as well as the samurai who attack Hyakkimaru. The Warring States Era had moments where opportunistic samurai attempt to establish names for themselves by decapitating high-ranking warriors and retrieve their heads, or selecting heads that had already been removed; this became commonplace enough that daimyo enacted head-viewing ceremonies in an effort to confirm that those who brought the heads actually killed the samurai whose head is being displayed. These samurai shown here in Dororo‘s first episode may not have that exact ambition in mind, but they would likely achieve success and fame if they killed Hyakkimaru; that they gang up on him implies that Hyakkimaru had already established himself as a fierce warrior worthy of a hero’s defeat, and the samurai surrounding him each want the honor of killing him. The samurai’s quick and painful deaths only serve to demonstrate, however, that Hyakkimaru is difficult to defeat; he adapted himself into a living weapon, with prosthetic limbs disguising blades attached to his arms that would slice a man in half without a moment’s hesitation. The battle is short, and fairly brutal – the deaths of the samurai occur within a few split-second shots, as they are decapitated and otherwise torn asunder with Hyakkimaru’s wrath.
The bandit scene, where the leader orders his men to kill Dororo, represents another unfortunate example of desperation in a corrupt world; the bandits do not hesitate in punishing Dororo for stealing their food, even though Dororo earlier showed pity by attempting to give the Buddhist monk some bread. These bandits look after themselves first and foremost – the suffering of others does not bother them, and they would rather kill another human being than provide for that person’s well-being. Hyakkimaru ultimately intervenes, if at least to warn the bandits of a deadly spirit in the vicinity; this spirit attacks the bandit leader, boiling him alive and removing his skin and organs. Dororo would have become the next victim, had Hyakkimaru not appeared; the spirit shows no discrimination in who it attacks, but Hyakkimaru does, and he protects Dororo by placing himself in danger to topple the bridge on the spirit. Despite his protests that death and spirits follow him, Hyakkimaru works tirelessly to protect the downtrodden; unlike the bandits, who behave out of selfishness, he does save others from peril. This is likely due to reflections on his own position – his own father abandoned him to the elements, and he had to find a way to protect himself when his father sacrificed him to demons. Although this episodes does not reveal how he came about with his swords, that he has the blades illustrates how he would adapt to become a powerful warrior and defender of the people – he made himself into a proper human when his own father described him as a bakemono (a term typically used in the context of youkai).