One of the Weirdest, Goriest, and Best Anime Series of the Year Is out on Netflix
'Dorohedoro' is a wildly expansive, weird, and frightening series about a big crocodile man who loves gyoza.
From the opening moments in which a large crocodile man shoves the head of a wizard into his jaws, it’s hard not to have fun with Dorohedoro, one of the best anime series of the year. Created by director Yuuichirou Hayashi (Attack on Titan, Kakegurui) and MAPPA Studios (known for Yuri!! on Ice and, rather confusingly, Dororo), the anime series is based on the beloved manga from Q Hayashida, who completed her 23-volume run in 2018.
Dorohedoro takes place between two worlds -- in a city so miserable it’s only referred to as “the Hole” and a dimension of Sorcerers that freely use the citizens of the Hole as guinea pigs for horrible experiments in black magic. Like the manga, the show has one hell of an opening hook: A giant, gyoza-obsessed man named Caiman (voiced by Wataru Takagi, best known as Okuyasu of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure), working as an orderly in a dystopian world of magic, is cursed with a lizard head by an unknown sorcerer, losing his memories in the process. On top of that, there’s an angry-looking man living inside the back of his throat. To determine who did this to him, Caiman bites on sorcerers’ heads to talk to that man, who says if they “are not the one.” And so in their off-hours, he and his best friend Nikaido, an expert martial artist and gyoza chef, hunt and kill the sorcerers in the Hole, hoping that eventually they’ll nab the right one.
As the series begins, En, a leading sorcerer and mafioso, hears word of a lizard-man slaughtering his people, and sends his hitmen, the apathetic Shin and his partner, the bubbly (and extremely muscular) Noi, into the Hole to take care of Caiman, kicking off a messy conflict between the two worlds. Though the initial premise would suggest otherwise, the moral world of Dorohedoro is far from black and white, the society of the sorcerers appearing as one with its own internal conflicts and machines of oppression.
Despite its seemingly grim setup, Dorohedoro defies typical revenge narrative darkness through sheer charisma, homing in on the relationships between its bizarre, larger-than-life characters. It’s wild and a bit messy, but that’s part of the fun. It’s a show about a big crocodile man who loves gyoza, after all, abundant with good humor and charm as well as legitimate excitement as it gains momentum and begins to solve the mysteries of its world. Cramming about seven volumes of the manga into 12 episodes, the show moves at a brisk pace, bouncing back and forth between its ensemble cast of weirdos.
In telling this story the show is a smorgasbord of genre, crossing action adventure with slice-of-life, body horror, even sports (including the time-honored anime baseball episode). The numerous detours can make it feel messy, but that hyperactivity is part of the appeal. It’s just one of many ways that Dorohedoro shows how the horrific has simply become routine. Caiman and Nikaido are quite comfortable killing sorcerers, often in gruesome fashion. More often than not, their brutal actions are justified by the sorcerers’ cruel reign over the Hole, conducting inhumane experiments on its denizens and continually poisoning the world with their magic. But the show delights in messing with audience perspective, quickly decentralizing Caiman and Nikaido to tell an ensemble story, empathizing with both them and the sorcerers hunting them, and carefully revealing how they all fit into the larger narrative.
That said, the biggest initial hurdle to cross when starting Dorohedoro will likely be its usage of 3DCG animation in combination with more traditional 2D hand-drawn characters and backgrounds. The characters move just slightly unnaturally on occasion, but overall, MAPPA does well to reconcile the gap between the two modes of animation they’re working with; Hayashi quite literally finds new angles through which to view anime high fantasy, using the viewpoints enabled by 3DCG to create unusual perspectives.
The world of Hayashida’s manga is one that always felt colorful, and it feels faithfully brought to life by MAPPA’s beautiful usage of color and texture, and gorgeous background drawings from art director Kimura Shinji (whose work here recalls his work on Tekkonkinkreet and Akira) bring a sense of fun to what could be an overwhelmingly grim setting. Despite the desolation of both the sorcerer's world and the Hole, both are full of vivid color, mixing fluorescent hues at night and pastel scenes in the daytime. Hayashi creates a distinctive visual contrast between the two locations, one characterized by traditional high fantasy backdrops, the other by imposing industrial structures of twisting pipes and rusting metal (to match the industrial setting, the sorcerer’s magic itself looks like thick, sooty smoke as it emerges from their bodies).
Hayashida’s characters comfortably jump from page to screen with little change, which just goes to show how timeless Hayashida’s designs were -- with stylish techwear and streetwear fits being the defining looks of this dystopian fantasy world. It’s a world shaped by magical forces, sure, but also one where those controlling those forces wear Nike Air Jordans to go with their grotesque, organ-shaped masks. The show’s bright and eclectic style is bolstered by a consistently superb and idiosyncratic soundtrack from the collective (K)NoW_NAME, who compose the opening and ending credits and everything in between, navigating numerous genres of music to match the show’s own genre-hopping.
Both the manga and the show don’t just pour all their attention towards style and myth making however. The characters themselves are complex and extremely charismatic, far beyond the goofy crocodile man Caiman. Nikaido is plenty deadly and fascinating to watch in her own right, and as much a central figure as Caiman, a lot of the show revolves around their friendship. Even the group of sorcerers that end up pursuing Caiman and Nikaido, led by mushroom-obsessed mafioso En, receive plenty of attention (particularly Shin and Noi, who appear as a workplace couple with their own lovable quirks). By all means En and his clan of sorcerers should appear to be evil — they make deals with the devil and live in close proximity to hell — but they are portrayed as regular people, with their own loves, vices, and complex motives.
In other hands, Dorohedoro would be an archetypical story of anti-heroes and monstrous villains, but it’s not written that way: these characters are people, first and foremost. Full of striking imagery, stylishly dressed and loveable characters, Dorohedoro gets a lot out of the contrasts between the character’s imposing appearances and oddball personalities, and balance between the fantastic and the mundane. It walks a delicate tonal line, often taking an irreverent approach to even its darkest material, but what puts it above other “subversive” shows is its genuine earnestness.
Fully embracing the unbridled insanity of its source material, Dorohedoro hooks viewers with a wild premise and a unique, macabre world, but its staying power is in its cast of charming characters, as well as its numerous detours. With whimsy and horror in equal measure, the heart of gold nestled within Dorohedoro's extremely grim premise is its greatest strength.
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