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Dorohedoro [Season 1] (2020)

Now streaming on Netflix, the Japanese Dorohedoro is unusual as an anime, but it feels familiar, even overfamiliar, set against other fantasy media. It’s what could be called a netherworld fantasy, set in a grotesque fantasy realm punctuated by nightmare imagery. Netherworlds are a staple of animation from the Fleischers to the Brothers Quay; and they’re also a massive print subgenre rooted in Lovecraft and Peake, spilling into live-action and mixed-media from Lynch to Svankmajer.

Against this heritage, Dorohedoro feels tame, even if its main character is a lizard-man called Caiman who’s first seen sticking a foe’s head into his jaws to be judged by the phantom who lives down his throat. Caiman releases his victim long enough to confirm that the phantom rejected him, then dices the unlucky fellow into bloody chunks with his knives. As a visceral shock, it’s great, but its force is diluted as Dorohedoro tries to build a coherent story that, like most TV anime, must sustain several hours. (The story certainly isn’t concluded in the dozen episodes that have dropped on Netflix; the series comes from a 23-volume manga- available in English from Viz- and the anime’s opening credits are subtitled optimistically, “The Beginning.”)

Like many of its fantasy brethren, Dorohedoro’s story details are too involved to summarise, though it’s not really that complex. Caiman lives in a rundown world called “the Hole,” industrial and ugly. He himself is appealingly cheerful and bumptious; he’s a real highlight (and saving grace) of the series. He’s lost his memory, though he has no doubt why he looks like a lizard. His world is regularly visited by Sorcerers from another world, crossing via magic doors, who callously practice their magic on the Hole’s citizens. Caiman kills the Sorcerers just as ruthlessly, though he checks each one out first, just in case it’s the one who transformed him.


Caiman’s fellow fighter and best friend is Nikaido, a similarly cheery young woman and ace cook (Caiman’s hooked on her gyoza dumplings). Some of the series follows their adventures, but the story often switches over to the Sorcerers’ world, which has nicer-looking buildings and a magic-driven hierarchy. Here we follow a crime gang of youngsters led by their urbanely toothy-masked master, En. The stories of these characters regularly intersect – for instance, the man Caiman slice’n’diced was the best friend of a youth in En’s gang, who swears vengeance on Caiman in consequence.

Many netherworld fantasies, especially in animation, hardly need to explore character motivations. They’re often one-off pieces lasting a few minutes, exploring fear, ennui and isolation in the freely abstract. Certainly there are moments of delightful randomness in the anime, such as En’s running obsession with mushrooms and his dottily lethal use of them. As a continuing series, though, Dorohedoro is vacantly unmotivated.

The “revenge” plotline, for example, is hampered by the fact that we never saw the friendship between the vengeful youth and his late friend. Most of the show’s relationships are similarly asserted without convincing proofs. Caiman and Nikaido make an attractive screen pair, but even when we enjoy their company, it’s a struggle to feel their connection without connecting moments. Nor is there much sense of how people live in these imagined worlds, which would be no problem in an animation bubble of a few minutes, but it makes a perilously thin surface for an extended story.

Much of the narrative amounts to broadly farcical runarounds with ludicrously low stakes. The characters routinely suffer ghastly wounds or go through terrible transformations, only to be restored to health between frames. (The guy at the beginning is unusual, both because he dies and because someone actually cares that he’s dead.) Dorohedoro is gory without the blithe cruelty that today’s American adult animations use as comedy fuel. Those same animations, including Dorohedoro’s Netflix neighbour Rick and Morty, have taken away much of the shock novelty that violent anime once had, and the series lacks a convincing heart to compensate.

The series often defaults to humdrum stretches of goofy humour, with annoying, mood-killing music, working against any suggestion of drama – for example, a flashback in which a “Hole” resident shows signs of Sorcerer powers, and is then hunted like an animal. This is interesting worldbuilding with moral substance, and it disappears again in the mix. For a series based around two worlds, there’s little to differentiate each of them, and certainly not in the radical ways animation does so well. Despite the magic doorways, the words in Dorohedoro might be neighbouring towns only a few miles apart. Compare that to the brilliant anime Puella Magic Madoka Magica, where a “real” world of distorted Caligari d├ęcor intersected with cut-out realms of killer illustrations.

Dorohedoro’s main assets are the indisputably likeable presences of Caiman and Nikaido, even without a substantial relationship, and the show’s own good looks. The figures feel both dimensional and scuzzy, thanks to the freehand pencil-line shadings on their faces and bodies. The movements, though, often feel blunt and mechanical; the fights are slicker, but more bloody than awesome. The backgrounds are solid and pleasurable but rarely memorable; they reflect Dorohedoro’s much deeper failure to create a fantasy that’s either convincingly real or beguilingly surreal.



IN A NUTSHELL: By the standards of commercial anime, Dorohodero is well-made and distinctive, but it’s also disappointing and mildly dull.


Andrew Osmond is the author of the book on the original 1995 Ghost in the Shell film, published by Arrow Books. He’s also a journalist specialising in animation and has a website at anime-etc.net