Anime is an art of the visual, its aesthetics often betray the intention and motifs behind the story. Sometime, breath-taking and grand sceneries work in synergy with vibrant colours to paint pictures of beauty and tranquil feelings. Dorohedoro is none of that. It is a dark, grimy and chaotic show that wallows at times and basks at others in its grotesque nature. It has a flair for pulling to the surface the irk of the situations it throws us in. The grotesque is a play on the discomforts and the visceral of the human body that is twisted and distorted and on the bizarre and unsettling. In it Dorohedoro portrays the dysfunction of the world it depicts.
The Hole, the dilapidated backdrop of our ‘heroes’’ adventure, is draped in tepid colours; it is filthy and messy. By its name, it evokes sentiments of cramped and dark places. The Hole works in sharp contrast to the more colourful appearances of the characters that inhabit it. Even In the variety of bizarre monstrosities that populate it, Caiman, our stories focus, stands out like a sore thumb. His sharp teethed and imposing reptilian appearance is threatening even by The Hole’s standards. The notion of the man living in his mouth is troubling and yet attractively enigmatic; he is an unsettling creature.
If anything, those vivid colour and Mappa’s use of 3D animation only work to put the spotlight on the visceral violence of the show. From the get-go, people are sliced, diced and minced by Caiman in gruesome and exaggerated details. People are morally polar, when it comes to stories it is natural for us to identify who are our ‘good guys’, those that we root for. In those, we seek certain qualities of empathy and sympathy, but in Caiman’s and Nikaido’s case those expectations are toppled on their heads when the seemingly harmless Matsumura is mercilessly chopped into pieces.Violence is a given in this world, but scenes such as Ebisu’s unfortunate face skinning by the accidental action of Caiman’s teeth are sickness inducing to the viewer.
The more surreal and graphic violence is, the more shocking and aberrant it is. The show doesn’t want us to have a positive outlook on its characters from the get-go. The grotesque takes form in the unease of the viewer, though that often takes shape in the visual, in the case of Caiman it is also his morality and that of the world he evolves in that is so unsettling.
Caiman is not an amoral character; he is an oblivious one. There is a clear dichotomy between the powerless inhabitants of the hole and their outer-worldly persecutors, the mages. Mages treat the people of the whole as disposable vermin and in turn, mages are despised in the holes; both sides are dehumanised by the other. Caiman’s behaviour is normative in that environment.
As the story progresses the filth that characterised the disrepair and chaos of the hole become more representative of the muddied conflicts that are brewing. The grotesque is an allegorical tool that empathises the aberrations in the morality of the characters. The author reflects the struggle of his world through its aesthetic.
In the mask that certain mages wear do we see too this allusion to an unnerving distortion of the human body. There flesh colour and the emphasis they put on certain body parts are unsettling but also practical in demarcating mages as separate entities to other people. Shin’s heart shaped mask and his unwillingness to wear it on the right side is especially distinctive in its appearance. Ironically, in the chaos of Dorohedoro, there is an order as to how characters are organised. Yet, when that guise is removed, we are reminded that mages are very much like other people without their mask.
Magic in Dorohedoro is often associated with transformation, the black smokes of the mages mutates and wraps the bodies of their victims. Something is discomforting in the distortion of the human body. In it we feel a connection and reflection of our bodies. Perhaps an inkling of the similarities that we share; disgust makes our sense of empathy all the stronger.
When Nikaido is partially transformed into an insect we cannot help but feel discomfort, a feeling echoed in the human-sized cockroach Jonson later on. Insects by their nature often inspire revulsion by their unfamiliar morphologies and consistencies; to have that feeling transposed onto the human body is a play on the grotesque that echoes Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’. A creeping sentiment of a physique slowly devolving in disgust, yet in the perturbed world of Dorohedoro, such a scene is uncannily common.
The show ravels in the fear of losing control of one’s body. En’s mushroom magic and Shin’s disembodiment are a frightening reminder of that. Even the indifferent Caiman cannot help but sympathise at the sight of one of Shin’s victims; in his reaction, the show underlines the horror of a sight that remains unseen to the viewer. In the character of Caiman too do we see a tune of that struggle, his purpose is after all is to find his memories and his true face. To the viewer Caiman is a victim trapped in a shape that is not his own; a subject of torment can be empathised with despite the crudeness of their actions.
The grotesque and other bizarre occurrences of the hole serve to put in relief the mayhem that magic and the conflict between the two opposite sides has caused. Rain in the hole is a side-effect of the accumulations of the smoke that is at the core of magic, and so are the periodic zombie invasions that have become a deadly entertainment event down in the hole. There is a sense that things have become distorted, just like the bodies of people can be grossly warped, magic has its repercussions felt in the reality of the hole too.
Similarly, the show also plays with normative expectations, especially regarding the sexualization of its characters. In the scenes of Ebisu’s provocative outfit, while still mangled on her face and bandaged, the show turns on the comedic intersection of the uncomfortable. The author corners and confuses the viewer by putting a sexual being in a situation that renders the act sexualising extremely uncomfortable and unnerving. In a sense, it is a deeper and more personal attack than the grotesque bodily mutilations and exaggerated sanguine violence that litter the show.
By contrast, Noi is an oddity. While not explicitly an apparatus of the grotesque, the contrast of Noi’s attractive depiction and jovial personality to her muscular body also plays on the sense of the discomforting. She is a character that is amenable to sexualisation, yet that is portrayed in such a way as to make it expressly discomforting to do some for some. A contrast that is also infused into her magic, that unlike the aberrant metamorphosis seen with other prominent mages of the show, hers is unambiguously a cleansing tool through healing magic.
By her existence she subverts expectations as to the consequences of the happenings of the show, as no matter the condition Noi seems able to heal it; if the grotesque yearns for the viewer’s discomfort, Noi’s magic is an act in balance. Through it, the tacky and frenzied adventures that our characters are thrown in never relinquish their momentum.
Through the application of Noi’s magic and later Kikurage’s life magic, the certainties of life and death themselves become muddled. Confusion is part of the nature of this world, the wild implications of magic, the intrigue surrounding Caiman, or the mysterious devils are but some of the jagged pieces of this whole.
The contradictions of the show are perhaps best demonstrated by its characters. Despite the moral and personal lacks, the characters they dazzle the viewer by their personalities and characters. The violent Caiman often stands in contrast to his violent acts through his friendly and naïve attitudes, as well as his unyielding devotion to Nikaido.
Shin and Noi too contrast their violent actions on behalf of En with their characteristically comic interactions and hints of romantic interests. They are characters to which you become attached. As Shin’s violent history is revealed and the mutilations, he has inflicted on himself are seen, it is the contrast between the vibrancy of his character and the brutality of the world that adds relief to his story. The friendship that he shares with Noi, despite their violent pasts, is a heartwarming and pure occurrence in a world that is otherwise destitute from kindness and beauty.
Similarly, the portrayal of food in Dorohedoro is a strong symbol that also contrasts the conditions in the Hole. The dishes made by Nikaido stand in contrast to the filth and grotesque associated with the show. They are an anomaly of beauty in an otherwise rotten world; in the darkest places, nice things can be made.
The grotesque is a fitting part of this incongruous world; it is a reflection of mayhem. The motif of filth and grime that reigns throughout works in concordance with the grotesque in the formation of a world that protrudes bizarreness but is yet endearing in its portrayal of its characters.