Usually, if I’m writing about a manga that got adapted into an anime, or media that otherwise has several different iterations, I focus on whichever one I’m personally most familiar with — usually manga, because I can read much more quickly than I can watch. This is perfectly fine when adaptations hew closely to the source material and don’t add additional wrinkles in how a character is depicted. Sometimes, though, they’re entirely different beasts.
This brings us to Dororo. Originally a manga series from Osamu Tezuka, the God of Manga (remember that name, because you haven’t seen the last of him in this database), Dororo received an anime adaptation in 2019 that effectively took the premise of the manga and used it to tell an entirely different story. Personally, I think it’s a splendid adaptation and by far the superior version of the material, in part because of how much better it handles the titular Dororo’s gender. But it neither makes sense to talk about one version of the story without talking about the other, nor to break the manga and anime up into separate posts, so I’m going to be discussing them both here.
I’m also going to cheat a bit, because this isn’t the first time I’ve written about Dororo. Back when the anime was in the middle of airing, I wrote a piece for Fanbyte about how it depicts transness as compared to the original manga. As I am absolutely not above cribbing from my own work, I’m going to request that you read that piece and then come back. It also says just about everything I have to say about the original manga, which is that it does an absolutely abysmal job.
…all done? Alright then. Since writing that piece, the anime has of course finished airing, meaning I can talk about how they actually did handle Dororo’s transness in the end. And, well…they didn’t shit the bed, I’ll give them that. My hope that the show would make the thematic link between Hyakkimaru’s disability and Dororo’s transness explicit didn’t come to pass, though, and it was in fact brought up again in exactly the way I’d been so relieved to see them avoid.
Without going into too much detail, the basic gist is that Dororo’s father, Hibukuro, was the leader of a group of bandits, and Dororo has part of a map to his hidden treasure on his back. One of Hibukuro’s former subordinates, Itachi, captures Dororo and strips him in a scene that looks uncomfortably like sexual assault, at which point he realizes Dororo is female-bodied. And…that’s it, really. He gets the map, ties Dororo up, and leaves. Dororo himself never comments on it, presumably because this is already a deeply unpleasant and traumatic experience for him. Itachi is killed fairly shortly after without treating Dororo any differently or outing him to anyone, presumably because he doesn’t care and there’s a lot going on anyways. In the sub, he refers to Dororo with she/her pronouns once or twice, but he doesn’t use gendered language in the Japanese.
I’ll be honest — I don’t really know what to make of this. It just kind of happens, because the plot has arranged itself in such a way that it would be difficult to avoid. It probably happens about as inoffensively as it could, all things considered. It helps that it’s not a reveal to the audience — we already know Dororo is AFAB, so we’re situated to empathize with his discomfort and horror rather than be surprised. It’s just weird.
There’s also the fact that at the very end of the series, we see a shot of an older Dororo with a more feminine appearance, but I’m reluctant to take this to mean Dororo switches from presenting male to presenting female, even if it’s probably what the creators intended. The fact is, there is nothing in the story to imply that Dororo identifies as anything other than male, and almost nothing to imply we should see him as anything else.
He presents male in every way he can and seems perfectly content to be treated as a boy, despite clearly being aware that he’s biologically female. He’s viscerally uncomfortable with anyone knowing he’s AFAB, presumably because he doesn’t want them to think of him as a girl. If he looks pretty when he’s older, well, it’s the Sengoku Era; he can’t exactly go on testosterone. He’s going to look feminine, especially after hitting puberty. His hairstyle is no more feminine than Hyakkimaru’s, and we can’t see anything of his clothes. It’s not enough to base anything off of.
As far as other’s reactions, we see three others in the series who are aware that Dororo is AFAB. The nun who treats his fever has no way of knowing how he identifies — Dororo is unconscious when Hyakkimaru brings him in, and Hyakkimaru has only recently regained the ability to speak. All she sees is an unconscious child. When Hyakkimaru hears Dororo referred to as a girl, he either doesn’t understand, doesn’t care, or some combination of the two. Itachi’s reaction can be summed up as “Huh. Well anyways…” Neither of them treat Dororo any differently than before.¹ It’s odd to expect that the audience would.
Honestly, I think the best way to improve Dororo’s representation would be to show him still presenting masculine when he’s older. The ambiguously feminine appearance we see reeks of backpedaling — they knew the way Dororo’s gender was handled in the original manga was bad, but they weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do differently.
Dororo is a trans boy and has always been a trans boy, even in the original manga — regardless of how he was raised or how others think he should act, the fact remains that he identifies as male, and prefers to present and be seen as such. However, this apparently isn’t good enough for some people — he’s misgendered in the episode descriptions on Wikipedia, for instance, and I’ve seen him referred to as a girl online. In terms of representation, the way Dororo’s transness is depicted is confused at best and cowardly at worst. Still better than the active transphobia of the manga, but a far cry from what I hoped for when I wrote about it for Fanbyte.
¹ – Well, Hyakkimaru does call Dororo pretty at one point, but he’s just gained the ability to see. Everything’s pretty.