Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Dororo anime.
Instrumentalism, Expressivism, and Dororo
Historically, many societies have long associated certain actions and behaviors as being discretely masculine or feminine. At some point, academics came up with whole new terms to describe what makes some actions masculine and other behaviors feminine: instrumentalist and expressive. Instrumentalism is concerned with material provision, action, and violence. Expressivism is associated with emotional consideration, empathy, and caring. Given the patriarchal structure of the these societies East and West of the Bosphorous and up until (sadly) the present day, there’s long been argument and conflict between the assumed dichotomies of male and female as to which gender is superior over the other. Unfortunately, the female gender role has often been relegated the short end of the stick.
Despite the seemingly eternal, historical, patriarchal constant of male superiority, uneven past and more recent developments in societal gender relations have made egalitarian statuses for male and female gender as more the norm. Still more recent discourse has sought to claim that it’s natural and healthy for men and women to possess varying degrees of instrumentalist masculinity and expressive femininity. Some especially recent thought in gender studies, influenced by postmodern theorizing, argue that instrumentalism and expressivism aren’t inherently gendered at all. Following that logic, a sporty self-identifying girl isn’t anymore performing masculinity on an objective basis than a sensitive self-identifying boy is performing femininity. Conditionally speaking though, postmodern thinking of gender relations is especially recent and not very widely accepted as standard in today’s Japan.
Just because the latest thought isn’t standard, though doesn’t mean that older gender critiques present in anime storytelling lack any bite. Take the Dororo anime, for instance. Through its narrative, the show argues that, less than making men “men,” instrumentalism without any expressivism makes people inhuman, literally “demonic.” According to Dororo, being human is to be both masculine and feminine, or at least have a healthy mix of instrumentalist and expressive qualities.
Jukai’s Instrumentalist and Expressive Upbringing of Hyakkimaru
Lacking multiple limbs, many physical senses, and a normal upbringing, Dororo’s prosthetic-sword protagonist Hyakkimaru grew up stunted, emotionally and socially. Conceptions of “mothers” and “fathers” are loaded with gendered meaning in that era of Japan that Dororo’s setting is situated in (Sengoku Jidai), and yet Hyakkimaru grows into adulthood without really learning the cultural significance of “mothers”, “fathers”, or even “families” in his society. He only knows that someone was there for him after he was abandoned by his biological family. That person named Jukai took him in, made prosthetic limbs and blades for him, and taught him to protect himself using a sword.
A former warrior turned prosthetic doctor, Jukai embodies both instrumentalist qualities and expressive ones, teaching the boy how to fight and kill while caring deeply and tenderly for him. There’s not really anything in the narrative indicating that Jukai doesn’t consider himself a man gender-wise, and the customary role of man as guardian-parent is typically that of the father figure. But again, Hyakkimaru is so lacking in physical sense and social education that he doesn’t really understand what being a “father” in his world really means, much less being a “man”. This point becomes relevant later when Hyakkimaru encounters his biological father and Jukai begins to wonder what he means to Hyakkimaru.
Daigo’s Masculine Instrumentalist Example toward Tahomaru
Fast forward to after Hyakkimaru leaves the nest to slay demons up until he finally meets his biological father. Before being set adrift into the river by a midwife compassionate enough to not immediately drown him after birth on her lord’s orders, the baby later known as Hyakkimaru is found bearing only one token of his heritage: his samurai family’s crest stitched onto a pouch. He grows up and meets Dororo. They start traveling together. With their help, Hyakkimaru eventually connects the crest to his genetic dad: a daimyo, a Japanese warlord, a man steely or cold enough (depending on who you ask) to allow his firstborn’s appendages to be demon food for the greater good, supposedly. A warrior, a politician, stern, ruthless, Daigo Kagemitsu is the closest thing to the personification of masculinist instrumentalism in this story.
A person willing to discard any unnecessary emotional considerations for the good of his domain, lands, and people, Daigo makes it clear to both his wife and second son that the ability to act and not doubt is what separates “real men” like him from the women and the boys. The women, he considers weak and inferior for being too concerned with immediate feelings to prioritize the larger picture. The boys, he suggests are soft and inferior because of an immature attachment to their expressive mothers. Being the hard-headed headman of a rough-and-tumble samurai clan, Daigo’s paradigmatic instrumentalist masculinity rubs off on his son Tahomaru as the series progresses or degenerates (again, depending on who you ask).
Tahomaru is Instrumentalist, Expressive, and Ambivalent, at Least Initially
Tahomaru is frustrated by his mother’s perceived distance from him despite his attempts to impress her, receive her praise, and generally have her pay more attention to him. He is also frustrated by his father’s perceived immaturity of him for not trusting him with certain secretive info or riding to war. As a young “man (boy)” struggling mightily to live up to his father’s stern expectations of being his son and heir proper, he’s seen at the start performing all the instrumentalist pursuits he’s taught are impressive for his age and gender: climbing trees, hunting game, and practicing with swords. As a “young (immature)” man weakened supposedly by his mother’s softer touch, he debuts in the story feeling pity and extending aid toward every person that he notices is suffering. That sensitivity toward others’ suffering extends even toward his biological brother, at least until he confronts his father about why he did Hyakkimaru dirty.
After rebuffing Tahomaru’s inquiries for so long, Daigo finally makes it clear that he struck a bargain with demons and sacrificed Hyakkimaru to them to save his domain. Framing it as the ultimate act of noblesse oblige, Daigo appeals to Tahomaru’s expressive compassion for others by coupling it intractably with the instrumentalist duties of a lord. Daigo overcomes the cognitive dissonance stemming from Tahomaru’s general goodliness by framing his goodly goal of saving others as intractably zero-sum. While it may be undeserved and messed-up what happened to Hyakkimaru, allowing him to continue living and slaying demons will subject even more people to tragedy and travesty: to drought, famine, pestilence, and decay. Utilitarian ethics, lordly duty, Hyakkimaru is just one person, and Tahomaru is a ruler’s son. If Tahomaru wants to save as many people as he can and become worthy of inheriting his lordship one day, then he is going to need to grow up, accept that Hyakkimaru needs to die, and become a “man” like him.
Co-opting the expressive side of Tahomaru’s nature that he likely suspects came from his mother, Daigo frames his own goal of maintaining the health and wealth of his domain and reframes Tahomaru’s sensitivity toward the sight and plight of others’ suffering in terms traditionally considered masculine: “a lord’s ambition”. If Tahomaru wants to be in a position one day to properly serve the most people, his people, the people that matter, then he needs to act like and even adopt the language of a patriarch.
Won over by his father’s masculine instrumentalist polemic for ruthless action, the son becomes a “man.” No longer bothered by his inability to fully connect with his mother or respect his mother’s expressive entreaties for ethical reflection (he’s fallen in with his dad), he swears that he will have Hyakkimaru’s head. Permitting himself less and less room for moral qualms and empathetic musings, putting aside the fact that he’s seeking both a pitiable person’s death and death of his own brother, Tahomaru employs one of the old sociological tricks to make himself feel better about what he’s doing. He dehumanizes Hyakkimaru. Tahomaru calls him a demon.
Tahomaru and Hyakkimaru Descend into Instrumentalism and Demonhood, Together
On the one hand, it’s rich for Tahomaru to call Hyakkimaru a demon. After all, the latter’s the one actually slaying demons while the former’s going after the actual demon-hunter. Some time later, Tahomaru contracts demonic powers himself to stop the apparently demonic Hyakkimaru, growing visibly uncanny aspects in the process. On the other palm, Tahomaru’s declaration highlights Hyakkimaru’s struggle with his own human and demon nature. Dororo and the itinerant monk that follow Hyakkimaru around observe as much, the latter sensing it earlier though than the former. The emotionally underdeveloped person that he is, his mind is easy to influence and anger. Hyakkimaru shows affections toward those he likes, and exudes rage toward those that threaten them. The samurai-led-and-bred war that threatens to deprive him of Dororo too makes the demonic side of him leak out all the more.
In the respective service of saving a person (Dororo) and a people (Daigo’s people), Tahomaru and Hyakkimaru harden their hearts and drive each other deeper into demonic corruption. By Episode 22, Hyakkimaru’s ripping through the battlefield on a fiery demonic mare, and Tahomaru’s intercepting him with his new set of three eyes. Both aren’t in the mood for caring how the other feels. Tahomaru wants to stop Hyakkimaru from taking back the rest of his body from the demons, and Hyakkimaru sees that Tahomaru was given parts of his body from the demons as a gift. Blind with furies befitting the asura of Buddhist shame, the brothers see the other as monsters that need to be put down by martial instrument: the swords that men taught them to use.
However, to call Daigo and Jukai one and the same would not be accurate. For one thing, lord daimyo Daigo is as sure of himself as a father as he’s sure of his land holdings. The itinerant doc Jukai isn’t so certain. That might be a good thing though, considering what passes for fatherhood among some samurai. Daigo owns his samurai status. Jukai’s abandoned it. Daigo urges Tahomaru to fight like a man and gives him the tools (attendants included) to do it. Jukai refuses to re-arm Hyakkimaru’s broken blades so he can kill more demons, and pleads with him to abandon his hunt before he loses his humanity.
Daigo and Nui
Daigo is the closest thing the story has to the personification of masculine instrumentalism. Daigo will arrange and accede to all manner coercive, violent, ruthless, and cruel arrangements up to and including human sacrificial Faustian Bargains if it serves his goal. While he doesn’t cite his firstborn specifically when he offers himself as fodder for their intercession, his quick acceptance and rationalization of the price later paid demonstrates a callous logic in action. He regards Hyakkimaru not as his own person, but as an extension of himself. As an extension of himself, in keeping with the letter of his promise, Hyakkimaru’s body was ultimately fair game for his goal. Daigo pits his son Tahomaru against his brother Hyakkimaru because he’s convinced it advances his goal. Daigo puts plague-stricken villages to the torch because he believes it’s necessary to accomplish his goal.
It may be a noble goal, the salvation and prosperity of his domain. However, in pursuing that goal at all costs, he has exposed those lands, his people, and even his son to the ravages of demons and even karmic justice… or least his warns his wife. And yet in keeping with his role as the samurai patriarch, he dismisses his wife’s input as that of a woman’s, unfit for the rough-and-tumble nature of the political arena.
The ultimate instrumentalist Daigo refusal to take his more expressive wife’s premonition seriously and rethink his decisions is a portent for his, his sons’, and his domain’s inevitable downfall. Far from being the emotional and shallow woman he dismissingly casts her as, Nui advice is pretty rational. The wealth and security of his domain was paid for by the forced sacrifice of one person, their firstborn son, to demons. To cry foul now that that their son, their human linchpin, has returned to forcibly take back his body at the expense of a land and people that leeches from his person their health and comfort is a fool tilting at windmills. Hyakkimaru is responding back with what he’s been exposed to all this time, violence with violence, instrumentalism with instrumentalism, and unfortunately for Daigo, he outmatches him in those arenas. If Daigo perhaps took a more diplomatic tac, if he was maybe sensitive enough to reconsider Hyakkimaru as his own person and general humanity of his actions… but it’s too late now and it would have been impossible anyway.
The guy can’t even straight confess he cares for his lands and people without having to puff the perceived weakness of such an admission with manly words like “ambition.” Even as Nui’s warning haunts him, Daigo’s masculine instrumentalism won’t let him admit he might be wrong, even as his enemies close around him… not until the end when he’s lost everything.
Jukai and Dororo
Management: Due to the ambiguous nature of Dororo’s gender, I’ve elected to use “they” for Dororo’s pronouns. A tailored discussion of Dororo’s gender is beyond the scope of this essay, but I invite anyone who’s interested in talking about it to contribute their own piece.
Putting aside the demons, if Daigo and Tahomaru are the devils sitting on the left side of Hyakkimaru’s shoulder, then Jukai and Dororo are the angels hovering over his right. The two of them are the internal and external voices of Hyakkimaru’s conscience. Dororo has caused Hyakkimaru has set aside his demon-hunting to protect them or make them happy. Jukai’s worries ring in Hyakkimaru`s head when his demon-hunt starts to really obsess him. Independently and convergently, these two fret that their mutual loved one will transgress that one-way threshold: Hyakkimaru abandons his humanity completely and becomes the vicious demon that Daigo and Tahomaru has always labeled him as being. Jukai and Dororo also happen to be the folks in Hyakkimaru’s life that most blur the masculine-instrumentalist/feminine-expressive gender divide.
Jukai is at a loss whether or not Hyakkimaru would consider him being a father figure, let alone whether he deserves any such consideration from him. For the longest time, Hyakkimaru lacked the physical capabilities to distinguish between men and women biologically. It’s only recently that he’s developed the only real inkling he has of the socio-cultural difference between “father” and “mother” is the first time he hears his biological parents speak. His “father” Daigo barks out in cold detachment that he should have died long ago. His “mother” Nui cries out in agonized but empathetic pity that she can’t save him. Jukai muses the same sentiment in Episode 17 as he ruminates on the dark and bloody path lying before the resolution of Hyakkimaru’s demon-hunting quest. Hyakkimaru catches him pondering, and takes the matter of what Jukai really means to him out of Jukai out of the latter’s hands: he says that he’s his mother.
Putting aside the superficial absurdity of calling a man a mother, Hyakkimaru’s association with Jukai to mothers illustrates the kind of upbringing that the latter’s given to the former. In spite of Jukai’s decision to use his warrior’s skills to teach Hyakkimaru how to fight, the expressive qualities of his character ended up standing out more to Hyakkimaru than his instrumentalist ones.
Before he became a prosthetic doctor, Jukai was a sworn warrior to a cruel and retributive samurai lord. That lord once ordered of Jukai the crucifixion of enemy soldiers, and he obliged as his lord’s martial instrument. Chopping the limbs fingers from those struggling, Jukai sets about the grim work of maiming, torturing, and killing… until a woman approaches him for mercy on her condemned husband. She’s struck down by another guard before Jukai’s able to get a word. Jukai only gives Hyakkimaru weapons and trains him in their use because he fears he wouldn’t survive without them. It’s a decision Jukai later regrets as he realizes the dark and bloody path that Hyakkimaru and his swords have traveled down: the sundered flesh of demons and men. Hyakkimaru’s path mirrors the path Jukai once took uncritically before his heart gave up from his regret and suicide attempt.
It’s a relief perhaps that Hyakkimaru’s calling Jukai his “mother” instead of his “father.” The motherly man can find some solace in his boy calling him the kind of figure that’s expressive enough not to degenerate into a heartless killer easily. He has more trouble processing his part in enabling Hyakkimaru’s descent down the instrumentalist chute…
…though he admittedly takes more from the self-proclaimed masculine Daigo and Tahomaru in those areas.
Dororo is introduced in the story as a shabby, scrappy looking kid. Mischievous, prideful, loose-lipped, all too eager at times to pick fights, Dororo’s initial thoughts bear a fairly instrumental, if half-baked, quality to them: what to do to get food, score money, live large, and materially provide. Their traditionally associated masculine behavior matches their raggedy boyish attire early on. They originally insert themselves into Hyakkimaru’s company after seeing his demon-hunting skills, believing Hyakkimaru to be their ticket to future meals and paydays. They’re later revealed as biologically a girl, a fact that they’ve taken great pains to disguise. The show makes a point of how silly their worry is where it concerns Hyakkimaru though. Hyakkimaru is, after all, quite blind and thoroughly stunted, socially and emotionally.
Whether or not Dororo self-identifies as a boy deep down or feel they’d have a better shot surviving a war if they’re seen as male is ambiguous. However, their rougher and more masculine demeanor doesn’t betray any interior stereotypical femininity. It does obscure initially the fact that Dororo posses a heart of gold.
As an orphan kid living by their lonesome during war-ravaged Sengoku Jidai, Dororo’s backstory is tragic like Hyakkimaru’s and others. That backstory illustrates their strong attachment to their mother, a narrative of Dororo’s character that plays a direct role in side plots and episodic adventures. This expressivism towards their mother influenced them into be especially empathetic toward other orphaned children. That empathy extends to a Hyakkimaru they’ve gotten to know better, a Nui who they also listen to and learn their side of, and eventually a wide array of people suffering because of war and the samurai orchestrating them. Despite their boyish appearances and mannerisms and their initial reasons for following Hyakkimaru, Dororo is both begging Hyakkimaru by the end to give up his demon-hunting quest and defending Hyakkimaru against anyone for even implying that he’s demon juju than needs to be excised.
For all their foibles, mistakes, and regrets, Jukai and Dororo are represented in the show as being its most human characters. They are the most human because they allow themselves to be both instrumentalist and expressive, and they both urge Hyakkimaru at different times not to give in to his inner demon. Nui also becomes more balanced toward the end too. She understands and even ultimately accepts her husband’s harsh instrumentalist logic for cursing Hyakkimaru, but her expressive open-mindedness at reconsidering things allows her to realize that his demonic deal isn’t tenable. Occluded though by his masculine instrumentalist stubbornness, the demon-scarred Daigo is incapable of those second thoughts that are now leading his domain to doom.
The three-eyed Tahomaru bought into his father’s beliefs and is implied in the ending artwork of Episode 23 to have lost himself completely into demon-hood. Goaded by his biological father and brother, Hyakkimaru seems to be close to losing his humanity permanently. But though near-demonic Hyakkimaru nears their deathmatch with a now-demonic Tahomaru in the castle they were both born human, the three figures most deviant of that masculine instrumentalist extreme in Hyakkimaru’s life appoach in that now burning castle wreck to find him: Hyakkimaru’s mother, Hyakkimaru’s “mother,” and Dororo. Those three’s influence save Hyakkimaru’s soul. Hyakkimaru in turn saves Tahomaru’s. Hyakkimaru empathizes with Tahomaru’s desperation for a mother’s love, and Tahomaru reverts back. Tahomaru rips out his demon-granted eyes and offers them back to Hyakkimaru, restoring both to full humanity.