A Spoiler-Free Character Introduction to Dorohedoro!
Written by Jonathan Wojcik
I've long, long wanted to write something for you folks about Dorohedoro, a manga that ran from November 2000 to September 2018, and was followed by a brief anime adaptation in just the first three months of 2020. What a quaint and naive time period that was, huh?
But what IS Dorohedoro?! A quick glance will give most readers an impression of a grimy, gruesome horror-punk dystopia, and I suppose that's "technically" correct, but creator Q Hayashida is far from some run-of-the-mill edgelord. Very little is known about her, but her sickly and corroded looking artwork - wildly removed from the traditional "manga and anime" style - serves only as an unlikely backdrop to sweetly silly humor and heartwarming character writing, even when those very same characters are always finding new ways to mutilate each other.
To say much more about the world and storyline just yet is largely unnecessary, because this also isn't a manga or anime that spends too much time detailing everyone's superpowers or how any giant robots work. It has a much tighter character focus than you might be used to from Japanese media, in that almost every aspect of its storyline can be explained through a character rather than an event or an object. To understand something like One Piece, for example, you might need to brush up on the lore of Devil Fruits and the political history of Luffy's world, but once we've run through Dorohedoro's main cast, you're actually going to understand a LOT of the story already...but without any serious spoilers!
So the first thing we ever see in Dorohedoro is its central protagonist devouring a man's face.
Kaiman is a man with the head of a lizard, and he wasn't born that way. The world he lives in, Hole, is the closest thing to "our" world in this series, and has long been rendered a decrepit slum by the selfishness of those who can wield magic. It was one such sorceror who left Kaiman in his current state, and having also been robbed of his memories, he doesn't even know who enchanted him or why.
What Kaiman does know are two key things: first, that a spell is always broken when the spellcaster dies. And two, when he puts a magic user in his mouth, they see a man's face in the back of his throat...who typically takes one look at them and mutters that they're "not the right one." Thus, Kaiman must quite literally chew his way through the entire magic-wielding populace until he finds his attacker and can get his true face back, usually killing every single one of them anyway for good measure, and who can blame him?
Magic Users don't even have to live in "Hole" themselves; they have their very own dimension, beautiful and whimsical and healthy, where they basically live however they want and visit Hole just to test their magic on unsuspecting humans. It is, like I said, a pretty dystopian setting when you get right down to it...but its inhabitants, perhaps through sheer desensitization, still seem to maintain a casual sense of humor about everything.
Even Kaiman's grisly quest for revenge can sometimes feel more like some dude who really, really wants the twenty bucks some other dude still owes him.
We're going to be using mostly screenshots of the anime from here on out, because while some fans were repulsed by its smoothed-out details, vivid colors and cel-shaded computer animation, I personally think it's just as gorgeous - in a different way! - as the original manga, and it's a hell of a lot easier to show you characters like this than in more monochrome, scratchy pen drawings, awesome as they may be.
Anyway, Nikaido is the other main protagonist of the series, the woman who found Kaiman after his attack, got him back on his feet and became his absolute dearest friend. She's also a badass fighter and restauranteur with a knack for making Kaiman's favorite food, pork gyoza, at her eatery The Hungry Bug.
Nikaido, however, has a much more sordid and mysterious past than she initially lets on. Though the first of these surprises come fairly quickly into the early chapters, there's no sense in spoiling those, either; they're also partly covered in just the 12-episode anime thus far!
So who qualifies as the "villain" of this series? Well...not exactly anybody, really. Kaiman is an indiscriminate killer, with Nikaido as his accomplice. Even the citizens of Hole don't have their hands truly clean as we learn more of the history between them and the magic users, who are in fact a supernatural "species" distinct from humans altogether.
If anyone would be seen as Dorohedoro's "big bad," however, it would be En, seen here expressing dark and nefarious glee over his floofy, demonic dog. No, disappointingly, he doesn't really have a half-skinless face; that's his mask! EVERY magic user has a unique, signature mask that amplifies their magical power, the best of which are personally crafted and bestowed upon them by a devil.
The story of how En was discovered and received his mask is a dark one even for this series, suffice to say that he went from an orphan just barely surviving in hell (I mean that literally) to a fabulously rich and powerful celebrity business owner through sheer determination. As mighty and as feared as he is however, even this guy is ultimately just a big old softie. What would be considered his "evil henchmen" to an outside observer are, to En, his found family that he would sacrifice just about anything to protect, no matter how sternly and threateningly he may conduct himself.
...Did I mention, however, that this grizzled mobster's magic revolves entirely around mushrooms? Every magic user has an inherent "theme" or "gimmick" to their powers, and En is all about the fungus, capable of growing them wherever he wants, as big as he wants, and even transforming people into partial or full mushrooms as well. Consequently, he's an expert in identifying and cultivating them, and he refuses to eat any food that doesn't incorporate them in some fashion.
Now about that "found family" we mention...Shin works for En as one of his top two deadliest hitmen, basically, instantly recognizable for the terrifying heart-shaped mask (of the body organ variety) that he actually wears backwards, having cut a new set of eye holes on the back for a personal reason you learn a bit later. Shin's magical power is one of the most horrific of the main characters, allowing him to butcher someone into pieces without killing them. He can reduce someone to nothing but a head, maybe even nothing but a pile of tiny little cubes, and they remain fully conscious indefinitely.
If you're wondering about his fingers, well, the source of a magic user's magic is actually a black smoke produced by a specialized internal organ, and to cast their "spells," they have to find and tap into the veins of smoke coursing through their body. Some magic users can afford surgery to install a convenient, painless nozzle or gun-like attachment, but others just do it the old fashioned way and cut themselves open every time they want to wield their powers.
He also, by the way, prefers to wield a claw hammer as a melee weapon.
Shin's partner as a professional killer is a woman named Noi, whose magic is actually of the strict healing variety, able to completely regenerate herself and others. And yet, she's almost scarier in a fight than Shin himself, killing not with her magic or with a weapon but more typically with nothing but her bare hands. It's not just that she's huge, heavy and muscular, which she is, but that her healing magic means there's simply no stopping her. You can shoot her through the brain, stab her through the heart, light her on fire or even disembowel her and she'll suck it up with a smile as she pounds your face into a puddle of mush.
...But, no, even these two aren't just straight villains. When they're not wrenching people's guts out, they're pretty much a couple of overgrown children who platonically love each other very, very much, and love their equally terrifying boss and the many equally terrifying fellow sorcerors they work with. Even their interactions with Nikaido and Kaiman aren't a black and white antagonist/protagonist dynamic. This is one of those series where even the most bloodthirsty rivals might stop and have a nice chit-chat together over lunch.
Not every character is Horror Movie Villain material, though. Fujita is a teenage magic user whose former partner is killed at the start of the manga by Kaiman, and was pretty much powerless to save him. His magical power is supposed to be a destructive gun-like blast, but it's so weak that he's better off using normal, actual guns, and despite having a collection, he's not particularly good with those either. He's basically a complete and total loser among his kind, but he's soon accepted into and cared for by En's family regardless. Many scenes on the "magic user" side of things tend to be from Fujita's perspective, so of the entire cast, he serves the closest purpose to an everyman audience stand-in.
Usually seen in her skull-like mask, Ebisu is the youngest of the main magic users, making Kaiman even more of a bastard when he gives her the usual treatment and leaves her with a truly horrifying injury in only the first chapter. Noi patches her up easily enough, but she's mentally never the same again, and spends the rest of the series in a more childish and eccentric psychological place.
The trauma even leaves her magic in dissaray, seldom working out as intended...
...And, surprise, that magic is reptile themed, in a world where no two magic users have quite the same kind of power.
Why, then, was she rejected by the man in Kaiman's mouth? Was she, even? You'll just have to read the manga yourself, if you're curious.
A major part of magic user culture is the search for an ideal partner, and early in the series, En takes an interest in a sorceress who can allegedly raise the dead. It turns out, however, that she's a nearly powerless fraud, and the true magic user was a small animal concealed in her dress.
Yes, even non-humans can be magic users, masks and all, and En more or less adopts the little creature as both a pet and a pseudo-partner until he can find the one he's truly hunting for. Unfortunately, she can be highly uncooperative and spoiled, even refusing to resurrect a corpse that's too smelly and disgusting.
A source of much fanservice, Chota is a big, buff, dim-witted goof with a bit of a stalker-obsession towards En, but with a kind heart that easily endears him to even mortal enemies. As much as he annoys his boss, he's also one of En's most elite agents for his powerful anti-magic power, allowing him to dispel the effects of almost anybody else's magic. Almost. Unfortunately, it even renders his own body immune to any beneficial magic, and he more diligently keeps his eyeless, bird-like mask on around company to hide a gruesomely disfigured face.
Yes, a lot of manga and anime will have that one gay character who's kind of over the top, pushy and scary, and Chota's characterization sometimes skirts that line, but not nearly in as unpleasant a fashion as some of the other cases out there. I'd say he's even firmly among the least creepy and terrifying characters in his world.
Another of En's most powerful magic users and technically a very important character, but one that we actually don't see all that much of for most of the series. Turkey is a sweet, friendly and somewhat motherly transgender woman who works as En's chef, and has the magical ability to transform a freshly cooked meal into an obedient, visually perfect clone of any other person, alive or dead, so long as their thoughts have been preserved in smoke that she can add as a "spice." The finer the ingredients and the better prepared, the more life-like the "puppet" will turn out to be, and the longer it will last before falling to pieces. The clones cannot speak and cannot use magic, but they can, most notably, track the location of their real, original counterpart.
Turkey, you may note, is also one of the only magic users we ever see whose mask is actually thematic to her powers in any way.
Magically never spoiling, it's made of real meat.
While there are still a few more humans and magic users close to the central cast, I think we can move on to the devils. Anything I can say about Asu here would be more of a story spoiler, but what I can say is that devils, as you might have expected, are the dominant residents of Hell. It's just that in this setting, Hell is pretty much the only known afterlife and one of only three known realms in general, alongside Hole and the world of the magic users.
A magic user advances in power and social status when they earn a devil-made mask to wear, and eventually, a magic user can begin the process of becoming a devil. This is desirable not only as an opportunity for eternal life and far greater power, but because all magic users are otherwise condemned to a pointless and unpleasant eternity wallowing in hell's endless expanse of mud, at best, where they're helpless against the devils who, on their own turf, manifest thousands of times human size.
Bizarrely, a devil's original human-like form is still present inside their body, asleep and nestled within their own demonic innards. It's an interesting sort of inversion, because one thing we didn't talk about yet is the fact that a magic user's true "life force" is a tiny devil nestled in their brain, actually referred to as a devil-shaped "tumor!"
So these hideous, demonic figures have to be where Dorohedoro gets a lot more serious, right?
Haha, no, Devils may be sadistic monsters, but their lives are pretty much non-stop, carefree, morbid fun. They exist for no real reason other than to fill the boredom and loneliness of eternity with a little mayhem, and I feel like my personal favorite of them is Haru here. I'm just a sucker for her mostly-shadowed face and her fun little songs. Songs, plural. This is not her only song.
The single most important devil, however, is Chidaruma. The only "natural born" devil in existence and thought to be the very first thinking being to ever exist, he actually generated hell and subsequently created the magic users, originally as pitiful mud creatures (also present in this art) until he granted them more human forms, more intelligence, magical smoke and a course to become devils like him.
Chidaruma is, essentially, the dark "god" responsible for this entire miserable, mostly hopeless universe...
...And spends a lot of time visiting with his creations in his favorite blue hoodie.
But, there's one more major character that, on this website, needed to be saved for last.
Dorohedoro has surprisingly few "monsters" to ever talk about, but just a few chapters in, Kaiman has a close call with a magically altered cockroach in the sewers. A magically mutated cockroach that inexplicably wears big sneakers, too. It seems like a one-off, incidental fight, but...
The cockroach is discovered alive by the mad scientist, Kasukabe, who names him Jonson and keeps him around for the entire duration of the series, during which Jonson quickly learns to "talk," but can only ever say the word "SHOCKING!"
Q Hayashida has said that she loves insects other than cockroaches, but that's just why she thought it would be fun to add one to the main cast, and it really kind of sums up her body of work in a neat little nutshell; Jonson is a towering, mutated insect with a face reminiscent of Giger's xenomorph, and he's pretty much this setting's equivalent of a Pikachu-like animal sidekick.
I absolutely implore anyone who likes manga or anime of any kind to give this one a shot. Even if you find that it otherwise just isn't for you, I almost guarantee you'll still end up with a favorite character.
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