Dorohedoro opens with the most striking premise I’ve ever seen in a manga. One of the lead characters, Caiman, is a massive, leather-bound orderly whose head has been morphed into an iguana’s. In the process, he also lost his memories and his throat became a sort of pocket dimension. A very angry man lives inside it. Caiman spends his days mostly shirking work to hunt down sorcerers and shove them in his mouth — to whom the man living in his throat replies “You aren’t the one.” Dorohedoro starts with the search for whoever “the one” might be, as they may lead to clues about Caiman’s past and whatever the hell happened to his head.
His partner in crime is Nikaidō: a gyoza chef and delivery girl working out of a city called The Hole. Sorcerers live in a parallel dimension, but regularly access The Hole as a supply of fresh human test subjects for their spells. The hospital Caiman works at takes care of those warped and mangled victims — those less fortunate than Caiman.
Both The Hole and the wizarding world are dark, dingy, almost post-apocalyptic industrial hellscapes. They look more like illegal dumps than Hogwarts. Raw magic itself is thick, sooty smoke that spills out of sorcerers’ bodies like smog out of smokestacks. And that’s just how the sorcerers operate: like a mix between high-profile criminals and crooked aldermen poisoning a city for profit. The Hole, its people, its land, and everything in between belong to the magicians because they have some petty power. They can take and use whatever they want.
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Except for Caiman. Thanks to whatever spell turned him into a lizard-man, he’s also immune to magic. Together Nikaidō and the big reptile become a bit of a nuisance for the superhuman jerks that plague the city. Oops!
This makes the pair a problem for En: a sort of mafioso governor in the sorcerer’s world. En is a constant source of body horror, with the ability to turn nearly anyone and anything into mushrooms. These he often eats or serves to guests. Anyone that displeases him is reduced to a mass produced delicacy.
The obvious cannibalism is horrifying (even as the series is very silly moment-to-moment). But watching people actually transform bit by bit into fungus, or having it grow out of their bodies in strange ways, makes me squirm a whole lot more. This is how we typically view body horror — the flesh twisting into rebellious shapes against our will. But Dorohedoro presents it under very different circumstances than we’re used to.
David Cronenberg, probably the best-known presenter of body horror in the west, fuels the subgenre with obsession, sex, and guilty desire. You can see it all in The Fly, Naked Lunch, and Videodrome. Junji Ito, probably the best-known figure in body horror manga, frames it more like a force of nature. The denizens of the cursed town in Uzumaki do nothing to deserve the awful things that happen to their bodies and minds. Like a lot of Japanese horror, the nightmare is scarier because it’s capricious.
Dorohedoro blends the two tracks. The sorcerers inflicting the horror are capricious, but still people. They’re (mostly) just huge assholes. And that’s why the books can be so sweet. In between the blood, warping bones, and ultra-violence is a whole lot of slapstick. Caiman’s own messed up body should be horrible enough, but author Q Hayashida finds ways to play his unwieldy form for tiny laughs. The scaly spines sticking out of his transformed scalp pin his pillow to his head every night. At one point, his friends start a baseball team… and recruit a giant, magically mutated cockroach as their star batter. And he shovels gyoza down his spellbound gullet by the plateful.
Beating Back Fear with the Mundane
Then there are Noi and Shin. The workplace couple acts as En’s enforcers. Shin is a slender, bookish little man in a plain suit. Whereas Noi is a massive, muscular bruiser of a woman with a gentle face. On the clock, they cut En’s foes into tiny pieces, keeping them alive with magic, torturing them for fun. Off the clock, they’re complete goofballs with an embarrassing case of puppy love. They’re also absolute standout characters, as Dorohedoro acknowledges by giving them more time-on-page and back story as the series progresses.
The extra focus on relationships and power dynamics, even as the driving force behind its gruesome transfigurations, gives Dorohedoro room to play with its variety of tones. The violence isn’t a curse that can’t be fought against or insulted to its face. It’s not the well-deserved comeuppance of tormented souls. The characters are just everyday people in extraordinary circumstances. They can crack jokes, eat gyoza, screw up, and care for one another.
And you, the reader, aren’t asked to be as repulsed by their interpersonal relationships as they are with their own obsessions. Your disgust with The Hole and the sorcerers can exist separate from, but in relation to, the lovable weirdos who rebel against their awful world simply by existing, and being happy.
It’s a fine line to walk, but Hayashida manages it much better than a lot of other “subversive” storytelling with similarly gruesome art and juggled tones. Jhonen Vazquez (Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Invader Zim) or Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon (Rick and Morty) get some of the superficial stuff right — the gloom, the warped earnestness. But there’s an “above it all” arrogance to those works that Hayashida sidesteps completely. She shows earnest appreciation for her characters, and indeed the idea of human connection altogether, rather than simply saying “Being miserable is the same as being smart.”