Gender non-conforming characters are quite common in anime. Ones that are actually handled well, though? That’s a little more unusual. There’s a reason transphobic slurs are flung around so freely in certain parts of anime fandom — more often than not, trans characters are used as fetish material, cheap gags, to seem creepy, or sometimes all of the above, and even in cases that aren’t one-off jokes, the thrust of it is usually a shocked “oh my god, you’re a boy???” These tropes reinforce harmful cultural myths about trans people being liars, jokes, or predators.
And while there are quite a few cases of nonbinary-coded characters who are handled well — Haruhi from Ouran High School Host Club and Kino from Kino’s Journey, for instance — trans characters who aren’t treated as complete jokes are much rarer. Last season’s Zombieland Saga featured a slightly clumsy but very earnest attempt with Lily Hoshikawa, a child actress turned zombie idol. When the rest of the idol group learns she was designated male at birth, they’re initially surprised, but quickly come to the conclusion that it makes no difference — Lily’s the same girl she always has been. Heavy-handed, perhaps, but it was still good enough representation to inspire a slew of thinkpieces calling her the best trans girl in anime.
Dororo — a reinterpretation of the classic Osamu Tezuka samurai manga about a young man by the name of Hyakkimaru whose organs and limbs were traded to demons before his birth, and who now wanders the countryside with the young thief Dororo, killing demons to reclaim his body — also features a trans character in the form of its titular thief. Dororo being designated female at birth was always part of the manga, so I was looking forward to see how the anime handled it. The answer? With an astonishing amount of care and subtlety — especially compared to the original.
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How Dororo Changed in Adaptation
In the Dororo manga, Dororo’s sex is treated as a shock value reveal in the final chapter. Hyakkimaru is the one to tell Dororo he’s a girl, as Dororo apparently hadn’t realized it himself, having been raised as a boy. Despite Dororo’s extremely adamant insistence that he’s not a girl and that Hyakkimaru shouldn’t call him one, the samurai continues to make comments like “you grow up to be a fine lady” and is generally kind of a jerk about it. It’s a thoughtless depiction at best.
The trope of “raised as the opposite gender” — think Gwyndolin from Dark Souls — is a tired and frustrating one that belies total ignorance of how gender functions in the real world, where most people raised like that start hormone replacement therapy and transition. It’s an extension of the “trap” mindset — sure, Dororo might present and identify as a boy, but that’s only because “she” doesn’t know any better! Dororo was assigned female at birth, so “she” must be a girl, no matter how strongly “she” insists otherwise. At least it isn’t used as fetish fuel.
The anime, thankfully, handles things much better. From the beginning, Dororo’s sex is somewhat ambiguous — his design is somewhat more feminine, and his voice is softer and more high-pitched. This serves to lay enough groundwork that when we learn he’s trans, it’s not a twist or a reveal — like in the original, where there was nothing to imply Dororo was anything other than cis — so much as it’s an explanation, providing context for information we already had. What keeps this from falling into the territory of “Dororo is a girl who pretends to be a boy” is that he’s only ever referred to as a boy, both by himself and others — any ambiguity exists only for the viewers, rather than within the show.
Gender, Disability and the Body
Dororo’s gender is never brought into question by anyone — including characters who can sense life energy — until he falls ill with a fever and is nursed by a Buddhist nun who comments to Hyakkimaru that “it must be difficult, traveling with such a young girl.” After Dororo has recovered and they leave, the thief realizes that his clothes have been washed — meaning the nun must have undressed him — and awkwardly asks Hyakkimaru if she said anything about him. It’s clear that he’s perfectly aware of his situation and that he presents male because he chooses to, not because he doesn’t know any better. This perfectly sidesteps one of the most frustrating tropes present in the manga.
Moreover, Hyakkimaru doesn’t react to any of this — he only just regained his hearing and doesn’t appear to have very good speech comprehension yet, but it’s hard to imagine he’d care in any case. Unlike in the original manga, where Hyakkimaru is perfectly capable of communication from the very beginning — despite his lack of senses — the new Dororo anime puts a heavy emphasis on the difficulties brought on by his incomplete body. He can sense energy in the form of colored blobs, but can’t see, hear, or speak until he kills the demons who stole those pieces of him. Hyakkimaru would have to know better than anyone what it’s like to be born into a body that doesn’t fit. This recontextualization — both of Dororo’s gender and Hyakkimaru’s disability — adds a thematic link that was absent from the original, where Dororo being trans was an empty twist and Hyakkimaru’s missing pieces were a plot device. It’s one of the many ways that the new anime adaptation elevates the source material.
Of course, Dororo isn’t over yet — there’s a whole second season coming — which means there’s still plenty of time left for it to shit the bed. They could pull something like Dororo pretending to be male because it would be more dangerous to be a young girl wandering the countryside than a young boy — though considering that he used male pronouns even when he was with his parents, that seems implausible. More likely, it’ll either never be mentioned again, leaving the mention of Dororo’s gender as a subtle, affirming reinterpretation of the original, or it’ll come up in the context mentioned above — as an extension of the themes of missing pieces and growth. The staff of Dororo has proven that they’re capable of handling the titular character’s trans identity well — all that’s left is to see what they make of it.