Dororo - Hyakkimaru and Tahomaru - central theme

How to explore more than one central theme in a story

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The central theme in a story is the “lesson” that the writer wants to give to the reader. It’s an abstract concept, that is expressed in the story in various ways and ties all the actions of the protagonist and the other characters together.

A central theme usually revolves around an aspect of life that everybody is familiar with, like loneliness, ambition, fear, love, curiosity, etc… It’s always something vague but common that everyone in the audience can easily understand.

Why the central theme is important

There is no such thing as a movie or a TV series without a central theme.

Some people may argue that this is not true and that many stories are written just to entertain. But the truth is that without some kind of “idea” that functions as a glue, the story would be just a series of random events.

For example:

  • Jane is a high school student who wants to get a good grade in the next exam
  • She studies hard and the day of the exam she is confident in her preparation
  • When the teacher returns her test, she finds out that she has the best result in class

The central idea of this story is simple: “working hard will lead to good results”, or simply “hard work”.

Here’s another example, but this time there is not a central idea:

  • Jane studies hard for her exam
  • The day of the exam she forgets her pen and has to ask a friend to lend her one
  • On her way out of school, she meets a boy she likes and they go on a date

Is this story confusing? Those events might be chronologically ordered, and they all revolve around the same protagonist, but they don’t make a memorable or entertaining story.

A central theme forces the writer to choose a string of particular events in the life of a protagonist that are connected by a concept, those events and their influence on the protagonist end up sending a message to the reader.

McKee’s method

How to explore a central theme in your story

In another post, I’ve talked about how to express a central idea using dialogue, plot, and character.

But what happens when the author is not satisfied with just one central theme? What if he wants the story to dive deep into multiple aspects of life?

Robert McKee, author of the book Story, has a method that helps you add nuance to the central theme you have in mind and add other themes to explore.

Here’s how it works:

“Begin by identifying the primary value at stake in your story. Generally the protagonist will represent the positive charge value; the forces of antagonism, the negative. Life, however, is subtle and complex, rarely a case of yes/no, good/evil, right/wrong. There are degrees of negativity”

– Story by Robert McKee
Robert McKee's STORY

Basically, we start out with the Positive, one central theme that is “attached” to the protagonist, then we find the opposite (the Contradiction) of that and give it to the antagonist. Using the example above:

Protagonist (Jane), Positive = hard work

Antagonist (let’s call it Greg), Contradictory = slacking off

So Jane studies hard for the exam and gets the best grade in the class, but Greg decides to have fun instead and ends up with the worst result.

Now let’s add something else:

“Between the Positive and it’s Contradictory, however, is the Contrary: a situation that’s somewhat negative but not fully the opposite.”

– Story by Robert McKee

Ok, so the Contrary is neither completely “good” nor completely “bad”, in this case, Cheating. So we add another character to the story, Michael, who didn’t study hard but made sure to hide her notes and use them during the exam.

Protagonist (Jane), Positive = hard work

Antagonist (Greg), Contradictory = slacking off

Character 1 (Michael), Contrary = cheating

And finally:

“Negation of the negation means a compound negative in which a life situation turns not just quantitatively but qualitatively worse.”

– Story by Robert McKee

In other words, the Negation is something worse than “bad”.

So we add another student, Laura, who is the daughter of a famous and rich politician who donates a lot of money to the school, because of this, she gets good grades regardless of her performance on the exam.

Not only she didn’t have to study or bother to hide her notes, but she also didn’t get punished with a bad grade.

Protagonist (Jane), Positive = hard work

Antagonist (Greg), Contradictory = slacking off

Character 1 (Michael), Contrary = cheating

Character 2 (Laura), Negation of the negation = privilege

Using this method, now we have a story that is not only “black and white”, but dives into different areas that weren’t explored before.

The moral of the story is still “working hard will lead to good results”, but we added some complexity to it that makes the whole thing more realistic.

Dororo

Dororo is the recent anime adaptation of a manga by Osamu Tezuka that was published in the ‘60s.

The story follows Dororo, a child thief who struggles to survive after the death of her parents, and Hyakkimaru, a teenager who is forced to kill demons in order to regain the missing parts of his body.

The story takes place in Japan in the fictional version of the Sengoku Period, when lords were constantly in war with each other, diseases and natural disasters were killing most of the population and demons were hunting helpless humans.

The location and the time period heavily influence the story of Dororo, while religion and philosophy do the same with the story of Hyakkimaru.

Despite the fact that they spend most of the story together, the two protagonists have very different experiences.

Dororo, after witnessing all the injustice and suffering that poor people have to endure, has to decide if she wants to use her father’s hidden treasure to create a better society where the helpless won’t be at the mercy of samurais and lords.

Hyakkimaru is full of anger and resentment over the demons that deprived him of a full functioning body and his family who benefited from his sacrifice. He has to find a way to defeat his enemies without letting his need for revenge take away his humanity.

This means that we have one central theme for each protagonist: for Dororo, the lesson is to “Never give up on trying to achieve your goal”, for Hyakkimaru it’s “The people who care about us keep us grounded”.

The anime manages to create a story full of nuance and complexity that reflects on the biggest problems in life without providing easy solutions, but rather showing how the characters struggle to find peace.

Using Robert McKee’s method, we can take the central theme of both Dororo and Hyakkimaru’s stories and see how the writers use other characters to expand on them.

We can even see the effects that the central theme has on the worldbuilding.

Each village Hyakkimaru and Dororo visit is or was plagued by poverty or catastrophes. And in each one, the inhabitants had to choose between suffering but conserving their humanity or prosper but at the expense of someone else.

Dororo's Story central theme

Some pacts made with the demons (like the one between the villagers and the cloud demon Nokosaregumo) have clear and simple rules: the demons require a sacrifice from the village and, in exchange, they will protect the humans or leave them alone.

Other pacts, like the one between Sabame and the Maimai’Onba (the butterfly demon) don’t require the sacrifice of something precious for the human, but still, the person who makes the pact has to commit terrible atrocities that will corrupt his soul.

Everything depends on the choices that the characters make, those will determine in which box they are going to fit. And just like the villagers, Hyakkimaru and Dororo themselves have to choose.

Hyakkimaru's story central theme

Should Dororo listen to Itachi and give up on her father’s dream? Or should she gamble the only chance she has of getting out of poverty for the hope of making the world better?

Should Hyakkimaru listen to the people of Daigo’s land who are begging him to stop his quest and spear their lives? Or should he keep pursuing justice for himself even if it hurts others?

Dororo is such a good anime because it makes you question your morality, by putting your favorite character in front of two hard choices rather than simply an obviously good choice and a bad one.

Having more than one central theme in the story makes the worldbuilding easier, the conflicts more complex and the whole story more entertaining.


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