by Jay Seaver
SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: How much cooler is Japan than the U.S.? "Ashura" is an adaptation of a popular play over there, one with the name "Blood Gets In Your Eyes" (which, itself, is something I can barely imagine seeing on a Broadway marquee). It has people jumping between rooftops, astonishing visuals that make up impressive fantasy worlds, swordfighting, and demons who spurt nasty yellow goop when they're hacked up. In America, movies adapted from plays just have a bunch of stupid songs.I kid. A little.
"A hit play comes to the screen - with lots of action."
Anyway, the story takes place in a land much like nineteenth-century Edo, one which is plagued by demons - and the Demon Wardens. Too many Demon Wardens are like Jaku (Atsuro Watabe), who says that it is good that he can kill demons, because otherwise he'd be killing men. His compatriot Izumo (Somegoro Ichikawa) has a crisis of conscience after slaying a (probable) demon who has taken the form of a little girl; he retires from demon-slaying, instead becoming the country's most famed actor. But one night, he spots a cat burglar hiding under a bridge; the amnesiac girl, Tsubaki (Rie Miyazawa), is also an entertainer, an acrobat, and has a peculiar tattoo. The two will meet and fall in love, while Jaku turns to the dark side, killing his mentor and hooking up with the demon Bizan (Kanako Higuchi), seeking the power of Ashura, the demon queen.
I don't know how many other actors were retained from the stage play, although the festival program indicates that Somegoro Ichikawa originated the park of Izumo on the stage. Retaining him for the film must have been a no-brainer if he was as good live as he is on film. He's a great swashbuckling hero, with the rakish charm that borders on full-on cockiness. It's telling that when he quit the Wardens, he didn't go into seclusion, but instead became a very visible kabuki actor. He's got a movie star's ego, and sells "you didn't ask" when his colleagues ask why he never said he was a Warden. He talks trash when Jaku shows up to take Tsubaki, but with confidence as opposed to arrogance. Indeed, while he may come off as an abrasive son of a gun, there's a genuine humility to him. He's confident, and likes his status, but doesn't place himself above the people he protects or entertains.
Similarly entertaining and theatrical is Watabe as Jaku. There's not a lot of subtlety to his performance - Jaku is arrogant, certain of his own superiority, and almost incapable of empathy for his fellow man. His primary expression is a sneer, until he recognizes that he's being used or that the prophecy about "the strongest" may not, in fact, refer to him. It's a fun performance, full of unrestrained, unapologetic villainy, but stops short of complete caricature.
Rie Miyazawa's Tsubaki isn't quite so much of an archetype; she's something of a blank slate, what with the not remembering anything from before five years earlier, but she's also confident and prepared for adventure herself. Miyazawa makes her an interesting foil, a damsel in distress who can assist with her own rescue, and who is believably unaware of the enormous screwing-over fate has in store for her. She sees the growing tattoo on her back and Jaku's growing interest in her, but the actress plays Tsubaki as more confused than afraid or resigned.
There's also a whole passel of other fun characters - Bizan (Kanako Higuchi), the demoness looking to revive Ashura who takes Jaku as a lover. She's got a childlike assistant (with cute little horns). My favorites are probably Izumo's colleagues in the kabuki theater, especially Fumiyo Kohinata as the noted kabuki playwright who has, of late, been unable to write fiction - so when he finds that his star is actually a powerful warrior involved in a romantic battle for the fate of the world... Well, can he tag along? Because this would make a fantastic play.
Director Yojiro Takita takes the play and makes it into an exciting movie, in part by not trying to translate it too directly. There's a lot of stuff done on-screen that simply couldn't be easily done on stage, whether it be jumping across rooftops, ordinary townspeople morphing into demons (who are dispatched in a sticky, satisfying manner), or the pyrotechnics that erupt when Ashura's upside-down castle hangs from the sky and starts laying waste to the city. Much of the swordfighting is choreographed with close-ups in mind, rather than arm's-length stage fighting. And then there's the inside of Ashura's castle itself, a perspective-defying landscape out of M.C. Escher's nightmares, where Izumo must fight off demons from literally every side.
And yet, it also retains a fair amount of stage-bound aesthetics, too. The play-within-the-play set-up, for instance, and especially the film's coda, are devices I associate much more with the theater than with film. A lot of the make-up and costuming choices are stylized, more so than one might expect from a film. And there are certain locations, such as the bridge to the underworld, that look very static, and are often only shot from a single angle and distance (aside from close-ups), reinforcing the impression of watching a play. That one, especially, looks like it may have been taken directly from the stage, with its bridge that leads to nowhere dead-center that can be lengthened or cut off by lighting."Ashura" never feels like simply watching a filmed stage play - it's a movie through and through - but it's not quite a conventional movie, either. There are a few spots where the story doesn't quite seem to work, or where a scene is held a bit long, but it's certainly one of the most action-packed stage adaptations you're ever likely to see.
link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12507&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/20/05 12:48:08