by Mel Valentin
For "Aragami: The Raging God of Battle," director Ryuhei Kitamura ("Versus", "Godzilla: Final Wars" limited himself to a single set, and two characters. Three additional self-imposed rules, a duel, with only one character emerging alive, plus a seven-day shooting schedule, further limited Kitamura’s flexibility. While "Aragami" sounds like an intellectual exercise, Kitamura in fact agreed to this list of conditions as part of a friendly wager with another Japanese director, Yukihiko Tsutsumi. As a result, Tsutsumi produced "2LDK," premised around two roommates, aspiring actresses who have auditioned for the same role, engaged in increasingly violent conflict in their apartment. Kitamura went backward in time and myth, into a feudal Japan where demons, ghosts, and other supernatural forces exist alongside humankind.Aragami opens, as many ghost stories do, with two characters, badly battered in a recent battle, fleeing a lightning storm. They find sanctuary, or what appears to be sanctuary, in a temple. Greeted by a silent, smiling woman, they collapse. Only one survives, an unnamed samurai warrior (Takao Osawa). He awakens, miraculously healed of life-threatening wounds. His host, another warrior (Masaya Kato), offers the hospitality of the temple. Slowly, as the samurai regains his bearings, his host begins to reveal carefully guarded secrets, about himself, his history, and his rationale for saving the warrior from imminent death. The host talks of legends and superstitions, including a local legend about a demon, a raging god of battle, who eats the flesh of men. The demon god is nearly immortal, and can only die at the hand of another warrior. Over the centuries, other men have tried and failed. As his host concludes his story, he reveals that the demon god is incapable of sleep or dreaming. His life is a half-life, blessed with near eternal life and invincibility, cursed with the endless repetition of war, conflict, violence, and a string of unworthy opponents. As the host suggests at a pivotal point, appearances can be deceiving.
"Well worth a view, especially for Kitamura/Versus fans."
As expected, Aragami culminates in a duel to the death, and true to form, Kitamura inserts one last plot turn that, in essence, allows one character to step through a mirror and assume a new role. Before the swordfight, an elaborately staged battle that combines sword work and wire stunts, Kitamura takes a “slow-burn” approach to the plot, allowing each revelation, disclosed primarily through dialogue, to work its way, from rejection, to ridicule, and ultimately, to acceptance. To maintain audience interest during the dialogue scenes, Kitamura employs every technical device available, mixing shot, reverse-shot, two-shots, low-angle and high-angle shots, and camera movement (once using a 180 degree traveling shot, then immediately repeating it, and later using a 360-degree traveling shot the circles and encircles the characters). Later, for the final clash between the characters, Kitamura uses a less-subdued approach, employing fast cuts, cuts on movement, and varying the light source (e.g., via a lightning storm and the electric flash of swords in contact). The camerawork and editing are complemented by the production design, which smartly hides the limited budget in deep shadows, the rich color scheme, and, of course, the central performances, both of which are surprisingly natural, given the demands of the dialogue and the lack of rehearsal time.Strengths aside, "Aragami" does have its shortcomings, primarily in a premise incapable of carrying a feature-length film (it doesn’t, as Aragami’s" brief running time attests), and Kitamura’s decision to set up and then use a plot “twist” that’s overly familiar and predictable. Still, for a film made under limiting conditions, including a tight budget and short production schedule, "Aragami: The Raging God of Battle" flags only once or twice during the dialogue scenes, but otherwise entertains consistently, from the opening to the closing scenes.
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originally posted: 06/17/05 21:07:56