4.0 out of 5 stars A world of demons and fire and love
Kabuki has always been the secret heart of Japanese film. When the first motion picture cameras arrived in Japan, they immediately started filming Kabuki performances for posterity, and have never really stopped since. Kabuki’s visual and storytelling style flavors all most all Japanese films, from big productions like Cutie Honey to kabuki-trained actress Inou Rie and her particular movements as Sadako in Ring.
It is rare, however, for modern Kabuki plays to be adapted directly into film. Nakashima Kazuki’s “Ashurajo no Hitomi (1987)” (“The Eye of Castle Ashura”) was a big enough hit that in 2005 director Takita Yojiro (Onmyoji) used it as the basis for his martial-arts fantasy film of the same name. As the lead he even cast Ichikawa Somegoro, who had made the role famous in the Kabuki theater. It was a bold and ambitious experiment.
The story is huge in scope. In a magical time of old Japan, a time when demons walk the earth, Wakuraba Izumo (Ichikawa) is a powerful Demon Warden, who is charged with seeking out and killing demons where he can find them. His faith in himself is shaken one day when he accidentally kills a young girl. Abandoning his host, he loses himself as an actor in the kabuki theater, a place where you past makes no difference. Into this world comes Bizan (Higuchi Kanako from Ronin Gai), a queen of demons who wants to awaken the reincarnated Ashura and bring Hell to Earth. Bizan is aided by Jaku, a demon warder gone rogue, and thousands of green-blooded demons. Izumo finds a companion and love interest in the beautiful thief Tsubaki (Miyazawa Rie from The Twilight Samurai), who might just be the person Bizan is searching for.
“Ashura” is a fantastic film, but not 100% successful. Japan has never really got a handle on the martial arts fantasy film, although there have been improvements over the years. There are some great strides here in special effects, and getting Ichikawa for the role was a true coup. Only someone with kabuki experience could have pulled off the role, especially the scenes of Izumo as a kabuki actor. The story is epic, with flaming skies and demon armies and a scale that has never been attempted in Japanese film before. It is an awesome spectacle.
That is its problem at the same time, however. One of the thrills of kabuki is the special effects, those moments of stage-craft that blow you mind when they are performed live in front of you. Something that produces wonderment in real life, like the burning city of Tokyo and a floating castle, just doesn’t have the same impact when summoned up by computer skills.
As an adapted kabuki play, the action and story are pure melodrama, which is something I love. Anyone expecting a “straight” film needs to do some research on kabuki before they check this out, to give them a better idea of what to expect. Animeigo has helped you out by producing a beautiful DVD to go along with the ground-breaking film, including and extra disk with features on the original play and its adaptation. As always, Animeigo continues to create the best subtitles in the business that include pop-up cultural notes along with the regular dialog, creating a whole package that can be used to study this bit of Japanese culture while watching a great flick.