Asura: Written by Ikuko Takahashi, directed by Keiichi Sato. Starring: Masako Nozawa, Kinya Kitaoji, Megumi Hayashibara, Tessho Genda, Hiraoki Hirata. Running Time: 75 minutes. Based on the manga by George Akiyama.
Rating: 4/4 Stars
It’s 15th-century Japan, and the countryside is ravaged by civil war, drought, and famine. In the midst of this hell, a lone woman, her village destroyed and her family most probably dead, gives birth to a boy in a desecrated temple. From literally the very first seconds of his life, the mother must use brutal force to protect the life of her child. That is, however, until hunger overwhelms her, and in a moment of insanity, she attempts to eat her own son to survive. Realizing what she’s about to do, however, she runs off in horror, leaving the child alone and abandoned.
The movie then cuts to an unknown number of years later. The abandoned child is now a wandering barbarian, incapable of speech, killing and eating every form of life he encounters, be it animal or human. He tries to change his ways, however, after being subdued by a powerful monk. The monk feeds the child, teaches him a Buddhist mantra, and gives him a name- Asura (pronounced “Ashura”), roughly translated as “Demon God.” Although still prone to violence and murderous rage, Asura tries to learn to tame his violent instincts, especially after his life is saved by Wasaka, a beautiful and sweet girl from a nearby village ruled over by a vengeful lord. Obviously, overcoming instinct is no easy feat, and Asura is soon forced to confront the terrible nature of his earlier behavior.
I was unsure what to think of Asura right after I saw it, but for some reason, this film has stuck with me in a way few others manage to do. It is a graphic, bloody, brutal, and dark movie, but so are a thousand others. What makes Asura different? I suppose one reason is its distinct visual style- it is a hybrid animation film, a new style developed by Toei Animation. The backgrounds are watercolor, but the characters themselves are rendered in 3D, and the result is something truly astounding to look at. There is also an excellent use of light and shadows. This is a land that can be green and blue, but at a moment’s notice it can switch to black, gray, or bloody red. Sunlight can be peaceful and life-giving, but also brutally harsh and revealing. Several shots use shadows brilliantly, revealing a lone, broken figure clawing its way across a barren land.
The rawness of the animation matches the rawness of its story and characters. This is a harsh country full of harsh people, living in harsh times. Some of this is explained in monologues by the monk who saves Asura (and who also provides the opening and closing narration), but most of it, thankfully, is shown- in one scene, the monk comes across a village devastated by flood. There is no dialogue, and I recall no music, simply a shot of the monk putting his hands together in grieved prayer. The desperation of their circumstances provokes brutal violence by many of the characters, not just Asura, although his crimes are clearly seen as the worst- it is established early on that he has committed both cannibalism and vampirism (of the real-world variety). It is these acts for which he must pay the ultimate price, and I’m not talking about death.
Asura is a hard film to watch, but it is one of the best movies I have seen thus far this year. Its animation is high-quality, but I cannot call it a “beautiful” movie, at least not in the sense that a Ghibli movie is beautiful. It challenges, and sometimes depresses, but despite that, despite the cynicism that one might be tempted to draw from the depravity depicted on-screen, Asura still manages to end on a note of qualified optimism. Terrible crimes have been committed, and lives have been destroyed, but as the monk quietly observes- “Although we all bear our own sins, we shall always carry on. And this makes life beautiful."