Finally, a live-action fantasy from Japan that doesn’t look better on the back of the DVD box than it does on the screen! That was the problem with Shinobi and Azumi, which looked great in theory but were terribly leaden in practice. Now comes Ashura, which sounds like it ought to have been even worse than both of them, but it has something neither of those movies had: a sense of humor, directed mostly at itself. Ashura knows it’s absurd in the extreme and everyone on screen looks like they know it, too. It’s a romp and a half, and it doesn’t wear out its welcome too soon.
The movie’s a period setpiece in Japan’s Edo (the old-school version of Tokyo), which as of late is suffering from a rather nasty incursion of demons. Izumo (Somegoro Ichikawa, also of the hilarious Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald), one of the duly-appointed Demon Slayers, tears into his work with gusto, and enjoys the company of his equally bloodthirsty comrades; they’re like a cross between a supernatural police force and a murderous dance troupe. Then Izumo is tricked into killing a little girl, takes off his black Demon Slayer armor, and puts on the more garish colors of an actor and dissolute playboy. He’s able to fill packed houses with cheering fans when he performs the roles written for him by his playwright boss Nanboku, but he’s still inwardly despondent even if he hides it behind a mask of rakish indifference.
When the former demon hunter Izumo runs acros the mysterious Tsubaki,
it's not love at first sight yet, but it soon will be.
One night while adrift on a riverboat he runs into one of the “Dark Camellias”, an all-female ninja troupe who disguise themselves as performing acrobats by day. When one of them, Tsubaki (Rie Miyazawa) returns to his room for her lost hairpin — a symbol of her earlier life, which she can’t remember — Izumo becomes enamored of her in the showy, pretentious way he’s used before on so many women. This time, though, it’s different — especially when his demon-hunting powers seem to react violently around her. What’s so special about this girl? And what’s that weird lotus-like thing on her back?
Meanwhile, other things are brewing: Izumo’s former teammate, Jaku, has cozened up to the demon-witch Bizan. She’s the one flooding Edo with demons as preparation for the reincarnation of her queen, the almighty Ashura — and she has very specific plans not only for Jaku but Tsubaki and Izumo as well. With any luck they can be used to bring on the resurrection of her master all the more quickly — an apocalypse of fire raining down on Edo from a giant upside-down castle. That last is a particularly inspired piece of production design: it looms out of the clouds like the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and inside people walk up the walls and fight on ceilings as in the M.C. Escher illustration with staircases that go in all directions at once.
Izumo has to bring all of his demon-hunting powers to bear against
his former comrade Jaku, and the demonic consort Bizan.
What makes all of this work is not the story but the cheerfully loony air it’s all savored and delivered with, and that begins and ends with the larger-than-life characters who fill the screen. The most enjoyable of the bunch is Izumo, a born scene-stealer, swaggering and boasting and realizing only slightly too late that his love for Tsubaki may in fact be the real thing. There’s one scene in particular that’s a near-brilliant example of this kind of high comedy, where Tsubaki crashes one of Izumo’s rehersals to escape from Jaku and his men, all with Nanboku looking on, bug-eyed, and assuming that the whole thing’s just a giant improvisation waiting for his divine hand as a playwright to turn into box-office gold. (He probably won’t have the disturbingly versatile Yoko Kanno to compose the score, although she created a fine one for this film, which I plan on picking up on CD.)
Speaking of plays, apparently Ashura itself was adapted from an equally flamboyant stage production — which explains the glittery, deliberately theatrical look of the film. That also extends to the flashy CGI and makeup effects — things that are typical mainstays of fantasy / SF movies, of course, but which I often grouse about because they’re used to substitute for things the movie should already provide on its own. This time they didn’t make that mistake — at its core, the movie has fun, and so did I.