I’ve always had an interest in Japanese culture. Not just what you find in their animation, but their traditions and customs. The gateway drug that brought me in of course was their martial arts. One heard about karate more than one heard about kung-fu when I was growing up, despite the late night “Kung-Fu Theatre” that showed on local television. As I grew up and found access to more stuff, it became anime, taiko music, or horror films. From where I was growing up as a Filipino-American, Japanese culture seemed so exciting and exotic.
Kabuki is one of those traditions that are completely out there from an American (and Filipino perspective). It’s a slant that we just don’t have in our art or our storytelling. Western culture is all about the fast beginning: “hook them in the first five minutes or lose them” thinking. Japanese storytelling conventions include the slow boil of a start and then quick, flashy action and satisfying endings. Kabuki is all about the flash, especially in Edo, where Ashura jo no Hitomi (Eyes of Ashura Castle) takes place.
Ashurajo no Hitomi (or just “Ashura”) is a 2005 film based on the Kabuki play Blood Gets in Your Eyes, which was a huge success when it was staged about a decade ago. The film version stars the same actor who brought the hero character of Wakuraba Izumo to life, Somegorô Ichikawa, and shares a lot of the same features of the play: outlandish make up, loud, flashy action scenes, and bigger than life material.
The story is your basic boy falls in love with demon who’s out to destroy the world fairy tale. Wakuraba Izumo, a former “Demon Warden” who gave up his life ridding Edo of oni to become a famous stage actor, falls for a thief named Tsubaki (actress Miyazawa Rie). It turns out that Tsubaki is tied to a demon princess named Ashura, who was sent to Earth to bring about the apocalypse. And it turns out it was Izumo who started her on that path. As Ashura’s castle appears over Edo, Izumo has to find a way to save Tsubaki from her destiny.
That’s a big order for a movie, but director Yôjirô Takita, art director Yuji Hayashida, and action director Yuta Morokaji seem to be up to the task. What they’ve done is put together a movie that shows a whole lot of Japanese culture and mythology, while still being a terrifically satisfying action vehicle.
It helps that they have a terrific cast, including Ichikawa, whose familiarity with kabuki really brings Izumo to life. He’s got a presence on screen that is electric and he’s created a dashing hero who is easy to root for, despite his dodgy past. Watabe Atsuro who plays Jaku, Izumo’s archnemesis and fellow Demon Warden is great, too. He manages to convey Jaku’s naked ambition well without making him a cartoon. Rie Miyazaki as Tsubaki doesn’t seem to go as all out as the two male leads, but she makes for a pretty damsel in distress.
The sets, props and costumes of the film are beautiful. This is one of those films where you feel like these are sets that were lovingly worked with more detail than is actually caught on film. Of course, the core material being a kabuki play, the aesthetic isn’t as realistic as says, Lord of the Rings: there is a sense of surrealism to everything about the production. It reminds me a lot of Sentai or Kaiju shows. There’s a distinction between the real world and the world in the film.
Take the oni blood. It’s a florescent green. Something straight out of Ghostbusters. If this had been any other movie, I might have called it camp, but here it seems to fit. Jaku’s crazy hair could have come off as too Dragonball Z, but it works. Even the low rent CGI doesn’t bother me as much as it might have because the material just doesn’t call for hyper realistic backgrounds. Unlike Bunraku, the fakeness of the program really seems to lend itself well to the feeling of the film.
Before you go, “goddamn, kikiam! I got to download this shit, right now!” a caveat: this isn’t a film for everyone. For a casual moviegoer, that very fakeness might be too much for them to suspend their disbelief. Others may not be able to get over the little things like “how’s she getting away from those demons in a kimono and geta?” Some just might not like the bastardization of a stage play into something for mass consumption.
If none of those things sounds like you, I’d say order this from Amazon and try it out. At the very least you’ll get a few cool sword fights out of it.