Kabuki isn’t something that you simply put up on the big screen; it just isn’t done. It’s a format in which entertainment is derived from specifically nuanced and eccentric performances. Everything in its delivery, from men wearing female attire to oddly abstract drama, dancing and quirky humour makes it an experience suited primarily for the stage. So it’s interesting that one such play, Ashura-jo no Hitomi, which debuted in Japan in 1987, was seen fit to adapt for cinema goers. In hindsight the idea isn’t so ridiculous as much as it is ambitious. Ashura-jo no Hitomi spawned from a theatre company known as the Gekidan Shinkansen, which since the mid-eighties has performed tales based upon famous Japanese legends with a style and gusto that has earned it immense popularity. Director Hidenori Inoue and playwright Kazuki Nakashima created what is known as Kabuki Inoue - action productions filled with stunning displays of lighting and ambience; a grand style, but with exuberantly executed storylines that are fitting enough for generally wider audiences.
The story here concerns the efforts of an evil nun known as Bizan (Kanako Higuchi) who wishes to bring back to life the demon monarch Ashura, so that the Oni may rule the world. But that’s not an easy task with the Demon Wardens scouring the land and taking care of demons who have taken on human form. Five years ago, Izumo Wakuraba (Somegoro Ichikawa) served as a Demon Warden lieutenant alongside his chief, Kuninari (Takashi Naito) and the slightly mental Jaku Abe (Atsuro Watabe). Since then he’s retired and has been enjoying success as a lead actor for the Nakamura Kabuki troupe, led by playwright Nanboku Tsuruya IV (Fumio Kohinata), while his former colleagues continue to fight the good fight.
Elsewhere, the police authorities have been struggling to capture the thief known as “The Night Camellia”. Little do they know that her name is Tsubaki (Rie Miyazawa) and that she belongs to a troupe of street performing acrobats. When Tsubaki barely manages to flee from the police during a chase she crosses paths with Izumo, who promises not to tell on her, in exchange for being able to see her again. Sure enough they draw closer, but as they do Tsubaki’s shoulder begins to display a strange marking. Unbeknownst to her it’s the mark of Ashura, which bears a significant impact on a past she’s long since forgotten. But Bizan knows who she is and how to find her. By corrupting the mind of Jaku she turns him into a loyal servant and he sets out to bring back Tsubaki and take care of his old friend Izumo.
Having made Onmyoji and its sequel between 2001 and 2003, while also fitting in his acclaimed Mibu Gishi Den [When the Last Sword is Drawn], director Yojiro Takita began work on yet another fantasy swordplay feature, this time set in 19th century Edo. Ashura is a big and noisy film, that had it not been based upon a kabuki play would seem as ordinary as any other recent Japanese fantasy flick. What makes it somewhat unique is that it does indeed try hard to capture the essence of the original source material, more specifically here by containing several references to the world of Kabuki, with focus placed on language, song and dance. Although it depicts actual persons of interest, such as pioneering playwright Nanboku Tsuruya IV (1755-1829), famed for creating plays of demonic standing, it remains a bizarre melding of fantasy and reality on account of taking liberties with such historical figures, which we know too well isn’t uncommon within the industry. However, given Nanboku’s prominent role in Kabuki’s rich history, it seems quite fitting than he should appear in such a tribute as he becomes inspired to write a play based on the battles waged between good and evil. Throughout the picture Nanboku (played energetically by Fumio Kohinata) and Izumo work on creating the Nakamura Theatre’s next masterpiece, while mystical events naturally unfold to lend the basis for inspiration. And sure enough the moments in which Izumo entertains on stage are amongst the most interesting, being laced with humour and cross-eyed elegance. Much to its favour Ashura never takes itself too seriously; while it deals with common themes of romance and Japanese legends, it sticks to its Kabuki roots with displays of silly acting and outlandish set pieces.
When dealing with the bulk of the storyline Asura does become an FX-laden feast, filled with an assortment of over-the-top computer imagery and tangible sets, which although appear quite obvious and far removed from traditional stage aesthetics are nonetheless effective in complimenting the wild narrative. At two hours in length the film relies on a manner of trickery, from corkscrew camerawork, sword fights with green-blooded demons and Yoko Kanno’s hypnotic scoring; it’s all very exciting, but there’s a general feeling is that it struggles to control an uneven pace. Central to the story is its theme of forbidden love, set against a dark and foreboding atmosphere, unfolding much like a mystery thriller, with twists and turns aplomb; but while Takita evidently wishes to use the romantic element as the sole focus of the picture, it remains a little too routine throughout and lacks a solid emotional impact, thanks to portions of Izumo and Tsubaki’s relationship being hurried along. However, thanks to its dedicated cast the picture rarely succumbs to tedium and they do their best with the material on offer. Somegoro Ichikawa returns to reprise the role he took on during Ashura-jo no Hitomi’s 2003 stage run and laps up the chance to ham things up, while Atsuro Watabe steals the show as the perpetually gurning Jaku, leaving Rie Miyazawa to take on the more serious duties of her complex character.
Ashura has been given a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, with the only major strike against it being that it’s a standards conversion. Otherwise aside from a touch of edge enhancement it’s a nice looking image. There’s a slight softness in areas, which is no doubt partly down to the conversion, but detail is overall still very good, with pleasing and natural colours; also the plentiful night time scenes hold up well, despite contrast levels being slightly high, while a little film grain is retained.
The only sound option on offer is Japanese 5.1 Surround, which is quite impressive. Yoko Kanno’s vibrant score, which features a captivating central theme is well channelled across the sound stage, with the rears slightly emphasising certain beats and chants, while drum rhythms take precedence generally throughout, including the Kabuki scenes. Likewise the fight sequences offer plenty of sweeping rear action, with clanging swords and the occasional clap of thunder. Some of the effects are slightly mistimed as they pass from front to rear channels, but they’re not distracting, while dialogue remains predominantly fixed to the front channels, with the occasional steering left or right depending on a character’s position.
Optional English subtitles are included and they offer a solid translation, with no noticeable spelling errors or timing difficulties.
The main draw is a twenty five making of featurette which begins with Yojiro Takita explaining how he came to direct Ashura, following up by talking about how he went to adapt it from a stage play to live action. Writer Kazuki Nakashima explains how he came to write the story and his expectations, while Somegoro Ichikawa chats about the transition from stage to film and the difference in the character’s physical approach. The piece moves on to take a look at costume and set designs and recreating an acceptable enough Edo, finally reaching cast and crew’s final thoughts.
The Visual Effects of Ashura runs for approximately fifteen minutes and goes between Takita, Art Director Yuji Hayashida and Hajime Matsumoto of the VFX crew as they explain the need for creating certain visual aspects of the film. Matsumoto mentions the differences between stage and film, in that Kabuki relies on the actor’s performances and the audience’s imagination, whereas his job is to physically fill in all the blanks and as such uses detailed storyboards to help out. He also talks about moving away from the original stage designs, while Hayashida talks about how he goes about collaborating with other designers and visual effects specialists. The featurette then looks at working with miniatures and blue/green screen and trying to capture the perfect tonal balance between actor and background.
Finally we have a small biography and filmography for Yojiro Takita and eight trailers, which consist mainly of similar TV spots.
While it was never going to truly capture the tone of Kabuki, Asura is nontheless a valiant attempt at injecting new life into the fantasy genre. It might not be the best Japanese fantasy film ever made but its own self-awareness and largely fun performances prevents it from sinking into complete obscurity.