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Ashura
cast: Somego Ichikawa, Kanako Higuchi, Rie Miyazama, and Atsuro Watabe

director: Yojiro Takita

119 minutes (15) 2005
widescreen ratio 16:9
Yume DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
Most of Ashura (aka: Ashura-jo no hitomi) takes place in a 19th century Japan where demons are commonplace. They are, on the whole, evil beings, but, as they spent much of their time in human guise, they can live amongst humanity unnoticed. The film is a patchwork of differing styles and cannot be said to be a success. However, it provides lightweight fun for most of the time, even if it turns into a bit of an endurance test in places. The special effects are curiously feeble for such a recent production, and the overpowering and often inappropriate score seems like a grab bag from around the world. The final credits, for example, scroll down the screen to the sound of Sting singing My Funny Valentine.

At the beginning we find that fighting men have been appointed as 'demon wardens', and three of them ride to Edo to confront the many demons there in a scene that is reminiscent of a western. Some of the demon wardens are bloodthirsty killers and one, Jaku (Atsuro Watabe), remarks on how lucky they are that they can kill demons otherwise they would have to resort to killing humans. After the carnage (which isn't too bloodthirsty as the demons dissolve in a green ectoplasmic goo), Izumo (Somego Itchikawa reprising his stage role), sickened by the carnage, retires as a warden. Five years later, he is a successful kabuki actor. There are also travelling entertainers near him and he becomes romantically involved with one of them, Tsubaki (Rei Miyazawa). Tsubaki, however, has no memory older than five years and seems to be unaware of the fact that she is probably a demon. Meanwhile, Jaku has killed his boss and allied himself with the demons in a quest for power. The demons are awaiting the rebirth of their queen, Ashura, and then they will be in a position to rule the Earth. Bizum (Kanako Higuchi) takes Jaku as a lover and instructs him to seize Tsubaki. The plot unfolds from there with much stylised swordplay.

The screenplay was adapted from a recent kabuki play, and, curiously, the most arresting part of the film is the section near the beginning when a chunk of a kabuki play is performed before a lively and attentive audience. The theatre company's playwright soaks up Izumo's adventures as they unfold and fully intends to use it all as research for a new play, but this is about as postmodern as it gets. Much of the film feels static (possibly a reflection of its source) and the ending is somewhat drawn out and disappointing. On the other hand, the costumes are great, the outdoor and theatre scenes have a real feeling of authenticity, and a superb Itchikawa steals every frame that he graces.
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