Ashura (2005) is a fantasy film with it's seed source coming from a famous kabuki play. With winking nods to it's theatrical roots, the film takes the material and adapts the tale into the modern era with gee whiz, slam bang, CGI special fx. The director is Yojiro Takita, helmer of When the Last Sword is Drawn and, two films that mesh well with Ashura, the fantasy action flicks Onmyoji 1&2.
The period film is set in Edo-era Japan, an age we are told when there was a tenuous connection between this world and the underworld. Demons live and hide among men, so the brash, black armor clad, village storming Demon Hunters serve as man's protectors. Two of them, Izumo (Somegoro Ichikawa) and Jaku (Takashi Naito) go about their job of slicing and dicing green fanged man/demons with zeal. But, after Izumo believes he has cut down an innocent during a melee, he loses his bloodlust, retires, and, cut to five years later, co-incidentally becomes a popular kabuki actor playing the part of a monster fighting hero.
Izumo becomes enamored with a mysterious, thief by night, acrobat by day, amnesiac named Tsubaki (Rie Miyazawa). When the two meet, a strange, flower shaped, blood red scar appears on Tsubaki's back and it is clear they share some kind of magical connection. Of course, it ends up being bad news and the emergence of demon nun Bizan (Kanako Higuchi) signals this further. Along with Izumo's old Demon Hunter comrade/rival Jaku, Bizan is trying to bring about the crossover of demons ruling the Earth by bringing back demon queen Ashura, whose spirit is lying dormant in a human vessel- one that just happens to be Izumo's new love.
Yojiro Takita continues to strike me as a really middle of the road director, the kind of guy who delivers films that are not horrible yet have just enough rough spots to keep them from being solid. In Ashura's case, replacing the films theatrical settings with flat CGI backdrops and fx work was quite a fitting idea. But, it is hit and miss, at times, delivering some beautiful scenes like the bridge between this world and the underworld, Asura's floating castle, and the castle's MC Escherlike innards (sadly no David Bowie), and on the flipside, some hokey looking stuff like the neon green demon blood and smoke wisps when a monster is cut down. Again, the choice was clearly to be fantastic and unreal, but it remains that the fx ranges from impressive looking one moment and extremely cheap the next, and I found myself missing the old, more tactile, painted backdrops of classic era films.
Plotwise, it has some good and bad. The action is fairly decent, some simple but effective slice and dice and plenty of fantasy goodness (day-glow fangs, man-beasties, luminescent auras). Much of the comedy works quite well, most of it coming from the bumbling stagehands and the kabuki playwright, who is desperate to tag along and get notes on the action. The romantic elements are not quite as convincing. A character development that is frustratingly underwritten is the fact that Tsubaki is a nighttime thief, introduced in a great sequence where she and her ninja-thief cohorts are scrambling along rooftops, but this fact is dropped and puzzlingly never mentioned again and never part of her character.
I wasn't a fan of Somegoro Ichikawa in this film. He would seem to be perfect lead casting, the son of a famous kabuki actor and a kabuki actor himself, but I really thought he was weak. The character is supposed to be a rather egotistical guy, equally confidant in his skills as a lothario and a fighter, cracking wise with his enemies and bluntly flirting with the ladies. Problem is, Somegoro Ichikawa doesnt posses the smolder of someone like Yasaku Matsuda, Robert Mitchum, Thomas Milan, or 80's era Mickey Rourke. So, instead, the character just comes off like a total asshole, hard to route for, and completely annoying.
Luckily the film does have a few things going for it. All spiky, porcupine hair and power hungry madness, Takashi Naito's Jaku is a prefect adversary and turncoat betrayer. Rie Miyazawa does her fawnlike best as Tsubaki and while the role is routine and she's certainly had better, fuller roles, she is at least engaging with what little she is given. As I said, it has some lags, moments where I felt my interest waning, that would then pick up with a just enough action, character sparks, and eye candy to keep this viewer interested.
The DVD: AnimEigo.
Well, first, the cover doesn't exactly inspire one to pick up the film. A quick search to find any posters for the film came up nil, but graphicwise you'd think a company could do better.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. On most of their older Japanese film sourced releases (The Samurai Cinema line) AnimEigo has a spotty track record with subpar sources, smearing, and ghosting. Luckily, maybe because its a newer film, Ashura is a fairly sound transfer both technically and sourcewise. The print has some minor gauziness and lack of rigid sharpness and really pitch black contrast, but still the film is pretty striking. Colors are well-rendered with a lean towards warmer hues. Grain level is good. Artifacts appear to minimal, nothing too glaring.
Sound:English 5.1 Surround, 2.0 Stereo, and Japanese 2.0 Stereo. Several English subtitle options: limited (songs, signs, and captions), literal, and simplified.
Well, its upsetting that, in terms of fx and score, the only really cracking track is the 5.1 dub. Now, hold off on those "You're anti-dub!" emails (Lord knows, I've gotten them before). I grew up with dubs, and I have a real soft spot for them whether wondrously cheesy or expertly done. This dub has performances are pretty across the board underwhelming. Particularly, you have something like the dubber for Jaku which replaces Naito's archetypical bad guy sneer with an actor that sounds like a bitter traveling salesman who has just woken up from a weekend bender.
The yellow and green subs are where AnimEigo really gets things right. In this case you have three excellent options, each giving a distinctive slant to the film's dialogue. Here is a little comparison- Dub: "Put them all to the sword." Simplified subs: "Destroy the demons." Literal subs: "Exterminate the demons." It is really interesting in several scenes, the literal translation being a tad more flowery while the simplified subs, well, their label speaks to the more cut to the chase approach.
Extras: A second disc contains the following: Program Notes. -- 6 Preview Trailers and tv spots. -- Image Gallery. (6:00) -- "Making of" Featurette (50:18). -- FX Featurette (29:26).
All of the extra features are pretty good. I mainly enjoyed the image gallery with its design sketches and production/test shots. I only half-watched the featurettes. I just couldn't generate much interest in them, more to do with my lukewarm reaction to the film than the featurettes content, which at a glance came across as, maybe, a little routine but also informative.
Conclusion: Ashura comes at you with a decent DVD presentation, acceptable image and sound, winning subs, and an okay round of extra features. The film itself, is a mediocre foreign fantasy, full of some excellent visuals but uneven acting and engaging story rhythms. Probably best reserved as a rental.