Dir: Yojiro Takita. Jap.2005. 119mins.
The film version of a hitplay, Ashura is set in and around the Kabuki world of early 19th-centuryTokyo (then called Edo). It even stars Somegoro Ichikawa, a Kabuki actorreprising his stage role as the demon-slaying hero.
Save for its Kabukiperformance scenes, however, the film is, less Kabuki reconfigured for thescreen than a splashy melange of everything from J-horror to Rogers and Hart(the composers of the credit crawl song, My Funny Valentine). The target audienceis, not the ladies who lunch at the Kabuki-za theatre, but their daughters,many of whom are more into Ichikawa as a hot-looking guy than the guardian of acenturies-old tradition.
Director Yojiro Takita, whoalso helmed the period fantasies Yin Yang Master (2001) and Yin YangMaster 2 (2003), strives mightily to entertain this audience with, not onlyfrequent close-ups of Ichikawa (including his cross-eyed Kabuki poses), butslapsticky gags, titanic demon-versus-human battles and various CD-generatedmarvels, including the gigantic head of Rie Miyazawa looking like the Wizard ofOz, prior to the curtain pull.
Abroad, Ashura willappeal to the young cult film fans who enjoyed the Yin Yang Master filmsand other pop-culture-fuelled takes on traditional Asian genres. The film'smanga-esque grotesquery, however, may make it a harder sell to older audiencesexpecting a lyrical Kabuki-esque counterpart to Hero or CrouchingTiger.
The story begins withdemons, led by the beautiful and nefarious Bizan (Kanako Higuchi), plotting tobring their queen, Ashura, back to life and take over the world. Who can stopthem' The government has formed an elite force dedicated to rooting out demonswherever they appear, somewhat like Bill Murray and company in Ghostbusters,but using swords instead of giant sucking devices.
An original member of thisforce, Izumo Wakuraba (Ichikawa), has since resigned and become a Kabuki actor.Leader Nobuyuki Kuninari (Takashi Naito) and his fierce, canny lieutenant, JakuAbe (Atsuro Watabe), carry on, slicing green-eyed meanies into green vapourtrails.
Elsewhere in Edo, a troupeof girl acrobats is raising havoc after dark with their thievery - and roof-topflights from the authorities. One of their number, Tsubaki (Miyzawa), staysfree with Izumo's help, but as their acquaintance blossoms into love, a painfulred scar appears on her shoulder - the mark of Ashura.
Then Jaku falls underBizan's evil erotic spell and goes over the dark side. She sends him afterTsubaki, to speed her in her horrific transformation into...
Eager to come across as areal movie star, not an ethereally refined Kabuki prima, Ichikawa overdoes themacho theatrics. Imagine a hyper Japanese version of Furio - thecharming-but-explosive hitman-of-all-work in The Sopranos.
Meanwhile, co-star Miyazawa(The Twilight Samurai) brings conviction and authority to the role ofTsubaki - and gives the film much of its emotional weight.
The theme - romantic love asa fatal, irresistible force - is pure Kabuki, but instead of Kabuki's hightragedy, Ashura substitutes high-volume action and melodrama, as worldscollide. The results may appal Kabuki purists, but distributor Shochiku hassomething for them as well - it manages the Kabuki-za, home to Japan's mostpopular Kabuki troupe. Talk about having it both ways.