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Griffith Maloney [Film Festival 07.20.12] anime horror drama history

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Amidst the fires and death of a world in turmoil a demon child stalks through the darkness, his axe swift, his teeth sharp, and his gut hungry for human flesh. That scraggly, dirty haired monster is our hero Asura. A frightening aspect of death and terror the boy is the product of his circumstances and a symbol of Buddhism. Death, danger, beautiful animation and just a little touch of kindness make this lovely little film a bloody rush of wild rage and excitement.

Director Keiichi Sato has crafted one hell of a story about growing up. Set during the 15th century when Japan was in a state of perpetual civil war. Asura follows our titular hero from birth through his early years wandering the country side murdering innocent villagers and eating them, up to his humanizing experience in a remote japanese village. This movie plays out a little bit like Frankenstein as Asura struggles to understand that horrible world that he's been born into, a world of petty violence and cruelty. On a deeper level this is a film about the Buddhist struggle. Constant references to controlling the beast within and restricting our base desires play out through the course of the film, mostly voiced by a nameless Buddhist monk who runs across Asura twice in the course of the film. It's a relatively short story, the film only runs 75 minutes, but its a terrifically violent parable.

Oh boy does this film get bloody. Between axe murders, cannibalism, starvation and the general death and disaster of a land in turmoil Asura is not a "kid friendly" piece of animation. One particularly gruesome scene has Asura falling into a ravine onto a massive mound of dead and decaying bodies. Bloody and broken he drags himself slowly to the river before passing out. There are a lot of gruesome sequences of death via starvation and sections of terrific violence as Asura chews out the throats of his victims. In buddhist mythology the "Asura" is one of the four unhappy re-births, considered a particularly unlucky reincarnation, they are ruled by petty emotion most particularly a desire for violence and fighting. This certainly shows in our title character who fights and kills at nearly every chance he gets.

This story is helped at every turn by the incredibly emotive voice of Asura performed by the venerable Masako Nozawa. A voice actress with a fifty year career, Ms. Nozawa finds amazing humanity in Asura's very limited lines. Asura is half feral and struggles to learn a few japanese words throughout the film but the raw pain that Ms. Nozawa unearths from the character is remarkable. In particular I found the second exchange between Asura and the Buddhist monk, on the nature of humanity and the struggle against the inner beast, to be breathtakingly well executed. The narrative build up is so well done that by the time we reach this important confrontation the audience is so intimately acquainted with Asura's pain that we desperately want him to come to some understanding of humanity.

Going into this one I was really skeptical about the art style. Sato has used a lot of CGI in the past, particularly in his series Karas, and as a rule I just can't stand it. There's a weird disconnect when you try to insert CGI elements onto drawn animation. There's a little bit of the uncanny valley in how objects don't quit line up, like you're watching two separate films overlaid onto each other. In Anime CGI is mostly used for giant robots or particle effects. Asura is interesting in that all of the characters and objects are CGI constructs but most of the background and effects are hand drawn. Despite all of my misgivings the result is absolutely gorgeous. The way Sato has established his scenes make it look remarkably like a comic book come to life, with the characters clawing their way into the spotlight of every scene. It's a remarkable achievement for a film that's a mix of CGI and traditional art, especially since most of the scenes are dirty, brown, blood crusted landscapes of despair.

There is one little scene towards the very end of the movie that is a little bit silly. As Asura walks through the snow, past the body of a former friend, the snow flakes suddenly explode into absurd 3-D disney style snowflakes. The sort of sparkling glitter-fest that you might expect to see on an advertisement for "Snow Queen Barbie" or something like that. It's a little bit much but its a rare misstep.

The most important part of this film is how much fun it is. It borrows from everywhere, monster movies, samurai films, historical drama, contemporary anime and so on and so on. It takes some of the best elements of a bunch of different genres and mashes them together into one gleeful, axe wielding, monster. Sato has a really good handle on how to balance the horror of this film with the humanity of it. Asura pulls at the heart strings as much as a it horrifies and its this balance that really sells the movie. It feels like a real human story and the voice acting and the visuals help tie together this film in a really beautiful way.

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