I must confess to being a bit disappointed by writer/director Ryuhei Kitamura’s output since his breakthrough hit “Versus”. His films so far have proved less than spectacular, with “Alive” being unwatchable and “Azumi” coming out the best. With “Aragami”, Kitamura has returned to making a movie centered on a single location and involving a limited cast — re: it’s “Alive” redux. As was the case with that other movie, “Aragami” proves that Kitamura isn’t a strong enough writer to let his script do the talking for him, which is doubly bad because 80% of “Aragami” is talk, talk, talk, and just when you think they’re going to finally stop talking and fight already, they somehow manage to talk some more.
There is no doubt Kitamura is a vastly talented director. He’s able to chop a serviceable film together in a limited time and budget, as he’s proven throughout his career. As told to festivalgoers, “Aragami” came to be after a night of drinking at the Berlin Film Festival between Kitamura and a fellow director. They decided to have a “duel”: make a film about 2 characters, set in one location, and shoot the whole thing in 7 days. Which, if you know anything about filmmaking, seems like a rather gratuitous use of equipment and money. After all, making a movie costs a lot of money. A “duel” that came about as a result of bad liquor seems a tad supercilious. (The other director’s movie was “2LDK”, in case you were wondering.)
In any case, the result is “Aragami”, about a wounded Samurai who finds himself in an old temple sometime in feudal Japan. Though half-dead, the Samurai (Takao Osawa) is miraculously brought back to life, whereby he meets his savior, a man name Aragami (Masaya Kato) and his pretty but slightly creepy female servant (Kanae Uotani). After a hard night of drinking (sound familiar?) Aragami asks the Samurai for a favor — kill him in combat. You see, Aragami isn’t human, but rather the Raging God of Battle, and he’s immortal. But now he’s tired of living and wants to die. Alas, being that he’s the Raging God of Battle and such, he can’t just kill himself. He needs someone to kill him in combat, and that’s where the Samurai comes in.
In a lot of ways, “Aragami” is the Japanese “Matrix” — a film filled with a lot of pseudo intellectual yakking occasionally broken up by spurts of action. Running at a fast 80 minutes (5 minutes of which are end credits), “Aragami” spends its first 45 minutes yakking away, only managing to give the audience a brief 2-minute swordfight to interrupt the monotony. For fans of Kitamura’s low-budget hyper kinetic films, “Aragami” will seem like a step backwards. But if you came into the film looking for more than just action, you may find “Aragami” to be a more mature work by Kitamura.
In any case, the eventual showdown between the two men at the 50-minute mark almost makes up for the endless talking. This is where Kitamura returns to familiar ground, throwing together a stunning action sequence infused it with ferocious swordplay. Kitamura also injects a major plot twist at the hour mark that completely turns the demon vs. mortal angle on its head. Another thing to look for is a brief but spectacular fight sequence using strobe effects to simulate the brief illumination provided by sparks given off by the two fighters’ clashing swords.
If there is one negative side effect to the whole “one location” idea it’s that, well, there’s only one location. As a result, the temple where the entire movie takes place gets to be droll after a while. It doesn’t help that the set design is mostly uninspired, with some seemingly random uses of bright red, blue and purple colors thrown together in the background. The temple is not a good location, and since the battle takes place at night, this makes seeing everything just that much harder. Then again, it’s a good bet Kitamura purposely designed the movie to be immerse in shadows, the better to hide the set’s deficiencies.
“Aragami” is a good film, with some solid action in the final 10 minutes. The film probably spends too much time needlessly droning about inconsequential matters, as well as dwelling endlessly on Aragami’s past lives and his many desires. Thankfully there is some humor to lighten the mood, such as when Aragami instructs the Samurai on the proper use of a firearm in the heat of battle. The film is sprinkled with such flippant moments of comedy.
As is the case with most of his films, Kitamura employs a techno soundtrack here. The presence of synth music sounds a bit awkward in the confines of the movie’s timeline, but nevertheless it does make the fights more entertaining. If you could get past the mostly motionless first 50 minutes, “Aragami” has some stellar — albeit brief — action choreography to offer. As for the plot twist — it’s interesting, but not entirely necessary.
Ryuhei Kitamura (director) / Ryuhei Kitamura (screenplay)
CAST: Takao Osawa …. Samurai
Masaya Kato …. Aragami
Kanae Uotani …. Woman