There’s something to be said for the power of the imagination, and never is it more necessary to appreciate the visual arts than when watching a stage play, where, when well performed, the action on stage spurs the viewer’s imagination to fill in the details that the props leave out. Now what would a fantasy play about monsters and warriors look like if you applied a teenager’s hormonally charged imagination and then filmed it? It might look a lot like Yojiro Takita’s “Ashura-jo no Hitomi”.
Based on a Kabuki play of the same name, “Ashura-jo no Hitomi” is a glitzy f/x-laden fantasy about demons, swordplay, upside-down castles, and the very fate of mankind. The film is set sometime in medieval Japan in the city of Edo , which we learn sits on the border between the realms of humans and demons. It seems there is quite a bit of crossing over between the two realms, and it appears that the demons like to possess humans before sprouting green fangs with which to munch down on other humans. To combat this scourge, an elite squad of warriors known as Demon Wardens patrols the bridge between the realms and slays any demon they come across. Unfortunately these Demon Wardens are as bad as the demons themselves, descending upon and ransacking villages in their search for prey.
The action picks up as Demon Wardens Izumo (Somegoro Ichikawa) and Jaku (Atsuro Watabe) sets upon Edo (which is done up like a garish Technicolor version of the French Quarter in New Orleans) gleefully hacking up demons and any unfortunate humans that happen to get in their way. Things seem to be going fine until Izumo loses it and cuts down a young girl. Fast-forward five years, to find that Izumo has hung up his swords and is now a famous Kabuki actor (oh, the irony!), and has become smitten with part time acrobat, part time thief Tsubaki (played by part time actress, part time nude model Rie Miyazawa, “The Twilight Samurai”). Things get complicated for our heroes with the second coming of the demon queen Ashura, the return of Jaku, and that weird scar on Tsubaki’s back. The complications increase when unholy alliances, double crosses, promise of immortality, and forbidden love surface.
Unfortunately all of the above don’t amount to very much because “Ashura-jo no Hitomi” is more concerned with how it looks than what it is trying to say. And that’s fine, since “Ashura” looks consistently great. The film really is a feast for the eyes, with the sets alive with extraneous action, covered in wild colors, and bathed in psychedelic lighting. One only has to watch the scene where the upside-down castle makes its appearance to know that the f/x guys were having a ball with this one.
But despite all the CGI razzle dazzle, the best looking scenes in “Ashura-jo no Hitomi” are the simplest ones. Many of these are framed just like the sets in a play, with singular props against open backgrounds, with the fabulous use of color making them quite an eyeful. On the action front, there’s plenty of wire-fu and lightning quick swordplay to keep the viewer interested, even if the reason for all the fighting isn’t made very clear.
And yet, for all its pupil dilating camp, “Ashura-jo no Hitomi” has its share of standout moments. The Kabuki sequences are great for their thorough silliness, and there are several energetic battles to take in. The f/x range from eye-popping to cheesy, with the highlight being a brilliant head-spinning battle sequence that takes place within a reject from M. C. Escher’s easel. There’s also a strong hint of kinky creepiness to the film, particularly the relationship between Tsubaki and Izumo. Take the climactic love scene, where Izumo nibbles on the scar on Tsubaki’s back only to have Tsubaki return the favor by greedily slurping the blood pouring from the wound on Izumo’s back. Yeah, it’s that kind of kinky.
However, the free-wheeling action finally spins out of control in the final third, as the story’s holes get bigger and the acting strays too far into theatrical histrionics. The heroic dying declarations and dramatic monologues in the middle of pitched battles get wearisome as the film grinds on to its somewhat anti-climactic conclusion.
But how seriously can you take a film where the demons expire in geysers of green goo? “Ashura-jo no Hitomi” is very much a flamboyant throwback to the trashy sci-fi/fantasy films of the mid-`80s, with enough visual excess, wry humor and outright weirdness coupled with plenty of brisk action to keep the viewer occupied till the closing credits, which happen to scroll by to the sultry sounds of Sting’s cover of “My Funny Valentine.”
Yojiro Takita (director) / Sei Kawaguchi, Kazuki Nakajima (story), Masashi Todayama (screenplay)
CAST: Somegoro Ichikawa …. Wakuraba Izumo
Rie Miyazawa …. Tsubaki
Kanako Higuchi …. Bizan
Atsuro Watabe …. Abe Jaku
Takashi Naito …. Kuninari