I’m not sure how the movie Sakuya: The Demon Slayer came to be, but judging from what I saw, the film certainly looks like an adaptation of either a comic book or an anime, although I’ve never heard of either earlier incarnations (if they ever existed). The movie itself has the feel and look of an anime come to life, with its leaping ninjas, posing samurais, and gnarling demons that bursts into blue flame. Sakuya is essentially a Comic Book Action movie with samurais and supernatural demons thrown in.
The Sakuya of the title is a teenage girl in 18th century Japan who inherits a special demon-killing sword called the Vortex that, although it kills demons, also kills the person that wields it by slowly draining his/her life force. Sakuya’s father died fighting a demon, and it seems Sakuya, like the rest of her family line who has inherited the sword, will perish the same way. But Sakuya is a tough cookie, and despite being belittled more than once for being “just a girl” she’s taken her role as the savior of mankind seriously.
When the mother of all demons, the Spider Queen, makes a power play, Sakuya is called into action, and journeys to the Spider Queen’s turf to take her out once and for all. Going along with the girl demon slayer is her brother, Taro, a demon child whose father Sakuya killed; unable to kill the baby demon, Sakuya has raised him as her little brother, and the boy has grown up to look nothing like a demon. Also accompanying Sakuya are two ninjas sent by a local Lord who fancies her. Can the foursome stop the Spider Queen in time or will the world fall into total darkness? Do you even have to ask?
The action in Sakuya is of the cartoonish variety, so there’s never a doubt about the movie’s outcome. The demons themselves are too cartoonish to be scary, and they look like just what they are — would-be victims for the Vortex sword. On the way to the Spider Queen’s lair, Sakuya encounters a demon that is called the “Cat Demon with Two Tails”. As per its name, the demon is an old woman who can morph into a giant furball of a cat that goes “meow” every few seconds and wag its two tails. (I kid you not.) The silly demon cat pretty much sums up the goofy prosthetics and makeup of the demons. The only demons in the whole movie that makes any kind of an impression are 3 “samurai demons”, but they’re dispatched way too quickly.
Nozomi Ando, who plays Sakuya, looks young and plays the tough samurai girl and savior of mankind with conviction. The movie is most effective when Sakuya is mothering the young Taro, who despite having been found by Sakuya just 3 months ago, has grown into a young boy by magical means. (Obviously having Taro grow up by supernatural means also serves another purpose — keeping Sakuya a teenager and thus preserving the “little girl versus the world” vibe.) Nozomi Ando does very well as Sakuya, going from tough-as-nails samurai to a nurturing young woman without missing a beat. In fact, the young lady is the most entertaining aspect of the whole movie.
Besides Sakuya and Taro, everyone else is introduced and dropped by the wayside without much fanfare. Even the two ninjas (who, incidentally, don’t dress like ninjas, but more like peasant samurais) are underused. One of the ninjas keeps muttering about Taro, while the other plays the comic foil every now and then. After a while, I wondered if the ninjas were supposed to be there to “help” Sakuya or to insult her at every opportunity. They certainly don’t act like servants, but more like equals. I suppose Sakuya’s status as being “just a girl” had something to do with it?
When the Spider Queen finally shows up and reveals her “true form,” the entire movie falls apart and becomes a bad Godzilla episode, complete with small-scale building models to be smashed to bits by a rampaging (and suddenly giant) Spider Queen. Trust me, it’s much sillier than it sounds.
The special effects in Sakuya ranges from good to mediocre to obvious. The demons, when killed, shoot blue fire out of their wounds before they evaporate completely. The giant Spider Queen can shoot rays out of her head, and various demons can morph into giant animals or shoot fire. As previously mentioned, the laughable appearances of the demons are the movie’s main weakness. If more care had been taken with the demons, the movie might have been able to shed its cartoonish vibe — that is, if it had wanted to.
As it stands, the film’s only strength comes in the form of the awkward relationship between the demon killer Sakuya and the demon child Taro. The two’s relationship is that of brother and sister, until the Spider Queen begins trying to manipulate Taro into betraying Sakuya. If not for Nozomi Ando’s performance and her character’s interaction with the young boy who plays Taro, the movie would be a total waste of celluloid.
Oh, and the samurai action is quite nice, proving once again that no one does samurai action quite like the Japanese. Then again, that goes without saying, doesn’t it?
Tomoo Haraguchi (director)
CAST: Nozomi Ando …. Sakuya