Fantasia 2012: ‘Asura’ is messy in some areas, but packs a lot of realized potential

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Asura

Directed by Keiichi Sato

Written by Ikuko Takahashi

Japan, 2012

Who has not heard or read about the story of the man or woman who thought it was a neat idea to own as a pet, not a dog, cat, or some fish, but rather some wild beast they believed they could somehow tame and, in the process, form an inseparable bond with? A tiger, a lion or any other range of intuitively ferocious animal belonging in its natural habitat, that is, the wildlife. The story ends with mention of how the so-called pet turned on its its master, causing dreadful injury or even death. What propels people to engage themselves in as risky an endeavour as taming something that belongs in the wild is anybody’s guess. In Asura, the latest Japanese animated film, this one based on a 40 year old manga book from George Akiyama, screenwriter Ikuko Takahashi and director Keiichi Sato toy with the notion of taming wild beasts by having the creature be a real human boy who knows nothing of civility, only hunting and killing.

The setting of our story is feudal Japan, at a time and in place where poverty and death by starvation reigned supreme. One mother gives birth to a little baby boy on a violently stormy night, nearly perishing in the process at the hands of a famished wolf stalking her from just outside the abandoned cabin. Under the current socio-economic circumstances, the mother’s plight is now twofold: find a way to feed and offer shelter for herself and now a child. As the weeks go by, hunger, frustration and hopelessness get the better of her morals as she tosses the child into a sea of flames. The child unexpectedly survives, but without a proper upbringing, is it unlike any other youth. The boy is an animal, roaming the countryside with a spear, attacking unsuspecting innocents and hacking them to death for food. His barbaric ways take a different turn on the day he stumbles upon a Buddhist monk, who accepts to offer him food provided the boy, whom he baptizes Asura, refrain from killing. Thus begins Asura’s hurdle prone metamorphosis into as regular a human being he can become, the most emotionally challenging episode being when he is taken in by a young, beautiful woman who works in the fields for her father…

True to form, Asura is yet another in a long line of examples coming out of Japan where animated feature length films are used to share tales imbued with great maturity, complexity and violence. Keiichi Sato’s film is downright depressing at times, pushing the limits of animated storytelling to its boundaries, at least in the first half. It is not a perfect film, not by a long shot, but in the areas where it succeeds viewers are sure to be taken on a gripping adventure where the on screen battles transpire both in the fields and within the characters themselves. It seems safe to argue that Asura scores enough points to consider a notable accomplishment despite the few blemishes scattered throughout.

One department in which Asura excels at is the actual animation. Not being someone who watches many animated features, some of the quality touches noticed by this movie fan may strike certain readers, especially those better versed in anime, as curious, but here goes anyhow. The rain looks magnificent. It is unclear how the filmmakers approached the creation of rain drops in order to make them so believable, but virtually any scene occurring during the rain, of which there are at least a couple, encompasses the most stunningly realized visual cues in the entire picture. It is enough to fool the audience into believing actual two-dimensional animated characters are walking and talking in the real world on a rainy day. Speaking of realism, the fluid, natural movements of the characters themselves is wondrous as well. Think of the impressive rotoscoping effects of the old Disney films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but of course with greater, more up to date finesse. Watching what are cartoon characters move around like real human beings is in fact unnerving for a few minutes, although easy to grow accustomed to and increasingly impressive the more complex the movements performed by the animators’ creations. The action is also stupendously rendered, giving such scenes impressive weight, physical believability and dynamism.

In the end, what matters above all else is the story. Asura could be the most attractive animated feature of all time, but were it not for the compelling script and competent direction, it would be all for nought. For all intents and purposes, the film gets some dramatically important ideas across in compelling fashion, earning a significant amount of its ‘big’ moments, while squandering not too many others, although the few missteps are quite unfortunate. Among the positives is Asura’s place in the world in relation to everyone he encounters, which seems simple enough on the surface yet in reality requires a certain amount of big decision making on the part of the filmmakers. Throughout the story it is made very clear who accepts the wild boy as an individual with hope for redemption and who does not. There are specific characters who, by their very nature, are inclined to provide the child with the benefit of the doubt and, to the best of their abilities, guide him to attain some form of civility. The Buddhist monk, whom Asura crosses twice in the film, as well as the young vegetable grower are two such characters who have place in their hearts to give Asura a chance at living a seemingly normal life, or as normal as can be by his standards. The girl in particular understands the risks and is willing to take them. He is the beast to her beauty, if you will.

There are other sections of this feudal society who will only ever recognize Asura as an untreatable beast, something best left alone or dead, whichever might be more convenient for themselves. One of these irreconcilable antagonisms is with a regional lord, whose son Asura kills in cold blood after the snotty kid taunts and threatens him. Did the child deserve to die? Of course not, but at that stage Asura knew of no better response to the immediate threat and acted upon instinct. The boy’s father, enraged at the unfortunate turn of events, naturally vows to avenge the death by in turn killing Asura. There is no real hope for reconciliation between the two foes at this stage, which in part plays into the idea about the film being very specific about Asura’s standing among the host of people he meets, not to mention adhering to said paradigm. The movie essentially uses a fictional, borderline fantastical story to explore the behavioural patterns of real world people. As much as it would be nice if society operated differently in some respects, the fact of the matter is that certain individuals and groups of people simply do not take a liking to various other groups of people with little no to chance of those antagonisms ever subsiding. Asura uses that reality and applies it to the world of this film. Those who detest the wild boy will forever detest for the simple reason of being who he is. The desire for understanding is nonexistent among suck folk. It is a bold decision for an animated film. Of course, this is not just any ordinary animated film.

A few bumps in the road dampen the script. Chiefly, after a first half which splendidly sets up the nuance in the relationship between Asura and the girl, the latter half makes some curiously lazy narrative choices in order to heighten the emotional turmoil even more than was already the case. Conflict arises between the two friends, but it the reasons stem from clichés used so frequently in movies like this it is a little bit ridiculous. Yet another important moment occurs near the very end of the story wherein Asura tries to convince the girl to do something in order to save her from certain death. She refuses, which itself is not the problem, but rather the reasons why she rebukes his him. After so many organically developed story points, some of the events in the final half hour feel disappointingly artificial. Then comes the clincher, the final internal monologue shared by the Buddhist monk in the last seconds of the film, who expresses what he believes Asura taught him (and not vice versa), yet his ‘lesson’ comes across as so archaic and incongruous with everything the titular character was supposed to embrace up until that point.

There is a lot to enjoy in Asura. Yes, it has some script related issues, but on the whole the effort is quite commendable. It certainly is a rough picture, often throwing itself at the audience with no holds barred. Like the character itself, the movie is messy in some areas, but packs a lot of realized potential.

-Edgar Chaput

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