Ashura-jo no Hitomi was based very closely on a hit kabuki stage play called Blood Gets In Your Eyes (which is my candidate for finest title ever). I found both film and play quite intriguing, and I’ll talk a little about the play below.
Back to Ashura. The film opens at a broken bridge, with a haunting tune sung by the girlish Emishi, She Who Sees. Emishi and Bizan, a demon dressed as a Buddhist nun, confront Kuninari, Master of the Demon Wardens, and his lieutenant, Jaku, with the news that Ashura, the demon queen, will soon awaken.
The Demon Wardens look the part, with plenty of black leather armour and long gleaming swords. Izumo and Jaku stride about slaying demons with great verve (and much spraying of fluorescent green demon blood), and it’s pretty clear that these are men who love their jobs. The mass slaughter fades into the next scene, as we see Izumo waking from the nightmare he’s relived so often: killing a child in a frenzy of bloodlust. From there, we wander through an imagined Edo, one filled with demons and dark forces, as Izumo meets Tsubaki, and their story moves towards its fateful conclusion.
This is undoubtedly Ichikawa’s film, just as Blood Gets In Your Eyes was Ichikawa’s stage play. Izumo is a larger-than-life hero, and Ichikawa plays him high, wide, and handsome: he’s an irresistable charmer with a silver tongue who sweeps Tsubaki off her feet, while at the same time flashing his sword about and buckling more swash than Errol Flynn. And it must be said that he looks damn fine in a kimono.
One of the casting surprises is Watabe, who plays Jaku. Watabe, who portrayed the gentle lover Akira in Inugami, and has appeared in many TV dramas in similarly likeable roles, shouldn’t have been an ideal choice. Jaku, after all, is a relentlessly ambitious man who would happily slay anyone in his way, and sleep peacefully afterwards. But surprisingly, Watabe carries the character effortlessly. His gentle smile and soft voice work to make Jaku more threatening, and more three-dimensional, than any histrionics. And his interactions with Izumo possess an extra dimension that takes Jaku out of the realm of murderous envy into a murkier and more disturbing obsession.
Miyazawa, who co-starred in The Twilight Samurai, is a fine actress who mostly holds her own against Ichikawa. She doesn’t have the impact of the actress who played Tsubaki on stage, but she manages well enough. Higuchi, last seen as the sainted mother in Casshern, portrays Bizan as menacing without being overly theatrical, and thankfully she manages with a minimum of shrill maniacal laughter.
The film does have flaws. Izumo sometimes seems confused as to exactly what wounds he’s sustained. Tsubaki is so painfully thin that the love scene becomes suspense, as we wonder whether her bones will snap. And just how one tiny woman constrained by kimono and zori (wooden thongs) manages to outrun two fighting demon wardens is a mystery known only to the director. But these flaws aren’t insurmountable, and the film remains highly enjoyable.
The soundtrack is generally good. The demon-slaughtering theme is a great rhythmic piece oddly like celtic music, while the “Izumo going to do his tragic duty” theme is reminiscent of Garbage or Cat Power. Emishi’s little song drifts through several scenes, and even the compulsory saccharine violin piece is inoffensive. The glaring exception, the one wildly out-of-place song, is that running over the end credits. Whoever thought that Sting’s rendition of “My Funny Valentine” would be a great end title song really needs a good slapping. It’s appalling, and completely shatters the mood.
BLOOD GETS IN YOUR EYES
I really can’t talk about Ashura without mentioning the stage play. For starters, don’t be put off by the word ‘kabuki’: there’s a rich texture of tradition if you know what to look for, and if you don’t, well, this is simply a stage play to western audiences.
I found the stage version even more entertaining than the film. The characters are slightly different, with Ichikawa’s Izumo being less macho and more amusing. There are also several characters who don’t appear at all in the film: watch for Battosai the sword-smith and a persistent princess.
The difference in the characters, particularly Izumo, may seem odd. After all, the film was made because the stage play was such a hit, so you’d expect them to stick with the winning formula. But there are things that work on stage that would be a disaster on film, and conversely. For me, the character changes worked perfectly: the stage Izumo is ideally suited to the stage, while the film Izumo works perfectly on film. This is complemented by the strength of the stage version of Tsubaki, who does much more than provide a foil for male heroics. In a strange coincidence, the stage Tsubaki is played by another actor from Inugami, the lovely Amami Yuki.
The stage Jaku is sterner and less three dimensional than the film Jaku, but again, this works well. Perhaps this is because the poor man’s hair is even more bizarre than the film version, which is bound to make a man cranky. The stage Bizan, on the other hand, lets loose with an in-your-face demon nun prone to bouts of shrill maniacal laughter, which makes her a little difficult to take.
Overall, both film and stage play work exceedingly well, with the stage play richer in texture and character subtleties, while the film provides strong action and CGI. And of course both film and stage play are centred on Izumo, brought to full and rivetting life by Ichikawa.