An anime with a sad-eyed waif as the hero must surely be something for the kiddies, no? Well no, if the waif carries a blood-stained axe and greedily devours human flesh like a starved wolf.
Keiichi Sato’s feature animation “Ashura (Asura),” whose eponymous hero is the above-mentioned waif, is unrelenting in its violence, gore and nightmarish horror. And now that I have done my duty by scaring away parents of young children, I have to also say it is a deeply religious film, as well as a work of high animated art.
A contradiction? Not to fans of the George Akiyama manga on which “Ashura” is based. Running in Shukan Shonen Magajin (Weekly Shonen Magazine) from 1970 to 1971 it was banned in various localities around Japan for its graphic depictions of cannibalism, but was influenced in its title, as well as its world view, by Buddhism. The pint-size hero is given his name by a wandering Buddhist monk for his perceived resemblance to Asuras, fallen deities in Buddhist and Hindu mythology known for their wrathful, intemperate natures.
With his collaborators, Sato, who previously directed the six-part 2005-2007 OVA (original video animation) series “Karasu-Karas- (Karas)” and the 2001 TV anime series “Tiger & Bunny,” has adopted this world view, as well as Akiyama’s 1970s manga style, especially in the sparkly eyed, pale-skinned, ethereally lovely Wakasa, a type of heroine once the default standard of manga/anime beauty but now harder to find.
The film, which combines vividly animated CGI characters with finely detailed hand-drawn backdrops, is gorgeous to look at from moment to moment, but its story, overlain with old-fashioned, signal-every-emotion orchestral music, is dark and doom-laden in ways familiar from an earlier era’s Japanese melodramas, designed to wring tears from the sadness of it all.
The setting is Kyoto in the mid-15th century, a chaotic time of civil war, famine and disease, in which millions died untimely deaths. One is Ashura’s mother who, maddened by hunger, nearly devours him in a scene of terrible intensity. After her death, he grows up like a wild beast, unable to speak but well versed in the skills of brute survival. He runs down his prey on all fours and bites its jugular with wolfish fangs, making no distinction between animal and human.
Encountering the above-mentioned monk (Kinya Kitaoji), the beast/boy (voiced by 75-year-old veteran Masako Nozawa) sees only a meal, while the monk, stern but compassionate, sees a young heart in torment. He handily defeats his scraggly haired opponent in combat — and succeeds in partly taming him, while teaching him the rudiments of language and Buddhism.
This idyll does not last: Once again Ashura wanders the world, while succumbing to the beast within. His next savoir is Wakasa (Megumi Hayashibara), a kindly village girl who takes him in as she would a stray dog.
Under Wakasa’s patient, tender ministrations, Ashura begins to speak again and even to humanly feel, though his emotions, including raging jealousy at Wakasa’s manly young beau, are not always positive ones. But outside the storehouse that is Ashura’s refuge lie enemies, the most dangerous being a hot-tempered lord whose obnoxious son Ashura killed in a fight. Then flood and famine strike the village, weakening his only protector. Soon Ashura will face the ultimate test of his young life — and his fledgling humanity.
The action sequences that follow are as dynamically animated as anything out of Hollywood (if made for a tiny fraction of the usual Hollywood animation budget). There are moments in which the seams between the CGI and hand-drawn animation show all too obviously, but they do not last long enough to be major distractions.
Also, Nozawa, who has made something of a specialty of boys’ roles in a decades-long seiyu (voice acting) career, including Goku of the enduringly popular Dragon Ball anime series, shows what can be done with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of talent as the inarticulate hero. There’s something terrifying but also saddening in her grunts and shrieks, with which Ashura communicates the anger and anguish of his lost little soul.
The story, however, is plotted like a Buddhist parable, with the monk, who makes a second appearance at a crucial moment, delivering the message that humans can triumph over the beast within. For all its imagery of misery and death, the film is finally not a downer, just as Buddhists believe the infinite cycle of rebirth gives us unlimited chances to improve our karma.
But don’t, pray, be reborn as an Asura.