Sunday, July 08, 2012

Japan Cuts ’12 & NYAFF ’12: Asura

Never nurtured, a ferocious young beast-child is entirely the product of his environment—a desperate feudal Kyoto where many resort to cannibalism to survive.  Frankly, the boy has hardly known any other food, tearing through the countryside like taboo-shattering Pac Man.  However, there are those who are able to reach his scarred soul in Keichii Sato’s Asura (trailer here), which screens as part of the Anime from Hell sidebar of the 2012 Japan Cuts, co-presented with the 2012 New York Asian FilmFestival.

Born into a world not of his making, it is minor miracle Asura lived through his first day.  Somehow he was not eaten by the rabid wolves or his hunger-deranged mother.  Those first hours will set the tone for his young life.  The juvenile berserker will inspire the wrath of the local lord when he kills and subsequently chomps down on the only heir.  However, a wandering monk tames Asura’s wild spirit with a mantra the boy cannot even understand—at least temporarily.

You will be hard pressed to find a more hardcore Buddhist than Asura’s occasional companion, but he is a decidedly ambiguous figure, apparently more content to watch the world descend into flames than to actively engage with it.  It is the kindly village girl Wakasa who has a more lasting and profound influence on Asura.  Yet, Asura remains a dangerous figure, despite or perhaps because of his growing emotional attachment to the innocent beauty.

Based on George Akiyama’s controversial manga, Asura is absolutely not for children, under any circumstances (unless parents feel like this is a good time to have the old eating-human-flesh-is-wrong talk).  Beyond the cannibalism and violence, it paints an unremittingly brutal portrait of human nature.  Indeed, the film clearly implies the line separating humanity and overt savagery is rather tenuous at best.

Though soaked in blood, the animation of Asura has a lush, painterly look.  It also features some top anime voice talent, including Madame Masako Nozawa, the seventy-five year old Dragonball veteran, viscerally expressing the title character’s existential anguish.  Yet, it is commanding tone of Kinya Kitaohgi as the monk that really packs a punch.

Again, Asura is completely inappropriate for young viewers.  A lot of adults will have trouble with it too, but for those looking to plum the depth of humanity through animation, it is rather bracing, in an uncompromisingly naturalistic way.  Recommended for patrons of extreme anime, Asura screens this Thursday (7/12) at the Japan Society, as a joint presentation of the 2012 Japan Cuts and New York Asian film festivals.