Genre: Supernatural Samurai Action
review in one breath
Aragami was released in Japan as the second half of a cinematic "double feature" entitled Duel (2003). The first feature is entitled 2LDK, directed by Tsutsumi Yukihiko. The (well-known) story goes that Tsutsumi and Kitamura made a wager as to who could develop the more exciting "duel" film given the following criteria: (a) the film must only involve a duel (to the death) between two individuals, (b) the film set must be limited to a single location, and (c) the film must be shot within seven days.
As is well known, several of Kitamura's most striking films revolve around the explosive face-off of two well-defined opponents. This core theme is explored and developed in Heat After Dark (1996), Down to Hell (1996), Versus (2000) and Alive (2003). Aragami (and thereby Duel) appears to be the last in this thematic line, at least for the time being. Following Aragami, Kitamura has begun to produce more expanded, epic-like storylines such as Azumi (2003), The Messenger (2003), and Godzilla: The Final Wars. (On a side note: Yes, Godzilla fans! Godzilla is officially "retiring" after Kitamura's film! On a second side note: Notice the prominence which Kitamura has achieved! He is given the reins on the final film in the Godzilla franchise!)
As the last in what was clearly Kitamura's most heart-felt thematic interest, Aragami reflects in highly polished form many aspects of its predecessors. Even Kitamura's characteristic biwa music is rocking while our two nemeses are battling to the end. In many ways, Aragami is very similar to Alive with its emphasis on two individual opponents whose psychological and then physical conflict is contained within a dark, claustrophobic space. Also similar to Alive is Kitamura's continued experimentation with new cinematic styles whereby he seeks to enhance the look and feel of the conflict itself.
But Aragami has several unique aspects. Here more than in any of the predecessors, Kitamura engages our opponents in rather prolonged, philosophical discussions prior to battle. Although Alive began to explore this exchange of dialogue, the conversation quickly devolved into chaotic rantings which segued into violence. In the current film, however, our opponents remain level-headed throughout, while the battle rages and even up to the point of conclusion. While some would undoubtedly suggest the philosophical discourse causes the film to slow down, it nevertheless results in the feeling of a more mature foundation which then makes our opponents' battle seem all the more formidable.
The title Aragami is a composite of two Kanji. The latter, "kami/gami", (of course) means "god" in the Shinto sense which encompasses several types of supernatural beings of various levels of power. "Ara(i)" literally means "rough, wild, or violent". Thus Aragami connotes an untamed, possibly violent spiritual being. The term aragami is quite ancient and traditionally refers to a type of "god" which is morally ambiguous. In other words, one cannot be sure whether this is a beneficial god or a demonic god. Kitamura explicitly pursues this moral ambiguity by avoiding the use of the term "oni" (demon) in referring to the Aragami and instead uses the much more (cinematically) rare term Tengu to classify this deity. In traditional Japanese folk tales, "tengu" are rather mysterious yet powerful beings which often occupy the deep forest. Tengu are sometimes attributed with teaching samurai formidable skills in swordsmanship. Like the "Aragami", they too are morally ambiguous and thus are simultaneously feared and revered. And Kitamura has good reason to imply such ambiguity, since the Aragami will eventually reveal another of his identities.
Aragami starts on a stormy evening when two desparate, near-death samurai pound against the doors of a buddhist temple for shelter and aid. When the young temple maiden (Otani Kanae) opens the large bolted doors, she is greeted by a grimacing samurai (Osawa Takako) carrying his unconcious comrade (Sakaki Hideo). Both are riddled with enemy arrows and as the door swings open, the samurai collapses, dropping his comrade to the floor.
When the samurai (Osawa Takako) awakes, he finds himself cleaned up and well rested within the strangely decorated Temple. Entering the Grand Hall, he can only stare at the large, scowling statue of Buddha enshrined there. As he turns, he finds himself in the company of his hosts, the young temple maiden and a stern, elaborately dressed man (Katou Masaya). The man speaks in highly formal Japanese as he invites the samurai to sit and explain his situation. The samurai, grateful for the care he has received, sits and begins a discussion with the host. As they speak, the host requests that the young maiden provide them with food, and she soon arrives with decorative plates filled with delicacies. As the samurai roughly gulps his food down, the host watches him behind unusually calm eyes.
The conversation soon turns to the samurai's comrade. The host informs him that despite their best efforts, the other samurai has died and lies in the next room. Reflecting on this, the samurai thinks that he shall take the body to Edo where his comrade's family resides. Asking if he can see the body, the host quickly suggests that he sit for a while and stay the night, as he expects a large storm to pass through soon. As they sit looking at each other, the host confesses that, in addition to the storm, there lives in this forest a powerful "tengu". The samurai chuckles at this, thinking it a joke. As the expressionless host continues to look at him, he tells the samurai that he, himself is the Tengu. Now the samurai laughs hysterically, but when the host continues to insist this, the samurai suddenly stands, thinking his host is too demented, and begins walking toward the room where his comrade lies. The host angrily suggests that the samurai look for the wounds he came in with just two days prior. Checking his chest and back, the samurai finds that he has neither wound nor scar. Marveling at this, the samurai demands to know what has happened, and the host calmly replies that "eating human flesh" has amazing results. The host then informs the samurai that he has in fact eaten his comrade and is now rather "different" from when he entered the Temple.
The samurai, now enraged, grabs his sword and rushes the host with the intent of skewering him. With incredible speed, the host eludes the samurai and draws his own formidable sword. The duel is sorely one-sided and promptly ends with the samurai being pierced directly through the chest by the host's sword. Spitting blood and groaning, the samurai drops to his knees, feeling death draw near. As the host withdraws his sword from the samurai's chest, he tells the samurai to snap out of it and simply investigate whether he is really dying. As the samurai thinks about this, he reaches in to feel his mortal wound, but again finds nothing, not even a small scar where the sword had pierced him.
The host then reveals that he is the Aragami, an immortal warrior who has given the samurai similar powers in the hope that the samurai proves to be a formidable enough opponent to perhaps defeat him and thereby provide him rest. He explains that as the Aragami he cannot simply kill himself or allow a weaker soul to kill him. Instead, he has long looked for a swordsman who might possibly be skillful enough to defeat him. Many have tried and all have failed. Now it is the samurai's turn to attempt this. The Aragami explains that, like himself, the samurai cannot be killed except by a sword through the heart or by being beheaded. The Aragami then invites the samurai to sit a while and drink with him before the battle. (He has some especially strong and rare "sake" from Russia he would like to share!)
This sets the stage for what becomes a prolonged and monstrous sword fight. Needless to say, the samurai's skill is hardly a match for that of the Aragami, but Kitamura adds his characteristic twist whereby the underdog soon finds himself wielding unprecedented power. This results is an amazing clash of swords, captured in flashy cinematic techniques and set to biwa-fueled rock and roll. (!!)
This is highly recommended for Kitamura fans. Watching Aragami, you get the sense that Kitamura wants his long-running "versus" thematic interest to go out with a bang. And Aragami certainly delivers on this level.
The dialogue portions of this film, which consist of approximately the first half of the story, are spoken in archaic, highly-formalized Japanese (teineigo), and so you will likely want to get a subtitled version, unless, of course, you enjoy watching movies with dictionary in hand. ;) The action scenes, of course, which we all came to see anyway, require no language proficiency and are thoroughly entertaining on Kitamura's characteristic visceral level.
Version reviewed: Unsubtitled VHS
|Perhaps director Ryuhei Kitamura's final exploration of the "versus" theme? Based on traditional superstitions and characters including "tengu", "aragami" and... Musashi Miyamoto?.||When your two opponents can be skewered and belimbed without great inconvenience, you're in for some real sword flailing. And that burger you just ate? Didn't he, er I mean it taste "familiar"?||Winner gets the girl! woo hoo!.||Although the "versus" motif here will be familiar to Kitamura fans, there is much greater character development and exploration of (classical) traditional superstitions here than in the other experiments.|