Ryuhei Kitamura, “Aragami” (2003)
The Japan Foundation Office across the road from where I work put on a week’s worth of Japanese films during the April Easter school holiday break and I managed to book myself into one of the evening sessions. “Aragami” seemed like a nice easy movie to watch. The story is a simple one: two samurai, severely wounded in battle, arrive at a temple in remote mountain country; one of them (Takao Osawa) who remains nameless throughout the film awakes two days later, completely healed and healthy, to be entertained by his mysterious hosts: the priest (Masaya Kato) and a woman servant. During the course of their evening meal, the priest reveals himself as a demon god of battle, Aragami / Tengu, and admits to the surprised samurai that he healed his wounds by allowing his friend to die so he could use his liver. Aragami then challenges the samurai to a fight to the death.
During the course of the film which focusses very heavily on stylised swordfight choreography which of course must culminate in an ultimate duel of ching-ching-kaching sword noise and lots of superhuman athletic leaping, accompanied by fast and sharp edits and dazzling camera work pulling in unusual viewpoints, we get messages about how war is the ultimate aim in life for certain categories of people (like samurai for example), how appearances can’t be trusted, how immortality can have its downsides and the underlying homoerotic bromance between a supernatural demon and a normal human being who have more in common with each other than with members of their own species. What initially starts out as a conventional good-versus-evil film becomes less and less certain as the demon expresses his desire for death and puts the burden of that responsibility onto the samurai: the motive he gives is rather daft and not original, and perhaps he might have presented as a more sympathetic character if he had said he was jealous of sending others to experience something he himself had never experienced and how could he be a god of battle and violence if he did not know death personally. The samurai, initially a bit of a klutz, becomes a complex figure as well, at once heroic and a comic figure; a twist in the plot makes him a sinister character as well.
The two actors playing the samurai and Aragami do a good job in portraying surprisingly complex characters in a tight action plot on what is essentially one wooden stage surrounded by a few props. The lone minor character, played by Kanae Uotani, appears superfluous to proceedings, her main role being to serve dinner and drinks, and does very little else but turns out to be the dominant and most sinister figure of the three as witness to the showdown between Aragami and the samurai and in determining the samurai’s ultimate fate. Is she perhaps the real Aragami and the being who calls himself Aragami merely her slave?
In appearance the film is sparing – all filming was done in seven days – and the atmosphere is gloomy as all the action seen takes place over one night in a darkened temple during stormy weather. The film ends only when the sun has risen. Special effects are sparingly used and the fighting is quick and usually brief with lots of quick, short takes and fast editing. The main fight scene is fought in the dark with lightning flashes of action. The music is a mix of pop metal and traditional high-brow Japanese instrumental music.
Fun to watch and the fight scenes are very enjoyable but ultimately the film is very bland and is memorable mostly for the acting. The plot twists appear as last-minute thoughts thrown into the story to spice it up though viewers familiar with action films based on Japanese mythology may guess what lies in store for the nameless samurai after the final battle.