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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Dragging kabuki onto the screen

Ashura-jo no Hitomi

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Yojiro Takita
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Traditional Japanese performance arts appear often enough on the screen, but usually in an isolated scene or two (Takeshi Kitano's "Dolls") or as a backdrop for the main story (Yukiko Takayama's "Musume Dojoji -- Jaen no Koi"), not as the basis for an entire film. Use all the editing tricks you want, kabuki is still kabuki, with a performance style and stagecraft that are the antithesis of most current-day cinema.

News photo
Somegoro Ichikawa in "Ashura-jo no Hitomi"

The onstage camera sees, with a clarity the eyes on the fifth row do not, that the swishing swords of the warriors never meet, that the mincing young geisha has a bobbing Adam's apple and wattled cheeks. What might have enthralled audiences in 1915, when filmed kabuki plays were in vogue, would probably induce tedium and giggles among multiplex moviegoers in 2005.

Yojiro Takita's "Ashura-jo no Hitomi (Ashura)" is a film version of a hit play set in and around the kabuki world of the early 19th-century Edo Period, when the kabuki playwright Tsuruya Namboku IV (Fumiyo Kohinata) was at the height of his fame. It even stars Somegoro Ichikawa, a kabuki actor reprising his stage role as the demon-slaying hero.

Save for its kabuki performance scenes, however, the film is less kabuki updated and reconfigured, than a splashy melange of everything from J-horror and Takarazuka to Rogers and Hart (the composers of the credit crawl song, "My Funny Valentine"). The target audience is not the ladies who lunch at the Kabuki-za, but their daughters, many of whom are more into Ichikawa as a hot-looking guy than the guardian of a centuries-old tradition.

Takita, who also directed the samurai drama "Mibugishiden" (2003) and the period fantasies "Onmyoji" (2001) and "Onmyoji 2" (2003), strives mightily to entertain this audience with not only frequent closeups of Ichikawa (including his cross-eyed kabuki poses), but cornball gags, titanic demon-vs.-human battles and various CG-generated marvels, including the head of Rie Miyazawa looking like the Wizard of Oz, minus the smoke and thunder crashes.

On stage all this must have looked impressive enough, in a matsuri-meets-magic-show sort of way -- though kabuki purists were probably horrified. On the big screen, it is a strange mixture, with shots of the Edo demimonde at its most gorgeously decadent followed by slambang action and cheesy effects.

The story begins with demons, led by the beautiful and nefarious Bizan (Kanako Higuchi), plotting to wreck havoc in old Edo -- with the ultimate aim of bringing their queen, Ashura, back to life and taking over the world. Who can stop them? The government has formed the Oni Mikado -- an elite force dedicated to rooting out demons wherever they appear, somewhat like Bill Murray and company in "Ghostbusters," but using swords instead of giant sucking devices.

An original member of this force, Izumo "Demon Slayer" Wakuraba (Ichikawa), has since resigned and become a kabuki actor. Meanwhile the Oni Mikado leader, Nobuyuki Kuninari (Takashi Naito), and his fierce, canny lieutenant Jaku Abe (Atsuro Watabe) carry on, slicing meanies into green vapor trails.

Meanwhile, a troupe of female acrobats is wreaking havoc of another kind by turning thief at night -- and fighting running battles with the authorities. One of their number, Tsubaki (Miyzawa), stays free with Izumo's help, but as their acquaintance blossoms into love, a painful red scar appears on her shoulder -- the mark of Ashura. She struggles to remember an incident five years earlier that holds the key to her current dilemma -- and eventual fate. Then Jaku falls under Bizan's erotic spell and goes over to the dark side. She sends him after Tsubaki, to speed her in her horrific transformation into . . .

Eager to come across as a real movie star, not an ethereally refined kabuki prima, Ichikawa overdoes the macho theatrics. Imagine a hyper Japanese version of Furio -- the charming-but-explosive hit man in "The Sopranos."

Co-star Miyazawa gives the film what little weight it has. This former idol has matured into an actress who can play difficult period roles with authority, including the battered wife in "Tasogare Seibei" (2002) and the war-ravaged woman in "Chichi to Kuraseba" (2004). In "Ashura-jo" she is mostly wasted, though pro that she is, she soldiers straight-faced through the film's various absurdities.

The theme -- romantic love as a fatal, irresistible force -- is pure kabuki, but instead of kabuki's high tragedy, Takita relies on action and melodrama, as worlds collide and the love story subsides into general confusion. All the while Tsuruya is looking on and gathering material for his next masterpiece, like a bemused amanuensis at the apocalypse. Thankfully, the real-life playwright only had a brush and ink to work with, not a digital palette. Otherwise, kabuki might have died aborning and we'd be left with -- "Ashura-jo no Hitomi."

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