Aragami (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2003)

I remember very well the brief period of time when Ryhuei Kitamura could crap out anything and there would be at least one person who would claim it a classic piece of cult cinema. I never really bought into that. I was sixteen when I first watched Versus, and while the action scenes and loopy camera work impressed, the movie itself was just silly. After watching Alive, Azumi, Sky High, and Longinus, I really started to question why anybody thought that Kitamura was the best thing to happen to cult film since ever. It was as though somebody with the talent of a "real" director had the sensibilities of a sixteen year-old-boy and the pompous knack for self-indulgence of the more recent Peter Jackson. Every one of his movies seemed to drag out fight scenes that never went anywhere; cameras spin just for the hell of it and cute little Japanese women kill hundreds of large, burly Japanese men with little effort and a whole lot of panache. Seemingly everybody had finally had enough by Godzilla: Final Wars.

I've not seen much love for Kitamura lately. LoveDeath, his 2006 manga adaptation (audacious enough to last for over two and a half hours), barely received coverage from the geeky side of the internet, and what little it did wasn't very positive. The Midnight Meat Train, his American film debut from last year, provoked mixed reactions from horror fans; asian movie fanboys had apparently moved on and forgotten about Kitamura. It never occurred to some of these that Kitamra was not terribly Japanese in his film making style(LoveDeath has more than a bit in common with both Robert Rodriguez and Michael Bay), and that doing horror movies in American settings might allow for creativity beyond staging sword fights and setting off explosives and paying Tak Sakaguchi to do cameos. I was once ambivalent towards Kitamura. Now I'm looking for reasons to like him, because it's fun to be contrary.

So I re-watched Aragami, one of the three Ryuhei Kitamura movies I'd seen that I managed to get some enjoyment out of. Put together in short order as part of a challenge he made with another director (his competitor, Yukihiko Tsustsumi, made 2LDK for his part), Aragami has a single location, and only three real characters. It spends its time talking more than fighting. The camera work is mostly subdued, during the exchanges between the characters, it actually looks kind of like a straightforward jidai-geki rather than a video game cut-scene.

The set-up: a wounded samurai stumbles into a remote mountain temple carrying his even more wounded friend. The samurai survives, and wakes p to find that his friend did not, and his hosts are an eccentrically dressed man with a sword and a prim woman who says very little. Unable to leave the mountain dwelling for fear of the battle he previously escaped from making its way up the mountain, the samurai agrees to have a drink with his host, who reveals himself to be a supernatural being called the Aragami, that he is immortal, that he fights and wins against against everybody he meets, that he eats some of his defeated opponents, and that the samurai recovered with such celerity because he was fed the flesh of his dead friend.

Thus, being immortal, and the young soldier having nothing better to do, the Aragami wants a fight, because he finally wants to die. In the mean, he treats his new acquaintance to French wine and Russian vodka, claims himself to be Miyamoto Musashi. Bits of anachronistic dialogue -- "Ninja stars are so silly." being one of the more notable examples -- creep in every now and then as the two discuss various things of varying importance. Generally very loopy, and it could have worked had it turned out that the Aragami and everything he claimed and his unusual temple hide-away were really an elaborate self-made fantasy, with the stranded deserter caught in the center of it.In fact, I'd hoped that that would be the case. It isn't. The film plays itself straight, or at least it never gives any hint that things are any different than what we're watching unfold. As such, it's a tad silly and predictable. I mean really? Miyamoto Musashi?

At the same time, the movie is actually a treat to watch. The dimly lit temple set splotched with colored lighting and shadows establishes great mood, and the costuming (outside of Masaya Kato's wig) really looks fantastic. The fight scenes actually are well constructed and stylishly filmed and realistically choreographed outside of some wire-effects used to simulate impossibly high leaps. The camera works with the choreography instead of just spinning around all willy nilly and Kitamura mostly spares us from ugly digital effects.

That's the real reason I like this one. It isn't a great film, and it doesn't have the insane energy of Versus. It does have a very fun collection of action scenes, some nice cinematography, decent acting (and overacting, usually). Kitamura shows more cleverness as a director than as a writer, but at least he was a bit more focused here than he was with some of his other films.

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