I’ve been going to the Leeds Anime Movie Festival for the past 3 years now. The first time I got to see Redline, which was awesome. The second year was a bit of a step down with Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Very Long Movie Titles, but still pretty good. This year had Asura, which is less a step down and more a leap off a sheer cliff. It was less a downgrade and more a hurling of your laptop out of the window and instead painting on a cave wall. It was less a loss in cutting edge and more a transferring from a blunt knife to a pillow.
What I’m trying to say is Asura isn’t very good.
Asura is Japan’s latest attempts at a fully CG movie, this time depicting the harsh life during Japan’s equivalent of the Dark Ages. The movie kicks off with a pregnant woman giving a quite graphic birth to a boy, before she beats a wild dog to death with a nearby axe. As we can see, things are looking pretty grim in this world. Everyone is dying and the only way to survive sometimes is to resort to cannibalism. This baby eventually leaves his mother (after she throws him onto a fire with the intent of eating him) and becomes a wild child who runs across the countryside, eating other dying people.
To be fair to the producers of Asura, there probably was a time in history when the outlook for society really was this grim. There probably was a time when a guard would order his father to throw his feeble son into a ravine. There indeed probably was a time when haggard housewives would stumble along a road, gossiping about how their next door neighbour ate her own baby. Maybe it’s just my fault that I can’t take such a bleak world at face value. But it would really help if the show didn’t keep undermining itself.
For one, there’s no context given for how the world ended up in this state. People are poor and there’s no food, that’s just how life is. It never gives any idea that an alternative would ever exist. It’s just grim decay from start to finish, and it really likes to beat us over the head with this, to the point that it flips around and becomes unintentional comedy. The spurts of blood that would shoot out of someone the cannibal kid attacked looked completely ridiculous. It also has real issues with continuity sometimes. The cannibal kid suddenly jumped from having a vocabulary of about 10 words to being able to philosophise the pain of existence.
Then there was the CG, which had the usual problems CG has. Characters do that thing where they sway in motion for a few seconds before coming to a standstill, like a video game character returning to their neutral stance. Hair seems to be made out of flat pieces of paper glued onto the top of their head like a wig. I know the movie is supposed to look ugly, but I don’t think these were the kinds of ugly it was going for. Sometimes I wonder whether my dislike of fully CG anime comes from me being used to 2D animation and having a gut dislike of anime designs in 3D, but then I see a shot where someone’s standing still but their feet are mysteriously hovering a few centimetres above the ground. Japan has a long way to go before it makes its CG look anywhere near Pixar/Disney/Dreamworks levels.
It’s has some incredibly dumb scenes too. I’m going to spoil a big plot twist here, but you shouldn’t watch the movie anyway so who cares. The kid occasionally meets this monk who tries to teach him not to become a killer. During one of his attempts to teach the kid, the monk pulls out a sword and then swings at his own arm. I thought this about making the kid realise he cared for someone and would stop the monk from swinging the sword. But I was under the mistaken assumption that the movie was leading to some sort of hopeful narrative conclusion. Instead the monk chops his arm clean off and tells the kid to eat it. The kid runs away, so the monk just stands there are cries for a bit, probably at the realisation of how thick he was for chopping off his own arm. I suppose it seemed like a good idea at the time.
And you know what this was all leading up to (spoiler warning for the end, but again who cares because it’s a rubbish film)? The kid has an entire village trying to kill him. The kid doesn’t die, which might at least give some narrative finality to his actions where we learn the damning life of being a monster that is beyond saving. Instead he becomes a monk with his life lesson being that people die because I don’t know, life sucks I guess. It’s such a frustratingly pointless end to a movie that would have been unpleasant even if it wasn’t so badly made. With that end though, it makes me wonder what the purpose of the whole thing was. Even if you like unrelenting grimness, which makes for a bad story anyway the same way unrelenting calm and peacefulness would, there’s anime far better made than this.