Gift Title: Asura (Ashura)
Namu Amida Butsu and mindfulness of the Buddha, this holiday season.
[Part three of my three post list from the Reverse Thieves Anime Secret Santa 2014 exchange]
By virtue of the fact I am in a position that as a hobby I write about foreign films and animated entertainment and post my thoughts on the internet for an audience to read, I am in a position of privilege billions walking the planet today are not. Let alone when one starts counting up prior points in history.
This is something I am forced to confront and kick around sometimes in my personal, professional, or academic life. I bring up at points in different posts on this blog aspects relating to countries I have visited or work I have done, and elements of dire poverty and darkness of the human experience have been among them. My direct advisor in graduate school did significant work relating to genocides, famines, and other human disasters. This was in part responsible for how I would come to do a field study in Rwanda for a time several years ago. And there is a lot of crucially important listening and learning to be had in such circumstances. To even attempt to begin to process hell and hope on incalculable scales. Perspectives to view aspects of the world I can see but limited slivers of, while for others it is their entire universe.
The world of Asura is one of encroaching hunger, desperation, and seemingly ever dwindling options.
This 2012 film is based on a manga of the same name, concocted by George Akiyama and first released in 1970 in Weekly Shōnen Magazine.
This was still very early in Akiyama’s manga career, having only had his professional debut in 1966. Despite this though, the fifteenth century period piece Asura aggressively grabbed the attention of the public right from the first chapter. In the sense that the series and its associated magazine became an overnight protest target. Those initial panels feature not only the subject of cannibalism via eating long dead corpses, but also a mother reaching the point of famine induced madness where she undertakes the drastic moves for cooking and consuming her own baby.
She is interrupted in this case, as we would not have our protagonist otherwise. Though she comes alarmingly close. The idea there would be other children in this universe who did not escape this fate would not be unreasonable. One can understand how this is subject material one would generally not have expected to casually run into, or how it would be taken as quite a shock to readers.
Asura as our title character then, is left to their own devices and becomes a feral child. We pick up again with the boy after an eight year time skip. His early developmental years in between are hand waved in the manner one may often find with some folkloric tales, so as to speed up the delivery of thematic points.
For one to debate and over-analyze the finer points of how Asura was not picked apart by birds of prey or the like as a babe would be missing the point. What matters is he is a being of anger, savagery, and pain. Both in how he himself feels, in his stunted ability to process emotions, and what he often brings to others by his own will or through accident. Someone who, despite all else, keeps surviving.
Human by virtue of taxonomy, and little else.
Asura arrives via Keiichi Satou’s directorial oversight.
Western anime fans who may have watched the old Toonami block of a decade and a half ago would know him as the Character and Mechanical Designer for the nostalgic 1950’s meets mecha sensibilities of The Big O. Those who have kept up with more current airing series though would be familiar with him as the Director of the superheroes with corporates sponsors antics of Tiger & Bunny, and the mobile phone fantasy card game turned action-adventure television show Rage of Bahamut: Genesis. The Tiger & Bunny point is particularly apt. That series made extensive efforts to render its heroes via 3DCGI when they donned their uniforms, in addition to further equipment like vehicles and the like, and so it was most deployed during fight scenes or other action set pieces. Other character animation though, including people wearing said uniforms (if their face cover opened, for instance) was handled via hand drawn techniques.
On a technical level, Satou and his team at Toei Animation attempted to achieve a graphical style with Asura which seeks to make its fully polygonal characters look like they came more out of a traditionally hand drawn piece.
It is an interesting illusion it seeks to weave, to be sure. Skin tones and their textures are muddied up with multiple shades. Heavier linework is applied to traits like eyebrows for creating more dynamic and broad facial reactions. A lot of the movie takes place at different stages of dawn, sunset, night, poor weather conditions, or the like. Overall character styles remain in a more deformed or anime mode than shooting for direct physiological realism. So its attempts at misdirection or otherwise seeking to obscure the nature of its polygon character models are extensive.
Granted, it is not on an absolute level where a universal audience would be fully convinced and then shocked to learn the reveal that the characters were 3DCGI all along. But, it does have a very keen sense of the art direction and style it wants to achieve, and that is of immense value. One of the biggest problems 3DCGI has in animation is that is looks “outdated” very quickly, especially if it shoots for point to point realism. However, art direction can stop a whole lot of bleeding to time. Consider how the Dreamcast video game Jet Set Radio, released in the year 2000 but so carefully deploying cel shading to the point it became a short industry trend, still looks quite nice years later.
In that respect, by rolling around in well applied mud and makeup Asura should be able to visually hold up much better over time than one of its similar Toei Animation peers: the much more recent but significantly brighter and shiner Expelled from Paradise.
Returning more to the content of the film, this is one driven much more by themes than plot.
The production clocks in at roughly an hour and fifteen minutes, though as the original manga ran only from 1970-1971 this is understandable in its lightness there . In that time though, Asura is confronted with many varieties of circumstances. Slaughtering families for food, indistinguishable to him from animals themselves. Interacting with a Buddhist monk who offers him food, and who even gives Asura his name, while the child has no concept of religious systems or faith leaders. Authority figures like the regional lord and their representatives, though Asura has no experience in what social hierarchy systems mean. And so on and so forth, including even a teenage girl named Wakasa who seeks to befriend him.
Speaking broadly, in Buddhist practices the Asuras are a demigod tier classification for beings which are more powerful than humans but plagued by addictions to wrath, violence, envy, and the like. They desire strongly for what they can not have and where they seek to ascend, mainly by being in a position to know and see enough of it that it becomes enraging and palpable but then in turn too far for them to achieve in their present condition. It is an important notion to keep in mind over the course of the film, as Asura makes his way through the countryside.
Beyond his own bundle of aggression and despair though, it is not like the rest of the world surrounding Asura is doing too well either.
It is the kind of increasingly widespread destitution and harvest failure situation where a father does the mental calculations for how much rice his own daughter may be worth if sold as a concubine. How long would the windfall last. Would such a trade situation improve one area of her life at the expense of another, and what then becomes more valuable. The processes by which an authority figure mentally justifies doing things like placing a bounty for the death of what amounts to an eight year old boy. At what points people will be driven wide eyed and excited at the prospect for joining in such a hunt and the potential reward. Wildlife is arguably not even doing all too well, as Asura has more than one successful encounter wrestling and eviscerating creatures like wild birds.
The traits that exist in a character like Wakasa provide their own windows as well. On the one hand, she could be seen as the sort of figure who would represent a sense of acceptance, that of a normal and everyday societal vector outside of, say, religion or politics. Though at the same time there are the readings for if she is considering Asura as a complex human being or more akin to an animal or novelty. If the sort of purity of path she could have may be muddied with naivete, and perhaps not being able or willing to parse out what realm Asura is or should be standing within.
As may be expected given combination of the aggressive run time, number of individual thematic balls being juggled through, and the violence one would expect through its duration, Asura is never an experience spinning its wheels for long.
I feel this is an encouraging factor for many viewers. Often, films which deal in the level of despair and loss being applied here are slower and melancholic experiences. One could even go so far as to call them meditative. And I get a lot of personal mileage out of those experiences. I do not think that would surprise anyone who has done enough of an archive binge of this blog. But, there is this tricky and yet essential place in media to be able to deliver that sort of messaging in faster framing as well. It is something folklore and similar tales could be used for a lot in prior days, and it is still something places like manga and film can deal in now. So I do see solid reasoning for why George Akiyama’s manga series is as small as it is, and Keiichi Satou not bloating the adaptation up for padding or trying to make it a more sweeping, epic scale production. An attempt at a small but robust little folkloric journey.
This does get into an area where what is fundamentally the plot climax does not come at the same time as the thematic one.
While indeed often a useful if not a default level device to lead a production out on, there is a large time skip for the final scene of the movie and the message it wants to deliver with it. It is the sort of thing what works just fine in classic oral lore or the like. Wrapping up a short but focused series of events while opening a new gap to imagine the path forward to a more distant conclusion. It leaves an audience member with something to further ponder teachings in, how one set of end events would connect with this new beginning. All the more useful in a less saturated media environment. Does it work here in movie form, itself an adaptation of a source material mimicking such a style?
Well, I can see a character path it wants me to walk to reach that conclusion. So in that respect, yes it does.
But it is also something to be mindful of, in a production where a mantra relating to mindfulness is its most common oral refrain.