An attractive, neo-classical samurai/demon film, “Aragami” takes its own sweet time to establish a tense, creepy situation before erupting into ritualized swordplay. Modest in scope but handsome and clever, pic confirms the talents of director Ryuhei Kitamura, who studied film in Australia before returning to Japan to make cult items like “Versus” (2000) and “Alive” (2001). “Aragami” likewise has cult potential and doubtless a lengthy video shelf life.
Two badly wounded samurai arrive at a remote mountain temple. They’re taken in by a kindly host (Masaya Kato) and a woman servant (Kanae Uotani), but one soon succumbs to his wounds. The survivor (Takao Osawa) recovers, but is unable to leave because, he is informed, the only way out is blocked by the enemy’s forces.
The host invites the samurai to share a bottle of wine. He tells his guest about a legendary goblin called Tengu who haunts the mountain and its surrounding forests. He says Tengu’s real name is Aragami, and that he eats the flesh of men; the host then reveals that he is Aragami.
The guest at first laughs off this disturbing information, until he is told the reason for his speedy recovery is that the food he ate was the flesh of his dead friend.
These lengthy preliminaries, which occupy about an hour, are handled in a formal, classical style, with careful framing, dim lighting, plenty of shadows and splotches of bright colors. But when at last the samurai and the monster cross swords, director Kitamura introduces a vivid strobe-lighting effect which shifts the pic into something far more modern.
Although the conclusion is a bit anti-climatic, small-scale film generally impresses with its controlled visuals, and with the skill at which the director turns the screws. However, some of the dialogue, as translated into English subtitles, is distinctly anachronistic, and the suspense is constantly undermined by a very grim sense of humor.
Both Osawa and Kato seem quite comfortable in their roles and easily carry the film.
Pic is beautifully photographed by Takumi Furuya on a simple set designed by Yuji Hayashida and Norifumi Ataka, but the occasionally intrusive music score by Nobuhiko Morino sounds a jarring note.