A timeless tale gets redone in “Ashura,” a Kabuki classic here given sexy, f/x-laden treatment that only outstays its welcome in final reels. Top cast, wildly eclectic soundtrack and intriguing use of antique themes make pic — about a climactic battle, and love affair, between demons and demon hunters in old Edo — a midnight must for fans of both manga and traditional threads. New Nippon DVD release comes with disc containing a staged version of the original play, also starring Somegoro Ichikawa.
Fans of the Japan-arthouse tradition of marrying archaic elements to experimental form (Bunraku-inspired “Double Suicide” being the most obvious example) will appreciate many ironies here. These start with topliner Ichikawa, son of a famous Kabuki star, as Izumo, top Demon Hunter-turned-thespian who gave up chasing evil spirits after he thought he killed an innocent girl.
This tragedy occurs at the end of an opening sequence in which Izumo and other hunters, led by sage samurai (Atsuro Watabe) and his too-eager lieutenant Jaku (Takashi Naito), who looks like a feral rock star, relish slicing and dicing befanged demons across a debauched-looking 19th-century Edo.
Girl later returns as Tsubaki (former teen idol and sometime porn star Rie Miyazawa), an acrobat and part-time ninja thief who posseses untapped magic powers. When Izumo bumps into her in a romantic, riverfront setting, he sets out to learn her secrets, and they woo each other in semi-violent fashion.
Fireworks result in Tsubaki herself ascending to throne of Ashura, long-awaited queen of darkness. Meanwhile, Bizan (Kanako Higuchi), beautiful, nun-like apparition, shows up occasionally to explain things.
In the drawn-out final quarter, Jaku changes sides to get with Bizan, and to prevent Izumo from following Tsubaki/Ashura into her upside-down castle fortress.
Despite the over-the-top sword-and-sorcery, helmer and co-scripter Yojiro Takita (who has previously handled period and horror pics) revel most in theatrical elements. He ultimately rests saga on Tsuruya Namboku IV (Fumiyo Kohinata), the Kabuki playwright who actually wrote the original and is here presented as an easily bored witness to earth-shattering events.
Visual f/x range from awesome to cheesy, and detached, multi-level approach is reinforced by music score that combines odd-metered jazz with heavily orchestrated world pop and more. Even so, it’s unexpected when post-apocalyptic credits roll while Sting sings “My Funny Valentine.”