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March 10, 2009

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Bava


A piece by Tim Lucas that I hope others have read is about the Devil as a young girl in Bunuel's Simon of the Desert. I thought back to that piece as I viewed Ashura. This more recent Japanese film has a devil that is closer to those found in Fellini and Bava's films as she is seen with a ball. The character of Emishi, played by Hanae Kan, is more literal, with a small pair of horns on her head.

I saw this film, along with When the Last Sword is Drawn, to get some idea of Yojiro Takita work prior to his Oscar winning Departures. Nothing I saw would have made me predict that Takita would even be a nominee. While the Japanese Academy named When the Last Sword is Drawn the the best film, along with honoring the two male leads, in 2004, my own preference would have been for Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi. Takita's film about the uneasy friendship and rivalry between two 19th Century samurai was the least interesting as a samurai film. The subplot about the two men's relationships with the women of their lives caught my interest, and suggests the warmhearted aspect to Takita's work that was noted in a review of Departures.

Ashura is a bagful of loopy fun. A gang of "wardens" search for demons that spurt phosphorescent green blood when cut. One of the wardens leaves to become an itinerant actor, a popular Kabuki star. A young woman finds a mysterious mark on her shoulder that grows. The presence of Ashura means that demons will take over the world, with Ashura residing in an invisible upside down castle. AnimEigo's wonderfully vernacular subtitles may add more snark than intended, but it adds to the fun of a film that seems to be a grab bag of bits from An Actor's Revenge, Shakespeare in Love, Spider-Man, as well as the memory of years of Japanese samurai films. Was the devil girl with the ball inspired by Fellini or Bava? Maybe when more of Takita is known, we'll find out. Whatever the case, the character of Emishi as she appears in Ashura is both iconic and unexpected.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 10, 2009 12:35 AM


Great catch, Peter!

I believe the cute Japanese girls with small horns on their head that you see in some Japanese films and anime (Urusei yatsura is a good example of this) are supposed to represent a type of Oni or female Japanese demon.

The ball she's carrying might also refer to the Peach Boy folk tales I read as a child. In one tale Peach Boy meets a beautiful young girl with small horns on her head who warns him that he'll grow small horns too if he eats the fruit off an ogre's tree. Maybe the ball is symbolic of this fruit? Of course I'm just tossing out ideas here, but I find this all really interesting.

Maybe Fellini and Bava were inspired by Japanese folk tales?

Posted by: Kimberly at March 12, 2009 09:07 PM

Interesting thoughts here. It could well be that there are more cross cultural exchanges than have been noted. AnimEigo's titles include some brief explanation about the demons being invoked by one of the characters. I hope you get to see this soon.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at March 13, 2009 01:44 AM

Thanks for the link to the Lucas piece, which had escaped my attention. I love Simon of the Desert; my first viewing of it was presented by Matthew Lehman of Heathers "fame", who claimed it was an inspiration for his 40 Days 40 Nights.

Of course Bunuel was on the Cannes jury that gave that festival's first-ever prize to a Japanese film- Gate of Hell which......despite its title, unfortunately has no demons in it. So no concrete connection there.

Posted by: Brian at March 16, 2009 03:03 PM

You wrote that
ďNothing I saw would have made me predict that Takita would even be a nominee.Ē

I totally agree with you. I havenít seen DEPARTURES, but I think WHEN THE LAST SWORD IS DRAWN (2003, A-) is just a good film, but not an outstanding one. I like some ideas in ASHURA (2005, B-) and THE YIN YANG MASTER (2001, Yojiro Takita, B), but they are not as exciting as I wish they would be.

I nearly forgot everything about ASHURA after I had seen it. I had already forgotten about the devil girl with the ball before I read your review. I think FEARDOTCOM (2002, William Malone, C) also has the devil girl with the ball, but the film is extremely bad.

I think KOKKURI (1997, Takahisa Zeze, A+) also has the ghost of a little girl and a haunted ball in the film, but maybe KOKKURI is not related to KILL BABY, KILL, because the ghost girl and the haunted ball may not appear together. (I saw this film many years ago, so I canít remember its details.) I just checked its information in IMDB, and it says that the haunted ball in KOKKURI refers to THE CHANGELING (1980, Peter Medak, A-).

Though I donít like ASHURA, I still like some fantasy ghost films from Japan, such as KITARO AND THE MILLENNIUM CURSE (2008, Katsuhide Motoki, A+/A), KITARO (2007, Katsuhide Motoki, A), and DORORO (2007, Akihiko Shiota, A-).

Posted by: Celinejulie at March 18, 2009 09:33 AM