Asura アシュラ [Film Review]
Born to a beast, to be human.
In a medieval Japan, starvation and death are abundant. Asura is a child born in this time of turmoil, and is soon abandoned by his mother after she tries to eat him. Asura wanders, and kills others to survive. He encounters a monk that teaches him language, and a kind girl that teaches him the meaning of being “human.” But the line between “beast” and “humans” is very thin…
On the other end of the spectrum is the Toei studio animated Asura. Set in 15th century medieval Japan, flood, drought and famine have transformed living an unbearable reality. Asura is born from a starving mother that flees the burning of Kyoto. While the mother initially protects the child from dogs and other dangers, she becomes so hungry that she throws her child into a fire with the intention of eating it after. Awakening from her madness, the mother flees, leaving her child. Several years later, the child is very much alive, perhaps even reborn in fire as a beast of agony. He only interacts with other humans if he has to eat, and is unable to speak. More beast than human, he wanders from place to place to survive. One day, he encounters a monk, who teaches him the human language, and the concept that it is possible to eat without killing others, that kindness for each other is natural.
Later, Asura encounters the village girl Wakasa, who shows him kindness he has never encountered. However, the rest of the village is less than receptive of him, so he is unable to join them. In a heart-breaking manner, Asura rues his own existence- others don’t understand him, or judge him for what he had done in the past.
Though it seems impossible at the beginning, Asura begins on the path to redemption. For a cannibal, he is a very sympathetic character, a product of the time he is born in. In order to survive, he learned to eat people, in order to learn to love, he learned that love also can bring about pain. The final scene of the film gives false hope that a new decree will save others like him, but in the film, the realities are set firmly in place. If you are a farmer, you will never be a lord; if you are different, you will be excluded. The dark picture painted by the film isn’t all bad, though- as the viewer follows Asura’s tale, each character feels very much alive and real. The animation style is very different from the traditional anime style, with the appearance of 3D and moving watercolour.
The most terrifying aspect of the film was the level of realism achieved. While Wolf Children and Letter to Momo from WFAC are both flights of fancy, Asura is a grim tale of the lows of human existence, and how people cope in such environments. Even with such scenes as Wakasa’s father lamenting that he hadn’t sold his daughter earlier, there is understanding that this is a desperate time, and every person must fend for themselves, whether by selling their daughters, eating other humans, stealing, killing, so on and so forth, but as long as we strive with the best intention, life will be fulfilling.