|There is a regular title screen, but this just looks cooler.|
In the mid-15th century Kyoto was hit with intense drought & famine, creating a desolate environment of death. It is in this world that a woman gives birth to a son, but due to a lack of food she tries cooking her son in a fire; while the child is in the fire she becomes frightened & runs off. Eight years have since passed & the boy has become a feral beast of a child, wielding an ax & killing people whenever he gets hungry. After encountering a wandering Buddhist monk, who teaches him to say the sutra "Namu Amida Butsu" & gives him the name Asura, the boy winds up in a small village lead by Lord Jitou. Asura's encounter with the villagers, especially a girl named Wakasa that teaches him to talk, combined with the famine could very well be the worst thing to happen.
There's no other way to say this: Asura is in no way a happy movie. It's an outright horrible world during this time, & Asura absolutely has it worst. He's been abandoned by his mother, forced to revert to a completely animalistic life with no ability to talk. While he can walk on his own two feet he runs on all fours, has immense speed & reflexes in battle, & is outright deadly with an ax. What got the original manga banned in Japan, though, is the cannibalism. Yes, Asura kills people simply because he's hungry & has no qualms about eating people for nourishment (he was never taught that it was wrong, obviously), and the story delves into the idea of cannibalism being the only way to escape death. There are happy moments in the movie, but they're simply to keep the viewer from becoming absolutely depressed; plus, it lets the flaws of the characters become more pronounced, which is a good thing.
Asura himself, even with the whole cannibalism aspect, is absolutely a character that you feel sorry for; all he knows is death & struggle, so you want to see him find happiness. At first the nameless Buddhist monk seems like Asura's savior, but all he does is teach the lesson that Asura needs to know at the moment & hopes that the boy can become more "human". The main relation comes when Wakasa finds Asura, badly injured after a fight with Jitou after Asura killed Jitou's son Kotaro (& starts eating him). Wakasa nurses Asura back to health & feeds him while also teaching the boy how to talk, giving Asura his first real sense of normality & happiness. Unfortunately, Wakasa ends up treating Asura more like a secret pet than a boy, & when Asura realizes that Wakasa wants to be with Shichirou, the farm boy in the village... Well, I'll leave that up to you to see. Essentially, everyone in this movie is flawed & makes mistakes, all of which continually spiral downwards into the worst possible scenario. Likewise, there's a good amount of bloodshed & violence in this movie; nothing really gratuitous, but still powerful & violent. It fits the horrible, death-filled environment the story takes place in & I wouldn't have it any other way.
If there's one best way to describe this movie, though, it's a Japanese Frankenstein. While Asura was born of traditional means, he was abandoned by his "creator", like what Frankenstein did to his "Monster", & forced to interact with the world in a rough & brutal way, becoming a "wanted man" in the process, until he gets "saved" by a person who tries to humanize him; Wakasa is essentially the equivalent to the blind man that befriends the Monster. Unfortunately, Asura ends up interacting with those that want to kill him again & it all comes to a head in the climax. Hell, this movie even features a group of torch-wielding villagers that want our lead character dead, just like the classic 1931 Universal movie adaptation! As a fan of Mary Shelley's novel I loved the similarities between the two works, & Asura manages to differ enough to be its own thing; the similarities are there, but they don't take over the story.
Honestly, there isn't really anything to complain about with this movie, outside of some nitpicky things. For example, after being taught how to speak Asura only speaks in short phrases, usually only a word or two. About two-thirds into the movie, when he reunites with the monk, Asura suddenly can speak full sentences & share his feelings fluently. I'm going to guess some parts of the original manga were cut (adapting three volumes into just over an hour is no easy feat), so I'll assume that there were originally more scenes of Asura's evolving speech pattern that just weren't adapted. Also, one of the characters really got on my nerves as the story went on, showcasing nothing but idiocy & a "holier-than-thou" attitude during the climax... But I guess that's what you're supposed to feel with this character, so maybe it's not exactly a nitpick. Regardless, this movie not only tells a strong story (you honestly feel for an outright cannibal!) but actually excels in doing so.
Not content with simply an excellent story, though, Toei showcases yet another example of how they're willing to experiment visually. Asura utilizes what's being called "hybrid animation", which is 100% CG but done in a way that makes it look like it's hand-drawn. While overall the experiment might not always look like it completely succeeds, and Akiyama's original character designs don't always help, there are tons of instances where the illusion of the movie being hand-drawn is in full-effect. For a good example of how detailed this effect goes, even a shot of a rope tearing to the point where it's about the break looks as if it couldn't possibly have been done in CG. Even when it doesn't necessarily succeed, though, the hybird animation effect looks very nice & keeps the movie looking one-of-a-kind. One can only hope that Toei will continue to use this effect in future productions, because I would love to see how far the illusion of hand-drawn CG can go.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this movie is directed by Keiichi Satou, and he completely delivers in this production. In just a little over an hour he managed to get a lot of story in without it feeling rushed one bit whatsoever, & the major characters all become important in their own ways; even if you hate them you can understand why they act that way. Adapting the manga into a short time frame was done by Ikuko Takahashi, who wrote some episodes of Blue Exorcist as well as two of the stories in Toei's Mononoke, who really did a great job; if there were any important scenes from the manga that were cut I couldn't tell. Yukitoshi Hotani's character designs really shine here, keeping Akiyama's old-school style perfectly intact; as creepy as Asura himself can look you have to love his design. The music, a team effort by Norihito Sumitomo (Corpse Princess: Kuro & DBZ: Battle of Gods), Susumu Ueda (Ring ni Kakero 1 & Re: Cutie Honey), & Yoshihiro Ike (Tiger & Bunny and Ergo Proxy), is excellent, delivering from subtle yet effective to sweeping epicness. The ending credits do something different by utilizing two different songs, both performed by Yasuha Kominami: "Kibou" & "Trash". The former fits the sad & violent path Asura has had to live through, while the latter offers a little more happiness in sound, but both generally keep with the somber world that the movie showcases.
The main cast is small but expertly delivered, lead by the legendary Masako Nozawa (Goku in Dragon Ball, Guilmon in Digimon Tamers), who, even in her late-70s, is able to deliver a performance that sounds both extremely young yet also tired & angry; Asura simply sounds like an eight-year-old who's already lived a lifetime of pain & loneliness. The Buddhist monk is performed by Kinya Kitaoji (whose only other anime role has been Wataru Mikumo in 1982's Future War Year 198X), who does a lot with his role by delivering both caring & sternness with the monk (also, the monk's downright "hardcore"!). Wakasa is voiced by Megumi Hayashibara (Lina Inverse in the Slayers franchise, Rei in Evangelion), who does a great job in making Wakasa both caring but also selfish when it comes to her own personal wants & needs, especially when it comes to Shichirou. In turn, Shichirou is voiced by Hiroaki Hirata, who doesn't have as many lines but generally does a nice job with the character. Finally, the major cast is finished up with Lord Jitou, voiced by the venerable Tessho Genda, who makes his impact any time he's on screen.
You must watch Asura. It's not only experimental with the use of "hybrid animation" but also intensely gripping with its story of a young child who has known nothing but violence yet wishes for a normal life. I love the similarities to Frankenstein, but Akiyama managed to make the overall plot skeleton his own by changing some elements & embracing the violent world that the famine & drought-suffering citizens of Kyoto likely went through during the mid-1400s. The thought that this movie went completely ignored by anime fandom is outright appaling, because this is exactly what some people continually ask for: Something different from the "same old stuff" we've been getting every anime season. Seriously, an anime licensor need to get off its ass & license this movie; in fact, both Asura & Niji-Iro Hotaru have to get picked up. While everyone was repeatedly talking about Hideaki Anno's latest mind-screw, Mamoru Hosoda's newest story, a re-visit to Gen Urobochi's most-recent deconstruction, two specific reboots of classic creations, & Eiichiro Oda's second movie credit these two Toei movies got the absolute shaft by fans. Seriously, check these movies out & see what you missed last year.