5 Modern Japanese Movies Everyone Should See: Aragami
(You were possibly expecting to read a review of Ryuhei Kitamura’s Aragami. What our blockhead of a writer failed to mention is that he needs to re-watch Aragami because it has been well over a year since he last sat down and viewed it. Of course the schmuck lost his copy of the movie and the damn thing isn’t available for streaming on Netflix. The author blames Netflix. We here at Brave Blog blame the author for being a twit. We’ll give him some time to dig up a copy of the movie. We have no idea what he is planning on writing about right… Oh that FUCKER! He wrote the Aragami review! We are NOT amused!)
I was all set to write a long rambling diatribe about Ryuhei Kitamura’s Aragami, I really was. The problem is that, even though I have watched Aragami multiple times, I honestly cannot sit down and recall the movie in a way that makes it easy to write about. This is very frustrating because Aragami is actually a very straightforward film. It is the more cerebral half of The Duel Project, which is kind of interesting given its director is known for making more straightforward action films. I mean we are talking about Ryuhei Kitamura here. The man gave us a low-budget masterpiece in VERSUS. You know that movie about the escaped convict who fights undead Yakuza members and discovers that he is part of a cycle of reincarnation that is supposed to decide the fate of the world. For him to have made a movie about a samurai fighting against a malevolent and ancient power that lives for battle may not sound as cerebral as I might make it out to be. Trust me, it is has action but the layers that Kitamura gives in Aragami are magnificent because it relies on narration by one of its characters to tell a story within a story.
The set-up of Aragami takes 2 injured samurai seeking shelter in a cave. What transpires from there becomes the tale of the surviving samurai meeting a man claiming to be Miyamoto Musashi. What unfolds is a conversation on mankind’s propensity for violence and cruelty. The longer the conversation goes the more the fleeing samurai realizes that he is not so much talking to Musashi, but an immoral Demon that believes itself to be the “Invincible God of Battle”. The conflict is that the Demon wants to die and pass on its immortality to the samurai, simply because the Demon has grown weary of its life as unstoppable killing machine.
One would think that this would lead to a masterful duel between 2 samurai in the moonlight. This is the exact opposite of what the focus of the movie is. If 2LDK is an example of direct conflict and confrontation between 2 parties in the form of adrenaline and violence, then Aragami is the antithesis of that as it relies more on dialogue. The crux of Aragami is one man telling his story to another man and as the story unfolds the man listening becomes more and more aware of just what is going to be asked of him. The conflict isn’t direct; it is subtle and builds as the story of the Demon is told. Thus when the story is finished the only option for the both characters is to fight. The Demon needs to be killed or else its bloody reign as the God of Battle will never end.
The level of conflict in Aragami is also multilayered, it isn’t just the samurai and the Demon in conflict with each other, but also hey are struggling internally. The Demon wants to die but at the same time isn’t just going to lay down his sword and let the samurai kill him. The title of “God of Battle” must be earned in that respect. The Demon laments its existence; it doesn’t want to be the God of Battle anymore because what is the point of living for battle if one never loses in battle? It is a cursed existence of living life without having really lived it. But remember the samurai is equally conflicted. He has to wrestle with the fact that he is going to duel a nigh-unbeatable foe. He has the weight of knowing the Demon’s secret and that if he doesn’t take the Demon’s offer to fight and replace him then the Demon will continue to slaughter people in battle. Then there is the matter if what would happen if the samurai pulls of the impossible and actually beats the Demon. Wouldn’t the samurai suffer the same fate of fighting endlessly until his days are filled with the constant malaise of not wanting to live anymore?
This is Aragami, a movie about the art of war that relies on subtly sucking you into its back-story to unveil what the conflict will be. Remember this is the other half of The Duel Project, where the point of both Aragami and 2LDK was to present 2 characters in conflict with one another in one location for the length of the film and then have that conflict be resolved by movie’s end. What we have is 2 movies that accomplish this in two very different but equally entertaining ways. 2LDK does it by being a bubbling cauldron of rage and hate, while Aragami is a pot set to simmer to bring out a richer flavor. That isn’t to say 2LDK isn’t as good as Aragami. If anything the ending to 2LDK is actually more satisfying to Aragami’s. The flaw in Aragami is that given everything that is on the line between the samurai and the Demon, there was no way their fight could match the hype that the rest of the movie was building for it. It is like the hype for a Mike Tyson fight circa 1986, 4 months of hype for a fight that, if you were lucky, went maybe 3 rounds.
Perhaps I am being unfair to the resolution of Aragami. Maybe it is just that for a movie that is ¾ dialogue between 2 guys sitting and drinking booze in a Shinto temple, to suddenly have the movie have its big showdown go all crazy with the wire-fu and Matrix-style fight scene seems to be incongruous to what one might expect of 2 samurai squaring off for a duel. That is the only fault I have with this movie. Ryuhei Kitamura could have given us a truly epic sword fight, an old school sword fight that Asian cinema hasn’t seen since Toshiro Mifune passed away. Instead we get fight choreography that is anachronistic; it seems to be against the very vibe the rest of the movie seemed to be going for.
Still, Aragami is one of the 5 Modern Japanese Films Everyone Should See. It is a study in mood and pacing and most importantly, storytelling. For being as short as it is (only 70 minutes) it has dialogue that makes one feel like they’ve watched and listened to a pair of philosophers arguing what makes life worth living. Like all things in life it has its shortcomings, but the dialogue is what drives this movie. The dialogue is what illustrates the conflict of the past and how it relates to the violence of the present. After all “Conflict” is the driving theme of The Duel Project. It is just how one defines “Conflict” that helps to define this mostly satisfying movie.