Asura is one of the lowest states of rebirth in Buddhism; an existence of violence and force. It’s also the name of a Manga banned for most of its run for its graphic depiction of violence and cannibalism. It’s now been adapted into a fantastic movie.
The movie is set in 15th century Japan, and famine, drought and hardships are the setting for this story. It gets to a very strong start with a very malnourished and dehydrated pregnant woman giving birth in an old temple then resorting to cannibalism to survive and then trying to eat her own baby before realizing what she’s about to do and running away, leaving the baby there to fend for itself. Not one for the kids.
The story then jumps ahead a few years and we’re introduced to our main character: the baby, who’s feral, more beast than human, rushing into people’s houses, axe-murdering them, taking their food and sometimes eating them. He then meets an old Buddhist monk who goes ahead and beats him senseless, but not before noting his beastly state and understanding the kid can’t speak, he doesn’t know how to.
They travel together for a bit after the monk shows him kindness and gives him a sutra to remember, and his new name, a fitting one for his beastly nature, Asura.
After a while they part ways and that’s where the real plot begins, with Asura coming into a town and pretty much eating someone who hits him with a rock. Sadly for him, the one who hit him was the son of a Noble, who goes after the small feral boy with all he has, eventually forcing him down a chasm, where we falls on the bones other people with similar fate, and in a visually shocking scene he drags his battered and broken body out of there, only to collapse on a stream. That’s where the female lead Wakasa finds him.
She’s a rice farmer and very sweet and caring girl. She takes care of Asura, plays with him, feeds him and teaches him how to speak properly and teaches him about humanity and slowly under her care you see the boy evolve, feel emotions and express them. Sadly, jealousy, sadness and anger are part of those emotions and their relationship doesn’t end well and Asura is alone again.
Now fully fluent and expressive, his first full sentences are curses of his own existence and how he never asked to be born in this world, how he’s much more a beast than a human. Thankfully for him, his old friend the Monk shows up again and teaches him about humanity, about the beast everyone carries around with them, and how being a human mean fighting that beast because we have a heart, in one of the best and most heartrending and heartwarming scenes I have seen in any movie so far.
I won’t speak any further of the powerful plot because I don’t want to ruin its last act for you.
In its core, the movie is a very spiritual experience, drawing deeply from Buddhist scriptures and philosophies.
It’s not a happy story. It’s a story of growth, of trust and of humanity but also about harshness and survival and just how far people are willing to go to keep on living (or where they draw the line, even in the face of death). There are villans in the story and they shift from time to time. Asura is not good, not by any measure we have, but by the end, he’s the most human character in the story, having conquered his own beast amidst people dragged so far off the edge by thirst and hunger they have instead devolved, becoming monsters in their own right. There are only two thoroughly consistent characters, the Monk and the Noble, one being the wise mentor and harsh teacher and the other a vindictive man who’ll stop at nothing to avenge his fallen son, but even as a villain, you can’t hate this man completely.
Amazing credit has to go to Masako Nozawa, the 75 year old actress whose résumé includes Son Goku in Drabon Ball. Her voicing of Asura is flawless and she demonstrates how much a good actor can do with very few lines. For most of the movie, Asura speaks in grunts and growls, but you feel as much as he does thanks to Nozawa’s amazing voice work.
Asura’s visual style is beautiful. Characters are CGI, but not the usual stiff models. No, these are very fluid and humanlike, worked in a cell-shaded style that makes them seem out of a comic book. How these CGI constructs work with the hand-drawn backgrounds and scenery is just breathtaking. Kudos to the animators for making Asura such an expressive character; without them, even Nozawa’s masterful performance might’ve not been enough to transmit the feelings of this poor kid.
There’s violence, plenty of it, and yes, there are instances of cannibalism, but the movies never goes deep into Gore (it’s not Shigurui). You are mostly treated to bloody sprays and torn clothes, with bloody necks when Asura goes vampire on some characters.
It’s not a happy story but it’s not completely depressing. It’s bittersweet. You are saddened by some of the characters, but some of the last lines, belonging to the monk as well as the last scene lift your spirit and leave you in a good place, even more once you’ve fully grasped the movie’s theme.
I thoroughly recommend this movie. It’s a spiritual experience that’ll force you to evaluate what it means to be human while it entertains you.
It’s a must see film and one I hope becomes a classic of widespread acknowledgement.