Aragami: The Raging God of Battle (2003)

Aragami: The Raging God of Battle (2003)
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura - Starring: Takao Osawa, Masaya Kato, Uotani Kanae, Hideo Sakaki, & Tak Sakaguchi.
Updated: 02-26-2006

Dinner, Drinking, and a Duel to the Death

Japanese action director wunderkind Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus, Azumi) delivers his strongest film to date with Aragami - and most amazing of all, he did so with a fraction of the time and budget that he would normally spend on shooting a feature film. Originally conceived on a bet with fellow director Yukihiko Tsutsumi (2LDK) to see who could make the best "Duel to the Death" film, Kitamura was required to make the film under stringent guidelines (it could not exceed a modest budget, the film had to be shot in a week, and the script could have no more than two or three characters). While Tsutsumi went with the tale of two Japanese models who hate each other and are forced to share a posh Tokyo apartment in 2LDK, Kitamura opted for the more traditional Samurai showdown - with a twist.

When an unnamed samurai (Takao Osawa) and his companion stagger to the door of a secluded mountain temple, having suffered numerous wounds from battle, they are taken in by a mysterious young woman (Kanae Uotani) who doesn't speak a word. Passing out from his seemingly fatal wounds, the samurai awakes a day later to discover that he has miraculously recovered from all of his injuries. He is greeted by a man named Aragami (Masaya Kato), the temple's current resident. When the samurai asks about the woman, Aragami replies "she was here when I moved in." Upon learning that his companion is dead, the Samurai wishes to take his leave and tend to his friend's burial. However, Aragami insists that he stay for dinner first - a lavish spread that includes a variety of western liquors. Reluctantly, the samurai agrees.

Throughout the course of the evening, Aragami regales the samurai with a tale of a fierce warrior, half man and half demon, who inhabits the mountain where the temple sits. Although the demon warrior is not completely immortal, he cannot die of old age. Only by losing to a superior opponent can he end his life, a life that he has grown weary of after killing hundreds of men over the centuries. It is at this point that Aragami asks his guest for a simple after-dinner request. He wants the samurai to fight him to the death -- and to win.

Atypical of Kitamura's usual style, Aragami is front-loaded with dialogue and character development, saving the big katana smack-down for the third act - but oh what glorious action sequences await those who are patient! The beauty of Aragami is that you don't mind waiting for the whirlwind of clanging swords because you're having so much fun getting to know the characters. Kitamura chose a pair of exceptional actors in Takao Osawa and especially Masaya Kato, who plays the role of the demon warrior with a kind of easy swagger and surly bravado. Through his world-weary demeanor, he manages to project a mischievous air that is equally amusing and intimidating. However, each actor breathes life into Kitamura's characters, each creating a likable protagonist - which makes it hard to know who to cheer for when the violence finally ensues, but makes that inevitable confrontation twice as fun.

But the crowning glory of Aragami is the amazing action sequence that dominates the film's final 20 minutes. It is, quite simply, one of the most stunning showdowns in movie history. Kitamura pulls out all the stops on this one as the two warriors square off inside of the temple, trading vicious blows and parries (and the occasional one-liner). The battle royale culminates in darkened room that is illuminated only by the staccato flashes of sparks flying from clashing blades, and no fan of the genre should miss this.

Aragami is, quite simply, Kitamura at the top of his game. I don't know if it will stand the test of time as his greatest film, but it's certainly my favorite Kitamura move to date. And considering how good the end result was from a rushed production that came about from a friendly wager, it's a testament to Kitamura's grace under fire. Although some of his other films have been hit and miss (sorry, all you Versus fanboys and girls), Aragami firmly establishes Kitamura as a talented writer and director, rather than just a flash in the pan with a few eye-popping action sequences up his sleeve. Action fans in general and Samurai genre fans in particular should rent, or better yet, own this disc post-haste (and pick up 2LDK while you're at it!)

Some special features on the Aragami DVD include a "Making of Aragami" featurette, a Duel Project press conference featuring directors Kitamura and Tsutsumi as they discuss their competition, and some fun footage from the premiere of stars Osawa and Kato joking with director Kitamura, and with their lovely counterparts from 2LDK, Maho Nonami and Eiko Koike.

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