Aragami (2003)

Aragami first published by EyeforFilm

One rainy night. A single claustrophobic setting. Two men locked in conflict, one hoping against all odds to win, the other to lose. An array of all the most ancient as well as the most recent weapons from both East and West. A battle that will reach cosmic proportions, and will stretch into infinity, encapsulating the whole history of violence.

Conflict, in its broadest sense, is the very glue of narrative. Take the conflict out of drama, comedy, romance, adventure, horror, the thriller, even the documentary, and they will hardly have a leg left to stand on – but action will always be the genre where conflict is not just the lifeblood, but also the flesh, sinew and bone.

There is a strong tradition of action in Asian cinema, with the continent’s exports to the West being dominated (however unrepresentatively) by chopsocky extravaganzas, wuxia epics, muay-thai kickathons and crime-themed bullet ballets. Yet occasionally Asian films present conflict in so stripped-down and stylised a manner that it transcends the particulars of its story to become something altogether more abstract. In Sogo Ishii’s Gojoe (2000), Lee Myung-se’s Duelist (2005), and Takashi Miike‘s Dead Or Alive (1999) and Izo (2004), violence rises above and beyond genre to a plane where it attains a spiritual, almost Platonic form. Ryuhei Kitamura‘s uncategorisable breakout feature Versus (2000) did something similar, and now his Aragami distils the quintessence of conflict even further.

Two samurai, gravely injured from battle, stagger into a temple that is tended in silence by a woman (Kanae Uotani), where they collapse into unconsciousness. Shortly afterwards, one of the samurai (Takao Osawa) awakes to find his companion dead, his own wounds healed, and a stranger (Masayo Kato) who suggests that they “make a night of it”. With the woman watching from the sidelines, the two men share a rather special meal, sample drinks from around the world – and then the stranger declares himself to be Aragami, “the raging god of battle”, and expresses his hope that the samurai is the one he has been waiting for: a killer worthy to take the god’s life and end his centuries-long reign of mayhem. It is not, however, so easy to vanquish a divine being, and in this brief, ritualised confrontation, contained within the confines of the temple precinct, an eternity of fighting will unfold.

Aragami is one half of the Duel Project, whose participating directors were challenged to shoot their films over a single week with only two principal characters and just one set – and like the very best Dogme 95 directors, Kitamura has been liberated rather than limited by these arbitrary restrictions, crafting an epic two-hander that seems all the more ambitious in its scope for its near Aristotelian unity of time, space and action.

Shot and edited to maximise the visual potential of its single location, exquisitely lit to shift gradually to monochrome as the night grows deeper, performed with extraordinary nuance, and wonderfully compressed, Aragami is always intense, often funny, and never cliched. The fight sequences, when they come, are varied and thrilling, but there is as much silent tension here as noisy violence – and the ending, with a cameo from Tak Sakaguchi who in effect reprises his role from Versus, suggests an ideological continuity running through Kitamura’s strange cinematic universe – as though the historical (yet semi-legendary) swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, a pre-modern supernatural temple-dweller, and 21st century zombie gangsters, might all be fighting what is essentially the same battle. After all, fighting is fighting, no matter who is doing it or when, and the victor is always, however briefly, immortal.

strap: Ryuhei Kitamura’s stylised entry in the Duel Project brings both Aristotelian unity and cosmic abstraction to the art of combat.

© Anton Bitel