The story goes somewhat like this: Two filmmakers, Yukihiko Tsutsumi and Ryuhei Kitamura, are put up to a challenge to each make a movie within the following restrictions: minimal actors, a single set, a duel to the death conflict and one week to shoot the whole shebang. As a result Yukihiko Tsutsumi made “2LDK,” a bloody tale of two very hostile actresses cooped up in an apartment together while competing for the same role. Ryuhei Kitamura decided to respond to the challenge with “Aragami.”
In Kitamura’s “Aragami” two mortally wounded samurai arrive at a remote mountain temple seeking refuge. Two days later one awakens to find his wounds healed and his comrade, according to his host, has died from his injuries.
The young samurai is then invited to a meal and drinks with his host who explains that the mountain is the home of a Tengu (a forest dwelling demon normally associated with ninja), that this tengu is actually an aragami and a god of battle at that. The host then announces that he has just fed the young samurai his dead friend’s liver as a medicinal aid.
Understandably horrified the young samurai attacks his host who soundly beats the young man dealing him a blow that should have killed him. He then explains to the young samurai that he in fact is the aragami, previous to that he was Japan’s greatest swordsman, Musashi Miyamoto (1584 – 1645), and that he now wishes only to meet a warrior capable of beating him in combat and ending his unnaturally long life.
Let the swordplay begin!
Kitamura’s “Aragami” clocks in at a sparse 80 minute running time yet, at the beginning, threatens to be a somewhat ponderous experience. Aragami is saddled with the limitations of a single, static setting and some fairly talky bits interspersing the action but the talent that Kitamura displayed with his feature debut “Versus” is eventually put to grand use here ultimately saving “Aragami” from becoming a snooze fest. Hyperkinetic cinematography with comic book lighting and framing captures the action from extreme perspectives and opens up the limited space in which the story plays out also to create a heightened perception of absurdity and urgency to the surreal proceedings.
In the aragami and the young samurai’s first battle the fight choreography isn’t particularly impressive, likely to illustrate how severely outmatched the young samurai is against Musashi/Aragami, but improves significantly with each following battle as the urgency, determination and ferocity motivating the two combatants increases, culminating in a very dramatic strobe light lit, spark spewing denouement of swordplay.
“Aragami” is pretty light in plot and characterization choosing to instead devote its time to provide filler explaining its combatant’s linked predicaments before leaping into the physical confrontations meant to resolve those concerns. Masaya Kato plays Musashi/Aragami with a wry sense of humor as the jaded beast of combat with no choice but to take on all opponents if he is to eventually end his life. Takao Osawa as the young samurai first comes across as young, inexperienced and naïve, the light, comic element of the conflict. As a result he’s difficult to accept at first as the skilled warrior with a high body count that Musashi/Aragami claims he knows him to be. As the unavoidable nature of his predicament becomes apparent Osawa settles into the role of the young samurai as more of a serious warrior providing credibility as a threat to Musashi/Aragami’s life.
“Aragami” is little more than a young filmmaker’s response to a challenge, an exercise in working within a set series of self-imposed restrictions. As such it’s quite polished looking and effective as an entertaining 80 minute time killer. Just don’t go looking for much more than that.