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The horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ship's cables and hawsers.
The only possible parallel I can furnish to position SHURA in the greater map of Japanese cinema is the last 20 minutes of that soul-destroying masterpiece Kihachi Okamoto directed in 1966, the indomitable SWORD OF DOOM. And even that comparison leaves a little something to be desired. Not only because SHURA is an exhausting 2+ hours of that same brooding sludge so thick you could slice it with a wakizashi, but also because, directed as it is by experimental guerilla rebel Toshio Matsumoto, it stands as a somewhat different beast from the general hobnob of genre cinema.
Woven of that same tragic almost Shakespearian fabric, with a protagonist who like Ryunosuke Tsukue in SWORD OF DOOM finds himself doomed to walk the path of demons in a downward spiral into madness and despair, SHURA is as bleak dark and hopeless a jidaigeki as was ever execrated and sealed from man and beast on celluloid. Unlike Ryunosuke Tsukue, however, who starts on the Great Buddha Mountain Pass and slowly cuts his way into his own private hell, Gengobe in SHURA starts in that private hell and plunges himself deeper in depths of the soul unknown. The movie opens with Gengobe hunted in pitch black by hovering lanterns held by unseen persecutors. He enters a house and finds a scene of carnage and mayhem, the floor strewn with mutilated bodies, limbs, others hanging dead from the ceiling. I told you it only starts there.
The movie itself exists in a hopeless purgatory. No establishing shots of anything. No daytime. The passage of time signaled with intertitles. The occasional external shot, a patch of gravel road, the frontside of a house, offers no relief, no room for breath, because it reminds us that there are no horizons or depth for the eye to rest. Everything was probably shot on soundstages with only a few lights strategically placed hither and thither, no doubt a lingering remnant of kabuki theater from which Japanese cinema has borrowed heavily. With no broader world to be measured against, the interiors and the story that takes place inside and the characters that breathe and walk and double-cross and slaughter each other in them, all seem to hover suspended in absolute suffocating darkness and everlasting night.
The title really says it all. The Ashuras, a rank of lower demigods in Buddhism, are meant to reflect the mental state of a human being obsessed with force and violence, always looking for an excuse to get into a fight, angry with everyone and unable to maintain calm or solve problems peacefully.
It's not only cynic or tragic as the best of jidaigekis usually are, it's positively bleak and unremitting. That shots and entire scenes repeat themselves automaton-like, first taking place inside the protagonist's anguished mind and then reality, only serves to reinforce the existential phlegm through which SHURA wades waist-deep for two hours. The atmosphere is so oppressing that questions of clunky expositional dialogue such as the characters often spout ("this is your wife's head" says a character while brandishing said head in plain sight) and theatrical exaggerated acting are rendered almost meaningless.
The story is still good, gripping, engrossing, as classic and plain and stripped of all fat as the best jidaigekis usually are, with a limited cast and sets that hint at the stageplay origins of the script, but in the end it's the overarching feeling of despair that stays with you. A movie so much of its time and place, almost impossible to even think of it as coming from anywhere else than Japan of the late 60's-early 70's, that will by its very nature appeal only to a limited audience. If you came this far and liked what you read then you're probably ready to brave SHURA. Beware all who enter. There is real cacodemonia here.
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