Asura is an anime unlike any I have seen. I am not a huge watcher of anime, so this might simply be my own ignorance of the genre as a whole. But generally the anime I have seen has been fairly genre oriented, either fantasy or science fiction or horror, and it seems to me that elements of the fantastic permeate anime. Asura had no significant moments of the fantastic. Instead it plays like an historical fiction or alternate history piece that explores the beast beneath human skin and how culture is the means of subduing that beast.
Asura is born during a civil war and cast into a fire as a babe because his starving mother cannot feed him. He survives and grows up alone and feral, hunting for what he needs and taking from those who are weaker than himself. He is a cannibal with sharp teeth and claws who delights in killing and feeding on his fellow men, whom, it is obvious, he views not as peers but as food to be plundered or marks to be plundered from. His perspective changes when he is injured near a village and nursed back to health by a young woman who teaches him of love and trust, taming him like some stray animal and slowly showing him what it means to be human and not animal.
This film was not perfect, but it was powerful. My biggest complaint is that it had an epilogue that made it feel either too short or too wrapped-up-in-a-bow. The place Asura is shown to be in the epilogue is, for me, at least, a cliché endpoint for his character, and I would have rather seen the film end with his having started on his new path of humanity but not reaching a specific destination. Otherwise, I needed another 15 minutes of story to move him from the end of the main narrative to the epilogue.
I can’t speak to the originality of the animation style, but it was definitely quality work. Highly stylized but easy to watch, and filled with gorgeous (if desolate) scenes that would look great as stills up on a wall. Some of my favorite scenes were probably early Asura, at his most animalistic. Those moments and visuals really captured what humanity’s most untamed face looks like. The fight scenes are also great.
In terms of story, the primary arc is enjoyable. I was fascinated by Asura and his journey; the filmmakers did an excellent job of creating empathy for a character that should be hard to love. The audience is easily able to take the view of the young woman about Asura, and in return we feel his burgeoning emotions almost as acutely as he does.
I don’t know if this film has a U.S. distribution, but if you enjoy anime and would like to see something a bit more serious, or if you’re an animation buff and want to see something with a different stylistic edge, this film is definitely worth searching out on the internet.
Full disclosure: I am one of the initial screeners for the NOFF. I do not judge the films in competition, but I do help recommend the films that play. I may or may not have screened the films reviewed in the segment prior to their selection by the festival committee.