A samurai (Takao Osawa) stumbles up to the doors of an isolated temple in the mountains carrying his mortally wounded comrade seeking help. A woman (Kanae Uotani) allows them entry and the samurai staggers in, then collapses on the floor. Some time later he awakes, still in the temple, and wonders what has happened. He soon meets the leader of the establishment, a mysterious man (Masaya Kato) who offers him food and a place to rest until his enemies have stopped looking for him. But there is a debt to be paid, and the samurai won't like it...
For Versus director Ryuhei Kitamura's entry into the two-film Duel project, Aragami was the result, from a script by him and Ryuichi Takatsu. This was the sister film to 2LDK, an idea its producer had when two of the directors of his anthology production finished their segments ahead of time. Both films featured a battle between two people at their heart, and this one was a more traditional Japanese sword fight, with the unnamed samurai and the mystery man, who we discover calls himself Aragami after the God of Battle, as the combatants.
Filmed in a week, the film all takes place on one set as well, but is short enough not to feel too claustrophobic. In fact, the story is a pretty weak excuse for the fighting, and that isn't non-stop by any means, but two amusing performances by the leads carry it through any dips in tension. The samurai realises that he is in a tricky situation when his host ensures he cannot leave, and when he tells him what was in the delicious meal he had been fed he understandably loses his temper.
The reason for that being that his friend, who is now dead, was also the main course. For a man hoping to take the body back for a decent burial, never mind the disgust he feels, the samurai wants to take his revenge, or he does until he finds out that this is exactly what Aragami wants him to do. Yes, Aragami - if that is his name - cannot die except by another's hand, and even then only by having his head cut off or his heart pierced, and he thinks his latest guest is the man for the job.
A side effect of eating human liver, at least the way in which Aragami's womanservant prepares it, is that now the samurai is prone to the same near-invincibility that the would-be god is. This is demontrated on him with the use of a sword, and after he recovers quickly, the stage is set for man on man action. Of the sword fighting variety, of course. It's a simple tale that strays into silliness but Osawa's "What the...?" reactions and Kato's goodnatured and bizarrely reasonable personality make it quite appealing. Only the coda that brings things up to date is a true misstep, and it's a minor work, but entertaining for all that. Music by Nobuhiko Murino.
[The Duel Project is available on Tartan's Asia Extreme Region 2 double disc DVD, along with two featurettes and a trailer.]
Talented, prolific Japanese director heavily influenced by 80s horror and action movies, Kitamura makes films in a hyper-kinetic style that favours visceral excitement over tight plotting and character development. His samurai/zombie/yakuza debut Versus was a big festival hit, while subsequent films like Alive, Sky High and the period swashbuckler Azumi provide similar thrills. In 2004 directed the 28th film in the Godzilla series - Godzilla: Final Wars - then the neglected Clive Barker adaptation Midnight Meat Train, with Versus 2 long promised.