Ryuhei Kitamura’s “Azumi” is surprisingly very ordinary, especially considering its 140-minute running length and the movie coming from the director of the hyper zombie epic “Versus”. It can be said that “Azumi” shows the more traditional side of Kitamura, with the film taking place in 17th century feudal Japan, a nation torn by civil strife between the ruling government and warlords vying for power. Enter Yoshio Harada, a master samurai who takes on the task of raising 10 orphans and training them to be assassins. Their single-minded mission: do the bloody work of the state by silencing the troublesome warlords before they can stir up trouble.
Among the 10 assassins is Azumi (Aya Ueto), the only female of the group. Like the rest of the assassins, Azumi’s memories of life beyond the mountainous region where she and the others train are nonexistent. The one thing the youths can hold onto is their steadfast friendship and their unwavering loyalty to their master — two things that quickly become suspect when, as their graduation assignment, the 10 are told by their master to pair up with the “one they like the most” and then kill him. Five remain, with Azumi among them. So begins the bloodbath known as “Azumi”.
So is “Azumi” a worthy film, especially coming from the maker of “Versus”? The answer depends on how you look at things. As a standalone film, without Kitamura’s name attached, “Azumi” is almost a traditional samurai/ninja movie in the vein of the fanciful “Red Shadow” and the more serious-minded “Owl’s Castle”. Like those two films, “Azumi” is chock full of battle sequences where Azumi and her cohorts take on not multiple, but tons of opponents. Swords slash almost every other minute, laying waste to an astounding bodycount, even by “Japanese hyper kinetic violent movies” standards.
What “Azumi” doesn’t quite have is the visual flairs that were so abundant in the much, much lower-budgeted “Versus”. At a bloated 140 minutes, “Azumi” is basically nothing more than a series of fights occasionally broken up with little 5-minute intermissions where characters get to emote about the stars and living life as assassins and such. Azumi, being the star, of course gets the bulk of the film’s (supposedly) contemplative moments. Although oddly enough it’s fellow assassin Hyuga (Kenji Kohashi) and his crush on traveling performer Yae (Aya Okamoto) that provides the film’s few moments of personality. And unfortunately for the love-struck Hyuga, the lovely Yae seems more interested in fellow female Azumi, if you know what I mean.
If one doesn’t expect too much, “Azumi” is a terribly entertaining film, filled with outrageous and stylish sword battles and lively villains that can’t possibly exist in actual reality. Many of the villains come courtesy of warlord Kiyomasa (Naoto Takenaka), who takes the attempt on his life without much humor, sending his brilliant general Kanbei to strike back. Kanbei, in turn, recruits ninja Saru (Minoru Matsumoto). And as it turns out, the oddball ninja Saru (he seems to be wearing a furry monkey get-up) shows some surprising sensitivity, especially around a crazed Effeminate Killer in a white dress and rouge eye shadow.
Which leads me to this: If you haven’t noticed, the presence of a brutal Effeminate Killer in Japanese movies is nothing new. In fact, there’s something of a trend in Japan to throw in a giggling, girlish Master Killer into their more hyper-violent films. You can usually find one or two in the recent spate of violent Yakuza movies as well.
“Azumi” can best be compared to the recent crop of Chick Samurai films that have come out in the last few years. “Princess Blade” transverse much of the same grounds as “Azumi”, and in fact the two films has basically the same character, only in different era. Even the hip ninja movie “Red Shadow” had a female ninja as the lead, so I suppose Japanese pop star Aya Ueto’s turn as a sword-swinging assassin in “Azumi” is nothing remotely new.
As the diminutive and dole-eyed assassin, Ueto doesn’t do all that bad of a job. Her character is supposed to show no overt emotion (except for a brief spurt at the end of the film), which I guess helps sell Ueto as a troubled master swordswoman. Also, the character is written to be fast and skilled with the sword and not actually physically strong. In the movie’s oft-mentioned finale, Azumi slices and dices her way through a sea of opponents, literally covering the streets of a makeshift town with 100s of bodies. Of course it should be noted that the Effeminate Killer, giggling all the way, helped out some.
For those used to this type of hyper kinetic swordplay, “Azumi” is nothing extraordinary. Kitamura manages some inspired camera tricks toward the end, especially during a swordfight between Azumi and the Effeminate Killer where the camera spins 360-degrees — vertically, that is, and not the usual horizontal spin we’re used to seeing. But for the most part, Kitamura keeps the camerawork grounded — or at least as “grounded” as can be in a movie of this over-the-top mass carnage.
FYI: For those wondering, the best hyper violent samurai picture of recent years is still “Gojoe” — which also happens to feature an Effeminate Killer, of course.
Ryuhei Kitamura (director) / Yu Koyama (screenplay)
CAST: Yoshio Harada … Master Gessai
Aya Ueto … Azumi
Aya Okamoto … Yae
Naoto Takenaka … Kato Kiyomasa