yuhei 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"
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
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.