In medieval Japan, a lone figure stands defiantly in front of a procession of several dozen swordsmen accompanying a wicked head of state. The scene is emblematic in hundreds of jidaigeki (Japanese period pictures).In Ryuhei Kitamura’s Azumi, the only change from the typical is that the defiant figure is a beautiful young girl.But she might as well be Zatoichi (of his self-titled 26-film series) or Ogami Itto (of the 6-film Lone Wolf and Cub series) in the way she can mow down entire armies with her flashing blade. When the caravan reveals a clan of hidden ninjas as surprise security escort, our heroine doesn’t blink an eye.
The film, based on the manga by Yu Koyama, opens with Azumi (pop star Aya Ueto), as a small child, languishing over the body of her dead mother. Orphaned in war, she comes under the tutelage of Master Gessai (Yoshio Harada, Izo). After Gessai’s son died in war, he vowed to end the constant power struggles razing all of Japan. To this end, he trains ten orphaned children, Azumi being the only girl among them, to become assassins. Their mission is to kill the warlords and end their hunger for power. Their first test is to prove their ruthlessness as Gessai orders them to pair up with their best friend and then to kill the other. Thus, only five assassins who have proven their worth will move on.
Much of the allure of Azumi is the ironic conception of the character herself – how can this demure, childlike girl be this astoundingly efficient killer? Director Ryuhei Kitamura (Aragami: The Raging God of Battle) and writers Isao Kiriyama (Godzilla: Final Wars) and Rikiya Mizushima actually do tackle this question, albeit only on the most superficial level. All the bloodshed, not the least of which comes from herself, reminds Azumi of when she was orphaned. She longs to leave the life of an assassin, but her mission beckons and life gets in the way. One can just imagine her exclaiming, like Michael Corleone, “Just when I thought that I was out they pull me back in!”
There’s nothing more to the character than that, and actress Aya Ueto, no matter how strong a physical presence she is with her perfect skin or voluptuous Angelina Jolie-like lips, fails to bring up anything more psychologically interesting. The four boys teamed with Azumi on her assassinations are even less individualized. With contemporary hair styles and Peter Pan personalities totally anachronistic to the time period, the boys are around just to keep the plot moving. The villains range from the warlords Gessai wants assassinated to a trio of drunken mercenaries to a psychotic serial killer, Bijomaru Mogami (Jo Odagiri, Bright Future), who also happens to be a master swordsman. Sporting a flowing white robe and a red rose, he is The Joker to Azumi’s Batman. Bijomaru boasts that the reason his sword needs no hand guard is that he always attacks and has never had to defend.
Kitamura made his name with Versus, a yakuza-battling-zombies cult movie that looks better on paper than on the big screen. It was non-stop action in a film that seemed like it would never end, inducing both tedium and numbness. With the practice of three films under his belt, he fares somewhat better with Azumi, which could still use some trimming. At 128 minutes, it could easily lose 20. Like Versus, it’s one of the most violent movies ever made, though mostly in quantity, not quality.
Kitamura expresses the mentality of a teenager, which is both good and bad for his artistry. He loves the kinetic feel of filmmaking, the impact of editing together fluid motion, and the physicality of clashing steel and flying bodies. His manipulation of audience sympathy and bloodlust and the iconic poses emulates Sergio Leone. But also like an adolescent, Kitamura hasn’t quite mastered his craft and he likes to indulge himself. This leads his movies to having a marketable “cool” quotient, but he is always derivative, never original.
Like Quentin Tarantino, he does steal from the best pulp – Kenji Misumi (Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades), Toshiya Fujita (Lady Snowblood), and Hong Kong wuxia films. In Azumi’s climax, Kitamura even trumps the extended “House of Blue Leaves” sequence in Kill Bill, Vol. 1, and Azumi is preferable to Kill Bill in that its indulgences are less egregious. Azumi has none of Tarantino’s self-conscious pretensions. It’s a B-movie through and through and its indulgences come from loving the genre too much, not bracketing it with postmodern quotation marks. Kitamura lacks Tarantino’s control due to his over-enthusiasm, but better that than latter-day Tarantino lulls of excessive expository verbiage. Kitamura is still clumsy and too silly, but he has a strong grasp of genre mechanics. That’s enough to make Azumi a highly flawed, yet ultimately satisfying grindhouse romp.