Azumi

"Very Good"

Azumi Review


When underground director Ryuhei Kitamura announced that he'd be making Azumi, his first film inside the Japanese studio system after a successful run of independent films (Versus, Aragami), fans may have had just cause to fear. Not only was he joining the mainstream machine, but he was also directing -- for the first time -- a script in which he had no hand. As it turns out, there's no need for concern.

Azumi opens in war-torn feudal Japan. A clan of assassins, raised from youth by their master Gessai (Yoshio Harada, resembling no one so much as a Japanese Burt Reynolds), endeavor to wipe out three warlords bent on waging yet another bloody struggle to rule the country.

Azumi (Aya Ueto) is the lone female of the bunch and the fastest. She becomes disenchanted with the cruelty her clan is forced to display and the unwillingness of her master to suffer her questions. Once Gessai's methods go too far, she breaks off with Yae, (Aya Okamoto) lone survivor of an acrobatic troupe she tried to save. Yae attempts to feminize Azumi and turn her from her violent ways, but counter-assassins are already lined up to force her back into kill mode.

Strangely, for all the action such a plot promises (and delivers), it's not the battles that make this film so enjoyable. In fact, most of the swordplay is fairly routine, without the imagination invested by such fight choreographers as Yuen Woo-Ping and Donnie Yen. What makes this film stand out is attention to character. Each supporting villain and hero is infused with enough charisma to warrant his or her own franchise.

There's Kanbei (Katsuki Kitamura), trusted general of Kiyomasa Kato (Naoto Takenaka), the second target of the assassins. His tactical brilliance is matched only by his loyalty to his master. Kanbei's monkey-faced ninja lieutenant Saru (Minoru Matsumoto) is petulant but unstoppable, taking on Gessai's own ninja envoy Nagato (Hideo Sakaki) in a fight to the death. Gessai himself is a study in contradictions, fiercely devoted to his cause but with doubts that run far deeper than his disciples could ever suspect.

Nearly stealing the show, however, is Jo Odagiri as Bijomaru Mogami, a brutal yet effete killer released from prison to take down the assassins. Strolling about in a white robe, red rose in hand, he is a connoisseur of murder who's become so proficient at it that he can simply kick back and enjoy it like a fine wine.

Although the characters are original, the plot is all too familiar. See Luc Besson (The Professional, La Femme Nikita) or John Woo (The Killer) for more nuanced explorations of the plight of the assassin. Azumi does add a new wrinkle, however, in its emphasis on assassination as an alternative to war. Gessai forces his team to stand by while an entire village is slaughtered because "You can't change a country by killing a few hundred bandits." The implications of this philosophy, however, are never fully examined.

Ultimately, though, the film doesn't belong to the narrative. It's the characters that give this story life. Sometime in the late '80s action movies in the U.S. largely gave up on investing each character with something attention-grabbing, no matter how minor, so every moment demanded our gaze and we weren't just waiting for the next explosion. (Midnight Run may have been the last gasp of this effort.) With Azumi, we can only hope American filmmakers will take the hint and run with it.

Reviewed at the 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival.



Azumi

Facts and Figures

Run time: 128 mins

In Theaters: Saturday 10th May 2003

Distributed by: AsiaVision

Production compaines: Amuse Pictures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 47%
Fresh: 15 Rotten: 17

IMDB: 6.9 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Starring: as Azumi, Shun Oguri as Nachi, Hiroki Narimiya as Ukiha, as Hyuga, Takatoshi Kaneko as Amagi, as Nagara, Yasuomi Sano as Yura, Shinji Suzuki as Awa, Eita as Hiei, Shogo Yamaguchi as Komoru, as Inoue, Kanbe'e, Ken'ichi Endô as Isshin Sajiki, Kazuya Shimizu as Nisai Sajiki, as Saru, as Sajiki brother #2, as Nagato

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