Azumi (2003)
Nicholas Driscoll
March 21, 2007
Note: review may contain spoilers

Director Ryuhei Kitamura is getting more attention in America these days. Several of his movies have been released stateside, and he miffed (or delighted) legions of Godzilla fans with his decidedly alternative vision in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), which I liked. As I understand it, his comic-book samurai epic, Azumi, was even given a limited theatrical release and a two-disc special edition DVD package in the USA. I decided to see what the hubbub was about. Several of my students were also excited about the film a while ago, and I had been meaning to give it a whirl. After sitting through it's two hours plus of wild bloodshed, I can say along with her many opponents that I could have lived without ever seeing Azumi.

War sucks. This is the conclusion that warrior Gessai (Yoshio Harada) comes to after a particularly bloody battle that leaves thousands upon thousands of warriors in a carpet of death and chaos across the ruins of a battlefield. Peace of the shaky-jello sort has been achieved, but won't last long before the obnoxious warlords who support the child prince Hideyori Tomoteyo for the throne will foment battle again. Gessai can see only one option: his own troupe of personally trained super-assassins proficient at warlord-whacking. To this end, he apparently goes about and nabs random little kids on his way to the training ground, including Azumi (Aya Ueto) who, from all appearances, was out on a walk with her mom in the wastes when she (her mom) suddenly dropped dead. Thankfully, the warlords wait until their assassins are all grown up before they even think about doing any of their trademark warmongering.

The ten assassins become adults in the space of a scene change, training energetically while dashing about on steep inclines. However, these pre-assassins are not very grim or focused, appearing more like a bunch of college jocks—except with less discipline and more jumping. Gessai intones that they will be setting out on their mission soon, and our lovely assassins laugh and celebrate as if he had just announced he was getting married.

Azumi and her nine fellow ninjas (wait… they're not ninjas. Later some ninjas show up and Gessai classifies his troupe as something else. But aren't ninjas assassins who use swords and stuff? I'm confused) assemble the following morning, and Gessai announces that they are leaving the training ground to sally forth into the Outer World, their glorious mission ahead of them. He commands that every assassin must choose a partner, someone he likes, and it looks for a moment that everyone's partner is going to be Azumi. However, this isn't a square dance party. Gessai drops the predictable rules of the game. The last test to becoming a sword-wielding, decapitation machine is… kill your buddy!

And this pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The assassins, reduced to five, are required again and again to grimly relieve folks of their blood supplies while ignoring the plight of the innocent. Of course, they don't always obey, and they remain their college-jock selves—except that they can jump over tall buildings or throw a rock into the water to kill dozens of fish. Azumi is a mish-mash of brooding, blood-washed violence and off-the-wall goofiness that completely disregards reality for the money shot. In other words, it's a pretty standard Ryuhei Kitamura film, with a slightly larger dollop of broodiness.

Of course, even in the brooding, the absurd is there. Slashing swords are often accompanied by sudden, meter-high streams of blood and gargling death sounds, even in the grim moments. (Yes, people dying isn't always grim—in fact, in a Ryuhei Kitamura film, it often isn't.) For example, when one of the assassins kills himself to aid his brethren in a supposedly touching scene, his neck gushes like a fire hydrant. It's a little difficult to know whether to wince or to laugh.

The quality of the action is, predictably, uneven. Azumi is plagued by the standard group behavior of warriors—that is, to dance about malevolently in the background while the good guys calmly ventilate those brave enough to come forward one by one. It's supposed to look cool, and it does—for a while. However, most of it looks like stuff you've seen in a million Hong Kong kung-fu flicks, except with less actual martial arts. Several action scenes early on are gut-busting for the wrong reasons, including bandits hesitantly and gently skewering their prey, folks bleeding before they are cut, swords obviously missing the bodies of their victims, and, everybody's favorite, visible wires on a jumping warrior.

This isn't to say that Kitamura has lost his edge, really. He wreaks death on his characters with the occasional flashes of over-the-top, goofy-fun style that his fans love. There's the scene, for example, when Azumi intercepts an incoming arrow with her blade, which neatly bisects it and deflects the two halves into the waiting foreheads of her foes. The final big fight includes a completely, utterly ridiculous finishing move that makes the infamous death of the final vampire in Underworld look perfectly logical and probable by comparison. However, Kitamura has always been very uneven, and the fights go on so long that I was just waiting for the movie to end, which it never seems to. Instead, we get something akin to the drawn-out ending agony that finished The Return of the King, except infinitely more absurd. Hint: Azumi seems to have developed teleportation powers.

As for the characters, there are a lot of them, and with good reason: they keep dying. This might be a bit of a spoiler, but as a general rule, if the character isn't named Azumi, he's probably going to die. Most of the characters aren't particularly deep, either, partially because they just don't have time to be. Azumi herself is the most well-drawn as she struggles with her calling to kill and her desires to protect and retain her humanity. She constantly questions why she is killing and half-heartedly wants to escape the cycle, but the ubiquitous, unpredictable violence of the world always brings the sword back into her hands. Aya Ueto's performance as Azumi, however, is shoddy. She can swing a blade well enough, but if she has to show emotion, it never seems genuine. For some reason, whenever she is laughing about something or being buddy-buddy with her fellow assassins, she always looks fake, and not because she is too tough to laugh or doesn't know how. She does a pretty credible job looking tough when called to, though, in a cute, "my-hair-is-dyed-and-always-perfect" way.

The other characters fare worse. The award for second most-developed character is a tie between Hyuga (Kenji Kohashi) and his girlfriend, Yae (Aya Okamoto). That is to say, at least their characters develop something beyond a battleground affection for each other, and Yae actually has aspirations for her life and helps Azumi find her feminine side. However, their characters aren't deep enough for a goldfish to comfortably swim, and the rest are much worse.

Gessai, for example, as portrayed by Yoshio Harada, is just dumb, coming off as a bad disciplinarian one moment and then a sadistic twerp the next. Unfortunately, Harada as the master was less convincing to me than Master Splinter often is in Ninja Turtles.

Speaking of those sewer-dwelling reptiles, a number of the characters in Azumi would fit well into the world of talking animals. Azumi's population seems largely composed of weird, animalistic, bloodthirsty men—sometimes entire villages of them. Actually, amongst the supporting cast, there are quite the number of Kitamura movie regulars playing deadly, somewhat odd characters. Tak Sakaguchi, who was the main anti-hero from Versus, plays a dim-witted mercenary who likes to stab holes in his hands. He's always fun to watch. Kazuki Kitamura, perhaps best known as the spastic and traitorous alien leader in Godzilla: Final Wars, turns in a more mildly sneering performance as a bodyguard to the warlord Kiyomasa. Kiyomasa is played by Naoto Takenaka. I've seen him many times. He is in everything from Shall We Dance? (1996) to The Great Yokai War to Water Boys (2001). He is a fine actor, and here respectably snarls and chews scenery with panache. Also memorable is Minoru Matsumoto's turn as Saru, a monkey-like warrior who, while fighting, moves like an ape and has monkey and dog sound-effects edited into his scenes. And one cannot forget the psycho who serves as the final boss, Bijomaru, though I aim to try after I finish this review. Jo Odagiri plays the whiny slimeball to the hilt (of his sword), although your appreciation of his performance will depends on your taste for effeminate murderers who prance and giggle at the sight of carnage.

Azumi's soundtrack is, like everything else, mixed. Sometimes the film employs heroic instrumental music that includes piano and traditional instruments such as the shamisen. Sometimes it's beat-heavy mediocre electronic music. Sometimes it's incredibly cheesy guitar riffs. Overall, it's not good, although it might be just marginally better than the stuff in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).

I'm not much of a fan of Ryuhei Kitamura. His work is just too much a patchwork of derivative material that barely holds together. It's fun stuff if you are highly forgiving and have the stomach for it. For me, though, Azumi doesn't cut it.