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Review: Azumi

Compared with his geekily gonzo Versus, Ryuhei Kitamura’s Azumi is surprisingly tame and lucid.

Photo: AsiaVision

Compared with his geekily gonzo comic book/samurai/zombie splatterfest Versus, Ryuhei Kitamura’s Azumi (itself an adaptation of a popular manga) is surprisingly tame and lucid, forgoing the out-and-out supernatural—save for swordfighters’ inhuman combat skills and gravity-defying leaps—for its tale of premiere assassins in feudal Japan. Still, the director’s trademark gory humor, wailing electric guitars, and spinning Ferris wheel cinematography remain present throughout this saga about the titular femme (pop singer Aya Ueto), who after losing her mother as a child is trained, along with nine male orphans, by a shogun to be a ruthless killer. After finishing her murderous education by being forced to slay her best friend, Azumi and her remaining comrades are sent on a mission to execute the three warlords intent on driving the country to war, an assignment that results in heavy casualties on both sides while also stirring doubt in Azumi’s heart about the justness of her cause and code. Issues of morality and integrity, however, are merely trotted out to consume time in between Kitamura’s large-scale battle sequences, most of which are handled with an entertaining combination of cheesy melodrama, tongue-in-cheek absurdity, and slow-motion and CG-aided acrobatics, including a forest scuffle boasting a hallucinatory, almost 3-D effect. As preternaturally sadistic baddie Bijomaru, Jo Odagiri delivers a performance of campy villainy so deliciously outsized that he crowds everyone else (even Minoru Matsumoto’s monkey-faced Saru) off-screen, while Ueto radiates a strain of barely-legal Valkyrie sexuality aimed squarely at those with unsavory carnal appetites. Buried within Azumi is a clash between competing modes of femininity, as Azumi, after being exiled from her assassin clan, is temporarily persuaded by a traveling theater troupe performer named Yae (Aya Okamoto) to forgo her homicidal ways, let her hair down, wear some lipstick, and assume a “traditional” womanly role. Yet as with most of his story’s larger thematic concerns, Kitamura pays only passing lip service to this supposed conflict, as his shallow film’s heart most assuredly lies not with “romantic” notions of female domesticity but, rather, with visions of sexy warrioresses performing digitally enhanced feats of fury.

Cast: Aya Ueto, Shun Oguri, Hiroki Narimiya, Yoshio Harada, Naoto Takenaka, Minoru Matsumoto, Aya Okamoto, Joe Odagiri Director: Ryuhei Kitamura Screenwriter: Rikiya Mizushima, Isao Kiriyama Distributor: AsiaVision Running Time: 128 min Rating: NR Year: 2003 Buy: Video

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