Azumi (2003)
Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura
Starring Aya Ueto, Yoshiro Harada, Jo Odagiri

A bloated epic of assassins against war mongers in feudal Japan, this movie shores its walls of straightforward plot against its staggering two-and-a-half hours duration with embarrassing diversions. We are all crushed underneath when the girl-bonding, first love and slapstick pillars yield, left to claw at our eyes in the vein hope of erasing the travesty witnessed. It remains unclear to me whether Azumi would have been more enjoyable as a simple action flick sprinting from sword fight to sword fight, but between the flying ninjas and modern score I think that the end result would remain the same: another wasted night.

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There is a little girl and her name is Azumi (Aya Ueto). Scooped from the corpse of her mother by a traveling ronin named Gessai (Yoshiro Harada) and raised amongst a motley collection of Lost Boys in a mountain retreat she excels at the art of mortal combat. The crisp days of laughter and sparring eventually end in a final test when the time of their mission comes– pair off with your best friend. Now kill them. The Koreans have created an entire genre of paranoia about their less friendly neighbors to the north with this exact same concept.

So we’ve learned that being an assassin is no joke, that it requires not only the skill but the mentality of a hardened killer. The graduates descend into the valleys where war is being waged between competing clans, driven by a higher ethos to end the violence by removing the various heads of state. The lesson of politics is taught by being forced to stand down and watch a massacre perpetrated by roving bandits.

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After one warlord is easily dispatched things get complicated. Their next target is a cunning old man who knows which way the wind is blowing and decides to engage his adversaries directly. Meanwhile the young assassins meet a traveling theater group which sparks love at first sight, then the ranks are divided when an injured comrade is left behind to die. Azumi, struggling to determine the righteous path, soon finds herself alone while pursued by a new terror, the sociopathic murderer Bijomaru (Jo Odagiri) who has been released from prison to hunt her group down one by one.

This all predictably builds to an epic battle pitting a handful of people against an entire army. There’s special-effects induced acrobatics, explosions, torrents of blood and the peculiar inability of people to coordinate their attacks on a lone swordsman to better kill them. Matters of pride, morality, loyalty and destiny are used like caulk to seal the cracks between scenes of absurd combat resulting in the world’s most expensive prefabricated motel shower stall.

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The story of a small group against the world is time-honored and true. What makes Azumi somewhat unique amidst your hobbits and Skywalkers is that this is a slightly left-of-center good vs. evil tale as the heroes happen to be assassins. Decisions have to be made to protect the integrity of the mission, be it letting a village be massacred or leaving behind a poisoned comrade. While this does believably cause friction in the loyalty department the major component of internal struggle is often reduced to the usual Japanese notions of responsibility and pride.

Smaller atrocities are committed such as attempting to tackle Azumi’s role as the sole female in a murderous group of boys. There are a couple scenes of near-ravishing to balance the femininity against her awesome martial skills but the true teetering point is the just-add-water friendship between her and another girl who travels Japan performing acrobatics in a velvet cloak. There is a scene of make-up application which renders both actresses giggling and gawking while the camera slowly cuts back and forth for, I shit you not, over a minute. The love at first sight sideline is as cringe-inducing as could be expected.

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As the cast is rather large it would be important to really color in the characters. The young assassins are essentially the same person in different attire and Azumi is left to be defined more by virtue of gender than personality. Gessai’s stoicism and old-generation coldness are by the book while the acrobat is a blank slate in a cloak. Vibrancy seems reserved for the ‘bad guys’: the arrogant warlord, his wise samurai companion, their monkey-faced compatriot and a trio of assassins hired early on provide interesting and sometimes comedic counter-points to the bland collection of ‘good guys’. The sole exception is a mysterious ninja spy who communicates with Gessai along the mission, and he’s probably intriguing because his screen time is limited.

The most stunning creation is the lunatic Bijomaru, an androgynous psychopath who philosophizes death and presents roses to his victims. Unfortunately there’s a pretty clear indication that part of his deadly allure is homophobia, not simply the kill-count. Still, Bijo’s thrill of battle and bizarre mannerisms are a breath of air in the stagnant pool that is this movie.

While I was raised, in part, on traditional Japanese feudal soap operas of the 80’s I’m not bound by their style. However, the amped up special effects and wretched rockin’ score further fueled my eventual contempt for this cinematic abortion. And perhaps more frustrating is that in spite of the money shelled out for extras and pyrotechnics and post-production wizardry the fucking blood spurting mayhem looked terrible. The grit and grime were cheaply painted on, the entire movie looks airbrushed and the quick cuts and camera movements did nothing to hide the cardboard nature of the film’s sets.

My copy of Azumi was a double-disc import. I couldn’t be bothered to insert the bonus disc to check out the extras, although the chance that subtitles would have been included are slim to none. The widescreen transfer looked good if you ignore the movie that’s playing, the subtitles seemed literate and the sound was unfortunately clear. It appears that American versions have cut the film down to a more acceptable feature length which I’m morally opposed to although it probably makes the movie better if only because it’s shorter.