Starring: Aya Ueto Shun Oguri Jô Odagiri Yoshio Harada Eita
Running time: 128 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Let's start this review of Ryuhei Kitamura's 2003 "Azumi" by saying that there's a really good story in this movie. Where it went I couldn't tell you, but it's in there somewhere. In 16th century Japan you have an orphaned girl taken in by a mysterious stranger and trained on an isolated mountain with a group of young boys to become assassins. When they reach young adulthood these lethal fighters accompany their master into the world beyond their mountain retreat to carry out their mission: to assassinate three warlords loyal to Hideyori Toyotomi and bent on toppling Ieyasu Tokugawa from power, thus throwing Japan back into feudal chaos. The whole fate of the nation rests on the shoulders of five innocent children who know nothing of the world they've entered. All they know is violence, but not its true consequences.
Now that sounds good, doesn't it? And that plot is in there in its bare bones, but is buried so far underneath overindulgent direction, bold-faced emotional manipulation, and performances that either chew the scenery down to splinters, or are just plain wooden. The latter unfortunately applies to pop idol, Aya Ueto in the starring role of Azumi.
Kitamura might have seemed like a good choice to helm a big budget action/ manga adaptation. He's got the chops to direct balls out action as seen in his most famous film "Versus", but what Kitamura doesn't have, and probably will never have is subtlety. The entire film is made up of huge moments: BOOM! Azumi is orphaned! BOOM! Gessai, thankfully played with some restraint by Yoshio Harada, orders his young apprentices to fight to the death! BOOM! Azumi witnesses an entire village being slaughtered by bandits! And so on and so forth, each moment accompanied by a swelling orchestral score and dramatic slow-motion photography to drive home how tragic the massacre of a village is. Um... I kind of knew that already, thank you.
Throughout all the schmaltz though I was pleased to see that "Azumi" didn't suffer from the mindboggling leaps of logic that totally derailed the other Kitamura films I've seen... That is until the the mid-point of the film. Be warned! Spoilers follow: When Jo Odagiri shows up as a psychopathic dandy swordsman he seems to have an unending supply of long stem roses. Where is he getting them from? And at the climax of the film Azumi somehow teleports from the final battlefield to the boat of Kiyomasa (Naota Takenaka), leaps out of the water like a dolphin, kills him and then ends up back on the battlefield again. What?!
So in the end I come away from "Azumi" Wanting to avoid its sequel, but wanting to track down the original manga in the hopes that it delivered on such a promising story.