Azumi by Ryûhei Kitamura (Review)

Azumi was a huge disappointment, almost a betrayal of sorts, because I know Kitamura is better than this.

In 2000, Ryuhei Kitamura released Versus, his third film and the one that put him on the map. With its mixture of too-cool yakuza swagger, Matrix-style action, Evil Dead homages, samurai action, and oh yeah, plenty of hilarious zombie gore, Versus took the cult film world by storm and announced the emergence of a new talent to watch. Everyone, myself included, eagerly scanned the Web for any news about Kitamura’s upcoming projects.

Last year, he released Alive, a dark sci-fi film à la Cube that has received a wide range of opinions, though most seem to agree that it’s pretty lacking compared to Versus (I have not seen it myself, but hope too soon). And so everyone’s attention turned to Azumi, Kitamura’s adaptation of Yu Koyama’s manga series. Put simply, it ain’t no Versus. Not even close.

As much as I like it, Versus does have some big flaws that become apparent once the initial adrenaline rush wears off (for starters, too many scenes run on for far too long and it often drowns in its own stylistic excess). However, the film’s appeal easily outweighs any flaws, and it’s still one that I highly recommend and get a kick out of when I watch it with friends. Azumi, however, feels like a pale, 5th-generation photocopy of everything that made Versus so great, while taking everything that was flawed about Versus and multiplying it by a factor of 10.

Azumi is set in feudal Japan, after a civil war has nearly torn the country apart. Afraid that rogue warlords might contest the new ruler and plunge the country back into war, a samurai named Jiji decides to create a band of assassins to stop them. Gathering together a group of 10 children whose parents have been slain in the battle, he trains them in a remote mountain hideaway to become deadly killers.

Flash forward 10 years or so. The assassins — including Azumi, the only female in the group — are now teenagers. Jiji decides that they are ready and leads them off to complete their mission. But before they can leave, they must pass one last test. Each student pairs off with their best friend, only to find out that they must fight eachother to the death — you see, assassins can’t be bothered by such trivial things as love and friendship.

Only 5 assassins are left, including Azumi, who — *gasp* — was forced to kill the boy she had a crush on. Cue dramatic music and prepare for long, torturous scenes in which Azumi is torn between wanting to be an assassin and wanting to be a cute teenybopper in ancient Japan. Now fully prepared for their mission, the 5 set out with Jiji and begin to track down the rival warlords. However, they are forbidden to intervene in other possible conflicts, as those might interfere with their mission. This is driven home when, upon reentering the real world, they come upon a village under attack by bandits and are told to let the entire village get slaughtered.

Of course, warlords being warlords, corrupt or otherwise (though we’ll assume they’re corrupt only because our heroes are on a morally-ambiguous mission to assassinate them), don’t take kindly to having assassins on their trail. Though the first warlord gets done in thanks to Azumi’s charms (I’ll admit, Azumi does look quite fetching with her little outfit and pouty lips), the second warlord, Kato Kiyomasa, is a bit shrewder. He sends a group of ninjas after our spunky little teens, hires some assassins of his own to work them over, and even releases a pyschotic, mascara-wearing swordsman named Bijimaru from jail to track them down.

By this time, I was pretty certain I had just wasted about an hour and a half of my life (not to mention the money I’d spent on EBay), but I was still hoping to make it through to the movie’s big, climactic battle where Azumi takes on several hundred baddies (you see, Azumi is gifted with almost supernatural speed and agility, which makes her an incredible swordswoman). But then comes the movie’s greatest misstep — it tries to make us care about the characters.

That sounds like an odd thing to say, and in fact, some reviews and articles I’ve read claim that Kitamura’s attempts to make the characters deep (or something) prove he’s matured with Azumi. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now don’t get me wrong — I love character development as much as the next guy. But there’s something even worse than zero character development, and that’s half-assed character development… and Azumis character development is about as half-assed as it gets.

For starters, all of the assassins are young teenagers. Supposedly this is so we see some sort of dichotomy between them being so young and innocent and yet also being forced (at least, at first) to kill. Well that’s all fine and good, but for God’s sake, please don’t make them so annoying or shallow. If I knew the future of my country was in the hands of these 5, I’d be looking to emigrate somewhere else real fast. At least get some real actors, not just pretty faces that will help sell cellphones, lunchboxes, music videos, and whatever other forms of merchandising Azumi inspires.

This ​“not using good actors” approach really hinders the movie in the crucial dramatic scene. One of Azumi’s comrades, being a hormone-ridden young male, immediately falls in love with the first woman he sees, a pretty young thing named Yae. (Why he didn’t react to Azumi all those years they were trapped together in the mountains, who can say?) Needless to say, he gets killed faster than a Red Shirt on ​“Star Trek” defending her from Bijimaru in one of the film’s better action sequences. Azumi, weary of her violent lifestyle, rescues Yae and the two run off together, hoping to make it to Yae’s village and start a new life.

In one of the film’s most painfully awkward scenes, Yae begs Azumi to put aside her sword, stop killing, and become a girl, complete with pink kimono and lip gloss (which I’m sure they had in copious amounts back in ancient Japan). Naturally, this dream doesn’t last long. The two women are attacked by bandits, and Azumi, realizing that she can’t escape her violent nature, retrieves her blade and dispatches them with ease.

Now, this could be a good, even great scene… but Kitamura piles on the melodrama and meaningful glances without realizing that his cast just can’t handle it. Even with her pretty face splattered by blood, Aya Ueto (bless her heart) just can’t convey the anguish necessary to make you believe she’s at all tortured by anything… except by maybe where she can get more lip gloss.

While comparisons to Princess Blade were perhaps in the back of my mind throughout Azumi, this scene drove it home — Princess Blade is everything that Azumi would like to be, from the tortured heroine (played by a super-cute model to boot) to the visual style to the thrilling fights to the sense of tragedy. But Princess Blade succeeds largely due to the fact that it features real, three-dimensional characters that never get bogged down in shenanigans better suited for movies like Red Shadow.

Sure, one could legitimately argue that Azumi is just trying to be more cartoonish than Princess Blade. But even then, Azumis dramatic scenes fail miserably, never once making you care for these characters (though I’ll admit I stopped caring for them when they basically aquiesced to killing their best friends earlier in the film).

Okay, so character development isn’t Kitamura’s strong suit. But what about the action? Chances are, that’s really why anyone cares about Kitamura’s movies. Versus proved the guy had an eye for action, able to craft some amazing sequences with very limited resources — sequences that easily stood up to any big Hollywood blockbuster (including The Matrix films, IMHO). Again, this ain’t no Versus.

I find it really hard to believe that Kitamura directed this movie (sort of like watching Attack Of The Clones and trying to believe it was done by the same guy who did THX-1138). Rather, it feels like it was done by some director of big, bloated, generic action movies who, after seeing Versus, decided to try and implement some of its style and panache in his next movie, only failing miserably to do so.

Almost none of Kitamura’s trademark visuals can be seen, which is shocking considering how obviously talented this guy is. There are a handful of scenes that pack a visual punch, such as Azumi dispatching some slow-mo ninjas whilst moving in a blur or the vaunted 360-degree revolving camera shot from the trailer, but guess what — watch the trailer and you’ll see all of the movie’s best action sequences in about a minute or so.

As for the movie’s climax, where Azumi takes on a whole village of thugs, assassins, and né’er-do-well’s, even that’s pretty disappointing. Sure, swords flash, bodies fly, and stuff explodes, but it’s far too neat and tidy. One thing I loved about Versus’ action was its gritty, kinetic feel. Of course, that was helped by the copious amounts of gore, fake and comical though it was. Azumi is surprisingly sterile, with nary a drop of blood to be seen considering the chaos that ensues.

In fact, that’s the way most of the action sequences feel, as if they were specifically scripted so as not to accidentally mar the face of one of its young stars. But I guess that’s what happens when you move from making scrappy underground films where all bets are off to helming big action movies heading into theatres nationwide.

What else can I say? Azumi was a huge disappointment, almost a betrayal of sorts, because I know Kitamura is better than this. Maybe, just maybe, he did Azumi to fund a really gritty, stylish movie that’s just waiting to knock my socks off. I’d hate to think of the other alternative, that Kitamura has sold out. I guess we’ll find out when Aragami (which is supposed to be a return to Versus) and Sky High (another manga adaptation starring, ironically enough, Princess Blades Yumiko Shaku) get released. Until then, avoid Azumi and instead, buy the recently released domestic version of Princess Blade for your ​“cute supermodel playing a tortured female assassin wielding a big sword” needs.

Read more reviews of Ryûhei Kitamura.