In 19th century Japan, ten orphans are brought up by the elderly warrior Master Gessai (Yoshio Harada), an employee of the Shogun who subjects his charges to ruthless cruelty in order to mould them into invincible assassins. By common consent, Azumi (Aya Ueto), the only woman in the group, is the most powerful of all. When the training process is complete, she and her surviving comrades are ordered by Master Gessai to kill the rebel warlords Nagamasa (Masatô Ibu) and Kiyomasa (Naoto Takenaka) - but while they appear to complete this mission with little difficulty, their success is shortlived.
Review by Jake Wilson:
A plea to the international filmgoing public: now that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has gone off the air, maybe it's time to get over our collective fascination with babes-who-kick-ass. To be clear, I'm not talking about women with a genuinely commanding physical presence - say Michelle Yeoh, or Sigourney Weaver in the Alien films. And I have no real problem with consciously absurd fantasies such as the Charlie's Angels films or Kill Bill. But when it comes to a movie like Azumi, with its sweet little virgin who chops up hundreds of men without batting an eyelid...well, this particular fantasy surely lost its novelty value a while back, and frankly never did much for me anyhow. What can I say?
Granting I'm not its ideal viewer, I have to confess I found Azumi a boring and bloody chore. The fight scenes are occasionally stirring but fatally cheesy, accompanied by squalling electric guitar and centred on individual, hyperbolic acts of violence that are digitally enhanced or stretched out in slow motion for the audience to savour. Though they don't come close to the weird, sometimes bracing excesses of a Takeshi Miike, director Ryuhei Kitamura and his scriptwriters maintain a moderate-to-high level of sadism throughout (Master Gessai is soon revealed as a psychopathic match for Takeshi Kitano in Battle Royale). An implicitly critical view of the warrior code is presumably carried over from the manga source material, but the filmmakers are too caught up in simple bloodlust to address this topic with any conviction. Glimpses of the heroine's anguished, sensitive side are laughably unconvincing; the other characters (including her foppish nemesis) are cartoons or ciphers. In short, art cinema this ain't.
As a footnote, while the video projection system at Melbourne's Cinema Nova is newly installed, going by the screening I attended it's not exactly state of the art. The less-than-scintillating image quality was especially noticeable in the frequent wide shots of devastation, with bloodstained corpses and wrecked buildings blurring into one muddy mess. On the whole, not much of a cinematic experience; unless you're anxious to see a particular film right away, there seems little point in paying to attend these "digital" screenings rather than waiting for the DVD.
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CAST: Aya Ueto, Yoshio Harada, Shun Oguri, Hiroki Narimiya, Kenji Kohashi, Takatoshi Kaneko, Yuma Ishigaki, Yasutaka Sano, Shinji Suzuki
PRODUCER: Mataichiro Yamamoto
DIRECTOR: Ryuhei Kitamura
SCRIPT: Isao Kiriyama, Yu Koyama, Rikiya Mizushima
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Takumi Furuya
EDITOR: Shuichi Kakesu
MUSIC: Taroh Iwashiro
PRODUCTION DESIGN: (Art direction) Yuji Hayashida
RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Melbourne: September 16, 2004