Movie Review: Azumi

Posted: July 12, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
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Azumi (2003 Dir. Ryûhei Kitamura)

This one is by special request. Actually, Syd suggested it more than requested it, but it sounded better to say it was a request. You might want to make yourself a Samurai Girl before we start though, as a cocktail sometimes helps the movie gown down a little more easily. This is a movie based on a manga, which I’ve never read and thus have no idea if it matches the source material or not. I’m not finding a lot of information, so we’ll go the route of ignoring the comic book for the moment. I only bring it up because this is clearly a manga-ish movie. It’s also a sort of uneven movie in several respects. I’m going to say it at the start, so I won’t feel compelled to say it every time it comes up. Aya Ueto can act, but she’s not the best actor you’ve ever seen. What she can’t do is sword fight. It’s clear she was picked because she was cute and she was clearly a rising star at the time. She’s not exactly bad in this, but it’s pretty clear the character of Azumi is supposed to be a badass with the sword and it doesn’t come off properly here. Anyway, shall we begin? I should state here and now that my copy comes from England that I bought it about a year or two before there was a Region 1 disc and has it burned in subtitles. If you see subs in the screen caps, that’s just because of my troubles getting the shot I wanted. If you buy anything but the Optimum Asia disc from the UK, you probably won’t have burned in subs. If you need a drink with your film, try a Samurai Girl, which is actually pretty delicious.

LOOK OUT! She’s coming right at us!

The movie begins with a little girl morning over her dead mother being recruited by a man with a small group of children. One assumes these are also orphans, but it’s never actually stated. Don’t get used to the little girl though because we suddenly jump ten years into the future where some samurai type kids are sword fighting in the forest. Actually, they don’t seem to be really fighting so much as mucking about. It looks sort of cool for about thirty seconds, the problem is the scene goes on for a minute and a half. This doesn’t matter, the point is that there are ten kids and they’ve been trained in the arts of butt-kickin’ for the last ten years. They’ve also all become very close friends in the last ten years as well. This is going to lead to something mind-bendingly stupid in about five minutes. See, the kids have been trained to be assassins, and Azumi is the fastest while her boyfriend is the strongest. We’ll be told over and over that she’s the best and the fastest and the strongest, but it doesn’t show. As I said before though, Aya Ueto wasn’t wholly comfortable with the sword and doesn’t come off like a badass. The point is that this is a close-knit group and they’re about to venture out into the world to begin their mission. They’re supposed to kill a handful of daimyo in order to prevent reckless wars. The guy got these kids together and spent a decade training them to be the best killers ever. I’m leading to the stupidity, I just want you to understand why the act I’m about to describe is so stupid.

She cried and cried, but they just didn’t bring her the ice cream.

See, the master has this final test to see if the kids are hard enough to be badass assassins. In order to prove that they can all be stone cold killers, they have to murder someone they’re close to, specifically their best friend. He asks them to pair off with the person they like best and tells them to kill each other. Whoever wins gets to live and as an extension of that, go on the mission. So just to recap, he has half his crew kill the other half to prove how hard they are. He also wastes five highly trained operatives for no good purpose, including his strongest swordfighter. This is his idea of a final test, to waste his team and ruin their chances of success. In fact, there are several times during the rest of the movie where I found myself saying things like “You know, if you had ten guys instead of five, you wouldn’t be in this mess right now.” It probably is in the manga as well, but it would be just as stupid there too. This is bad story telling and only an idiot would keep following this man after this insane order. I’ll grant, these are kids who have always known loyalty and all that crap, but not one of them refused? No one said “Screw this, I’m going for pizza” instead of slaughtering their best friend? No one gets even a little resentful of their master? Not buying it, sorry. They do have the requisite scene with one of them asking why, but it’s clear they only threw it in for form’s sake and he doesn’t get an answer anyway. But let’s leave that for the moment, pretend it didn’t happen and move on to the rest of the movie.

So… much… cherry… syrup.

After that little bit of madness, we’re treated to our first action scene. The master continues to be a douche by telling the kids that they’re not allowed to save a village from raiders because they’ve got important work to do and shouldn’t help out or get involved at all. The problem is, they’re not doing anything else and sitting around watching people get murdered gives little assassins nightmares. Still, they just stand around and watch everyone in the village get murdered. When it’s pointed out that the five of them could have easily driven the bad guys off, the master just comments that killing bandits won’t change the nation. Once again, I’m wondering how killing a few and saving a couple of lives would have been such a huge waste of their time since they were just going to sit and watch anyway. It’s really frustrating to watch because there is zero heroics and almost no action so far. Let’s get to some butt kicking, huh? It’s not like these are video game swords that will break after five hits you know, they’re made of steel. I’ve even read on the internet that those katana things can cut through tanks, so they should have been able to kill a couple of bad guys. But no, master is still in full blown douche mode and thinks only of the mission. I just want to remind you of this, because later you’ll see what an AWESOME job master does with this mission.

Ah, I see you’ve brought friends with you.

The crew comes to an old abandoned… something. Probably a gate house by the look of it, but it’s disused and severely overgrown. Looks neat though. Where was I? Ah yes, the crew meets up with the first, official, all-in-black, ninja of the movie. He delivers a message that tells the master that it’s time to start killing people and tells them which people to kill. They get their first target by using the old stand by of send in the cutie. Yup, they send Azumi to go flirt with the guy they’re supposed to kill and then cut him like the bitch he is. Our first real action scene in the movie and it’s… pretty underwhelming. The crew jumps out, slashes a few dudes, Azumi kills the guy and we cut to a pair of guys talking about the murder we just saw. By now, you’re sitting there thinking to yourself that it’s very bold of them not to have real wild manga-style action in their manga adaptation. I mean, we’ve been sitting here for over half an hour and there hasn’t been a single decapitation yet! Actually, I’m not sure there is a decapitation in this movie. We’ll have to wait and see.

Stand back Flossie. I’ll handle this.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait much longer for some real action. The first major set piece comes along right after the two guys get done talking. I should point out that one of the guys was the next target and the guy he was talking to takes his own subordinate aside and says maybe they should just let their boss get whacked. This leads to a scene with the armed retinue walking through the forest. When what to my wondering eyes do appear? A spray of blood and soldiers running in fear. Azumi sort of showed up from nowhere and started to cut some bitches. As the soldiers start to get annoyed about her killing people, the rest of her crew shows up and the action is on. This is a really good action scene, just what we were waiting for. It’s got people flying, swords slashing, blood flowing, and Azumi even looks fairly credible as a bad ass here. She does better when she doesn’t have to be seen swinging the sword around and can either just pose or let editing take the weight for her. She looks good, just not great all the time. The rest of her crew looks good, which helps a lot. About the only other thing to say here is that we meet someone who will be a recurrent thorn in the side of the crew. A sort of monkey-faced ninja is part of the opposition, and he and Azumi fight while the crew kills the guy they were sent to kill. While escaping, one of the crew gets hit in the arm by a ninja weapon, this will come up again later as the ninja use poison on their weapons. Point being, they kill the boss we saw in the last scene.

Fear my monkey face.

Azumi seems to get a little introspective about killing people just because their master told them to. Everyone else justifies it through circular logic, meaning that Azumi is going to be the only one left at the end. I’m telling you, horror movie logic will win the day on this one. It doesn’t matter how sorry Azumi is for killing the guy anyway, because it turns out they just killed a double. The baddies decide to go looking for our team and hire some assassins of their own to help kill them. It may be following the episodic nature of the comic book, it seems like it probably is. The crew enters a town, where they meet a troupe of actors and one of the guys totally falls for an actress. As an aside, these people are way too impressed by a group whose main trick seems to be posing and opening a fan. Anyway, the thugs, the actors and our crew converge when the hired thugs mistake the actors for our crew and kill everyone but the chick that the crewmember acquired a crush for. They all have names, but unless you’re really familiar with them, a lot of Japanese names start to look and sound alike after a while. Yes, I know how that sounds. The people themselves don’t all look the same, just their names. As a result, I don’t remember the names of these people so I will call the guy the Crusher and the girl the Crushie if you don’t mind. Point is, Azumi and company save Crushie from the baddies.

Sooo sissy.

While all this is going on, the kid who got hit in the arm with the poison has been hiding it and by this time he’s horribly sick and about to die. The master tells the crew to leave him behind. The problem is that Azumi and the Crusher don’t want to leave him, but the master insists. This time Azumi says she’s not going to do that. He shouts, yells, stamps his feet and tells them they’re week, and useless. He explains that everyone who stays is off his Christmas card list and he’ll be unfriending the on Facebook as soon as someone invents the computer. Only Azumi, the Crusher and the Crushie stay behind to watch their friend kill himself to avoid dying from the poisoning. Crusher and Crushie go off together while Azumi sits and waits for a plot convenience to draw her back into the story. She won’t have long to wait because just such a convenience is stalking Crusher and Crushie as we speak.

They cowered before the might of her cheesecake shots.

See, the baddies got a psychotic pretty boy out of prison so he could kill our crew, and his first target is the Crusher. The fight goes fairly quickly, like a lot of fights in samurai movies do. Samurai movies tend to enjoy the single, swift cut rather than the drawn out kill, so this fight is over pretty quickly by Western standards even though by Japanese standards it does go on a bit. The reason it’s drawn out though is that the pretty boy is deliberately torturing the Crusher. However, the monkey ninja has had enough and kills the Crusher rather than letting this go on. He even makes a point of telling the pretty boy he doesn’t like his bad taste. With her friend dead and her master having unfriended her Facebook page, Azumi decides to head off with Crushie back to her home town and try out not being a stone cold killer for a while. Crushie then starts to teach Azumi how to look like a girl and we see her with her hair down for the first time. Interesting point that, most fighting chick movies fail to tie the long flowing hair back, thinking that it’s better to let it flow. It isn’t. It’s much better to do it like this and keep her hair out of her face during the action.

While he relieved himself, they stood and tried to make small talk.

So now we start to see how awesome the master’s management of the situation has been. Their target is fully aware of who they are and what their movements are, he’s down to just two helpers, and he quickly gets injured and caught in their attempt to get their target. First time the master actually is leading the fight and he screws it up completely. If only he had, like, I don’t know, say, five more guys. But where could he have gotten another five highly trained dudes? OH THAT’S RIGHT! He could have just not killed half his crew at the start! As a result of his excellent planning and ‘never stop, not even for ice cream’ single mindedness, nothing is getting done here. As a direct result of the maser being such a complete douche, the entire enterprise is completely screwed. Only one guy manages to escape so he can go find Azumi. Hopefully she won’t say that she told you suckers she was quit when she walked in and she’s just as quit walking out.

So sappho… and yet, not kinky.

No, instead the plot contrivance is that bandits try to rape Azumi and the Crushie, which causes poor Azumi to crack. She kills the bandit and then exclaims that every time she thinks she’s out, they pull her back in. She has no choice, she’s forced to kill. She leaves the Crushie behind and decides to go on a bloody killing spree to get done what the master couldn’t. The crushie then explains that she’ll wait for Azumi and that she’s the one she can always come home to. I wasn’t expecting things to turn so un-erotically sapphic all the sudden, but there we are. She returns to the baddie’s hide out to kill everybody and I do mean everybody. This end climax fight pits about seventy against our little Azumi. While she takes them out, the psyco pretty boy bounces around exclaiming how awesome she is. Seriously. He squees like a fan boy who just heard that Joss Whedon stood on the same continent as David Tennant and Neil Gaiman. See, I just said those three names in a sentence and you’ve had to go have a cold shower. I must admit that she does seem to be making short work of the forces before her and it’s pretty badass. We even get a decapitation, which is nice.

Yes, yes. I’ll put one butt shot in, just for you. Pervert.

The main event here is the duel between Azumi and the pretty boy, which gets pretty stylistic in places. There is a gut churning moment when the camera, mounted on a crane, spins around the two fighters on a vertical plane, causing the viewer to see them from above, then upside down, then under them then from the side and so on. Even as she’s killing him, his admiration for her doesn’t end. She even cuts his head off, sort of. She slices all the way around his neck so his head spins freely before it falls off. He even looks surprised when blood starts to show and he realizes he’s been beaten. It’s a really neat effect, and totally unexpected the first time. So what I’m saying is, I’ve totally ruined the movie for you. Sorry about that.

Blood face glamour shot.

So she saves her master, never mentioning that she wouldn’t have to if he weren’t such a dick. She and the last surviving member of her crew go and finish the job of killing the baddie they were supposed to kill earlier. And then the movie just sort of… ends. There was a sequel a couple of years later, and maybe someday I’ll review that as well. The sequel was less stylistic, but still a pretty decent movie. This is a pretty good movie as well you understand, it’s just not the best one you’ve ever seen. If you like samurai action or butt-kicking girl movies though, you could do a lot worse than giving this one a try. How does it stack up though? What’s its final score?

Official Score: 25 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

Aaaaand our badass shot!

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