So once again we have survived.

Azumi

tn_azumiBTISLPoor Azumi (Aya Ueto) is one of the best young swordswomen you ever did see, but it’s because she’s lived such a fucked up life. In the opening scene we see how she ended up like she did. When she was a little girl the Master (Yoshio Harada, THE HUNTED) was leading some young boys on a trail and came across her kneeling over her dead mother. He took the orphan girl with them to their isolated mountain area where he raised them to be elite sword fighters on a covert mission from Lord Tokugawa’s priest.

I mean really he saved her life, and their whole clan of nine boys and her are like a family, brothers and sisters who have fun fighting and training and joking around with each other. And they love their master and trust in him enough to believe that this thing he’s been preparing them for their whole lives is a righteous thing. They are tasked with assassinating the ambitious warlords who want to take over the country, whose selfish actions would otherwise keep the country in civil war forever. They will take life to prevent endless war.

But man. I mean, that sounds real nice on paper, but then they get to their final test. The master gives them a little speech and then tells them to “pair up with the one you like best.” They excitedly pick their teams and then he explains that “The way of the assassin is to have a mind of steel and to become inhuman; thus, I give you this final test. Slay each other. Slay your teammate. Kill! The one who loses this fight has no aptitude to pursue the mission ahead of us. The weak-minded one who can’t kill his friend cannot pursue his mission. Winners, terminate your counterpart and return to the hut. If you think of escaping, you know you cannot survive.”

So they grew up with ten and now in one afternoon they cut themselves to five. They bury the bodies and burn down their hut and grimly walk away in slow motion looking totally fucking badass.

still_azumi01
But hold on a second. This is just not the kind of graduation ceremony anybody wants. Can you really just “become inhuman” if you set your steel mind to it? That seems weird to me.

Okay, yeah. See? I knew it:

still_azumi02
Azumi looks back, because she has reservations about what they’ve just done. ‘Cause she’s a nice girl. That’s the reason why we like her. Or one of the reasons anyway.

This is just one example of the great visual storytelling of director Ryuhei Kitamura. I remember Kitamura and this movie being kind of a big deal when it came out in 2003, but I kept hearing from my friends that it wasn’t that good, it was too long, and I never bothered with it. After recently re-watching and really enjoying Kitamura’s BRADLEY COOPER’S THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN I remembered AZUMI and it occurred to me that wait a minute, there are alot of movies that people tell me are too long and boring that I enjoy. My friends told me AMERICAN GANGSTER was too long and they watched the short version. They haven’t even tried watching RED CLIFF. Why am I listening to these people? And I’m glad I reconsidered because, as represented by the logo at the top of this review, AZUMI is The Best Thing I’ve Seen Lately. I loved it.

So anyway, I’m no psychiatrist, but I figure this killing all their friends business has got to be haunting all of them. Later they’re walking along the mountain trail and one of her brothers just stops and cries, “Why? WHY!??” And they all look at him and say nothing and then they keep walking like it never happened. It’s kind of like my favorite scene in AMERICAN SNIPER where the mother tries to read her son’s anti-war letter at his funeral.

Azumi still loves the Master as a father and can’t escape that problem that so many of my favorite action characters struggle with: she’s really fuckin good at killing people. Even better than all her brothers. They admire her skills and her knack for disappearing and posing on top of mountains and shit. But at the same time she has an innate innocence that not all of them have. She doesn’t pass the test by being cynical and heartless. Her best friend Nachi (Shun Oguri, who recently played the title character in Kitamura’s LUPIN III) has to talk her into going through with it. But she’s better than him, so here she is.

mp_azumiThe other fucked up thing about this life that Azumi and the boys have a hard time swallowing is that they come across horrible crimes and massacres and the master won’t let them use their great skill to help the victims. “Don’t draw your sword unless it’s your mission to do so,” he says. They’re soldiers, basically. Human weapons. It’s not their job to think about it, they just have to wait for their orders. But they have consciences. They can’t help but question.

So they get their missions, they kill their guys. And it’s easy for her to physically do, but hard for her to deal with emotionally. “We don’t know a thing about the man we killed,” she says. “He must have friends like we do.” Actually they grew up isolated, their only friends are each other until they meet a group of traveling circus performers. It’s great because they’re about the same age and they relate to each other because their lifestyles are similar in many ways: training their whole lives, growing up away from normal people, being always on the road, having no home. But those parallels also cause a problem when some mercenaries sent to kill the assassins confuse the performers for them and attack. When Azumi gets chastised for trying to help their friends and then hears that they’re leaving town without their poisoned-by-ninja brother Amagi (Takatoshi Kaneko) she pulls her sword on the Master.

That’s not considered kosher. “You are no longer an assassin,” he says.

Azumi ends up abandoning/abandoned by the clan and living with Yae (Aya Okamoto), the sole survivor of the circus troupe, who tries to make her swear off violence and revenge, and teaches her to wear lipstick and dress more feminine. She gets mad at her for trying to pick her outfit (cape instead of dress) based on how well it hides her sword. This sort of questioning of her femininity is a good counterpart to what ends up being her most dangerous foe, Bijomaru Mogami (Jo Odagiri, PRINCESS RACCOON), an insane prisoner and “frighteningly good swordsman” released and pardoned in exchange for killing the assassins. Bijomaru wears an all white robe like a kimono, long hair and makeup, and carries a rose at all times. I’m not really sure if he’s just supposed to be a pretty boy or actually in drag. I’m also not sure if the peasant who asks him how much for his ass is trying to make fun of him or if it’s a legitimate solicitation.

Bijomaru is recruited and accompanied by the ninja clan leader Saru (Minoru Matsumoto), who some people call “Monkey-face” because of how he combs his hair. He can sort of fly and sometimes makes cartoonish monkey sounds, but he’s also kind of an honorable villain. I had to like him after the scene where Bijomaru defeats Hyuga in a duel. Saru loans Hyuga a sword, promises not to harm his girlfriend and when Bijomaru is drawing it out to torture the poor guy Saru jumps in to end it…

still_azumi03

…causing Bijomaru to throw a fit about “spoiling my fun.” As they leave, Saru tells the girl “He fought masterfully.” Which in this world and context is better than “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Azumi makes a semi-legitimate attempt to be a non-violent person who just lives on a trail and does nice stuff in nature with her friend or whatever, but don’t worry, for the sake of this being an awesome movie she soon recognizes (when prompted by some rapists who will soon regret their actions) that she doesn’t know how to do anything else. She feels a loyalty to her Master and her surviving brothers, who are not doing so well with their final showdown against Bijomaru and Saru and their ninjas and mercenaries and the villagers that they hired to help them.

She doesn’t even have to tell them she’s rejoined. They just sense when she’s there. The master is hanging from a cross and she blows up the front gate and walks in to face, uh, a whole lot of people.

To give you a rough idea, here are some of the people she has to kill:

still_azumi04
Gulp. Can you imagine looking out at all those faces looking back at you? You know what they say, though. Picture them naked. Start with a joke. You’ll be okay.

And hey, if all you’re good at is killing, and then you get into a fight like this, that’s pretty amazing, right? It’s like if all you’re good at is competitive eating and then you just happen to come across a table with 200 hot dogs on it.

I was gonna guess the body count of this final battle was about 1.5 COMMANDOs, or 132. But I looked it up and according to this scholarly video…

…the total for the movie is 99. Not bad, though, that is a bit higher than RAMBO FIRST BLOOD PART II, COMMANDO or JOHN WICK. This is a good movie for people suddenly exploding into blood spray or falling over with blood dripping from their mouths and you didn’t even see a sword. She’s throwing severed heads at guys and chopping through wood, tipping over towers, climbing up structures, dodging arrows and bullets, running through crowds just taking on all comers and sending them to a better place.

Bijomaru has been wanting a worthy adversary so he’s thrilled by this. He’s watching from a stage and starts jumping up and down, giddy like a little girl who just found out about ponies.

still_azumi05

He even helps finish off the villagers so he can have a quiet duel with her surrounded by piles of dead bodies. At one point I really wanted to tell her that that thing she was resting her hand on was a burnt corpse. But I guess she probly didn’t care that much.

The whole thing has been well shot (with some stylistically artificial gimmicks for some IRON MONKEY homaging fights) but Kitamura saves his most show-offy camera moves for this final duel. I could not believe the dizzying shot that keeps spinning over and under them as they fight on a plank, like a rollercoaster loop-de-loop. I don’t even know how it was done, but it’s amazing.

still_azumi06

My current thinking on why I love these types of stories so much is that they’re kind of an operatic vision of the world. You try to be the best at your art and you have to sacrifice for it and it’s literally a life or death proposition. Life in a samurai movie is a choice between quiet solitude in the mountains or bloody massacres in the mud. Your conscience and your code of honor are more important than anything. You matter-of-factly face your destiny and even if it’s sad you can feel pretty cool about how awesome you are.

Also, everybody compliments each other. Once Azumi’s made the killing blow on her best friend he tells her how good she’s gotten and gives her a necklace to remember him by. And at the end she’ll drop out of the sky to slice a guy’s head open and before he drops he’ll half smile and say, “Masterful.” You gotta respect the honesty. In samurai movies nobody’s afraid to give a compliment when it’s earned.

And Azumi has earned it. Poor girl. I hope she keeps finding more people who deserve to die. Otherwise how is she supposed to express herself?

TRIVIA: Aya Ueto is the voice of Bella in the Japanese dubs of at least one of the TWILIGHT movies. Also Trixie in SPEED RACER and Princess Aurora in MALEFICENT.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, February 26th, 2015 at 10:49 am and is filed under Action, Comic strips/Super heroes, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16 Responses to “Azumi”

  1. Well this sounds pretty awesome. I’ll keep an eye out.

    I’ve recently discovered a local 2nd-hand DVD store that has a pretty good “foreign language” section. (It’s where I finally got MAN OF TAI CHI, which was well worth the wait, plus #6(?) on the Badass 100, 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN.) I’ll look out for this one there.

  2. Azumi’s a great film, i watched it a few times a few years back and loved it. The sequel is awful though, avoid at all costs.

  3. Nice one. I quite liked this when I saw it but I think I would’ve been more into it if I hadn’t come straight off the back of Kitamura’s Versus which is just 90 minutes of non-stop, breathless insanity.

  4. I strongly recommend Kitamura’s zombie/samurai/gangster movie VERSUS, which has terrific action and the only funny joke ever about THE MATRIX bullet time.

  5. VERSUS is a good one. I will have to check this film out.

  6. I’m going to disagree with wabalicious on this one. Azumi II is pretty solid little movie that does a good job of aping the style of the first one. The only real letdown is that they don’t have enough money in the budget to have the big massacre at the end, so they have to come up with an excuse to cut it short.

  7. I thought Azumi 2 was better/worse in some ways.

    Aya Ueto is more credible in the action scenes in the sequel (really the only major complaint I have about Azumi original), and the story takes some novel turns, but its overall not as well made as the first film and the constrained budget kinda shows.

    to be clear, I had no issues with Ueto’s performance in either film, I just didn’t think she was so great in the action scenes, as least as much in the first film. But then again, friggin samurai film legend Yoshio Harada gets to be in the first film and anybody would look anemic next to him at swinging a sword (even as he was in his 60’s). Still, I’d rank Azumi highly when it comes to live action adaptation of anime/manga. There’s not many that are better, and there’s a whole lot that are worse.

  8. Got to agree with comments about Azumi 2. Remember looking really forward to it. It was missing Kitamura but it had the great Shusuke Kaneko in his place, who made the excellent Gamera films of the 90’s. Quite a disappointment . Not a bad film, but poor compared to the firts and the budget cuts became blatantly obvious when it came to the finale.

  9. Nabroleon Dynamite

    March 1st, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    Azumi 2 is not as good but Vern should peep it and Versus as well.

    Both are better than anything out lately (John Wick exception of course).

  10. Knox Harrington

    March 3rd, 2015 at 2:55 am

    I’ve been showing this one to my friends for years. The action’s good, the lead is beautiful and it’s just a fun movie all round.

    This kind of thing is tough to find in my neck of the woods. Anyone know of any similar movies? I’m not necessarily into the over-the-top Sushi Typhoon-type stuff. I much more enjoy the fun action of films like CITY OF VIOLENCE or MAN FROM NOWHERE.

  11. If you enjoyed city of violence I would recommend the ” Berlin File ” from the same director. Also the director of the Man from Nowhere has a new film ” No Tears for the Dead” which is also pretty good

  12. Couldn’t find this anywhere so DLed it instead, or so I thought…. Strongly recommend avoiding Azumi Ren… It has… swordplay…of a sort… the sort that surprises… from behind… I think this experience has ruined the Azumi franchise for me… and I am hesitant to search for something called Lady Dragon… or even Space is the Place… even looking at my own shelf has me second guessing now…. Corpse Bride… Beauty and the Beast… Tangled…. Lethal Weapon… Deep Impact… eck Cocktail. Ima watch TV for a bit…

  13. So I flick on TV guide and I see Knight Rider… Different Strokes… and Big Love… eck, this must be a karma thing for trying to download azumi illegally…

  14. Knox, there is a new film from the director of MAN FROM NOWHERE called NO TEARS FOR THE DEAD that is worth checking out, and ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHANGHAI is a fun martial arts film.

  15. Guys,

    The film AZUMI is based on the manga of the same name and won awards in Japan. And it is an excellent manga. In fact, I think the manga is actually better than the movie.

    Also, Vern might not know this since the movie does not portray it as such but the manga is more philosophical in nature. There is an undercurrent of main theme of which Azumi is portrayed as kind of a Bodhisattva who is attached to nothing and desires nothing whereas every other characters are attached to or desires something in this world. I highly recommend the manga. The character is excellent.

  16. The Original Paul

    April 21st, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    So I’ve used some free time to buy and watch a load of DVDs of films on my list of “shit you guys have recommended”. After RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, which I have very little to say about other than it’s kind-of-awesome, I saw this one. I’ve got quite a bit more to say on AZUMI, so let’s go.

    So AZUMI takes place in the kind of exaggerated comic-book version of Feudal Japan in which it’s frankly a miracle that anybody survives beyond their sixteenth birthday. If you don’t fall prey to a wandering team of rapists, bandits, murderers, or hired assassins with little concern for collateral damage, you might end up getting recruited by the local warlord. In which case you’ll either end up getting killed by the warlord himself, or get sliced up by the team of teenage assassins that have come to kill him. What I’m getting at here is that the “violence begets violence” message of this film isn’t exactly subtle. Living in the world this film takes place in must be like making plans with John McClane for regular Christmas get-togethers. And talking of which…

    …This film is a really, really odd mix of Western and traditional Eastern martial-arts influences. At one point there’s a “straight” use of a special effect that I’ve seen in everything from DIE HARD 2 to GOLDENEYE to MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE to freakin’ BACKDRAFT. There’s a bizarre score that consists of a lot of heavy-metal with more traditional martial arts beats thrown in as an accompaniment. It was – to me – strange enough to be a little distracting. But that’s not a criticism of the movie – if anything, it’s a case of how much I’ve come to expect a certain musical “style” in scores for films with a similar tone to this one. And of course there’s the now-obligatory “martial arts fight with random animal sound effects thrown in”. (Apparently that’s a “thing” now. In KILTRO it was a cat, and in this movie it’s a dog. I don’t even know what to make of this trend, if that’s what it is.)

    I have to say, I have some problems with Bijomaru. It goes without saying that any villain who wears white in a martial arts movie is going to be compared to Wu Jing from KILL ZONE, and will probably be found wanting. And Bijomaru is no exception. I have to say, though, that while I can accept long-haired male pansy villains who speak in high-pitched squeaks and wear dresses and makeup from films from the 1960s or even 70s, I’ve got problems with similar villains in films from 2000 onwards. And this isn’t a particularly great example of such a villain. He does all the required things – he’s sadistic, he has a perfect arched-eyebrow evil smirk, he moves in a graceful and feminine way – but he’s really nothing more than another example of “gay stereotype = sexual sadist”. Yeah… there’s lots of nasty cultural baggage linked to characters like Bijomaru, and it’s something I’d like to think we left behind at least twenty years before this film was made. Apparently that’s not the case. I’d be less negative about this if Bijomaru showed anything new about this character, but he really doesn’t. He belongs in the era of Modesty Blaise or classic James Bond. Not here.

    Other than the off-putting western stuff and pansy villain, did I like it? Mostly the answer is yes. I have a hard time taking it quite as seriously as it takes itself – this film’s technique for dramatic effect seems to be “when in doubt, send in another group of random rapists / bandits / killers” – but it’s beautifully filmed and has occasional moments of real emotion. [SPOILER FOR THE ENDING OF AZUMI HERE.] What really got me was, at the end, when Azumi is given her freedom by her dying master, when she has a choice to travel to her friend’s home town and start a new life – which I genuinely thought she might do – she instead chooses to carry on her “mission”. She accepts that her function in life is to kill – it was what she was raised and trained for. It doesn’t seem to be because she desires to do good either. It’s just what she, in the fatalistic frame of mind that she’s been given for the past years, accepts as her lot in life. It’s pretty heartbreaking. [END SPOILERS.]

    I really enjoyed this film, for the most part. It says a lot for it that, despite the world it’s built being fairly ridiculous, it still managed to draw me in as much as it did. I liked the various characters and wanted the kids to survive – even though I knew that most of them probably wouldn’t. And I absolutely agree with Vern about the action (in particular that scene with the rotating camera). Some of it is flat-out spectacular.

    But please, no more sadistic pansy villains. Let’s leave this cultural relic back in the 1950s where it belongs, ok?

Leave a Reply





XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <img src=""> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <b> <i> <strike> <em> <strong>