Poor 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.
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:
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.
The 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…
…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:
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.
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.
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.