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Original Title:

Japan 2003

Martial Arts, Drama

Ryuhei Kitamura

Aya Ueto
Yoshio Harada
Jo Odagiri
Aya Okamoto
Hiroki Narimiya
Kenji Kohashi
Takatoshi Kaneko
Yuma Ishigaki
Shun Oguri
Kazuki Kitamura
Shogo Yamaguchi
Minoru Matsumoto
Naoto Takenaka

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Story: The warrior Gessai (Yoshio Harada) has the secret mission to train assassins, which will eliminate the warlords, who want to plunge the feudal Japan onto a bloody war. Gessai wanders through the country and picks up children, whose parents died in the war's chaos, brings them in the mountains and trains them to be lethal assassins.
Among the 10 warriors, there's Azumi (Aya Ueto), the only girl in the group. As everybody else, she is waiting for her mission to finally begin. But their friendship is put to a test, as their master wants them to fight against the one, they grew fond of the most, and kill him. Whoever is not capable of doing that, has not the courage to fulfill the mission…
One day it is time, and the (in the meantime decimated) group of warriors, leaves the mountains to take on their first task. But already with their second target, they get into trouble, for the target sets bounty hunters and the even more dangerous Bijomaru (Jo Odagiri) on the group. The assassins' mission seems doomed to fail, if it wasn't for Azumi…

Review: After Ryuhei Kitamura's rather poor and absolutely overrated "Versus", this was the second movie I watched by the director. And I was totally blown away...
"Azumi" is a manga-adaption and this is reflected by the movie's look. Furthermore, it also works brilliantly as a samurai-movie, and Kitamura manages to bring in his very own, modern and very appealing style, too. The end product is an enormously entertaining action-movie, which is looking for its equals, and which could be the start of a new sort of Chambara-movies.

Story-wise, of course, the movie stays insignificant, but at the same time it offers some pretty good emotional moments. Nonetheless, the action is the most important thing. Here you find numerous fights, which were also choreographed brilliantly, and look very stylish. Martial arts-fan's hearts will jump for joy! But the main reason, why "Azumi" works so well, is its speed. With more than 142 minutes, the movie could have run the risk to get stuck. On the contrary! The movie is full of action and never gets boring. And before you can say Jack Robinson, the 142 minutes are already over, and you almost want to ask for more. That's what a successful action-movie's like!

Kitamura doesn't waste time. The viewer is thrown directly into the story, and even though you are introduced to numerous characters, you know immediately who's going to be important and who is not. And only after a few minutes, you bind emotionally with the protagonists, and interestingly enough, this bondage gets even stronger throughout the scene, in which the assassins are meant to kill each other. Morality is left behind. Consequently, the master doesn't want the assassins to get involved, as a village is attacked and its inhabitants are butchered. After all, it is about fulfilling a holy mission and therefore, nobody should know, that the group consists of incredibly talented warriors.

For some, Azumi and her troop may be nothing but cold-blooded killers, but yet, with what they do, they prevent another war. The moral ambiguity of this circumstance, doesn't stand in the foreground, but is mentioned frequently. Despite all loyalty, Azumi often questions her master's decisions and shows this way, that despite the manipulative education she experienced, she still has a conscience. That's making her more understandable for the audience. But if she has to, she's the one who fights the enemy the most heartless and reckless! Yet, at one point she tries to give up her present live, and just wants to be a normal women, but this turns out to be harder to achieve as she thought. Apart from the fact, that she grammatically uses the male form of the Japanese language, it just seems to be her destiny to roam the land with a bloody blade.

But enough of this unnecessary, profound way of looking at the movie, as "Azumi" only wants to be an entertaining action-flick. And in this, it succeeds very well.
Aya Ueto is actually a J-Pop Star, but in the movie she's nothing like that. It should be prohibited to be that good-looking and to know so much perfection in sword fighting at the same time. When Azumi fights through troops of enemies, some men's heart will skip a beat! Imagine a western match like Britney Spears, who is taking on hundreds of enemies at once, looking as if she really had what it takes. Unthinkable? You're right! But Aya Ueto manages this trick. Of course, not without Kitamura's help, who's always capable of putting her in a great show. But you also see, that Aya Ueto made almost all her stunts herself, and that she really knows how to handle a sword. At least, it looks like as if she did. And it's the illusion that counts.

Acting-wise, you shouldn't expect so much from her, as her role is designed to keep fighting emotionlessly most of the time. In some few scenes, though, she is also allowed to show her human side.
Azumis fellowship gets its few minutes on the screen, too, but especially the bad guys enrich the movie enormously. For one thing, there are the crazy Sajiki brothers, or the total freak, Bijomaru, who is dressed all in white, holding a rose and a sword, and consequently has a bit of a female touch. Of course, it's those characters that are almost typical, taking into consideration, that "Azumi" is a manga-adaption, but nonetheless, they deliver a good part of entertainment.

What honours "Azumi" the most, is its terrific camera-work. Every shot seems brilliantly chosen, and not only the countryside-images are full of beauty. Kitamura just knows how to put moments in a great show, and as opposed to "Versus", he manages it this time, that those moments don't look artificial. One highlight of those brilliant camera-shots and movements, is a scene during the end-fight, in which the camera doesn't move horizontally around the opponents, as is usual, but vertically! Breathtaking!
Some further big commendations deserve the fights, which are, as already mentioned, very numerous. Kitamura makes his leads run through various troops of enemies; perfectly choreographed and stylish. With the usual Samurai-movie rule: One hit, one body. Except for the final-enemy, of course…
If you think, it is unrealistic, when at the end Azumi takes on an entire village, you still haven't understood that the movie doesn't care for realism. Entertainment is the main focus and for that you also need a good body count. This irreproachable technical work, gets its last touch by the very good balanced and always appropriate soundtrack. At some points, quite and traditional, at others accompanying the action scenes with fast guitar sounds.

Ryuhei Kitamura does not reinvent the genre, even if his movie is in some way unique, but he manages to entertain the audience in a way, that no other director could. The only criticism: Maybe sometimes too much action; if this even counts as criticism...
In conclusion, you can only say: "Azumi" is a brilliant, very stylish and breathtaking movie, which no action-movie-fan should miss. Watch it!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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