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Azumi (Kitamura Ryuhei 2003)



Genre: Samurai Ninja Action

review in one breath

With the exception of Messenger (2003), I've had the pleasure of viewing (and reviewing) all of the films currently directed by Kitamura Ryuhei. And without exception, I've enjoyed every one of them. Kitamura's earliest films, entitled Down to Hell and Heat After Dark were both completed and released in the same year (1996) but demonstrate wildly different styles and story genres. Down to Hell was a stylistically experimental and visually gritty zombie movie with an underdog who was suddenly bestowed with super abilities with which to enact revenge, while Heat After Dark was a straight-up yakuza action film which was superbly orchestrated and cinematically polished.

Each of Kitamura's films since that time have followed the trajectory of Down to Hell with its inclusion of a supernatural (or superscientific, as in the case of Alive) power bestowed on an underdog whereby a great battle of vengeance ensues. This is a theme which permeates all of Kitamura's films until we get to Azumi, wherein he returns for the first time to the trajectory established in Heat After Dark. Azumi is a straight-up (non-supernatural) samurai/ninja movie in which Kitamura progressively attempts to polish his portrayal of monumental battles.

According to its storyline, Azumi takes place sometime between the years of 1543 and 1616 AD, during the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The story opens on a battlefield immediately following a very bloody victory by the Tokugawa forces as the high ranking Tokugawan general Gessai (Harada Yoshio) looks down upon his only son, dead from the heat of battle. Relinquishing his position out of despair, he is directed by a buddhist priest to train a band of ninjas whereby he can continue to defend the shogunate covertly. Thus Gessai sets out, collecting orphaned children on his way to a mountaintop shelter. Along the route, he finds a very young girl, Azumi, standing beside the body of her dead mother, and she is invited into the group by another of the orphans, becoming the group's only girl.

After years of training, the now adolescent group is highly trained in the ninja arts and receive their first "mission", which will require them to leave their mountaintop training ground for the first time since their arrival. But before they commence, they are put to an extreme test by Gessai which will require an unparalleled demonstration of loyalty to their mission. This extreme test marks the real beginning, not only of their lives as adults, but also as steel-willed assassins.

The uncut version of Azumi runs at 142 minutes, a rather epic length. Throughout the entirety of this time, however, Kitamura weaves a skillfully depicted story which remains entertaining throughout. Gessai's band of assassins enter into a world rife with hostility and violence inflicted upon innocent people, and conniving villains planning to undermine the Tokugawa Shogunate. Within this environment, their friendships, resolve and skills are tested again and again, as they gradually approach the ultimate fulfillment of their mission.

The fighting scenes in Azumi are well choreographed and with the exception of a few scenes, do not resort to special effects. Those scenes which do resort to special effects are clearly characteristic of Kitamura's style and are very reminiscent of his earlier films. And Kitamura's climactic ending does not disappoint, pitting Azumi's sword skills against a formidable opponent who is the embodiment of evil.

After having seen nearly all of Kitamura's films, I must say that this is indeed the most epic and the most polished. This is truly a beautifully crafted story which impresses both narratively and visually. I really enjoyed this film.

Version reviewed: Region 0 DVD (includes English subtitles)

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
The most polished and epic Kitamura film thus far! The sheer number of people slain in this movie is staggering. Plenty of hacking and beheadings. Cute little Azumi thinks she's a boy. The sinister yet poetic villain is bizarre indeed, and the final showdown is jaw-dropping.

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