As a kid, I delighted in one of the 80's few genuinely new contributions to action filmdom, that is, the ninja movie. Thanks to the twin pillars of 80's b-level action flicks Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, I stared wide-eyed at the likes of Sho Kosugi in Pray for Death, Revenge of the Ninja, Enter the Ninja and bought every minute of it. Hell, Golan and Globus even gave hope to an average, naive, white kid that he too could be a ninja just like Michael Dudikoff and Franco Nero. Of course, I got older and learned some actual history and that childhood suspension disbelief was gone. I quickly found that the world of the ninja was a far cry from ordering $2.99 throwing stars from the back of a kung fu magazine and making your own nunchuks out of a sawed broom handle. I wouldn't say I devalue that old childhood ideal of the ninja. I just realize the difference between the "real" ninja's and the "pop culture" ninjas. Samurai's and ninja's still rule as a fantasy-action device and, despite the downfall of Golan and Globus and an MIA Sho Kosuji, are still alive and well in Japanese features like Red Shadow, Princess Blade, Gojoe and Azumi (2003).
Based on a manga series, the title character Azumi, is an orphaned girl taken in by Master Gessai, who has adopted a band of children, taken them off into the remote mountains and trained them in the art of the assassin, their eventual goal being the assassination of several warlords who have split up Japan into fueding regions. The kids are raised with only this unifying purpose. They know nothing of the outside world. There is only their mission.
After Master Gessai is sure they are ready, they venture forth to slash some heads open. Azumi, the groups strongest, begins to question their mission and develop a conscience no assassin should have. Early on, one of the targets, Lord Kiyomasa, gets wise to the group and throws a wrench in their plans when they kill a double instead of him. This lays the groundwork for his second, Kanbei, to ferret them out and slowly undo them. The group begins to run into many stumbles, separating and dividing until, in the end, only the most reluctant member, Azumi, may be the one that is capable of saving them.
This is an action picture. While it does have many bits of character and story in its framework, they feel like they are only elements put there to bridge the gap between the action scenes. Like a lot of manga-adapted fantasy action, Azumi strikes a somewhat uneven balance between energetic action, weird cartoonish characters, and unconvincing melodrama. It is a hard line to straddle when, on one hand, we are asked to feel for a certain character's emotional turmoil and in the next scene we've got some weird villainous feathered monkey-dog boy henchman scuttling around. Clearly you are supposed to take it seriously, but honesty you cannot. Hell, it even dips into the tired and pretty laughable anime/manga cliche of the effeminate Japanese unstoppable killer, Bijomaru Mogami, your typical foppish, makeup wearing white clothed, rose carrying, giggling psychotic killer. So, when he confronts one of the group, we get a belabored slow motion death that is hard to take serious because the villain is such a cheeseball.
Director Ryuhei Kitamura has become a hot property, and it is all because of his first film Versus inherited the low budget, zombie, action, fun mantle from the likes of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson and became a real crowd pleaser for cult film fans. His current project is taking over the reigns of the highly anticipated (by rubber-monster fetishists) Godzilla: Final Wars. Kitamura lacks sophistication, which isn't a slight against him, it is just a fact that he does have one bag of tricks when it comes to directing. When put into breezy action fare, that bag of tricks works like a charm. Like Peter Jackson, he largely favors composition that involves wide angle shots that are often energetically swooping, craning, and even literally looping. He's the kind of director bold enough to actually give a camera move a sound effect, making it clear fiction and unabashedly over the top.
Lead actress, Aya Ueto, is very pretty. I could look at her all day and dream of her all night, but one of the films faults lies in the fact that she really comes across as dainty in the action department. I wasn't very convinced of her prowess, and it is pretty clear that when portraying the power and fluidity of Azumi, she was greatly aided by the sound fx and direction which just barely covers her lack in actual skill. But, as I said, she is real purty and capable enough, she's just no Uma Thurman, Michelle Yeoh, or Chang Pei Pei when it comes to a strong physical performance.
But, for all of its stumbles, Azumi is clearly meant to be a adventure action piece, and on all of those levels it works. Yeah, its got some one-dimensional characters, but it isnt like the film was aspiring to be groundbreaking. It aspires to be a body slashing action piece, and on that level it succeeds and is highly entertaining.
The DVD: Korean DVD, region 3 encoded.
This Korean edition is the theatrical cut of the film, 128 minutes, compared to the Japanese directors cut, which I have, that clocks in a 148 minutes. This is a case where I think the shorter cut actually helps out the film a great deal. As I said, a lot of the non-action scenes feel like filler and Kitamura clearly doesn't put as much energy into them. Plus, while whittling down the manga into a movie length means sacrificing a lot, the directors cut, quite frankly, plays pretty slow and feels every bit of its running time, which an action movie shouldn't. While this theatrical cut snips a lot of character, I feel it plays better. Needless to say, if you are a fan of the film, both cuts are worth owning.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The print is extremely clean, nary a spot or speck to be seen. The color scheme leans towards earth tones. Contrast is in good shape with little graying. The look has a digitally processed feel, which keeps everything even, but does have a unreal veneer (which isn't a detriment because of the films fantasy stylings). Technically the transfer is free of any glitches like artifacts or edge enhancement.
Sound: Japanese language, 5.1, DTS, and 2.0 channels with optional Korean or English subtitles. Wow. The sound of the swords clashing in this film is absolutely thunderous. They don't so much as clash or clang together as they slam with a cataclysmic force. Make no mistake- it is loud.
Extras: Unfortunately none of the extensive extras are English friendly. This two-disc set features a second disc of extras that includes---- "Battle of the Wild Side" Featurette (60:24)— "Making of" Featurette (41:06)---- "Promotion Footage" Featurette (21:56)— Art Gallery.
Conclusion: All-region capable action film geeks should check this and the Japanese edition out. Whiel the extras are sadly lacking English subs, for fans of slicker new wave Asian action offerings, the film itself is a real sword slashing winner. It's enough to make you want to run out into the woods, sneak up on a friend, and whomp them on the head with your homemade katana.