Today I watched Ryuhei Kitamura’s Azumi (2003)
Based on a manga series of the same name, the story of Azumi concerns a titular heroin who is orphaned by war and is raised by an old samurai with a number of other orphans. They are all trained by their old master in sword fighting and combat for the purpose of becoming assassins. This old master is actually an agent of the Tokugawa Shogunate who has recently come to power after Ieyasu’s victory at the Battle of Sekigahara, and the plan is to use his young charges as assassins to kill lords who threaten the new found national stability. Before they all leave their mountain hideout to enter the greater world and go about their mission, the master first has them pair off with their best friend before ordering them to duel to the death. After this harrowing initiation they go into the world to kill three enemy lords but while doing so Azumi begins to question the morality of their actions. No time for that plot thread though as one of their targets releases a dangerous Samurai criminal from prison named Bijomaru Mogami, who quickly puts our young assassins on the defense.
This film really doesn’t have time for any kind of subtext, though it often raises the possibility of it. The film rushes headlong past the grim and brutal elements, as well as the deeper character dynamics and moral themes, in a wild headlong rush to get from one action scene to another. While there is a much more interesting film about adolescent warriors being used as pawns by a regime to combat equally as oppressive rebels in here theoretically, that film is not nearly as action packed as this. Kitamura is a savant of modern action and one of the earliest practitioners in stylistic experiments to fuse the dynamism of anime action with a live action format, he is also one of he most successful. He is not afraid of shots that might seem dizzying or confusing to someone only familiar with live action film, but are not out of place in the highly stylized world of anime, and which lend a unique sense of intensity to Kitamura’s works. So while the plot may be a bit of a bore from an artistic viewpoint, it serves it’s purpose in linking together the real artistry of this film, the artistry of highly choreographed violence.
The film maybe could have saved some time by rendering out the vestiges of deeper themes and meanings, perhaps annoying the original fans of the comic, but it would focus the film more. Since there is really only one thing to focus on I do think that would have made it a stronger work since the drama is rushed and often overlooked. Still, what there is does work in a silly and over the top sort of melodrama, it punctuates the intensity of the violence with the requisite emotional investment, and as such this is still a great action movie. While I always hesitate before recommending a movie as enjoyment for one to turn off their brains too, personally I think brain on entertainment is more fun, but this is one of the exceptional times where it is not only excusable, but I highly encourage tracking this film down to do just that. I say this because Kitamura’s style is worth seeing and worth learning from, his pure focus on violent visuals makes him a unique master in that are and one that can much can be learned from. 4/5