AZUMI. 2003

Director: Ryuhei Kitamura

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Azumi Azumi (2003) is based on a very popular manga series, about a wandering swordswoman or onna-toseinin.

The film could've been a whole lot better if the Azumi character could've been costumed somewhat realistically rather than in hot-pants & mini-skirt.

Other characters, in the first two-thirds of the film at least, are costumed close enough to realism that Azumi stands out all the worse as a sexy teenager from Tokyo who has just snuck out of her parents' apartment to go to a rave.

But, well, nothing can be done to fix it now, so trying to appreciate the out-of-century costuming, one might find Azumi to be a strangely sweet & innocent girl who just happens to be a whirling assassination machine.

Aya Ueto as Azumi has the most perfect serious face for the role, & she's agile enough she might've drummed up a lot of conviction in the swordplay choreography if she'd managed to study movie-style swordplay for a little longer than four weeks before shooting began.

With her pipe-cleaner arms barely able to hold a longsword without it wobbling, it takes a hell of a lot of camera tricks & editing cheats are required to make her fighting fury work.

Really it's pretty much always obvious the actress doesn't know what she's doing, & of the great horde of enemies she cuts down, a lot of them are old hands at this sort of film & clearly could take her down in about three seconds if they weren't just letting her win cuz she's such a cutie.

Azumi Still, got to at least give this young actress credit for not requiring a stunt double throughout. We do get to see her scowling serious face as she fights. This adds a lot to the drama of the action.

The best fight scene comes at the end & very extensive, Azumi versus two-hundred scruffy ronin & demonic outcastes.

The post-town is more like a fort in the Wild West than a Japanese outpost, & obviously everybody had spaghetti westerns rather than samurai films in mind here.

Despite that the director in foolhardy mood let slip in interviews that he was inspired by Akira Kurosawa, that's just so like a second-string colorist for Marvel Comics claiming his inspiration is the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. This isn't even Kurosawa via Sergia Leone; at best we're talking Seijun Sazuki via Sergio Corbucci's Django.

In the final battle, the costuming is sometimes perversely strange, as though these aren't impoverished swordsmen, but peasants who scavenged their clothes from a field of dead kabuki actors.

Azumi One piss-poor element inherited from the comic book was Azumi keeping the encircling cape on for her big fights.

Traditionally in plays & films about fighting toseinin, the big blue cape that serves as an emblem of the wanderer is whipped off & tossed in the air like a whirling umbrella, leaving the wanderer ready to fight with sword.

But the comic book artist wanted to draw the cape being worn in action. So the film preserves that & has Azumi wear the encumbering garment over her hot-pants outfit as part of the goofy fashion statement, including during swordfights. It hugely hampers Aya Ueta's struggle to look at all convincingly skilled.

A little of the cape would've been fine, but in the amount of time it took to keep doing her silly "flourishes" to get the cape out of the way of sword-swinging, Azumi would've been cut to ribbons ten times over. Keeping it on the whole time was as sensible as wearing a big sack over her head.

The chief villain, Bijomaru (Jo Odagiri), also has a few problems of character design that make him a mite difficult to take at all seriouisly. He is a death-like sissy in white, a sometimes scary-ass character despite that his make-up design is pure Cartoon Network.

And for some moronic reason Bijomaru is always carrying an ugly crumpled-looking fake rose as if intending to bust into a dance from Carmen at any moment. It makes his character just a tad more ridiculous than he already is.

Azumi Starting with shitty-looking CGI crows, it's too obvious from scene one that we're not in the territory of the classics. A viewer has to lower one's expectation to appreciate whatever beauty & excitement might be found here.

Azumi was raised in a warrior orphanage & learned fighting techniques mostly with katana from a big mean father-figure.

Playing the cruel-fatherly role with laughable realism is the resplendant Yoshio Harada. He's a great performer from an earlier & finer generation of jidai-geki film stars, & his presence here is only laughable because his students all grow up to be Barbies & Kens. I's like if Lawrence Olivier was giving a Shakespearean performance in the middle of a Walt Disney's The Shaggy Dog.

Nachi & Azumi were strongest of the students. Before they can graduate to a real mission, they must have a fight to the death. Azumi is forced (improbably) to kill the young man who has been her most affectionate friend growing up. It colors the killer instinct in her for life.

The comic book had no interest in historical authenticity & the filmmakers didn't bother to add any, so everything that happens is frequently absurd. Azumi is a throwback to some of the worst films starring Sonny Chiba's Japan Action Club teenagers who would do acrobatics pretending to be medieval martial artists, with the trashiest modern pop tunes on the soundtrack, & lots of posturing with nice hair & outfitws.

So Azumi has a trashy guitar soundtrack & there's plenty of cornball action, especially in loony-town at the end. It's all totally cartoony with characters like the monkey-dog-boy & the sissy psycho with the artificial rose. There's hip-samurai dialogue like when the sissy-with-a-rose dude tells Azumi, "This is my first time to defend! You are wonderful!"

It's just so hard to figure out why anyone would spend as much money as it takes to make a film & not want a better one than this. One critic called it "frothy teen camp" & that's Azumi in a nutshell all right. So far, I just haven't been able to bring myself to waste my time watching Azumi 2 (2005), for even if miraculously it was twice as good as the first one, that'd still be abominably bad.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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