- Original title
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 142 minutes
- 17 May 2004
by Don Brown
When production was announced on an adaptation of popular manga Azumi with idol Aya Ueto playing the titular ninja heroine, coverage in the overly excitable "sports" tabloid newspapers focused on whether the film would feature some of the source work's more titillating scenes. Of course, there was never really any chance that the then 17-year-old actress would do a Janet Jackson, although her current success is largely attributable to vast exposure of a less fleshy variety.
Since her breakthrough role as a high school student battling with a sexual identity disorder in television drama Kinpachi Sensei, Ueto has gone on to become one of the most in-demand "multi-talents" in the country, including a nascent singing career and a wide array of endorsements which use her toothy grin to promote everything from fire safety to Mobile Suit Gundam. With Azumi, her first crack at the big screen, the billion yen question was not so much whether the girl could act or not, but rather if people would pay money to see her try.
The movie also represented a debut of another sort for director Ryuhei Kitamura, who was still riding high on the international cult success of his low-budget genre masher Versus. Azumi was his first chance to show what he could do with the financial backing of a major studio, and to make a significant step toward realizing his unabashed dream of becoming a big-budget Hollywood director. Could Kitamura make the step up from fanboy messiah to mass-market success story?
With a well-known property bringing its own built-in audience, a rising star in the lead role, and a hot young director with populist instincts grasping the megaphone, this project must have looked like a license to mint money. Alas, after opening on 255 screens nationwide and initially making a minor dent in the top ten, it swiftly slipped off the chart entirely within three weeks, and the impetus switched from talk of a possible franchise to recouping lost revenue from future DVD sales. (Luckily for the producers, the DVD sold so well that a sequel was given the green light after all, directed by Shusuke Kaneko and co-starring Chiaki Kuriyama and Reiko Takahashi.)
Culled from Yu Koyama's 25-part manga series, the story is a superficially spunky update of the period action genre that ultimately doesn't stray far from jidaigeki conventions. Orphaned as an infant, Azumi is taken in by fallen samurai Jiji (Yoshio Harada) and grows up to become the swiftest of his band of young assassins, who are to be unleashed on the power-hungry warlords who stand in the way of a peaceful Japan. After completing the final barbarous challenge of their training, the remaining five bid goodbye to their idyllic life in the mountains and set off with Jiji to begin their mission. As the only girl in the troupe, Azumi's pubescent feminine allure proves effective in the clinical elimination of their initial prey Nagamasa Asano (Masato Ibu), but they come up against a more wily enemy in the shape of Kiyomasa Kato (Naoto Takenaka) and his right-hand man Kanbei Inoue (Kazuki Kitamura) who strike back with their numerical superiority. However, the assassins themselves prove hard to kill, and eventually flower-fondling psychopath Bijomaru (Jo Odagiri) is released from prison to finish their dirty work. Much innocent and not-so-innocent blood is inevitably spilt as events spiral toward a climactic showdown between angel of vengeance Azumi and the loopy but lethal Bijomaru.
Kitamura's regular D.O.P. Takumi Furuya provides crisp and vividly-lit photography far removed from the cold and grimy look of his other works, and fittingly for what is essentially an idol picture, it makes the most of Ueto's youthful luminescence. The action is embellished by several nifty camera tricks and CG effects that would have gelled far better with the fight sequences had they been shot with more abandon. Booming explosions and a cacophony of clanging steel give a 5.1 channel setup a nice workout, while the score is refreshingly low-key when you might have expected wall-to-wall techno or screeching guitars throughout. But ultimately and unfortunately it's the same old song with Kitamura, it's not the technical aspect that lets the film down.
With role models like George Miller (Mad Max) and Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), you'd expect Kitamura's strengths to be kinetic rather than dramatic. With Versus he showed a talent for wringing flashy visuals out of a negligible budget, as well as an appealingly raucous energy and sense of fun. But that film also displayed a poor grasp of pacing which manifests itself here too, as the story unnecessarily drags on for over two hours. A lot of unwarranted attention is lavished on colorless ancillary characters, capped off by the end reel duel between Azumi and hired goon Bijomaru before the assassins' original target is dealt with in a cursory and improbable coda with "sequel" written all over it.
Given that most of his lead actors are disposable teenage idol types with backgrounds in television drama, it might seem a little churlish to criticize Kitamura for their lightweight performances, but even the more experienced members of his cast appear to be on cruise control. Harada sleepwalks through his underwritten bit as the gruff sensei, and Takenaka dusts off his cheesy V-cinema heavy routine. Odagiri inexplicably won a Japanese academy award for his efforts here (as did Ueto) despite giving a far better account of himself in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future, and although the former Kamen Rider heartthrob tries to make the most of the only character in the film that remains truly manga-esque, he's clearly miscast. Perhaps the role would have better been served by one of the many genuinely creepy androgynes out there such as Mitsuhiro Oikawa (The City of Lost Souls) or Gackt (Moon Child). In the end, the only participants to emerge with their honor intact are an effectively menacing Kazuki Kitamura and the ski jump-coiffed Kenichi Endo, whose appearances are both agonizingly brief.
As for Ueto, she's just too thoroughly nice to convince as a hardened killer with the skills to dispatch hundreds of extras back into obscurity. She definitely looks thigh-flashingly fetching in her designer costume, but never manages to overcome the handicap of an acting range that runs the gamut from blissfully cute to slightly peeved. Death-dealing schoolgirls are a well-worn staple in manga and anime, but the Azumi of this film looks like she'd be more at home in the wholesome world of a soporific NHK taiga drama. One suspects too many compromises were made, either to protect Ueto's family-friendly image or to appeal to a wider demographic.
Amid the current crop of revisionist chambara flicks, Azumi is neither the abject failure of Hiroyuki Nakano's postmodern bore Red Shadow, nor the quirky entertainment that was Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi, but as was the case with Takashi Miike's recent commercial outings such as One Missed Call (Chakushin Ari) and Zebraman, on this evidence Kitamura's work appears to be least successful when he decides to reign in his wilder instincts. Fans seeking the frenetic insanity of Versus will no doubt be sorely disappointed by the bland fare on offer here, while uninitiated viewers will probably be only fitfully entertained as they wonder what all the fuss was about Kitamura in the first place. The end result is an inoffensive and mediocre idol-cum-action film that makes a beeline for the middle ground and consequently disappoints on most counts.
Kitamura went on to helm another major studio actioner with Sky High and was entrusted with giving Godzilla a fitting send-off before the series took a well-earned vacation, but you'd be well advised to remember that this is the same director who succeeded in making a boring movie about ninjas.