POSTED BY JASON FETTERS, March 11, 2012 Share
Based on a manga by Yu Koyama, Azumi is a beautifully stunning movie about a group of assassins on a mission. Watching Azumi reminded me of all those old chanbara (the sound of swords clashing,) where one person would fight an overwhelming numbers of opponents and survive without a scratch. Examples of chanbara are Lady Snowblood and the Zatoichi series, that feature a blind swordsman who can slash and cut down anyone. Azumi has plenty of action but also has an interesting plot that is never slow or boring. It is the kind of movie I want to rewatch after seeing it for the first time because there are so many things happening and few can catch it all.
Set during the end of the Sengoku civil war, the Warring States period, which was a time of constant battles beginning in the mid 15th century and lasting until the early 17th, Azumi tells the story of a small group of assassins who plan on preventing future civil wars by killing off Hideyoshi allies. Hideyoshi was the second of the great unifiers of Japan that began with Oda Nobunaga and ended with Tokugawa. Azumi is played by the lovely Aya Ueto with such passion and intensity that she is even interesting to watch even in her non action dramatic parts. Ueto is a model, singer, and actor, from Tokyo, who has appeared in many good TV dramas. Azumi begins with Azumi as a young girl weeping over her dead mother’s body. A group of young boys led by a mysterious martial arts master walk by. One of the boys takes Azumi’s hand and together they follow the master who will train her to become a deadly assassin and a fierce fighter.
Following years of training, the students sit around causally joking around as they eat dinner. They really are a close knit family. Then one day the master has everyone line up and he tells them all to find a partner, anyone you like, and kill that person. Those who are left alive may return to the hut and will be participating in the mission. Azumi is forced into fighting the boy whose hand she held as she left her mother’s body. After slashing him open with blood splattered on her pale skin, Azumi is deep in thought as she is preparing for bigger trials that lay ahead. Azumi is best experienced with as little knowledge of the plot as possible. Therefore, I will focus on what makes it great.
First, Azumi offers a realistic look at how actual ninja were. They were not running around in black outfits throwing stars and using smoke bombs to escape. They were a group of people that banded together behind a master and followed orders and went on missions. The group dressed like common people to blend in with any village they happened to walk through. They would not get involved if something happened in that village that was not a part of the group’s mission. In one stunning scene, Azumi and her fellow assassins watch grimly from a hidden location as a group of bandits kill everyone. The master gave strict orders to not help out because the larger goal of preventing civil wars is more important. The ninja would not stay at one particular location for very long. If their whereabouts was discovered, they would quickly leave, sometimes burning down the place they were staying. Finally one big point the master makes is to never draw your weapon or engage in hand to hand combat against anyone who was not directly related to the mission. You were only supposed to kill in order to achieve your goals.
The action sequences in Azumi are excellent with lots of Japanese swordfighting techniques quickly blazing in front of the cameras. Lots of blood spraying from decapitated heads. This is a lot like seeing a comic book come to life and getting drawn into this amazing story of hunting down Kato, one of Hideyoshi’s allies, who is under the protection of his general.
However, despite how great Azumi looks certain things caused me to cringe. For one thing the action was heavily influenced by Chinese wushu with characters using wires to leap through the air higher than anyone really can. The beginning of the movie showed how ninja really were until the middle of the movie, when Azumi and friends are fighting and a group of rival ninja show up in black outfits. The black outfits killed all realism and caused Azumi to descend into a cartoon. My other complaint is the biggest martial arts movie cliché in the book, which Azumi uses time and time again, and that is one person takes on an army of trained fighters and wins. At the final action scene, Azumi is seen battling an entire village of hundreds of people. That was hard to take. You just have to sit back and accept the comic book fantasy. If you can do that then you will have no problems. I have seen movies like this with one person against four or five but hundreds is stretching that limit too far out for me. Azumi also had critics in Japan who claimed that the movie had lots of fighting and little else that make the manga a great read. I am inclined to check out the manga to see if it is actually story driven or action driven.
Despite some criticism, Azumi has won several awards including Most Popular Performer for Aya Ueto at the 2003 Japanese Academy Awards. Other awards include Special Jury Prize at the Independent Film Festival of Boston in 2004 and finally the Audience Award at the Philadelphia Film Festival also in 2004.
My advice is to see Azumi for yourself. You are probably not as hung up on accurate portrayal of ninja as I am. If you just want to be entertained then Azumi is a winner. You will not be bored and you will find yourself caught up in this fantastic vision of federal Japan where action and adventure is always just around the corner. There is also a sequel called Azumi 2: Death or Love.
3.5 out of 5 Stars.
Next week my column may be a couple of days later than usual as I am on assignment.
"The Asian Aperture" is ©2012 by Jason Fetters. All contents of Crazed Fanboy are ©2012 by Nolan B. Canova and Terence Nuzum.
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