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Japan (2003), 128 minutes
Starring: Aya Ueto, Yoshio Harada, Masato Ibu, Aya Okamoto
Reviewer: Jeremy Silman
Genre: Martial Arts
Rating: 4.5

Kitamura’s Versus was such a revelation that I felt compelled to buy everything he had done. As is so common, humans tend to typecast actors and directors – when we see something we like we want more of the same. I have to admit that I too wanted more Versus-type entertainment. However, after my order of Kitamura films arrived, I was surprised to see the many directions this director took, and the ideas he explored. In fact, I enjoyed everything else he did in its own right, and the “after-Versus” letdown never had a chance to morph into disappointment.

Azumi is yet another in a long line of “young swordswomen kicking male ass” movies. This unlikely genre sometimes takes the “revenge at all costs” road as in the Lady Snowblood films, it can avoid past traditions and act as a stand-alone effort as in Princess Blade, or it can take us into a decidedly bizarre world as in the Female Ninja series. Azumi fits into the “revenge” category, but this time we get far more than the others before it offered.

The innocent looking young lady that plays the title character doesn’t seem at all menacing, and it’s quite a stretch to take her too seriously (though you can’t help but like her). In fact, all of the young assassins – supposedly peerless swordsmen – failed to make us believe that in real life they were anything but mediocre. But, though this poor casting would destroy a lesser film, Azumi somehow – miraculously – rises above it all by dint of Kitamura’s genius.

The movie’s premise is that a group of youngsters have been assembled and trained to be unstoppable assassins, able to kill off several leaders who, in their master’s opinion, would ultimately hurt Japan. We are first dragged though a bit of idyllic training and group friendship, and the sickly sweetness of it all made me fear that the director had gotten soft. Then an original, very powerful scene appears – which I won’t give away – that begins a cruel and twisted journey.

Questions are kicked in the viewer’s face without ever being said: “What’s more important, duty or friendship?” “Must one continue to follow the dictates of a father-figure/master, even if he’s proven to be heartless and, perhaps, deluded?” “In a war of political views, is one group’s belief structure really better or worse than another?” “Can a person, trying to cater to the mythical ‘greater good’ or ‘collateral damage’ that people love to spew to justify their actions, morally turn one’s back on mass murder if it suits the parameters of their master’s wishes?” These questions pulse through Azumi at every turn.

The very first assassination makes us realize that things are rarely black and white. The “sweet girl” butchers a man that appears to be very nice, and clouds of doubt appear in her mind and in ours. The rest of the movie is more or less about the group (which is constantly dwindling!) trying to successfully carry out their mandate – their reason for existence. This could have easily become repetitive, but Kitamura’s constant addition of some extraordinary characters lights the proceedings up with energy and humor. Many stand out, the rose chewing psychopath being particularly impressive.

In Japanese samurai films it’s not unusual to see one man kill 20 or more opponents single-handedly, but the end of Azumi breaks new “girl as killing machine” ground when one lone female faces off against a whole village, leaving everyone there (apparently hundreds!) laying bloody and lifeless after she cuts through them.

The final fight scene with the rose-chewer was typical of the signature energy that only Kitamura can give us – the viewer actually experiences vertigo as the director does things with the camera that haven’t been done before when people with swords face off.Yes, Azumi has flaws, but its many, many highlights (intellectual, physical, and choreographic) more than make up for them and turn this into yet another Kitamura must buy.