Azumi (2003)
Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura

Artistic Value: * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * *

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In the first years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, an aging warrior takes in a group of orphaned children so that he can train them to be assassins and use them to kill any nobleman who attempts to rise up against the new government and reignite the civil wars which had until recently devastated Japan. Having reached adulthood, this man's students are sent out on their first mission, but one of them, a young woman named Azumi (Aya Ueto), begins to doubt the morality of their quest. By the time she does so, however, she has already become embroiled in a brutal conflict with a local warlord and is unable to extricate herself from it.

Ryuhei Kitamura's Azumi is a weirdly goofy, consistently thrilling film that is sure to delight any person able to enjoy a simple action filled tale of adventure. The story the director tells is, it must be conceded, fairly forgettable, but he has populated it with so many peculiar or appealing characters and enlivened it with so many exhilarating fight scenes that the moviegoer is unlikely ever to lose interest.

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The film's numerous battle sequences, which provide, without a doubt, its best moments, are almost all skillfully choreographed. Instead of burdening them with a dull realism, the director invigorates them with wildly overdone excesses. In one scene after another, he shows the viewer gleefully impossible fights in which Azumi and her companions leap over cliffs, perform exaggerated gymnastic stunts, and kill their innumerable enemies without breaking a sweat. What is more, while these fights are filled with streams of spurting blood, severed heads and limbs, and twitching bodies, they are never particularly gruesome. In fact, the scenes' grisly excesses add to their fantasticness and, somehow, make them fun rather than revolting.

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Similarly, although some of Azumi's characters are more than a little over the top, their very weirdness adds to the film's eccentric charm. Kitamura has, for instance, given his antagonist, the man Azumi and her friends are targeting for assassination, an odd henchman who looks vaguely like the X-Men's Wolverine, and, later, he introduces a deadly swordsman who dresses all in white, wears make-up like that of a Kabuki performer, and always carries a single red rose. These persons are certainly silly, but their cheesiness is actually part of their appeal.

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Fortunately, most of the players both give enjoyable performances and seem to be having tremendous fun with their roles. Aya Ueto, in particular, is always a joy to watch. She is a remarkably attractive young woman with a disarming, innocent smile and is sure to bewitch the viewer. Moreover, the actress is surprisingly athletic and acquits herself well in the movie's numerous action sequences. Thanks to her physical charms, her successful efforts to display her martial skills, as well as her quiet sadness, she has managed to create a genuinely entrancing character. Azumi, although a brutal killer, emerges as a tragic individual who is deeply troubled by the cruel acts she is forced to perform. Miss Ueto does not, however, allow such dolorousness to overcome her character, who is generally animated by an intoxicating vivacity.

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Thanks to its engaging characters and its thrilling depictions of combat, Azumi is among the most entertaining action films I have encountered for some time. It really is a pleasure.

Review by Keith Allen

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