Saturday, May 01, 2004


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2004 at Coolidge Corner #1 (Independant Film Festival of Boston 2004)

Say what you will about the rest of the movie, but Aya Ueto's blood-spattered face is a work of art.

The title character's face gets hit with speckles of blood a lot, always covering the same half, with her hair falling into place to cast a shadow. Visually, it's a pretty clear trick - Azumi is half beautiful, innocent young girl, half cold-blooded killer. Director Ryuhei Kitamura gets a lot of milage from this image, using it for sadness, rage, and Azumi being just the most efficient teenage assassin you're ever going to find.

This movie doesn't get made in the US; the body count is too high, and the subject matter - kids raised to kill without question or compassion - would have people writing letters and threatening boycotts by the time it was announced (heck, the popularity of the manga it's based upon would have caused a furor). The violence is completely over-the-top, almost all of it is either directed against kids or committed by them, and the film's moral compass is not steady, to say the least. Gessai, the master assassin who has trained Azumi and her nine male compatriots for the past decade, has them reduce their numbers to five to find out who the best is and who is the most willing to follow orders. Later, as they come upon a village being ransacked by bandits, he holds them back, saying that their work (assassinating ambitious shoguns) is too important for defending innocent people to interfere.

And yet, the kids are likable. They are, after all, kids - though they've been trained to kill, it's like other kids are trained to play sports or do their schoolwork. When they get their first glimpse of the outside world, they get excited watching troupe of traveling acrobats. One develops a crush on the pretty Yae (Aya Okamoto), who will become Azumi's friend after she is separated from the rest of the group. Azumi will be tempted to join her and lead a normal life, but it's not to be - knowing himself a target, one of the three Shoguns the children have been dispatched to kill has unleashed not only an army of bandits, samurai, and ronin, but also freed a flamboyant, vicious serial killer. Bijomaru (Jô Odagiri) is so skilled at death that he has never had his sword in a defensive position.

Azumi is based upon a manga, and still retains a lot of that sensibility. Anime and manga are the source from which The Matrix drew much of its visual inspiration, and Kitamura stays true to the source medium (I've not read the comics). Azumi moves impossibly fast, as does Bijomaru, and when they collide amid a battle that consumes an entire town, it's one of the most energetic action sequences you'll ever see. There are impossible shots in it; one of the most astounding has the camera making a vertical circuit around Azumi and Bijomaru, and I've got no idea how they managed it, even with CGI-assistance.

Ryuhei Kitamura has improved since Versus, his last film to show up here in Boston. In particular, this movie is paced better, perhaps because others wrote the script, and even though Azumi is actually somewhat longer, it flies by. And though this is one of the most action-stuffed movie's you'll see, it never becomes overwhelming. Seeing this, I am completely stoked about Kitamura being the guy to direct the next (and final, for now) installment in the Gojira franchise.

Azumi isn't for everyone. It features kids slicing people up and getting sliced back, and is peppered with vicious bits of black humor. Saying it's one of the best teenaged-assassin movies you'll ever see is something of a backhanded compliment, but it is - the director makes an impressive leap forward, Aya Ueto is charismatic as the title character, and Jô Odagiri gives one of the best scenery-chewing raving lunatic performances in recent memory. Recommended for those who aren't repulsed by the concept.

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