So let us take a pause from J-Horror, and try something a little different. Now anyone who has read any other postings on this little blog will know I have three passions in life. Movies, Comic Books and Football. Now as a rule, these three rarely combine at the same time, and when they do the results are often poor. Football movies, other than documentaries, are the rarest breed of all (and one will turn up here later), and usually are pretty poor. Football comics also exist, but frankly are not my cup of tea. Comic Book movies however - well I am a dedicated fanboy, and I'll give them critical latitude. Western Comic Book movies are usually pretty poor, struggling to capture either the essence of the characters, or the depth of the stories. Some do work - in recent years I can think of the first two Superman films, a couple of the Batman films, the first two Spider-Man films and the first two X-Men films. Even then they are not without their faults. Maybe it is because they are all Super-hero comics, which is probably the most difficult type of comic book to bring to live. And this is because it is the dominant form of comic in America. In the UK, we are more used to Humour, War and Sci-Fi, but the film industry cannot afford to create such films. In the East, comics are far more wide-ranging and cover all sorts of genres, which means there is far more scope to represent the drawn page on celluloid.
Azumi is a "Chanbara" film, for want of a better characterisation. Based on the long running Manga by Yū Koyama, it tells the story of a band of assassins, trained since childhood to kill the Warlords of 17th century Japan, with the eventual idea of bringing peace and unifying the country.
It is a very stylised film, using a modern electronic/rock score, and utilising a very modern approach to action sequences. No surprise here, as the director, Ryûhei Kitamura, made his name with the low budget, high octane, Zombie/Yakuza/Sci-fi "Versus".
Personally, I found "Versus" to be a complete chore. Yes it was fast-paced, and to some degree innovative, but I found it rather boring and repetitive. "Azumi" however is a different kettle of fish.
I have never read the source Manga, but I believe the setup carries through the most important story beats into the film. This is where it hooked me. We are introduced to the 10 young assassins and their Master, via a brief action sequence (very evocative of "Versus"), and some light-hearted banter. We learn that the titular Azumi and Natchi are probably the most skilled of the bunch, and that they are also close friends. The Master tells them to go outside and pair up. And then kill their friend. His idea is that to be an Assassin you should be prepared to kill anyone (personally, I think he made a tiny mistake here, as by allowing his best to pair up, who both seemed to be able to carry through this plan, he reduced the overall effectiveness of the unit).
They do it.
So there you have it - 15 minutes into the film you have lost half the main cast. BY THEIR OWN HANDS. Genius.
The rest of the film is mighty entertaining, although it is basically mass sword fights, punctuated by scenes of either the Assassins struggling with the ramifications of their missions, or meeting an ever crazier set of villains that want to hunt them down. I suspect the Manga concentrated a lot more on the moments of reflection, but you get enough in the film to get the idea. The villains are a little more "comic-book" than I would like, and the big end of level boss (yes it is a bit like a video game), Bijomaru, is just, well, bizarre.
Oh there is one more thing. Azumi herself is played by pop-star Aya Ueto. She is a tiny little
pixie, and indescribably cute. This duality between cute girl and supreme assassin works so so well.
Did I mention how cute she was?
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