“Azumi” – A.J. Hakari

It’s getting to be that you can’t judge a book by the hot Asian girl on its cover. It wasn’t that long ago when Yo-Yo Girl Cop, which featured a fair maiden wielding the titular weapon on its visage, reneged on its promises of brainless action and delivered something more on the lethargic side. The Japanese samurai drama Azumi doesn’t suffer such a disappointing fate, though there are times when it feels like it’s on its way. The film has enough swordplay and bloodletting to keep action junkies occupied, but one is sure Azumi could have been even more awesome if it had a better idea of what it wanted to do.

Aya Ueto plays Azumi, a girl who’s led a decidedly different life. Along with nine others, she’s been raised since childhood by fallen warrior Gessai (Yoshio Harada), who’s chosen to train the kids as master assassins. Fed up with how much evil goes by unchecked in the world, Gessai is preparing his students for the day they step back into the real world to take on any warlords trying to incite violence. That moment finally arrives, and being the strongest of the killers in training, Azumi is more than ready to handle her deadly assignments. But after one last training exercise robs her of half her friends, she begins to have second thoughts about the only life she’s ever known. As Gessai leads the troupe into battle against a trio of big-time baddies, Azumi wonders whether a life of violence is worth leading at all. But she’ll have to make up her mind fast, for one warlord (Naoto Takenaka) gets wind of the assassins on the move and sets about unleashing his own army of killers to stop them in their tracks.

Samurai films generally run on one of two paths. There are the burly, epic sagas that Akira Kurosawa could direct in his sleep and those movies that pay stylish homage to these very same pictures. They tend to remain in their own separate camps, but being the greedy little bugger it is, Azumi attempts to have it both ways. I’m all for this idea, since something that has as strong of a visual flavor as it does thematic content is even better than the two on their own. But like most stories that seem too good to be true, Azumi quickly runs into trouble, thanks to its own indecisiveness. Wunderkind director Ryuhei Kitamura (of Versus fame) keeps playing hot potato with the plot, trying to wade through an ethical quagmire with a comic book mentality. This is no surprise, since the film is based on a manga series, but believe me when I say it’s not as deft at what it does as something like The Dark Knight.

Instead of running on all cylinders, Kitamura dips his little toe in both pools, unwilling to commit to or just flat-out perplexed by what style he wants. Azumi walks in both worlds but belongs to neither, and it gets to a point that following Kitamura around while he tries to make up his mind becomes tiring. The story isn’t a tough nut to crack anyway, and it could stand to benefit from a little more moral ambiguity. As is, it’s puzzling to see Azumi ponder over whether or not she should kill when the most blatantly obvious villains in the world are out to get her. It’s even more strange to see Kitamura chuck such crazy characters at us (ranging from a ninja dressed as a monkey to a trio of psychotic brothers) and try to pass them off in a serious light. Thankfully, the film finds its bearings by the end and launches itself into full-blown bloodbath mode, finishing off with the bang it could have used for its other competent but underwhelming battle scenes. Still, one consistent element is Ueto, whose performance as Azumi finds that pitch-perfect balance between tortured soul and sword-swinging goddess.

For all its flaws, I still wouldn’t call Azumi a lost cause. It’s a fun enough feature that just takes a little too long arriving where it eventually does. Overall, Azumi isn’t groundbreaking cinema, but its few moments of craziness help it come across as a groovy, well-meaning ride.

Rating: ★★½☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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