I’ve been intrigued by Ryuhei Kitamura’s Azumi since I saw the trailer back at FanTasia. I finally found a Korean DVD with English subtitles, and now I have watched it, and I am replete with satisfaction. More or less.
For the first hour or so, you could mistake Azumi for a fairly serious chambara piece. There’s cool action and swordplay and while your typical chambara movie does not star a teenage girl, the plot — ninjas must kill the warlords who threaten the Tokugawa Shogunate — is pretty straightforward. There are certainly some oddball characters, but the main thrust of the movie is your basic warriors wandering the land, facing the occasional moral crisis and fighting for what will hopefully prove to be justice.
Once Bijomaru shows up, though, the movie is freed from convention. He’s a poetic bishonen killer who lives for violence, waltzing through the movie in pure white robes; his sword has no hand guard, because he has never needed to block an opponent’s blow. High camp. In fact, it started to remind me of Cutie Honey. Azumi is an adaptation of a manga, and like Cutie Honey it is unabashedly over the top (although not half as, well, cute).
All in all, it gave me what I want out of an action movie. The only real quibble I had was that the swordplay wasn’t top-notch. It was OK, and it was well choreographed, particularly in Azumi’s last battle when she cuts loose against an entire town. I really liked the way she kept moving to minimize the number of people attacking her at once. I also liked the way every sword was treated as deadly; this isn’t a kung-fu movie where people take a lot of damage, it’s a chambara movie where one cut with a sword brings death. However, few of the actors were quick enough to make me totally believe in their martial arts ability.
Kitamura’s hyperkinetic camerawork made up for a lot, though. He compensated for any lack of fluidity on the part of the actors with elegant snappy cuts. I tend to expect quick cuts to detract from fight scenes, because you lose track of what’s going on. Kitamura’s cuts flow with the scene, punctuating the action rather than chopping it to pieces. His visual sense is very much on target.
So in the final analysis, it’s a thumbs up. Particularly if you’re fond of female action heroes with great costumes.