Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Cast: Aya Ueto, Yoshio Harada, Yuma Ishigaki, Jo Odagiri, among others
Runtime (this DVD version): 123 min.
Have you spent the past seven years living in ignorance of Azumi? Have you heard of Azumi, but made the mistake of not seeing it? If so, here’s your second chance to get it right.
Azumi is one of the few fantasy movies for young adults that is on the same level of quality as a really good science fiction movie. Azumi has got absolutely everything: A grand idea. High adventure. A beautiful girl. A worthy villain. A superb action climax. And finally a great and satisfying ending emphasizing the vast potential of human achievement.
The story, which is based on a manga comic, opens with a samurai master taking a group of children with him to a secluded valley. He has seen too much war in his life, and he decides to raise these children to be near-superhuman super-warriors with a single, overriding purpose. His plan is nothing less than to abolish war (!) by sending these young samurai after all the warlords of the land and kill them.
As the students reach the age of sixteen, they are nearly ready. One task remains for them to do before they can start their mission. The master asks them to team up in best-friend couples. And then whomever is more dedicated to the task ahead must kill the other. Only after having faced death up close and personal do the surviving students have the strength and resolve to embrace their mission. Sounds harsh? That’s because it is.
Azumi is the only girl in the batch, and she’s also the best and most resolute fighter. Following her lead, the surviving young samurai go about their business taking down warlord after warlord, fighting their way towards the most powerful. Knowing that they’re coming, one of the last warlords secures the services of a completely crazy martial arts master, and puts him in the middle of a city full of thugs and bandits that Azumi and the couple of friends she has left must battle their way through in the climactic sequence. The words of Captain Kirk from Star Trek: Generations come to mind: “I take it the odds are against us and the situation is grim?” Oh yeah, you could say that! It has to be one of the greatest martial arts action climaxes of all time.
Is it silly? Well, yes. Try as she might, Aya Ueto doesn’t truly convince as anything but what she is: a pretty and fairly airheaded teenage model in a purple skirt. And yet there is a confidence about her that makes the character of Azumi acceptably serious in this fantasy setting. She projects a mood which fits the ambient intensity of the movie to a tee, completing the picture of a fairy-tale world in which things like “abolishing war” is actually possible. It’s childish, but it’s childish in a shockingly severe way. Any young person who watches this movie is not likely to soon forget it. It is the quintessential teen movie of the early 21st century.
I first watched Azumi at a Copenhagen film festival in 2004, and have watched it several times since, and I cannot think of a Japanese movie I have enjoyed more. The plot is outrageous, the action is brilliantly timed and designed, the characters are intensely engaging – in short, the entertainment value is off the scale. If you haven’t seen this movie, RUN, don’t walk, to the DVD store and get your copy right now.
Sadly, my Optimum Asia Region 2 DVD version is not great. It does have the original Japanese sound and English subtitles (and a couple of additional featurettes), but it doesn’t have a proper widescreen format and the caption font is so terrible it ruins the aesthetic impression. It is also five minutes shorter than the standard 128 min. version, and of course much shorter than the Japanese 142 min. version (which is available on a Region 1 DVD). Need I say that I will soon be buying a better version of this movie?