(Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura)
Plot: A group of assassins hunt down the feudal warlords who threaten to throw Japan back into another major war.
“Azumi” is directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (“Versus“) and at first glance, seems much more mainstream than his usual projects. He is a filmmaker with a lot of cult appeal, as his style, content and sense of pacing can be just as alluring as it can be alienating and his films are quintessential examples of ‘hit-or-miss’. Whether they are good or bad, they are distinctly Kitamura and the problem is that it’s often difficult to tell which is which. I consider “Versus” to be a lot of fun and “Godzilla: Final Wars” to be a trainwreck, but I’ve heard compelling arguments that “Versus” is the trainwreck and “Godzilla: Final Wars” is the one that’s fun, so the truth is probably somewhere in between for nearly all of his…Japanese movies. I have to clarify that my opinion applies to his Japanese movies, because his American ones are strangely normal… Nevertheless, Kitamura’s works are usually fast paced and yet longer than they need to be, with an inconsistent or eccentric tone, depending on your point of view. Characters are prone to striking ridiculous poses, which can either look really cool or really stupid, depending on…well, you again. The drama is always heavy, because the performances from the cast are so unrestrained that they deliver 200% emotion in nearly every scene, even when subtlety is required. He favors bombastic camerawork and hyper-kinetic editing to fit his over-the-top vision and he really, REALLY loves “The Matrix“. I am pretty sure he has passionate, steamy sex with that movie on a daily basis, so expect a lot of visual allusions to the movie (and possibly the aforementioned passionate, steamy sex he has with it). You will recognize a lot of the angles, uses of slow motion and costuming, which can either get your fanboy blood pumping or serve as a major distraction. Personally, I’m a fan of the guy, as his movies are so…different, even if the influences are gratuitous and obvious. His style might occasionally produce a misfire, but even they develop cult followings and I attribute this to Kitamura’s lively imagination and high energy.
“Azumi” can either be considered one of his better or weaker efforts, depending on how you want to approach it. On one hand, it shows signs of him maturing as a filmmaker, as this is a much steadier movie than his other works. The narrative is relatively simple, although Kitamura gives it the ‘epic’ treatment. Are there too many characters and subplots? Maybe, but I found myself enjoying them all anyway and they do mostly serve a purpose for the overarching story or Azumi’s development. I did like the internal conflicts that our heroes are forced to endure and Azumi is an interesting protagonist because she gradually changes based on her decisions, without losing the initial traits that defines her characterization. The tone is surprisingly consistent, being comical at the right moments and tragic at the right moments, so Kitamura didn’t give me mood whiplash…for once. The cinematography is great and there are a lot of wide shots that emphasize the vibrant colors and size of the locations. The editor makes sure to hold every shot long enough for its beauty to leave an impression on you, with Kitamura’s stylistic choices being more restrained for the sake of keeping you focused on the story. The choreography is solid, but I didn’t always buy these actors as warriors. Not only did the choreography feel like it was designed for larger and stronger looking people, but it actually drew attention to how small and sleek these ‘fighters’ were. To cover this up- Kitamura speeds up the camera and uses slow motion when necessary to add a super human element to the battles. At times, I thought these gimmicks enhanced the action scenes. Other times, it looked goofy and awkward, although the finale was very ambitious and exciting. The fights are also very gory, which pleased my inner gore-hound, but sometimes the violence felt unnecessary. I might love gratuitous violence, but even I frown when it starts to become a distraction. In the case of “Azumi“, the effects might’ve been cool, but they often upstaged the intended emotion of the scene. This may be a criticism, but I imagine that if you didn’t make an emotional connection to the characters or their conflicts, the bloody spectacle might’ve been what kept you entertained. Once again, reviewing “Azumi” or any work of Kitamura is less about discussing what is good or bad and more about discussing what you like or dislike, based on your personal preferences.
On the surface level, “Azumi” is a stellar and relatively normal movie, but Kitamura’s trademarks are definitely there and this time…they didn’t work for me. Kitamura likes stylizing his movies after anime, so it’s not uncommon for his characters to have bizarre hairdos, wear flamboyant outfits and strike ridiculous poses. “Azumi” displays all of this, but I found myself struggling to take any of these visual flourishes seriously. The costumes aren’t pragmatic at all, with the colors being so loudly eye popping that these ‘ninja’ would never be able to sneak up on anyone, even with the cover of night! Azumi herself dons a f@cking cape for the finale, which looks like it’s restricting her movements and why would the underside be purple? Other than to be eye candy for the audience? At times, the attires just look…fake? Like they’re made of cheap material used for a school play of some sort. The hair styles are even funnier, especially when it comes to our big, bad, scary villain, who elicited giggles from me every time he appeared on-screen. The posturing looks very goofy at well, especially because the cast try their absolute hardest to sell it. These attributes work fine in something like “Versus” because that movie is embracing the camp. It’s intended to be absurd, so the Kitamura-isms are part of the fun. But “Azumi” wants to be taken seriously, so the campy touches feel very out of place. Admittedly, as far as flaws go, I suppose you could do a lot worse as at least I enjoyed making fun of the Kitamura-isms. The resolution is hilarious because Azumi emerges from the water completely dry…because apparently being wet wouldn’t look as cool. I don’t think I was supposed to be laughing, but I guess I’d rather be laughing than scowling. Unfortunately, unlike “Versus“, the Kitamura-isms still ended up holding back “Azumi” in the long run. I might’ve always had a smile on my face, but at times that smile got in the way of the tears I was supposed to be shedding. Kitamura should’ve either gone all out and embraced his usual madness or he should’ve removed that style entirely. His American productions like “Midnight Meat Train” prove he is capable of keeping his fingerprints off of products that don’t require them, although it’s simply possible he has learned from his mistakes over the years. With all of this said though, “Azumi” was still good and the Kitamura-isms didn’t ruin the movie like they did with “Awake“- a dark, claustrophobic thriller, which was already struggling through it’s Kitamura-isms before eventually collapsing underneath its tonally divorced finale. “Azumi” survives them, but is unable to reach its full potential because of them. Of course, in true Kitamura fashion, you might think that the Kitamura-isms gives the movie its own charming personality, so maybe they aren’t flaws at all. I prefer “Versus” and “Sky High” but “Azumi” is definitely a solid entry in Kitamura’s filmography.
AZUMI 2: DEATH OR LOVE (2005)
(Directed by Shûsuke Kaneko)
(Written by Mataichirô Yamamoto and Yoshiaki Kawajiri)
(Starring Aya Ueto, Shun Oguri and Chiaki Kuriyama)
Plot: Azumi (Aya Ueto) and Nagara (Yûma Ishigaki) continue their mission to assassinate the remaining Lords who threaten to plunge Japan into another civil war, but their resolve wavers when a bubbly novice ninja named Kazue (Chiaki Kuriyama) and a bandit called Ginkaku (Shun Oguri)- who resembles her dead boyfriend, enters their lives.
“Azumi 2: Death or Love” is not a very satisfying sequel, primarily because it mostly feels like a rehash of its predecessor, except cornier, cheaper and less entertaining. There are some good scenes, where the cinematography and choreography are able to rise above mediocrity and provide some excitement. I will admit to enjoying the…ridiculous…costuming, which somehow makes the absurd looking outfits from “Azumi” look mundane in comparison. I mean, not only does Kunyo (Reiko Takashima)- the main villain- have nipples in her armor, it was designed to have chains piercing said armor nipples…At no point is it revealed what function they carry, but then again, Azumi herself is prone to entering battle with a ridiculous cape that she seems to pull out of her ass (seriously, where does she keep it???), so this universe clearly favors style over usefulness. Yet even though I’m poking fun at the costuming department, they were also the ones who provided the most consistent entertainment. If anything, I kind of wish there was more opportunities to showcase campy outfits like what is on display here. Even though the movie has its moments where it becomes temporarily good, it also has some bad moments where the special effects look awkward or the tone becomes…unclear? There were a few death scenes that were so over-the-top and drawn out that it became difficult not to laugh, but these deaths are often surrounded by a strong sense of tragedy. When Azumi kills one of the villains during the finale, it’s proceeded with grave dialogue that showcases the villains’ humanity and you’re supposed to feel sad, but the actual death is the overblown kind that is usually designed to be cool or comical. What was I supposed to feel? While the action has its moments, I thought the choreography was just average, not helped by the cheesy CGI used for the gimmicks. There is one impressive set piece, where Azumi faces a ninja who uses razor wire in a very Spider-like fashion, but most of them made me shrug in indifference. They aren’t bad or anything, just kind of average, especially compared to the first film.
You can also tell that this didn’t have the budget of its predecessor, as there are few actual sets and most of the screen-time takes place in a bland looking forest. “Azumi” was epic in every single way, whereas “Azumi 2” started to make me feel claustrophobic with its lack of wide shots, as the woods seemingly trapped us with a lot of annoying supporting characters who LOVE yelling Azumi’s name. There is a lot of walking and a lot of talking, while the editor is sure to stretch out every scene long enough to maximize the tedium. Why? Also, why do we need all of these flashbacks to the first film? This movie is nearly 2 hours long and the last one had only been released two years prior! We should remember what had occurred! WHY DO YOU NEED TO PAD THIS OUT!? From a story and character perspective, the plot requires everyone to be as stupid as possible for it to advance. This becomes especially frustrating as there is a ‘twist’ involving a ‘traitor’ that you will see coming even before it becomes apparent that there even was a traitor in the first place. I was seething as the heroes fell for the ruse, as they’re f@cking ninja and are supposed to be more observant than this. Even worse, this derails Azumi’s character development from the first film. She’s still apparently just as naive as she was before, but this time her journey feels watered down compared to the original. It’s the same character arc, just not as nuanced or interesting. The ‘romance’ subplots fails because Ginkaku is clearly a place holder for her dead boyfriend and she sort of…killed her old flame for the sake of this mission…so it’s kind of hard to believe she’s going to give up her job for love. On his end, he’s in love with her because…she’s hot? I’m a huge fan of Shusuke Kaneko (the director), but his usual imaginative visual style is almost entirely absent. Most of what we see here, we already saw variations of in the first one, making “Azumi 2” kind of boring to look at. Case in point, the finale’s of both films are similar, but the first one had the destruction of elaborate sets. “Azumi 2” has its final fight take place in a…desert…Riveting…There are a lot of extras, but not much was added to the bare setting. It was just a weaker version of what we got before. “Azumi 2” is difficult to review, because it’s more mediocre than bad, but I spent a lot of my viewing experience kind of bored…Then again, I did get some armor with pierced nipples…So it wasn’t a complete waste of time…