Based on a popular manga comic, "Azumi" should by all rights be presented as an animated film, and in many ways it has the sensibility of an anime cartoon, albeit one with actual people. In feudal Japan, Azumi, a young orphan girl, is taken in by a mentor who trains her as part of an elite squad of assassins ultimately given the assignment of killing three treacherous warlords.
Compared with the hyperventilating gangster/zombie/swordplay mélange of director Ryuhei Kitamura's "Versus," his signature film here in the States, "Azumi" is downright stately, as he keeps the snick-snick editing and even the computer-generated embellishments to a relative minimum. When he decides to turn it on, however, Kitamura really goes all out, especially in the film's dizzying and spectacular one-against-many finale, where the camera makes 360-degree loops around Azumi and her final combatant before their climactic showdown.
As Azumi, Japanese pop idol Aya Ueto sports a short skirt and wrapped legs that are instantly understood as the historical precursor to the saucy schoolgirl look. Even as she slices her way through countless attackers, she mostly just pouts (slightly) and flashes her toned thighs (demurely), projecting less the air of a ferocious killing-machine than a peevish lass whose parents wouldn't let her go to the mall. As her main adversary, however, Jo Odagiri appears to have had a blast as a fey sadist sprung from jail to take down Azumi and her pals.
The difference in their performances spotlights the odd tension that runs throughout "Azumi," an uneven effort overall that when it is working has a strange, engaging energy that is often overturned by an uncertain staidness. Kitamura livens up the traditional swords-for-honor film with modern-day filmmaking chops and style but somehow lands in a nether zone in which it is never quite fully one or the other.
MPAA rating: Unrated
An AsiaVision release. Director Ryuhei Kitamura. Screenplay by Rikiya Mizushima, Isao Kiriyama. Based on the comic by Yu Koyama. Producers Mataichiro Yamamoto, Toshiaki Nakazawa. Director of photography Takumi Furuya. Editor Shuichi Kakesu. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223; Regal University Town Center 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine (949) 854-8818.