"Azumi," a period action epic based on the hit Japanese comic by Yu Koyama about a girl teen warrior, is a movie of such cheerful craziness and nonstop ferocity that you can't take it seriously for a second. The director, Ryuhei Kitamura, made the wild 2001 zombie-vs.-Yakuza comic thriller "Versus," and this movie is even crazier, ending with the 1-against-100 (or 200) battle to top them all.
It seems a quixotic endeavor. Five kids against hundreds of bloodthirsty mercenaries? But Azumi stays limber and gorgeous as she kills dozens of killers. Finally at the end, in the movie's grand climax, she takes on 200 opponents in a gory slash-fest that Kitamura sometimes records with his camera mounted on a "Phantom" crane doing 360-degree vertical swivels.
"Azumi" is entertaining, but it tries to be more. Ninja ethics prove flabbergasting here: The Master, after training his charges for 10 years, orders them, as a Darwinian graduation exercise, to battle each other to the death, immediately depleting their ranks by five. He also orders them not to interfere when women and children are slaughtered if the time isn't right.
There's a touch of artistic humanism, though, in a traveling troupe of actors, whose star Yae (Aya Okamoto) charms boy warrior Hyuga (Kenji Kohashi) and becomes Azumi's best gal pal as well. The warlords and their retinue, by contrast, prove as slimy a bunch as you'll find anywhere outside of Kurosawa's bad man's town in "Yojimbo."
The movie's most successful new riff is its star villain: cross-dressing sword virtuoso Bijomaru Mogami (Joe Odagiri). Following the failures of two loathsome heavies, one dressed as a monkey, the warlord sends off his campy secret weapon--Bijomaru, a white-robed, long-haired, epicene dude wearing heavy makeup and twirling a rose as he off-handedly kills dozens. You have to like this guy. He keeps complimenting Azumi and marveling at her skill all through their last duel, even as that Phantom crane swirls around them.
Kitamura is a specialist in over-violent, over-the top genre movies, and that's what this is. Back when "Versus" played Chicago, I compared it briefly to Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" and Peter Jackson's "Dead Alive" and wondered what Kitamura could do "if [he] had a major budget and an equally unrestrained cast." Now we know. It isn't "SpiderMan" or "The Lord of the Rings," but it's a zippy time-passer.
Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura; written by Rikiya Mizushima, Isao Kiriyama, based on the comic "Azumi" by Yu Koyama; photographed by Takumi Furuya; edited by Shuichi Kakesu; production designed by Yoshinobu Nishioka; music produced by Taro Iwashiro; produced by Mataichiro Yamamoto, Toshiaki Nakazawa. An AsiaVision release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 2:08. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for extreme, stylized violence).
Azumi - Aya Ueto
Nachi - Shun Oguri
Bijomaru Mogami - Joe Odagiri
Kiyomasa Kata - Naoto Takenaka
Yae - Aya Okamoto