Somewhere in ancient Japan. A little girl is sitting on the ground next to the body of her dead mother. Then a stranger comes along, a man with three other kids in tow. The little girls name is Azumi and the man is a samurai looking for apprentices.
Jump forward in time. Azumi is 17. Along with several other kids, she has trained hard and become a masterful swordfighter, a deadly assassin. The kids have lived a secluded life with their mentor, way up in the mountains, so that they could focus exclusively on their training, and none of them have ever seen the outside world.
But now its time for the young swordsmen to step up and embark on their mission. They must seek out and kill three warlords to prevent further conflict in the region. Their training will serve them well as they come face to face with armies, deadly assassins and the brutal reality of what they have been training for all along.
Azumi is based on a popular manga series. The movie, though, is the brainchild of director Ryuhei Kitamura, who reins in the raw talent he displayed with Versus and tells this classic story in a fresh new way. Personally I didnt care for Versus. It was fun for the first 20 minutes but then my eyes began to drift around the room, the film just couldnt hold my attention. Two hours of low-budget Evil Dead in a forrest if you ask me!
But Azumi is different. Not only does Kitamura demonstrate that he can actually direct actors, he also shows that he can put together an excellently paced film that shifts comfortably in mood and style. It opens as a fairy tale (once upon a time there was a little girl...), then it turn into straight samurai movie, and then the tone suddenly turns bitter and mean when the youngsters start to drop like flies. The whole thing is beautifully wrapped in the low-key period setting, and the large budget - considerably larger than anything Kitamura has been working with before - doesnt hurt the film either.
Taking the lead of Azumi, young actor/model/singer Aya Ueto will make a lot of men (and perhaps a few women too) sigh loudly. Shes stunning. Cute. Vulnerable. Fearless. Deadly. And I havent even gotten to her eyes, or the little skirt thing shes wearing. Shes the perfect personification of a manga character, an innocent little girl, whos as deadly as they come.
The fight scenes are spectacular. Insane even. No army is too big for our young fighters, who fearlessly throw themselves into even the most futile battle. Theres plenty of gore, the ground is covered in blood and the bodies are piled up, in several layers, but somehow these scenes always maintain a certain level of realism (more so than for example Kill Bill). Even when people are jumping though the air, chopping heads of, with moves that are quicker than the eye, the film manages to pass it off in a believable manner.
Fans of Kitamura should rejoice, and those hungry for more action after Kill Bill should get their fill here. As for myself, I enjoyed the film immensely. Its quick on its toes, unpretentious, and basically just a well-told story. Azumi can come around and chop my head off any day.