Azumi (2003)

Even though “Azumi” was clearly adapted from a quite visual fantasy comic book, that doesn’t mean it lacks any of the emotion or complexities it attempts to inject within its epic scale. “Azumi” is quite possibly one of the most visually amazing samurai epics I’ve ever seen. From sweeping landscapes, to rather fantastic battle sequences, Kitamura’s film is  a pure gem to watch, and the long run time makes it all the more rewarding experience, because it will be difficult to turn away from and watch end. Filled with colorful characters, memorable villains (Saru is my favorite: played well by Minoru Matsumoto), and a wonderful heroine, “Azumi” is the tale of a young girl discovered by the side of her mother’s body. Taken in by a sympathetic wanderer and his three sons, she grows to be a powerful samurai warrior in a dojo led by her master.

Living among nine other men, Azumi is a gorgeous and graceful warrior whose own blade rivals her Master Gessai who never draws his own in anger. Kitamura’s visual power thankfully never drowns out the story’s own, with a truly gripping story of young folks raised as pitiless cold assassins raised and bred to do a job and journey across the land to seize order among barons. This mission requires that they do not interfere in any injustices in the lands, thus they are forced to sit and watch as a village is slaughtered, without bothering to intervene. Kitamura meanwhile raises questions of loyalty, and the conditioning of sentry’s and their ability to follow orders while battling their own conscience in the process. As the journey commences, Azumi and the others begin questioning Gessai’s orders and attempting to find a better purpose beyond being mere brainless soldiers.

As Gessai never guesses, his students and subjects begin to defy him and in many ways undermine his teachings, especially after they’re forced to commit a horrible deed to prove their worth in the first twenty minutes. If anything, “Azumi” proves once and for all that Hollywood just doesn’t get female heroes, as the heroine here is a pure blooded anti-hero filled with the burden of death all around her, regardless of how hard she tries to escape it. Aya Ueto is absolutely stunning and memorable as the petite heroine Azumi who simply can not live as a normal woman in a world where crime rules the land. Kitamura’s visual skills and knack for storytelling can not be denied, and he constantly keeps this film from being a campy comic book adaptation and steeps this heavily in blood soaked fantasy where suspension of disbelief is a constant requirement, while logic is always a requirement.

“Azumi” is first the tale of a group of friends forced to embark on a vicious mission of war, while also realizing everything they’ve come to know is false, and otherwise empty. Azumi has no choice unlike her brothers. She has to kill to survive, and it’s the curse she was given; she’s yet another wandering warrior with a sword. Aya Ueto is a goddess, Kitamura proves Hollywood wrong with a stunning female heroine, and “Azumi” is an utterly fantastic samurai epic with blood soaked battle scenes, a variety of villains, and strong performances all around.