In feudal Japan, Azumi (Aya Ueto) was found as a little girl sitting by the body of her mother. The man who found her was Gessai (Yoshio Harada), and he brought the girl up to be a fearsome warrior along with nine others, all boys. Gessai has big plans for his students: after seeing the devastating effects of war, he has made up his mind to stop all future wars by seeking out the root cause. Now his students must track down three warlords and assassinate them to prevent the men from starting a new conflict, but first, to prove themselves worthy, Gessai has a test for them, one which Azumi will have trouble carrying out, as they must each try to kill their friends until there are five of them left to go on the mission...
Written by Isao Kiriyama, Yu Koyama and Rikiyu Mizushima, Azumi was based on the popular Japanese comic book about a young, female assassin who slays everyone in her path. However, this is more than a simple martial arts, kill-the-baddies romp, although the body count is remarkably high. At first we see the budding warriors practicing through the forest on the mountain where they have grown up, and it's clear they are all on good terms, but the final test throws a new light on the action at an early stage - anyone can get killed in this film. And just about anyone does, all except the petite but formidable Azumi, who remains reassuringly invincible throughout.
After dispatching her childhood sweetheart, Azumi dutifully follows her master on the first mission. They encounter the first warlord by a river as he sits fishing, looking incongruously harmless as she strikes up a conversation with him. As she demonstrates a novel but destructive new way to fish (i.e. throw a large stone in the water to act like a bomb), Azumi's fellow killers descend on the warlord and his guards, making swift work of them. Everyone in the group is satisfied, but Azumi is having second thoughts - what if the people they are killing are not so bad after all? Is she really doing the right thing in following Gessai's orders?
It's this moral ambiguity which lifts the film a little above the overfamiliar genre it finds itself in, but that's not to say the violence is presented in a gloomy manner, not in the least. Swords fly, bodies fly, blood flies, and even Azumi occasionally flies in combat thanks to some well hidden wires. The fight scenes are undeniably well handled and plentiful, adding in eccentric touches such as the towering killer who keeps mentioning how cute Azumi is as all the while he tries to murder her or a 360 degree swoop around two fighters. The heroine emerges with hardly a scratch throughout all these hostilities, with only the occasional spray of her opponents' blood to disrupt her unstoppable abilities, which can get a little hard to believe, but there is one villain who looks like being her match.
Bijomaru (Jo Odagiri) is a bizarre, sword-wielding, yet strangely camp foe, sort of the answer to Azumi's woman in a man's world character for being a pink eye-shadow wearing, shrieking man in a woman's costume. We look forward to see him get his comeuppance at the hands of Azumi, because he's slicing his way through her companions. Azumi tries to resist her destiny, making the acquaintance of a travelling player, Yae (Aya Okamoto), who teaches her to dress and act as a lady, but the arrival of bandits puts Azumi back on the path of violence, despite her reservations. She must complete her mission, no matter what the cost. A handsome looking, fast paced film, Azumi doesn't really shake off the clichés, but does build to a spectacular climax with the heroine taking on two hundred swordsmen (eat your heart out, Kill Bill), and never it drags. The ending is left open for a sequel. Music by Taro Iwashiro.
Talented, prolific Japanese director heavily influenced by 80s horror and action movies, Kitamura makes films in a hyper-kinetic style that favours visceral excitement over tight plotting and character development. His samurai/zombie/yakuza debut Versus was a big festival hit, while subsequent films like Alive, Sky High and the period swashbuckler Azumi provide similar thrills. In 2004 directed the 28th film in the Godzilla series - Godzilla: Final Wars - then the neglected Clive Barker adaptation Midnight Meat Train, with Versus 2 long promised.