It's been a bit under two years since Urban Vision Entertainment released Azumi on a Two-Disc Collector's Edition DVD. I got a screener ahead of that release, watched it and intended to review it. So why the long wait?
Well, the end of that film leaves the story only partially told, and I didn't want to tackle it until the sequel also was available on DVD. Urban Vision recently released Azumi 2: Death or Love on DVD (single disc) so now it's time to look at the total Azumi saga. I'll write about the first film and DVD package here, then look at Azumi 2 in my next post.
In October, 1600, the forces of Tokogawa Ieyasu defeated those of the Toyotomi clan at the Battle of Sekigahara and began to unite Japan under his leadership. However, three daimyo (feudal lords) remain loyal to the son of the deceased head of the Toyotomi. They constitute a threat to the Tokugawa Shogunate, a threat that may lead to further civil war. In the aftermath of the battle a samurai is charged with finding some orphan youths and training them as assassins to kill these Toyotomi loyalists and thereby ensure peace, stability and unity for the country.
Azumi is the only girl among the group of ten youths who are schooled by Ji, their master, in total isolation from the outside world. When they are in their teens, Ji decides that they are ready for their mission. However, first they must engage in a brutal elimination to determine the five who will actually carry it out.
The storyline thus is basically simple: find each warlord, kill him. The first daimyo is located while he is fishing, and Azumi's looks and feminine charm are utilized to get to him. However, some things that she and the others are forced to do, and some that they are not allowed to do (namely saving some villagers who are attacked by bandits), cause Azumi to question both her master and the mission. In fact, at one point she leaves the others, but like Michael Corleone in the Godfather trilogy, she keeps getting drawn back in.
The climactic battle takes place in a village that looks like a feudal Japanese version of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. After dispatching dozens of enemies, Azumi faces Bijomaru Mogami (Jo Odagiri), a crazed killer who dresses in white and who has a fondness for roses. Their fight scene, like a great boss battle in a videogame, is directed with great energy and inventiveness by Kitamura. It's followed by a coda in which the second warlord is dispatched. This leaves one remaining. His demise will be the subject of the sequel.
The only thing I knew about Azumi when I first watched it was that it had a hot young Japanese woman who fought with a sword. Reason enough for me to be interested. Part of my initial reaction to the film, however, was the feeling that the movie primarily was developed to showcase some young Japanese pop-star types. I also was bothered by the cape that Azumi wears at the end. Knowing a bit about martial arts, I know it's not the kind of thing one would don when actually going into combat, even if, as in this case, it was a gift from a good friend.
In watching the extras I learned that the movie actually was based on a very successful manga by Yu Koyama. Though as far as I know there's no English version of it available, I understand that in the comic there are actually eleven boys who train with Azumi, not nine as in the film. So the idea of teen-age assassins comes from the comic, and the movie actually has fewer youths. The cape is also from the manga, and there was some consideration to not using it in the movie because it was so unwieldy. But the director and star wanted to be faithful to the comic and managed to pull it off.
All of which just goes to show that while I was sort of right, I was actually wrong in the larger scheme of things. More importantly. it demonstrates how great DVD extras can really inform one's opinion of a film.
Aya Ueto, who was 17 years old when production began in 2002, is perfectly cast. She's sweet and innocent looking, with a terrific smile and luscious pillow lips that rival Angelina Jolie's. She's also a very game gal. A scene in the Fighting on the Edge featurette shows her taking a hard whack to the forehead from a sword. She returned to the set and soldiered on, earning the admiration of cast and crew.
The special features (listed below) on this 2-disc release are great. I especially enjoyed Azumi in America which is primarily concerned with dubbing the dialog into English. I pretty much listen to the original dialog version with English subtitles first and a dubbed version (when available) second, if at all.
This featurette made me appreciate the effort that goes into making a good dub. Variations of the dialog are tried until a good fit is made between the movements of the mouth of the actor on screen and the words being said by the voice actor. Now I'll sometimes listen to a dubbed version with the English subtitles displayed on screen, just to see how much the wording has been changed.
The Battle of the Creators reveals conflicts between director Kitamura and producer Yamamoto. I think it's pretty safe to say that what we hear in this featurette has a lot to do with why Kitamura did not return to direct the sequel.
Azumi, with its cast of teenage assassins, is highly entertaining and provides a distinct twist on the chambara (swordplay) film. My ACF rating for the movie: 3.5 out of 4 stars, highly recommended.
I rate the special features at 4 out of 4 stars, outstanding and exceptional.
DVD Special Features:
- Japanese language 5.1 Surround
- English language 5.1 Surround
- Optional English Subtitles
- Fighting on the Edge: The Making of Azumi
- Azumi in America: The U.S. Production
- The Battle of the Creators: Kitamura vs. Yamamoto
- About the Actors Featurette
- Cast and Crew Profiles
- Hidden Music Video
- ... And more!
Azumi - movie - imdb; wikipedia
Ryuhei Kitamura - director - imdb; wikipedia
Yu Koyama - manga writer - imdb;
Aya Ueto - actress [Azumi] - imdb; wikipedia
Yoshio Harada - actor [Gessai] - imdb; wikipedia
Jô Odagiri (a.k.a. Joe Odagiri)- actor [Bijomaru Mogami] - imdb