Ryuhei Kitamura. He’s no Kurosawa, but if his name isn’t household in another year or so, this reviewer will be forced to reconsider the definition of ‘hot’. He’s got all the bloody panache of a sword-wielding Sam Raimi, he’s a pop cult poster boy, and the best thing about him, all that talent and he’s not afraid to use it.
And he isn’t apologetic about it either.
Based on a 25-part manga series, Azumi, as Kitamura’s first truly mainstream film, is cashed up and quite deliberately accessible and that is certainly no bad thing. Starring flavour of the moment Aya Ueto (Kinpachi Sensei 6), Azumi is flashy, stylish and totally teen, with hints of the hyper-real Kitamura tends towards offset by the occasional hint of a more low-key sense of tradition. Drawing in easy stride from a long line of celluloid ninja, and with the ground-breaking Versus under his belt, this director is single-handedly reviving the fast, violent spectacle style the ‘jidai geki’ (period drama), or ‘chambara’ film from Japan’s Golden era of the 70’s. His cast romping carefree through the forest in mock battle one minute is charmingly reminiscent of the typical low budget style of the populist version of the chambara film, while the grim, single-bladed resolve displayed in the film’s more serious moments is almost worthy of the more epic visions of this genre.
But like I said, this is no Seven Samurai, and isn’t meant to be. Kitamura’s emphasis is on action, both literally and in his approach to filming, and the more serious personal dramas are really only vehicles to that effect. Ueto is somewhat airy in her role as the heroine, and perhaps not enough time is spent showing you exactly why she’s supposed to be such hot stuff (apart from her looks, or so say most guys I know) in the sword-swinging department. With all that CG lets not even bother talking about whether the TV come pop star can actually slice the stuffing out of someone or not (as if anyone really cares); some of the most stunning moments come from Ueto’s ability to pose artfully amongst some pretty rad editing and special effects.
Of course, if that was all Azumi was, it wouldn’t be enjoying the arguably immense success it is. Hand in hand with the director’s penchant for buckets of blood and astronomical body counts, he demonstrates a wry, somewhat sly and definitely black sense of humor, and some of the most engaging moments come from the fun he has with his support cast. Making an almost cameo-like appearance as a thug with a little too much space between his ears, Tak Sakaguchi (the main character Prisoner KSC2-303 from Versus) has some of the best lines in the movie in one of the blackest scenes. Swanning about with wonderful Dick Dastardly aplomb is the utterly fantastic Jou Odagiri (Bright Future), who captures every on-screen moment between smirking, rouge-blushed lips as he slices and dices his way through the masses (and provides one of the most spectacular villain deaths seen this year). Other Versus veterans appearing include Minoru Matsumoto, reigning in the screeching to an acceptable (at least to primates) level, and Hideo Sakaki, brooding around in the dark (meh, it’s a talent) as an uber-ninja, both of whom happen to share one of the slickest fight scenes in the film.
In fact, Kitamura’s quirky character quota is definitely on a roll, and with a finer control than Versus, saving it from being a completely forgettable, or worse, ridiculous, big-budget actioner with a pretty face. And with three major films under his belt (the other being the surprisingly tense psychological drama/actioner Alive – 2002), Kitamura is only really warming up. Its already a trademark – keep the story simple and build bloody mayhem around it. Azumi is certainly that, at least visually; a little gormless in its aspirations but one helluva wild ride.