By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Recently Hong Kong martial arts films have succumbed to lofty ideals. Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Chen Kaige's The Promise (from earlier this year) brought, for better or worse, respectability to the genre.
On the other hand, Japanese swordsman/samurai movies have almost always been incorruptible. Akira Kurosawa could make a four-hour masterpiece like Seven Samurai (1954), wow the critics and still earn favor with die-hard fans that know a good samurai flick when they see one.
The great Nagisa Oshima did the same in 1999 with his brilliant Gohatto (a.k.a. Taboo), an arty samurai movie with plenty of blood, rolling heads, swordplay and Takeshi Kitano.
But now that dreaded word ("respectability") has begun to seep into the samurai film.
The veteran filmmaker Yôji Yamada made his debut in the early 1960s and became involved with the long-running Tora-San series, stories about a lovable peddler with get-rich-quick schemes.
But in 2002, Yamada took a cue from such safe, calculating, Oscar-winners as Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) and Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa) and put together a slow-moving, so-called highbrow samurai film, Twilight Samurai. Predictably, critics went crazy for it.
Just last month, Yamada's follow-up, the equally bland The Hidden Blade, opened in theaters with much the same response. It's long, bloated and riddled with dates among the subtitles to make it seem important and historical.
All of which brings us to this week's Azumi. Based on a manga by Yu Koyama, Azumi is here to take back the swordsman film and return it to unpretentious, popcorn-pulp glory. It's as sensational as Sin City and as beautifully crafted as Superman Returns.
Better still, the title hero is actually a cute teenage girl (played by actress/pop singer Aya Ueto) with more charisma, skill and winning moves than any of her recent male counterparts. (She's even a match for Kitano himself.)
Released in Japan in 2003, the film caused enough of a splash to warrant a sequel, though it's still up in the air whether or not Azumi 2 will ever open here. Meanwhile, Azumi opens at the Lumiere in San Francisco and at the Shattuck in Berkeley.
The simple plot begins during Japan's feudal era. A master swordsman, Gessai (Yoshio Harada), is charged with taking ten children up into the mountains to raise and train as assassins. Their mission will be to kill any warlord who may be considering more carnage.
At first the ten warrior souls are excited about venturing out into the world. They've grown up together and vow never to leave each other's side. But the master needs them hardened for battle, and so their first task is to pair off -- and kill one another.
The first thing the five remaining warriors stumble across is a village, overrun by marauders. They wish to help, but their master forbids them; this is small potatoes compared to their real mission.
And so each untested youth goes through a painful awakening of some sort, and each begins to question his or her purpose.
The rest of the movie depicts one amazing battle after another, leaving hundreds of bloody corpses, leading up to the ultimate pairing off: Azumi vs. Bijomaru (Joe Odagiri, from Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future). This latter is an androgynous fellow with a flowing white robe, adorned in eye shadow and carrying a single rose in one hand. He brags that his sword has no hand guard because he has never once had to defend.
Other bizarre bad guys include the "monkey man" (Minoru Matsumoto) who makes canine-like yelps in the thick of battle.
Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, the man behind the 2000 cult hit Versus, Azumi is pure exploitation on every level, from the teenage girl eye candy -- common in many manga -- to the clean, comic book violence with no complications.
In one scene, the camera circles around two fighters, dipping below them and soaring over their heads like a Ferris wheel.
Inevitably, the reviews have come in less than glowing. The website Rotten Tomatoes.com, which tallies a critical consensus, gives Azumi a low 43% (based on 14 reviews), while The Hidden Blade has a high 85% (based on 26 reviews).
The problem is that critics tend to try to rise above their gut feelings about a film instead of simply trusting them.
For example, The Hidden Blade contains only one sword fight, coming about three-quarters of the way through. It's fairly well choreographed and photographed, but it ends when one of the combatants is killed by rifle fire from a third party, so that neither fighter will actually have to dampen their honor.
There are no such smoke screens in Azumi. Many people die at the hands of the heroine. Oddly enough, we still like her. She's skilled and decisive enough to finish the job, yet morally centered enough to wonder whether she is right.
The only thing Azumi knows is that it's her destiny.
Azumi is slick, violently beautiful and appeals directly to the lower sensations. But just because it thrills doesn't necessarily mean it's artless. Give me a dozen Azumis before I have to sit through more rump-numbing stuff like The Hidden Blade.