Thursday, October 21, 2004


Azumi is an angel of death
with a compassionate heart

The Japanese have a fine tradition of making movies that feature actors in period costumes doling out large amounts of sword-based carnage, with bodies, blood and the occasional severed limb flying all over the screen.

"Azumi," featuring an angel of death with a compassionate heart, does well in polishing that tradition.


Japan, part of the festival's Extreme Asia showcase

Playing at 1:45 p.m. Saturday, 10 p.m. Tuesday and 7:45 p.m. Oct. 31 at the Dole Cannery cineplex

Rating: * * *

It is the age of the Tokugawa shogunate, and a band of 10 assassins, of which Azumi (Japanese singing star Aya Ueto) is a member, is charged with the task of eliminating three warlords who threaten the stability of Japan and their armies. This band is so merciless, the first task their master gives them to accomplish before they set out on their journey is to pair up and duel to the death with their partners, with the survivors deemed worthy of their titles as assassins.

But although Azumi carries out this first duty with deadly precision, her eyes betray a sense of guilt over what she has done. As the movie progresses and the body counts of innocents and friends rise, she begins to question her role. This eventually places her at odds with her master, who casts her out and forces her to choose her destiny.

Forget about character development -- aside from Azumi, most of the other characters are painted in broad strokes. Azumi's master is stoic and emotionless; her cohorts are loyal, skilled warriors; and the enemy forces are appropriately shifty, scheming and crazed.

That's all that the audience needs to know, because all that really matters here is the fight scenes. Director Ryuhei Kitamura seems to subscribe to one simple rule of filmmaking: When things get slow, throw in a fight scene or blow stuff up. Or both.

And it works. From straight-up sword-clanging action like that seen in classic samurai movies to slow-motion "bullet-time" effects like those seen in the "Matrix" movies, the action is a joy to behold. A scene in which Azumi takes on an enemy with the camera swiveling 360 degrees around them is worth the price of admission alone.

And the penultimate battle, in which Azumi takes on an entire army of a few hundred men backed up only by her sword and a really cool-looking flowing cape, makes the fight between Uma Thurman's Bride and the Crazy 88s in "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" seem like a mere playground scuffle by comparison.

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