Adapting Japanese Manga can be a tough task. Due to its written/drawn format, it can literally paint limitless pictures, to the absolute stretches of the imagination, sometimes beyond what even the animated counterpart, Anime, can handle. All of the biggest names – including Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Appleseed – started off in longer, more in-depth Manga graphic novel format before being adapted to the animated format, and all of them have lost something in translation, even if the different form can have its own advantages. But there is another level: live-action. None of the most coveted titles have gone down that route yet – a Ghost in the Shell movie has been in the works for years now – but a few titles have skipped right past the middle stage of Anime and gone straight for the big time. Azumi was originally a manga series written in the early nineties, but it garnered greater appeal a decade later when it hit the Big Screens as a full-blown feature film. Released in 2003, it wasn’t to hit the US market until 2006, by which time a sequel had actually been made and released back in Japan. Even when it was finally released, it came to Western audiences in a butchered, abbreviated format, that also had a zoomed-in image which did not retain the full scope of the original cut. Over 13 minutes was lost, most of which to character development, but some of which during the epic action sequences. Thankfully not all is lost as now, on Taiwanese Blu-ray, we finally have the option to see the movie the way it was intended. But, after all that, is it actually any good?
Azumi is one of ten orphans picked up by Gessai, a veteran grandmaster with special orders from the Toyotimi Shoganute to try a group of assassins to deal with the Clan’s three biggest enemies and restore order to the Country, thus preventing impending Civil War. After ten years of hard training, the assassins have but one last task to complete before they can be dispatched to fulfil their mission, and that is to prove their loyalty to the core by fighting one another to the death, in arbitrarily picked pairs of two. Reluctantly doing so, the five remaining assassins venture forth with Jiji leading them, to take care of the true enemies: three allied leaders who must all fall for the Civil uprising to be stopped. Taking on their first target goes according to plan, the team kept together by their strong, wise master, who is being fed information by a sly ninja who is also working for the Toyotimi Clan; but as soon as their enemies cotton on to the plan, things start to go awry. Opposing assassins are hired, as are deadly ninja, and the group have to split up to try and take on the remaining targets, who are proving extremely slippery themselves. Will Azumi and her fellow assassins be able to complete their mission, or will they all go out in a blaze of glory?
It took me a while to get into Azumi. Although the packaging sold me on watching the thing in the first place – the notion of a cute samurai-sword-wielding chick dispatching numerous foes in a feudal Japanese setting – once you actually hit ‘play you soon wonder whether you are really watching a low budget, dated, cross between Kung Fu Hustle and Power Rangers. Azumi’s outfit is pure Dragonball-Z, the early (training) fight sequences showed no sign of actual skill on the part of the actors, and the film looked just plain cheap. Within minutes, with literally no character development, you are faced with the core bunch of protagonists forced to kill one another – and not only do you not really care about any of them at this stage, but it does not set things up well for caring about them in the future. It almost took me right out of the movie. But gradually, over the course of the two-and-a-quarter-hour production, you do find yourself getting to know the characters a little bit, you do – by the end of it – care who lives and who dies, and, perhaps most importantly, the action starts to get pretty damn good. As soon as real lives are on the line – as soon as the viewer realises that there are consequences to the actions of those involved, and that they are not, themselves, invulnerable, the narrative actually begins to get quite interesting.
And pop-star Aya Ueto makes watching the whole thing a whole lot easier. She may be the Japanese equivalent of somebody like Holly Valance, who similarly dabbled between a brief music career and a few flimsy (sometimes martial arts) film roles, having graduated from one of the two Australian schools of acting, i.e. Neighbours, but she brings a certain amount of vulnerability to the lead role. She can’t wield a sword worth a damn, but by the final act, where she has to take on, literally, hundreds of opponents, things look a lot more fun – in spite of her lack of actual skill. And I know she’s not a fantastic actress, but the story seldom stretches her beyond her reasonable capabilities, and she makes for nothing less than a charismatic, engaging lead.
The rest of the cast are pretty unmemorable, but for the eccentricities/clichés of the characters they play – there’s the unflinching do-whatever-it-takes veteran leader, Gessai (Yoshio Harada); the young fighter who falls in love with a local girl, Hyuga (Kenji Kohashi); the evil monkey-like ninja assassin Saru (Minoru Matsumoto), and the psychotic cross-dressing mercenary, Bijomaru (Joe Odagiri). Still, it’s a colourful collection, and, as events proceed, the movie turns into an action-packed sword-slashing epic, totally fictional in a supposed period setting, and really quite enjoyable.
Azumi isn’t the most inspirational, unique movie of its ilk, but it nevertheless does a good job of evoking the concepts and imagery of its Manga heritage. In Hollywood terms, it’s like a low-budget, period-set Kill Bill, and in comparison to Asian alternatives, it draws parallels with Versus and Casshern, as well as the Westernised Blood: The Last Vampire adaptation. Its forte appears to be providing reasonably well-choreographed, extremely violent action set-pieces, and it has just enough characterisation to make for an engaging effort. Whilst things are left mildly open for the sequel, you will barely notice these loose ends, and can probably survive without rushing out to buy the sequel, Azumi 2: Death or Love. Then again, if you enjoyed it enough, then you’ll probably be looking for more, so it’s nice that they did a further Manga adaptation to feed your need. Watch it for a cute leading lady, who packs a sword, and – eventually – shows off some nice moves, against a horde of seemingly endless enemies. Expect little more and you certainly won't be disappointed.